By Jason Lowenthal February 8, 2016

Pebble Steel Review: 4 Months of a Vibrating Arm

I’m seeing smartwatches of various kinds on different people more frequently now.

pebble1In fact, current market statistics suggest that you can see a smartwatch on 4-6 million people. I’m having a hard time finding direct statistics that I can rely on accurately, but suffice it to say—smartwatches have a strong foothold in our economy.

I bought a Pebble Steel back in October of 2015. It probably doesn’t have as much glamour as John Sonmez’s Apple Watch does, but I still think it warrants a fair shake at a review. Overall, I love wearing it and it does exactly what I’d hope for in a device like this.

Why It’s Great

Alarm Clock

You won’t miss a deadline or a wake up call when you wear this thing. Whether you choose to use the stock alarm clock (which is pretty basic and boring) or an alarm clock app, you’re going to notice it when the thing starts going off.

The haptic motor in this thing is one of the strongest ones I’ve ever encountered. It vibrates really intensely. In fact, if I’m not wearing it—during a charge or in the shower—it vibrates so hard that even though it’s not an audible alert, I can still hear it from the sheer force of the vibrations against whatever surface it happens to be sitting on.

Speaking of Showers

Book CoverFor the first couple of months, I had the stock leather strap that came with the watch attached to it. If you do decide to buy one of these things, I strongly encourage you go the route of a stainless steel band. After about a month of using the watch every day and sweating normally (I’m hardly a fitness buff), the stock leather strap started getting a really funky smell. The steel one smells like… stainless steel.

I couldn’t set it on a ledge that had water exposure while showering with the stock strap, either. Now that I have the steel one, the watch can notify me if I’m getting a phone call, text, Skype notification, etc. while in the shower. Now, I can’t answer the phone while I’m showering. That’s weird. But at least it lets me know if I have an important something to circle back on after I’m done.

Also, I tend to get distracted by thinking about life, faith, and any other number of subjects in the shower. Having a small clock staring at me, reminding me I’ve been in there for 30+ minutes, is a helpful reminder to conserve a bit of water. :-)

Battery Life

Depending on the configuration that you pick for the watch, you can really pull off 5-7 days between charging without any problem. Some of the more intensive apps and watchfaces drain the battery faster. And if you get notifications frequently, the vibration motor tends to drain the watch battery quickly.

Regardless of how fast you drain it, charging it takes very little time. Usually, I plug it in for 30 minutes or less and I get a green light (it’s orange before it’s fully charged). Granted, I don’t let it get to empty before I plug it in, so that’s something to consider, too.

Notifications

This is really the biggest selling point for this watch. The notifications mechanism is easily customizable, and it’s also easy to tell the watch what time of day is your quiet time. That way, you can get instantly notified of the most important stuff and leave the rest of it for “when you get to it.”

For example: text messages and phone calls show up on my watch. Facebook posts and blog comments do not. Email does—but only email that I consider more important.

The nice thing is, Pebble is cross platform. I’ve got it hooked up to an Android device, but I imagine that the notifications configuration is just as flexible when hooked up to an iOS device.

Price

I found a special going on when I bought mine, so I only paid $119 for it. But even at the price point of $150, this watch really does have the value sticker on it. While some parts of it definitely fall into the “you get what you pay for” category, overall it’s a really sleek piece of hardware that I’m happy to wear for all occasions. In addition, you can use it with iPhone or Android, which is a perk.

Hardware Interface

Unlike many smartwatches, this thing doesn’t have a touch screen. But that doesn’t leave me feeling like I can’t use it successfully. The four buttons are easy to understand and handle all of the tasks that I want to accomplish with the watch. And they definitely don’t detract from the overall look of the watch itself.

One thing to keep in mind with the steel edition (more specifically the watchband): it’s brushed stainless, which means it does get scratched up a little bit too easily. This isn’t a huge detractor for me, because the places where the scratches are don’t really show up all that much. Plus, the body of the watch itself stays scratch-free, even though I’m pretty abusive to it.

In the Category of “Take It or Leave It”

App Selection

There’s two apps on here that I really appreciate:

  1. PlexFit
    • This is a very customizable pedometer and activity tracker with a great tie-in to Google Fit. And it does an admirable job of sleep tracking for me, too.
    • It is possible to leave the phone behind and go for a walk/jog/etc. But this also means leaving behind music and books to read that are on the phone.
  2. NavMe
    • If you’re on the road or your bike, wrist-based navigation instructions can help substantially. It works quite nicely if you’re a regular traveler.

Otherwise, the utility of the apps themselves isn’t all that great. Here's a good list of app choices you can make, but honestly, I don’t find much benefit for most of them.

