Pebble was a Kickstarter darling that started the smartwatch craze. Pebble’s low-power LCD (‘epaper’) display, weeklong battery life, and ability to work just as well with an Android phone as an iPhone attracted legions of fans.
However, the small startup faces a market drastically different from the one it helped to pioneer. These days, it faces the Apple Watch, Samsung’s Gear smartwatches, and a veritable ecosystem of Android Wear devices.
That’s not to imply Pebble has stumbled too hard. It still has its fanbase, an app store with thousands of apps, and a number of smartwatches on sale, including Pebble Time Steel, Pebble Time Round, and more.
But it isn’t 2014 anymore, and the competition is not slowing down: analysts at Kantar Worldpanel estimate that this past fiscal quarter, Apple Watch commanded 33.5 percent of the U.S. smartwatch market.
It’s formidable competition for the Pebble 2, a smartwatch that promises to track your sleep, steps, and heart rate; let you respond to messages and record notes via voice; and deliver up to a week of battery life.
Unfortunately, the Pebble 2 only accomplishes a few of its goals.
A clunky, dated design
The Pebble 2’s design is definitely geeky and futuristic. It has big bezels and the small 1.26-inch, 144 x 168-pixel screen is super dim. Women and fashion-forward people need not apply. It’s a clunky, dated design that only true Pebble fans could possibly love.
There’s a lot of plastic on the Pebble 2 — the watch’s entire body is constructed of it, in fact. It’s not going to feel premium like a Huawei Watch or an Apple Watch, but that is not the point. This is a basic, techy smartwatch that offers geek cred in place of style.
It feels smooth, firm, sturdy, and durable. It’s exceptionally light and thin at 31.7 grams and just 9.8mm thick. The Apple Watch Series 2, for the sake of comparison, has a depth of 11.4mm.
It’s not an all-plastic affair. Shielding the Pebble 2’s E Ink display is a scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 covering that’ll easily withstand the occasional bump against a stairway railing and knock against a table edge. On its underbelly, you’ll find the Pebble 2’s heart rate sensor — a first on a Pebble smartwatch — and two metal contacts that connect to the Pebble 2’s charging cord.
On either side are the watch’s hardware buttons. On one end, you’ll find the power button, and on the opposite end are two buttons that serve the dual purpose of navigating the interface and adjusting volume. A center button, meanwhile, acts as a “select” button, and on the top and bottom are 22mm lugs that’ll fit any compatible wristband with quick release mechanisms.
The Pebble 2’s design is old school. Pebble devices in years past have received a fair share of criticism for designs that make them feel like they’re built for kids. This Pebble is no different, but it’s subtler and quieter. It looks less conspicuous than its predecessor and that’s a good thing.
But those refinements don’t come without sacrifice. The Pebble 2 is not as water-resistant as the model before it — it can withstand pressure at depths of 30 meters versus the old model’s 50 meters. The Pebble 2’s display and processor also have not been upgraded: they’re the same 1.26-inch, 144 x 168 pixel always-on display and ARM Cortex M4 present on the Pebble and Pebble Time, respectively.
The interface has improved
On the whole, navigation on the Pebble 2 is relatively intuitive. The Pebble 2 ships running the company’s latest firmware, version 4.0, which launched in last August of this year. The company calls it the “Timeline” and it’s much better than earlier versions of Timeline we tried. It’s an ongoing, chronological stream of notifications, news, reminders, and events laid out like a menu and loaded as needed.
The Pebble 2’s heart rate tracking is wildly inaccurate.
Apps that you frequently access can be designated as “favorites” and doing so pins them to the timeline for easy access.
You can scroll up to three days ahead in the timeline. A relatively new feature called Quick Views presents you with upcoming calendar appointments and notifications at a glance. When one appears, pressing the “down” button opens additional information for perusal.
It doesn’t take long to get a handle on the software. You move through the list of running timeline entries with the side keys, tapping until you’ve reached an entry about which you’d like to learn more. Then, you press the “select” key to populate the screen with additional information. Selecting a timeline notification about the weather, for instance, opens a screen with the time of day, current temperature, location, and a succinct forecast. Hitting select a second time in any app summons a settings menu with options to remove the app from your timeline or “mute” its future notifications.
