Pebble Time review: Keeping a smartwatch simple and reliable

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Pebble’s original smartwatch took an out-of-the-way approach to the wearable category. Instead of offering tons of high-end features, it was a smartwatch that was only active when you needed it and actually had good battery life, something not many other smartwatches can say.

Now we have the follow-up to that successful smartwatch — the Pebble Time. It takes much of what made the original so great and refines it with a colorful e-ink display, a much better aesthetic design, and some other general improvements across the board.

Design

The Pebble Time features an updated design that I think most people would consider a massive improvement over the original Pebble. Instead of the block, utilitarian look of the first Pebble, the Pebble Time has a rounded off, very sleek shape to it, and it’s significantly less bulky, too. The watch face is still square, which may not appeal to everyone, but the overall design is very clean and doesn’t look like a big clunky screen strapped to your wrist.

The sides of the device house the buttons you’ll be using to navigate the interface, with a single main button on the left side and three navigation buttons on the right side. The buttons protrude far enough from the face that they’re easy to feel and press, but they’re small enough that they blend in with entire design of the watch. There’s also a small microphone hole on the right side of the watch just below the navigation buttons.

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The non-steel version of the Pebble Time comes with a silicone watch strap with plenty of wiggle room in regards to size. It’s plain, but I think Pebble made a good choice by going for something aesthetically neutral with the entire design of the watch instead of going with something that doesn’t match everyday fashion. The Pebble Time looks like a nice watch and won’t stick out like a sore thumb. Plus, you can swap out the included band for any standard watch band, so the only thing you’ll have to coordinate is the color of the watch itself. Color options are black, white, or red.

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Hardware

If exact dimensions are your thing, the Pebble Time’s face registers at 40.5mm by 37.5mm, which offers a great balance between screen space and size. The bezel on the watch face neither small nor huge. And the screen comes in at 1.25 inches with a resolution of 144×168. That’s 182 ppi, a lower than other smartwatches. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering the Pebble Time touts an e-ink display and long battery life as major selling points.

The screen can be difficult to view without turning the backlight on in certain situations; however, the colors are adequate and the smaller screen makes up for the lack of resolution.

An excellent bonus is that the Pebble Time is waterproof up to 30 meters, so you don’t have to worry about where you’re wearing your watch, unless you’re scuba diving or partaking in some other extreme activity. Competing smartwatches don’t seem to stick to this kind of durability.

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Interface

Pebble brags about its Timeline interface on the Pebble Time and for good reason. Actually using the Pebble Time is fun and almost looks like something Google would put together. There are different colors everywhere and tons of little animations that keep everyday tasks slightly more interesting. The color schemes blend pretty well with Google’s Material Design and the small animations throughout navigation follow that philosophy in its own way.

Moving back and forth between panes uses a paper-like animation, and there are tons of icons and indicators to help you figure out exactly what you’re looking at. Music is represented by a cassette (remember those?), notifications are represented by bells, the Timeline view is dotted by smiling suns, and so on. One of my favorite animations is the notification for getting a text message: instead of boring screen, the Pebble Time shows a message in a bottle followed by your message text. That’s a small touch that makes the Pebble Time very enjoyable to use. Notifications do seem like they try to color coordinate with the apps, too. Twitter notifications show up blue while Snapchat shows up yellow for example. Everything feels a little quirky while never coming off as childish or like a toy. Pebble nailed the perfect balance with their choices here.

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Navigating the Pebble Time takes some getting used to mostly because it’s a completely button-driven interface. Using any kind of a smart device in 2015 without a touchscreen just feels weird. Not that the Pebble Time interface is bad, because it isn’t. It just goes against the grain of touching, tapping, swiping that everyone’s accustomed to. It took me a few hours to stop accidentally trying to swipe through menus on the watch before committing to the buttons.

From the main watch face you’ll be able to quickly jump into a few different screens. The middle button sends you into your notifications, settings, music control, and any apps you have installed. Pushing the middle button again acts as a select button taking you to the next screen. This is arguably the weakest part of Pebble’s interface. Pressing buttons up and down to go through lists gets tiring especially if you have tons of apps installed. There’s no real quick way to jump through each pane that represents a different app and things start to feel a little cluttered. You (probably) won’t have dozens or hundreds of apps installed on the Pebble Time like your smartphone, but it does get a little unwieldy with more than just a few apps at once. Fortunately you can set quick launch shortcuts by long-pressing the up and down navigation buttons so you can jump straight into apps from your main watch face. This is definitely useful for quickly getting to the two main apps you use.

The left button on the watch acts as a back button, taking you back a screen or to the main time-telling watch face. Again, this is an area that gets a little tiring since you’ll have to press that button several times to go all the way back to your main screen. It’d be nice to be able to long-press or double tap that button to immediately go back home. Perhaps Pebble will add these enhancements or something similar in a future software update.

Back on the main watch face, pressing the up or down navigation keys will take you into your Timeline view, going into a past view or future view, respectively. The Timeline view is really one of the most unique features of the Pebble Time, offering a quick way to get a briefing of your schedule or to brush up on some of your past appointments. The Timeline view shows several different pieces of information including calendar events and sunrise/sunset times among other things. Apps can integrate into this Timeline view and give you additional information similar to Google Now’s approach to telling you what you wanted to know without having to do anything. There are tons of apps on Pebble’s app store that hook into Timeline, so it’s already a great feature that can only get better as more apps become available.

