Pebble Smartwatch Review

I’d been eyeing up the Pebble Smartwatch for a while and after much unsubtle hint dropping I received an early Christmas present. I thought now would be the perfect time to post a review based on real-world usage and living with it, instead of just first impressions and a quick play...

The Geeky Bit

  • Model: 301BL
  • OS: PebbleOS (Custom FreeRTOS)
  • Processor: STM32F205RE Cortex M3 CPU 120MHz
  • Memory: 128KB
  • Storage: 1024KB Flash (8 Apps/Watch faces)
  • Screen: 144 × 168 pixel E-Paper LCD
  • Inputs/sensors:
    • 4 buttons
    • 3-axis accelerometer with gesture detection
    • Magnetometer
    • Ambient light sensor
  • Radios: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 4.0.
  • Size:
    • 50.33mm H x 32mm W x 8.44mm D
    • 1.981″ H x 1.3″ W x 0.332″ D
  • Weight: 47g (inc. wristband)
  • Power: 3.7V, 120mAh battery. ~5-7 Days

Pebble Back

I'd been eyeing up the Pebble Smartwatch for a while and after much unsubtle hint dropping I received an early Christmas present. I thought now would be the perfect time to post a review based on real-world usage and living with it, instead of just first impressions and a quick play.

This pebble was purchased direct from https://getpebble.com/ via the express delivery option to here in the UK - and it arrived in just 3 working days, impressive! However, it did arrive in a Pebble branded package which was good for me as I got to open it early instead of waiting a week for Christmas Day, but bear that in mind if you're ordering it as a present for someone in the same house.

So what exactly is it?

Describing what the Pebble Smartwatch is is a bit trickier than you might expect. "Smartwatch" gives an expectation that the watch doesn't quite live up to in some ways. It's a term which makes people think of a having a small Smartphone strapped to the wrist, but there's no touch screen for one thing. The Pebble doesn't try to replace your phone. It's even better than that - it works with your phone.

Let me explain.

Despite it's rather chunky size for a watch, a touch screen would be too fiddly. 6th gen iPod nano users can probably confirm this - it's hard to multi-touch if you can barely fit more than one finger on the screen! It doesn't try to duplicate the functions of a smartphone, because you already have one of them. Instead, Pebble extends your phone in a simple and useful way: delivering your notifications to your wrist. Sure you can get apps to play games, control music, preview your phone's camera and so on, but that's not the Pebble's raison d'etre. Its primary purpose is to give a little vibration on your wrist that you wont miss, and to show a simple notice on-screen.

What's in the box?


Opening the box felt similar to unpacking an Apple product. Nicely presented, with the product in pride of place; the supporting contents nicely tucked away. Plus, there's no overwhelming you with large, weighty manuals.

At first I thought the USB charging lead was a bit chunky at the watch end, but the magnetic grip works well and the size works in its favour - removing any fiddlyness when connecting to charge.

Setup was a breeze, with a dedicated area of the website (go.getpebble.com) to guide you through pairing the watch and installing the partner app on your phone. Soon I had my Android XperiaZ connected and giving me notifications. Within the hour I was trying out different watch faces.

Living with Pebble

So after spending just over 5 weeks with the Pebble, how is it working? Very well, thanks for asking!

I quickly found that the default Android app "only" sends a limited set of notifications: phone, SMS, email, events, Google Talk Facebook and beta WhatsApp. But not, for example, Twitter. Apparently the iOS7 app for iPhone has no such limit and integrates heavily with the Notifications system, to allow sending of any notices.

However all is not lost, as the Android app market has been quick to flood Google Play with helper apps. I quickly found Pebble Notifier. Just tick the apps you want to receive notices for on the Pebble, make sure to set the official Pebble app to allow 3rd party notices, and voila. It's even better than the beta support in the official app for WhatsApp.

On the watch side, I quickly found a few sites including mypebblefaces.com to find watch faces. Using QRCodes to let me easily install faces and apps on my mobile was a clever and useful touch.

Being the geek I am, I also quickly found the new 2.0 SDK for Pebble. My Pebble was upgraded to the beta shortly after. After a brief hiccup when I didn't realise that 1.0 apps and watch faces are NOT compatible with 2.0, I found and installed my favourite, and now primary watch face: Fuzzy Time.

The chunky buttons are easy to find and use, yet recessed enough to prevent accidental triggering. The e-paper screen is perfectly readable in daylight without the backlight. And as this is e-paper NOT e-ink the refresh rate is still a healthy 30 fps when needed. The shake to light became so instinctive that asking me the time caused me to shake my wrist and look even when I wasn't wearing the watch! Similarly the waterproofing was invaluable as I've found my it so comfy I forget to take it off before washing up!

