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Thinking Out of the Box

Uncommunicative – do I really need a smartwatch? (Pebble review)

Times have changed. Back in the time, during my school days, before smartphones flooded the market, I felt naked without my watch. This most important accessory was also some kind of status symbol and could never be missing. I looked at it probably a hundred times a day, consciously or unconsciously. Every morning when I left the house and had forget the watch at home for some reason, I walked around all day with the feeling, that something important is missing.

Several years later, I got my first smartphone. Suddenly, the watch was somehow annoying while typing on the computer, and the view on the phone display not only revealed the information about the time, but also about news, weather and many other things that I really did not want to know – but then became interesting somehow. At times, it happens even today that I look on my display to check the time, read three new messages, put my phone away and then wonder what time it actually is. Apparently my brain manages to focus so deeply on the amount of information on the display, that it forgets why I originally wanted to look on my mobile phone. Just checking the weather quickly (instead of looking at the sky), reading the Twitter stream, posting news on Facebook and updating Instagram. Actually, one always has something to do with a smartphone. Everyone has to judge by himself, if this is a good or bad thing…

More and more frequently, people request to sometimes just put away the phone to avoid sitting silently on the table, occupied by their phones, forgetting to talk to each other while being part of a group . “Uncommunicative” – how many times have I heard this comment in the last few months. It would be obvious to just leave the phone at home – but let’s be honest – there are many good reasons that, if one persuades them himself long enough, all lead to the perception that you’ll need your phone on the road. What, if one looses the group? If a group member arrives too late and asks for the location via Whatsapp? If one’s room catches fire when they are away and the lessor tries to call… Nope, the phone has to be in the pocket.

At that point, smartwatches come into play. The idea to reactivate the good old watch and with it the glance on the wrist, immediately come to mind. The phone remains in your pocket and you are still informed about everything important such as calls, messages and of course the weather on the other side of the window. Oh, an these things can also display the time! Now, there are various types of smartwatches on the market. I can not talk about each device available on the market, but I’d like give only a brief overview of the possibilities, that come into question from my perspective.

Version 1: The complete smartphone on your wrist

This device includes everything you need from a smartphone. A separate SIM is part of the system as well as touch screen, appstore and all the comfort you (perhaps) need. These smartphones are usually about 10mm thick, ugly, heavy and – seriously – who wants to answer a call with his watch on the ear? In addition, a new SIM usually means a unique number for the watch, its own contract and additional costs for something I do not really need. Speaking of “need”. ACTUALLY, for now I know that I do not need a smartwatch. But since the “must-have-gene” has been established in the common language, I probably don’t have to say anything more than that. Anyway, the first version falls through the cracks because of weight, costs and practical reasons.

Version 2: The coupled smartwatch with active LED display

Now things become interesting. The smartwatch is connected to your phone via Bluetooth and receives the data on the same data interface. The watch therefore needs no separate SIM and can be built much more compact. The only problems in this version: With their actively illuminated LED display, the watches are often difficult to read in direct sunlight and the battery life is not really a strength of this kind of smartwatch. By the way, this is even worse in the first version. Also, my iPhone is known to be a bitch regarding approved Bluetooth connections and the iWatch seems to be far away.

Version 3: The coupled smartwatch with E-Ink display

So what I need is a nice, coupled smartwatch with long battery life, which harmonizes with my iPhone.

A Kickstarter project, startet in 2012, which earned $10.000.000 instead of the aim of $100.000, showed, that I am not alone with that “need”: the Pebble. A smartwatch which, according to its description, features iPhone compatibility, a simple, but pretty design, an E-Ink display and in addition a great battery life. What it lacks compared to its LED display equipped competitors:

  • Touchscreen (which I think I won’t need on this small display)
  • Color display (which I also don’t need for basic information visualisation)

To compensate for this loss, there is a good API, an appstore and first of all a lean, light design in different variations.

But to come (more or less) straight to the point of the article: we ordered a Pebble in black, basic version an I will test it for the next few days in my daily routine. Perhaps, I will measure the success of the concept just by the use of the word “uncommunicative” in my environment.

Day 1: Unboxing and first steps

Unboxing

Hourly, I ask for the delivery state of the package. When it has finally arrived, the best part of ordering new hardware begins: the unboxing. The Pebble comes in a small, sturdy cardboard box, which, fortunately, is easy and quick to open (Hello, Nexus 7, take a note!) and gives us a first view on the watch itself.

Also included: an USB charging cable (with magnetic connection, very nice!), a short quick start guide – and that’s it.

