The recently released Pebble Time is Pebble's third smartwatch, after the original Kickstarter model and the Pebble Steel. That gives the company a leg up on other smartwatch makers--its large backer and customer base has informed Pebble about usage patterns on the watch, so follow-ups can play on its strengths. And in the case of Pebble Time, the relatively few changes to the platform indicates that Pebble is confident in its core strength: putting your smartphone's notifications on your wrist. That's something that Android Wear watches and the Apple does too, but with Pebble, it's the most important feature, and one that's streamlined with physical button interactions.
Get notifications, and then be able to respond to or act on them. That's what I need a smartwatch to do well, and the Pebble Time excels at it. I've been using the $200 watch for the past month instead of my Asus ZenWatch, and have taken it on numerous work trips, including last week's Comic-Con. But I'm ready to go back to Android Wear. Despite differentiating features that Pebble Time brings to the table, the hardware makes some glaring missteps. Let's start by going over some of those new features.
The Color Display is a Step Back
The big "improvement" in Pebble Time is the color display. The original Pebble used an always-on memory LCD, which, like an e-paper display, was only readable with an external light source. Pebble Time's new memory LCD is a 1.25-inch display with the same resolution as the original (144x168, for app compatibility), but now can display 64 colors. That may not sound like a lot, but with dithering, the palette extends to a few thousand color. It's essentially the resolution and quality of a Nintendo Game Boy Color (which actually had a 15-bit display), but squeezed onto a 1.25-inch screen. I thought the range of colors is good, but images look muted and flat because of the way the memory LCD works. When used properly, the images look good, but this is something meant for displaying pixel art, not photos.
While there's nothing inherently worse in using the color memory LCD over the black and white screen, visibility is actually worse on Pebble Time. Pebble Time's screen needs a good amount of light to read clearly, and more importantly, that light needs to be reflected at a good angle. Unfortunately, the sweet spot for reflection is limited--angle the Pebble off-axis by 30 degrees and the screen becomes difficult to read. Unlike any backlit display, you're actually trying to angle the screen in a position to get the most glare for readability.