Notifications from a paired phone also hit the Pebble just like they do on the Apple Watch or Android Wear. When you get a Facebook Message or Instagram update, your wrist will buzz accordingly. Some of those notifications are actionable. Play a song on your iPhone or Android and you’ll be able to start, pause, or skip through tracks from the Pebble 2, or change the volume. Incoming calls also show a number and caller ID, and can be answered, silenced, or dismissed.
As the Pebble development team points out on the wearable’s support webpage, Pebble is the only non-Apple wearable that can send replies to received iOS messages. It recently gained the ability to reply to emails, too. It’s a seamless process: hitting the “select” button when a message arrives pulls up a list of options — Delete, Archive, Mark as Read, Reply All, and Star — which work just the same as they do on the Apple Watch. You can reply to a message using voice dictation, or send a canned response.
The Apple Watch still offers more options, like emoji, scribbles, and digital touches, but it’s nice that Pebble added canned responses to its software.
Perhaps the best thing about the Pebble 2’s timeline is the degree to which it can be customized. On the Pebble 2 itself, you can change the text size of notifications and the strength of vibrations. From the companion app, you can toggle the notification settings of individual apps like Hangouts, Instagram, Messages, Slack, and almost any other app that taps into the notification framework of iOS or Android. Each can be muted permanently or periodically — only on weekdays, for example, or weekends.
The companion app is also where you can reorder apps in the Pebble 2’s timeline, access settings menus, and choose watch faces.
When it comes to watch faces, you have tons of options. You can edit watch faces in the companion app, too. Watch faces range from cute playful ones to everything from nationalism and mathematics to sports and brainteasers.
New apps are also downloaded on your phone through the companion app. The Pebble 2 boasts thousands of apps to choose from, and that’s no exaggeration. There’s a mood tracker that measures your demeanor by asking you questions over a week; travel app that show you flight alerts, reservations, and weather ahead of and during a trip; and business directories that present nearby restaurants, bars, and other attractions for your consideration.
There is also a surprisingly robust selection of games including Fitcat, an app that rewards physical activity with currency to spend on an adorable feline, and Pixel Minder, a Dig Dug-inspired title that tasks you with digging for rare minerals. Popular apps like Uber, Evernote, PayPal, RunKeeper, GoPro, Misfit, and Dominos are also available.
As with previous Pebble devices, each storefront page contains a description of the app, the date it was last updated, and links to the creator’s previous work and contact information. Installing an app is as simple as tapping the “add” button in the upper right-hand corner, and a heart icon lets you mark your favorites.
More isn’t always better, though, and many of Pebble’s apps feel like siloed experiences. They can’t easily tap companion apps on a paired smartphone, access weather data, or sync certain data in real time.
Somewhat surprisingly, Pebble doesn’t offer a voice assistant to make the most of its built-in microphone, either. In an age of smartwatches with voice-powered assistants like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s an odd omission.
Apps and watchfaces are only one component of the timeline, though. The rest is dominated by typical activity tracking for your steps, sleep, and heart rate. All of these metrics are tracked in Pebble Health, a built-in service that Pebble developed in collaboration with Stanford University.
When you set up the Pebble, you can select your weight, sex, height, and birth date as well as specify goals like “I want to be more active” and “I want to sleep more.” The app lets you choose whether or not you’d like your data fed to third-party services like Google Fit or Apple Health.
From that point on, almost everything is automatic. There’s a Workout app that collates heart rate data, distance, pace and steps in a single screen, but otherwise, sleep, activity, and fitness tracking happen in the background.
Pebble simply cannot compete with modern smartwatches.
Sleep tracking is by far the most impressive — and consistent — of the three. Lay motionless for a while and the Pebble will automatically detect that you’ve gone to bed, after which it’ll begin recording distinct periods of restfulness: sleep, deep sleep, and the times when you fall asleep and wake up.
On the watch, that information is shown as a succinct summary: the start time and end time of your last sleep session; the length of your last “deep sleep” period; and the number of collective days you’ve gotten a good night’s rest. Sleep is broken down by individual days, too, up to a week proceeding, and each overview includes a timeline indicating how frequently you’ve entered deep sleep.
