If 2016 is the year the smartwatch goes from being a mere accessory to a legitimate device, it seems apt that Pebble — one of the most successful independent progenitors of this gizmo — should unveil a new model this year. And the Pebble Time Steel, for the most part, does not disappoint. But with the Apples and Samsungs of this world creating far snazzier and more powerful offerings, should you bother with this one?
Build and design: 7/10
As is the case with most smartwatches these days, customisability is the name of the game. And so, you can get the Time Steel in three colours — black, silver and gold — with matching straps. The version reviewed was gold in colour with a red leather strap.
Unfortunately, the shade of gold is a bit like a dust particle in that it flies into your eye and proceeds to provide a fair amount of irritation, until you either go numb or forget about it. That is unless you happen to be a huge fan of Iron Man, in which case the colour combination will be right up your alley. The idea of a flashy gold Pebble watch also seems at odds with the ethos of the brand — being quirky, understated and far from the mainstream. But should the colour bother you as much as it did me, there are perfectly lovely looking black and silver variants available.
Measuring 47mm by 37.5mm and sporting rounded edges, the Time Steel looks a little like the Apple Watch on steroids and minus the distinctive crown. And while it may appear very slightly to be on the bulkier side, it’s when you pick it up and strap it on your wrist that the highly deceptive 10.5 mm thickness comes into play. Remarkably well-weighted, the Time Steel sits snugly on your wrist without ever feeling cumbersome.
Further, the material, finish and slightly curved shape gives the Pebble Time Steel a distinctly premium feel and the perforated texture on the flatter and wider (than the Pebble Classic at the very least) side buttons are easy to locate by touch should you find yourself in the dark. Believe it or not, the backlight does not illuminate the sides of the watch. As with previous iterations of the Pebble, the Time Steel can accommodate most 22 mm straps, however, it’s entirely likely that you’re not going to want to change your strap. Smooth to the touch and incredibly comfortable, the genuine leather strap compares favourably (and in some cases even surpasses) with the straps on the Apple Watch and Moto 360.
In short, sturdy build coupled with stylish looks.
Now if only they could do something about that gold colour.
The 182 ppi Color ePaper display is is adequate. That is to say that it does the job quietly and efficiently without being flashy. With only 64 colours to choose from, the screen display isn’t as vivid as you’d probably like, and graphics sometimes look a little washed out, like a watercolour painting, if you will. This is not necessarily a problem, because a majority of the screens and notifications rely on simple pastel colour schemes.
What is a problem, however, is the size of the actual screen, which measures a tiny 31.75 mm across. The effect of this tininess is ironically enlarged by the fact that the screen bezel is huge, and around the black screen bezel is a thinner metal bezel. It’s hard to shake off the notion that this seems a monumental waste of space.
Fortunately, viewing the screen (which remains on at all times, it’s just the backlight that fades out after a few seconds) even under harsh sunlight isn’t a major problem, unless you are attempting to read an email or message, in which case you will require your other hand to block out the sun.
While the screen itself is made of sturdy and scratchproof Gorilla Glass 3, the metal body is remarkably prone to getting scratched and it doesn’t even require a serious collision to trigger minor nicks and grazes.
Under the hood is a Cortex M4 processor fuelled by 512 MB of RAM, which once again, does its job quietly and efficiently. The Time Steel uses Bluetooth to pair with your smartphone, and since it lacks Wi-fi connectivity, you’re going to need to be fairly close to your phone at all times. But, should you wander out of range and then return, the Time Steel quickly notes your return and reconnects automatically, which is nice.
There is an onboard compass and pedometer, but no heart rate sensor, which works, since Pebble isn’t positioning itself as a fitness companion… yet.
Given the economical nature of Color ePaper displays and the non-touchscreen nature of this device, the battery (believed to be 150 mAh) lasts unsurprisingly long. The bundled charger cable snaps magnetically to the back of the Pebble Time and it takes just under an hour to fully charge the smartwatch.
Apart from Samsung’s Tizen-based smartwatches, most smartwatches these days are compatible with Android 4.3 and above and iOS 8 and above. The Pebble Time Steel is no different. However, with most smartwatches, the experience on Android tends to differ from that on iOS. Since this review was conducted on an Android phone, I cannot speak of the experience on an iPhone.
