10 April, 2013
The nicest thing about backing a Kickstarter project like the Pebble campaign is that, when it arrives nearly a year later, it feels like it came for free.
Let’s have a look at what this little gift from year-ago me feels like.
My Pebble arrived in a neat little box, about the size of a long letter, and maybe an inch or so deep. It looked and felt like a longer, narrower Graze box, with a rip-open tab along one edge.
Said tab was duly ripped and the hinged lid pulled back to reveal… my Pebble, and a USB cable. No fuss, no internal box (remember, this was the shipping container I'd just opened). Just straight to the product, encased in an off-white, heavy set board blister.
I was quite stunned by the simplicity of the packaging. No slavish aping of Apple here, and no "bare bones" Amazon-style "throw it in a box and throw it at the customer". The inside of the lid contained a single URL, prompting me to get started, and that was it.
I pulled the Pebble from its casing, removed the protective cover from the screen, and weighed it. Substantial, but not cumbersome. I pressed a button at the side, and on came the screen.
So far, so good.
The Pebble feels solid and expensive, as though it was hewn from a single block of plastic. It's neither too heavy to be uncomfortable on the arm, nor too light to feel insubstantial. I could live with it being a little less chunky, but making technology smaller and lighter seems to happen magically with the passage of time these days, and the Pebble isn't frustratingly chunky, so generations will take it from good to better.
The strap is snug and comfortable, and knowing it's waterproof (to five atmospheres!) is reassuring. I feel like I could swing my arm around with gay abandon and be less concerned with the watch than with my weak, damageable flesh.
In fact, the build quality is so good that the two letdowns glare in comparison.
In the first case, the glaring problem is literal. The display itself is wonderful: a crisp e-ink display which, while not being Kindle paperwhite quality, is clear and readable. Coupled with a backlight and (shock!) smooth animation refreshes, it's more akin to the old iPod LCD screen than anything from Amazon.
Unfortunately, the display is housed behind what Pebble describes as a "lens", but which name confuses me: it doesn't seem to have any intended optical properties, other than transparency. I'd just call it a "screen", but that confuses with the display itself, so maybe "lens" is the right word after all.
Anyway, it's a shiny affair, prone to glare when not looking directly at it, and very smudge-prone. Thankfully, it offers no distortion when looking directly at the Pebble's display, but around the edges it looks as though it's been made by a particularly inept glass blower. Reflections look bumpy and distorted, and while it doesn't affect the operation of the device, it makes the whole affair look cheap. Given that looking at my watch is probably the main user interaction I'm going to have with the Pebble, this is disappointing.
Second up, the buttons. There are three buttons on the right edge of the watch: "up", "select" and "down". The action is squishy and unsatisfying, though I'm assuming a lot of this is related to the waterproofing making the seals around the actuators rubbery. The buttons certainly feel like they're mounted on particularly loose rubber. That said, the action itself isn't too bad. I use the buttons a lot, but not enough that the action would irritate me.
No, what irritates me is the super-power-combo of squishy buttons plus dumb placement of the "back" button. This is placed on the left side, opposite the "top" and "select" buttons on the right. Because the buttons are so squishy, the only way to actuate them confidently is by squeezing the Pebble: so thumb on the left side, finger on the button on the right, and squeeze. Trying that with the "up" or "select" buttons, though, means you're squeezing the "back" button too! Not good. The only alternatives are to put your thumb opposite the "down" button, which leads to torque and twisting (ow! My wrist!), or not squeeze at all, meaning that the only resistance is the strap (ow! My wrist!).
That may sound like a damning indictment, but the good news is that the annoyance is minor when faced with the actual usage of the watch. The proof of the Pebble is in the software and the new interactions it enables.
Out of the box, the Pebble offers to connect to your phone via bluetooth. I've got an iPhone, so my experience is all about that. Connect up, download an app from the App Store, and it offers to perform a software update. This is quick and painless, and boom: I have a watch.
There's a little bit of to and fro to set up notifications, but it amounts to:
Before you know it, you have messages popping up on the phone display, with the watch buzzing comfortingly with each notification. Phone calls and emails also pop up if you have the right notification settings for them.
Two unexpected delights here: First, if you have message previews suppressed on the phone (hey, we have kids: I don't necessarily want them reading all my messages without knowing my passcode), the Pebble still gets the full text of the preview. This means I get security on my phone (which might be on my desk) but convenience on my watch (which is more likely to be on my person).
Second, notifications work with all messages, not just iMessage. In a world where I've got so used to messages on my iPad that I just assume friends without iPhones will never be able to message new devices, this is obvious, but very refreshing.
I can't overstate how useful I'm finding these wrist-bound notifications. It's not like taking my phone out of my pocket is a hardship, but I've nearly dropped it enough times to mean that I do take some care when taking it out in the street. It's also not always on me, and it's not always convenient to take my phone out anyway.
With a separate heads-up display on my wrist, quickly checking a message and deciding if it needs a response is surprisingly different and effective. This is a proper first world problem, here, but hey, it is what it is.
I also never hear my phone in my pocket, even when set to vibrate (which I tend not to do anyway, because I hate the sound of a vibrating phone on a desk). On the flip side, I never miss my wrist buzzing, and my watch is rarely on my desk.
Notifications are the killer feature here. I just wish I had more of them.
There's also a nifty little music remote, which fulfils similar functions to the iPhone's headphone remote, but includes (obviously) a note of the currently playing track. Again, far easier to glance at my wrist while walking or running to find out what awesomeness Spotify is throwing into my ears than to pull out my phone and watch it bounce into the road. A square iPod nano could do similar things for music, but then you have a cable coming out of your wrist.
The only thing I find myself wanting to do is to respond to these notifications, but the only way I could do that would be by having a microphone built into the Pebble. I'm not sure the world is quite ready to talk into their watches yet.
The only major criticism I have right now, barring the buttons, is the lack of third-party apps. This is the reason the watch is interesting, and as yet we have some watch faces… and some more watch faces.
This is, of course, because the SDK has yet to be released. I'm hopeful that, once it does, the little second-screen for my phone will go from being handy to being indispensable. Running apps, to-do reminders, geofenced notifications and so on all feel like obvious ideas. With motion sensors and other detectors built into the watch, I'm sure the obvious ideas will be the least interesting ones as soon as the market picks up.
Which is, of course, not guaranteed. Building a market requires more than making a square and asking people to put out stalls. That said, I've had enough interest from geeks in the watch on my wrist to be cautiously optimistic about the market's prospects.
I opened by saying that the Pebble feels like a gift from the past. It’s always nice to receive presents, but this one comes with conditions.
Without the fresh wallet sting usually associated with a speculative first-adopter purchase, I can appreciate the Pebble for what it is: a neat, clever, unobtrusive gadget that has found a permanent home in my life. However, it does render impossible a simple answer to the question I’m asked most often: should I buy one?
The answer, of course, is “it depends”. I’m using my Pebble every day. Hell, I use it every hour. I can’t see it gathering dust at home any time soon. If it broke, though, would I find myself scrabbling to throw another £100 over the wire to receive a replacement? I can’t say that I would. Pebble has enhanced my life in many small ways, but I can’t quite say it’s indispensable yet.
I can see it becoming so soon, though, and I do think that I’ll find myself forking over another £100 eagerly for whatever comes next.