writing about tech

Tag: pebble

25 Miles on a Bike with the Apple Watch and RunKeeper

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Introduction

I’ve been a bit obsessed with gadgets and fitness tracking since I discovered RunKeeper on the iPhone 3G in 2008. It wouldn’t run in the background, and it murdered my battery, but I still loved tracking the stats and maps of my walks and bike rides. It was primitive, and it was messy, but I had a taste of how gadgets could encourage me to be more fit, and I wanted more.

Since then, things have grown a bit more sophisticated, though still not as much as I’d like. Other tracking services came along, but I stuck with RunKeeper but, well, it has all my data, and I have a community on there. What I didn’t love about RunKeeper is that I had to fish out my phone every time I wanted to interact with it or view my current stats.

Enter the original Pebble. I was mildly intrigued by the possibility of notifications on my wrists, but I was excited to finally have an interface for RunKeeper. I missed the original Kickstarter, but managed to grab one at Best Buy, and it was my first step into a larger world.

I’ve also tried the Moto 360, and now the Apple Watch.  In addition, I use a Fitbit One, which is great as a generic fitness tracker and social platform, but generally a bit lacking when it comes to accurately tracking bike rides, and obviously can’t work with RunKeeper at all. My holy grail fitness tracker has always been one that could replace my Fitbit and my Pebble, could accurately track my heart rate,  all while still acting as a display for RunKeeper and performing other smartwatch-y functions.

The Ride

So, today, I took my new Apple Watch on a 25 mile bike ride to find out if it is truly the Chosen One. The short answer? Not quite – but it’s really, really close, and all-but-one of the failings are on the software level, not the hardware level – so things could change.

Let’s cover the hardware failing first – the first-gen Apple Watch has no built-in GPS. For many, that could very well be a deal-breaker. If you still have to carry your phone, why bother? Personally, I like to have my phone with me, especially on bike rides, in case something goes wrong. It’s also how I listen to podcasts – shout outs to The Adventure Zone and the Android Central Podcast for keeping me company today. So, relying on my phone’s GPS is just fine for me.

Software-wise, the biggest issue is that third-party apps can’t tap into the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor, so I have to use both RunKeeper and the built-in Workout app if I want to get heart rate information. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a double-tap of the digital crown will switch between your last two apps, so it’s really easy to jump between RunKeeper and Workout. It makes it harder to manually pause my workouts, but both apps automatically pause if I stop for a short time, so that’s not a huge deal.

The other software issue is the RunKeeper watch app itself, which is the most bare-bones version of RunKeeper I’ve ever  it. The actual during-activity display is fine, but you can’t change the type of activity you want to do from the launch screen, so you have to dig out your phone for that. It’s a dumb limitation, and one I have to imagine will be fixed sooner rather than later, but if you try and use the app today, that’s what you get.

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That’s the bad stuff.  Now let’s talk about the good stuff, which is basically: everything else. It’s by-far the best smartwatch I’ve used for working out – it combines most of my favorite aspects of the Pebble and the 360, while correcting some of the issues with both.

Vs. The Pebble

The Pebble’s RunKeeper integration and fitness tracking functionality are appropriately simple. The RunKeeper app will display your current stats, and will pause the run if you hit the side button.  This is one case where the Pebble’s always-on interface truly shines, as I can always see my information and it’s always visible regardless of lighting conditions. The Pebble itself serves as a basic pedometer, which tracks my runs well enough, but fails when it comes to bike rides.  That, combined with the lack of a heart rate monitor, means it’s a fantastic RunKeeper display, but too basic as a fitness tracker.

Vs. The Moto 360

I’ve already extensively covered my use of the Moto 360 as a fitness tracker, so I’ll focus on the differences between it and the Apple Watch.  My biggest issue with the 360’s RunKeeper integration was that, while it kept the screen always on, it was usually too dim to see without tapping on the screen, and the usual “wake the watch up” wrist gesture wouldn’t work to turn the screen on. This is likely to save battery life, but having to tap every time I wanted to view my stats wasn’t a great experience.

The Apple Watch, in comparison, just times the display out like normal, which sounds worse, but there’s one major difference – you can set the Apple Watch to display the last-used app on wrist-raise, so your fitness stats are still just a glance away. While you can turn the display off on the 360, if you raise your wrist, you’re going back to the watch face, meaning the stats you care about at least a swipe and tap or two away. Not the end of the world, but also not ideal.

The other big difference is the heart rate monitor. While the 360 will passively monitor your heart rate during a workout, which is great, the Apple Watch goes one step further by surfacing that information and taking it more frequently, so you can accurately judge your level of effort mid-workout.

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While I don’t have the equipment to judge how accurate the heart rate info is,  but others who do have vouched for its accuracy:

At the end of three workouts, both the Polar and the watch reported similar average beats per minute. That’s far more accurate than the Fitbit Charge HR and Microsoft’s Band.

The only real issue here again seems to be software-related – while Apple uses the heart rate information to calculate calorie burn, it doesn’t seem to be surfaced anywhere else. I’d love to see how my heart rate varied during a workout.

Finally, battery drain during the workout was (obviously) more substantial than it is on the Pebble, but better than the 360, even with me constantly checking my  heart rate. Over the course of the nearly-two-hour bike ride, I lost about 30%, and I could probably mitigate that by not checking my wrist as often. The only real downside is that it means I’ll likely need to charge after a morning workout if I want to make it through the rest of the day, but that’s no different than my experience with the 360.

