60 Days With a Gray Pebble

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About two months ago, I received a very exciting email. “Your Pebble has shipped!” it proclaimed, and on June 10, my gray Pebble finally arrived after months of waiting. Unboxing videos are all well and good, but this week marks 60 days since the Pebble first hit my wrist. It’s no longer a new thing, and instead just a thing, and so I thought this would be a good time to share my thoughts about the device.

The Wait

According to my Kickstarter backer history, I backed Pebble on April 13, 2012, which was only the third day of the funding campaign. Obviously I was excited about it, because it would have been even earlier if I hadn’t delayed to ask my wife if it was OK with her. We decided it could be my birthday present from her for 2012. My birthday is in August and at the time, Pebble was anticipating shipping that fall. (I admit to being notoriously difficult to shop for. These “birthday present deals” are fairly common in our house.)

It took 424 days after I backed Pebble for it to land on my wrist. Despite a lot of the angst on the Pebble forums, this didn’t really bother me that much. I understood that I was backing a company, not directly purchasing a product. Being a software developer, I also understand how increasing the size of a project (in this case, the number of Pebbles that had to be produced) can lead to more than a linear increase in time.

What did annoy me was that they said in the beginning that they would ship in backer order, which would would have served me pretty well, having backed the project on its 3rd day. If I had stuck with the black Pebble, that might have been the case, but when they showed the gray one, I thought it looked cool and had to switch! That decision caused me to have to wait 139 days (almost 5 months!) from when Pebble started shipping until I received mine.

It wasn’t until later that they admitted that they were producing all the black Pebbles first, and then switching colors, but even then they wouldn’t admit to the order they would ship the colors in! Had I known upfront, I definitely would have stuck with black, but by the time I had enough information to make that sort of decision, it was so late in the game that it seemed silly not to wait just a little bit longer. (In truth my mouse cursor hovered over the confirm button of the “back to black” process at least three or four times, but I never pulled the trigger.)

All that said, I wish they had handled things a bit differently, and I’m sure they probably do to, but at this point that’s water under the bridge.

First Impressions

It’s hard to stay completely hyped for something while waiting for it for a full 1.16 years, so when I put it on my wrist it’s not like I was blown away. But honestly, I haven’t worn a watch in years, and most of the time, that’s all Pebble is. It tells time and stays out of your way. It’s not a life-changing thing in a big way, but in a small way.

I’m one of those people who previously would pull out my phone to look at the time, then put it back, and then have no recollection of what the time had been and have to do it again. Thanks to Pebble, that has stopped. Of course, a $35 Casio could do that for me, but a Casio has never been enough of a value-add to strap it to my arm every day. Pebble is.

Of course the really cool whiz-bang part of Pebble is when you get a phone call or a text message. Being able to know that an incoming call or text is important (or not!) is awesome. Also, I would commonly miss a call from my wife when I was in the car because I would not feel the vibration from the phone. With Pebble, no longer a problem.

One thing I did notice in the first few minutes was the Mura effect that several other Pebblers have noticed as well, for instance here and here. I really only notice it under natural sunlight, and when wearing polarized sunglasses. It’s annoying and distracting, but not a deal-breaker, considering my expectation level of a prototype product. However, let’s get real here: that $35 Casio I was talking about wouldn’t have that problem. I agree with @jteem5: this is definitely a manufacturing defect that they need to fix before Pebble Version 2.0.

iPhone Battery

They said that Pebble would drain the phone battery a little more quickly. They weren’t kidding!

I use my Pebble with an iPhone 5, and honestly, the iPhone 5 battery outright sucks compared to the iPhone 4 I had before it. I had concerns about the battery even before I got my Pebble, but with the constant 2-way Bluetooth chatter between phone and watch, now my battery doesn’t even stand a chance. Before Pebble I would plug my phone in every night, usually with the battery somewhere between 40-50% depending on the day. Now I have to charge in the middle of the day or I’ll definitely be running on fumes by bedtime.

The Pebble’s battery is great, however. It lasts long enough that I don’t know exactly how long it lasts, which I consider to be a good thing.

Now that the new factor has worn off, though, I’ve started sometimes taking my Pebble off and powering it down when I get home. My Pebble’s utility to me is really when I’m out and about, so it doesn’t feel worth it to drain my phone’s battery so aggressively if I’m not getting anything useful out of it. It’s just kind of a shame that I have to make this tradeoff.

Anything the Pebble team can do to suck less juice on the phone side would be time well spent, in my opinion. And if anyone at Apple is paying attention, I wouldn’t mind if the phone was a few millimeters thicker if it meant I could actually have a big boy battery.

Watchface

I currently use the Futura Weather watchface, and I really like it. For some reason I really like having current weather conditions on my wrist! I think it’s a combination of the relative utility of the information, and the glee at knowing what’s required for that information to get there.

