I was skeptical about smartwatches and wasn't sure whether they are useful enough to offset the annoyance of having yet another expensive device that requires charging. Especially the thought of owning a smartwatch that doesn't even do the watch part well sounded terrible; I don't want to have to press a button first to turn on the screen, or turn my wrist in just the right way so that the sensors pick it up and turn on the screen. Luckily, I found the Pebble Time, a smartwatch that features an always-on e-ink display which solves at least the watch problem. Furthermore, I actually like my Pebble Time more than I thought I would, and I found many of the reasons unexpected. In this post, I'd like to highlight some of these. Some are obvious in hindsight, but maybe there are other people out there who equally don't have a good sense of the usefulness of smartwatches. In essence, this is the article that I would have wanted to read when I was deciding if I should get a smartwatch.
However, this is not a Pebble Time review; and, in fact, many of the reasons (but not all) are not specific to the Pebble Time, but apply to smartwatches in general. There are enough articles that describe its great features like the always-on display and the very long battery life, and that talk about the not-so-great aspects like the low resolution of the display or the lack of a GPS or heart-rate sensors.
Silent and Noticeable Notifications
The Pebble Time allows you to show (some or all) notifications from your smartphone on your watch and allows some interactions with them. For instance, it can show arriving emails and you can archive them, or dismiss the notification. The built-in microphone even allows you to respond, though to me that seems more of a gimmick1. Having some of the notifications from your phone on your wrist is great, but I find another aspect even better. But let's first look at why notifications on phones are annoying:
Smartphones are surprisingly bad at notifying the user about incoming emails, texts, calls or other things; they either are too loud, or not noticeable enough. We can choose to use a ringtone and risk having the phone go off at inconvenient times like during a meeting or a presentation. Alternatively we can turn the phone silent, and miss possibly important notifications. Neither is great, and even the vibrate-only option doesn't work well; it's still common to miss notifications, even if the phone is carried on person, and yet the vibration can be clearly audible depending on the background noise level and the exact position of the phone (if it touches, say, a chair through my pocket in just the right way, the vibration is seemingly louder than even a ringtone?!).
With smartwatches like the Pebble Time, notifications are finally silent and noticeable. Because the watch touches the skin directly, the vibration can be soft yet clearly noticeable to the user (and only the user, as opposed to other people in close proximity). No more missed notifications and no more embarrassing moments when notifications are heard by others at inappropriate times.
Another source of missed notifications used to be when I'm close to my phone, but not actually carry it on me. Maybe I'm in my office and the phone sits on the desk, or I'm at home cooking dinner, and the phone is in my room charging. With the Pebble Time, I have the freedom to move around without my phone and not miss notifications.
Never Forget Your Phone
Like most smartwatches, the Pebble Time is connected to your phone via Bluetooth. If that connection is lost, then the watch can notify you by vibrating and showing a short notification on the display. This turns your watch into a great ally to prevent forgetting your phone: If you ever accidentally leave your phone behind, the watch will remind you as soon as you step outside the Bluetooth range, which is typically around 10 meters.
Fitness and Sleep Tracking on your Terms
Fitness trackers like the devices from FitBit are getting a lot of attention lately, and thanks to the accelerometer the Pebble Time can track your steps, too. It's nice to be able to collect information like this and also fully be in control of where that data is stored and with whom it is shared. Unlike FitBit, which stores all the information on their servers, you can choose a fitness tracking app and therefore decide what happens with your data. The same applies for tracking your sleep; you pick the app, and you own the data.
The vibration function of the Pebble Time can also be used as a silent alarm clock. This is convenient if you need to get up before somebody sleeping in the same room, but I'm now using it even if I'm by myself. I like waking up to a gentle vibration on the wrist rather than a blaring alarm clock.
Most smartwatches are water resistant2. For instance, the Apple Watch or the Moto 360 are rated as water resistant according to the IPX7 standard, which should allow these devices to stay submerged for 30 minutes at up to 1m in fresh water. However, this essentially only protects the device from light splashes and the like. In fact Apple specifically tells users to avoid submerging the watch for long times, swimming and showering. In particular showering is a bad idea, because the water hits the watch at a velocity that IPX7 is not meant to protect from. The Pebble Time on the other hand is rated as water resistant at up to 30m (according to ISO 22810), and can be worn while showering or swimming. This turns out to be super convenient, as I can keep the watch on for essentially everything I do. I wouldn't take it diving, but that's not something I do daily.
One thing that smartphones are good at is getting the correct local time from the network automatically, no matter what timezone you are in. Since smartwatches connect to the phone, your watch will also always show the correct local time, just as it should. This is in contrast to most regular wrist watches.
Programmable in C
Pebble watches are programmable in C3, and this may not excite most people, but I found it quite fun to play with. There is something exciting about programming an embedded device with restricted resources in a low-level programming language like C, and even non-experts can write a useful app. I wrote an analog watch face that I now use daily. You can find out more about it here.
For me, there is no single killer application (though the silent yet noticeable notifications come close), but rather it's the combination of all the small nice features that makes the Pebble Time smartwatch great.
Answering via voice works but feels slow and cumbersome. Also, due to the device size, the only way to fix an error in the voice recognition is to repeat the whole message. ↩
Note that no watch is water-proof. If you submerge any watch deep enough, it will stop working. The proper term is water resistance, in addition to a measure of how resistant it is (e.g., how deep it can be submerged, or for how long). ↩