From Geek To Chic: The Pebble Steel Review

Aston

After years of seeing ‘sporty looking’ wearable tech products like the Nike Fuelband, Fitbit, Jawbone Up, the Sony Smartwatch, Galaxy Gear and even the original Pebble… I was desperately hoping that the Kickstarted kids at Pebble had finally cracked the tech vs fashion issue. And I think they have. Mostly.

Almost three months to the day since I ordered it, I finally got the DHL text message I’d been waiting for … and a short time later that morning an unassuming brown cardboard box arrived on my desk. Pebble’s second attempt at designing a Bluetooth smartwatch, and my second crack at entering the brave new world of wearable technology … enter the Pebble Steel.

Now I haven’t always been overly concerned about fashion and appearance. I grew up on acreage where the only souls around to pass judgement on my fashion sense were my parents, the dog, the kid next door, and a swag of cows in the paddock behind us. It wasn’t really until I met my highschool sweetheart (and now wife) that things started to turn around a bit.

Despite being quite content with my choice in clothing and shoes, it became apparent over the first few years of dating that Renée wasn’t overly impressed by my combination of jeans, Snoopy (Peanuts) T-shirts, white high-top Lynx sneakers, and a black rubber banded Lorus digital watch with fancy orange plastic buttons.

In the many years since then she’s gradually got me into more classy collared shirts, tailored pants, and funky casual dinner jackets. Brand names like Ben Sherman, R M Williams and Georg Roth now call my wardrobe home. The problem with all this is, although I embrace and delight in the way Renée has styled me, this new found style is often at odds with my inner-geek and the types of products I like to play around and tinker with. This is fine most of the time. If I buy a new audio mixer or home theatre system, this has no bearing whatsoever on my physical appearance. Wearable technology on the hand, does.

The Original Pebble dilemma

So around late November last year—despite the general lack of approval from my style queen, with her final comments via email being ‘Get one if you really want to nerdling!’—my craving for one of the record-breaking Kickstarter watches finally got the better of me. And straight away I was hooked with how it worked: the battery life, the screen that stayed on all day like a watch should, the changeable watchfaces, the apps … everything about it tickled my geeky fancy. After only a few days of wearing it, I couldn’t imagine living life without it going forward.

OldVsNew

The only issue I had with it was the physical design of it. After years of having the 1980’s beaten out of me, I just couldn’t get over the fact it was a little bit too plasticy for my taste, the rubber band looked a bit plain and nerdy … and overall it just looked too big sitting on my arm. Just before Christmas I got a leather Fossil band for it, which helped quite a bit. The size of the band helped to disguise the size of the watch, while the mix of leather, stainless steel and the polycarbonate of the Pebble all worked quite well together. And this was fine on weekends when I had a polo or T-shirt on. But come weekdays at work, or nighttime when we were heading out to dinner, the plastic Pebble just didn’t quite fit in. Not only wouldn’t it fit under the cuff of a long sleeve shirt properly (with the added thickness of the Fossil band) but the black just didn’t suit most business or dinner outfits—particularly when wearing tan pants, brown shoes and a brown belt!

“After a week of deliberating and punching kittens in the face, I put my pre-order in…”

Then, not much more than a month after I’d bought the original, the lads at Pebble announced at the 2014 CES that they had something new. Fearing the worst, I tweeted:

… to which Pebble replied:

So even though I was a little pissed that I’d only just bought an original, as soon as I saw the Steel, it instantly connected with me as the watch I’d ACTUALLY been waiting for: all the Bluetooth tech of the Pebble in a stainless steel casing not dissimilar to the Tissot watch I’d stopped wearing to work only a month or two before. After a week of deliberating and punching kittens in the face, I put my pre-order in … and three months later it finally arrived.

Bluetooth’s getting trendier

As soon as I opened the initial brown box, immediately the presentation far exceeded the cheaper, tear-apart cardboard box that the original had arrived in. Here was a nicely textured black box with ‘pebble’ debossed onto the top. The experience was more like opening a product from Apple, or even indeed a watchmaker like Tissot. Inside the box was fuzzy white surfaces, the watch, flaps that pivoted and opened up to reveal tiny user manuals, the charge cable, and the included metal watchband. The Pebble Steel itself was charged and came fitted with the leather wristband. A quick whip-off of the protective cover and a press of the middle button, and the Steel sprung into life and was paired with and responding to my iPhone within a matter of minutes.

