More is less: How a Pebble smartwatch brought sanity to a hyperconnected iPhone user

Finally, an excuse to stop constantly looking at your phone.

Review
Pebble Smartwatch Review

It’s the Kickstarter project that has largely defined what’s possible on the service, and if you’re reading this, you’re well aware of how many millions the Pebble team raised in order to concoct a wrist-worn notification device. A device that just so happened to emerge as the term “smartwatch” was taking hold. It was something of a perfect storm, really; years ago, Fossil and Sony Ericsson tried to bring the Dick Tracy motif to the masses, but the world wasn’t yet ready. Today, we’re all ready.

Despite shipping to backers around a year ago, Pebble only recently added full, unabashed support for the iPhone (iOS 7, to be exact). As it turns out, the addition of full Notification Center support makes Pebble one of the only smartwatches on the market (hello, Metawatch) that’s tailored for Apple. I set out to investigate one thing: is the Pebble the smartwatch that Apple has yet to build, and is really good enough to work in tandem with an iPhone that’s constantly buzzing?

I ended up discovering something else entirely — that Pebble’s design and methodology is primed to tame the notification epidemic. I started by strapping yet another notifier onto my wrist, but I came away a far less stressed individual.

Today’s iWatch

Pebble on wrist

For the purposes of this piece, I’m focusing entirely on how Pebble interplays with iOS 7. Android users have a wealth of options — and in fact, there are plenty of prior Pebble reviews from my pals at Engadget, The Verge, CNET, and PCMag — but iPhone loyalists who’ve been yearning for a watch to call their own have been left unsatisfied. Apple’s obviously toying with wearables, but it’s clearly in no hurry to launch a wrist ornament of its own. Hello, opportunity.

I’ve been using Apple products long enough to know that third-party doodads rarely produce the same user experience as a pure Apple arrangement. Sure, you can pair a generic Bluetooth mouse with your MacBook, but let’s be honest — the Magic Mouse tracks way more precisely. As such, my expectations were tempered. In reading Pebble’s own announcement on the matter, it sounds as if absolutely every notification that can appear on your iOS lock screen is supported on the Pebble. I was secretly waiting to discover untold “gotchas” in use, though I ended up finding precious few.

Pairing Pebble with iPhone

Pebble with iPhone

Pairing one’s Pebble with the iPhone is a fairly simplistic affair. Upon the watch’s first boot, it required a software update in order to bring it in line with iOS 7’s capabilities. I ran into a (seemingly rare) reboot loop that required a bit of digging, but thankfully, there’s a full-on FAQ detailing how to solve it. Once that hiccup was out of the way, I made a beeline to the App Store to download Smartwatch+. It’s a couple of bucks, and while it’s not required for your Pebble to operate, go ahead and consider it a mandatory purchase. It opens up all sorts of new functionality, and adds a face that showcases the present time and day, the weather where you are, your iPhone’s battery level, and your next appointment. My hope is that this is just the first of many more apps to come that bolster Pebble’s base functionality.

The Pebble iOS app does an exemplary job of walking you though each individual step in the process — it’s effectively impossible to botch it. That said, it’s presently little more than a setup liaison. Faces and apps are beginning to crop up, and with SDK 2.0 already out in the wild, I’m hoping that the company begins to add a bit of structure to the ecosystem. There’s clearly demand for apps on Pebble, and I suspect that the tools presently lining the company’s user forums will soon have a formal home within the app.

Subtraction by addition, or, how Pebble calmed the nerves

Pebble typewriter

As I’ve written before, I fear that we’ve reached a dangerous point as it pertains to notifications and availability. The digital lifestyle has made the process of contacting anyone completely frictionless, and it’s awfully easy to find oneself bombarded by emails, tweets, IMs, texts, abandoned voicemails, etc. For a time, users clamored for more ways to funnel in notifications — the issue is that we weren’t careful about what we wished for. Now, we’re wedged in a world where the notifications are nearly limitless, and selectively ignoring has emerged as a newfound art form. We long wished for it to be easier for our kids to video chat with us from a foreign land, but what we received was an infinite stream of pings from everyone — including people we don’t yet know.

So, it probably seems strange that I’d voluntarily strap a device on my wrist that serves to notify me of just about everything. After all, aren’t I the guy who should be looking for ways to not be notified? Truthfully, I’ve come to grips with the fact that ignoring notifications simply gets you deeper into the muck; if you’re inundated by requests, the root issue is not how many notifiers you have. The root issue is in the quantity of people you’ve incidentally committed to, and how huge each of those challenges are.