Other bits and pieces

Some other things of note:

  • The Exercise app and RunKeeper app recorded almost the exact same distance, which is unsurprising as I imagine the Exercise app is using the phone to calculate distance.

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  • Calorie burn between the Apple Watch and RunKeeper weren’t really in sync, though strangely, my Apple Watch and FitBit were quite close. I also like that the Apple Watch differentiates between Active and Resting calories. Given that the Watch has my heart rate information, I’d imagine its calorie estimation is more accurate.

 

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  • I love that the Apple Watch differentiates between reaching your active calorie burning goal and staying active the rest of the day. The fact that the Watch expects you to stand at least once an hour definitely calls out folks like me, who are inclined to go for a morning run or ride, but then use that as an excuse to remain mostly-stationary the rest of the day. In the image below, the blue circle screams: You spent two hours on the bike, and that’s awesome, but you aren’t done yet!

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  • Apple’s Activity app on both the phone and the watch is actually pretty slick, complete with Achievements, but it’s going to be fairly limited until some social aspect is incorporated – after all, what’s the point of earning trophies if I can’t compare those trophies with my friends? I could probably stop wearing my Fitbit at this point, except for the social ecosystem I’ve built there. It’s fun to compare my days and weeks with others, and competition encourages you to get just a little more movement in.
  • I was worried about screen visibility in the sunlight, but I was able to view my stats without a problem in Arizona’s morning Asun. Some of the illusion is lost, however, as you can easily see where the screen ends and the bezel begins, which is much harder to do when you’re indoors.

Conclusion

So, 25 miles later, where does that leave us?  I was expecting trade-offs similar to what I’ve seen with the Pebble and the Moto 360, and while there are a few, they are relatively minor, and nearly all of them can be fixed with software changes. It’s easily the most capable wrist-worn fitness tracker I’ve used, and we’re only day two into it being publicly available. It’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in a year or two, with or without new hardware. This is the first smartwatch I’ve worn that legitimately convinces me I could ditch my Fitbit, and I would, if it weren’t for the social aspects of Fitbit and the tie-in with MyFitnessPal, which I use to track calorie intake. Of course, if I lose my Fitbit, I’m much less likely to replace it now than I was before.

Here’s what I’d like to see in the future:

  • I won’t even need to start the Workout app, as the Watch will figure out what I’m doing based on accelerometer activity and track accordingly.
  • The RunKeeper app would be able to access the heart rate monitor, and I could view my heart rate data on RunKeeper the same way you can if you pair a heart rate monitor to your phone.
  • My active calorie burn information would be sent to MyFitnessPal, so that my calorie goals for the day would be adjusted accordingly.

Still, all of this is software. Hardware-wise, the pieces are already there for my ideal fitness wearable, and even today, it’s more capable than most-if-all of its direct competitors. Of course, it’s also more expensive, but, well, that discussion will have to wait until a full review.

(Addendum: I’d like to thank Apple on behalf of bloggers everywhere for providing an easy way to take and sync screenshots on an Apple Watch. No more awkwardly taking photos of my wrist for these sorts of posts!)

A new smartwatch has arrived

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A few (very, very quick) impressions:

  • Build quality, even on the Sport model, is unsurprisingly fantastic.
  • Setup process was fairly straightforward, though I continue to wonder how fast non-techies will take to it. Even something as simple as configuring your watch face may cause people to people stumble. Makes me wonder how many Apple Watches will be left on the default face configuration.
  • Speaking of faces: most of the built-in ones are actually pretty lame, though there are a few standouts, and you’ll probably find something you like. Solar, Astronomy, and Motion are all gorgeous, though none of them have complications, which limits their actual utility.
  • The UI seems mostly snappy, though it has the occasional Moto 360-esque hiccup. It’s smoother than I expected based on reviews, for whatever that’s worth.
  • Speaking of which – third-party app performance seems to vary, but generally are surprisingly different. From reviews, I expected a disaster, but most of the ones I care about (Wunderlist, Dark Sky, Alarm.com, Evernote) all seem perfectly usable.
  • still can’t believe there’s no Reminders app. Come on. At least I can use Wunderlist or Evernote for shopping lists, I suppose.

More impressions coming in the next few days! I’m excited to see how it holds up during a long bike ride, and if my leg is feeling better, I’ll take it out for a run soon. I’m also curious how it tracks my Just Dance “workouts”.

Pebble announces a new smartwatch right as I stop caring about smartwatches

Today, Pebble announced its latest product, the Pebble Time, which introduced a decent-looking new interface, a color e-paper display, and a somehow-still-pretty-ugly industrial design. This means my current smartwatch choices are:

  1. Stick with my ugly-but-functional current-gen Pebble.
  2. Kickstart this new, slightly-less-ugly, slightly-more-functional Pebble.
  3. Hope someone brings iOS support to Android Wear, which one enterprising developer has already pulled off in a limited form. Assuming this happens, either in an official or unofficial manner, perhaps my Moto 360 will make a triumphant return.
  4. Hope the Apple Watch is actually decent and justifies its price.
  5. Take a break from smartwatches.