Any of the watchfaces like that require network connectivity require httpebble on your iPhone in addition to the Pebble Smartwatch app itself. I find this really odd – I thought it was part of the basic Pebble package that watchfaces could access the Internet. So why the additional app? I feel like I missed a Pebble update about this, but even a quick search for Why is httpebble required for internet access? leaves me more questions than answers. It seems like this should be baked into the normal Pebble app, and makes me wonder if I’d burn through my phone battery less quickly if it were.

Sometimes Futura won’t be able to connect anymore, and my watch will display a no phone icon and blank out the temperature. This is a bit annoying, but can be fixed by opening httpebble, and toggling a button to disconnect from and then reconnect to the Pebble. I’m hoping that these sorts of kinks will get worked out in future updates.

Also, watchface developers need to get it through their heads that just because you can’t contact a server this instant, you don’t need to buzz my wrist and blank out the display! The temperature from 15 minutes ago is just fine for my purposes – I would rather have that data than nothing. Perhaps a UI that shows the freshness of the data would be good. Just a temp means up-to-date, but then throw some indicator dots below the temp if you’re unable to get to the server. 1 dot would mean the data is 15 minutes old. 2 dots for 30, 3 dots for 45, and then invert black/white colors to show the horribleness of hour-old weather data.

It also annoyed me that Futura buzzed so much when it got out of range of my iPhone, but while writing this article I just discovered that this is supposed to be a “feature” so you don’t accidentally leave your phone behind. I guess one person’s feature is another person’s bug! In any case, I learned that there’s an alternate version of Futura that doesn’t include the vibration alert, so I’ll be installing that right away!

Music

The ability to control music with the Pebble is very cool. We have an AppleTV in the family room and an AirPort Express wired to a receiver and speakers in the living room and kitchen, so I AirPlay music a lot. It’s really nice to be able to skip a track (I will never understand why my wife hates the Foo Fighters) when my phone is sitting on a table in a different room.

I thought I would use this to control the music on my headphones at work too, but I have a suspicion that staying on the music control screen of the Pebble drains the phone battery even faster. Nothing I can prove, just a suspicion, but that seems a bad bargain when my phone is only a few more inches away.

iOS Blues

I haven’t compared with anyone running a Pebble with an Android device, but I feel like Pebble is limited by the iOS API. Notifications for calls show only the number, not the contact information. Email just didn’t work until a Pebble app update a few days ago, but this requires authenticating to your email provider within the Pebble app, and then it checks your messages every 15 minutes.

So great, another battery suck so that I can get a push notification for an email but then either pull out my phone or wait up to 15 minutes to find out who it’s from on my wrist. That seems kind of silly.

But I have worked on software projects for iOS and, even though I love the platform and would never switch, the “walled garden” approach can be frustrating for a developer, and I’m sure the Pebble team has been banging their heads against this a lot.

Hopefully iOS 7 will open up some of these APIs to allow easier access for Pebble’s software without kludges and hacks.

Additionally, there are some other bugs I have noticed off and on with my Pebble on iOS. Some of these may be fixed somewhere, so please feel free to point out solutions as I have not full vetted each of these:

  • After hanging up a call, a dialog will come up saying that Pebble wants to connect.
  • When making calls, Pebble shows up as an audio device like a Bluetooth headset would. This might be due to how the Bluetooth stack is implemented in order to support music control, but ideally, it would be nice if the phone could realize that Pebble does not have a microphone or speaker and thus using it for calls would be awkward at best.
  • Pebble sometimes renders Siri unusable. The microphone meter will look like you’re shouting into it from a quiet room. Beside the Siri microphone is a button containing icons for Speaker and Bluetooth that brings up a menu where you can switch between Pebble and iPhone (again, Pebble is not an audio device!) but it has iPhone selected, not Pebble. This is very hit or miss, which means it works here on the couch but it does NOT work in the car when I need directions.

Other Features

There are other features of the Pebble that I don’t use so much. A few years ago I did Couch to 5K with my iPhone, so the RunKeeper integration is pretty interesting. Unfortunately I haven’t been so good about getting out there to run lately, so I can’t report any specifics.

I did install a watchface for a simple worm game, where you steer the worm around to eat stuff and if the worm runs into a wall or itself, then game over. That was fairly disappointing, but honestly I don’t think of the Pebble as a gaming platform. It has a tiny screen and 4 buttons that are oddly placed for any real sort of game, and it is almost always connected to my iPhone which actually IS a gaming platform.

Summary

Hopefully it doesn’t sound like I’m sour on the Pebble. Pebble is a very young product with some kinks to work out, and the one on my wrist has to deal with the very restrictive iOS API which doesn’t help any. But on balance, I am very happy with my Pebble so far. Aside from the Mura effect, all the issues are completely software-related. So, hopefully all of the issues I’ve mentioned are fixable, either by Pebble firmware updates, Pebble app updates, or iOS updates.

Pebble has succeeded in putting a watch on my wrist for the first time in over a decade, but the smartwatch market is just in its infancy. I’m really excited to see what the future will have to offer.

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