Pebble Time Steel

The smartwatch market is more saturated then ever, but can they stand up outside the world of skinny jeans and plaid shirts?

Let’s take a look at the new Pebble Time Steel… in the backcountry.

I chose the Pebble Time Steel for this review because Pebble was really the first to market with a truly outdoor usable smartwatch, launched by a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign in 2012. I was an early adopter then, seeing the potential for an e-paper/lcd based smartwatch. Since then, the market has been filled with all sorts of smartwatches, fitness trackers, and other forms of wrist candy. Most of them lack the waterproofing, usefulness, durability, and sunlight readability required to survive in the backcountry. The Pebble Time Steel is latest offering by Pebble, so it’s time to get it into the field and see how it does.

Putting the Pebble timer app to good use
Putting the Pebble timer app to good use

Pebble Time Steel

This is the steel version of the new Pebble Time. This version has more durability, more battery, 50 meters of water resistance, and leather or steel watch bands. Unlike the previous Pebble, it has a color e-paper/e-ink display. This latest Pebble goes for $250 with a leather band, only $50 more than the plastic version.

Here’s the specs from the manufacturer:

  • 10 day battery life
  • CNC-finished 316L stainless steel casing
  • 59g with included leather strap
  • Color e-paper display and microphone for responding to notifications
  • Compatible with all 6,500+ existing Pebble apps and watchfaces
  • Fits any standard 22mm watch band
  • Android 4+ and iOS 8+

This review will be a lot like the previous gear reviews, and cover these sections: Fit, Build, Comfort, Performance, Hiking, and Value. This is being done over a two week period, with a mix of multi-day hiking trips, cycling, and around town. I took this watch down to Black Canyon to camp in extremely hot weather, and up to the summit of Humphrey’s Peak to see how it handled the 12,633′ elevation. It went cycling across the mountains and valleys in Sedona and Flagstaff, trekked with me in the monsoon rains, and got used in every situation I could find in these two weeks. I wasn’t able to take it for any dives, unfortunately. Perhaps in a follow up.

Along the Schultz Loop Trail

On to the Review!

  • First: Fit

This shouldn’t be an issue with a watch – but smartwatches can be unnaturally large

Pebble in the Rain - not much rain, this is Arizona after all
Pebble in the Rain – not much rain, this is Arizona after all

The Pebble Time Steel is a large watch, but the slightly curved back, rounded edges, and fairly low profile keep it snug and comfortable on my wrist. I wore it on the 3rd hole, my wife on the 5th hole, and it was comfortable the whole test through. There were no sharp edges to snag or screw-on backs to catch on my arm. In comparison to the Galaxy Gear, Microsoft Band and the Apple Watch, this was by far the most comfortable.  Both the Galaxy Gear and the Apple Watch were obnoxiously sized and shaped, and the Band is exceptionally stiff and feels like losing a bet. The Pebble Time Steel feels like… well, a watch.

  • Second: Build

Durability, weight, design, layout, and comfort are all vital features in equipment such as this

To be honest, this has been done to death by every skinny jean wearing tech journalist on the internet. I’m going to cover this from the perspective of an outdoorsman, so you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want things like “premium feel” or whatever.

The Pebble Time Steel seemed well thought out and assembled. The buttons have a nice firm click, and the quick springs for replacing the watch band are as easy to use as you’d expect. In the slight rain, this watch didn’t leak. In the heat of Black Canyon (102F/39C) it didn’t discolor or go blank. It didn’t care at all what altitude I took it up to. The color e-paper display was flawlessly readable in direct sunlight, indoors, and even at night (with a quick flick of the wrist to activate the backlight). I didn’t baby this watch at all – I wore it like a watch. It was played with hard, put away wet, and treated like any other piece of gear.

At the end of two weeks, it had no noticeable scuffs or scratches, the battery worked, and it held up just like any watch would be expected to.

  • Third: Comfort

Comfort is highly subjective, but a watch really just needs to fade away, not draw attention to itself.

The Pebble Time Steel faded quickly into the background for me within a day or two of wearing it. This is about the highest compliment I can give to a piece of kit that you have to wear for hours on end. Some watches are big and chunky, catch on things, or constantly rub or pinch and cause you to notice them. This watch was essentially invisible to me except for the subtle buzz of a rare notification, or the instinctive act of checking the time. I found it to be very pleasant to wear, and it has become my go-to watch.

  • Fourth: Performance

Now we get to the meat and potatoes of this smartwatch – what separates a smartwatch from any regular dime store watch

Pebble Music App
The Pebble Music app – full daylight

I’m going to break performance down into a few sub-sections here, because this really is what a smartwatch is all about. If I just wanted to tell the time, I’d look at my mobile or any $5 chronometer.