This announcement comes at an odd time for me. I haven’t worn my Pebble on a regular basis for a few weeks, because of some odd conflicts with my Bluetooth headphones, and – somewhat surprisingly – I don’t miss it all that much, except when I’m out on runs or bike rides.  I find myself still wearing it on days when I want to make sure I’m extra-connected – i.e., if I’m the nexus of a social gathering that day – but otherwise, I find my need for immediate notifications isn’t as great as I’d thought it was.

In some ways, it’s actually freeing – I no longer feel the need to respond to things immediately, in the same way I did when I used a smartwatch every day. This may be surprising coming from me, but I must admit, using a smartwatch on a day-to-day basis often makes me more connected than I want to be. There are certainly times where I want to be extra-connected, but there are also times – and, I’ve found, this is apparently the majority of the time – where I want my phone in my pocket to mean that I’m temporarily “disconnected”.

Also, having recently returned to the iOS/OS X world, I find that my most import notifications – text messages and phone calls – are mirrored on all my primary computing devices, making it much more difficult to miss an important call or text. I even have the option, via PushBullet, to get all of my phone’s notifications on my laptop, though that functionality is still a bit buggy.

I doubt I’m done with smartwatches entirely, but having used one regularly for over a year, and then going without one for a few weeks, I certainly find myself questioning the need for their existence or, at the very least, the need to use one every day. They certainly have a time and place where they’re quite useful – I just don’t know if there are enough of those times and enough of those places to justify further personal investment in that space.  At this point, whether or not  I buy an Apple Watch likely depends on how well it works as a fitness tracking device, since that’s my primary use for any wearable device at this point. For me, everything else is a bonus.

Moto 360 Review

“I think smartwatches are dumb.”

Well, I understand why you might feel that way, but I disagree.  I think smartwatches are the kind of thing you only understand after you’ve used one because, unlike with smartphones, there’s no single phrase you can say that sells people on a smartwatch.

Smartphone: “You have the internet in your pocket.”  Boom, done. Here’s all my money. Society is changed forever.

Smartwatches?

  • “You can have notifications on your wrist.”  Okay, great. I don’t care.
  • “It’s also a fitness tracker.” I own a fitness tracker already/my phone does that/I’m lazy and don’t care to be less lazy.
  • “I can issue voice commands and respond to text messages and IMs with my voice.” Okay, that’s kind-of cool, but not life-changing, internet-in-your-pocket cool.

Smartwatches are difficult to sell people on because they are more than the sum of their parts.  It’s not just that you can see and respond to notifications on your wrist, or navigate without taking your phone out, or set a quick reminder, or take a quick note, or monitor your current run or bike ride.  It’s all of those things and how moment by moment, they make your life a bit better in small ways – ways you don’t notice until you stop wearing a smartwatch and suddenly feel a bit crippled.

I think even Apple, with all of their marketing prowess, is going to have their hands full convincing people they need one at first.  This might be why we’ve seen them take the uncharacteristic “put every feature in here and see what sticks” approach to the Apple Watch – it’s quite possible they’re just hoping something will click with the average consumer and become a reason to spend $350+, whether it’s tapping messages to neighbors or staring at tiny family photos on your wrist, or something we haven’t actually seen yet.  Apple’s secret weapon may end-up being peer pressure; if enough people buy into the concept of the Apple Watch, then suddenly a large chunk of your social circle could be communicating in a unique way that doesn’t include you.  It’s like the iMessage effect, except with even more hardware buy-in required to participate.  Of course, that depends on enough people buying into the Apple Watch concept out of the gate, which I think is still a big question mark.

 

Well, that was a lot of rambling…but I still think smartwatches are dumb.

That’s fine.  I don’t think smartwatches are for everyone, but I think the people who love them will really love them.  If smartphones are our surrogate brains, then I’ll gladly use a device that helps make that surrogate brain a bit more useful and efficient.

 

Okay, let’s say I want a smartwatch – should I buy a Moto 360?

No, probably not.

 

Wait, what?  Why not?

I don’t think most people should buy any smartwatch at this point, because as much as I love the concept, the implementation still isn’t particularly mass-market friendly.  The 360 also has its own unique quirks that make it even less mass-market friendly.

 

So are you going to return yours?

Oh, no no no.  Dear God, no. I really like this thing.

 

That makes no sense.

I’m completely sold on smartwatches, and I can’t imagine going back to my Pebble now.  Also, the 360 has a couple of features that no other existing-or-announced Android Wear device has that I think are so vital to the experience that I won’t buy any other smartwatch without them.

 

What features?  You mean the round display?

No, not exactly.  The LG G Watch R also has a round display, and looks pretty nice.  I still think the 360 looks better, but obviously that will vary greatly from person to person.  I’m talking about the ambient light sensor, and wireless charging.

The ambient light sensor seems like the sort of feature that every smart-device should have by default, but somehow, the only other Android Wear watch announced that has one is the Sony Smartwatch 3.  Call me high-maintenance, but the instant I have to dig into the brightness settings of my watch just because I had the gall to step outdoors, I am out.  The Arizona sun is way too bright to even consider owning a watch that can’t adapt to it. The best thing I can say about the 360’s brightness is that I’ve never had to think about it.

As with phones, I’ve found it hard to break away from wireless charging now that I’ve grown accustomed to it.  I have Qi chargers at work, at home, and in the car, and now I have a phone, tablet, and watch that can charge on any of them.  It’s the sort of convenience that’s pretty hard to give up, especially with a wearable that has to be charged every night.  As a bonus, the 360 looks pretty damn good, even when it’s charging:

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Wait, I have to charge this thing every night?

