Cezary Wojcik
Keyboard Wizard
Pebble Steel Present, Apple Watch Future

March 6, 2015

I've been using a Pebble Steel for over 5 months now, and though it is a nice device, I find myself very much looking forward to replacing it with an Apple Watch instead. Though the Pebble Steel offers many benefits of a smartwatch, I've also found that it comes with its own set of annoyances, many of which stem from not having access to any Apple APIs aside from getting Bluetooth notifications.

Pebble Steel Present

This is my Pebble Steel setup:

  • I mainly use the Timely watch face (left below), though I sometimes use the Modern watch face (right below) as well.

watch faces

  • The top and bottom buttons on the right-hand side of the Pebble can be long pressed from a watch face to open a specific app - "Quick Launch." My analog watch had a really nice stopwatch function that I used fairly frequently, so I set the top button to launch a stopwatch app. I set the bottom button to launch the music control app.
  • I have activity tracking enabled and use the Mistfit app to sync the data to my phone.
  • I have push notifications enabled and pair the watch with my iPhone 6+.

Good Things

Before I go into my annoyances with the Pebble Steel, first, I want to address some features that I find "good" (not necessarily specific to the Pebble).

  • A Wealth of Information - The watch face that I use most commonly, Timely, tells me the date, the time, the weather conditions (updated every 15 minutes), a calendar of the previous, current, and next week, and the battery status.
  • Tracking Steps and Sleep - The Pebble has built in APIs to track steps and sleep. As opposed to some popular iOS apps, you don't have to set up anything before you go to sleep - the watch automatically tries to figure out when you sleep. Step tracking is more useful on my watch because I have my watch on my hand more often than I do my phone. For instance, I don't want my large iPhone 6+ in the slippery pockets of my running shorts when I'm running, but I would like to see how many steps I ran.
  • Very Waterproof - I haven't really made use of this functionality, but it's nice and comforting to know that the watch can take an aquatic beating.
  • Music Controls - I use this feature a lot. One of the things I used to do most often with my phone was getting it out to either skip a song or see what song was playing. Now, I can do that from my watch. This is especially useful for skipping songs when driving. I don't have to take my eyes off of the road at all because all I have to do is hold down the bottom right button to open the music controls and then press the bottom right button again to skip the song. This is also useful for skipping through things in a podcast.
  • Push Notifications - This is one of the biggest features of any smartwatch. It is, indeed, very convenient to see notifications without having to pull out my phone. I've found that it is most useful when my phone isn't even in my pocket. For instance, when I don't want to walk around the house with my phone, but I want to see any notifications, or when I'm playing basketball but waiting for an important email.
  • Automatic Time Adjustment - Even though it took very little time, I hated having to change the time,date, or day of the week on my analog watch. Not having to worry about that is very nice.
  • Pebble Steel Looks Good - There are some people who would say otherwise, but in my opinion, the Pebble Steel itself looks pretty good. The regular Pebble is downright atrocious, and both the new Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel don't look great, but the Pebble Steel is pretty nice.

Bad Things

And now, here are some of my annoyances:

  • Visuals - Sadly, the watch face I use is not terribly pretty, unlike the more appealing Modern watch face. The Modern watch face also has a second counter however, which is something I always miss in my default watch face, and actually often the reason I switch watch faces briefly. However, it obscures its own content when the watch hands are on top of it, which made it unusable to me. It doesn't make sense, for instance, to be able to read what the weather is only 50 minutes out of every hour. Unfortunately, there just isn't a watch face that can meet all of my functional and aesthetic expectations out there (I've looked a good bit).
  • Sleep Tracking Woes - Though it is nice that the Pebble tries to guess when you sleep, it doesn't always do the best job. Sometimes, for instance, when I remove the watch to take a shower in the evening, and then forget to put it back on for a few hours, the watch sometimes thinks that I was sleeping. When I actually go to sleep, it overrides the previous time that it thought I was "sleeping." Though in this case that is good, it is more often counterproductive than useful. For instance, if I wake up early, stand up to get some water to drink, and then go back to sleep, the sleep time is overwritten. Now, granted, I am using the Misfit app and its iOS companion app to get this information, and I don't know to what extent this is controlled by Pebble APIs or Misfit APIs, but it is an annoyance nonetheless.
  • Push Notifications - They are a giant mess. While the concept of seeing them is a nice one in theory, in practice, the interface on Pebble OS is fairly awful. First of all, suppose I'm in a group chat, and I get 2 or 3 notifications from it. The first notification that I see is the most recent one, which makes sense in some cases, but if I want to read the messages sent, I want to read them in the order that they were sent. There should at least be some option for the direction in which the notifications are displayed, or an easy way to reverse them without pressing the down button a bunch of times and waiting for the animation to scroll to the next message (this process is so slow that I end up having enough time to read each message anyway). Also, when scrolling through notifications, the place on the screen that shows the time gets replaced with dots that show which notification you are currently at. There should never be a time when, on a watch, you can't see what time it is. I've scrolled through notifications before and wanted to see the time but couldn't until I dismissed all of the notifications. This lack of time is shown in the gif below. Finally, however, the animation to dismiss a notification seems like it takes ages. It's awful. It's quicker to scroll through the notifications and then press the back button to dismiss all of them at once. The notifications work decently well when they only come one at a time every now and again, but that's about it.