There's been a lot of talk on the bottom half of the internet about the Pebble's battery life being "shorter" than advertised. The box says "5-7 days*" the * being a notice that it depends upon the apps used. I agree with this. Because of the aforementioned Pebble Notifier app, I get more than the "typical" number of notifications to my watch, yet I'm still finding I'm using only about 10-15% a day. So 5-7 days is a good estimate in my experience.

What I did notice is that having a watch face with a second-hand - or similar frequent updates, say an app that uses the Bluetooth connection to pull data frequently, will cause the battery to drain quickly. The e-paper screen is at its best when you have a face with a low-refresh rate. Fuzzy-time, for example, only needs to update about once a minute.

On the phone side, apart from the persistent "Your Pebble is connected" notification I would barely know it's connected. Apparently the Bluetooth connection causes about 10-15% more battery drain on your phone but I've found that this balances out. I'm a heavy user of my XperiaZ and I drain the battery quickly at the best of times. But since getting Pebble it's been lasting longer. How can this be? Well,  let me explain how Pebble has changed the way I interact with my Smartphone.

Before Pebble, if my phone buzzed it would get picked up to see what notice was there. I'd see an email or a tweet, open the app, see other content. I was then engaged in my phone, and would look at all the notices and calls for my attention it was issuing forth. Often the notice was for some silly fremium game trying to get me to tap to get my megafarmcityvillebucks or something else. I would still pick up my phone and even if I ignored that notice, I'd perform a series of "whilst I have the screen unlocked tasks". For example, "Oh I'll just check my email" or fall into browsing the Twitter timeline...

Now, how things work with Pebble. My wrist vibrates. I glance at my watch. I judge whether its important/time sensitive. Far more often than not, I just click to dismiss the notice.

I haven't fallen into the trap of engaging in my phone and there's little to distract on the pebble itself. Two important things occur. Notifications now barely derail me from my workflow; my attention stays on the task in hand. Secondly, I haven't turned on the power-hungry screen and back lights on my phone.

In my experience, I've found that the extra power used by Bluetooth is far exceeded by the power saved from the screen in this way.

I did fear that "spammy" notices might become an issue, but they are so easily dismissed that I have even enabled more notifications to my pebble. Whereas before spam might trigger engagement, now it is so easily ignored that I am less strict about which apps are permitted to notify me.

There are some features I wish I could have on the Pebble, but these are minor compared to the benefits I've found it brings me.

I do wish there was a native option to vibrate if the Bluetooth connection is lost so it reminds me if I walk too far away from my phone. Something similar to this bracelet, for example, as apps/faces offering this option drain the battery quickly.

Pros & Cons

Pros

It tells the time (easy to forget this one!).
Quick notifications.
Waterproof.
Highly customisable.
Easy to use, simple UI, with decent buttons to interact with.
Long battery life (if you avoid some power-hungry apps).

Cons

Pebbles Official Android app is less integrated than iOS. But this is easily covered with a 3rd party app.
Apps and Faces can be a bit confusing with some requiring "helper" apps;  they are less than clear about this.
Varying quality of apps. Pebble have announced an app store so hopefully this will allow better vetting by the Pebble community.
Size. It IS a bit bulky. Personally I like it, you might not so much.

Where to get

I got mine from getpebble.com and it's now about £95 ($150) and about £15 (£25) for speedy shipping. As mentioned earlier, if you are getting it as a gift remember DHL ship it with Pebble branding on the package.

In summary

It's good value for money, easy to get started with and has changed they way I use my smartphone for the better. With most of the cons being software related, expect them to be addressed in the future. 9/10.

Asus Transformer TF301F Review

Having played with the first model in the Asus Transformer series, I was eager to get my hands on the latest model to see how it performed...


The Geeky Bit

  • OS: Android 4.0.1 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)
  • Processor: Quad Core Nvidia Tegra 3 - 1.2GHz
  • Memory: 1GB DDR3
  • Storage: 32GB (16GB Models available)
  • Screen: 10.1" WXGA (1280 × 800) IPS
  • Sensors: G-Sensor, Light Sensor, Gyroscope, E-compass, GPS
  • Radios: 8.2.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0
  • Cameras: 8MP AF rear, 1.2MP front
  • Size: Pad - 263 × 180.8 × 9.9mm , Dock - 263 ×180.8 × 10.2 mm
  • Weight: 635g (pad) + 546g (dock)
  • Connectors:
    • Pad:
      • 2-in-1 Audio Jack (head-out + MIC-in)
      • 1 x micro-D HDMI 1.4a port
      • 1 x microSD Card Reader (SDXC)
    • Dock:
      • 1 x USB 2.0 (Low Power)
      • 1 x SD Card Reader (SDXC)

Having played with the first model in the Asus Transformer series, I was eager to get my hands on the latest model to see how it performed.