Yup.  Sorry about that.  Battery life isn’t quite as bad as initially reported (pro-tip: don’t trust what a reviewer tells you about a device’s battery life unless they’ve used it for at least a week), but it’s…still kind-of bad.  I thought, at first, that it was unacceptably bad, but after a couple of days of settling in, it’s reached levels that I consider acceptable to me.  Barely.  I worry for how its battery capacity will fare going forward, given that batteries tend to lose a chunk of their capacity over time, but then, such are the risks of being an early adopter.

My rule going into this was simple: if I only had to charge the 360’s battery at times when the watch would naturally be off my wrist anyway, then I could live with the battery life.  Those times are:

  1. When I’m sleeping.
  2. When I get home from work.

Fortunately, #2 has proven to be unnecessary, though I still generally take my watch off when I’m at home, especially if I’m going to be using the computer.  The good news is that this thing charges crazy fast compared to something like a phone – expect close to 2% every minute or so – so if you’re expecting a late night, you can toss in on the charger for 20-30 minutes and be good to go.

There are, of course, going to be times when it will probably die on my wrist – if I go out for a late night without stopping by my house, for example.  I consider those edge cases, though, and honestly, my phone will probably die before my watch either way –  using a Nexus 5 means learning to tolerate kind-of crappy battery life.  At first, I was annoyed at having another device whose battery life I was constantly aware of, but after a few days, I started treating it like my Pebble – ignoring battery life and just letting it be – and it’s been fine.

Inevitably, there will be many who consider this unacceptable, especially considering this is in the default mode, meaning the watch face only lights up when you manually activate it with a wrist motion or a tap, or when a notification comes in.  If you want to have an “always on” watch face similar to the Pebble, or even the Gear Live or the LG G Watch…you won’t make it through the day.  Period.

For me, it works – I accept the sub-par battery life, because it gives me three things no other smartwatch currently does: an ambient light sensor, wireless charging, and a fantastic design I’m not embarrassed to be seen in public with.

 

Is the design really that good?

Obviously, that’s up to you. Personally, I think it’s gorgeous – to me, it’s the first proof that a smartwatch can look great, and a reminder that wearables are going to be as much about form as they are function.  The Pebble may offer 5-6 times the battery life of the 360, and most of the features, but seriously, look at these two and tell me which one you would rather wear:

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Of course, like all other smartwatches, it’s also big.  If you don’t want a big watch, this isn’t the watch for you.

 

How’s that display? What about that ugly black bar at the bottom?

The IPS display doesn’t quite reach the insane pixel density of modern smartphones, or even modern laptops and tablets, so you will definitely notice pixels if you look for them.  Of course it’s a huge upgrade from my Pebble, and it’s great in other ways – most notable its viewing angles and outdoor visibility.  Also, some notifications – especially full-screen album art – are gorgeous on it.  Pictures don’t really do them justice, but I tried anyway.

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As for the black bar, I barely notice it, and even when I notice it, I don’t care. If the choice is between a tiny bezel and a black bar, or a big bezel and no black bar, I’ll take the tiny bezel every time.

 

How about that ancient processor?

If you haven’t heard, the Moto 360 runs a processor from 2010 – the TI OMAP3630, which was used in the Droid X and the MotoACTV.  Why?  I don’t know, but if I had to guess, it was to cut costs – Motorola probably still has plenty of those lying around, and Android Wear runs good enough on them that they figured they may as well use them.  If that was what it took to get the cost down to $250…I think they made the right choice, as I don’t think I’d spend much more on a smartwatch at this point.

That said, the difference between it and the Snapdragon 400 that other Android Wear watches have is noticeable, if only just.  If having the latest and the greatest processor is important to you, then it’s quite possible the 360 isn’t for you.  Personally, when it comes to wearables, I’m not interested in staring at the spec sheet, and I’ll choose the lifestyle benefits of a light sensor and wireless charging over a more modern processor any day of the week – even if it means the occasional hitch and stutter, and overall poorer battery life.

That isn’t to say I don’t dream of a Moto 360 running a better processor – I just don’t get too hung up over it.

 

Anything else about the hardware?

The vibration motor is pretty weak if you’re used to a Pebble; I think I prefer it to the over-enthusiastic Pebble, but if you’re used to the Pebble, it’s worth noting, and you may miss the occasional buzz here and there.  Every now and then, the device will ignore my first attempt to wake it, whether it’s through motion or a direct tap on the screen.  Not sure if that’s a hardware or software thing, though.  I’ve occasionally had it disconnect from my Nexus 5, but not any more frequently than my Pebble seemed to.  Like any touchscreen, the Moto 360’s screen will inevitably end up covered in fingerprints – which is an unfortunate state for something you’re always looking at – but I’ll take temporary fingerprints to my Pebble’s infinitely-scratched screen any day of the week.  The leather strap it comes with is fine, but I look forward to replacing it with a metal strap at some point.

 

That’s a lot about hardware.  What about software?

It’s running Android Wear, which I haven’t talked about before because I haven’t had all that much experience with.  Think of it as Google Now on your wrist, plus notifications, and you have a large idea of what it can (and can’t) do.  I’ve often heard it called a 1.0 product, and it’s hard to disagree.  When it works, especially on a device like the Moto 360, it feels like the future.  When it doesn’t, it can be an exercise in frustration and failure.