push notifications

  • Reliability - Sometimes, the push notifications just don't come through. Sometimes, this continues for an hour or two, and sometimes, I have to reset the Bluetooth connection on my phone and then launch the iOS companion app before the notifications will work again. Syncing the data via the Misfit iOS and Pebble apps is also quite unreliable. I often have to follow the same Bluetooth toggle process before the iOS app will receive the data from the watch. Now, again, I don't know to what extent this is an issue with Pebble OS, and to what extent this is an issue with Misfit's code, but the experience is lacking, and there isn't a better one that I'm aware of (I've tried Runtastic as well). Another example - I like the feature of several watch faces that lets you see the current weather (usually a weather icon for rain/clouds/sun and a temperature). However, oftentimes this information does not load, and I am left with an error icon on the screen instead of the information I want. Again, I don't know whether this is the fault of Pebble OS or the code of the developers that made the watch faces, but it is consistent among all watch faces that include weather functionality that I've tried.
  • The Vibration Is Too Much - You know that sound when your desk vibrates because you put your phone on it and your phone got a notification? If you put a Pebble on your desk, and it gets a notification, it sounds like someone is trying to drill through the desk.
  • Switching Watch Faces By Accident - Before touch screens, one of the most important features of a phone for me was easy access to locking the keys. Physical keys have a tendency to be accidentally pressed, and that remains true with the Pebble Steel. While on the default watch screen, the up and down buttons on the right side of the device toggle between different watch faces. Very commonly, I find myself looking at the watch and seeing some useless, ugly watch face that I can't get rid of because it's installed by default. I accidentally pressed one of the side buttons at some point and thus switched my watch face. One of the benefits of a smartwatch is having a wealth of information. One of the other alleged benefits is saving time by being able to see what you need at a glance, so if I have to go through the (long) animations to switch to the watch face I want, I'm wasting time and getting annoyed.
  • Lack Of API Access - This is one of the biggest fundamental drawbacks of the Pebble that it can't really be blamed for. Apple is never going to give up this kind of access. That said, it still makes using the Pebble annoying. For instance, I don't want the Pebble to be vibrating when I have my phone out and am using it anyway. The phone already shows me the notifications. I don't need to see them again. Similarly, when I dismiss a notification on the Pebble Steel, it dismisses it on iOS, but if I dismiss a notification on iOS, it does not get dismissed on the Pebble. This leads me to dismiss things on my Pebble because it's quicker, albeit annoying. Sometimes, if there are a lot of notifications, and I don't want to wait through the long animation that happens when I dismiss individual notifications, I over-zealously press the back button on the Pebble to dismiss all of the notifications, which sometimes leads me to lose some information I might have wanted to know.
  • Limited Notification Content - If I get sent some kind of image, it's nicer to see the image than to see "You were sent an image by X." Now, the Pebble obviously can't really support this with a black and white screen very well (and not with the ugly 64 color screen in the Pebble Time either), but it is still an annoyance, and something I wish a smartwatch would do. Along the same lines, emoji support on the Pebble is quite limited. I see boxes instead of emojis very often. Nobody likes boxes instead of emojis.
  • Lack Of "Good" Calendar Support - I tried several apps and watch faces to get some of my appointments and classes integrated on my Pebble Steel to some extent, but they were all a hassle. None of them could really just use the calendar information that was already on my phone and just seamlessly put it on my watch. Currently, I don't access my calendar in any way on my Pebble.
  • When Do I Charge It? - I have the Pebble configured to track my sleep, so I need to wear it overnight in order for that to work. If I'm wearing it to bed, then when am I supposed to charge it? I really like having regular charging routines with my devices, and that's hard to do with the Pebble. I usually plug it in when I know I'll be sitting by my computer for around an hour or so at a time, but then sometimes I forget to put it back on, and it starts to think I'm asleep, etc., etc. In my experience, I only get around 3 days of battery life from the Pebble as opposed to the advertised 5-7. I assume that much of this is because of the weather updates on my watch face as well as the activity tracking.

Apple Watch Future

As you can see, I have a good few complaints about the Pebble Steel. I do like the benefits of it enough, however, to where I didn't really want to go back to my analog watch. Every time I think about one of my concerns, however, one of my first thoughts is that the Apple Watch will probably address the concern.

