Pebble Time: A pre-demise review

-April 17, 2017

My wife wanted a fitness-oriented watch. She already had a Garmin Forerunner 225, which includes a built-in optical heart rate monitor along with a GPS receiver, the former for accurately logging pulse rate and the latter for accurately logging distance traveled. It works well for when she's exercising, but it's big and bulky and not exactly stylish, and its between-charges battery life (especially with GPS active) is fairly abysmal. For more modest tasks, such as sleep and activity tracking, it's simultaneously overkill and underwhelming.

Specifically, she wanted a Fitbit Blaze, which, by virtue of its interchangeable bands, neatly fills the "stylish" bill. But I already had a Pebble Time lying around, which I'd picked up on sale for $70 back when my Moto 360 was throwing fits. It didn't include an optical heart rate monitor, but it did support interchangeable bands and was already in our possession. She was game, so we gave it a shot.

Source: Wikipedia user Frmorrison

Short story: she now owns a Fitbit Blaze. The Pebble Time was initially a hit in our household, so much so that I even picked up an open-box Pebble Time Round for $90 for myself. But the Pebble Time's shortcomings quickly became apparent and acute. For one thing, it has an odd way of connecting to a smartphone such as her iPhone 5s; it sets up separate Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy pairing profiles. We weren't able to keep the latter reliably linked, and restoration involved completely unpairing the watch from the smartphone, then manually deleting both watch-associated Bluetooth profiles from the smartphone, then factory-resetting the watch, then re-pairing from the beginning. A few hours-to-days later, we'd need to do it all over again. Life's too short.

Her second beef involved the display. Pebble calls it 64-color e-ink, but it's actually a low-power backlit LCD technology. It's a welcome upgrade from the monochrome e-paper display found in first-generation Pebble and Pebble Steel models, and it delivered multi-day battery life, but she still found it too dim and too low-resolution to be long-term palatable. Then again, she had the robust LCD of my Moto 360 as her comparison point ... my reminders that I needed to recharge my watch daily had no effect on her tolerance for the Pebble Time alternative.

Finally, she found the accelerometer-only sensor allotment of the Pebble Time insufficiently accurate and information-rich for her activity-tracking needs. Fitness, it turns out, ended up (along with phone, text, email, calendar, and other notifications) being a smartwatch "killer app" ... witness, for example, the doubled-down focus on it in the second-generation Apple Watch. The absence of integrated pulse monitoring from both the first-generation Pebble and second-generation Pebble Time lines, along with its belated (and clunky) implementation in the Pebble 2, ended up being the company's death knell; the optical heart rate monitor-inclusive Pebble Time 2 line never saw the light of day.

To that point, as some of you might already be aware, subsequent to my product testing Pebble sold portions of itself (specifically its IP and software staff) to Fitbit in early December 2016. The remainder of the company has been shut down; hardware production is finí, as is ongoing support. Kickstarter backers of the Pebble 2, Time 2, and Core who haven't yet received units will (eventually) be reimbursed, and Fitbit subsequently promised Pebble product owners that their devices will continue to fully work through at least the end of 2017, potentially beyond if developers tweak their apps to remove "cloud" dependencies (when I heard the initial acquisition news, my first thought was about Fitbit pulling the plug on Pebble's servers and how that move might affect watch operation).

The rise-and-fall story of Pebble (I highly recommend, for example, the coverage at Backchannel and Business Insider) is a bittersweet one. First-mover advantage to establish a brand is all well and good, and the company cultivated a rabid following of both owners and developers as it arguably was the first to successfully figure out the smartwatch segment. But the downside of a small company is a small financial "cushion", especially when better-funded competitors such as Apple and Motorola (who's having second thoughts of its own), although Google soldiers on) follow in your footsteps. Make a misstep (or few) of your own, and you're done. Live and learn from others' business successes and failures, EDN readers...

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