Dictation from my watch is as great as I was hoping for, with one major exception – unlike Google Now in Android, it doesn’t display the dictation as you’re speaking.   Often I find myself talking to the watch and hoping it hears me right.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a noticeable step back if you’re used to Android’s dictation.  The good news is that the microphone on the 360 is pretty sensitive, so I can whisper commands to it and it registers them perfectly, which is great for setting a quick reminder or saving a quick note.  This is a lot quicker, and more subtle, than taking my phone out for the same action.

Other frustrating quirks: you can start a text message directly with your voice, but not a Hangout message.  Dumb.  Media controls could use some rethinking, as right now you can only play/pause music if the media is already playing on your phone and active in the notification shade.  Considering how easy it is to dismiss notifications on accident, a notification history area would be nice.  Finding and launching an app without using voice commands is a pain, as it’s hidden away behind a couple of menus.  Android Wear inherits some of Google Now’s more annoying quirks, too.  Accidentally swipe away that weather card? Well, it’ll come back.  Eventually.  Probably.

While Android Wear still suffers from a frustrating lack of officially-supported custom watch faces, Motorola has a pretty solid selection.  My personal favorite is Classic, which displays the current day of the month, and subtly shades areas of the watch to indicate when I have calendar appointments.  There’s also a red “countdown” ticker in the upper left that counts down from ten to one when I have an upcoming appointment.  In the following photo, the day of the month is the 17th, I have an event starting in eight minutes, as well as calendar entries from 8:20-10 and 11-12.

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This is a remarkable amount of useful information provided in a subtle package, and shows how even smartwatch without notifications can be useful.  I can’t wait to see what people do with full-fledged custom watch faces – I already have some ideas of my own.

 

How does it compare to Pebble’s software?

Let’s make one thing clear: even in this early stage, I think Android Wear is leaps and bounds over what the Pebble offers.  The Pebble isn’t bad, it’s just basic, and I think there are some aspects of Android Wear you won’t appreciate until you’ve used a Pebble.  For example, clearing a notification on my wrist clears it on my phone, which is awesome, as having to manage notifications in two places degrades a lot of what makes notification triage useful.

More importantly, Android Wear treats Android notifications more intelligently than Pebble.  With Pebble, you have two options – you either get the small subset of notifications that Pebble supports natively, like e-mails and text messages, or you install a third-party apps that sends everything to your wrist until you tell it otherwise.  This is especially annoying the first time you upload a photo to Facebook and your wrist decides to buzz every time the notification is updated with a new percentage.  Sure, you can manually ignore certain types of notifications, depending on the functionality of the third-party app, but that only solves some problems.  For example, Pebble will send you every Google Now weather update as a new “notification”, even if it’s just the weather card being updated.  You can disable Google Now, but then you’ll get miss other notifications from the app, like reminders. Android Wear is just naturally more intelligent in that regard – I rarely find myself wondering “Why is it sending me this?”

It’s also a small thing, but muting the watch to prevent notifications is much simpler on Android Wear – just swipe down from the top.  I find myself using this frequently for meetings or lunches.  This stands in stark contrast to the Pebble, where you have to dig through a couple of menus to find the right toggle.  It was enough of a hassle that I never bothered to do it unless I was really sick of notifications.

In general, I find myself more tolerant of notifications on the Moto 360 than the Pebble.  Maybe it’s just that “new device afterglow”, but I think it’s also the fact the vibration isn’t nearly as strong, combined with the fact I can delete and archive e-mails, reply to messages, and dismiss notifications directly from the watch.  This make me feel like I’m being productive, rather than just being informed of things that I’ll have to be productive about later.

 

What about that Apple Watch?

Comparing it in any meaningful way to the software on the Apple Watch would be silly, as I haven’t tried it and neither have many others.  I will say that, when comparing Google and Apple’s approach to watch software, I prefer Google’s.  We now live in a bizarro-world where Apple’s approach and UI appears unfocused and busy, while Google’s approach and UI is focused and minimalistic. I honestly think there’s way too much going on in the Apple Watch UI – I’d rather swipe and tap giant buttons then try to aim for tiny touch buttons and constantly miss.  In my mind, a smartwatch is for things that either take 10-15 seconds at most, or for constant information I don’t want to drag my phone out for (pace/distance while running, directions while navigating). If I’m digging around a smartwatch interface for longer than a minute, something’s gone wrong.

 

How is it for fitness?

I’ve already written a great deal about the Moto 360 as a fitness device, but the tl;dr is that the 360 is surprisingly great at collecting step and heart rate data, it just needs to send it somewhere. Hopefully that “somewhere” is Google Fit, coming in the Android L release.

 

So…where does that leave things?

My general rule for recommending something without hesitation is that it needs to blend in seamlessly with your life; technology should enhance your life with as little conscious thought as possible.  The Moto 360, and Android Wear, aren’t quite there yet.

That’s not to say there isn’t an audience for this device – if you own an Android phone, really want a smartwatch, and can tolerate the less-than-ideal battery life, this is the one to get.  Period.  Just understand that you are essentially helping Google beta test Android Wear, albeit in a pretty fantastic chassis. I’m never one to count on a software update to fix problems – hardware is purchased as-is and any updates are just a bonus – but I think we can be pretty certain that Android Wear is going to get a whole lot better in the next 6-12 months.  If these updates come with better battery life and performance, all the better – but don’t buy the watch expecting that to be the case.

