One Week with the Pebble Smartwatch

I’ve always thought the Pebble looked interesting. A kickstarter sensation in 2012, the original Pebble was the first smartwatch to really catch on. It strikes a great balance between a fully featured smartwatch (like the Apple Watch) and a more basic activity tracker (like a Fitbit). It does notifications and fitness, but also has some basic apps. The E ink display can be on all the time and still allow the battery to last for days. All of this has earned the Pebble a loyal following. Unfortunately, that following is coming to an end. Fitbit has purchased Pebble, and has decided to end the product line. Fitbit had committed to supporting the Pebble through the end of the year, but after that there’s no promises. Fitbit offers its own smartwatch (The Fitbit Blaze), and apparently they weren’t too keen on Pebble’s competition. All of this led to a surprise for me last week.

The Pebble Time Steel

My girlfriend’s dad had a Pebble. After the company was bought, he switched to the Fitbit Blaze. Fortunately, I’m a good boyfriend, and he was kind enough to give his Pebble to me! So as of last week, I am now the owner of a Pebble Time Steel! I really like it. Like I said, it can’t do everything the Apple Watch can, but it doesn’t need to. I’ve had a week to play around with it, and I’ve found my three favorite use cases.

Notifications

The Pebble’s main purpose is to display notifications on your wrist, and it does a great job with this. If I get a text, reminder alert, or GroupMe, I can read the notification right on my wrist, which is seriously useful. The Pebble app lets me customize which notifications come to my watch (read: not Facebook, Twitter, or the like). There is a way to respond to text messages directly from the watch, using either your voice or a selection of pre-written replies. However, since other apps can’t send iMessages on iOS, this can only be done through a third-party service that accesses your phone account and sends SMS messages for you. I’m still not sure how comfortable I am with this, so I haven’t set it up yet.

Fitness

The Pebble also acts as a great activity and sleep tracker. Step counting is especially useful since the watchface I’m using shows my progress directly on the main screen (it’s the green circle in the above photo). More useful than that, however, is the sleep tracking. If you’re not using a smart alarm (an alarm that tracks your sleep cycles and wakes you up when you’re in a period of light sleep), you’re really missing out. There are some great apps that do this using your phone, but the Pebble is so much more convenient because it’s automatic.

“Siri”

By far the most fun I’ve had with the Pebble is attempting to recreate a voice assistant of some kind. All I really wanted to do was dictate reminders, which the Pebble is supposed to be able to do, but it never works for me. I was Googling around for another solution, and I found an amazing app for Pebble called “This Then That.” This app is not officially made by If This Then That, but it does allow the voice engine of the Pebble to connect to IFTTT. This opens up a huge world of possibilities. I’ve currently got two voice triggers set up. Starting a command with the words “Make a note…” sends all subsequent text to my Day One journal. I can also set a reminder by saying “Remind me…” Unfortunately, IFTTT can’t set iCloud reminders directly (without leaving the IFTTT app running), but I’ve rigged it up so that it sends me a text message, which contains a link to the Workflow app, which then sets a reminder. So all I have to do is hit that link next time I pull out my phone. It’s kind of ridiculous, but it does the job, and it’s super convenient.

So those are my thoughts on the Pebble. I wasn’t always a fan of smartwatches, but now I’m sold. A smartwatch can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything a smartphone can, but there are some things that really are easier on your wrist. I love the Pebble. Thanks again to my girlfriend’s dad! ••

Update 3.7.17: Yesterday I enabled the text replies feature and it’s incredibly convenient. Being able to shoot off a pre-written quick reply in just a few seconds, without pulling out my phone, is awesome. Dictating a message is less convenient, especially because the Pebble dictation engine can be finicky. Still, all things considered, it’s a great feature!

Microsoft Band: Fitness Friend or Bandwagon Bluff?

Recently, Microsoft announced their entry into the smartwatch/fitness tracker market: The Microsoft Band.  As the name implies, this product leans more towards the fitness band end of that spectrum.  Smartwatches seem to be all the rage these days, but only time will tell whether they’ll actually catch on or if they’re just another tech fad.  Still, for the time being, people are definitely interested in smartwatches, and getting into this market is a good move for Microsoft.  From what I’ve seen on Microsoft’s website, I actually think they have a shot with this one.  Ultimately, the product’s success will come down to whether or not it actually performs well, but Microsoft has taken several preliminary steps that will definitely help its cause.

Fitness First
As I said, the Microsoft Band is a fitness tracker first, and a smartwatch second.  This strategy directly contrasts with the Apple Watch.  For the time being, I think that this is a good play for Microsoft, even if it is a safe one.  The smartwatch market is young, and we’re still figuring out exactly how much you can, and can’t, do on such a tiny little screen.  This means that any smartwatch that attempts to do too much might end up frustrating users.  Microsoft has given the band a fitness focus, including features such as step counting, GPS run tracking, and heart rate monitoring.  The band does pair with a smartphone and give you push notifications, but from what I can tell that’s about all it does as far as smartwatch features go.  This may be enough however; any additional functionality may be so cramped that it’s not worth the saved effort of pulling out your phone.