BoxOpening

Straight away I knew I’d made the right choice (for me personally) in making the upgrade. By the time I got home that night, I was already itching to fit the stainless steel band, as this was the look and feel of the watch I’d given up to try the first Pebble. Rather than go to a jeweller, someone on Twitter suggested that I look up changing the band on YouTube and do it myself. So I did.

ChangingTheBand

Using a tiny flat blade screwdriver, I managed to undo the leather band from the watch, remove several links from the stainless band, and fit the new band to the watch. Then I put it on, and headed out on the town with some old work buddies. I’m not sure if it was the way it looked, the fact that it was so comfortable to wear, or that I’d simply waited so damn long for that moment, but it felt great! I felt like I’d got my style mojo back!

So to the design. It’s still chunky, and even with the steel band fitted, it still looks a little like someone’s taken a normal watchband and tacked it onto a small metallic box. It just doesn’t look as refined and stylish as the Tissot I’ve got for instance. Having said that, considering that the Pebble is (at this early stage of product life) a little metal box, I think they’ve done a pretty good job at designing and spunking it up to look like a stylish wearable item.

WatchSides

The surfaces and finishes are nice too. The brushed stainless has a subtle texture to it, but is still smooth and shiny. This is off-set by small details that are polished smooth to a chrome finish, such as the bezel surrounding the glass face and the button on the metal clasp. The buttons are nice to touch, and have a much higher tactile quality to them over the original Pebble.

The glass screen is flat, and seems to stay cleaner and more fingerprint-free than its plastic cousin … and although it’s got the exact same screen in it, it seems crisper and clearer to look at—which may simply be that glass has better light transmission allowing greater clarity when viewing.

“The experience was more like opening a product from Apple”

It’s heavier than the original Pebble, yet it doesn’t feel at all heavy when it’s on the wrist. In fact I don’t notice for much of the day that I’ve got it on (except for when it vibrates of course!). The Pebble Steel with the stainless steel watchband fitted weighs 88 grams. This is a little bit heavier than my unusually light titanium Tissot watch which is 55 grams, but is quite comparable to my older stainless steel Citizen watch I’ve still got that weighs in at 82 grams (my original Pebble with the leather Fossil band is exactly 50 grams).

PebbleBack

Comparing size to the original, it’s much the same thickness, but the overall size when you’re looking down at the face is much smaller in appearance (obviously in this case the Fossil band adds a lot of bulk, but to my eye this makes it look more balanced than when it’s fitted with the original rubber band).

Another nice touch with the Steel is the addition of a coloured LED. This glows orange while charging and changes to green once it’s done. I believe in the future, Pebble app developers will have the ability to trigger this LED (which is in fact a tricolour) for functions such as notifications or alerts.

Living with a Pebble

The comment or question I get most when people ask about having a Bluetooth watch is: ‘doesn’t it get annoying having it buzzing and bugging you all day?’ And the answer is, if you’re the type of person that has all your notifications switched off on your phone, then yes, this may bug you somewhat. However if you’re like me, and you’re highly connected in both your professional and personal life, then I’ve found the Pebble to improve my quality of life considerably.

For me, I need to know when emails arrive, when stuff happens on my whole swag of social media pages and accounts, plus when I’m getting messages or phone calls throughout the day. Previously if my iPhone beeped or buzzed, I’d have to reach for it, pick it up, open the case, hit the home or power button, and see what the message was. Or in the case of emails I’d actually have to unlock the phone and go into the email app. Often I’d do all this only to find that the message or email wasn’t important, or relevant for action at that particular time.

Golf

With the Pebble—and now with the Pebble Steel—the ease of just being able to quickly glance down, take a quick mental note of what the message or notification is, and then return to whatever I was doing with almost no interruption, has been truly wonderful. As I said before, this won’t suit everyone, but for me personally it works a treat. It also has other benefits such as being able to see my wife’s text message about picking up a few groceries on the way home, without engaging in the VERY dangerous practice of driving while looking at my phone.

There are other benefits too. Such as the time is always accurate and current with what ever timezone you happen to be in (as long as your phone adjusts itself), as is the date … and in the case of the ‘Maurice’ watch face I’m using at the moment, it also shows an icon of the current weather forecast and the current outside temperature.