In the tech world there’s never any harm in waiting, and that goes double for smartwatches.  This market is just getting started, and I think what we see in the next couple of years will blow away what we’re seeing today, the same way innovation in the smartphone market exploded after the original iPhone.

I said in my Pebble review that my ideal smartwatch would be a Pebble, plus a microphone, plus a FitBit – and the Moto 360 is basically that, with a few unfortunate hardware and software quirks thrown in the mix.  If you can’t wait, go for it – I don’t think you’ll regret it, and this is absolutely the smartwatch to buy if you have an Android phone and dig the design as much as I do. Just go in knowing its limitations, and with the knowledge that the second or third generation of these devices is going to be killer.

 

RunKeeper’s latest update added Android Wear support

2014-07-03 01.59.17

Damn.  There went my last reason to ignore Android Wear and stick to Pebble.

Deprecated Post: 13 Days with the Pebble Smartwatch

Deprecated posts are where I revisit popular posts I made on other sites.  Depending on the amount of time that’s passed, some of what is written may no longer be relevant, but I believe much of what is covered in these posts is still worthy of discussion.

Now that Google has officially released Android Wear devices (and my Pebble may not be long for this world), I figured it’d be appropriate to share 13 Days with the Pebble Smartwatch, which is both a review of the Pebble hardware but also a defense of the smartwatch as a useful concept.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on August 8th, 2013.

 

Let’s get something clear right away:

The Pebble Smartwatch is very much a first-world solution to first-world problems.

It’s a device that’s almost entirely about small conveniences, rather than big, world-changing ideas, and I think that’s fine. Not every smart device needs to change the world – and enough small conveniences in a single package can add up to something special.

I’m not even entirely sure why I bought one, to be honest. I was always a bit upset that I missed out on the initial Kickstarter campaign, so went to Best Buy a couple of times and asked about them. Each time, the salespeople basically laughed me away each time – not maliciously, but simply because they rarely got shipments of more than a couple in at a time, so getting one was almost impossible.

Logically, because it was impossible to get one, I had to have one.

As luck would have it, thirteen days ago I found myself in Best Buy picking up a Chromecast, when, almost-entirely-facetiously, I asked if they had any Pebbles in, too.

“Uh…I think we do, actually. One of them is claimed, but I don’t think the red one is.”

He went to check, while I racked my brain (and quickly looked up reviews on my phone) to decide if I really needed this thing. By the time he returned, and confirmed that the Pebble was mine if I wanted it, I’d decided.

Pebbleinbag_medium

...crap.

I double-checked the return policy (fourteen days) before leaving, just in case I decided the added convenience wasn’t worth the cost. So the question I’m answering now, thirteen days later, is: am I keeping this thing?

As usual, I’ll give you the tl;dr first: Yes, I’m keeping it – read on for why.

 

Life with Pebble

People often ask me what the Pebble does, and my answer – “send notifications from my phone to my watch” – and that’s true; at its core, the Pebble is simply a notification triage device. Sure, it can do more if you want it to and put the effort in, but notification triage is undoubtedly its primary function. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound terribly impressive or game-changing. There’s certainly more cool stuff I can do with it, and I’ll get to that later, but even that basic functionality has enriched my life in noticeable and, at times even surprising, ways.

First, a confession: I check my phone too damn much. It’s part nervous tick, and part Notification Anxiety (a term I just invented that means fear of missing an important notification –did I mention this is a first world problem?), but it’s also simply rude. One of Motorola’s big lines when announcing the Moto X is that people check their phones an average of 60 times a day, just to get the time and look for missed messages, and I can totally believe that.

In fact, when I read about the benefits of the Moto X’s Active Display, I can’t help but think that it’s the same idea as the Pebble – notification triage – but done somewhat differently. These quotes about Active Display, from Brent Rose (Gizmodo), Joshua Topolsky (The Verge), and Joanna Stern (ABC News) respectively, could just as easily be about Pebble:

“Active Display will also light up whenever you turn the phone over or when you remove it from your pocket. This saves you from having to hit the power button every time you just want to see what time it is. It’s a little thing, but it actually makes a big difference in the way you relate to your phone.

“It took a little while to get used to how this concept works, but once I “got” the expected behavior, it was wildly useful. I like to know when I get an email so I have a notification sound every time one comes in — but they’re not all of equal value. Being able to preview the information before unlocking the phone has definitely saved me time.

The Active Notifications feature in particular was made to solve the problem of people hitting the power button on their phones up to 100 times a day just to glance at the time and or notifications — something I know a lot about.

The Pebble has, more or less, solved this same problem for me, but in a way that isn’t tied to any specific phone. You might argue that I’m treating the symptom and not the cause, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but even so, it still helps. My phone comes out much less now – only when I need to actually do something with it – and I think that’s a great thing.

I’ve heard the argument made that glancing at your wrist is just as rude as pulling your phone out to check on it – the person you’re talking to might assume you’re bored and checking the time – but I’ve not found that to be the case. For me, the value comes from the slight vibration on your wrist, which comes with the knowledge that I definitely have a notification. That way, even if I can’t check my watch right away, I’ll know that when I pull my phone out, I’ll have something to look at – as opposed to pulling it out just because. It sounds silly, and perhaps it is, but I’ve found it makes a big difference in how I use my phone. There’s also a certain beauty in receiving a notification, even when your phone is otherwise on silent. I’m also, happily, no longer one of those people that puts their phone on the table while eating and constantly glances over to see if I have any notifications.

