Smartwatches are awesome! Smartwatches look kinda dumb a lot of the time! They don't have to though, and the Pebble Steel is proof. The improved look isn't quite enough to make it the perfect smartwatch, but it goes a long, long way.
What Is It?
It's pretty much the same Pebble smartwatch that took Kickstarter by storm roughly two years ago, now clad in a suit of stainless steel instead of chintzy plastic. So it's the same LED backlit, 144x168 e-paper display, same four button interface, same 5-7 day battery life, and same relatively simple skill set you saw in the original Pebble. But now it's pretty. Like "wear it with a suit" pretty. At least I think so; I haven't worn a suit in a while.
Why Does It Matter?
Everyone and his brother is putting out a smartwatch, trying to put out the smartwatch, but no one has been able to make something you'd actually want to own yet. Smartwatches fall in a weird gutter; generally classier than the Livestrongishness of your traditional fitness band and with more functionality, but nerdier than, well, pretty much anything else you can put on your wrist.
But the Pebble Steel manages to be your most wearable smartwatch option. Not only is Pebble a proven (and popular) player in the nascent smartwatch game, but now it's also the prettiest by far. Pebble beat Apple to making a gadget that is actually jewelry.
Pretty much the only new thing about the Pebble Steel is its design, and man that design is great. The Pebble Steel may not necessarily be your style, but it has style. Respectable style. Style that would almost make it worth wearing even if it didn't also do smarwatchy stuff.
The actual watch part of the Pebble is a blocky, angular beauty. A bit chunky, but in a purposeful and retro sort of way. Its form is convincingly deliberate, not just "whatever shape you have to make it to fit the stuff inside." The buttons look and feel solid. The black strip around the side helps accent the sheer shiny silveriness of the whole thing.
Then there are the bands. Based on the Steel name you'd expect something metal, and yes, that's what you get. A real metal band. Like one you will probably have to take to a jeweler to get fitted. This is a Real Watch. But it's also assertive in a way that may be a turn-off if you're not into mannish, borderline gaudy silver. It also comes in a black version, though, which looks a bit more toned down.
The Pebble Steel also comes with a leather band out of the box. I went to swap it out for the metal immediately, but in the end I came back around to the softer style. But whichever you choose, the Pebble Steel is the slickest smartwatch out there at the moment.
Other than how it looks on your wrist, the Pebble Steel is functionally identical to the Pebble Plastic before it. That is to say, it's a relatively simple, stripped-down smartwatch with a less-is-more mentality. The Pebble Steel's main job is to look pretty and show you phone-things on your wrist. The reliability and simplicity of those functions is what makes the Pebble so great. All of the other bells and whistles are just (somewhat lumpy) gravy.
Pebble offers what is pretty much a perfect execution of the smartwatch dream, with only the tiniest of hitches. Your phone buzzes, there's a second or so delay, you look at your wrist and you know what's up. Simple as that. And now, with the Pebble Steel, you don't have to pay the tax of looking like an idiot wearing a calculator watch.
For that, the Pebble Steel performs admirably on both Android and iOS, although Apple owners have a slight ease of use advantage. Unlike iOS 6, which didn't support push notifications for devices like Pebble, iOS 7 plays nice, and the result is totally seamless setup. Pair the device, install any updates, tell it to mirror notifications, and that's it.
It's easier, but it also means that any application that pushes stuff to notification center is also going to show up on your wrist. You can fix that by disabling apps in notification center entirely, but by default the Pebble is basically just a firehose for your phone, and there's no way to relegate stuff just to your phone without turning it off entirely. Still, this is leaps and bounds better than anything you could do with iOS 6.
On Android (where I used my Pebble the most), things are just slightly more granular. You'll need a third party app (like Pebble Notifier) to get notifications for anything beyond the most basic apps. It's a little bit of a hassle, but it offers extra customization too, including the ability to pick and choose exactly which app's notifications you want to come over. In the end, it's pretty much exactly like the Qualcomm Toq. This is a good thing.
During the time I spent with the Pebble Steel, it basically just melted into my life, in the best possible way. Not having to be self-conscious about how it looked or worry about charging it nightly basically let me treat it just like I would my normal wristwatch (I wear a wristwatch.) With things like the Qualcomm Toq, I'd find myself removing the watch just often enough that it never became The Norm. But after using the Pebble for almost a week, I'm finally all the way in. When my phone buzzes, I look at my wrist whether or not I'm wearing the Pebble. And nine out of ten times I am.
Pebble does have some new tricks to go along with the Steel, and they can all be found in the Pebble App Store. Currently iOS only (though coming soon to Android), it lets you install apps and watchfaces right from your phone, whereas previously you had to do some moderately annoying hacker-type garbage to download watch faces from third party sites and side-load them onto the watch.
