Published on February 23rd, 2013 | by Basho4
Pebble Smart Watch Review – More than just potential?
No recent product launch has grasped the Zeitgeist as much as the Pebble watch. It represents a perfect storm of elements coming together all at once and its success is going to be studied for years.
The story of the Pebble is intimately bound to the story of the website that enabled it: Kickstarter. Much of the media attention has been about this new marketplace, which must be an absolute boon for economists; for it represents the operation of market forces in a pure microcosm, and like evolution isolated on a small island many weird and wonderful creatures are born. Eventually there can be Island Gigantism and this is a story of such a monster being formed.
Initially Kickstarter was the “crowd funding” startup servicing geeks from places like the “Maker” sub culture. Those who actually wanted to be able to sell their ideas, but lacked the backing of the dragons. Perhaps theirs was too small an idea or too niche to attract normal backing. However, in this modern era of the internet, what we come to realise is that being niche is absolutely no barrier to success. I met a guy, a friend of my mother in law, who lives in an enormous house in the British countryside and is very wealthy. What did he do? I asked him. He tapped a little 5cm badge in the shape of a helicopter on his chest. Wow, you make helicopters?
“No, I make these badges.”
Yes, you can make a fortune with niche ideas, if you can produce and sell them. The main advantage is that you will not have many, if any, viable competitors and like all animals devoid of predators, you can build your colony (your brand) and the world will be your oyster. Brand is the key and must be jealously guarded if you want to be the next SuperDry or Cambridge Satchel. On the other hand, Apple has killed off many Young Turk brands who threatened theirs. Kickstarter, as the name implies, quickly evolved from just having good ideas to being a way of building that brand and with it building noise.
This is the point the economists got interested, because this brought competition for attention and competition is the primary force in the market. It was no longer enough to have a great idea, now you needed to have a great presentation to go with it or it would be lost in the pile. Many ideas have been touted for how these presentations should go. Some have mixed in the sexy, always a bonus if one is selling to a geeky market:
Are these guys selling keyboards or hot backsides?
Others have played hard on their geek cred by hiring geek celebrities to present (if only Douglas Adams was still alive – some lucky product would be making millions).
Neal is a well known Geek icon, only topped by perhaps…
Others still have used humour and power of their already existing geek brand.
Penny Arcade‘s (very funny) Kickstarter was to remove adds from their site –
However, most have gone for the Apple-style presentation mastered by Jobs and Ives with high production values and cool designers talking to camera. This was the first element that drew me to the Pebble. The video they produced showed a carefully worked out professionalism, while at the same time being down-to-earth enough to come across as genuine.
The Pebble Kickstarter video
The next element was the product itself. It was simply a brilliant idea and exactly on time.
In the past few years, the iPhone has not given anyone palpitations of excitement. I have owned every generation of the device and picking up my iPhone 1 (now in the hands of my 2 year old with no simcard) and comparing it to my iPhone 5, I do not see anything revolutionary between them at first glance. Of course, generationally the iPhone has come on in leaps and bounds and my nicely bevelled iPhone 5 is incredible in that respect, but its nature is essentially unchanged. This has led to a noticeable frustration on the part of the consumer who wants to be in the excitement of the “revolution” promised by Apple devices and delivered by the first iPods, iPhones and iPads. Such frustration has allowed Google to catch up and overtake in the phone market, and even Microsoft has done it right with Windows Phone 8. People are hungry for something new.
Smart phones, smart watches.
Watches are the utmost niche product. They represent who you are, the expression of one’s personal style, much more than they represent a way of telling the time. The third reason Pebble took off is that it came at a time where the phone has supplanted the watch as a time device for the vast majority of people (although definitely not for me). Pebble represents the watch making a comeback and saying, hey – if a phone can do what we have done for generations, we can do what a phone does just as well! So far, smart watches have either been expressions of high art, divine and unreachable for anyone who cannot wear glasses like this guy:
This guy invented this watch, the SPARC:
Which is wonderful with one problem: it costs £4000!
Alternatively, they have been for sporting use, like the Suunto outdoorsman and its incredible diving ranges, or the Garmin GPS hybrids, or the Nike running watches. All of these are niche activities again. It shows how popular they are “under the table” when you see websites like the excellent DCRainmaker who makes a great living out of simply reviewing running watches in depth and with style. Strangely, the best “watch” to be the progenitor of the Pebble is the old square iPod Nano. One of the first and most liked Kickstarter was for a strap case that enabled you to wear the Nano as a watch. Combined with the quality of the Apple screen (touch, colour graphics, etc.) this was a great – if little bulky – idea.
As mentioned above it was “killed” by Apple when they changed the design of the Nano. This is perhaps the best indication that a watch was in their R&D department’s to-do pile.
What Pebble realised is that if you follow the classic Microsoft PC (and Apple with its devices) route then you make the platform first and let others make the usage apps. Thus, you make a product for everyone who wants one and bring all the niches together to form a nexus. What a nexus the Pebble was. I surf Kickstarter every now and again as I am waiting for it to come to the UK (when I am going to relaunch my film idea) and I came across the Pebble. I was quickly sold. In a fit of insanity I bought a pre-order ticket in the knowledge that I would get my cash back if the idea failed and a product of some quality if it succeeded.
