Pebble Steel Classes Up the Smartwatch

When the original Pebble smartwatch debuted, it was a solid piece of Kickstarter-funded hardware in desperate need of software upgrades to enable most of its features. A year later, the Pebble has received some impressive software updates, and added an app store.

When the original Pebble smartwatch debuted, it was a solid piece of Kickstarter-funded hardware in desperate need of software upgrades to enable most of its features. A year later, the Pebble has received some impressive software updates, and added an app store.

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That's all to the benefit of the new Pebble Steel, a high-end version of the standard Pebble that benefits from upgraded materials and a more mature software platform. The insides of the $249 Steel are almost identical to those of the $150 base-model Pebble--what's new here is design, which is fitting for a wearable device.

The Pebble Steel is made from stainless steel, and available in silver or matte black. (I tested the silver model.) It ships with two different watch bands, one also made of steel, and one made of high-quality leather. And the watch face is made of Corning's super-strong Gorilla Glass. Contrast that with the original Pebble, which is made of polycarbonate and comes with a rubber watchband. (After a year, my original Pebble's polycarbonate face shows slight scratching, and it's got a leather band only because I found the stock one to be sweaty and unpleasant.)

Considering the two Pebble watches offer the same display and tech specs, they look quite different. The Pebble Steel is squat and looks much more square than the original Pebble. It's also more boxy. Photos of the Pebble Steel don't do it justice--on my computer screen it looked like a glorified Casio calculator watch, but in person it definitely seems classier in comparison to the more sporty styling of the original Pebble.

The Pebble Steel doesn't feel cheap, and it was comfortable as I wore it on my wrist for a week. My only complaint with the design is that the edge of the inner metal border around the watch's glass face is noticeable, almost sharp. On a device like this, I expected an entirely smooth feel, but didn't get one.

Both watches can optionally vibrate to let you know of an incoming notification. The vibration on the Pebble Steel is a bit less aggressive than the one on the Pebble. The result is a less obnoxious vibration, but one that's a little easier to miss. In the end, though, I think it's still noticeable enough to alert you that something's going on.

The one technical difference I could detect between the original Pebble and the Pebble Steel is an addition of an RGB LED on the face, at the bottom left. The LED lights up when you're charging the watch, and theoretically the LED could be used by apps on the watch to subtlyA signal you about various things. But so far as I can tell, the LED doesn't do any of that yet. Pebble's software has come a long way in the past year, but it's still a bit of a work in progress.

Otherwise, the Pebble Steel works pretty much exactly like the Pebble. For more information about that, you can read my review of the original model as well as my article about the launch of the new Pebble app store.

The Pebble's display is black-and-white and fairly low in resolution, but its battery lasts almost a week--not a bad tradeoff. And because it's a low-power LCD display, it's visible even in the brightest sunlight. I wish the screen was higher resolution, so that text is less jagged and traditional watchfaces could look a bit more like the analog watches they're trying to ape.

What I like about Pebble's watches is that they're functional (they tell the time), and they subtly provide information about what your smartphone is trying to tell you--without requiring that you take your phone out of your pocket or bag and turn it on. Unlike a watch like, say, the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Pebble's watches don't attempt to act like a computer or smartphone. They're watches with access to data via the smartphone they're paired to via Bluetooth. That simple approach is a good one.

Bottom line

I like how Pebble's watches keep it simple. They're watches with slight upgrades, and don't try to do too much. One day, perhaps even one day soon, we will be strapping crazy sensors all over our bodies, including our wrists, and Pebble's approach might seem outmoded. But as a person who wears a watch every day, I've enjoyed spending the last year with a Pebble on my wrist.

Is the Pebble Steel worth $249, a $99 upgrade over the regular Pebble? That's a fashion choice. I was originally skeptical of the look, but having seen it in person, I think I do prefer it to the original model. The Pebble looks like a prop out of a sci-fi movie, whereas the Pebble Steel looks like a real watch.

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