Rob N ★ bio photo

Rob N ★

I do things. Mostly computer things. Sometimes I write about them.

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A few months ago I bought a Pebble smartwatch. At the time the current craziness of smartwatches was just about to start up. Android Wear was not long announced, everyone was excited about the Moto 360 and the Apple Watch was still a rumour. Now that the world is mad for smartwatches I’ve had a chance to consider if the Pebble is still the right choice, and I’ve come to the same conclusion - it is still the only smartwatch I want. So lets talk about why I got it.

There’s really two parts to this. There’s why I got a smartwatch at all, and then why I specifically chose the Pebble.

So I got my first smartphone in 2010, a Motorola Quench. Since then I’ve gone to a Samsung Galaxy S, then lately to an S4. I’m not a crazy tech guy, I don’t have to have the latest and greatest, and I’m very happy with my S4. I’ve now had a few years to get my life fully entangled with my phone. My laptop is still for work, of course, but I can run my life fairly completely from just my phone. All my communication methods are there, the web is there, and in a pinch I can sysadmin my servers from it. Its the only thing I have that I absolutely must take when I leave the house.

The fact that it has everything and knows everything is the best thing about it, and also the worst. If I want to know something, like if an email I’m waiting for has arrived or how the cricket is going, I have to pull my phone out of my pocket. I see a line of notification icons. I have to unlock my phone to find out the details. And at that point I’m invested, and I will do everything I need to do to clear that row of notification icons - read and triage all the email, clear IRC notifications, etc. I have to decide all this stuff right then. The whole time I’m not paying attention to the world around me, whether its a conversation, or walking, or driving, or whatever. I’m now somewhere between rude and downright dangerous.

This is why I started to look at smartwatches. If I can bring that interesting information out of my pocket, then I can see what’s going on at a glance.

So why the Pebble over one of these more powerful, featureful watches? The above hopefully answers that question. I get distracted easily. I will press any button I find. So if I’m going to put something on my wrist, in easy reach at all times, then it needs to do pretty much nothing at all. It needs to be impossible to fiddle with. And right now, then Pebble is the only watch that is pretty much impossible to do anything with.

The best summary of this that I’ve heard is from Jonathon Stark, who in a recent blog post says “Watches are primarily for knowing things, not doing things.” Or as he put it in the latest episode of the excellent nitch podcast, smartwatches make you “more connected, less distracted”. I came to this conclusion on my own before I heard this, but it was nice to also hear it from someone who tries out a lot of different devices and talks to a lot of people that use them or want them.

I don’t want to interact with my watch. If I can browse the web on it, I will. I certainly don’t want to talk to it. Now I understand there are people that these things are useful or important for. When I first mentioned this a geocaching friend of mine pointed out that he absolutely wanted a watch he could talk to because he wanted to call up navigation instructions while on his bike. That’s totally legitimate (and pretty cool to be honest) and so I can see that powerful, interactive watches are useful for some. But I’m talking about me.

Now yes, the Pebble isn’t the prettiest watch in the world (though I did buy the Steel, which is better than the plastic Swatch-like version). But I’m not in it for the looks, as anyone who has met me knows - you wouldn’t say that I’m really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Hell, my watch is hidden by the sleeve of my hoodie most days. I don’t really care about the looks.

It is however proving to be wildly successful for what I bought it for. My standard watchface at the moment is YWeather, which has the time and the weather and is most of what I want to know at any given time. I haven’t completely finished setting it up (even after a couple of months), but I get the really important notifications (SMS) through already. Pushover has direct support for Pebble, which is really cool because now I can remotely push stuff to my Pebble. Making your own Android apps push to the Pebble is dead simple too, its just an intent broadcast - an extra five lines of code.

The big idea that I had when I first got it is to put a live cricket scoreboard on it, because I’m absolutely mad about cricket. That proved pretty easy, with SixFour being the result. I had to write a little bit of C to define the UI layout, but the rest is just Javascript that runs on my phone and pushes updates.

The other awesome thing about the Pebble is the battery life. It has an e-ink display so consumes pretty much nothing while idle. Depending on what I’m doing with it (ie cricket season or not) I get between three and seven days charge out of it. What’s more, its visible in direct sunlight. The current batch of smartwatches with their bright LED displays chew the battery and can’t be seen easily in sunlight. That sucks for a watch; you need to see it all the time, and you don’t want to have to charge it every day (most people don’t even like to take it off at night).

So I’m very happy with my Pebble, and as long as other watchmakers shove more and more features into their watches I’ll be less and less interested in buying one. I desperately hope that Pebble tread very carefully here and don’t feel the need to “keep up”. They’ve carved out a small niche for themselves here, and I’d hate to see them throw that away in an effort to “keep up”.