“Is that one of those Watch-thingies?”
“Cool Apple Watch!”
These are just a few of the admiring, if not misguided, questions I got while I spent my month with the Pebble Time. While not a household name outside of gadget geeks (yet), Pebble has done a great job of catching eyeballs with their design. And with two multi-million Kickstarters under their belt, it’s apparent they know what people want.
The Pebble Time is Pebble’s next-generation smartwatch, sporting an upgraded color e-ink screen (which means it’s always on), a Gorilla Glass face, and a coated stainless steel body. It has an impressively bright backlight (activated with a flick of the wrist) and a 7-day battery. As with the original Pebble, there’s a Steel version that sports a shinier metal casing and a leather strap, plus a 10-day battery.
In a bit of reviewer kismet, when I sat down to write up my impressions of the Time, William Gibson posted this to his timeline:
Just got my second Pebble Time. All the physical gravitas and class affect of a yellow Bic pen. I think they nailed it, that way.
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 21, 2015
And he’s right in the best way possible. I think it’s actually more appropriate for the original Pebble that I’m wearing now: with its plastic body and chunky buttons, it has a decidedly low-fi, utilitarian charm.
But the Pebble Time continues that feel, in a more refined manner. It impressed me right out of the box. The Time is 20% thinner than the original Pebble and has decidedly better materials. Even the stock band, which I immediately tossed out on my Pebble, gets an upgrade here to silky-soft silicone rubber. What I really like about the band that the original lacked is the quick-release switches on the backs of the straps. As opposed to having to use a jeweler’s tool to pry out the pins, here you can have a new strap in thirty seconds.
The buttons are grouped closer together on the Time to accommodate the microphone (which I sadly, did not get to try out – it’s an Android-only feature since Apple doesn’t want to release that API to developers). It took some getting used to; I had a few months of muscle-memory to overcome, but eventually I was able hit the button I needed without fumbling – important when your alarm goes off at 5 AM.
What I remained very aware of while I was wearing the Time was the upgraded body and face. It looked nicer; but I was much more loathe to expose it to adverse conditions. No day at the beach or mowing the lawn for the Time (which I technically could have done because it’s still waterproof). My original Pebble has picked up a fine patina of scratches on its face and dings on the plastic body, mostly due to its weight (or lack thereof). The Time has a much more solid presence on my wrist. I was much less likely to slam it into a door or knock it on a countertop. That’s not to say the Time is less durable. It’s actually moreso – whatever scratches I did pick up on the body were superficial and, due to the nature of the stainless steel coating, oxidized themselves out of existence within days. The Gorilla Glass face was impeccable for the entire thirty days.
But nice materials only make up half of a smartwatch. If the software driving that lovely, always-on, e-ink screen isn’t any good, then you’re not going use it. For Time, Pebble introduced a new feature called Timeline. Instead of having to catch notifications before they disappear, or dig through menus to see what you missed (which is good, because notifications aren’t as persistent as they are on the Pebble), you can go back or forward in your Time’s recent history to see what buzzed you. Most developers have “Pins” enabled for their Time apps. Once you turn them on, you’ll be able to see just about all recent activity.
Speaking of apps – the Time does not lack for things to load it up with. You can get sports scores, track your activity, monitor your sleep, get the weather, check and post to Twitter, play a mining game, and do a few hundred more things. And all of that is separate from the watchface store that sports a dizzying array of ways to kit out your watch – from fuzzy kittens to Star Trek! All for free!
One of the other updates that Pebble brings with the Time OS is loads of friendly animated transitions. Some are helpful – rather than try to parse if the notification on my wrist was an email or Slack message or ESPN score alert, I could tell by the icon or color of the notification. Some of those animations get in the way – there were plenty of times when I was watching my wrist and rolled my eyes as I waited those few milliseconds for the Time to get out of its own way and give me my update. But over time, I got used to it and readjusted my “check watch to see what buzzed” interval accordingly.
The Time is platform-agnostic and plunks itself right down at the lower end of the smartwatch affordability spectrum where it gives those low-end Android Wears a schoolyard thrashing. With battery life that measures in days rather than hours, it’s got the endurance to take them all on. Is it worth upgrading if you already have an original Pebble? I suppose that depends on how geek chic you want to be. But if you’re not beholden to the plastic, Time is definitely more useful than the original Pebble, and is in every way a refinement of the brand. Think of the original Pebble as your training smartwatch.
But now the 800-lb gorilla… is Pebble Time better than the Apple Watch? I haven’t had the pleasure of trying one out yet; but based on functionality, I think it might just be. Apple has Pebble beat when it comes to flashy materials. But for half the price, Pebble Time is an equally cool watch that happens to also be an extremely useful digital assistant.