Pebble Time

25 February 2015

Pebble, Kickstarter:

We’re announcing a new watch called Pebble Time with a new timeline interface. Pebble Time features a new color e-paper display and microphone for responding to notifications. No compromises on what you love about Pebble: up to 7 days of battery life, water resistance and customizability. Pebble Time is fully compatible with all 6,500+ existing Pebble apps and watch faces. Three colors available exclusively on Kickstarter. Pebble Time starts shipping in May.

It’s going to retail for $199. When compared against the $349 Apple Watch Sport, I can’t comprehend how this product is compelling for iPhone users. This smartwatch doesn’t ship until May — even if you are unsure about the Apple Watch, you might as well wait until April to compare.

At a software level, the Apple Watch will outclass the Pebble Time in every way. Third-parties cannot integrate with peripherals as closely as Apple can. The Watch has special privileges: it can have a permanent connection with the host iPhone, sending data far beyond the current list of notifications. I foresee features like Handoff are crucial to the smartwatch-phone experience and you will miss them on non-Apple accessories.

On hardware, Pebble has gone in a different direction to Apple. (Small devices require tradeoffs). Rather than OLED, the Time uses a colour eInk display, which can show 64 colours1. This means you could play a NES Super Mario platformer on your wrist, but things like photos are not going to work. This is an interesting decision. Although I question whether users will want to look at their ‘universe of photos’ a la Apple Watch, almost any app notification nowadays benefits from a full colour image. Facebook profile pictures being the obvious example.

In addition, e-paper display refresh rates are lacklustre. The Pebble Time UI has some interesting context transitions, reminiscent of hand-drawn animations. The Clock irregularly transforms into a smaller representation, for instance. It’s a cool effect on the concept videos. However, on the watch itself the frame-rate of this transition is severely impaired by the screen technology. It looks bad.

The e-paper display does mean that the Time has a week of battery life. This sounds awesome, but I really don’t think battery longevity is enough to ‘outperform’ Apple’s efforts. Smartwatches have natural charge cycles. Use in day, charge at night. As a long as a smartwatch can last the waking hours, I don’t think anything beyond that threshold matters2.

Bringing utility to the table is much more important than battery life. The Apple Watch simply does a lot more stuff than the Pebble does. Plus, ostensibly, it looks a lot nicer on your wrist and is available in far superior material finishes.

1 An improvement over the original Pebble, nonetheless, which could display only black and white.

2 Tradeoffs. One day backlit smartwatches will have several day battery life.