I was aware though that this was buying sight unseen. My willingness to do so is the final element of the perfect storm: online shopping and the death of the highstreet. We buy almost everything online now, even our food. We do this sight unseen of the product for two reasons, one: it is far easier and quicker, and two: products – even high end ones – are mass-produced to a standard. You see a photo of the product in question and you simply know that the item delivered will be exactly that thing. What Pebble did was make us believe they could give us exactly what they promised.
Then someone hit the viral button.
Viral is a pure expression of the internet and the speed of thought it represents. Going viral with a product involves getting it in front of the evangelists and curators of that part of the web. For watches that could interact with a smartphone this was simply to entice the websites of the techno-glitterati such as Engadget, Wired and Lifehacker;
followed by being picked up in the “new press” of the podcasts such as This Week in Tech.
Before you could shake a stick these guys had more orders than they could have predicted for 10 years. I can imagine them rubbing their hands with glee at having passed the “funded” barrier on Kickstarter and then this excitement rising as they smashed their most optimistic projections and then the slow creeping horror as It. Just. Kept. Rising.
So much money raised, the numbers don’t fit in the box!
Success is truly a two edged sword and as the Epicureans would have said pleasure is not measured in the amount. Too much of a good thing hurts and 100 times their predicted orders must have been like iced water down their backs.
That I have the product in my hand, that it exists at all, that they didn’t take the money and run or fold or kill themselves or end up in prison… well, it deserves a standing ovation just for that. It has validated Kickstarter as a market. All thanks to a digital watch.
At the moment, Pebbles are shipping at a rate of 5000 a week. The stats are:
My Pebble, understandably months late, is here. Now.
Unboxing and first impressions
The Pebble box is clearly the result of compromises and more the better for it.
Reminiscent of an Amazon box, the device sits inside together with its charging USB cable and a single sticker saying to visit go.getpebble.com. The watch itself clips out easily and my first impression was how light it seemed. Mine is the black one, but other colours exist.
My normal watch is the very big and heavy Hamilton Jazz Master Maestro during the week and the equally enormous Casio G-Shock A-1000 at weekends and compared to these giants, the Pebble is as light as a feather. It comes with a simple rubber strap of good quality and with a nice weighted buckle.
However, the rubber strap effect, for a watch I am primarily going to wear in the office, is definitely something I would change. Its build quality is clearly first generation and nothing compared to, for example, the high build of either of the watches mentioned above.
My watch collection for size comparison. The middle top watch is a huge 45mm
- 144 x 168 pixel display black and white e-paper
- Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR and 4.0 (Low Energy)
- 4 buttons
- Vibrating motor
- 3 axis accelerometer with gesture detection
- Water resistant to 5ATM
On the wrist the length of the body is evident. I have big wrists watch-speaking and can carry off 45mm watches with ease due to my size as a person. However, the Pebbles body does come across as long. The back of the watch does not curve around the wrist and the rubber strap does not lift the body to enable a flat wear. The watch front, on the other hand is smooth, clean, and curved well. Therefore, my first impression is that this watch looks “good” on the wrist, but not “great”. The actual screen space on the face of the watch is smaller than I imagined and the border posts are large. If Sony had made this watch, or Apple, I am sure that these posts would have been smaller and the screen bigger.
Once I figured out how to turn the watch on (hold a button for two seconds) the quality of the display immediately improved my initial feelings. It displayed a well crafted picture asking me to pair to a phone. The text was very clear to read. There is a backlight for easier viewing, which can activated by shaking the watch.
- Display Size: 1.26 “
- Contrast Ratio: 20:1
- Response time: 30ms
- Operating temperature: 70 º C to -20 º C
- Backlight for dark environments
This module is a transflective, monolithic active-matrix liquid crystal module utilizing Sharp’s CG-silicon thinfilm transistor process. (Sharp)
Whatever the bumpf might say, this is a clear and high quality screen:
The first phone I paired it to was my iPhone 5. I paired the Pebble in the Bluetooth options then I downloaded the app required from the iPhone store and booted it up.
It found the Pebble and went through a pairing process. It then immediately offered a firmware update.
Notice the magnetic charging cable attached to the left
This downloaded over Wi-Fi quickly and was transferred to the watch just as rapidly.
In the app, I went to the Pebble “store” and downloaded a few watch faces. You simply select one and it appears on the watch as an option in the main menu:
At the moment only a few are available and the watch screams for more well designed ones.
Paring it to Android was similarly painless.
There are a number of programs for passing notifications on this device.
The three buttons on the right side of the Pebble control the functions:
The left side single button acts as “back”:
Their play is good and they are not wobbly. There is a feeling of pressing something, which while not the sort of click-beep my Casio produces or the “clunk” of the chronograph on the Hamilton, is substantial enough to be definite.
The next morning I put the Pebble to use.