There’s also the added convenience that comes with being able to glance at notifications in situations that otherwise wouldn’t be possible – when you’re carrying things or when driving, for example.

Pebblecarrying_medium

Getting an email with my hands full is now less of an issue...

Pebbledriving_medium

...and it's awesome to see notifications right on my wrist as I'm driving.

Obviously, first world solutions to first world problems, but hey, useful is useful. Speaking of useful – notification triage may be the Pebble’s primary purpose, but I’ve found a few others so far.

 

What else can this thing do?

Beyond forwarding of notifications, I have found several other uses for the Pebble, though they vary in their degree of, well, usefulness. It’s important to note that I only have experience using the Pebble with an Android phone – the HTC One in particular – so I can’t really speak for how the experience is on an iPhone.

  1. Pebble Notifier is perhaps the single-most-useful Android app for Pebble, as it allows you to send all notifications from your phone to the Pebble. You can define exactly what you want to send notifications, and exactly what don’t want to send notifications. It increases the functionality and power of Pebble several times over.
  2. Glance for Pebble is another tool that, even though it’s still in beta, makes Pebble substantially more useful. It’s essentially an app you run in place of a watch face that gives you time, weather, and date information – but also gives you views of your calendars, and allows you to perform basic functions on your phone, such as sending pre-defined SMS messages and executing up to three Tasker functions. So far I’ve set up Tasker to toggle WiFi, turn on Google Now (very useful), and bring up the Recent App list. Setting up these Tasker tasks isn’t as easy as I’d like, and it’d be great to see this functionality supported more-directly by the Pebble API.
  3. Stopwatch and Timer are Pebble apps that…do exactly what you’d expect.
  4. Pebble Phone Ringer Switcher is another app that does exactly what you’d expect – it lets me toggle my phone’s sound profiles between Normal, Vibrate, and Silent. Surprisingly useful.
  5. Pebble Locker is similar to Trusted Devices on the Moto X – basically, when my Pebble is connected, there’s no PIN lock on my phone. As soon as my Pebble is disconnected, the phone locks itself and enables the PIN lock. Reconnecting the Pebble will once again disable the PIN lock. This is a nice way of adding convenience without sacrificing security.
  6. Pebble Rocker is a great little app, mentioned in the comments by drewstiff. It lets me check in on Foursquare from my watch (something I’d actually been actively looking for), take a picture with my phone from my watch, and “ping” my phone if it’s somewhere nearby, amongst a ton of other things I’m not actually using yet, like Facebook and Twitter browsing. The only issue I see is that Pebble can only hold a limited number of Watch Apps, and a lot of these are bundled separately, so you may have to choose what is most important to you.
  7. RunKeeper ties into the Pebble to display Time, Distance, and Pace information – nothing ground-breaking, but definitely a nice-to-have for someone like me who has used RunKeeper for years. Runkeeperpebble_medium

I have, of course, installed a few silly watch faces, like Mario and Star Trek-inspired LCARS, but generally, I use the default watch face, as I like the style and font. It’s always nice to have options, though.

I use the music controls more than I thought I would, mostly in the car to play/pause music and podcasts on the stereo, as my watch is generally closer, more convenient, and (surprisingly) more-reliable than the built-in stereo controls. It’s also easier to use without taking my eyes off the road – whether by providence or by design, when you leave the watch face, the first option is “Music”, so touching the same button three times will start or pause the radio. By default, you have to choose a single music app that Pebble controls, but I’ve installed a third-party app called Music Boss for Pebble that allows me to toggle between Google Play Music and the standard Music app by double-pressing the play/pause button. Quite handy.

The argument could be made that, between music controls and notification triage, the car is one of the most useful places for a Pebble – no more digging my phone out at a red light to see who sent me a message, or to see if that e-mail from work is something important. Fortunately, the Bluetooth connection from my phone to the Pebble does not appear to interfere with the Bluetooth connection from my phone to my car stereo.

Not directly related to any specific feature, but an unexpected convenience I discovered – the Pebble is great for two-step authentication with my credit union, as you can just glance at your wrist to get the login code. It’s also incredibly convenient to get my Google Now reminders directly on my wrist, as for some unknown psychological reason, it makes me more likely to do whatever task I’ve set for myself.

That’s not to say it does everything I want it to do, though. Over the last couple of weeks, some things I wish it did that it doesn’t:

  1. Dictation, through a hardware microphone that doesn’t currently exist (see the next section for more rambling on that)
  2. Direct Google Now integration. It’s cool that I can launch it with Tasker, but it’d be even better if it was somehow a native feature.
  3. Notification Sync. Getting notifications on my wrist is great, but I wish there was some way to mark the corresponding notification as “viewed” on my phone.
  4. A better included watch strap would be nice. I might get something like this, eventually.
  5. Better Pebble apps for viewing my calendar and viewing the weather forecast would be awesome.

So, that’s what it does (and doesn’t) do – but how about the device itself? Is it any good?