I use the stock music remote to skip songs on my phone. But my phone has to be with me to be able to listen to music or really do anything at all. The only thing it can do without the phone is anything accelerometer related or date/time related. My phone is almost always in bluetooth range anyway—but that might be a drawback for some.

Watch Faces

There’s plenty of people having fun making up new watch faces for the watch. I found one that fits my personality and needs pretty well (keep in mind, this link shows it on Pebble Time. Mine doesn’t have a color screen). For me, watch faces aren’t a big negative. However, if you’re into tinkering, you’ll have to learn some C (yes, actual archaic C) to make a fully custom watch face, which might be a point in the “negative” column for some people.

With that said, you can pull off MOST of what you’d want in a custom watch face using this handy tool.

Again, I can’t speak for Apple, but Android also has this app for it called Canvas. It’s not super flexible, but for the creative types out there, you could probably come up with something halfway cool looking.

The main issue I think most people would have with the watch faces themselves is the resolution of the screen. It’s great for notifications, time, and general easy to read stuff. But at 144 x 168 pixels, you’re not going to get smooth angles and clean lines. It’s not a big deal for me, because I use it to read a quick notification and go back to the watch face. But it does make some of the more complex watch faces less pretty to look at.

Watch Bands

Switching from the leather to the stainless steel band took roughly 15 minutes. Not all together a big time drain, but probably not something that you’d want to do if you were wanting a watch that you can switch bands out on quickly.

Not only that, but the selection of available bands seems somewhat limited. Granted, I didn’t spend a super long time looking for a different watch band; I found one that I liked, so I didn’t have to. But if you’re not keen on stock-leather or Pebble-approved stainless steel, you might have a bit of hunting to do.

Some Obvious (but Livable) Gaps

Because my smartwatch isn’t Pebble’s newest one, the Pebble Time, there’s a few things it doesn’t do that if you’re looking for these functions, I’d choose a different smartwatch.

  1. young sport man checking time on chrono timer runners watch holding water bottle after training sessionHeart Rate Tracking
    • I’m not sure if I’d even use this if I had it. Probably? But I can’t say for sure.
  2. Voice Commands
    • I can’t talk to Siri or Google or Cortana on my watch. I really don’t care.
  3. Limited App Selection on Watch
    • The Pebble Time isn’t limited by this, but on the Pebble/Pebble Steel, you only get to pick eight app slots on your watch. In other words, between apps and non-stock watch faces, you only get to install eight things. Honestly, I haven’t found eight things I really use frequently to care. But some people find this prohibitive.

One Significant Drawback

Perhaps the fates have a sense of irony. Just as I started writing up this article to review my watch, something oddly strange happened. The best way I can think of to describe it is the way you’d see static on an old analogue TV.

Upon scouring the support forums for Pebble, I found out that the Pebble community has a phrase for this – it’s called “Screen Tearing.” Apparently the vibration motor, combined with heat generated during the charging process, can cause the connecting band between the main control chip and the screen to become separated.

There’s workarounds that can fix the issue if you’re willing to void your warranty, but my warranty isn’t even 25% expired yet. So, I contacted Pebble Support, and they are currently working on an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) for a replacement.

So far, the process hasn’t been speedy, but I think it’ll be well worth it to replace the hardware for “free”.

Keep this in mind if you decide to go the route of Pebble. This has happened often enough that there’s a Pebble Support topic about it. So, hopefully they’ve fixed the manufacturing process to stop this from happening. But if it hasn’t improved, be ready to deal with their support team if it happens to yours, too.

The Bottom Line

Worrier man running out of time looking his watchThere are some feature limitations to the Pebble (the Pebble Time probably makes up for some of them). And, the manufacturing process seems to need some tweaking.

If you’re really looking for a feature rich, highly integrated smartwatch, I’d spend a bit more money and get something that’s more integrated either into Android wear or the Apple ecosystem.

However, if you’re wanting a smartwatch at a really good price point, you really can’t go wrong with a Pebble Steel.

  • It’s got lots of decent customizations available already.
  • It’s got some fun utilities.
  • The battery lasts a really long time.
  • You’ll never miss an important call, text, email, or other message ever again. And your alarm clock will be capable of waking up a corpse.

Overall, I give it a five star rating on Amazon, just because I love what it can do, and because my expectations weren’t over the moon to begin with. That, and the price is right for a good-looking piece of hardware that carries some better than average software on top of it. I’m proud to wear mine constantly, and I doubt anyone else buying one of these feels differently than I do.

About the author

Jason Lowenthal

Jason Lowenthal is an Architectural Software Engineer based in Springfield, MO. A graduate from Drury University, his past work includes stints with Bass Pro Shops, O’Reilly Automotive Inc. and Paperwise. When not contributing his time and talents to his employer, Asynchrony, Jason spends his free time raising his 3 girls, and learning about new technology. You can link up with him on Twitter, too: @lowenthal_jason