Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 03:00 am PT (06:00 am ET)
Review: Pebble smart watch is worth the hype
To navigate Pebble's interface, there is one menu button on the left, and scroll up, scroll down and select buttons on the right. Button feel is mostly responsive and consistent across all actuators, though some may be turned off by the lack of the firm "click" found with mechanical watches.
In use, the buttons work the same way in almost every application. Upper-left backs up the menu tree. Upper-right navigates up a menu list, lower-right navigates down a menu list and center-right selects a menu item. The layout only differs in Bluetooth setup, the music player and handling incoming calls. In those cases, Pebble shows transport controls for music, or an "X" or "V" to hangup or accept phone calls. As a side note, caller ID for an incoming call is displayed on the Pebble's screen.
With the latest firmware version 1.9, which came out on March 18, the menus are easier than ever to navigate. Music, Set Alarm, Watchfaces, and Settings are the top level. Watchfaces and Settings act like folders to the next level down the tree. Watchfaces has about six different options from which to choose, though more are available via the iOS app. When the watch times out after showing a notification or sitting in a menu, it reverts to the last selected watchface. The Settings menu contains options for the backlight, font size, and Bluetooth.
Out of the box, Pebble works as advertised. When a notification arrives on the iPhone (SMS, email, or others alerts you've toggled) it almost instantly causes the Pebble to vibrate and display the message on the screen. If the message is too long, you can read through it using the aforementioned up and down scroll buttons. After a few minutes of idling, Pebble will automatically revert back to the preselected watchface.
The Pebble team's work to polish small, seemingly insignificant facets of the user interface really speak to the overall quality of the device and its software. For example, in the video below, you can see the the firmware update process is visualized as a "water flow" from iPhone to Pebble. It's this attention to detail that makes the Pebble impressive.
Because Pebble is almost like having a tiny computer on your wrist, developers can take advantage of the platform to create a number of apps custom made for various features not included in the stock software package.
For example, Hexxeh of Hexxeh.net wrote a bit of code called "libpebble" which adds button event handling of desktop OS apps to Pebble, granting users control of iTunes, PowerPoint, and Keynote. Those interested in the project can find the PowerPoint on Windows code here, and the fork of "libpebble" that controls iTunes and Keynote here. Note: Use "python p.py remote itunes" for iTunes control and "python p.py remote keynote" for Keynote control after your pebble is paired with your Mac.
In addition, a Pebble team member has forked "libpebble" and is currently making improvements to it, while a .NET version of the code exists as a non-straight port. All of these efforts are coming from a small but interested developer community, meaning that Pebble is getting better through first party development as well as amazing developer volunteers. More information can be found at the wiki for developer hacking at pebbledev.org and an IRC channel at chat.freenode.net #pebble.
The latest Pebble update heralds the release of the watchface SDK. Currently, the Pebble Kickstarter page advises "Important note: the proof-of-concept Pebble watchface SDK will not enable access to the accelerometer (or magnetometer), or communication between watchfaces and smartphones (among other major deficiencies)."
This jibes with information I've been hearing from people who have seen the SDK, who said the package seems to just cover the drawing of text, images and defined paths. One thing that's still missing, that they're hoping to add soon, is the saving of watchfaces data across launches. The advantage would be instead of needing a 12 hour and 24 hour version of the watch, they can have that be a setting, and that setting will be remembered. The SDK as it currently stands (and Pebble is calling it a "proof-of-concept SDK") contains the ability to draw custom fonts and layout on the screen, but no ability for watchfaces to retain settings like world clock timezone preferences.
"libpebble controlling Microsoft's PowerPoint.
Personally, I'm still looking forward to IFTTT.com (If This Then That) integration. Pebble has been very transparent about the proof-of-concept SDK, but has been quieter about IFTTT.com integration. Still, they've been very open and cooperative with the developer community forming around them.
Pebble has, however, announced support for Runkeeper.com is coming soon. I don't personally like Runkeeper as much as others do and use Fitbit and loseit instead, but support for external applications is a huge beginning.
Other future developments may take advantage of the accelerometer and compass. Runkeeper integration probably takes advantage of the accelerometer. I can't wait to see what someone does with the compass.
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