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Pebble Time Offers Low-Budget Apple Watch Alternative

Before the Apple Watch, there was the Pebble.

The Pebble smartwatch, spawned from the third-most-successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign of all time, became a darling of iOS and Android users alike upon its release in 2013.

For iPhone users especially, it was the one to get since most other top smartwatches (like those running Android Wear) could not easily be made to function with Apple handsets. That made the Pebble’s primitive black-and-white screen and limited capabilities forgivable.

Now an upgraded Pebble smartwatch dubbed the Pebble Time has arrived, with a color screen no less, but Pebble no longer has iPhone owners to itself. It competes directly with the Apple Watch, and cannot come close to matching Cupertino’s souped-up wrist gizmo. The Pebble Time and Apple Watch are barely even in the same tech-product category.

While the Apple Watch is upscale with a high-quality display, a wide selection of luxury bands, advanced metal construction, and state-of-the-art software, the Pebble Time has an inferior screen, a toy-like plastic body, lackluster apps, and limited capabilities.

Both are positioned as Bluetooth-connected smartphone sidekicks, functioning as wrist-worn extensions for such fundamental tasks as notification monitoring and audio control.

But the Apple Watch has more potential to become a computer in its own right, thanks to more powerful hardware and an upcoming software update that looks to loosen its iPhone leash considerably. The Pebble Time does some basic things such as alarms on its own, but it’s even more tightly tethered to a smartphone.

And yet, I come not to bury the Pebble Time, but to praise it.

The Pebble Time can boast, after all, the top Kickstarter campaign of all time, with a $20,338,986 take that nearly doubled the $10,266,845 raised by the original Pebble.

And, in my short time with a loaner device, I came to enjoy the Pebble Time immensely.

For what I’d pay for one – $199.99, compared to $349 for an entry-level Apple Watch – I’d get considerable utility and value. It isn’t for everyone, notably those who crave the most powerful and feature-laden watches, but it’s a decent budget option that earns its keep for those with simpler needs.

And Pebble has a trump card to play with the Pebble Time: it’s designed to be expandable, with the potential for third-party accessories that would add extra capabilities.

On the downside, the Pebble Time can’t live up to its full potential for iPhone users, given that a number of features work only in conjunction with an Android smartphone. Apple doesn’t want the competition.

Pebble vs. Pebble Time — For context, let’s start by comparing the Pebble Time to its predecessor, the first-generation Pebble. That watch is still for sale, and is a steal at $99.99, but the Pebble Time improves on it in some ways.

Both are plasticky, but the Pebble Time is a thin, trim, near-square with rounded edges compared to the bulkier, rectangular Pebble. The Pebble Time features a new metal bezel around its screen, which protects and beautifies the watch. The physical screen itself, though of the same size and dimensions, is now made of durable Gorilla Glass.

Both Pebbles have rubber watch bands, but the one on the Pebble Time is more comfortable, more pliable, and softer to the touch, not unlike the fluoroelastomer bands Apple bundles with its entry-level Apple Watch Sport.

Neither Pebble watch has a touchscreen. Instead, both have a physical home button on the left and three navigation buttons on the right, which is how users browse the menus, bring up apps and watch faces, and set alarms and timers. This is clunky, though I’d argue the Apple Watch’s digital crown control and side button aren’t much better.

The Pebble watch’s screens use E Ink, like many ebook readers. The Pebble Time’s color version of this screen technology looks nice – though with just 64 colors, mediocre clarity, and a striking resemblance to an old Game Boy screen, it’s hardly state-of-the-art. But E Ink has the virtue of conserving battery life, enabling the Pebble Time to work for up to a week on a charge.

It’s tough to say which of the two Pebble displays is more readable. I had the two devices out on my front steps in bright sunlight and, depending on how I angled them, I could get one or the other to seem more legible. It’s kind of a tie, so users of the original Pebble shouldn’t upgrade to the Pebble Time in the expectation that they would see a dramatic improvement in clarity.

The Pebble Time is waterproof, like the first Pebble, and fine to use in the shower, or while swimming at a depth of up to 30 meters. Below that, take a dive watch and avoid the bends.

Both recharge via power cords that snap magnetically onto charging ports (not unlike the Apple Watch), but the Pebble Time hides its port on the rear of the watch face instead of exposing it on the left side, as the original Pebble does.

