There’s a bittersweet feeling as I write this review. My Pebble Time had arrived on the afternoon of January 2, 2016, just days before I had enlisted into BMT. I told myself that I would publish a review for the smartwatch but I never got around to do it. Weekend book-outs were too precious for me to be spending my time writing about a watch. Or perhaps my experiences with my Pebble had become so personal that I found it too difficult to write an objective review. This device had been with me through the thick and thin of life, waking me up at 5am for fall-ins and accompanying me at live firing ranges. In the uniformity of NS life, the Pebble was a reminder of who I was beyond the confines of camp: the tech geek and Editor-in-chief of Twenty First Tech. I have grown to love this watch with all my heart, and I would go on long diatribes defending my Pebble whenever someone saw it and questioned the utility of smartwatches. It is more than a watch; it is an integral part of my life. Very few devices have had the honour of me saying this about them.
But just a few days ago it was announced that Pebble, the company that started the smartwatch revolution, was no more. Fitbit had acquired the company for $40 million, and said that they were more interested in the software that Pebble has developed rather than their hardware. I was in shock. Pebble had just announced their new lineup of hardware: the Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core. Dissolving the company was the last thing I’d expected their next move to be. But here we are, in the year where Brexit happened and Trump won the election, Pebble is dead. The Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core will never see the light of day, and the eager people who’ve laid their money down for those devices and waited for months will receive nothing more than a refund as consolation.
And I don’t mean to be disrespectful or to question the motives and resolve of Pebble’s CEO, but for the record, if I were the CEO I wouldn’t dream of giving away Pebble – not for $40 million, not for $40 billion, not for $40 trillion. Especially not after just announcing such an exciting lineup of next-generation products. I would’ve Elon Musk-ed the company till the end even if it left me on the verge of bankruptcy, because I believe in the work that Pebble is doing.
So, in my shock what else can I do but to finally get up off my ass (or rather, sit my ass down) and write this review? At best, it’ll be an impassioned eulogy for the company that has bettered my life and the lives of many others; at the very least it’ll serve as an explanation to those who wonder why I am so distraught by the death of an (ostensibly) obscure company in a rapidly declining wearables market.
Although I have never written a formal review, some of the people I’ve met would’ve heard my succinct verbal review of the Pebble Time: “It is the best 200 bucks I’ve ever spent” and “It’s the only smartwatch that makes sense”. And I guess that pretty much sums up why Pebble smartwatches are such amazing devices: they’re affordable and they excel at what they’re meant to do.
Pebble smartwatches know their place in this world
For one, no other smartwatch from a notable company is able to last the 5 days that my Pebble Time does on a single charge, and most of them cost a ton more. Having a watch that you have to plug in every night is simply a hassle. Worse still, in the event that you do forget to do so, you’ll find yourself overwhelmingly exasperated that you’ve just invested several hundred dollars on a brick-on-a-wrist that can’t even tell the time when a $17 Casio can.
This ties in with the fact that Pebble smartwatches don’t try to do too much, and hence do well at what they do. They know their place in this world. No point in having a watch that gives you step-by-step GPS voice navigation if it dies within the hour. Pebble focuses on keeping you informed: that’s all that it does and it’s insanely good at it. And this is why the Pebble’s e-paper display that has been criticized for having washed out colours and poor visibility indoors is exactly what makes this device so great. Because it’s an e-paper display, it’s wonderfully visible outdoors (where it matters) and it doesn’t drain any power when idle (giving you that stellar battery life), unlike the unnecessarily high-resolution OLED panels used by other manufacturers. E-paper panels just make sense on smartwatches. OLED panels just don’t (why do you need a high-resolution animated image of a jellyfish floating on your watch? Just. Why?!)
It doesn’t have a touchscreen. But that’s because touchscreens are not how watches are meant to work. The more time I spend swiping and tapping on an Android Wear watch or an Apple Watch the more I wonder why I don’t just whip out my phone and complete the task in a much more comfortable fashion. Using physical buttons means that I can turn on Do Not Disturb mode even while I’m drunk and half asleep by simply holding a button. It means I can control songs streaming from my phone on my watch without having to look at the watch’s screen because I’ve memorized the physical button layout for pausing, adjusting the volume and skipping a track. I find it hilarious when people look at my Pebble and start trying to interact with it by prodding at the screen. It’s such a non-intuitive way of interacting with a device this small that I wonder why it’s their first instinct to do so. My hypothesis attributes this to the viewing of too many Apple Watch advertisements.