That's great, since getting custom watchfaces and little wrist-apps is fun, but for the most part Pebble apps (so far) lean toward the more gimmicky side of smartwatch-itude that's you're better off avoiding. Shake your wrist with the Yelp app to find a random restaurant nearby! Use Foursquare to check into places on your wrist instead of your phone! Snake! Flappy Bird rip-offs! OK, sure. But also: whatever.
It's puuuuurty. The Pebble Steel's main goal is just to look more respectable than the nerd-toy it is, and it pulls that off wonderfully. Between the two bands included, it's easy to find the setup that works for you. And on top of that, the nice-looking metal body is compatible with just about any other 22mm bands as well. The world is your oyster.
The Pebble generally does not waste its time trying to do a whole bunch of questionably useful stuff. The Pebble does not have a camera. It does not have a microphone. It does not even have a touchscreen. And for the most part it's better off for it. The Pebble knows what its job is—showing you notifications on your wrist—and mostly concerns itself with that. Yeah, you can download some games on there or whatever if that's the kind of thing you're into now that the Pebble App Store has launched, but it's not founded around the premise of having to have its own app ecosystem. The Pebble Steel just works and looks good doing it.
The battery life is measured in days, pretty much a must for any smartwatch worth its salt. The listed life is 5-7 days, and we managed roughly 4. Less than the target, but I was using it a lot. 5 days with more moderate use seems reasonable. It's not enough to go on a trip without a charger or anything, but it's good enough to get you by without having to worry about your watch dying constantly. Just don't lose the proprietary magnetic charger.
Also it's waterproof to 5 ATM. Not something to actively appreciate every day, but handy!
Most of my quibbles with the Pebble are small, but they're magnified all the more considering everything around them is so stupid simple and good. You can't customize how long a notification stays on the screen, for instance. Notifications auto-dismiss after a while, but it takes a little too long, and it's really annoying to be going to glance at the time and finding you have to press a button to get an email out of the way first. It'd be nice to have a customization option there.
Case in point: I was walking back to the office on lunch eating a piece of pizza and a few emails came in, but I figured I'd look at them later. Then, after a few minutes when I wanted to know what time it was, the screen was clogged with so many notifications that the time wasn't even visible on screen, and to see it I'd have to dismiss my notifications with a button press from my pizza hand. It's hands-full situations like this where the Pebble commits the cardinal smartwatch sin of being a bad watch watch.
For all that's great about being a stripped down product, the less is more mentality falls short when it comes to fitness applications. Yes, the Pebble can leech off your phone GPS to track runs or whatever, but that's it. OK, so maybe that's not what the Pebble is for, but with rumors of a health-centric iWatch on the horizon, and more and more fitness trackers that are taking cues from vanilla smartwatches, it feels a more like a deficiency now than it did when the OG plastic Pebble launched. If you don't care about fitness tracking, great. But if you do, it's hard to throw $250 at a device that only covers one half of the wrist-device equation.
Which brings us to the greater point: The Pebble Steel is essentially old. It's just a new version of one of the first products in the smartwatch boom about two years ago, and things are moving fast. Though the Pebble still holds up, it seems inevitable that there's something better around the bend, and dropping a bunch of money on what's basically old hardware in a quickly evolving field feels dangerous, both to do and to recommend.
The new Pebble app for iOS—the one with the app store in it—is crap right now. Laggy, freeze-y. That's almost certain to get better with updates, but for now it's a big bummer. Also it's not on Android. But that's coming! Either way, 99.99 percent of what makes the Pebble great has nothing to do with Pebble apps.
Should You Buy It?
If you want a smartwatch that doesn't look terrible and you want it right now, then sure. The Pebble Steel is pretty much the only option out there that combines the best notifications-on-your-wrist-ness of a smartwatch, the style of a legitimate piece of jewelry, and none of the (stupid) extra bells that make the idea of a wrist-mounted screen look like some expensive toy for a Dick Tracy wannabe.
Also it really is a great smartwatch. It shows you stuff on your wrist and looks good, which is apparently a surprisingly hard thing to pull off.
But $250 for even the best, prettiest smartwatch out there is a bit of a gamble considering what may be coming down the pipe. If you're an Apple kid, it probably pays to wait and see how the whole iWatch thing shakes out. If you're not, there will probably be a Google watch too. Also there's going to be a Pebble 2 someday, and it will (probably) have a Steel version from the get-go. There's not a whole more you need in a smartwatch than what the Pebble Steel already offers except fitness tracking stuff. But that one missing piece can hurt.
So at the moment, the Pebble Steel is the best, prettiest smartwatch for your money. But it's also new bod on a gadget that's in imminent danger of falling way behind the curve.
Pebble Steel Specs
Size: 52mm × 36mm × 11.5mm
Weight: 38g / 1.34oz with standard band
Band size: 22 nm
Screen: 1.26-inch, 144 × 168 pixel e-paper display
Battery life: 5-7 days
Sensors: 3D accelerometer, e-compass capable (with future software updates), Ambient light sensor