The Pebble welcomes us with a friendly “hello.” sticker. Well done, I’m really excited to finally get started. I wonder, however, why they needed a sticker – an E-Ink display does not need no power, as long the display content does not change?! Well, this questions gets answered relatively quick when turning on the watch – The display is, as expected, not the sharpest with it’s resolution of 144×168 pixels. Especially with small or light fonts, one can recognize a relatively strong aliasing. But that, honestly, does not bother me that much, even if I’m used to the retina display of my phone. At a reasonable viewing distance, it is not that conspicuous anymore.

Put on, the watch is… well… it is okay. We ordered the cheapest version, meaning plastic case and rubber bracelet. For private use, one might consider ordering a Pebble Steel. Our smartwatch is surprisingly light and comfortable to wear – even for me, who is used to have a free wrist.

Starting up

I download the Pebble app from the Apple store and try to connect the smartwatch to my iPhone. This works perfectly well and after a short time, a surprised “whoops” from Thomas, who has been wearing the watch at the moment, tells me, that the connection as well as the test vibration trigger are working perfectly.

With the nicely designed appstore as a part of the Pebble app, different watchfaces and small apps can be downloaded easily. Some kind of stack provides the last apps and watchfaces you uninstalled from your pebble.

I have to admit that I am surprised, how comprehensive the variety of the apps at the store is – and everthing is for free. Quickly, one can find and install a nice watchface and start the daily routine.

After the store has already convinced me, let’s turn to the clock itself.

The abstinence of a touch screen and thus the requirement of buttons (three on the right, one on the left, including some space for the charging cable and the thumb in order to counteract the pressure on the right keys) brings out different reactions. I personally think it’s nice to have real haptic softkeys, because the watch is free from fingerprints and unwanted interactions – Thomas thinks, that the solution is not that convincing. As it later turns out at the practical test, we are both right at some points.

The display is perfectly readable in direct sunlight and also in general in bright environments. In the dark, shaking your wrist turns on the backlight. Again, from my side nothing to complain about, except that occasionally, a shaking is registered, which is none at all (putting on ones jacket, scratching your head …).

Hands-on test

Back at my desk, I instantly take off the watch – yep, it is really annoying when typing…

But no, I wanted to get used to it again, so the Pebble goes back to my wrist and immediately starts vibrating at minute-by-minute intervals. And it vibrates loud enough to make my office colleague look up a little bit confused every time. Wow, this little vibration motor is more powerful than I thought! For a short time, I think about disabling the vibration alert – but then somehow, the meaning of it all is lost, so we’ll have to go through this.

But why is this watch vibrating that often? The answer lies in the push notification system of the iPhone. There, you can select the kind of notification for every event. For every app, you can choose between only in lockscreen, as a banner or a dialog, with or without sound.

The pebble on the other hand receives simply all push notifications that managed to be displayed on the lock screen, and reacts with a display notification and vibration.

This becomes annoying very quickly because, as an example, Facebook creates a notification for every answer to a thread one interacted with. To an active Facebook user, this happens very often. On my iPhone with my configuration, the notification is displayed without a sound or vibration – but the watch does not care about that. At this point, I would like to be able to configure apps forwarding to the Pebble. For the first day, I decide to see if I get used to it and leave work for the day – vibrating.

Outside the office, the reaction of the people around me is split between: “How cool” and “How unnecessary.” The loud vibration does not track attention on a normal ambient sound level, so this point resolved itself. At work, I can disable the vibration, because I do not want to be too distracted anyway. By the way, I catch myself looking at my phone again and again. I’m not quite sure if it is out of habit or if I just want to check whether the Pebble has yet missed an important notification or not. It did not, by the way. Not once.

Day 2 – Notification-terror

On the evening of day 1, I found out something important: The Facebook activity of my pages raises extremely in the evening – and every time, my wrist vibrates. The idea of simply taking off the Pebble turns out to be not so wise, because on the table, the vibration is amplified and slowly begins to annoy properly. After the watch also starts to vibrate briefly on the bedside table, I set the DND mode to 00:00 – 06:00 o’clock. On the morning of day 2, I approach the problem. Luckily, I find a compromise or workaround relatively quickly: Didn’t I want to keep distance from this eternal Facebook obsession anyway? Without hesitation, I turn off all Facebook notifications on the iPhone. Only the Messenger may remain, since the event-spam is limited there.

The next few days should prove to be a boon. If the phone does not constantly remind me of it, I actually “forget” to check Facebook every few minutes. Thanks Pebble – even if that benefit, viewed soberly, results from a rather large problem of cooperation between smartwatch and phone.

I slowly start to gain confidence in the watch and don’t check my phone no longer that often – very cool. The first call since my possession of the Pebble comes in and I miss to accept it, because I am wondering, why I should be able to take calls by pressing a button on the watch. Rejecting a call might still somehow make sense, but the background noise for the caller should not be that nice, when I have to pull my phone out of my pocket with the call already taken. On the other hand, it would be strange if a call would be the only notification that would not appear.

