If you’re looking for a smartwatch that teams up with your Android (OS 4.1 or higher) or Apple (iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5c, and 5s running iOS 6 or iOS 7) phone platform, offers excellent battery life, easy navigation, attractive design, and is also capable of most activity-tracking functions, the Pebble Steel Smartwatch could be an excellent choice.
The first Pebble watch was debuted in 2013, following an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $10,266,844; the most of any Kickstarter project up to that time. A year later, Pebble followed up with their new model, the Steel. The Steel adds a smaller and more attractive metal case, tougher screen material, and increased notification functions. The original Pebble smartwatch hasn’t been rendered obsolete, but the new Steel is tough to beat.
The Pebble Steel Smartwatch is designed to act as an extension of your phone by pairing via Bluetooth (compatible with 4.0 and 2.1+ EDR). Rather than having to extract your phone from its hiding spot inside your pocket or purse every time a text message comes through or calendar alert pops up, you can rely on your Pebble Steel. Keep in mind that the usefulness of the Steel comes in its complimenting your smartphone. This thing is essentially just a remote second screen for your smartphone. This means that many of its key functions are tied to its being paired up with that phone. The Steel doesn’t have any fancy standalone functions like GPS or WiFi or a heart rate monitor or talk-to-text capabilities. The beauty of the Steel is that it simply does a great job of transmitting phone data to your wrist, and displaying it in easy portions. All of the core notification functions of your phone will work with the Steel.
As is the way of things these days, the Steel is designed to take advantage of specially-designed apps. Offered through the Pebble App Store, these mostly free apps are designed by both Pebble and third parties. Pebble continues to encourage individuals to develop apps, and hundreds of these can be found the App Store. There are apps for sports tracking, notifications, making lists, locating buses and trains, checking in on Foursquare, finding restaurants with Yelp, and many other uses.
Cracking this thing out of the box is a nice experience. There’s not a bunch of clutter and warnings and mess that springs up when the lid is lifted. Instead, you’ll find just the watch, charging cable, special screwdriver (more on that later), and a couple of small instruction booklets.
The watch itself is impressive but unobtrusive. Despite its relatively low weight, the Pebble Steel seems to be pretty solid and well designed. The included leather band is downright classy and adds some nice contrast to the typical “space-age” materials that one might expect to find on such a techy piece of gear.
The Steel is an easy wear. It’s not some huge clunky thing like a Forerunner and doesn’t draw inquisitive glances like the Fitbit. Depending on the watch face design selected from the thousands available, most of the time it looks like a slightly large, well, watch. A lot of users will be pleased that the watch can be just as easily worn to dinner as it can to tennis practice or the lake. The case is only 46mm long, 34mm wide, and a slim 10mm thick; that’s approaching the size of a normal, if somewhat large, watch. In the smartwatch world, where it seems that wearing a tablet on your wrist would be appropriate, that’s quite a feat. It doesn’t appear out of place on thin wrists, nor is it dwarfed by man-hands and muscly forearms. Many ladies might find it a bit less obtrusive since the onset of the chunky watch revolution, but it’ll never win top-spot in a dainty accessory competition.
The face of the watch is completely customizable through an endless selection of apps designed specifically for the watch face display. These face-specific apps are found alongside the functional apps in the Pebble App Store.
If the included leather strap doesn’t suit you there’s also the option of a braided steel bracelet replacement. The replacement bracelet is available in the same black or silver finish as the watch case and is fully adjustable for size. The bracelet does feel a little less solid than the rest of the watch, though, and seems like it’s perhaps worth no more or less than the $20 price tag.
Swapping the strap isn’t difficult, but some care must be taken during the operation. To increase durability of the watch Pebble didn’t use the typical spring-loaded strap pin found on most watches. Instead, they went with a tiny flat-head screw that threads through the three protruding studs on the case. Be aware that the screw is proprietary, the screwdriver is proprietary, and the strap is proprietary. If you screw up any of these components you can expect your watch to be out of commission until a new part can be ordered, shipped, and received. Due in part to this hang-up of proprietary parts and resulting lack of accessories, Pebble would do well to offer a few more replacement strap choices. A rubber option or three, and some coloured canvas options would be a great way to mix it up and add some fun individual flair to the appearance of the watch. Giving credit where it’s due, Pebble has recently released a free 3D-printable model of the Steel to allow third party manufacturers to produce accessory bands and straps for it. Kudos to them for that out of the box thinking.
