So Much for the Pebble Smart Watch

For a long time I’ve thought that if I wanted to get a smart watch, it would be a Pebble, because they actually understand that a smart watch needs to work as a watch. So when they announced their Kickstarter for the revamped Pebble 2 and Pebble Time lines this summer, I decided it was time to try out wearable computing. My Pebble 2 arrived in late October, just in time for LA Comic Con, and I’ve been figuring out how best to use it over the past month and a half. I feel like I haven’t really found the watch’s full potential yet, but I’m not sure what point there is now, because I’m not sure how long it’ll be supported.

Today they’ve been bought by FitBit, and will be discontinuing the entire hardware line as FitBit picks up the software, cloud services (for now), and part of the development team.

Getting to Know the Smartwatch

Pebble 2 does work great as a wristwatch. You only need to charge it once every 5-6 days, and the screen is always on, so you can see the time and date at a glance. I’ve already gotten back into the habit of glancing at my wrist for the time instead of reaching into my pocket and pulling out a bulky phone.

Third-party watch faces range from the aesthetic (mimic classic designs) to the informative (cram every bit of time, weather, and health tracking data you can onto the main view) to the whimsical (show time using a binary counter, or Pac-Man, or the dots on a pair of dominoes). My six-year-old loves picking new designs and seeing them show up on my watch, but I keep coming back to the basic one because it works for the key thing a watch needs to do: let me tell the time quickly.

Notifications and calendar events are a key use case for a smart watch, but you have to manage them. I always pare down my phone’s audio notifications in order to avoid getting distracted, and that goes double for something that buzzes on my wrist. Once I got it down to just texts, calls and calendar appointments, it helped me avoid missing texts…for a while. Eventually I started missing them anyway. I’m not sure whether they’re not reaching the watch or my brain has started tuning it out.

When I do catch them, though, it is nice to see a preview of the message so that I know whether I should pull my phone out right away or it can wait a few minutes.

Fitness tracking is most useful if you have an actual workout routine (which I don’t) or you wear the watch constantly. It checks your heart rate every 10 minutes, counts steps, and tracks sleep and deep sleep. The watch shows your current status, and the phone app tracks daily, weekly and monthly stats. It’s interesting, but I can’t wear the watch 24/7 because the wristband ends up irritating my skin. A nicer watchband might help, but it might not, since I need to wear it tightly to keep the heart rate sensor in place.

I haven’t explored the Pebble app ecosystem as much as I could (but who knows how long it’ll be around). A few things I’ve looked at:

  • Music control is nice: you can pause and skip your phone’s music player using actual physical buttons.
  • I don’t want to play games by tilting my wrist.
  • Transit apps would be helpful if I rode the bus or train more often.
  • There’s a to-do list app that syncs with Google Tasks, which seemed great at first…but it’s a lot easier to pull up the tasks on my phone and look at a dozen items at a time than to scroll through three items on a tiny screen.

And that brings me what I think is key for smartwatches:

What a Smartwatch Needs to Do

To really be useful, a smart watch needs to be better than a phone at certain tasks. Cases where it definitely works:

  • Always-on at-a-glance info. Time/weather/step counts/etc. most of the time, with notifications and events as they occur.
  • Health/activity sensors.
  • Quick actions. Dismiss a reminder, or reply to a text message with a pre-canned “OK.” Menus are a pain, but I can imagine voice commands would help a lot.

If it takes longer to do something on the watch than to dig out your phone, unlock it, and do it there, the watch has failed at that task. If the watch makes it more convenient, then it’s succeeded.

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