Partnerships
I didn’t actually hear about the Microsoft Band from Microsoft; RunKeeper told me.  Microsoft has partnered with what are arguably the three most popular fitness apps: RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, and MyFitnessPal.  I like this approach.  It says, “We’re a technology company and we admit that we’re not exactly experts on fitness.  Therefore, in order to give you a good product, we’re partnering with people who do know about fitness.”  The best way for a tech company to shoot themselves in the foot is to create a poorly executed knock off of a service people already use and like.  By humbling themselves and partnering with others, Microsoft has avoided this problem.

Cross Platform
I’ve saved my biggest point for last.  The Microsoft Band will work with both iOS and Android, in addition to Windows Phone.  This is hugely different from other smartwatches on the market.  There are certainly benefits to a company only allowing their watch on their platform.  Most important is the fact that doing so will give your users a more coherent experience.  However, for someone like Microsoft, whose smartphone platform isn’t as popular as others, making their watch cross platform is definitely a good move.  Microsoft was also smart enough to use the Microsoft Band as a hook for the rest of their platform.  In the same way that the Apple Watch has Siri, the Microsoft Band has Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana.  Cortana does about what you would expect it to do, but there’s a catch.  Cortana is only available if you have a Windows Phone.  This approach, “Sure, this product works with what you’ve got, but it works really well with our other products,” is a good one in my opinion.  Worst case, people keep pulling out their iPhones to use Siri.  Best case, the Microsoft Band becomes another reason for people to use Windows Phone.

All this discussion leaves one question: How much does this thing cost?  The answer?  $199.  This seems just a little steep to me; I was hoping it would be in the $100-$150 range like the Pebble.  However, compared to the $349 Apple Watch, it’s not bad.  I don’t see myself buying a Microsoft Band (since I already have a fitness tracker that I like), but I do think Microsoft could have a winner here.  Only time will tell, but until then, I’d like to hear your opinion.  Let your voice be heard in the comments below!  Thanks for reading!  ••

Why I Love My LifeTrak Watch

About a month and a half ago, I purchased a LifeTrak Move watch.  I bought this product primarily as a step counter.  I had tried using an iOS app for this, but it drained my battery and it was a pain to have to always have my iPod in my pocket.  I had looked at the FitBit, but I didn’t have a good reason to spend $100 (or more) on a tracking device.  The Move, on the other hand, gave me many good reasons to purchase it.

The first reason is simple.  LifeTrak is a lesser known brand than say, FitBit or Nike, so I was able to get a good deal on eBay.  Obviously, the more popular and well known a product is, the more demand, and the higher the cost (even when purchasing on eBay and not retail).

The second reason is the main thing I love about the Move.  Almost all wristband activity trackers are just that, wristbands.  They have screens, but you usually have to press a button to turn the screen on.  The Move’s screen is different in that instead of being an OLED screen like many trackers have, it’s a small black LCD (like most cheap digital watches have) that’s only backlit when you press a button.  As a person who already wore a watch, I did not want to wear another device.  On the other hand (no pun intended), a device that required me to press a button to see the time was hardly a watch replacement.  The Move’s simple display is always on, so I still have the ability to glance at it and see the time.

This display is the reason behind another strength: battery.  Many activity trackers have rechargeable batteries; the Move uses a simple cell battery.  Supposedly, this battery will last for up to 14 months.  The cost and trouble of replacing the battery less than once a year is well below the trouble of having to charge it.

Of course, so far I’ve talked only of the design.  As far as functionality goes, it seems to count steps accurately enough (I’ve done short counting tests, but I certainly haven’t counted a whole day’s steps to compare!).  The watch gives steps, distance, and calories.  A bar at the top of the screen shows progress towards your goal.  The calorie counter is well thought out, as it adds in your basal caloric burn rate throughout the day, meaning the number on the watch is not just exercise-based calories, but a real-time total.  The watch keeps a 7 day history of all this data.  There is also a “workout” mode – think of it as a trip odometer as opposed to an odometer.

There’s also a few other features that I don’t use much.  The watch can take your heart rate – you just hold the button and it reads the rate from your finger and wrist.  This works OK, sometimes it can’t seem to get a reading.  The instruction manual says it works better if your wrist is slightly wet, after washing your hands, for instance (LifeTrak says the Move is waterproof up to 90ft.), and this seems to be true.  The watch also has Bluetooth, and will sync with the Argus App (another product I’d recommend).

My only complaints are that the watch doesn’t have an alarm (vibrate or otherwise), and that it seems to shortchange me on distance.  Even though the step count seems pretty accurate, when I walk around the block the distance is shorter than what Google says it is.

All in all, I love the watch.  It’s unobtrusive, looks pretty good, and does what it says it will.  Now if only every gadget I had did that…  ••

 

Love this watch! Definitely recommended.