A week with the Pebble Steel.

Prior to the announcement of the Apple Watch, I had little to no interest in wearables of any kind. The closest I came previously was a year-long dalliance with my Fitbit. Even today, I’m still not wholly convinced of the overall utility of wrist computing, but I’ve begun to think about it more seriously and as such wanted to dip into the current market so I’d have a way to make a comparison when the Apple Watch does finally arrive.

So last Saturday, with some birthday money in hand, I went to the nearby Best Buy and left with a Pebble Steel. At first, I figured I would just get the cheaper plastic model, which is half the price, but it was so ugly that my modest personal style sensibilities immediately overrode that decision. The Steel is actually a pretty decent looking watch anyway, and not so far afield from what I might ordinarily consider. The goal of the experiment was the following:

  • get a little experience with some kind of wrist-based computer thing in advance of the Apple Watch to understand what it’s competing against
  • decide if having notifications on my wrist was even something in which I was even mildly interested
  • explore the apps and functionality the Pebble line currently offers, having matured a little since its introduction

I’ll quickly address the hardware itself. The Steel is a nice watch, but I always have issues with metal watches with leather bands that are waterproof. I realize the casing can take it, but who wants to get leather wet? And I’m far too lazy to spend the time treating and waterproofing the stock band. It’s just not that nice. The black leather that comes standard is less than stellar, and I immediately replaced it with this, which is a vast improvement and feels more like one of my beloved G-Shocks. I know there’s a steel band you can buy as well, but it also looked sort of lackluster and I wanted something that felt more sporty. The Shank is a great product, and I’m really enjoying it. Now I don’t care if the watch gets wet because it’s metal and silicone and feels more durable as a result, even if it’s all in my head. I think Pebble should have offered a band like this themselves, as it still feels high end, but adds a resilience to the overall design.

On wrist-based computing: The first day I wasn’t convinced this was for me. Little stuff like controlling music/podcast playback is nice, but my best use case so far was viewing a shopping list on my wrist in the zoo that was Whole Foods on the day before Thanksgiving. That was actually super convenient, especially now that I have the 6 Plus. So I think a device that can do more than this (e.g. respond in some way to notifications) could be useful in a hands-free scenario.

On notifications: A bunch of buzzes on my wrist, telling me all kinds of things happening on my phone that I found I mostly didn’t care about. A little tweaking of settings, and I can definitely see the value of having little blips here and there when you don’t want to or can’t take your phone out of your pocket. I’ve always kept a lean notification profile on my phone, but I trimmed it down to only the stuff I want to see on my wrist and it’s pretty useful. Calls, messages, support tickets for Stringer, and only a few more things are what make it to the watch, and it’s working out pretty well.

On the Pebble experience/apps: Most of the “apps” that I found in the Pebble ecosystem were pretty goofy. Proof of concept stuff, things that overreach with what the watch can actually do, etc. There are some interesting things happening, but overall it feels pretty half-baked. Speaking of which, the Pebble app on iOS is an abomination. I think it’s just a wrapper for a web app, and it performs horribly, with a high percentage of your taps not registering, the app freezing, and you generally just losing interest in the whole process. When you actually install something, it’s a fairly janky process, the settings for the apps are stored in web pages on the phone with varying functionality and complexity, and you can only manage eight slots on the watch at any given time. It’s… less than ideal.

Understanding that you need the phone to do anything with the watch, it’s really disappointing how terrible it feels. It’s also (as of this post) still not optimized for the new iPhones, which is really annoying, but that’s just me being petty, I suppose. Still.

All that said, I’m a believer in having something on my wrist to use this way. I wasn’t just over a week ago, and now I am. So I can thank the Pebble Steel for getting me on board with the concept. I thought the Apple Watch looked cool when it was introduced, but I was skeptical as to whether or not it was for me. I think it definitely is, and the Pebble’s just made me look forward to it more. For all my criticism, I am actually enjoying the Steel, and I’ll continue to wear it and use it until I can upgrade this satellite experience next year.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.