Right from the revamped and significantly updated Pebble app to strangely complex world clocks and Pebble’s answer to Flappy Birds (which happens to be a bizarre little app that will likely destroy your smartwatch’s side buttons), nothing seemed to crash or slow down the Time Steel or the phone.
As for the pre-installed apps, Pebble as always has played it light and breezy and only included its health app — which includes a steps counter and sleep calculator. The choice of apps is nowhere near as vast as you would find with the Apple Watch or one of the many Android Wear devices, but that comes with the territory for Pebble users. A positive point is that nearly all the apps and watchfaces on offer are free.
Performance and Usability: 9/10
Setting up the Time Steel, while not complicated (simply download the app on your phone, power up the Pebble and you’re good to go), can take a little while, while the latest firmware and updates are installed. Incidentally, this is the slowest activity associated with the Time Steel.
That last statement will seem a lot less cryptic once you’ve got the watch up and running. Apps take around a second (if that) to load up, notifications can be dismissed within the blink of an eye and calls strangely come in on your wrist a fraction of a second before your phone has had a chance to light up (This theory was tested on a couple of smartphones).
Unlike some of its competitors, the Time Steel carries no pretences of replacing your phone, particularly, since it isn’t possible to make calls and compose new emails or WhatsApp messages (you can only reply). And while the ability to compose a new communiqué is reserved only for ordinary text messages (although you can only message the last few people from whom you have received a message), the three-pronged mode of messaging remains the same: Either use an emoji, a preloaded yes/no/ok reply or compose one by voice. It must be noted that the microphone is quite receptive and the software is intuitive. So while you might look ridiculous talking into your watch, your message will be flawless and devoid of any funky autocorrect errors.
Notifications, like calls, are quick to light up your Time Steel and they feature simple but fun graphics that can even make the process of realising that a colleague has again acquired some sort of stomach bug slightly less tedious. Should you find yourself on a WhatsApp group filled with people who cannot take two breaths in a row without sending out a message, muting notifications is a piece of cake on the Time Steel.
And then there’s the watchfaces. Clearly one of the biggest lure of smartwatches is the ability to shake up how something as simple as time is presented. The preloaded designs are minimalist (one text-based, one analog and one digital watchface) and you are encouraged to download and install designs that match your mood du jour. Since app and watchface files are so tiny, the time spent between clicking download (‘Add’ in this case) and rocking your latest app/watchface is minuscule indeed.
If you’re this far in, you’re probably already aware of this glaring fact, but just in case, it’s worth recalling that all of these functions are controlled with the side buttons, since the Pebble does not have a touchscreen. This does mean that getting from home screen to an app or a particular setting can take a few clicks, but and once again, this comes with the territory.
As mentioned earlier, apps are relatively limited, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to find whatever you need — whether a football score tracker, a map app, a currency converter or the game Hangman. Expectedly, all of these are scaled down graphically, but then Pebble was never known for state-of-the-art graphics.
The Pebble health app is a bit of a mixed bag, because while its sleep tracker seems fairly accurate (when compared to other devices) and maps your sleep patterns out for you graphically, the steps counter is way off. For instance, it’s still a mystery how 450 steps were racked up on the Time Steel while I was sat watching TV.
Battery life: 9/10
The process of evaluating the Time Steel began around eight days ago and at the time of going to press (as it were), the battery is still going strong with nearly 30 percent left after medium to heavy use. According to the manufacturers, the battery life is around 10 days, and while that is yet to be ascertained, all signs look good. The absence of a touchscreen and the Color ePaper screen as mentioned earlier are to blame for your charger cable being neglected for days on end. All this despite the screen being on at all times.
Verdict and Pricing in India: 6/10
The Pebble is not your typical smartwatch.
If it’s flash you’re after, this isn’t the watch for you.
If it’s brands you’re after, this isn’t the watch for you.
If it’s photos and videos you’re after, this isn’t the watch for you.
But if what you seek is a smartwatch that knows its job and does it quietly (it’s got no speakers) and efficiently (noted the theme here?), then the Pebble comes highly recommended. Stable software, robust hardware, responsive UI, speedy performance and battery life to put the Energizer bunny to shame is what you’re getting. The only question is whether you are willing to part with Rs 15,999 for a Pebble, when a few thousand rupees extra could bag you one of the aforementioned flashy smartwatches on the market.