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The Pebble watch: two reviews

March 3, 2013

I was an early backer of the Pebble e-ink watch on Kickstarter, so I’ve now had my watch for a bit over 4 weeks. After using it nearly continuous for that time (with a short break for a vacation), I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the experience. In fact, I’ll share two reviews of the Pebble, since right now it offers a drastically different experience for iOS and Android.

I own and use both iOS (an iPhone 4) and Android (a Galaxy S3) phones in order to keep tabs on the user experiences offered by each platform. I typically split my time between them, choosing which to carry based on my expected needs on any given day. When I received my Pebble watch I chose to pair it with my iPhone first, so I’ll begin there.

The Pebble watch with iOS

In theory the Pebble should offer a great experience with iOS. It essentially ties into notifications at the operating system level, which means that setup is simple and should in theory allow receiving notifications across apps on iOS. And when you set it up at first it does exactly that. Plus you can use it to control music playback, act on calls, etc.

There’s just one problem: there appears a bug in iOS such that if your phone even temporarily loses the Bluetooth connection to the watch you have to manually toggle your notifications for each app off and back on in order to resume receiving notifications. So during that week the pattern I’d see over and over is that I’d get notifications on the watch for the first hour or two, and then suddenly I’d stop receiving them. It’d take me a bit to notice, and then I’d have to go in and toggle my notifications. That’d be good for another hour or two, and then…

So while in theory using the Pebble with an iOS device should be great, in practice it was downright annoying. And it’s not the Pebble team’s fault; they’re more or less at the mercy of Apple fixing the iOS bug, unless the team can figure out an application-level fix in the interim. And that’s going to be a challenge given the sandboxing in iOS. At the end of a week using the watch with iOS I was ready to write the watch off as “not ready for prime time”. But then I switched to pairing Pebble with my S3…

The Pebble watch with Android

Pebble’s integration with Android is a bit kludgier. Rather than tying into notifications at the operating system level, Pebble is instead largely accessing notifications on an application-by-application basis. And in some cases accessing data directly; you need to provide the Android Pebble app with your email credentials to allow it to check for and provide notifications for your email.

Despite that kludginess (and the hesitation over providing the app with your login credentials), notifications are rock solid when the Pebble is paired with an Android device. I can’t remember a case where I heard an audio notification for email on my phone and didn’t have the notification pop up on the watch a few seconds later. And after a couple of weeks of using the watch with Android I really like the fast access to notifications that it provides.

Although I sometimes wear the watch on weekends, I primarily use it on weekdays. And there are a lot of cases (getting our daughter ready for school, taking public transit, meetings, getting work done) where I don’t want to pull my phone out but still want to be able to easily glance to see what a notification is about. In my case I actually need to see the contents for an item maybe 5% of the time, so the main advantage of the Pebble is to allow me to quickly (2-3 seconds) determine that I don’t need to pay any more attention to an item. The interaction reminds me of Ben Shneiderman’s contention that one way to design an effective user interface is to allow users to say “no” as quickly as possible.

The interactions that the Pebble supports are currently limited; you’re essentially restricted to acknowledging notifications. And in some cases it might be nice to be able quickly respond to notifications with canned messages: ok, busy, etc. But those are edge cases for my usage patterns, and since the Pebble team is actively adding functionality and will eventually open the watch to 3rd party developers I expect we’ll see the watch gain those capabilities down the road. But I don’t the current experiences suffers much from the lack.

There are two gaps that I’d like to see the Pebble team remedy quickly. First, the Pebble just shows the most recent notification; there’s no way to navigate between notifications if you get several at once. Second, there’s no way to check the current power level of the watch. After having the battery die while I was at work one day I now try to recharge the watch every 5 days or so to avoid that happening again. A current power level display in the Settings menu would address that issue. In general, though, charging the watch isn’t a big issue. Although I did decide not to bring the watch on a 5 day vacation because I didn’t want to tote around yet another cable.

Since the Pebble requires a Bluetooth connection there is a hit to battery life on the phone as well; my S3 probably ends up with 5-10% less battery at the end of the day. But since Android sucks at power management anyway I already have to charge my S3 daily, so it hasn’t really been an issue. It was more of a problem for iOS, since I could get 2 days of battery life out of my iPhone 4 and had to moving to daily charging when I had the Pebble paired with it.

So after roughly 2 weeks of actively using the Pebble with my S3 I really like how the watch augments my experience. Enough so that I’ve switched to primarily carrying the S3 during the day so that I don’t have to give up those notifications. If you’re thinking about getting a Pebble and plan on pairing it with an Android device, I strongly recommend it. If you’re thinking about pairing it with an iOS device, however, I’d probably wait until Apple fixes the iOS bug or the Pebble team figures out a workaround.

I can’t resist adding that my personal opinion is that the future of wearable computing looks more like the Pebble than it goes like Google’s Glass. A watch is inconspicuous, and it remains out of the way unless you explicitly glance at it, meaning that it doesn’t interfere when you’re not actively using it. It’s still fast to access, though; glancing at it requires just looking down and turning your wrist. Contrast that with Glass, which remains a distraction in your peripheral vision even you’re not actively using it.

The Pebble watch: Recommended (for Android)

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