Without ever setting up shop at this year’s CES, Pebble stole the show with its boardroom-ready refresh: the Pebble Steel. Since the original Pebble’s launch, we’ve seen flashy new entrants like the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Sony Smartwatch 2—brimming with features, but ultimately flawed as full-time wrist mates. The first Pebble succeeded by finding a nexus of features and simplicity that helped manage the digital deluge of everyday life. But the inaugural effort was not without its flaws; it was particularly hampered by a chintzy plastic design that made it feel more tech- toy than versatile daily driver. The Pebble Steel addresses those complaints in a big way by introducing a solid steel design, glass screen, and a much tighter build quality.
Everything else, from the display to the processor, remains the same. The Steel may be a superficial update, but coupled with the new app store and growing selection of apps, the Pebble Steel shows just how far the former Kickstarter darling has come. It’s unquestionably the top smartwatch out there right now.
DESIGN AND FEATURES
It turns out the Pebble cleans up quite nicely.
The Steel takes the smartwatch from Galaxy Blah to Apple-esque levels of refinement, with a solid steel case (in either brushed or matte finishes), Gorilla Glass screen, and metal and leather wristband options. Our review unit came with a brushed steel finish and a supple, black leather band—I’m not much of a watch guy, but this thing looks sharp.
The Steel is noticeably heavier than its predecessor (1.97 ounces with leather wristband versus 1.34 ounces), but it’s physically smaller in every dimension (1.81 by 1.34 by 0.41 inches versus 2.05 by 1.42 by 0.45 inches). The 144-by- 168-pixel e-paper display is identical, but the glass screen makes a big difference—clarity and contrast are noticeably better on the Steel. The metal case wraps around the screen, leaving a lip at the edges that already started accumulating some dust during the course of our evaluation. Below the display is a new RGB LED that glows when charging, but can also be used by developers. All four buttons are now metal and the three on the right side are packed closer together. Whereas the original Pebble’s buttons felt mushy and indistinct, the Steel’s have good travel and feedback. The magnetic charging contacts on the left side have been redesigned with a more subtle, two-point design, but that means cables for the original Pebble will not work. The Steel carries the same 5ATM waterproof rating, meaning it can be submerged up to 165 feet and has been tested in both fresh and salt water, so you can shower or swim while wearing the watch.
PERFORMANCE AND APPS
When we first reviewed the Pebble, it was all about wireless notifications and fun watch faces.
The software has since matured a great deal with the introduction of third-party apps, and with its revamped app store, Pebble is as much a software platform as it is a physical accessory. The ¿rmware has been updated across all Pebble watches, and it feels a step faster and more responsive than the last time we used one.
Noti¿cations and menu navigation are instantaneous, though you’ll still deal with a few loading screens and some wonky app interactions.
Though the software is still technically in beta, I didn’t notice any significant bugs or hiccups.
Our testing was limited to iOS (the Android version wasn’t ready yet), but we took a look at the new Pebble app and app store. Fire up the app and you’ll see a graphical dashboard that shows the apps and watch faces currently loaded onto your Pebble and the apps tied to your Pebble account. You can load up to eight apps or watch faces onto the Pebble Steel at one time; the rest are easily swappable from the app locker in the iOS app. As of this writing, there are 246 apps and countless watch faces available for the Pebble. And it’s not just a ragtag group of half-baked apps anymore: Pebble has scored some big name partnerships, such as apps from Yelp and ESPN. The Yelp app has a nifty “discovery mode,” which pops up a nearby suggestion with a Àick of the wrist. You can read snippets of reviews and find contact and location information, but it doesn’t indicate what type of food a restaurant specializes in. This very well could be by design—Pebble apps aren’t meant to replace their iOS or Android counterparts, but rather complement them with quick and easily accessible information. ESPN’s app puts the latest matchups, scores, and even TV listings on your wrist. Some other notable names include Foursquare, GoPro, and Pandora.
The app store is a bit buggier than the iOS app itself, but again, this is all still in beta. It often took multiple touches before anything would register, and some apps wouldn’t download to my locker without restarting the Pebble iOS app entirely. Navigation was painfully slow at times, too, but I expect these issues to be ironed out with time. There’s a big carousel up top that highlights notable releases, with the remaining apps broken down into categories such as games or fitness. There are no reviews of individual apps, but you can “love” an app and see how many “loves” it’s received.
Strangely, the app store isn’t separated into Android or iOS versions—you have to click each app to see if it’s compatible with your OS of choice and if you’ll need a companion app or service for it to work.
The Pebble Steel is notable for what it is and what it is not. It’s a complete redesign that tastefully marries high tech with high-end looks. It’s not a me-too product that tries to pack in needless features just for the sake of features. Pebble runs on the strength of its simplicity and its growing ecosystem of apps—it’s a winning strategy, and not unlike Apple’s. With the Pebble Steel and the Pebble app store, the company now has a mature product to go along with a quickly maturing platform.
Whether the style upgrades are worth the premium over the original is really just a matter of personal taste.