Pebble Steel: An aha moment for wearables. Almost.


The Pebble Steel, $249, is the latest iteration of the Pebble smartwatch. (Courtesy of Pebble/Courtesy of Pebble)

Tech companies have been telling us for years about how much we’ll love having technology attached to our faces, woven into our clothes and strapped to our wrists. But amid all the industry enthusiasm has been an underlying question: Why?

Pebble Steel, the second-generation smartwatch from Pebble, the Kickstarter-backed firm, gets as close as any wearable in justifying its utility. But it doesn’t quite make it.

For wearable technology to really take off, it must do three things: Make life more convenient; easily fit into everyday life; and look like something you’d want to be seen wearing.

Pebble gets marks for two out of three. In terms of design, the Steel hits all the right notes. It looks like a traditional watch, as opposed to an awkward screen taped onto a bulky band, a problem that caught Samsung short when it introduced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch.

The Steel, to its credit, looks like a traditional watch, albeit one with a big face. It could easily pass as a chunky men’s watch and could blend in with semi-formal attire. It even comes with interchangeable leather and metal bands — but those who aren’t DIY jewelers will have to consult professionals to swap them. In fact, it looks good enough to attract compliments before others know it’s got extra features under the hood.

But it’s not too delicate, either. The 1.26-inch screen is big enough to show you when you have a new e-mail without forcing you to squint too much. You certainly wouldn’t want to read a novel — or even a long e-mail — on a screen that size. It’s ideal, however, for viewing who sent an e-mail and its subject line, which is about 70 percent of what you want to know from a notification anyway.

That philosophy also hints at Pebble’s biggest strength: editing. It gives you basic information and cuts out the extraneous bits. As with the first generation of the watch, the Pebble Steel doesn’t have a speaker, microphone or camera. That’s a blessing. Taking wrist-mounted pictures or phone calls by watch isn’t convenient or easy, and making a product that pretends otherwise is silly.

The Steel also limits the number of apps you can have on your watch. Limiting users to eight apps at a time may be frustrating for some, but it does ensure that you’re using the watch as an aid to your smartphone rather than as a replacement.

Pebble also has made smart sacrifices to make the watch easy to use. For example, the company has recognized that a full-color LCD display isn’t necessary for your wrist. The Pebble Steel has the same e-ink screen as the first-generation gadget and it can last two or more days before having to be recharged. That’s a trade-off worth making, to cut down on bulk and avoid having to plug your watch in every night.

As technology improves, there may be a way to bring a smartphone screen to your wrist. Samsung’s second-generation Gear 2, announced Monday, boasts a better battery life than the Galaxy Gear, so advances are coming. For now, the e-ink on the Pebble is more than sufficient for reading in bursts.

For all that, the Steel falls just short of being a natural fit. For every moment that you’re able to glance down at your watch to determine whether your latest e-mail is from Groupon or from your boss, there are the times when you must fiddle with it to get the information you need. Apart from the band, Pebble didn’t make many usability improvements — its four-button layout can be clunky at times to do anything more involved than merely looking at the watch. As upgrades go, the cosmetic changes were far more developed than the technology.

Finally, there’s the problem of apps. Pebble has a varied app store with a lot of great functions, watchfaces and even games. It should be commended for that, but it doesn’t have the partnerships with core Web companies such as Facebook and Twitter. As such, the Steel is not the device to break into the mainstream, particularly if watches hooked into Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play store are on the horizon.

At $250, the Steel is a fun investment in the future of wearables — and proves a point about how they can be best used — but isn’t a must-have.

Related stories:

Samsung announces Galaxy S5, new wearables

Innovations: A half-baked Google smartwatch could sabotage Google Glass

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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