Do you ever find yourself frantically trying to fish your phone out of a pocket or purse to find out whether that beep or buzz from the device is an important call, text or email — or just something you can ignore? What if you could simply glance at your watch to find out?
Well, now you can, thanks to a new $150 digital wristwatch called Pebble that connects to an iPhone or Android phone wirelessly and displays notifications and previews of calls, texts and emails. Not only that, but the Pebble can control music playback on a phone and show at a glance the song that’s playing, along with artist and album information. And of course, it tells time. It comes with multiple software watch faces and you can upload more.
Even better, the Pebble, from a Silicon Valley startup of the same name, is a platform that can work with other apps and aspects of a smartphone. For instance, the company is planning to roll out options that display information from apps for runners and golfers by spring. And there are already techie workarounds that can enable the watch to link to other smartphone apps. The gadget has been much-discussed in tech circles and its founders raised millions of dollars via the crowdfunding service, Kickstarter.
The Pebble wristwatch comes with multiple software watch faces in black and white and shows previews of emails and incoming call info.
One important note: It isn’t a wrist communicator. It cannot conduct phone calls or compose texts and emails. It just notifies you about them, by gently vibrating and displaying sender or caller info, and for messages, an excerpt, on the screen.
I’ve been testing the Pebble watch for about five days with an iPhone 5 and a Google Nexus 4. I found the watch light and comfortable and nobody stared at me like I was wearing a computer on my wrist. I was able to receive notifications and control music on both phones. And I generally found the Pebble helpful. The free companion apps on both phones, which connect the Pebble to the phones, worked fine.
But I also ran into a bunch of annoying bugs and limitations, problems its maker readily acknowledges and says it is working on solving. One example: If multiple emails arrive in rapid succession, the notification for each overwrites its predecessor before you can read it and you can’t scroll back to see those you missed. The company says it hopes to introduce scrolling back through notifications in a software update next month.
If you have little patience for such new-product woes, as I do, you might want to wait awhile before ordering a Pebble. Even if you’re ready to order now, you’ll still have to wait about two months for delivery. The company is ramping up production gradually, though it says it has shipped about 15,000 units and taken orders for 85,000. To buy a Pebble, go to getpebble.com.
The Pebble can control music on a phone and show the song that’s playing.
Pebble is part of what may be a nascent revival for the idea of a wrist computer, something that has failed many times in the past, because older attempts have looked clunky and have been hard to use. A company called Basis has begun shipping a fitness watch with sensors on the back and Apple is reportedly testing a watch that would work with the iPhone.
This wrist computer comes in five colors and is only a bit bigger than a more standard watch. However, it definitely works better on a man’s typically larger wrist. The Pebble may pose a fashion and comfort challenge for women.
The screen technology is similar to that of a basic Kindle e-reader. That means it’s black and white only, and can only show very basic graphics, but it works well outdoors. It has a backlight that turns on whenever an alert appears, or when you shake or tap the watch.
There are four large, easy-to-press buttons on the sides. On the right, the top and bottom buttons scroll up and down and the middle button selects. On the left, the single button displays the menu, and moves you back a step in those menus. The charger also attaches to the left.
The company claims the watch should last seven days on a single charge in typical use, but, in my tests, it lasted between three and four days. In more typical use than mine while testing, it would likely go four to five days.
The Pebble connects to the phones via Bluetooth, like a wireless earpiece or speaker. In fact, on the iPhone, it imitates a Bluetooth audio device, even though it doesn’t do audio. This sometimes confuses Siri, Apple’s automated, voice-controlled assistant, and requires you to press an icon on the phone directing Siri to use the phone, not the Pebble. But it didn’t confuse the Bluetooth speaker phone in my car, or interfere with it.
The company is planning to roll out options that display information from apps for golfers as well as runners by spring.
This is only one of a series of quirks and issues I ran into on both smartphone platforms, neither of which really provides for something like the Pebble.
For instance, on Android, you have to set up the Pebble as an accessibility device, like something that might be meant for disabled users. And on Android, you’re unable to use the watch to direct the phone or earpiece to answer incoming calls. You can only reject them. Another Android limitation: You’re only sure to get a preview of emails from the Gmail app. When emails come in from non-Gmail email apps, you can get a message that lacks any preview.
On the other hand, Pebble email notifications on the iPhone require considerable fiddling with the phone’s notification settings, and in my tests, the email-notification feature on iPhone worked inconsistently. The company says fixing this problem is its top priority. As of now, Facebook notifications don’t work on iPhone, only on Android. Twitter notifications don’t work on either platform.
On both platforms, I found myself yearning for the ability to press a button and send a canned response to a text or email, like “Can’t answer right now.” The company says it’s working on this.
The Pebble is a useful accessory for a smartphone if you have a spare $150 and hate digging out your phone, or can’t easily do so, to see if you need to attend to a call or message. But I suggest you wait for it to work more smoothly.
Email Walt at email@example.com.