The Pebble ecosystem has an extensive app library, but the original Pebble has difficulty taking advantage of this since it can hold only about eight apps at a time. This forces users to swap apps in and out of an App Locker. The Pebble Time remedies this problem with room for dozens of apps. If you run out of room, your least-used apps are consigned to the locker.

Pebble apps are installed via a companion smartphone app but the Pebble Time and the original Pebble have separate iPhone apps.

The Pebble Time’s software improves appreciably on the original. Its best new feature is the timeline, which sequentially displays appointments, news updates, weather forecasts, and other time-specific information in a, well, timeline – from the recent past and the present to the near future – all accessible via physical up and down buttons for navigation.

The original Pebble lacks the timeline but, according to the maker, was supposed to get it this summer.

The Pebble Time’s software is a great upgrade overall, with whimsical animations, such as a wall-clock icon that has a swinging pendulum, and a smiling-sun icon in the timeline that quickly draws itself onto the display to announce a sunny forecast. There’s also an animated star when a watch face is added, a tiny puff of smoke when a notification is dismissed, and a brief glimpse of a cartoon skull when a timeline entry is deleted. The simpler screen of the original Pebble has none of this playful activity.

The Pebble Time, in short, is unmistakably Pebble, but in a way that advances the state of its art in fun and useful ways.

Pebble Time Testing — I’ve been using the Pebble Time for weeks and generally enjoying it despite its obvious inferiority to the Apple Watch in just about every way, save that lower price.

Like other smartwatch aficionados with a sophisticated grasp of the Pebble and Apple platforms, I had to place myself into a mindset of not expecting as much from the Pebble Time as I had with the Apple Watch (which I’ve reviewed on my tech blog).

But, as I noted in that review, I am budget-minded and therefore open to technology that is not necessarily the most advanced in its category, but that improves my life appreciably while saving me a bundle.

I don’t need the fanciest smartwatch just to receive notifications from my iPhone, for instance. The Pebble Time does that job nicely with clearly formatted (and whimsically animated) alerts, a powerful buzz when an alert comes in, and a screen that puts notifications in an orderly list that incorporates icons denoting email messages, social media updates, and the like.

Reading alerts was sometimes a bit of a challenge due to inferior display tech, however. E Ink is highly readable in bright sunlight (much more so than the Apple Watch’s screen) but suffers in dimmer indoor settings, meaning I had to hit the home button for (anemic) illumination. The Pebble Time’s color display is always on, though, compared to the Apple Watch’s lovely but battery-draining display that has to turn itself off after a few seconds of idle time.

Getting to the alerts was a bit of a multi-click chore until I figured out how to configure one of the right-hand navigation buttons to pull up a notification screen with a long press. (I mapped another button to pull up the settings screen.)

The timeline is a wonderful feature, and one that is simple to access – press the up button on the right side to journey into the past or the down button to see future calendar items, weather events, and much more. You can select an item for more information, or delete it.

The timeline can even be customized by “pinning” info from third-party apps to the chronological stream. For instance, a news app fed me the latest headlines, via pinned timeline items, several times a day. Sports aficionados can add sports updates to the timeline with the ESPN app. Watch the video to see what it’s like.

Heck, the timeline is so useful that Apple appears to have ripped it off with an upcoming watchOS feature called Time Travel.

As an app platform, the Pebble Time is underwhelming. I felt this way about the Apple Watch too, but Apple has a gloriously diverse and sophisticated app ecosystem compared to Pebble’s equivalent. Yes, there is an abundance of Pebble apps, but they are of wildly inconsistent quality, and I had difficulty finding must-have ones.

Big-name apps that made the cut include Evernote, Pandora, and Foursquare’s Swarm, all decent extensions of parent apps on my iPhone, though quite limited in and of themselves. Evernote gives me rudimentary access to my notebooks and their contents, for instance, but this is not necessarily productive on such a small screen.

Other notable Pebble-app players include Domino’s, Eventbrite, PayPal, TripAdvisor, Uber, and Yelp along with the fitness-related Fitocracy, Jawbone, Misfit, and RunKeeper.

Those fitness apps make the Pebble Time a nifty fitness companion, though one that is largely dependent on corresponding iPhone apps. On a RunKeeper-monitored power walk, for instance, I used the Pebble Time and its RunKeeper app as little more than an iOS-RunKeeper remote. The Apple Watch is a bit more of a fitness tracker in its own right, thanks to its additional sensors, though it too requires an iPhone for most activities beyond timing, step tracking, and heart-rate monitoring.