Talking about notifications: Somehow I still have the mental model that the display of the time is just a screen saver that covers all messages. Of course it is not, but I always try instinctively to push a button to go back to the “really important” information, the notifications. Then in the end it’s just two more clicks, because the functionality is very prominent in the menu.

Meanwhile, I get used to the interaction with the buttons. With a little bit of practice,

(which is not that difficult with the minimal menus and only four buttons), one reaches its target super fast – I would claim: even faster than by touch.

Day 3 – We get used to each other

I changed the font size of the notifications to “small”. Now, I can se the most important part of most news and can decide, whether I want to react or not. Surprisingly, I decide most of the time, not even to react on messages but only to take the iPhone out of my pocket “if it’s worth it”.

Speaking of batch processing: Apparently, that little black box on my wrist triggers a change of thinking in my head in a very short period of time, I realize benevolently.

I’ve tried several apps over the last few days. None of them has really convinced me. The pedometer is quite nice, but I still do not know what I should use it for (a general problem with pedometers…), Foursquare checks me in unasked on a political party event (I was at a lasertag arena…) and many of the fitness apps need an additional pay-app on the phone or other hardware, which then communicates with the Pebble via the phone. However, I am a person, who does sports without technology. Regarding the “image” app: I think I don’t have to talk about the sense of displaying images as big pixels on the tiny screen in pure BW.

In summary, there is still a lot of room for useful apps, but on the other hand that was not my request to the device. What I would like to try out would be the navigation display, which unfortunately is only available for Android.

The colleagues are getting used to the vibrations from my direction. Seems like no one is disturbed by the sound anymore.

Day 4 – Habits and criticism

For the first time, I forgot my iPhone at home. With the watch on your wrist I actually sometimes forget that I still need the phone to receive the notifications and especially answer them. Being without my phone was not that bad in retrospect – one gets along surprisingly good without a cell phone and because of the time display, the Pebble is also not entirely useless.

Slowly but surely, I am getting used to the feeling of wearing a watch. But, honestly, more slowly than surely…

A point that bothers me every now and then: I often would like to just mute the Pebble in a fast way. Be it while working, eating, making calls or just walking around – sometimes I just do not want to be disturbed. Unfortunately, the functionality for DnD and / or vibration are located relatively deep into the menu structure – I have to press a total of 8 times on a button to reach my target (scrolling included). Here I would like to see a longtap or something similar for fast muting. (Similar to,e.g. the mute / loud switch of the iPhone or the long press of the * key on my old Siemens mobile).

Uninformed people around me don’t notice initially, that I am wearing a smartwatch and no ordinary watch. The pebble only attracts attention when vibrating and I take a look at the display. The first reaction is mostly still: “How needless!”

Interestingly, the smartwatch is often part of the discussion from time to time and the sentence “This is kind of cool, how much is this?” falls frequently.

Conclusion

Of course I don’t wear the watch long enough to give a feedback on long-term usage. Only five days is a short period of time in which I have been more used to the little helper on my wrist than I would have ever expected.

What has been bothering Thomas after a short time, is that the bracelet again and again slips out of the loop by itself and he keeps getting caught by the sleeve of his jacket with the side of the clock (where the magnetic connector is located). Of course these are problems that can happen with any watch, but if you are deeply into reviewing the watch, this should be mentioned.

The Pebble brought me – by switching off many notifications on your phone, so, closely viewed, a missing feature – a lot of silence in everyday life and reduced my mobile phone consumption dramatically. Even if the steady Bluetooth connection needs, according to the manufacturer, about 5-10% battery per day, I end up each day with significantly more battery left, as it was the case previously. Speaking of battery: I did not have to charge the watch even once during the testing period!

Because of the short and concise information right on the display and especially the inability to interact directly with the news, the motivation to quickly check other networks and apps at every SMS, has been virtually eliminated.

Seen from software side, the Pebble is designed simple and elegant. The iPhone app is clean, simple, straightforward and has to offer some really nice visual highlights (see screenshot). The menu structure of the watch is immediately understandable, even if there are some smaller issues (eg, there is the point “Notifications” with the same icon on the first level, and under the sub-item “Settings”, which resulted in some minor confusion). Some deductions have to be made for the offer of the appstore, which does not offer any apps I would like to use.

For both private and industrial context, this surprisingly robust product seems to be a good compromise between power, weight and functionality – I think I’ll order one for my personal use.

By the way: I havn’t heard the word “uncommunicative” for the last week!

 

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