 

The Hardware

I’m not going to linger on the hardware of the Pebble too much, as I could really just say “good enough”, and call it a day. The display is good enough – it has an inky/oily view in certain, rare lighting conditions and from certain angles, but it’s clearly viewable in bright daylight, and the backlight works well enough to make the screen visible. My biggest complaint is that the glass on the display itself is beginning to scratch after only a couple of weeks, so I can’t imagine how it will look in a year.

Pebbleinkyscreen_medium

The oily screen looks kind-of gross, but doesn't happen often, and doesn't impact usability all that much.

Several people have asked me if the red faceplate is interchangeable and, sadly, the answer is no. Given its tendency to scratch, and the fickle nature of many consumers (myself included), I think it would be a great addition for the next version – and hey, from a business perspective, it’s another way for Pebble to make money.

The buttons are good enough – they felt a little cheap at first, but they work reliably. The interface is good enough for now – I would say it’s a bit like the classic iPod’s interface – simple and effective, but it feels like the form factor is waiting for a UX revamp akin to the first time we saw the iPhone’s interface. Installing new watch faces and new apps is good enough – it’s not the most intuitive experience, but I haven’t had much trouble. For the most part, stuff Just Works(tm). Until recently, there were some accessibility bugs on the HTC One that caused issues with the lock screen when the Pebble was active, but this appears to have been resolved with a recent OTA from HTC. Originally, I thought the OTA was just an update to carrier settings, so the fact it fixed the accessibility bug was a nice surprise.

Battery life is also good enough – it’ll last for 4-6 days, in my experience, but I’m the kind-of person who charges all of my devices every night anyway. My annoyance that the charger is proprietary is balanced by the convenience of the fact it’s magnetic. I just put the charger in the same place I leave my keys and wallet every day, and the watch is always ready to go in the morning.

Pebblecharging_medium

Magnetic chargers are cooooooool.

The alarm function is…mostly useless. It vibrates 20 times, which is a hilariously inept way of convincing me to get out of bed. I have enough trouble with an alarm I can reach from my bed, much less a slight vibration I can just ignore. The one time I tried to use it, I’m pretty sure I fell back asleep before it stopped vibrating.

Perhaps the most major hardware flaw, in that it potentially limits the target audience: the device itself is, in my experience, not really designed for women. A friend of mine was interested in getting a Pebble, until she put it on, and realized it was simply too big for her. Her own words, paraphrased, are that “she has big wrists for a woman, and this still doesn’t fit” and “this is definitely designed for a man’s wrist.”

Beyond that, there are some things I’d still like to see added. A microphone, to help with dictation and reminders, would be great, especially considering you can use the Pebble in the shower – I don’t know about you guys, but many of my great ideas are born and die in the shower, as I currently have no way of recording them as they occur to me – a Pebble with a microphone could change that.

I’d also love to see fitness tracking, as it seems odd to have to wear both a FitBit and somethingelse on my wrist, especially when that something else already has an accelerometer in it. Basically:

Pebbleequation_medium

 

Final Thoughts

A friend asked me if I thought the Pebble was the device that would “bring back the watch” – my answer was quite simply “no”. It’s not that it’s not good enough of a product (that’s a different debate), but rather than it only serves a particular subset of the population. It’s definitely something that appeals exclusively to nerds – and even then, it’s a subset of nerds that it appeals to. For now, though, it’s too expensive and too niche.

However, what surprised me is that my time with Pebble has shown me ways it was useful that even didn’t predict, and when the right smartwatch comes along, it might just have the same mainstream acceptance and market-transforming impact that the original iPhone and iPad did. It will take the right convergence of design, price, marketing, and easy-to-use features – and it may also take the right phone combined with the right watch. I think the Moto X, for example, paired with a Google smartwatch, could be a game-changer.

I imagine owning a Pebble is much like how owning the first-generation iPhone must have felt. That’s not to say that the Pebble should be compared to the iPhone – the smartwatch “revolution”, if and when it occurs, can never have the same impact as the smartphone revolution, and the Pebble is simply not on the same level as the iPhone, design or build quality-wise. Smartphones improve most people’s lives in obvious ways, while smartwatches are – by their very nature – a luxury that will serve a niche subset of that. But, there are notable similarities – the Pebble, like the original iPhone, is an overpriced device with obvious, obvious flaws and missing features that have to be fixed in the next generation – but the core concept of a companion device is solid and hints at greatness just around the corner. I don’t know if it will be Pebble, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely who finally nails it, but I’m more confident than ever that someone will nail it – and that it will happen soon.

The Pebble, in its current form, isn’t that device – but for now, and for me, it’s a great placeholder – it’s a bookmark on my wrist, holding down the fort until a real revolution comes along. I recognize that it’s definitely not a device for everyone, and honestly, perhaps not even a device I’d recommend to many people. Most people think it’s silly and useless, and for them, they’re probably right. Some people still think smartphones are silly and useless, and again, for theirlives, they may very well be right.

Really, though, that’s kind-of what being a tech fan is about – finding the devices that fit our lives – and I’ve found, based on how I live my life and use my devices, that the Pebble is a great companion, and makes my life just a bit more pleasant.

Daily Drivers Update, 6/22/2014

As part of this blog, I am going to keep an up-to-date list of all the devices I currently use as daily drivers.  That list can be found here. Devices added:

  • Nexus 5
  • Nexus 7
  • 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Late 2013)
  • Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II
  • FitBit One, Pebble Smartwatch

Devices removed: None.

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