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The Sensational Pebble Time Smartwatch: Too Bad About Its Lousy Screen

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

At this particular moment on the timeline of tech, there is exactly one smartwatch that’s waterproof, lasts a week on a charge, and has a color screen.

As an impressive bonus, this watch works with either Apple or Android phones. And this watch always tells the time: Its screen is always on. You don’t have to tap it or twist your wrist.

This smartwatch isn’t made by Apple, Google, Samsung, Sony, or Microsoft. Instead, it’s a Kickstarter success story — a watch whose crowdsourcing campaign raised a staggering $20 million from average folks like us.

It’s the Pebble Time.

Improvements in time

Pebble, the company, reports that it has sold over a million of its earlier models (which I reviewed here). In the new Pebble Time model, there are some big, big changes:

* Thinner body. This watch is 20 percent thinner than the original Pebble watch. It’s now .37 inches thick: thin enough to slip easily under your shirt sleeve, and thin enough to make its rivals look positively porky. It’s thinner than the Apple Watch (.45 inches), Moto 360 (.45), Samsung Gear S (.49), and LG G Watch R (.38).

The Pebble Time is also less expensive than most of those. It’s $200.

* Color screen. Previous Pebble watches had a crisp black-and-white screen. This one shows a rainbow of 64 colors — sort of. More on this shortly.

* A new operating system. As always, the watch has four buttons, arrayed like this:

But now, if you start from the watch face, pressing the Up or Down button moves backward or forward in the Timeline, which is a scrolling list of appointments and notifications. If you scroll up, you see missed calls and texts; if you scroll down, you see upcoming calendar appointments, the weather forecast, reminders, the next sunrise and sunset time, and so on.

Happily, 6,500 existing Pebble apps still run fine in the new OS. (Pebble intends to bring the new OS to older Pebble models in the coming months, too.)

* A quick-release band. No screwdriver or jewelry-store visit required. Just dig your fingernail into this tiny handle and tug it inward to retract the spring-loaded pin to remove the band.

* A choice of colors. Black case and band, black bezel; white case and band, silver bezel; red case and band, black bezel. (The included band is silicone rubber; the bezel is always stainless steel.)

In July, the company plans to offer the Pebble Time Steel. It’s the same watch but with an all stainless-steel case (silver, black, or gold) that’s slightly heavier, thicker, longer-lived (10 days on a charge instead of seven), and more expensive: $300 instead of $200.

* A microphone. If you have an Android phone, the new mic lets you dictate replies to incoming texts and messages from services like Facebook, Gmail, Google Hangouts, and Whatsapp. You can also dictate notes.

If you have an iPhone, the microphone doesn’t do anything for you. (Pebble says it’s working on that.)

* Smartstrap connectors. On the back of the watch, you’ll find four tiny magnetic contacts. That’s where you connect the charger.

But these contacts also accommodate specialized sensors and electronics in a new generation of high-tech watch bands that Pebble invites the world to dream up. “How about a Pebble watch with a battery life of more than a week?” asks Pebble’s Web site. “What about an NFC chip for payments, keyless car remote, or a pollution sensor?”

Instead of “trying to shove every sensor and doohickey into the Pebble Time,” Pebble leaves those opportunities to the marketplace. (Pebble also plans to back some of the best strap ideas with a $1 million fund.)

A few such projects are already in development, like the Aria (clips underneath the watch and permits you to operate its software with hand gestures, one-handed) and the Xadow modular band (can include wireless payment, heart-rate sensor, and GPS modules, for example).

All of this reminds me of the old pop-in expansion modules for Handspring pocket organizers (a rival to PalmPilots) 20 years ago — which never really became a thing.

Smart straps are an appealing idea, but they’ll probably face similar problems of clunkiness and hassle.

What hasn’t changed

Pebble managed to introduce all that good stuff without ruining what made the whole thing attractive in the first place:

* Waterproof. You don’t have to take this watch off to swim, as you must with the models from Apple, Sony, LG, and Samsung. Leave it on in the shower or in the pool. That’s a very big, very hairy deal. Thank you, Pebble!

* Notifications. Like any smartwatch, the Pebble vibrates to get your attention when your phone (which is connected by Bluetooth) gets an incoming message or call. The screen shows you what the message says or who’s calling.

This, of course, is one of the primary functions of a smartwatch: to let you screen your notifications. To glance at your wrist for a first look so that you don’t have to haul out your phone.

You can, thank merciful heaven, control which apps on your phone are allowed to buzz your wrist. The setup is a little awkward on the iPhone, but in essence, whatever notifications appear on your phone also appear on your watch.