The Pebble 2’s step tracker is much the same. The metrics are different, but the interface is identical. You see an overview of calories you’ve expended, the distance you’ve traveled in miles, a 30-day average, and a day-by-day overview of calorie burn you’ve burned throughout the past week. Heart tracking lacks an expanded view altogether: an animated heart icon above indicates your current heart rate in beats per minute.
The companion Pebble app provides a much more detailed overview. The dedicated “Health” tab splits biometrics into three graphs: Activity, Heart Rate, and Sleep. The green Activity graph provides a nifty visualization of the calories you’ve burned over the course of a day, week, and month, indicating physically intense activities in a darker shade of green and lighter activities in a light shade.
The Heart Rate graph plots chronological changes in BPM. And the Sleep app indicates both the total number of hours you’ve spent — on a daily, monthly, or weekly basis — sleeping (in light blue), in deep sleep (dark blue), or napping.
Heart rate and fitness tracking don’t … work
The Pebble 2’s heart rate tracking, unfortunately, is wildly inaccurate. It fluctuates between sky-high readings (180 beats per minute) one minute and impossibly low ones (50 beats per minute) the next. It didn’t seem to much matter whether readings were taken during, before, or after exercise, or even during periods of inactivity, and adjusting the tightness of the band didn’t appear to improve readings.
This is a basic, techy smartwatch that offers geek cred in place of style.
That’s a huge problem. The heart rate monitor is supposed to be a big selling point. It should be accurate and help improve calorie burn and exercise metrics, too. An inaccurate heart rate monitor is useless, and you might as well buy the slightly better looking Pebble Time without a heart rate tracker for $30 less at $100. The Pebble 2 + HR starts at $130, and that’s a lot to pay for an otherwise base-level Pebble watch with a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work.
Poor heart rate monitoring isn’t the Pebble 2’s only fitness fumble. It doesn’t keep track of workout data: once a month’s time has elapsed, the previous days’ and weeks’ data is lost forever. The Pebble team said it plans to address that limitation in a November software update, but right now, it makes discerning trends and insights an obvious challenge.
The Pebble 2 is zippy, for the most part. Apps launch largely without delay, the timeline’s animations are consistently smooth, and notifications frequently arrive on the Pebble and your phone simultaneously.
Perhaps more impressive than the Pebble 2’s performance is the longevity of its battery. The Pebble team quotes seven days on a single charge, and our unit seemed on track to best that estimation. Even with sleep and activity tracking features enabled, our Pebble 2’s battery percentage meter dipped no more than a few percentage points each day.Our Take
If you want a smart, stylish, and handsome watch that’ll complement your bespoke suit, the Pebble 2 isn’t the smartwatch for you. If you want a wearable that tightly integrates with services from the likes of Google and Apple, the Pebble 2 is not for you. If you want an accurate heart rate monitor and activity tracker that’ll provide substantive fitness insights, the Pebble 2 definitely is not the smartwatch for you.
What are the alternatives?
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There are better alternatives at the Pebble 2’s price point. Sony’s $130 SmartWatch 3, a Android Wear-based watch with built-in GPS, a full-color screen, and a two-day battery life, is worth considering.
If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, money is no object, and you own an iPhone, we highly recommend you consider the Apple Watch. It’s $150 more and offers built-in fitness tracking, a bright screen, and a classy-but-functional aesthetic. If Android Wear is more your style, the Huawei Watch is one of the best options out there.
If you’re strictly in wearables for the fitness features, you might entertain the $130 Fitbit Alta, a tracker that lacks apps and games but delivers one of the best activity-tracking experiences in its class. For $40 more, you can get the $180 Samsung Gear Fit 2 with a heart rate monitor, GPS, and several smartwatch features.
Pebble simply cannot compete with modern smartwatches.
How long will it last?
The Pebble 2 is already out of date. Its black and white screen, old design, and poor heart rate sensor make it a bad buy when there are much more capable devices available for the same price or a bit more.
Pebble is also likely to sell new smartwatches soon, and its other offerings, including the Time Steel, are more stylish and worth your consideration if you’re dead set on a Pebble.
Should you buy it?
No. The Pebble 2 fails on several key points: It is a horrible fitness tracker, its apps generally are not as capable as those on the Apple Watch and Android Wear, and its hardware falls behind on too many levels.