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Pebble 2 review: A budget-friendly smartwatch for undecided users

  • Editors' rating
    6.5 Good
  • $99.99

Pros

  • An inexpensive smartwatch or fitness tracker
  • Battery life batter than nearly every smartwatch on the market

Cons

  • Heart rate sensor is finicky
  • Not all that different than older Pebble Time watches

The first Pebble 2 units from Pebble's latest Kickstarter campaign recently began shipping to backers.

After successfully funding its third Kickstarter campaign, smartwatch pioneer Pebble started shipping the first wave of Pebble 2 watches to its backers on Sept. 30.

The new watch features a heart rate sensor -- a first for the company -- and the same PebbleOS features we first saw introduced and expanded upon since the introduction of the Pebble Time lineup in early 2015

Outside of the heart rate sensor, Pebble 2 doesn't add much in terms of features to the Pebble experience, which has left me searching for a reason to recommend it.

Specifications

  • Battery: Up to 7 days
  • Sensors: Heart rate, 3-axis accelerometer, Ambient light
  • Display: 1.26-inch ePaper liquid crystal with LED backlight
  • Compatibility: Android 4.3 and up; iOS 8 and up
  • Dimensions: 39.5mm x 30.2mm x 9.8mm thick, with additional 1.4mm bump for heart-rate sensor on bottom.

Similar design, just refined

I met with Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky in May 2016 in his company's offices in Redwood City, Calif. As we sat in a conference room across the table from one another, Eric removed a single device from a black Pelican case and handed it to me.

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I recall him telling me something along the lines of "This is Pebble 2," yet the words didn't quite register with me. Despite his proclamation, I immediately thought I was holding the original Pebble smartwatch. After a few seconds, I began to notice small differences between the two devices.

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The side buttons on the Pebble 2 don't stick out as far and are closer together. The watch is also thinner than its predecessor. And you can't help but notice the optical heart-rate sensor on the back, emitting green light in a rapid pattern searching for a pulse.

During the last week as I've worn it, that nostalgia hasn't left me. It's a comfortable watch to wear, light enough for me to to often forget I was even wearing it until the next alert arrived and the gentle buzz reminded me it was there. You can still swap out bands on the Pebble 2 with your own 22mm bands.

An immediate downside to refining the old design, instead of completely rethinking it, is the size of the display on Pebble 2 at 1.25 inches. After wearing the 42mm Apple Watch for the past few weeks, with a screen size of 1.65 inches, the Pebble 2 screen looks tiny.

It's all about heart

As competition grew among smartwatch manufacturers, Pebble was often criticized for not doing enough with its product portfolio. With the Pebble Time lineup, the company launched Pebble Health to count steps and monitor sleep, but heart rate activity was still missing.

That changes with Pebble 2, with the company using an optical sensor similar to what you'd find on a Fitbit or even the Apple Watch.

Users can pick a watch face that displays regular heart-rate readings, or view a graph of readings within the Pebble app on an Android or iOS device.

I pitted the Pebble 2's heart rate sensor against Samsung's Gear IconX earbuds and the Apple Watch Series 2, with all three devices often capturing nearly identical readings in controlled tests. Meaning, I was sitting still, with Workout mode active on all three devices to ensure constant heart-rate recordings.

Outside of those few tests, I found a few random reports of my heart rate jumping to over 150 beats per minute (bpm) for a reading, then go right back down to my normal resting rate between 70 and 80 bpm when wearing the Pebble 2. One reading of 197 bpm was in the middle of the night, while I was sleeping. I hope I would wake up if my heart was beating that fast in the middle of the night.

Looking through previous heart-rate recordings from the Apple Watch or older Fitbit devices, I've yet to find a reading that high, especially while I was asleep.

On another occasion, I removed the Pebble 2 from my wrist in the middle of the day and placed it on my desk. Later that afternoon, I put it back on, and then noticed it recorded the time it was sitting on my desk as a nap. Only, I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't even wearing the watch.

After mentioning the issue to Pebble, a representative informed me the watch cannot detect if you are or aren't wearing it, and to prevent false sleep recordings when you take the watch off, it should be placed on its charger.

It's unapologetically Pebble, but is that enough?

Pebble's Timeline feature, shortcut to favorite apps, and quick launcher all come preinstalled on the Pebble 2. Battery life tops out at seven days, according to Pebble. In my experience, I was able to get five days out of the battery.

The display is easy to read in the sun, as is expected with ePaper technology. The buttons are firm, yet not too hard to press, and voice commands were reliable.

So the Pebble 2 gets good marks across the board when it comes to performance, but the kicker is that it's the same experience I get from my Pebble Time watch. Same notifications, apps, display quality (plus color!), battery life, voice commands, and overall experience. Well, except that heart-rate sensor.

Buy now, or wait?

The longer I've used the Pebble 2, the more I struggled when coming up with a recommendation. At $129, the Pebble 2 is a steal whether you view it as a fitness band or a smartwatch.

Here's where I landed: for someone who is unsure if a fitness tracker or smartwatch is right for them, the Pebble 2 is an inexpensive device to test the waters with. It gets the basics right and doesn't break the bank.

With that said, Pebble will begin shipping the $199 Pebble Time 2 in November, with a nearly identical feature set to the Pebble 2. Only, Pebble Time 2 gains a color display that is 53 percent larger than the current Pebble Time display (making it roughly that much larger than the Pebble 2 display).

For someone who wants a bigger battery and improved display, the Time 2 is the Pebble smartwatch you're looking for.

Specifications

Miscellaneous
Color Category Black
Color black
Max Depth of Water Resistance 98 ft
Protection waterproof
Preloaded Software Voice Actions
Communications
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.0
Battery
Run Time (Up To) 7 day(s)
Style
Product type Smartwatch
Software
Type Voice Actions
Header
Brand Pebble
Product Line Pebble
Model 2 SE
Packaged Quantity 1
General
Product Type smart watch
Wearing Style watch style
Clock Display Yes
Tracking Data activity, sleep activity
OS Provided
Type Pebble OS
Connectivity
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.0