  • Visuals - Apple is well known for their strong design team headed by Jony Ive. Numerous sources say that Apple Watch faces are beautiful and extremely customizible. I have little doubt that this is the case. I don't like the fact that Apple will not allow third-party watch faces, but, to some extent, I understand the reasoning. Apple wants the bar for watch faces to be very high, as the watch faces are central to a watch. I expect that over time, Apple will eventually cave in and allow custom watch faces, but until then, I'm also fairly confident that I will be able to find something I like in Apple's default set.
  • Activity Tracking Woes - The Apple Watch has to be charged every night, so it won't technically have problems with tracking sleep. Despite the fact that my Pebble can track my sleep, I still use an app on my phone to do this because of how unreliable the Pebble's sleep tracking is. I don't see a problem with continuing to use my phone for this as opposed to using a watch.
  • Push Notifications - I have confidence in Apple's ability to make a notification management system that isn't crappy given that the majority of interactions with a watch will likely be with notifications.
  • Reliability - Reliability isn't perhaps Apple's strongest suit according to public opinion these days, but I think that it is safe to expect that basic functionality such as push notifications coming through or syncing the watch with my iPhone won't cause problems. Hopefully.
  • The Vibration Is Too Much - Apple addresses this concern directly with the Taptic engine, which induces something that feels more like a tap on your skip as opposed to violently shaking you. In addition, the Apple Watch is set to only receive notifications if you're actually wearing it, which, even if it did vibrate, would protect it from drilling through a desk.
  • Switching Watch Faces By Accident - I don't know how switching faces will be handled. The Apple Watch still has the physical component of the crown and the screen press that could potentially switch faces by accident. Again, however, I'm confident that Apple's interface is designed intelligently enough for this not to be an issue.
  • Lack Of API Access - Quite obviously, Apple holds all the cards here. It has been confirmed by Mark Gurman on Twitter, for instance, that the Apple Watch will stop getting notifications when you're using your phone. It's safe to assume that dismissing a notification on your iPhone will dismiss it on the Apple Watch as well. Apple has unique access here to make interaction between the phone and watch as seamless as possible.
  • Limited Notification Content - Again, this ties in to Apple's complete access over the APIs. They are not restricted by the content that is sent over Bluetooth via push notifications via the usual API. I assume that this will lead to richer content displayed in "actionable notifications."
  • Lack Of "Good" Calendar Support - The Apple Watch will almost definitely integrate with the calendar information that is already on your phone. This shouldn't be a problem at all.
  • When Do I Charge It? - Recent reports say that the Apple Watch lasts a full day with around 25% battery left. Obviously, this means that the watch will have to be charged nightly. I actually like this compared to the Pebble Steel. Sure, it'd be nice if the Apple Watch lasted two days instead of one, but because it has to be regularly charged every night, it makes it easier (for me) to remember. Since the Pebble Steel requires charging less often, it is hard to set a pattern for when to charge it.

I do have some concerns about the Apple Watch, however. One of my favorite features of the Pebble is that I can control my music without having to look at any screen. This is helped by the "Quick Launch" ability that lets you long press a button to launch an app. Since the "crown" on the Apple Watch is already advertised to be "the home button," and a long press starts Siri, I don't imagine that the Apple Watch will have a similar "Quick Launch" ability. Maybe Apple will prove me wrong, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Another worry of mine is the appearance of the device and associated cost. Most recent rumors say that the cheapest, aluminum version of the watch will only have the colored sport bands available. I think that anything that isn't a dark, neutral leather or something metallic on a watch looks utterly ridiculous. The stainless steel watch definitely looks nicer than its aluminum counterpart, but my preference is not to have to pay extra to have the option to use watch bands that don't look awful.

I feel pretty comfortable with playing sports with my Pebble Steel on my wrist. It feels cheap enough (not necessarily in a bad way) to where I wouldn't care too much if something happened. This is nice because it allows me to track my steps and activity while playing basketball or ultimate frisbee. However, the Apple Watch is going to be a good deal more expensive. I'm not sure whether or not I'll keep it on while playing sports, but if I end up leaving it off, I'll miss out on a good deal of the benefits I currently get from the Pebble.

Here's how I'm currently imagining the cost breakdown of the Apple Watches:

  • Apple Watch Sport 38 mm - $350
  • Apple Watch Sport 42 mm - $450
  • Apple Watch (Stainless Steel) 38 mm - $550
  • Apple Watch (Stainless Steel) 42 mm - $650
  • Apple Watch Edition 38 mm - $5000
  • Apple Watch Edition 42 mm - $6000

These are just rough guesses and aren't really backed by any evidence besides what I read online and some intuition. A lot of the choice comes down to how the devices look in person, but I'm guessing that I will definitely want a 42 mm watch (I'm 6'3" ish). I'm hoping that the band availability will allow me to pick the cheaper "Sport" model. It's still a lot of money, but after using a Pebble for over 4 months, I'm fairly certain that it'll be worth it.

The Pebble can tell you whether you should get your phone out or not. I'm hoping that the Apple Watch will ensure that you don't have to.