It’s as if your Pebble is an assistant for your phone, telling you (and you alone) when something’s popped up, leaving you to judge whether or not you should attend to it.
But how has my Pebble made my life better? That boils down to how notifications on your phone are meant to work: when you get a call, your phone rings to inform you that you’re receiving a call. It doesn’t ring for the guy next to you on the train, or for the other students in a lecture theatre. Only you need to know that it’s ringing. But while having the phone’s volume on leads to some awkward public situations, silencing your phone and setting it on vibrate doesn’t get the job done all the time as sometimes you just don’t feel the vibrations, or your phone is placed somewhere not on your person and hence goes unnoticed. Having a watch on you that vibrates every time you get a call, on the other hand, is an ingenious solution. You could be at a noisy party and your phone could be lying in your bag all the way across the room, but when someone calls you, you will know for sure as your Pebble is always here to tell you. It’s as if your Pebble is an assistant for your phone, telling you (and you alone) when something’s popped up, leaving you to judge whether or not you should attend to it. Your phone can be silenced forever because the Pebble serves as its private mouthpiece. My OnePlus 3 has a physical alert slider, but it’s never been in any position other than silent, except when I’m bored and slide it around just for kicks.
A smartwatch doesn’t overload you with information; it filters the information for you.
Most people have the misconception that all this buzzing on your wrist is highly distracting in everyday life, especially if you’re a member of many whatsapp group chats or have a thousand followers on Instagram liking all of your posts. But first of all, Pebble doesn’t give you an annoying buzz like your phone does. You can choose from several options of haptic feedbacks in the settings menu, the best being “Nudge Nudge” for low priority notifications, which subtly gives your wrist two light taps, and “Jackhammer” (literally feels like what its name suggests) for more pressing notifications such as incoming calls. Secondly, in the Pebble app you can choose to disable notifications entirely from apps that you don’t want to hear from. For example, I have disabled notifications from Channel NewsAsia as I do not like to have my watch buzzing every hour telling me about every piece of news that happens in the world. And if you didn’t know, you can mute individual group chats on most instant messaging platforms within their respective apps. Finally, if you don’t want to have vibrations for notifications but still want to have notifications shown on your wrist, Pebble has a Do Not Disturb mode.
A smartwatch doesn’t overload you with information; it filters the information for you. You’ll find yourself checking your phone less because your watch tells you exactly what’s going on in your digital sphere, and you pick your phone up only if you feel like the notification warrants it.
On top of all this, my Pebble tells me the weather, what’s next on my calendar, how many hours I’ve slept the previous night, and how many steps I’ve taken. It allows me to delete new unimportant emails on my Gmail without taking out my phone, it allows me to reply via voice to my friend on Telegram (surprisingly accurately) when I’m eating at the dining table and my phone’s charging in my room. It has tens of thousands of apps from stopwatches to timers and compasses. It has watchfaces that range from the practical to the fun. At 8.30pm everyday it gives me a summary of how active I’ve been for the day, accompanied by a cheeky motivational message. After every workout it tells me how far I’ve run or walked, how many steps I’ve taken, my pace, and the calories I’ve burnt. It’s the only alarm that wakes a noise-oblivious sleeping me because the watch relies on vibration and not sound to get me out of bed. Even in the confines of camp, without being connected to my phone, my Pebble does all of this, except for interacting with my phone’s notifications. Having it on Airplane mode while in camp means that my Pebble lasts me 7 days on a single charge, enough such that I never have book in with its charger. If the past 1600 words haven’t convinced you on the utility of smartwatches I don’t know what will.
But that’s the thing. Pebble was the only company which made smartwatches that did these things right and lasted 5 days while doing them. And Pebble is dead. With Fitbit only valuing the software that Pebble has created and not its hardware, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a Fitbit watch that matches up to the aborted Pebble Time 2.
Until then, the Pebble Time is the only watch for my wrists. I just hope it doesn’t die on me, because along with the company went the warranty.