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Pebble Steel: Shopping for a decent watch? Might as well be smart

Hands-on review: The new Pebble Steel -- attractive, functional and well-supported -- is clearly the best smartwatch now available. But competition's on the way.
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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 12 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Pebble Steel retail package

A couple of weeks ago ZDNet's Jason O'Grady took a first look at the new Pebble Steel. An eval unit arrived at my house that day and after a couple of weeks of use I have to say it is clearly the smartwatch to purchase at this time and maybe for at least the next six months.

I participated in this week's ZDNet Great Debate arguing that smartwatches are tomorrow's must-have gear and soundly lost the public opinion by one of the largest margins I have seen in a Great Debate. While the public doesn't currently agree with me, I still think smartwatches are worth considering and Pebble did a great job with the Steel.

Hardware

I backed Pebble as a Kickstarter project, originally ordering an orange model. Due to typical delays we see in Kickstarter I then switched to a black one to get it in my hands faster and have been using it for several months. The original Pebble is functional, but definitely not an elegant piece of hardware. Over time I have gotten used to it, but now with a Pebble Steel in hand my original Pebble looks a bit cheap.

The Pebble Steel comes in an attractive black box with a simple Pebble word embossed on the top. You can order a Pebble Steel in either brushed stainless steel or black matte. I was sent a brushed stainless steel one, but just ordered my own black matte one now that I have had a chance to test it out.

I had to swing by a store to buy a screwdriver to change out the leather band and test out the stainless steel one. It would have been nice for Pebble to include a small tool to change out the band, although I do appreciate that they included both a leather and stainless steel one in the retail package.

The display of the Pebble Steel is the same as the original Pebble, both in terms of technology and resolution. The word Pebble is on the front of the watch, below the display. On this stainless steel model there is a brushed metal frame around the front. There appears to be an O-ring seal below this metal frame Oops, it's not a watertight seal. It's plastic insulating the body (ground) from the stainless steel bezel (BT antenna). The main brushed stainless steel body takes up about 80 percent of the Pebble Steel thickness.

The three metal buttons on the right side are easy to press with the center one sticking out a bit further than the top and bottom buttons. There is one metal button on the upper left side with the two connection pieces for the charger on the lower left side.

There are four small screws on the back with the Pebble label, model number, serial number, and made in China words on the back. The leather band is soft and attractive. The metal band looks like a typical band and to adjust it to your wrist size you need to take it to a jeweler or follow the method shown on videos online.

You may be wondering what the major differences are between the original Pebble and the Pebble Steel. The right side buttons are greatly improved on the Pebble Steel, the charger and connection port are different, the band no longer fits standard 21mm watchbands, and there is a handy indicator light in the bottom left of the front of the Pebble Steel.

Software

The Pebble Steel runs firmware 2.0 so you will need an iPhone to connect to the watch out of the box. There is a beta of the Android app and hopefully a full version of the Pebble software will launch soon on Android. Android is difficult to get accessories like this working since the Bluetooth stack is not consistent like it is on iOS.

I used my iPhone 5s to connect and setup the Pebble Steel for a week and then passed my 5s along to my daughter to replace her iPhone 4. I then installed the Pebble 2 beta app on my Moto X and connected to the Pebble Steel.

I wrote about the new Pebble appstore and like the ability to install up to eight apps on the Pebble. Call and message notifications are my primary reasons for the Pebble as the message triage functionality helps me be more efficient and let me keep my phone in my bag and on my desk.

Daily usage experiences

I honestly didn't even realize the Pebble Steel was on my wrist most of the time, it's that amazingly comfortable. It is not as long as the original Pebble and sits perfectly on the center of my wrist. It is a tad thicker than I would like to see in a watch, but the reduced length helps the looks and feel.

I was seeing about four days of battery life with the iPhone 5s, but seem to be getting a day or two longer with my Moto X. I personally like that I have finer control over notifications on Android than on iOS. I don't like how iOS doesn't give me specific Pebble control, but requires that I just setup notifications to happen or not happen on the iPhone. In my personal opinion, Android provides a bit better Pebble experience than iOS.

Pros and Cons

I thought my original Pebble was just fine, but after testing out the Pebble Steel I don't know if I can go back to using the larger and less refined model.

Pros Cons
Extremely comfortable design No tool included to swap bands
Visible charging indicator Large bezel and bit thick form factor
Waterproof to 5 atm  
Compatible with iOS and Android  
Growing developer community and appstore  

Pricing and availability

The Pebble Steel is available now for $249, with free shipping available as well. It started shipping in late January and their website states it is in short supply. I just ordered mine yesterday and don't know when it will ship.

The competition

The main competition for the Pebble Steel is the Samsung Galaxy Gear. The Gear is priced at $299 and has a terrible couple day battery life while it does have a fabulous display and improving software. It is likely that we will see an updated version of the Gear next week at Mobile World Congress with a likely price drop.

Other current smartwatches include the Toq ($350), Sony Smartwatch 2 ($200), and Martian Smartwatch ($249). Pebble has the largest developer base, app selection, and works with both iOS and Android devices.

Specifications

Injection molded, CNC-machined 316 stainless steel
1.26 inch, 144x168 pixel resolution LED backlit display
Corning Gorilla Glass 2 display cover
Stainless steel and genuine cow hide black leather band options
Bluetooth 4.0 low energy
130 mAh Li-Ion battery with 5-7 day battery life
Waterproof to 5 ATM (50 meters/165 feet)
Dimensions of 36.8 x 39 x 10.25 mm and 55.43 grams (92.62 grams with the metal band)

Conclusion

It seems that more and more people are using watches today, both for the function and for fashion. Many of these higher end watches run $300, $500, or more. Thus, if you are looking for a high quality and fashionable watch, the Pebble Steel is actually priced very reasonably at $249.

In addition to an attractive, great quality watch you get a fully functional and well-supported smartwatch. Pebble jumped out in front with a successful Kickstarter campaign and is doing a great job of attracting developers and improving on the hardware.

Their cross platform support, hopefully soon coming to Windows Phone with the 8.1 update, is one aspect that will help Pebble succeed. The modern smartwatch market is still quite young and I don't think we are going to see real revolution until Apple or Google jumps in or Samsung decides to support all of Android and maybe even iOS smartphones.

If you are looking for an excellent watch and even a great smartwatch, you really can't go wrong with the Pebble Steel. I am excited about their growing appstore and think the Pebble Steel will be the best option available for several months.

Contributor's rating: 9 out of 10

Further reading:

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Opening up the retail package

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Pebble Steel and original Pebble band comparison

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Pebble Steel and original Pebble display comparison

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Genuine leather band and embossed Pebble branding

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New Pebble Steel charging cable

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Left side of the Pebble Steel

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Right side of the Pebble Steel

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Old and new Pebble button comparison

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Back of the Pebble Steel and Kickstarter Pebble

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Pebble Steel leather and metal bands with 3rd party Pebble

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Pebble Steel watchface

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