Pebble smart watch review

Consumer Reports

The Pebble smart watch ($150), one of the first wearable-computing devices, sounds futuristic and retro (as in Dick Tracy and Maxwell Smart). And beyond the novelty, it’s actually pretty useful. This gadget channels e-mails, texts, and other notifications from your smart phone or tablet and runs a variety of apps, including fitness apps for bikers, runners, and golfers, with lots more apps expected to follow.

The Pebble comes from a young entrepreneur who was unable to obtain enough financing through venture capitalism—so he turned to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. There, he was able to raise more than $10 million. Bigger names are now developing similar products: Sony has a smart watch, and reports say Apple, Samsung, Google, and LG, among others, are working on their own versions.

Here’s my take on the Pebble.

Highs

To my surprise, the notifications turned out to be my favorite thing about the Pebble watch. It’s so much easier to glance at your wrist than to haul out your phone to see who’s on the line or whether you need to respond right away to an e-mail. (One caveat: When you get a few buzzes in a row, people may think you’re compulsively checking the time. I was asked more than once, "Are you running late for something?")

You can stop the buzzes and get just visual alerts by going into Settings, then Display, on the Pebble and disabling Vibration. If you want to stop getting notifications, just disconnect from Bluetooth on your phone. On my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx, reconnecting was as simple as turning Bluetooth back on.

Pebble’s online help is decent, but there’s a lively user forum on its website that’s a great place to get answers or to see what other users are doing with their Pebbles.

The watch is also water-resistant, always a nice plus. And if you’re not crazy about the plastic strap you can swap it for a standard-size watchband.

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Lows

My Pebble’s connection dropped once, though the phone thought it was still connected. I had to restart my phone to get things going again.

I used an Android phone to test (the aforementioned Droid Razr Maxx), but iPhone owners in Pebble’s forum reported problems I didn’t encounter. For one, if your iPhone's Bluetooth connection breaks, you may stop receiving certain types of notifications after you reconnect (though phone call and SMS notifications still work). The remedy has been dubbed "the finger dance," requiring numerous steps to get things working again.

Though battery life is about a week, there’s no way to tell on the watch how low your charge is getting; a low-battery icon appears only when the Pebble’s getting low on juice.

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Details

As with most electronics devices, you need to charge the Pebble for several hours before you use it. Then download the Pebble app to your smart phone. Next, pair the Pebble with your smart phone via Bluetooth. With my Droid Razr Maxx, pairing went without a hitch.

You let the Pebble know what kinds of notifications you want by touching the gear icon in your phone’s Pebble app. Possibilities include one or all of your various e-mail accounts, SMS texts, Facebook messages, and Google Talk and Hangout messages.

The Pebble alerts you with a quick, nearly soundless vibration. Check the watch face to see who’s calling (and decline the call, if you want), the subject header and a few lines of an incoming e-mail, or a text. You can scroll down to read more and to see prior notifications. They disappear after a few moments.

From within the Pebble’s phone app, you can select from various watch faces to personalize your Pebble. You’ll find other Pebble-enabled apps in the Google Play or Apple App Store, most of them pretty basic.

One I tried was Glance for Pebble, an alternate watchface that shows time, day, date, and weather, and also lets you see detailed calendar entries and send preconfigured texts (for example, "I'm driving right now"). I also tried Pebble Bike, which sends speed, distance, and altitude data to your Pebble using your phone's GPS. It will be interesting to see what other kinds of apps developers will come up with.

You can also specify which music service you use and control what you’re listening to on your phone through the Pebble.

Battery life is about a week. The Pebble uses a magnetic charger; you can charge the watch on a computer or with a USB wall charger.

Bottom line

In recent years, many people have stopped wearing watches. The Pebble won’t change everyone’s mind about that—especially those who feel technology is already intruding a bit too much into their lives. But if you’re the type (like me) who would rather not have to find and look at your phone each time a call, text, or e-mail arrives, the Pebble is actually freeing. And it will be fun to see what new apps and uses developers come up with for this open-platform device.

—Carol Mangis

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