/ Brian Easton / 7 am Tue, May 7 2013
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  • Review: Pebble e-paper watch

    Review: Pebble e-paper watch

    69k backers. $10m in the can. But now that the Pebble E-paper watch is showing up on our wrists, was it worth it? Brian Easton is unsure.

    With 68,929 backers pledging more than $10m, the Pebble E-paper watch is the highest-grossing Kickstarter project to date. The pitch, to fund an Android- and iOS-compatible smartwatch, was so successful that the campaign had to be cut short. With a 144 x 168 e-paper display, vibrating motor, 3-axis accelerometer and Bluetooth connectivity, the Pebble promises to let you use your smartphone without it ever leaving your pocket.

    Style-wise, the Pebble isn’t going to turn many heads, but it isn’t an eyesore. Sleek but chunky, the rectangular looks are vaguely reminiscent of Casio calculator watch, albeit one from a minimalist future. The comparison is appropriate, since both products are trying to return the wristwatch from fashion-accessory purgatory to a place of utility. If you desire something a little more stylish, the default rubber strap can be replaced with a standard 22mm watch band.

    Not to be confused with e-ink, the Pebble’s e-paper display is actually a low-power memory LCD. The high contrast screen is readable, even in direct sunlight, but unlike e-ink it has a 30 fps refresh rate. This quick refresh rate allows for smooth animations in menus and watch faces. The drawback is that continually refreshing the screen drains power fast. Watch faces that feature moving second hands severely impact battery life.

    If you don't use a heavily animated watch face, the battery life of the Pebble is quite good; in the month I've owned it, I've averaged at least seven days between charges. However, there have been reports of significantly reduced battery life in Pebbles paired with iOS devices.

    The iOS/Android dichotomy carries over into smartphone connectivity, which is presumably the main draw of the product. Aside from being a watch with fancy customizable faces, the Pebble functions as a second screen for your smartphone by connecting to the Pebble application on your iPhone or Android device via Bluetooth. Out of the box, with just the official Pebble app, the iOS version comes out ahead, as it allows you to forward all system-wide notifications to your wrist. The Android app only supports a handful of default applications. Unfortunately for Apple users, this is where the advantages end.

    When the Pebble disconnects from an iPhone, you have to go back into the app and re-toggle all of your notification preferences. On Android, third party apps like Pebble Notifier allow you to send notifications from any application to your Pebble. These restrictions are more the result of restrictions Apple has placed on apps and Bluetooth devices than issues with the Pebble itself—jailbreaking your iPhone can offer greater functionality.

    Notifications received on the Pebble are simple, if not elegant. The watch gently buzzes on your wrist, a continuing pulse for phone calls and a single buzz for other notifications. Text messages display the name or number of the sender followed by the message, emails are similar in showing the sender and email subject before a snippet of the message. Both of these options allow you to use the top and bottom buttons to scroll through content. With voice calls the name and number of the caller is shown along with the option to outright reject the call with the bottom button. If you do happen to answer a call it will display the call length.

    It’s with this kind of functionality that Pebble shines. It serves as a sort of message and notification triage, allowing you to keep your phone in your pocket unless it’s absolutely necessary. The functionality of Pebble serves to augment the functions of your smartphone rather than replace them. The only bi-directional application is the music app using AVRCP.

    If you're looking to send messages from a Dick Tracy watch, look elsewhere: that functionality isn’t in the Pebble, at least not yet.

    “Not yet” is common phrase when dealing with the Pebble, a 1.0 product with incomplete features. Promised golf range finder functionality has only recently been released, and RunKeeper support only exists in beta software. The full API, promised before launch, isn’t available yet either. Still, if the enthusiasm evident with just the proof of concept watch face API is any indication, many eager developers are waiting to expand functionality.

    The result is a lot of ifs. If you have an Android smartphone (or don’t mind the iOS limitations), if you want a supplementary screen for your phone, if you are willing to wait for expanded functionality, and if you are interested in tinkering and general mucking about, then the current Pebble might be for you. If you don’t care to deal with slowly emerging functionality or tinkering, wait for the next iteration or until the watch ecosystem sorts itself out. For now, the Pebble delivers on its premise, but it doesn’t deliver very much. It's an impressive piece of hardware—the software just needs to catch up.

    Pebble E-Paper Watch [Amazon]

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