Suited up and ready to go to work
As I walked to the bus I was listening to Audible. The phone was deep in my coat and I was wrapped against the cold with thick gloves on. Normally this makes the changing of tracks, pausing and playing – such as when one has to speak to a bus driver – something best described as “a total pain in the ass”. With the Pebble on, this suddenly became easy as pie. One click and Audible paused, I got on the bus, spoke, paid, thanked for change, walked down the bus, sat and clicked again – Audible started back up without any hassle. Definitely an improvement. I can imagine that this will become a regular and beloved feature.
While in audio control mode the screen permanently displays the track and controls with the time as a very small font along the top. The benefit of the screen being of this special type is that it can display without necking the power in the battery. The great upshot of this is that the watch does not ever need to “sleep” and dim or turn off the screen. In the modern digital world of power saving, high rate consumption and having to plug everything in all the damn time, this is incredible and a completely new world. The iPhone dimmed and went dark as the “timeout” turned off the screen to save power. The Pebble stayed clearly on the whole time. Of all the features of the watch, this is my favourite.
However, of course, the other main feature is notifications. Would this be just as killer as the music controls?
The process of setting up the notifications requires you to set the notification switch on the Bluetooth settings in the iPhone to “on”:
Then, on a notification-by-notification basis, go through, and assign them to “on”, to “banner” and to “show in lock screen”:
This is a tiresome process. However, it works and the notifications are passed instantly they arrive. I have it switched on for emails to either of the phones’ accounts, messages, and calls.
If the size of the notification, when one arrives, goes beyond the size of the screen the up/down overflow is controlled by the right hand side buttons scrolling the message and the middle button clearing the notice. However, side-to-side overflow, such as a long name, cuts off.
In meetings, where phones are always off the table and switched to silent by convention, the ability to glance at a watch is a lesser sin. Of course, glancing at your watch all the time can give an altogether different impression! However, a casual glance can really help. The screen can be read from quite a distance, so perhaps there is a security issue here if you have the sort of team who email each other during meetings.
There are issues with this part of the process at the moment. The iPhone is not designed to support the externalising of notifications very well. Consequently, when the Bluetooth connection is broken for any reason, such as moving out of range, only the calls and messages parts are reconnected when the connection is restored. This is a little less than ideal and the source of much frustration on the Pebble forums. However, it is Apple’s fault. What is causing the frustration I believe is that we all know Apple will not hesitate to kill off something that doesn’t benefit it directly. Consider the fate of Flash on the device. Apple may fix this, or Pebble may, but it must be the nightmare of all peripheral companies that Apple considers them in the same light a whale shark considers pilot fish; just feeding off them. What is clearly needed is a protocol to pass all notifications directly to an external source and for this protocol to be managed by a service that reconnects when the device moves in and out of range. Such a service must be monitoring the calls already (or my Bluetooth headphones would not reconnect automatically), so the other functions should be added. How long that will take to be implemented is anyone’s guess. Large companies move slowly and indeed have many layers of Quality Assurance before such a fix can be released.
The fact that this watch is square means there are fewer numbers of “real” watch faces we can expect to see on the Pebble. The daddy of all square watches, the totally divine Jaeger Lecoultre Duo, would work incredibly well on the Pebble.
What faces we currently have are not well designed, and this is an area that Pebble should have put more work into for their product launch.
Something Microsoft and Apple have learned and learned well is that you must produce a number of very high quality applications on your platform. This encourages others to try to reach such heights and showcases what can be done. Microsoft for example have Office, and this is the killer application of every edition of Windows since version 1. Apple, on the other hand, have Final Cut, which has been used to produce Hollywood movies. Pebble has not spent some of that enormous money producing high quality applications for launch and this is much to their detriment. I suspect that they are aiming for “compatibility” with well-known apps such as Runkeeper and hopefully this will come true. Still, more apps by Pebble would have been a very good idea.
So far the Pebble is scoring well. It has been of great use today during the day. I have been receiving messages from Cesca and emails while standing and talking. Nice. All day I have been controlling Audible and the iPod in the iPhone. I cannot wait to try a different strap however.
Changing the strap.
The strap came off easy with a little help from a penknife and I happened to have a James Bond NATO, which looks rather fetching, as well as a leather one:
Anything is better than rubber on a city watch!
- The screen is very high quality
- Power consumption (the battery goes for 7 days)
- Overall design
- A few bugs, but then most people haven’t got theirs yet – early days
- More clock faces needed
- Buttons are essentially last generation in this modern world of touch-screen everything.
- Screen picks up dust and sweat, so a film cover is a good idea
- None of the high-end apps shown in the Kickstarter film exist… yet
- Apple entering this arena is like a dark cloud in the distance.
Overall this is a great device, more than a toy and a lot of fun to use. Its build quality is not a straight 10 out of 10, but then my Hamilton is 8 times the cost and that is one of the cheapest watches with an ETA 7750. The Pebble is a generation 1 device however. To hold a Pebble is to glimpse the future; it is at the zeitgeist, but will it last into the future itself or is it just holding open the door for someone else? It is anything but a forgone conclusion either way, remember that Pebble has sold 68 thousand devices already.The predators are stirring around this young startup upstart and the next few weeks and months will determine if it flourishes or not.
I for one hope it makes it.
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Other Basho watch reviews:
Summary: Not bad at all