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* Update : After some, let’s say debate, on the official Pebble forum a little more testing was conducted – after reading here check out the follow up piece – http://uxxv.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/the-pebble-watch-the-follow-up-aftermath/ *

The Pebble Watch
Pebble is the darling of Kickstarter, the crowd funding website that pulled in over 10 million dollars to begin the project to build the Pebble smart watch.

In case you don’t know what Pebble is, it’s not a pocket sized electronic pet rock (though it seems to function like one sometimes). Instead it’s a low power smart watch designed to act as a second screen to your second screen. Why would you want such a thing? Well, how many important calls or texts have you missed when your phone’s been in your pocket? Vibrate alerts on a mobile inside a rubber bumper case, inside a pocket when you are walking or moving around doesn’t always register with your brain so in steps Pebble. It connects via Bluetooth and for the most part acts like a normal watch. When a call or text comes in, it lights up and displays an abbreviated summary of what’s going on – similar to the alert text you would get on your phone screen itself. That’s how I would advertise the product as it stands just now, and if it worked this way out of the box I’d be happy but unfortunately for a device announced in January 2012 and shipping for the best part of this year, it fails to meet even these 2 simple tasks from a laundry list of additional promises it makes on its website.

The problem with Pebble is that it’s really a beta product that’s been dreamed up without the necessary structure in place to bring the promise to reality. The team behind the product wanted to release a device that links to your phone and offers these features but they never checked if it was actually possible and allowed by mobile vendors, mainly Apple. So we run into all kinds of bother without any fixes available.

The two most infuriating issues are as follows (we’re on iOS so this follows for iPhones though may also affect Android)…

Choose or make your own watch faces

1. When you successfully connect your watch to your phone you MUST keep them paired via Bluetooth at all times. If for some reason there is a break in communication neither your watch nor your phone will alert you, but you will no longer receive ANY notifications on the Pebble about incoming texts or calls. This is unacceptable, is not mentioned on the website (apart from the support areas of the forum) and is a deal breaker. If I’d known about it, I’d not have bought the product. “But you’re not going to walk away from your phone so it’s not a problem really is it?” – Yes it is. Bluetooth unlike wifi has a very short operating range of around 25 feet indoors so if you have your phone on your desk and leave the room there’s a good chance you will break that link and on returning will have to go through, what the Pebble community call the finger dance. This is where you have to go into the menu on your phone, go into settings, go into notifications, go down to Calls, change the banner type from Banner to Alert and back to Banner. Come out a level of the menu and go into Messages and do the same Banner to Alert to Banner then exit settings. You have to do this dance EVERY time you get more than 25 feet away from your phone. An utter ballache when you have your phone on charge at home, leave it on your desk, give your phone to someone else to make a call etc etc. Why the Pebble team don’t add a function to their app that pings the watch every 30 seconds or minute and if it finds the device not available waits for it coming back into range and then either reconnects automatically, reinstating the notifications OR pops up an alert to tell the phone user that they need to do it manually. It’s not having any inclination at all that there is a problem and things are disconnected that’s the killer here as I’ve then sat working away and occasionally glancing at my watch, seeing nothing on it and then an hour later checking my phone and seeing a ton of messages and missed calls. If we have to check our phone as often as the device that’s meant to act as a go between then it’s a complete fail.

2. Slightly less annoying but still a huge pain is that after an hour of not having the Pebble app loaded and on your phone in the foreground, your phone will disable the app thinking it’s not needed and putting it to sleep. This means for 60 minutes from when you connect your Pebble to your phone you will receive Caller ID notifications of incoming calls, but after that you will only receive the actual number on your watch when someone calls. Can you remember the numbers of your friends in this day and age or do you rely solely on your phone screen telling you who it is trying to get through? This is a huge mess and is really annoying. Sure it still alerts you that someone’s trying to call but you still have to hunt the phone out of your pocket just to check the screen to see who it is and means the Pebble is as much use as one of those flashing key fobs you get in pound shops that give you mini epileptic seizures with their array of coloured LEDs that flash when a call comes in.

Those are the two core functions of the device that fail badly. Staying connected and delivering the Caller ID data to let you know who is trying to call. Pretty big issues and as mentioned there is nothing to tell you of these short comings on their website or when you order. I suppose it’s like buying a new phone and reading what it can do but only when you get it home do you find out that after an hour it won’t tell you who is calling and if you get it more than 25 feet away from the charger and come back into range it will stop working but won’t tell you.