“I’ve found the Pebble to improve my quality of life considerably.”

I could likely write another whole article on apps for the Pebble, but in reality day-to-day I really only use it as a watch with the built-in notifications. Apart from using the built-in functionality (including changing music tracks on the iPhone), I’ve got another watch face and a separate app that simply show the current month (and future months) in a calendar layout—which is handy when in meetings and working out how many weeks until something is due, etc. I also use the Evernote app, mainly for displaying shopping lists to take with me to do groceries, negating the need to have my phone out or carry around a scrap bit of paper with the list on it. And finally the app I use at least twice a day every day is the timer app. Set to exactly four minutes, it makes sure the coffee in my French Press comes out exactly right every time! What more bang-for-buck could a coffee loving nerd like me possibly want!?

ChargeAndWatchfaces

I’m keen to try one of the several golf apps available for the iPhone which integrate with the Pebble. Basically using the phone’s GPS and golf course mapping to show how far you are from the next hole on the Pebble’s screen. It apparently also can help you to keep score. Unfortunately since owning either Pebble I haven’t found the time to disgrace myself in public with a golf club, but I look forward to the day that I do!

And as if all that wasn’t enough, it’s nice to still be connected but without having to have my iPhone in my pocket all day frying the bejesus out of my future children! Enough said on THAT issue.

Are there any problems? If you find the thought of charging yet another device in your life a hassle, then maybe a smart watch isn’t for you. I find I get most of the way through a working week without needing to charge it. The screen is quite low resolution compared to the Macs and iPhones that I’m used to looking out these days, but I’m sure that will improve in future models. It’s not a deal breaker either, as there’s plenty of pixels available to do its job very well.

The only other issue I’ve had is most of the third party apps. I’ve tried GPS apps, the Yelp app, forecast apps, calendar appointment apps, apps that activate the camera on your iPhone … all of them work quite well, initially. Then after a few hours you go back into the Pebble’s menu and select one of the said apps, and nine times out of ten, it won’t connect to the phone. I’m not sure if this is a Pebble OS issue or if the apps just aren’t very well designed, but they fail that much that I NEVER use any of them any more. And that’s a shame. Hopefully some future firmware and software updates will help to get this issue resolved.

The tech vs fashion verdict

Well to answer this fully, only time will tell (quick, someone hit the pun gong!). Once I’ve worn it out ‘in the wild’ for a few months, I’ll have a better idea on whether people like it, hate it, are indifferent, or even notice it at all! Unlike the original Pebble which is quite distinctive and different, the Steel tends to look much like a ‘normal’ watch, and therefore less likely to draw attention to itself.

TwoPebbleSteels

People have often been intrigued by my original Pebble, especially if they notice something change on the screen like a notification, and start asking a few questions. I’ve only ever had one official comment on the original one, which was a young lady working the counter at the local coffee shop. I was paying for my coffee and she simply said, ‘cool watch’. To which I replied, ‘thanks, it’s Bluetooth’, at which point her eyes glazed over and I realised I’d ruined a nice compliment about fashion with a statement about something geeky.

The style queen’s (Renée’s) opinion on it is fairly neutral: she doesn’t love or hate it. She thinks it just goes nicely with my business and going out shirts, and anything beyond that is when she starts to lose interest in the subject. Compare this to the original where she thought I looked pretty nerdy at first, but once the Fossil band was installed, she said it looked kind of funky and futuristic. For now, this is a battle I’m probably destined not to win.

iPhone

Ultimately however, as with everything in fashion, the main consideration is how does the said item make me feel when I’m wearing it. And thus far, it feels great and I reckon it looks pretty good when paired with the types of outfits I normally wear. So in this respect, the Pebble Steel has hit the mark.

I’m 100% sure that we’re going to see many, many more amazing wearable devices in the next few years, some of which will become iconic in their design, functionality and style. Until then, I think the team at Pebble have done a marvelous job with the Steel, and that the illusive tech vs fashion issue has finally been mashed together into a highly useful and very stylish wearable device.

Reckoner had its humble beginnings way back in June of 2013.

Founded by James Croft, along with Peter Wells and Anthony Agius they created what would go on to become one of Australia’s most highly regarded and award winning independent tech blogs.

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