Will Richardson

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Smartwatch!?

January 25, 2015Will Richardson

First to enter the foray of consumer-friendly wearable computing, the Pebble is the product of a highly successful Kickstarter project, raising over 100 times its goal. You know that though. What you don’t know, is how it works in the real world and whether it can replace your (probably empty) wrist.

What it does

Once you’ve got your pebble paired with your phone it will display one of the three default watchfaces (a word clock, a basic ‘analogue’ watch and a tacky-looking digital one). The Android app now has the option right out of the box to show notifications from your calls, texts, calendar, email & any other 3rd party apps. This works best with android 4.3+ so it can use the official notification API.

One slight hiccup with the notifications is that if you use an app like Hangouts for SMS, and have both SMS notifications enabled and Hangouts notifications enabled then you’ll end up getting double notifications (one set from Hangouts and one set from Pebble’s SMS setting). This can be fixed by disabling SMS notifications and simply using the notifications from hangouts as your SMS notifications. This isn’t difficult to do, but there are plenty of times where this can happen: I use Today Calendar, Mailbox & Hangouts so Calendar notifications, emails and SMS notifications have to be turned off or I get double-ups. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but not something your average user would do (More on that later).

The apps it comes with out of the box are fairly sparse: Alarms, Music, Notifications, Watchfaces & Settings. Alarms is a fairly basic setup: create/ edit alarms, change the snooze time. Notifications lets you see a stream of dismissed notifications. Watchfaces & Settings let you do some basic configuration of the device, including set up shortcuts to apps when you press and hold either the up or down button from the ‘homescreen’ (your current watchface). These are pretty useful: especially when you set one to open the music app.

The music app is almost worth buying the Pebble for. Yup, I did just say that: Neither of my headphones have play/ pause buttons on the cord, and so it is really neat to listen to a podcast and quickly pause it to talk to someone. Or change the volume. Or skip a section. I can even just plug my headphones in to my phone, press play on the Pebble and be listening to a podcast without even getting my phone out of my pocket.

This does come with a drawback of the native music app; it ties the controls to a single app (In my case I have it linked to Pocketcasts) which allows it to open the app if it is not already, and then start playing music. If you have Pocketcasts set as the app to control, and you’re listening to music on Spotify and you try to skip a track, the Pebble will send the command to Pocketcasts not Spotify. There are apps (MusicBoss) that you can use to improve the behaviour and make the pebble. I listen to podcasts most of the time so I just leave it on Pocketcasts and I’m happy.

Pebble 2.0: What I’d like to see

With the introduction of the Apple Watch and more Android Wear devices next year, Pebble will have to step up their smartwatch game to remain relevant. With no input method the Pebble remains to be a status display with hotkeys for your phone.

What I don’t think Pebble will do:

Each one of these would bring the Pebble to a playing field where it is directly comparable to other smartwatches, which isn’t where Pebble will want to be: they need to separate themselves, and the easiest way to do this is to tout their far superior battery life (10 days guys! 10 days!) and “no-fuss” attitude.

However no voice input will be a dealbreaker for the massive smartwatch market (Still not convinced on this wearable business) as many people will just see that one can and the other can’t and put their money where the features are. What Pebble could do is build in a bluetooth headset into the watch (Think Motorola Hint) so that the heavy lifting of voice recognition is done by the phone, not the watch. If they pulled it back even further and made it push-to-talk the battery life could possibly still stay at a ‘Pebble acceptable’ time.

‘Always on’ voice recognition driven by the phone could be a marketing nightmare because it would depend fully on the chipset in the phone that it is paired with - ie no iPhones and only a couple of Android phones (Motorola is the only company that seems to be doing this well as far as I can remember) - meaning that the general public won’t be seeing the features they’d hoped for.

Should your mum get one?

Unless your mum is a massive nerd, then no. The pebble still has some weird connectivity issues that can’t be solved by simply pressing a ‘reconnect’ button - every few days it gets sad and disconnects itself so thoroughly I have to go into the bluetooth settings on the watch, remove my phone from the list of known devices and then try and reconnect. That sometimes works.

All in all I don’t see watches ever taking over your computing experience like phones took over from laptops and desktops. There will only be a place for them on the wrists of the fanboys and geeks.

(I do look forward to hearing about the latest watch benchmarks..)


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