  1. Fitness tracking
    • Everyone seems obsessed with fitness tracking, sleep tracking, calorie tracking, and such these days. Yes. There are a number of major fitness apps and accessories like Jawbone, Fitocracy, Runkeeper, and Misfit to track everything I could even imagine.
  2. Apps
    • There are over 65,000 apps. It’s almost crazy. I went into this planning to build an app just for fun – but I couldn’t find anything that didn’t already have an app!
    • The big favorites, such as timers, stopwatches, calendars, messaging, and music players are pre-loaded on the watch. I used the timers frequently for laundry and workouts. The event/calendar views were pretty unique and quite useful. My absolute favorite is the music app. I use Spotify quite a lot while I’m driving, and being able to skip, replay, stop/start, and adjust volume just with a momentary touch of my watch was fantastic. That’s the kind of hands-free I can really use!
    • 3rd party app support was excellent. I used Ventoo frequently to create GPX files, as well as to function as a simple bike computer. With Ant+ accessories, it could have handled heartrate and cadence as well. I just didn’t use those. The Ventoo app worked quite well as it was, providing speed, distance and averages and more right there on my wrist or handlebars. It also allowed me to tweak the GPS polling interval to below 3 seconds for speedometer type use or up to 30s for simple hiking type use.
    • Gaming and entertainment options abound for the Pebble – however I think most of us have better things to do with our time than play on a watch. I’ll nod to it in passing, and say that if playing things like Pac Man or Pixel Miner on a watch is your thing – you’re covered.
  3. Watch faces
    • Now, this is a thing I really like. I expect most people will play with the watch faces a bit, especially since it’s so easy to find new ones via the Pebble app, or even create them from scratch. I’ve made a few over time – for the original Pebble, and now some color ones for the new Pebble Time Steel. I was actually impressed by how good the color really is, as demonstrated in this Jupiter watch face I whipped up in a few minutes.
    • Faces are easy and quick to change from either the phone or watch, and you can really just knock yourself out with them. Classy, bold, nerdy, esoteric, complicated, simple – it’s up to your mood at the moment. Not unusual with a smartwatch, but certainly very easy to do. Certainly easier to build, switch, and share than with Apple Watch or Galaxy Gear.
  4. Messages
    • The Pebble Time Steel has some good integrated messaging. With a little customization, you can get a soft vibrating alert to just the messages or notifications that matter to you. You can be fairly picky, or have just about everything go to your wrist. For myself, I’m extremely picky. Phone calls, texts from specific people or with specific phrases, and google wallet transactions are all that I want to be notified of. This means that I have fine-grained control over what interrupts me and what doesn’t.
    • Voice reply, as demonstrated in the Pebble Time Kickstarter video, is possible but very short and not terribly useful.
    • Quick reply messages are customizable and somewhat useful, but I only found myself using them on the trail. Everywhere else it was more convenient to just use my mobile to reply at a better time.
  5. Setup and Use
    • Setting up the Pebble with my Android phone was a simple matter of installing the app from the Google Play store, then clicking a couple buttons. It took less than one minute and couldn’t really have been easier. I spent probably 15 minutes poking around inside the app learning about options, and then several more minutes browsing for watch faces.
    • Bluetooth can be turned off and on – this is a big deal for me. I don’t like being disturbed at night, so I always set my mobile to airplane mode. The Pebble Time Steel reconnected seamlessly in the morning and gave me no issues. This probably also has something to do with the very low battery impact.
    • Pushing new apps and deleting old apps is really simple and easy, I ran into no issues at all with this.
    • The “past”, “present”, “future”, “back” buttons were pretty intuitive, worked well, and gave me no troubles. The only place I had any issues was in the Ventoo app, which required me to push back twice. This was a design choice by Ventoo, and sort of annoying.
Pebble App
Pebble App

Performance overall was excellent. I was very pleased with how well the Pebble Time Steel fit into my day-to-day activities, and it felt like it actually helped. There is nothing that screamed “vital, must-have” about the smartwatch, but I think that if you’re in the market for a smartwatch it is a great choice.

Battery bite

The Pebble didn’t seem to hit the battery on my phone too badly, but the Ventoo GPS app sure did. My phone’s battery time was several days shorter than usual. Part of this was taking pics for this review – but not sure that accounted for all of it. Android OS and Android System jumped up into the battery usage where they never had before. Is this where the bluetooth drain hides?

Battery life before, and during this review.

Battery life before and after Pebble
Battery life before and after Pebble
  • Fifth: Hiking/Biking

This is about how well the watch stands up to the rigors of hiking and biking. The battery life, the backlight, the durability.

Pebble direct sunlight
Pebble screen showing the color and readability in direct sunlight

Taking this watch hiking was quite pleasant. It was nice to be able to leave my mobile packed pretty much the entire time, and have the watch provide all the info I’d normally lean on a mobile for. Direction, time, elevation, etc. There were even weather alerts, but on the mountain those tend to come quite a bit after the fact.

I especially enjoyed using it as a bike computer. Most bike computers are fabulously expensive and really overpriced. The GPS capable ones in particular are horrible. You spend hundreds of dollars to poorly replicate basic smartphone features, just so that you don’t have to subject your mobile to mud, dirt, rain, or crash damage. This is probably the best use case for the Pebble. It’s less expensive than most of the bike computers, it’s perfectly readable in full sunlight or in the dark, and it shrugs off rain and mud with impunity. My mobile stayed comfortably packed in my camera bag the whole time I was riding. I used the Pebble for speed, distance, direction, waypoints, maps, and altitude. If you listen to music on the trail for some reason, you could even control that via the Pebble. I don’t – but I realize some folks like to. Plus, you can read/reply to any texts or alerts right there on your handlebars instead of having to dig out your mobile.

Without a doubt this is a great companion device for cyclists.

  • Finally: Value

What are you really getting for your money?

Pebble screen showing the indoor readability
Pebble screen showing the indoor readability

Let’s be frank. Nobody needs a smartwatch. It’s even less useful than a smartphone. Smartwatches can be useful for helping to filter the torrent of junk information pushed at us, and especially good at being an outboard for an expensive device.

Comparing the Pebble Time Steel to Galaxy Gear, the Apple Watch, or the Microsoft Band, it is far and away the winner for outdoors use. Battery, daylight visibility, and ease of use in gloves or underwater make it a slam dunk.

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