Hands-on review: CES 2014: Pebble Steel

The Pebble Smartwatch is something most of you will have at least heard of, if not seen. Its presence on the wrist of a fellow commuter is usually a sign of an early adopter, someone willing to wear a plastic-based watch in order to be one of the first on board with the next generation of smartphone notifications.

The problem is that badge of honour is as much curse as it is blessing – certainly most of the people who don’t really care about technology that I’ve met while wearing the Pebble ask questions such as ‘is that a child’s watch?’. A little unfair to the progressive tech, but not a point without a valid basis.

So with that in mind, Pebble has brought out the Steel, a watch that removes the plastic and puts metal in its place. It also comes in two ‘grown up’ straps, leather and metal links (the latter in silver or black), meaning depending on the kind of watch face you’ve got on your device, it can pass as a ‘normal’ watch while still giving you reams of useful information from your smartphone.

Pebble Steel review

The design is definitely a big step towards enticing a new wave of customers – it looks a lot slicker and straight away has a much more premium feel in the hand. It’s still rather light, which many will find a little disconcerting at first. It almost feels like a dummy watch from the store – but that’s a minimal problem and actually makes it more comfortable to wear.

The matte black steel, with its darker design and cool feel, was my favorite version of the three, closely followed by the leather. The buttons have been beefed up too – one of my main issues with the first Pebble was the flimsy feel when tapping through the menus, but now everything just feels a lot more solid.

Pebble Steel review

The price is raised slightly to make this new design viable to a company that’s still only taking baby steps from a breakout Kickstarter project, but $249 (around £150, although there’s no official UK price or release date yet) feels like a decent cost for such a vibrant piece of technology.

Digging into the watch itself, and you’ll find a very similar experience from before – in fact, it’s almost identical save for the fact there are a lot of more ‘professional’ apps now available.

Pebble Steel review

I mentioned that the buttons on the device are much easier to hit – this is definitely a huge plus point as not only did it stop me catching arm hair (trust me, it’s not pleasant) it also just gave the Pebble Steel an air of premium quality when flicking through the menus.

The user interface, for those that don’t know, is a relatively simple affair. Connected to your Android handset or iPhone through Bluetooth LE, the Pebble Steel will relay messages, notifications and more on the e-ink screen, which has a five to seven day battery life.

Pebble Steel review

It can also change music tracks, and now that Pebble has its own app store (with around 3000 in there at the time of writing) you’ll also get a world of functionality to mess around with and make your own. Tapping the left-hand button will move you back, and the centre button on the right will open apps or initiate commands, with the buttons above and below it navigating through watch faces and additional content.

Pebble Steel review

The apps certainly look a lot better than before, with the likes of ESPN, Mercedes, Yelp and Pandora all offering really useful functionality, be it scores, random nearby places to eat with the shake of the wrist, or even how much petrol is left in the car.

That’s the beauty of Pebble – while it has lacked in style before (and it remains to be seen whether this premium-yet-lightweight device will be able to overcome that hurdle in the minds of users) it has such a vibrant developer community that new functionality is coming all the time.

On top of that, the e-ink display is unobtrusive in the same way that the Galaxy Gear isn’t. Where Samsung’s offering is large and relatively brash, the Pebble, like the Smartwatch from Sony, is more understated and just gives a gentle buzz when anything is happening.

Pebble Steel review

I’m not totally enamoured with the UI still – the left button for going back and forth and the right hand buttons varying in function from time to time takes some getting used to.

Pebble Steel review

The notifications don’t always fit the screen in the most attractive way either, a product of a company that’s letting the community and third party apps bring the awesome-sauce to its device.

Early verdict

The first Pebble smartwatch was a breakout hit, but it lacked something on the style front. The Pebble Steel rectifies that to some degree, and does it without charging a hefty premium.

Given that stocks are going to be limited, this is sure to be a sellout device initially, and as we begin a year that’s going to see the smartwatch war wind up a few clicks, having a more mass-market device is going to be a good thing.

I’m looking forward to seeing some improvements in the UI, but there’s no doubt that the Pebble is one of my favourite gadgets from CES and rightly deserves the hype being generated despite only adding metal and toughened glass to an already potent mix.