For Android, you get more control. You can set up apps that buzz your phone but not your watch, or vice versa. You can also set up canned responses to incoming text messages via your Android phone.

* Quick Launch. Holding down the Up or Down button on the side can serve as a shortcut for two very special apps, which you specify. For example, you might declare a fitness app to open when you hold down the Up button and the Twitter app when you press the Down button.

There’s still no touchscreen or speaker on the Pebble, by the way. You can set alarms and reminders, but they communicate with you with vibrations, not chirps.

The apps

On the Pebble phone app, you can browse thousands of apps that run on the Pebble. The huge majority still appear in black-and-white, because they were designed for earlier Pebbles, but color versions are trickling into existence.

Pebble apps are almost all free. Many of the coolest ones, however, require a companion app on your phone — and that app costs money. (Frustratingly enough, when you’re reading about an app on the phone’s screen, you get no indication of whether or not you’ll have to pay a fee.)

Here’s some big news for long-time Pebblers: On the new watch, you’re no longer limited to installing eight apps. Now you can install all you want.

Just remember that there’s no Home screen on this watch — only a long vertical scrolling list of the apps. Getting to a certain app can take a whole lot of button presses.

The apps, in general, are simple in design and function. Thousands are little more than crude experiments, but a few are worth installing.

For example, the Pebble software does not, on its own, track your steps or your sleep. But both Up and Misfit apps are available for the watch that do just that. I was delighted to discover that the Misfit app automatically records the correct number of hours I slept, without my having to tell it when I was going to bed.

Gentle Wake. This “smart alarm” tries to wake you at the lightest point in your sleep cycle for minimized morning grogginess (yes, even if that means waking you earlier than your scheduled alarm).

Twebble. A free Twitter reader.

Pixel Miner. A colorful version of a popular existing Pebble game.

Watchface Generator lets you design your own watch faces.

There are stripped-down Pebble apps for Evernote, Pandora, Yelp, FourSquare, and PayPal.

And, of course, there are hundreds of different watch faces to choose from. (On the Apple Watch, so far, you only get what Apple gives you.)

Crashing to earth

There’s plenty of room for improvement, even in this third-generation Pebble watch. The Bluetooth setup on an iPhone was an exasperating exercise; after many force-quits and restarts of the phone and the watch, I finally got them to see each other. There’s no language but English right now. Lots of features work better, or only, with Android phones than iPhones. And the Pebble Time doesn’t work at all with BlackBerry or Windows Phone.

But the biggest problem is the screen. I mean, it’s so bad, it’s almost a deal-killer.

The screen technology is called e-paper. It’s a lot like the E-Ink screens on early black-and-white Kindle ebook readers, in that you’re looking at black text against a gray background. But the Pebble Time’s screen differs from the monochrome Kindle’s in two ways. First, it’s not as crisp; second, it can show color. Nothing like photos — its range is only 64 colors, and they’re little more than pale patches.

It’s a reflective screen, meaning that it needs light from the world around you. The pixels don’t actually light up the way they do on a Samsung Gear watch or an Apple Watch (or tablet or laptop).

This Time’s screen looks wonderful in bright sunshine. But in less direct light, like indoors, it looks washed out and dim.

There is a backlight for use in total darkness; it turns on when you turn or shake your wrist. But it’s very faint, and it stays on for only three seconds. You can’t adjust how long it stays on.

To make matters worse, the Time’s graphics look cartoonish, crude, and old. Next to the slick, bright, crisp, colorful, modern screen designs on the smartwatches from the big companies, the new Pebble comes across as a holdover from the LCD watches of yesteryear.

Of course, the Pebble has always used e-paper. That old-school black-and-white vibe was part of its charm — in 2012. But next to today’s big-name smartwatches, this screen looks positively ancient.

Time for the Pebble?

Despite its disappointing screen, the Pebble will make a lot of people very happy. You’ll hear comparisons with fancier gadgets like the Apple Watch, but that’s like comparing apples and pebbles; they’re not really in the same category.

The Pebble isn’t anywhere near as ambitious or capable as Apple or Google smartwatches — on purpose. A scaled-back machine with fewer features is easier to learn and therefore more satisfying to own, as long as it performs them well. In the Pebble Time’s case, that approach also means a lower price and a smaller, lighter, thinner occupant of your wrist.

What the Pebble Time proves, more than anything, is that in 2015 you cannot have a smartwatch with both weeklong battery life and a self-illuminating screen. The Pebble achieves its impressive battery life by relying on a pale, dim, slow screen technology. If you want long battery life and a great screen, come back in five years.


David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.