First Look: Pebble E-Paper watch for iOS and Android (Verdict: Wait)

Pebble smart watches are starting to be delivered to early Kickstarter backers, and I received mine yesterday. Here's a look at my first 24 hours with the $10m watch.
Written by Jason D. O'Grady, Contributor

While the drumbeat around the Apple smart watch project is getting louder by the day (Bloomberg reported that the iWatch will ship in 2013), it's still vaporware. If you're an early adopter, you can purchase a Pebble ($150) today that connects to the iPhone (and Android smartphones).

First Look: Pebble wristwatch - Jason O'Grady
Image: Jason D. O'Grady/ZDNet

The Pebble E-Paper watch was one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of 2012, raising over $10 million (when it was only seeking $100,000). I made my $125 pledge on April 17, 2012, and received my Pebble on March 4 — almost 11 months later.

Pebble is essentially a surrogate for your iPhone, allowing you to receive text messages, emails, and missed call notifications on your wrist via Bluetooth. You can also control the track playing on your iPhone's music app. (The general questions and FAQs at getpebble.com are quite informative.)

The list of supported notifications includes:

  • Incoming caller ID

  • Email (Gmail or any IMAP email account)

  • SMS on both Android and iPhone

  • iMessage (iOS only)

  • Calendar alerts

  • Facebook Messages

  • Twitter

  • Weather alerts

  • Silent vibrating alarm and timer.

Setup was pretty simple on iOS. After installing an initial software update, I was upgraded to Firmware 1.81. Pebble requires that you enable Bluetooth > Pebble > Show Notifications. It also requires turning on "View In Lock Screen" for any alert you want to receive (ie, Settings > Notifications > Mail > Account > View in Lock Screen).

I paired my Pebble to my iPhone 5 and set up Message notifications, which work pretty well. Upon receipt, messages display on the Pebble screen (message notifications require iOS 6 and don't work in iOS 5.)

One preference I'd like to see is backlight timeout after a notification. The screen lights up ever so briefly when I receive a new message, and it's easy to miss at night if you don't look at the watch face immediately. It could use to be another 3 to 5 seconds longer.

Incoming caller ID works well too. Pebble vibrates and displays the incoming caller ID information on its E-Paper screen. I have also used it to control music and audio books playing on my iPhone from my Pebble, although control is limited to play/pause, and skip forward/backward. But that's where the fun ends.

Email notifications have been a problem. I've yet to receive one from my iPhone 5 to my Pebble. Calendar notifications are also a bust. I've similarly enabled them in my Notification Settings, but no dice. One suggested fix is to re-toggle the "View in Lock Screen" setting every time Pebble gets disconnected (or to switch from Banners > None > Banners), but they don't seem to work for me. The Pebble Support Forum is chock full of early adopter problems.

Also annoying is the random message that appears in the middle of my iPhone screen that says: "Pebble would like to communicate with the Pebble Technology Corp. Pebble XXXX." When I touch OK, it launches the Pebble app. According to the Pebble forum, it's a known issue that Pebble is working with Apple on. It's apparently an issue with memory; if you load a couple of apps that require a lot of memory, the iPhone will try to permanently close the Pebble app to free up memory, which is when you get the notification.

Facebook and Twitter? No luck. Weather? Nada. I was able to hack together basic weather alerts using an IfThisThenThat (ifttt.com) recipe, but it seems like a total hack.

Although notifications are hit or miss, one small consolation is that you can choose from eight different watch faces via the Pebble app (free, App Store), but that's not really much considering that most people purchase a Pebble for the notifications. Sometime this month (March), you'll be able to purchase additional charger cables and 22mm watch straps from Pebble. Pebble said it will post a Kickstarter update when they are ready to be ordered.

Overall, Pebble feels like a pre-alpha project at best on iOS. It works with some notifications, some of the time, but never with others. I'm pretty forgiving with bleeding edge technology and an admitted watch junkie, so I'm willing to wait until the software matures and a proper SDK is released. But definitely steer clear if you're expecting anything more than a novelty that you can experiment with once in a while. My advice is to keep an eye on the support forum (which isn't searchable, natch) and wait until some of the bugs are worked out.

Update: About an hour after I posted this I received my first email notification on my Pebble. And I haven't received any since. 

Update 2: Despite claims of "5-7 days" of battery life, my Pebble started showing the battery indicator midday on day two. The battery was completly drained within 48 hours.

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