Recognising the active lifestyle of many of its forward-thinking customers, Pebble kept durability as a priority throughout the Steel’s design and production. As should be the case with any sports or daily-wear watch these days, the Steel is waterproof to five atmospheres (about 50 meters). Showers and dishwashing are no problem. To ensure a scratched face remains a thing of the past, the screen is made of super-tough Gorilla Glass. That Gorilla Glass also helped Pebble make the Steel extremely easy to read in all sorts of lighting conditions. Bright and sunny conditions don’t make it difficult to see the screen. Additionally, there’s a pretty snazzy backlight setting that only requires a little wiggle of the wrist to briefly turn on.
One of Pebble’s key functional attributes is the use of buttons rather than a touchscreen for navigation and operation. It can seem a little old-school in the post-Blackberry era, but in this application there’s a lot of benefit. Leaving the work to be done by buttons allows for the use of screen materials that need not compromise visibility and toughness for touch sensitivity. Going back to buttons takes a little getting used to, but all is well once you put your brain back in Casio digital watch mode.
Using those buttons for navigation is easy and straightforward. The single left-side button is the “back” button. On the right side, there are two directional buttons, “up” and “down”, on either side of the middle “select” button. Simple. Through the newest Pebble 2.2 OS, those buttons can also be used to control the music and volume settings on your phone.
Speaking of volume, they’re no beeps or sounds to worry about on the Pebble. Even the vibrate mode for notifications is almost completely silent. That’s particularly nice at meetings, dinners, or other social settings where a discreet notification is preferred. This function works pretty well as an alarm notification, too.
Battery life on the Pebble Steel Smartwatch is fair, at somewhere between the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch’s expected 18 hours and the Garmin Forerunner’s 14 days. Generally one can expect two to three days on a charge, assuming the Bluetooth is left turned on and the Steel is used as a smartwatch. If you decide for some reason to un-synch your phone and turn off the connectivity, you can expect a very boring week or so of battery life.
Keep in mind that the battery indicator is not visible when the watch face view is displayed. The indicator will only be shown whenever a notification pushes through, or when you’re scrolling through menus.
Juicing up the device is quick, requiring only three hours for a totally depleted watch to be brought back to full power. Charging duties are taken up by a proprietary magnetic charger that attaches to the lower left side of the case. It’s a slick design, and there’s no worry of breaking any charger pins and whatnot. That said, it is one more charger to remember to pack on trips or keep track of in the kitchen junk drawer. First time smartwatch buyers beware: If you’re like me you’ll require more than a few lessons learned the hard way before it becomes second nature to recharge a watch. In the last-minute chaos that is packing for a trip it’s nice to have some overlap in charger applications.
So let’s get into the details on how the Pebble Steel Smartwatch will perform some necessary fitness-tracking duties. As mentioned, this watch does require pairing with a phone that will do all the heavy lifting for GPS utilities. Mapping functions and route directions make it a good bet for mounting on bike handlebars or for quick glances during a run. Pebble’s waterproof construction is also an advantage for swimmers, divers, and other watersport enthusiasts. Since the device can store basic activity information without a Bluetooth connection, the water-resisting capabilities of your phone isn’t a concern. The Pebble will save the swim workout and update your phone when they synch after the session.
Not to be ignored is the option of using some of the many apps designed for fitness trackers offered by other manufacturers. The Jawbone and Misfit apps are both on board with Pebble, and have been built to operate just fine with the watch. The device won’t give the vibrating alerts or “get up and move” suggestions of the dedicated fitness trackers, but the basic activity and sleep tracking functions are there.
Pebble’s first watch debuted near the top of the smartwatch heap two years ago. The introduction of the Steel has allowed the brand to pair their whiz-kid technology with a new grown-up appearance. Many smartwatches have the functionality to be worn in varying situations, but the Steel is arguably the only one available that can do it in style. It really can pass for a watch.
The primary compromise taken with the purchase of a Steel is the relative lack of full fitness-tracking function and standalone capability. For those who only want a fitness tracking watch or want to have all the features without being tethered to their phones, there are better options. The folks looking for a watch designed for everyday wear that combines all the functions of a smartphone-paired notification satellite and high-quality fitness tracker, however, will find that Pebble hit a home run with the Steel.
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