Pebble’s latest Steel smartwatch is functional and stylish [Video]
Los Angeles Times tech writer Salvador Rodriguez reviews the latest entry in the smartwatch race.
More and more tech companies are rolling out smartwatches, the latest in high-tech gear that, in terms of design, only gadget-lovers can appreciate.
But now there is another option for regular consumers looking for both style and function.
Unlike the original Pebble, which looks a bit techie, the Steel comes with a frame that is available in either black matte or brushed stainless steel. Both versions look elegant and each comes with two bands: one made out of leather and the other out of metal chains. The two can easily be swapped.
FOR THE RECORD:
Workplace health: In the Feb. 22 Saturday section, an article about exercising during the workday had recommended Fitbit’s the Force as a fitness tracker. The company has announced that it is recalling the wristband device after complaints about skin rashes and burns.
I reviewed a stainless steel device and wore it with the leather band. The device weighed about the same as any other wristwatch I’ve worn and it felt comfortable. The only difference between a regular wristwatch and a Pebble Steel is that the smartwatch features a small black-and-white e-paper display that is used to tell the time and also display apps, games and other features.
I wore the watch at restaurants, bars, and around friends and no one ever noticed that it was anything other than a classy wristwatch unless I started to play with it.
There are four buttons on the sides of the smartwatch used for controlling it. One button is to the left of the watch face and the other three are on the right. The left button is typically used to go back to a previous screen while the middle button on the right is used to make selections and go to new screens. The top and bottom buttons on the right side of the device are used to scroll through options in menu screens.
Before users can take the Pebble Steel out into the world, they first have to set it up, but that only takes a few minutes.
First, users have to download the Pebble app for either their iPhone or Android and then pair the two devices using Bluetooth. The Pebble app on the smartphone is used to manage the apps running on the smartwatch as well as selecting different types of watch faces.
There were a few flaws on the Pebble Steel, but the Pebble app that is used to manage the device was the most frustrating part. The Pebble app is sluggish, especially when users try to look for new apps that they can install on their smartwatch. When compared to other commonly used smartphone apps, the Pebble app often took longer to load new screens.
This isn’t a major issue, but on mobile apps, speed should be a priority. Fortunately, fixing the speed of the Pebble app is something the company could do through a simple software update.
Once users have loaded their device with apps and different kinds of watch faces, they can start using it.
I found myself primarily using the Pebble Steel to check the notifications that I received on my iPhone. Any time somebody sent me a text, liked a photo of mine on Instagram or whenever I received any alert that showed up on my iPhone’s notification center, it would also flash on the Steel’s screen.
The advantage here is that users don’t have to take out their phone every time it buzzes. Users simply glance at their watch to see what’s happening. This helps cuts down on the number of times smartphone alerts interrupt social interactions in the real world. You’ll still want to pull out your phone when you receive an important message that requires a response, but you won’t have to take out your phone for trivial alerts, such as a Facebook “Like” or when someone favorites one of your tweets.
Among the Pebble apps I tested during my trial, there were a few that stood out. One of my favorites was Foursquare.
I use the geo-location social network daily, and the Foursquare app for the Pebble Steel makes it quicker to check in than using a smartphone. When I launched the Pebble version of Foursquare, the app came up with a list of places that I might be at. The app’s first recommendation was usually where I was at, so I just pressed the middle right button on the watch and it checked me in. I didn’t need to pull out my iPhone at all.
Another useful app was the Pebble Cam. This one required that I also purchase a $2.99 companion app for my iPhone.
Once I downloaded and set up both apps, I could stand the iPhone on its side on a flat surface, walk away, and check the screen on the Pebble Steel to see what the camera on my smartphone was looking at. If I liked what I saw, I used the Pebble Steel like a remote control to tell the iPhone to snap a photo. Pebble Cam is a helpful app for when a selfie simply won’t do and there’s no one else around to take a picture.
Besides helpful apps, there are also entertaining games available for the Pebble Steel.
One of the games I played was called Tiny Bird, which seemed like a ripoff of Flappy Bird but just as fun. Users press the top button on the right side of the Pebble Steel to keep the bird flying and from hitting any deadly pipes.
Another game was TrapBall. That one required that I move my wrist around and use the smartwatch’s accelerometer to guide balls into little holes so that I could move up to the next level.
And of course, the Pebble Steel can also be used to skip or pause a song or go back to the previous tune that was playing on my smartphone. This feature is useful when users have their smartphone plugged into a speaker and not in their hands.
One thing the Steel is not great for is fitness. Users looking for a wearable device that they can use for fitness might be better served with a FitBit Force or another product.
The Steel requires that users install fitness apps and most of them also require companion apps that users must install on their smartphones.
So if you’re hoping to leave your smartphone at home and go running with just the Steel, that probably won’t be possible. Also, running with a leather and metal watch isn’t the best idea or look -- at least not in my book.
In terms of durability, the Steel seemed up to the task.
At one point, I dropped the device on its face on a tile floor, but it was perfectly fine when I picked it up. I don’t recommend users go and drop the Pebble Steel everywhere they can, but it probably won’t crack if it falls off a table or counter top.
The watch is also can get wet without any negative effect on its performance. The device is 5ATM waterproof, meaning you can shower with it or take it with you to go swimming in shallow water, and it’ll be fine.
When it came to battery life, the Pebble Steel performed respectably. Pebble says the Steel is capable of delivering five to seven days of battery from one charge. I managed less than five days before it warned me that it had fallen below 20% battery. Still the battery life was much better than the rival Samsung Galaxy Gear, which requires a charge every day.
There was one battery issue, but it had more to do with how the constant Bluetooth connection was draining my iPhone’s battery life. I’m not sure exactly how much the Pebble Steel decreased the performance of my iPhone battery, but it was bad enough that after a few days I left the Pebble Steel behind so that my iPhone could stay alive.
So should you buy a Pebble Steel? It depends.
The smartwatch market is still very young, and many more companies are expected to jump into it soon, including Apple and Google. It may be worth waiting another year to see what other devices come out before putting down $249.99 for the Pebble Steel.
But if you really want a smartwatch right now and you are looking for something you can wear at the office or with your best clothes, then the Pebble Steel is a fine option. It’s got the features and, more importantly, it’s got the looks users want.
[For the record, 4:01 p.m. Feb. 20: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Pebble Steel uses an e-ink screen. The Pebble Steel uses an e-paper display.]
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