Tech Column: The Pebble Steel Smartwatch

Austin Allen

Pebble Technology brought the smartwatch into prominence back in late 2012 when the company raised over $10 million on the crowdfunding website KickStarter for its Pebble Smartwatch. Looking to stay relevant in the increasingly crowded smartwatch market, Pebble added a new watch to their ranks: the Pebble Steel.

I raved about the original Pebble in a review last year. Made of durable plastic and paired with a silicone band, the $199 Pebble is lightweight, waterproof, pretty slim and comes in a variety of colors. However, its build is similar to a rectangular sports or calculator watch. The Pebble Steel addresses all of these complaints. It is constructed out of stainless steel and Corning Gorilla Glass (the same scratch resistant glass used in smartphones), is available in brushed steel or matte black and comes with both black leather and metal bands. This watch is handsome. While the Steel is a little heavier, it has a smaller footprint than its plastic twin. Yes, you heard me right: twin. For $249, the Pebble Steel definitely looks new, but inside, you’re getting the exact same watch. That’s not really a bad thing though. You get the same LCD e-paper display, seven-day battery life, Bluetooth LE connectivity and 5 ATM waterproof rating. Instead of relying on a touchscreen, you navigate the list-style interface using four buttons. The button on the left side of the device is the back button. The top and bottom buttons on the right side are up and down buttons, while the center button is the select button.

The Steel is not trying to emulate a smartphone. Just like the original, simplicity is its strength. The abilities of the Steel fall into three categories.

First of all, it’s a watch. Within the new Pebble app, you can pick from hundreds of watch faces. Some are analog. Some show various forms of date. Others feature your favorite video game character, television character or sports team. Some watch faces even display the current weather on them.

Second, the Steel is your notification center. When you receive a notification, your watch vibrates and the message appears on the screen. On Android, you can pick which apps can send information to your Steel using those like Pebblify. iOS provides you with less control, so you’ll have to turn off notifications for the apps you don’t want sending notifications to your wrist. You can send calls to voicemail just by pressing a button and have the option of accepting calls on iPhones. You cannot take calls from the Steel since it lacks a speakerphone. If you wear your watch to bed or keep it on your nightstand, you can set ‘Do Not Disturb’ hours so your watch doesn’t vibrate during the night. You can also allow only phone calls to notify the Steel.

Third, the Steel has its own apps. The Alarms app and the Music app come built-in. The former allows you to set multiple alarms while the latter allows you to use your watch as a remote for any media playing on your connected device. You can pause/play and skip forward and backward in your music queue when you’re playing music through your Bluetooth speakers or listening to tunes while you run. The Pebble app store is filled with many stand-alone apps like timers, stopwatches, calculators and scorekeepers. Other watch apps are extensions of smartphone apps and can act as simple remotes for those apps and/or display information from those apps. For example, your Steel will display customizable information like distance ran, distance left, average pace, current pace and calories burned during your run when using RunKeeper. However, I’d suggest buying the original Pebble as a workout companion. The Steel also works with apps to tell you how many yards you are from the green, to track your sleeping and to control your Hue’s wifi light bulbs.

A few things bothered me though. The backlight isn’t evenly spaced out and the ambient light sensor is finicky so the backlight turns on under fluorescent lighting. I’m left manually turning the backlight on and off. Unlike the strap for the original Pebble, the Steel’s leather strap just doesn’t quite fit comfortably on my smaller wrist. The watch is just a tad too big, causing it to slide around a little, or the leather band uncomfortably grips my wrist just a bit too tight. While it’s great two bands are included with the Steel, they use an uncommon two pronged design, making it harder to find bands that will fit. Switching bands now requires you to either get a 3/64 flathead screwdriver or take it into a watch shop. Unlike the original Pebble, the Steel is a men’s watch. Maybe someone will make smart jewelry that’s more useful than Cuff’s weird LifeAlert and pager combo.

Before the original Pebble, all other smartwatches were a joke. However, the competition is starting to heat up, with MetaWatch teasing a design-focused smartwatch and Samsung announcing its successor to the Galaxy Gear. However, no other smartwatch on the market today has the developer support, platform compatibility, battery life, good looks and amount of content that the Pebble Steel has. If you’re in the market for a classy smartwatch, this is the only one you should buy.