The team at Pebble keep saying things on their forum along the lines of “… when iOS 7 comes out the notification system will hopefully work a lot better …” – sounds good doesn’t it. Problem is, they have been playing with iOS 7 beta for over half a year and should be able to tell us all right now if it works or it’s just as crap. It’s a bit donkey and carrot to phrase it in the way they do as the release of 7 will be here in the next few weeks so Pebble surely must know if their stuff works better with the beta as Apple aren’t likely to drastically change the Bluetooth and notification stack in the remaining days.

Phew! That’s me only discussed the two core features of the Pebble that are the must haves, lets now very quickly delve into what Pebble advertise on their website as the other features for the watch … that also don’t work.

Fables from the Pebble website

  • Incoming Caller ID – (works for 60 minutes)
  • Email (Gmail or any IMAP email account) – Needs an app on the phone to function
  • SMS – this works, unless you break the 25 feet rule
  • iMessage (iOS only) – same as SMS
  • Calendar Alerts – never seen a calendar alert pop up
  • Facebook Messages – doesn’t work
  • Twitter – doesn’t work
  • Weather Alerts – only works if you JAILBREAK your phone, unbelievable
  • Silent vibrating alarm and timer – no timer built in

This is all from the front page of the Pebble website. False advertising much?

There are also other issues with the website. It mentions flicking your wrist to dismiss notifications. This was removed a while back as people were accidentally removing them. It also says you can tap the watch to do things, activating the inbuilt accelerometer. This doesn’t work either. The site needs updated ASAP.

Here are some suggestions for the Pebble team to ignore, based on just a few days with the device. See if you think they are good ideas…

No battery indicator – the Pebble doesn’t tell you its current state of charge and since it has a unique USB cable to charge, it would be a good idea to know where we’re at when it comes to power remaining. A simple bar graph or percentage mentioned in the settings menu would suffice and save any problems where a user might think they have 4 days of juice remaining and head away for the weekend to find out they only have a day left before the watch dies.

No speaker – even a tiny piezo electric speaker for a simple beep would be a welcome addition, controllable from the settings menu along with the vibrating option.

No individual vibrate patterns – it would be good to set up different patterns for text, calls, twitter, Facebook and mails.

Looks oily in sunlight – ahh, I didn’t even mention this earlier but if you look at a Pebble in sunlight you will see coloured streaks all over the screen. Think oil spilled on the road and the rainbow effect it gives. Again no mention on the site about this, apart from the hundreds of complaints in the support forums. Pebbles response? This is what all LCD watches look like. O RLY? None of my watches since the 1980′s have done this. Maybe I’m holding it wrong.

IOS pops up random messages saying it wants to connect – possibly not a Pebble issue but I’ve never had my car kit, Bluetooth headset or keyboard randomly pop up system messages now and then asking to connect to the device.

Enable and disable vibrate function – the Pebble has 4 buttons on it, not bad. Guess how many button presses it takes to turn on or off the vibrate function – useful when you want to go to sleep and wear the watch in bed? 13. Yes, 13 different key presses are needed to navigate the menus to enable or disable this most basic function and when you go to find it, its hiding in the Display Menu. My suggestion is to also add this function to the Back button. Hold it down for 3 seconds and the Pebble could alternate between modes, while giving a small vibration to signify if its change. A bit like the iPhone does going from ringing to silent.

Notification History – when you receive a notification you can read it and then when you close it, it’s gone. It would be good to have a small history function where you could scroll the past 5 or 10 that have come in and this wouldn’t make much more use of the memory built into the phone.

Change watch face – it would be good to be able to set the watch so the two right hand side buttons didn’t always change the watch face, it’s a pain doing it by accident.

The watch strap – is horrid. They must have got them for free. Worse than a corner shop £1 digital watch.

Pebble notifications via SMS

So the conclusion on Pebble as we sit a week into September 2013 is that it’s a geek curiosity. It works, kind of, but it will also drive you mad with the way you have to coax it to function. Think of it as a modern day Tamagotchi where you need to give it TLC every hour or it will go in a huff and take your Caller ID away; separate it from your phone and it refuses to work anymore … If the team can sort the problems out quickly and iOS 7 does bring satisfaction it could be great, let’s just hope they still have some of that $10million sitting around for proper R&D when Apple release it.

* Update – as mentioned at the top of this article, after some discussion on the Pebble forums some more testing was carried out – a day in the life of Pebble so to speak. Check it out here and see what some of the folks online have been saying too – http://uxxv.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/the-pebble-watch-the-follow-up-aftermath/  *