My Month with Pebble

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If you are anywhere near technology these days, chances are you are hearing a lot about wearable technology.  The lion’s share of the attention is on Google Glass, but there is another technology slowly catching up: the smartwatch (yes, it’s one word).  Don’t feel bad if you are unfamiliar with the smartwatch, but I think it won’t be long before you see them everywhere. With the recent release of Android Wear from Google and impending watches from Apple and others, you may even own one soon.

At the Center for Distributed Learning (CDL), our goal is to use many different gadgets to see if they have any implications for teaching and learning. With that in mind, we decided to take a the Pebble smartwatch for a spin. During the last 30 days, I have worn the Pebble watch while logging over 15,000 miles in travel to Alaska for the HETL conference and Utah for InstructureCon.

Below is just a quick overview of what I liked and didn’t like “as much” about the Pebble Smartwatch.

The Good

Screen

My first impression of  the Pebble was that it was not the most attractive watch.  There is no metal, glass, and it has a black-and-white screen. With companies fighting over screen colors and PPI, it felt like a step backwards to use a 1 bit e-paper display. However, I soon learned that form over function is the wrong way to perceive this device. I discovered that I could see the screen in almost any lighting situation (there is a backlight), the screen could always stay on, and the battery life benefited greatly.  The technology looks very similar to the Amazon Kindle and with simple text notifications and updates, I soon realized that color wasn’t necessary.

Battery life

The battery life on the Pebble is a killer feature.  In one month, I charged it four times. Yes, four times. That is simply amazing for any modern technology gadget.

Notifications

The main function of the Pebble watch is to deliver smartphone notifications directly to your wrist through Bluetooth.  This can be done through Pebble apps or through the notification center on your phone.  This worked very well.  I found that I took my phone out much less often and ignored a lot of the “noise” in my daily life until a better time.  In the past, even if I took my phone out for one notification, I would end up doing something else.  With the Pebble, this wasn’t the case.  I also found the watch to be less obtrusive in social situations since I would glance at my wrist instead of pulling out a phone.

Pebble App & Store

Pebble iOS App

Pebble iOS App

Pebble offers a Pebble app for iOS and Android.  This has three functions 1) Setup and update the Pebble 2) The hub for data to the Pebble 3) A store of Pebble apps.  The setup of the pebble was very intuitive and quick.  This is in stark contrast with the Google Glass, which took way too long.  I opened the app, was prompted to connect via bluetooth, and was immediately suggested apps to download.  I was up and running within two minutes.  The Pebble Store is very well done.  It was easy to navigate and find the most recent and top rated Pebble apps and watchfaces. Most apps and watchfaces use the Pebble app to pass information to the watch. There are a few companion apps that don’t rely on the Pebble app, but most will work simply with this app only.

Watch that is smart

The Pebble watch relies on the Pebble app or companion apps to retrieve data.  This opens up a world of possibilities when using the Pebble as a consumption device.  I really enjoyed using apps like Evernote to read my notes, Twebble for reading Tweets, Leaf for setting my Nest thermostat, MLB ScoreWatch to follow baseball games, Yelp, Weather, and the many interactive watchfaces. The Pebble offered me a surprisingly large amount of information that didn’t require any interaction.  I could get the information I needed and move on.  I also suggest you read Aimee’s review of the My Disney Experience app.

Bluetooth leash

One interesting feature was built into the xTime watchface.  If I lost Bluetooth connection with my iPhone, the watch would vibrate twice.  It could be very useful for those situations that you leave your phone behind accidentally.

The Not-as-Good

Losing connection with phone for apps

While I only used the Pebble with my iPhone 5s, I did find one major annoyance that is more related to iOS than the Pebble.  This is the fact that many of the Pebble apps rely on the Pebble App or other companion apps.  The way that iOS handles memory is to quietly put apps to sleep that are not in use. While this is handy for memory management and phone battery life, this would cut off the app and stop the data stream to the Pebble.  My watchface displayed lots of great information including weather and stock information, but I frequently found the information to be incorrect or missing since the Pebble app was now dormant.

Device limit for apps and watchfaces

Pebble App/Watchface Management

Pebble App/Watchface Management

The Pebble allows up to 8 apps or watchfaces at a time.  I found myself wanting to install more than this limit, so I frequently managed my apps around what activity or feature I needed on a particular day.  Luckily enough, Pebble makes this easy through the use of a “locker” in the Pebble app.  I could quickly find recently installed apps and watchfaces and install them within seconds.

Navigation is awkward at times

Using the Pebble buttons at times are a little tricky, especially the back button. I imagine this will be an issue for any device that doesn’t use a touch screen on your wrist.  I frequently found myself having to use my index finger to brace the watch while navigating through menus.  While on your wrist, this can be a little awkward.  There is also no great way to quickly navigate through apps.  The menu structure is very similar to the iPod Classic where you had to move backwards and forward in a linear fashion.  There are no shortcuts.

Useless without phone

The Pebble is pretty useless when your smartphone isn’t attached through Bluetooth.  It essentially turns into a watch with very little functionality.  Some might say that a watch is very useful, but not for $150.  There are some “okay” pedometer apps and an alarm, but I could get that from a much cheaper watch.

Phone battery life

Pebble claims that leaving Bluetooth active on your smartphone will give you a 5-10% hit on phone battery life.  I found this to be more. Before the Pebble, I could usually get through the day with around 40-50%, but with the Pebble I was hanging around 10-20% daily.  I could still make it through an entire day, but definitely not as advertised.

Little educational use

As an Instructional Designer passionate about mobile technology, I can’t leave this out: I struggled, and I mean struggled to find a great educational use for this device and didn’t really find anything that was viable.  It’s a terrific personal device, and extension of your smartphone, but in most educational situations I think it would be better to take out your phone or tablet.  The Pebble is a great consumer of information but doesn’t give much opportunity to share. One of the best contributions to education could be students are more engaged.  If the student isn’t pulling out their phone every few minutes to read and interact with notifications, maybe they will be less distracted.

Conclusion

Is a smartwatch for everyone? Of course not. I can’t see them being as necessary as smartphones in the near future, but I am encouraged by the many talented developers outside-the-box ideas about this new technology.  If you want to be connected, a smartwatch is a must. If you want a reliable smartwatch with great battery life, then you can’t go wrong with the Pebble.  It’s not the sexiest of devices, but it does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well.  This is just the beginning of an exciting new product category and I can’t wait for the future.

PS: Pebble, if you are reading this, I’ll be glad to test out one of those fancy new Pebble Steel watches. ( :

 

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