Pebble Steel review

Price when reviewed

The Pebble and its more luxurious brother, the Pebble Steel, have been around for a while now, but until recently these devices had no official distributor in the UK. That’s now changed, and it’s a good thing too. See also: The best smartwatches of 2015

It’s not that the Pebble is the most attractive smartwatch out there. The Pebble Steel, tested here, is all corners and angles, with three chunky square buttons on the right edge and one at the other side. With a strip of inlaid black plastic surrounding the watch just beneath the screen bezel, and a thick black border surrounding a monochrome screen, it’s bordering on ugly. Certainly it doesn’t match the elegance of a modern Android Wear device such as the Motorola Moto 360.

Pebble Steel review

And yet, with the black leather strap attached (the watch comes with a more ostentatious steel-link wristband as well), the Steel does exude a certain retro charm. The fact that it’s fairly compact helps: aside from the Samsung Gear Fit, the Pebble Steel is the smallest, least obtrusive smartwatch we’ve seen, measuring a mere 10.5mm thick, 34mm across and 46mm tall.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s extremely tough – much more so than most modern smartwatches. The promised five atmospheres of water resistance means it’ll withstand being submerged 50 metres underwater before breaking or leaking. That should be okay for the odd swim down the local swimming baths.

Pebble Steel review: specifications and features

The Steel isn’t exactly a showcase of cutting edge technology. As we’ve already mentioned, the screen is black and white, and it’s small too, with a low 144 x 168 resolution. Stretched across its rectangular display, which measures 1.26in across the diagonal, that delivers a pixel density of 176ppi, which means plenty of jagged edges – particularly along the diagonal edges of watch hands.

Pebble Steel UK review

Box: Pebble Steel vs Pebble: what’s the difference?

If you like the idea of the Pebble Steel, but baulk at the price, the cheaper, original Pebble is worth considering.

The main difference is the design. Where the Steel is sleek and slim, the standard Pebble is chunky, colourful and made from plastic. The older Pebble has a standard 22mm strap fitting, so you can replace the supplied rubbery strap with one of your choosing. It also has less storage (4MB as opposed to 8MB in the Steel), but since it stores the same number of apps as the Steel (eight) that doesn’t matter too much. The only other difference is that the Steel has an LED on the face to indicate when it’s fully charged.

In fact, with the same software, battery and screen, and water resistance to 50m just like the Steel, the original Pebble is a bit of a bargain.

Inside, meanwhile, beats a low-powered, single-core ARM Cortex A3 processor running at 0.8GHz, coupled with 512MB RAM and a mere 8MB of storage for apps and watch faces. It’s a positively prehistoric specification compared to the latest models from Motorola, Samsung and LG, which use processors similar to their smartphone companions, and offer gigabytes of storage.

There’s no sign of other fancy features, either: no touchscreen – just button-based control – no heart rate monitor, no camera and no voice recognition. It’s a real bare-bones smartwatch.

Pebble Steel review: software and apps

Though the Pebble Steel may seem unambitious, when it comes to the basics it delivers. Just as with Android Wear and Samsung Gear devices, setup is a simple case of installing a companion app on your smartphone and pairing the devices over Bluetooth; with this done, notifications are then diverted to appear instantaneously on your wrist.

Pebble Steel UK review

Emails, texts, calendar events, social network status updates and even phone calls all arrive without fuss. And although you can’t actually carry out a conversation on the watch, you can screen and reject calls – handy if you’re in a meeting and want to discreetly keep tabs on incoming communications.

As you’d hope, you can install new watch faces, and since Pebble has been going for longer than its rivals, there are thousands of different apps to install as well. These are divided into six categories: Daily, Notifications, Tools and Utilities, Health and Fitness, Remotes and Games.

Some favourites of ours include Toggles, which lets you switch phone features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on and off from your wrist; Nav Me, which delivers turn-by-turn navigation courtesy of Google Maps; and UK Transport which delivers location-sensitive train, tube and bus information. Have a trawl through the list on the Pebble website and you’ll really get the flavour of what a smartwatch can do for you.

Pebble Steel UK review

The only real disappointment is that, despite this embarrassment of riches, there’s only space on the Steel to store eight apps and watch faces at any one time. Any apps that aren’t in use can be kept in the smartphone app’s “locker”, but you have to manually swap them in and out once you hit the limit.

Pebble Steel review: performance and battery life

Although the Pebble Steel makes some compromises, it also has several important strengths. One is that it performs brilliantly. There’s no lag, and no danger of missing an incoming text or calendar event: all notifications come through instantaneously and with a good, firm buzz.

Moreover, it’s also the only smartwatch we’ve tried whose battery lasts reliably longer than two days of use – so it’s much less likely than its rivals to give out on you at the end of a busy day. Pebble claims it will actually run for four to six days between charges, and we wouldn’t argue with that: we regularly managed to eke out five days of use before having to snap on the USB magnetic charging tether to give it a top-up. That’s thanks to a combination of the low-power processor, a lightweight operating system and a highly efficient LCD screen.

Pebble Steel UK review

And it’s that screen that’s the star of the whole shebang. Although monochrome, it’s exceedingly easy to read. Like an old-fashioned Casio digital watch, it uses a reflective screen that gets easier to read, not harder in bright sunlight, so you’ve no need to squint at it or shield the screen to read it. This does mean it’s harder to make out in the dark, but that’s easily remedied: a flick of the wrist bathes the watch face momentarily in a faint indigo glow, so you can check the time or your email in the cinema, or when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Pebble Steel review: verdict

The Pebble Steel isn’t as sparkly or shiny as the latest Android Wear devices, and it lacks high-tech features such as voice and touchscreen control. As a wrist-borne notification centre, however, it works just as well, and with greatly superior battery life. It’s easier to read when you’re out and about, and it’ll take more abuse, too.

Even the price is impressive: at £180 it’s not the cheapest smartwatch out there, but for what you get it’s eminently affordable. Indeed, the Pebble Steel is the first smartwatch we’ve come across we’d seriously consider spending our own money on.

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