I’ve been on the fence about smartwatches for a long while now, but that’s changed.
Last year (somewhere around November) I bought myself a brand new Pebble from Amazon UK, but never even got to wear it — by the time it arrived, I’d changed my mind about how best to spend my limited gadget fund, so I returned it in hopes that the Apple watch would be priced sensibly.
We all know how that turned out, right?
Six months later, at the peak of the Apple watch pre-launch craze, I signed up for the Pebble Time Kickstarter. A few weeks later, I withdrew my pledge — again, because I wasn’t certain it would be worth the expense.
Good thing I did, too otherwise I’d be sorely annoyed at Pebble for revealing the Pebble Time Round so soon after shipping the Time.
The Experimental Method
But I still hadn’t reached any conclusions regarding whether a smart watch was useful to me or not (other than my pressing need for a better way to get notifications), so I ended up fishing an original Pebble off eBay for a song and a dime.
And guess what, there is something to the smart watch craze - and, like I surmised all along, notifications are the killer app, at least for me. Pebble’s app store is crammed with watchfaces (a brilliant select few in the midst of a lot of rubbish), one or two interesting apps (I only really liked Evernote’s — despite my recently having stopped using it — and a couple of news applications), but pretty much nothing else of consequence.
Most time-critical information I need on a daily basis reaches me via some form of IM or texting, and the Pebble (even the original, chunky one) excels at handling notifications, doing so for nearly a week at a charge. And the display (even on the original, black and white model) is perfectly readable at any time.
Then my commute changed, and I started relying on my watch to control music and podcasts as well. That made it obvious there were other advantages — my phone stays in my pocket (which is essential in crowded subway cars), my MW-600 Bluetooth headset clips inside my jacket, and I don’t need to reach for it or the phone, since the Pebble side buttons provided a quick, intuitive eyes-free interface, letting me switch tracks and control the volume without even looking at the watch.
Wearing a Droid
Even considering that it had pretty much zero interactivity besides displaying notifications, it had Google Now (which I actually missed from the time I used an Android phone), a working agenda that can show me a lot more detail about upcoming meetings, and, overall, a much nicer, more polished UI than the Pebble.
So despite the added bulk, I was sad to return it and began re-assessing my options.
Buying a brand new watch was completely out of the question (if I am ever to toss away hundreds of Euros for a single-purpose gadget that will be junk in a few years, it might as well be a nicer, thinner Apple watch), so I started looking at second-hand Wear devices and got myself a Sony SmartWatch 3 for three main reasons:
- It has a standard micro-USB port for charging (fiddly, yes, but the Pebble’s proprietary cable was getting on my nerves), which I can also use for ADB debugging
- It has a transflective LCD display (which means it is perfectly readable in direct sunlight provided you use the right watch face)
- It’s currently pretty cheap (got mine for a little more than my Pebble, and spotted it on Black Friday for nearly the same price)
The Sony SmartWatch 3 is bulkier than the Pebble, but notifications are vastly better (more readable and easier to cope with in stacks), Google Fit and Google Now work pretty well (although I never use “OK Google”, weather and public transit cards are useful to me on a daily basis).
It also has usable music controls. Although I can’t start playback from the watch and it is fiddlier to use the touch screen on the go, skipping tracks and controlling the volume works OK.
It may be odd to say that the only thing I really miss from the Pebble are the hardware buttons, but otherwise I fully recommend getting a cheap Android Wear watch over just about any Pebble, with the possible exception of the Pebble Time Round (which looks really nice to me, largely because it’s round).
In terms of battery life, I’ve gotten nearly three working days out of the Sony SmartWatch 3, switching it off when asleep and with “ambient mode” turned on (i.e., per-minute updates of the LCD without a backlight). I find having to charge it around twice a week to be perfectly tolerable and at least as good as the Pebble Time Round.
Also, even though Google hasn’t yet enabled Wi-Fi support for Android Wear on iOS, the SW3 turned out to have much better Bluetooth range than the Pebble - I can sit nearly on the opposite corner of the house from my phone (with a brick wall in between) and still get notifications, even if the watch does lose the connection every once in a while.
Android Wear does seem to drain the phone battery a bit more on average than the Pebble — although to be fair the Pebble app was responsible for a series of regular mid-morning battery drains because it seemed to be stuck in some form of spin lock accessing network resources. But I can spare 10% of battery life daily (after all, buggy apps like Facebook and Hangouts fare much worse).
Also, notifications stop working if you kill the iOS app — which seemed to be less of a problem with the Pebble due to the specifics of its Bluetooth connection.
Applications? What Applications?
Android Wear for iOS sits At the troubled intersection of the Google and Apple ecosystems, so it’s a wonder it exists at all, and not at all surprising there is no third-party app support. But since I’ve done my share of Android development, I soon started tackling that.
As it turns out, Android Wear is a lot more fun than the Pebble for development — it took me little more than a couple of hours (half of which was spent setting up Android Studio…) to code a simple memo applet with hard-coded info I want to have handy, and only a little more to create my own simple watch face that takes advantage of the SW3’s transflective display to render a black-on-white digital display that is perfectly readable in most circumstances.
And I’ve been having some fun with the OS as well. For instance, I got Google Maps to (partially) work on the SW3 while paired to my iPhone — you can pan and view maps, but the navigation features won’t work.
But given that basic connectivity works, I suppose it’s not impossible for Google to make navigation work properly in the future — that and and bring more of their services to Wear on iOS. On the other hand, I suppose Apple will keep preventing third parties from doing truly useful stuff on wearables, like replying to text messages…
Does Pebble Have a Chance?
As I see it, Pebble is trying to take the high road with a product that is functionally inferior to Android Wear (worse screens, worse interaction and now, equivalent battery life) but betting on design and looks through the Pebble Time Round.
However, I find that the current Eur.299 price point is way too much for what the Pebble Time Round delivers — I’d realistically value it at around half that at most — and am concerned that they still haven’t sorted out QA in their production lines (I’ve spotted a couple of reports of bad build quality and display faults over on Reddit already, and the older models seem plagued by display and moisture accumulation issues).
It’s About Time, Stupid!
Still, what is missing from both platforms is a consistent way to, you know, navigate time.
I can’t review past notifications in Android Wear (which is rather dumb, actually), and the Agenda app on Wear is good but could be a little better (for instance, it doesn’t let me see events for the next day, let alone an arbitrary date).
Also, watch faces that provide a sane, usable overview of my daily schedule are missing on both platforms (although there are a few Wear watch faces that will show you upcoming appointments, none of them work for iOS users, so I’ll eventually have to enhance mine using this as a starting point).
Pebble will make its timeline feature available “before end of 2015”, but it’s too late for me — I’ll still try it out, but don’t expect to switch back over it considering what I’ve read of the experience.
Final Words: The Band?
Before you ask about the Microsoft Band 2: although I’ve already seen it (literally) in the flesh, I wanted something that looked as much as possible like a conventional watch.