This particular machine was purchased from PC World, who seemed to be the only UK stockist at the time of purchase.  I must mention here that regardless of PC World's somewhat lacklustre reputation at times, reserving online was simple and I just turned up and collected it easily with no fuss.

So what exactly is it?

I'm not quite sure that it knows what it is itself!  The transformer is a tablet similar to the Apple iPad, Blackberry PlayBook or Kindle Fire...  but it comes with a keyboard dock that 'transforms' it into a notebook - and boosts the battery life as a bonus extra!

The housing is plastic - but it doesn't feel cheap. It's well built and feels solid. The slight pattern on the back helps give some grip when holding it.

Without the dock it's very hard not to draw comparisons with the iPad.  However, these are comparisons that go favourably for the Transformer. No apparent slow-downs no matter what apps and videos I threw at it, and even when a misbehaving app was encountered (Chrome Beta for those who need to know!) it quickly let me know and let me shut it down rather than having to sit and wait.

There was a bit of a redraw effect when resizing web pages, but these appear to be Android issues and not due to the tablet. Chrome Beta was a little better - but I think it's beta for a reason - it seems to lock up a fair amount. Still, if browsing is your thing there's plenty of choice in the Android Market. Oops sorry, "Google Play" as it is now 😉

Most impressive was when I tested SplashTop HD. This remote desktop software works really well. Surprisingly, I was able to play desktop games like Portal 2, Mass Effect and MineCraft in full screen, remotely, with no lag over the inhouse wireless network.

For those iPad users out there daunted by Android, don't worry. Android 4.0 is just as intuitive and easy to use as iOS, but not quite as restrictive with regards to what you can run on it. Therefore, emulators (anyone for some classic C64 games?), Flash and lots more can all be found here!

Overall it's a good pad and probably more versatile than an iPad. However , when you attach the keyboard you now have a notebook; or are we supposed to call then netbooks now? I can never remember...

The keyboard connects via a 40 pin connector & two hooks and feels incredibly secure. It's clear that attention has been paid to the docking mechanism. My only gripes are that it's tricky to detach the keyboard whilst closed, and as most of the weight is in the pad itself, the centre of balance is way off. This makes it want to tip back, especially when you're trying to use it in your lap.

They keyboard is small as you'd expect, but quite well constructed and responsive. The trackpad is superior to some laptop trackpads, and once you've got the hand of using trackpad, mouse and touch together you'll find yourself mistakenly trying it on regular laptops too 😉

Best of all the keyboard has an integral battery giving an extra 5 hours battery life. With a basic 10 hours for the tablet alone, this gives Transformer probably the longest battery life available in a tablet, erm, netbook, erm whatever it is!

So who is this for?

Good question.

Tablets fit into a niche for people who want to remain connected and manage emails, browse the net a little, plan their calendars and the like but don't want to lug a laptop around. The Transformer fills the same niche - but with the option to be just that little bit more. If you're the kind of person who has or would buy a Bluetooth keyboard for your pad then this is for you.

Price wise - the Transformer is comparable to an basic iPad 3, but with better battery life, more storage capacity and a keyboard - but at the expense of the amazing retina screen. That said, the Transformer's display is higher resolution than that of the iPad 2.

Pros & Cons

So down to the basics...

Pros

Performance: It does everything you throw at it.
Price: At £399 you get a lot of tech for your money.
15 hour battery life: This is really not to be sniffed at. Even on the performance setting I was getting 12 hours of use between charges.
OS: Asus haven't messed about with Android, this Ice Cream Sandwich is definitely vanilla flavoured. The bundled apps can be uninstalled if you want to, which means you don't get the usual suppliers bloatware.

Cons

Weight: With the keyboard attached its nearly twice the weight of a typical tablet alone - weighing in at nearly 1.2kg - and with the weight mostly at the rear it does tend to tip back in use if you're not careful. Just the pad alone however is comparable to other 10.1" tablets.
Browser: As mentioned before, the only lack of fluidity becomes apparent when browsing. Screen redraws, whilst brief, can be seen. Hopefully future updates to Android will nail this quirk.
Screen: The screen is 'only' IPS not IPS+ - so in bright sunlight you may have to pump up the brightness - but with those extra 5 hours of battery life - this isn't too much of a problem.

Where to get

Currently here in the UK you can only get the Transformer from PC World/Dixons/Currys (why, essentially, the same shop goes by 3 different names is still a mystery to me!).

In summary...

It's powerful, good value for money and versatile. I'd recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone looking to fill that portable tech niche. 9/10.