In using the Pebble nonstop for a week (and in a new role, no less), I discovered a handful of remarkable tidbits:

  • I was able to disable all notification sounds on my iPhone, which led to a far more peaceful environment both at home and at work. No dings. No clangs. No chirps. The only notification I needed was a gentle vibration atop my wrist, which — as it turns out — is far less jarring to one’s focus than some obnoxious tone.
  • I stopped feeling compelled to have my phone within eyesight. This sounds minor, but it’s actually quite potent. After a couple of days, I began to simply leave my phone in my pack or my pocket, which ended up providing a new level of calm. Why? The phone is now more or less a reminder of all that you have to do — put another way, it owns you. Keeping the physical symbol out of my sight enabled me to focus more on the task at hand, and less on everything else.
  • My phone was once again useful in noisy environments. Be it a stroll on the streets of Manhattan, washing my vehicle, listening to a radio stream on my laptop, or just generally having an ear to something other than a ringtone, Pebble enabled me to recognize notifications that I typically miss. When I’m mowing, for example, there’s zero chance I’m going to hear anyone’s call; with Pebble, I can still feel the vibration on my wrist regardless of how loud my surroundings are.
  • Walking navigation is a hit. While strolling from point A to point B in New York using Google Maps, I typically feel the need to check my iPhone’s screen every block or so to ensure that I’m progressing in the right direction. With Pebble, a vibration is transmitted each time that you need to make a turn or otherwise change direction. Plus, it keeps screen use down, further lengthening the life of my iPhone’s battery.
  • It’s killer for meetings. In one particular group meeting, I was the only person of six in the room who did not have to physically break away from the conversation, pull out a phone, and look at a notification. The fact of the matter is that a casual glance at one’s wrist is far less distracting than the act of ogling a smartphone.
  • It kills the urge to go deeper down the rabbit hole. For me, this is huge. I’ve found myself on numerous occasions looking at a phone notification, then caving and unlocking the phone, and then further caving and addressing way more than that one notification. Before I know it, I’m completely removed from whatever event or conversation was going on around me, all because I was too weak to simply glance at the notification and decide to act later.

Opportunities for improvement

Pebble Weather

Before I even dive in here, I should make clear that Pebble’s engineering team is well aware of the potential its product has. I get the impression that the team isn’t resting on its laurels, and that most of the niggles I have (and forum users have) will be addressed in future iterations. I’ve heard some complain over the Pebble’s spartan display, but I’m a fan — if I wanted to drop $300+ on something with a fancier display, there are plenty of other options. I’m entirely okay with having a barebones product (in this case, that is) offered at a far more reasonable rate.

In use, I did find myself wishing that it was easier to find the true battery life of the watch. My Pebble managed to exhaust a full charge in just over 72 hours, which is at the low end of the stated lifespan. Of course, I have a ton of notifications, and I’ll confess to playing with the screen (and thus, triggering the backlight) more frequently than your average bear. For me, that’s reasonable. I wouldn’t prefer that the watch be thicker for battery life to be improved, and I have a tough time thinking of a situation where I wouldn’t have access to a USB port during a three-day span. The charging situation, however, could stand to be improved. Unfortunately, it’s not a standard microUSB connection, so you’ll need to carry around (and never misplace) a proprietary cable.

Personally, I’ve no qualms with the looks of the product. It’s sleek and handsome enough, yet sci-fi enough that it looks like its own character. That said, there’s a huge market out there who may be inclined to dive in if a wood grain version were offered, or a version with a bit of a rounder face were available. I fully understand the challenges involved in mapping out a supply chain from halfway around the globe, and all of this is far easier typed than implemented. As for user experience issues? The only time I had a notification fail was when my Bluetooth connection failed. I strayed a bit too far from my phone a time or two, and a few of those times I needed to disable Bluetooth and reactivate it again to get the connection back. A minor annoyance, but hardly a deal-breaker.

Watch this space

Pebble Mac

By its nature, Pebble makes the act of pulling out your smartphone one that you actually have to think about — as it turns out, adding that decision layer encouraged me to ignore my phone and remain engaged in the moment far more often than I did prior to having a smartwatch. It should be said, however, that most other smartwatches could claim similar, but the fancier alternatives allow you to actually interact and respond right on your wrist. Pebble doesn’t, and that simplicity is something that I became incredibly fond of.

I’ve never really been “a watch guy.” Well, let me rephrase — I adore watches, but I don’t enjoy the feeling of a metal band grinding into my wrist as I type all day long. Pebble’s rubberized band is obviously far more flexible, which (for the most part) addressed the comfort issue. (For those curious, Pebble uses a standard 22mm band, which is easily swappable.) And then, there’s the Apple compatibility. Put simply, it’s astounding. It genuinely feels as if this thing were built from the start to work lockstep with iOS 7. I pushed notifications from Google Maps, Evernote, Gmail, PayPal, iMessage, Reminders, Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, LinkedIn, About.me, Skype, Instagram, and countless other apps —formatting was clean and in tact with every single one.

Pebble functions excellently as an iPhone notifier, but to me, that’s actually secondary in importance. It’s now my preferred method for receiving notifications that end up being delivered to my phone, predominantly because it’s helping me to live a saner and healthier life. It’s keeping me engaged in more moments, rather than caving to the temptation of jumping headlong into my phone’s operating system every time it buzzes. For me, that justifies the $150 asking price.

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