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Performance & Battery Life

The Pebble Time doesn’t have a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, abundance of RAM, or cutting edge GPU. The Pebble Time doesn’t need any of that. The watch performs flawlessly and, in the past few weeks of using it, I haven’t noticed a single instance of it slowing down or lagging. It’s not a totally fair comparison compared to some other watches since the Pebble Time has a low resolution e-ink display that’s running a finely tuned custom operating system, but it’s proof that you don’t need obscene amounts of processing power to create a smooth, enjoyable user experience.

Battery life on the Pebble Time is advertised as lasting “up to seven days,” and while it beats out most other smartwatches, seven days is a stretch. From a complete charge to completely dead (and pretty heavy usage), I’ve averaged roughly four days away from the charger each time. I’ve given the Pebble an extreme workout almost everyday because I receive at least one hundred texts per day, not counting all of the social media and email notifications that go off several times per hour.

Considering almost every Android Wear device requires a daily charge with that kind of use and my Samsung Gear Fit needs a charge roughly every other day (or three days, if I’m lucky), getting four to five days out of the Pebble Time is great. The watch is also the fastest charging device I’ve ever used, almost completely charging in twenty minutes or so. I can easily forgive the Pebble Time for missing that seven day mark just because it’ll nearly fully juice up in the time it takes me to take a shower.

Despite great battery life, the battery does seem a little quirky at times which makes it hard to tell just how long you have before it completely dies. Sometimes it takes a few hours for the watch to drop from 100% to 70%, but then it’ll only fall to 60% over the next 24 hours. Li-ion batteries are already notoriously difficult to measure their charge and the Pebble Time seems to struggle with that. Fortunately, that insanely fast charging time makes this nearly a non-issue, but if you’re out and about without the included charging cable it can be a headache trying to figure out how much longer your smartwatch companion has left.

A big reason for the great battery life on the Pebble Time is its low-power color e-ink display. Since it’s not a typical LED or LCD display, it barely uses any power throughout the day. The backlight causes a majority of the drain. If you really need to extend the life of the watch as long as possible, turning the backlight completely off would probably help you hit that seven day mark. Viewing the watch without the backlight can be difficult, though, if you’re not in a perfectly well-lit room. There are a few tweaks you can make to the backlight, however, including adjusting the brightness, the timeout duration, and how often it turns on.

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Apps

Pebble has a full app store of different apps and games that fit just about every need you can imagine. There are utility apps, sports apps, fitness apps, and anything and everything in between. Pebble claims that there are over 8,000 available which actually makes it kind of difficult to find anything specific you’re looking for without searching for it. I like being able to browse categories and uses for different apps and Pebble’s app store lacks that. Still, the app selection is pretty fantastic. You shouldn’t have trouble finding some form of whatever it is you’re looking for.

If you plan on using the Pebble Time as a fitness tracker, you’re going to have to invest in some of those apps. I feel like Pebble really missed a big checkmark by not including any built-in fitness tracking on the Pebble Time, relying instead of third-party apps to handle everything. There are some really great apps available that take advantage of the Pebble Time’s built-in sensors while there are also some pretty terrible ones, too. A few of the apps I downloaded refused to track my steps throughout the day and others worked completely fine. Frustration is felt despite Pebble not being the one to blame for iffy third-party apps.

The Pebble Time is also capable of playing games. I don’t know if you’ve ever played a game on a 1.25-inch screen that completely lacks touch input, but it’s not an enjoyable experience. Every game I’ve tried was clunky a battery sucker. Not worth the frustration enjoyment. Stick to your 5-inch phones for your Candy Crush fix.

Closing

The original Pebble was great for its time despite lacking a touchscreen or a color screen. The Pebble Time fixed one of those issues and introduced an interface that boldly embraces physical buttons in a time when everything from cameras to washers and dryers are adopting touchscreens. It’s a significant improvement over the original Pebble in every way, meaning that upgrading is a must.

If you didn’t have an original Pebble, that question’s probably a little tougher. Having to use physical buttons to navigate everything still doesn’t feel as fluid as tapping and gesturing your way through a device. Compared to just about every other Android Wear device, the Pebble Time’s screen is severely lacking. Also, the fitness tracking isn’t as cohesive as what you’ll get from Google Fit on an Android Wear device or a dedicated fitness tracker, and the $199 price tag doesn’t undercut some of the budget Android Wear watches enough to really stick out.

On the other side of that, the Timeline interface is one of the most convenient features I’ve ever seen on a smartwatch, and battery life is undoubtedly better than any other smartwatch on the market. It’s one of the only smartwatches that’s compatible with Android and iOS, and the sheer volume of apps is impressive for a smartwatch platform. It’s customizable with different Timeline apps and watch faces. As far as aesthetics go, the design of the Pebble Time is actually really good.

I’d argue that the Pebble Time is the most well-rounded smartwatch available right now, making compromises in all the right places (screen quality for battery life, excessive features for solid performance) without detracting from the experience in any way, excluding the painful lack of a touchscreen. Most other smartwatches try to check off as many boxes as possible on a feature list without actually considering how that affects the user experience.

If you want a device that acts a solid companion to your smartphone instead of trying to compete with your smartphone for screen time, the Pebble Time is a fantastic option, if you can live with its relatively few quirks.


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.


  • LongPressBackToKill

    I agree with everything in this review. I love my Time. I would also add to people that already use Tasker, you can add a ton of functionality. From manipulating your phone to home automation. If Tasker can do it you can do it from the Pebble Time.