Navigation between apps is straightforward, though a bit awkward. Each appears as a card filling the screen, and you press buttons to scroll upward and downward for the app you want. This takes a while if you’ve loaded lots of apps, and your patience may flag after you’ve done this repeatedly. The Apple Watch’s cloud of circular app icons requires less interaction, though the little orbs are more challenging to pick out with a fingertip than the big Pebble app cards.

Pebble watch faces are also a mixed bag. Many still are of the black-and-white variety with the original Pebble in mind, but I like the Real Weather watch face with the time, date, and temperature, along with a cool color representation of the current weather and time of day.

Pebble watch faces tend to be simpler than the Apple versions, with fewer “complication” customization options.

As for the Pebble Time’s toy-like appearance, I’m fine with that provided I have an understated black model; Pebble lent me a red version that I found embarrassing to wear due to its garish, hey-look-at-me appearance. The Pebble Time also comes in white.

The Pebble Time is very comfortable courtesy of its smaller size, slightly curved bottom and soft rubber band, so I wore it all the time. I was nervous about taking it into the shower, but I shouldn’t have been, since it held up just fine.

Pebble’s reliance on plastic comes at an eventual cost; the physical buttons on my review unit got dinged up in relatively short order. The bezel also got dented or scratched in a couple of places.

Sadly, I was unable to test a number of the Pebble Time’s features, at least when it was linked to an iPhone. While Android-based Pebble Time users can perform a range of actions on incoming notifications, such as archiving Gmail messages, iPhone users can only dismiss notifications. The Pebble Time builds in a microphone for such tasks as voice memos and responding by voice to texts, too, but only Android users can do that. Android users can also respond to messages with canned responses or emoji, but iOS users cannot.

Pebble has said it is working to remedy at least some of these shortcomings, though these are largely due to restrictions in iOS that don’t exist in the more open Android.

The Pebble Time is missing many features found on other smartwatches, too, including GPS, NFC, and heart-rate monitoring.

Variations and Innovations — Pebble’s technology has additional permutations, some available now and others yet to come.

Those who hate plastic can opt for metal options. A $149.99 sibling of the original Pebble called the Pebble Steel has a classier appearance and more durability, and Pebble also recently released the $249 Pebble Time Steel. I’ve used neither Steel model, but from what I can glean in pictures the Pebble Time Steel is a knockout with a metal body and metal buttons in a choice of three colors, along with a modest selection of leather and metal bands.

Pebble has also announced a Pebble Time Smartstrap program that will enable third-party accessory makers to add watch features – such as GPS, secondary batteries, or fitness monitors – using specialized straps that jack into the charging port on the watch’s bottom. This would make Pebble more competitive with Apple, assuming Smartstrap developers come through with appealing accessories to turbocharge the Pebble Time.

Pebble Time replacement bands don’t need to be “smart,” though. As with the Apple Watch and Android Wear models, stock bands can be swapped out with ones from third-party makers in a variety of fashionable designs. The Pebble Time features a quick-release mechanism, which includes a standard 22-millimeter lug that makes it compatible with many straps from other companies. This would allow me to ditch my Pebble Time’s garishly red band, though I’d still be stuck with the red on the watch itself.

Clocking Out — I can’t see smartwatch buyers with ample budgets picking up the Pebble Time. If you use an iPhone and have the bucks, why not snap up an Apple Watch, and cost be damned?

But not all of us are rolling in money, and even the entry-level Apple Watch is spendy at $350. The Pebble Time is an appealing alternative at $200. While it is not the Apple Watch’s equal in capabilities, it does quite a bit for the money. And Pebble’s Smartstrap program points to a potentially promising future for the Pebble Time as a platform for tech innovation.

Fans of the original Pebble will be delighted with the Pebble Time’s improvements, including its color screen, its timeline, and its greater app capacity. I wouldn’t recommend buying an original Pebble right now, despite its $100 price, at least until the timeline feature arrives for first-generation hardware (though, I am guessing, with fewer animations).

Having said that, owners of the original Pebble need feel no urgency to upgrade since the Pebble Time’s functionality is largely the same.

If you don’t like plastic, go for the Pebble Time Steel at a price that’s still $100 lower than that of the Apple Watch Sport.

In short, the Pebble Time may be primitive by the standard of the Apple Watch, but it’s hardly worthless or obsolete, with lots of room to improve. If you’re on a tight budget but are interested in getting notifications on your wrist, give it a look.

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