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March 23rd, 2014
01:48 am


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Two weeks with a Pebble
For the past two weeks, I've been wearing a Pebble Steel smartwatch on my left wrist, replacing the long tradition of Timex Ironman watches that I've worn since I was about 10 years old. Since the device is something of a novelty, I figured I'd write at least a short review of it, and have a quick discussion of my feelings about it so far. [1]

Okay. So. First things first. Let's just get this out of the way. I know it feels like it, but the Pebble is not the dumbest thing that humanity has ever created. It is not even the most Silicon-Valley-engineer thing that we've built so far. Sadly, it's not far away from the device that gets those awards; those belong soundly to the Galaxy Gear, and this thing is certainly in the same class of device. If you wear a Pebble, then, you can take some solace in that: you might feel pretty dumb, but at least your watch has a battery life better than the Gear's 30 hours. But this's the last time I'll mention the thing's competition -- at least, directly -- because this really isn't about living with a Gear, it's about living with a Pebble.

When I tried to think about how to characterize my time with it -- and, indeed, how to decide whether I wanted one to begin with -- I found that the best way to think about it is purely as a value judgement. What I wanted to find out was whether a Pebble improved my life, was a no-op, or whether it had negative effects. To characterize that, I realized that the biggest thing that I'd have to think about it in terms of was whether it gave me more control over my relationship with technology, or whether it took control away. For instance, although I find a smartphone an invaluable tool that I do not (at least, right now) want to give up, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the 'phone has substantially disempowered me from controlling how much time -- and where I spend time -- interacting with things that aren't actually related to what I'm doing, or where I am, right at any given instant.

In that theme, I actually found that I really liked using the device for what it's good at. I discovered that one of the biggest strengths of the Pebble is that it can't do much. I can read text messages on it, and I can read Facebook messages, too (and this is really important, since I am on some pretty spammy threads!). But, the Pebble's input system is very limited: it has three buttons on the right (nominally, to interact with whatever application is running), and one button on the left (nominally, to go "back"), and that's it. So, I can't respond to messages (I have to take out my phone if I want to do that); I can't compose anything new; I can't get on IRC; I can't dial the phone; I can't use a calculator; and I can't browse the web.

And let me tell you. It's wonderful. It's a totally passive experience. It does not care if I saw the message or not; although it has a three-color blinking LED, it doesn't use it to tell me anything other than whether it's charging or not. If it has something to tell me, I can glance down, and glance back up -- no need to check out from what I'm doing, and I don't feel like I'm disrupting a conversation if I do. If I don't want to glance down, there's no "blink of shame", of a device trying hard to get my attention; that's OK, I can always poll later. So in that regard, it's refreshing -- it's a very positive way of wresting control back from the god damned notifier sitting in my right pocket.

But here's the downside of it. At the end of the day, it's a little tiny computer, but it's still another computer that I have attached to me. Ugh. How many times did you wake up this week and say "hey, you know what I really want? I really want another programmable device attached to me! Please, bring more computers into my life!"? (I know that I haven't felt that, well, since I got a smartphone.) So here's the weird thing: in order to get less connectivity in my life, it seems that I end up using more technology. Oh well. I guess I can feel safer knowing that it's only a STM32F2 running at 80MHz, only four times as fast as my first PC.

The ideal of the device, of course, is a passive notifier, connected by Bluetooth to my smartphone. Above are the good and bad, but here's the truly ugly: the experience of using it attached to an Android device is, well, disastrous. The software on the watch is rock-solid (I've only crashed it when I did weird stuff programming for it, and beyond that, the device has always performed amazingly, admirably well), but its connection to my phone is flaky at best. Sometimes the Bluetooth stack on the phone locks up, and "everyone notices" (both the watch and the app realize that something has gone wrong, but are powerless to do anything about it); sometimes the app pretends to be running, but actually has been background-killed by the OS (there's a notification saying it's connected, but if I tap on it, the app launches, goes "oh shit!", and reconnects to the phone); sometimes the app just disappears into the abyss (and I have to launch it by hand); and sometimes the app is running, but for some reason, notifications don't make it from phone to watch. Double ugh. A lot of this is probably down to the dogshit-bad Bluetooth stack on the Galaxy S4 (or, at least, in CyanogenMod on the Galaxy S4), but either way, the whole thing means that I have to periodically pull my phone out of my pocket and poll it for notifications anyway, to make sure that the watch is still doing what it's supposed to do. I'm not sure if there's a good solution for this, and this may well be a long-standing pain point for Pebble to deal with. I'd imagine it works better on iOS, since Apple have fewer hardware revisions they support (and also have only one throat to choke), but I haven't tested it there.

Now that I've moved on from how it works with me, a word about how it works with the outside world. The reason I went for the Pebble Steel is that my hope was that it would look somewhat more anonymous than the jet-black plasticy-appearing original Pebble. My hope was that it would blend into the environment as "just another vaguely nice-looking watch"; the best case scenario is that I'd really like to not stand out with the device, if I could avoid it. In some regards, the old Timex Ironman was the definition of an anonymous-looking device; it was a total no-op on my wrist, something that is completely forgettable about me.

Well then. The Pebble Steel, however it appears, does not appear anonymous. People ask about it. On the ski lift, even when I wasn't futzing with it (though it sure is nice to use it to pause my music), I got two groups of people asking: "is that one of those new smartwatches?". And each time, I'd have to answer "Yeah, sadly, it is.". I suddenly understood just what it was like to be a Glasshole. It doesn't feel too different to me -- it's just part of my environment -- but "hey, is that a computer?" "Yeah. Damn it.". Out at the climbing gym, "wait, is that a Pebble?". It doesn't seem so radical to me compared to the old Timex (I charge it once every four days, which isn't so bad), and nobody seemed too taken aback by it ("no, of course it doesn't take pictures, that would be stupid"), but it sure never came with the illusion that it would go unnoticed. And that, I think, is the crux of it that I'm not so sure about including in my life.

Of course, given that I've had this unwitting acceptance of another computer in my life, I would be remiss not to describe the experience of programming for it. It's programmed in C, though you can also program for it in JavaScript, which somehow gets mangled into a device-friendly form. There's memory protection, but I don't know how strong it is (in particular, I'm not sure if you can trick the OS into doing bad things for you that you can't do on your own). The APIs are mostly sensible, but on occasion completely wacko (they've gone a little overboard with the callbacks, I found); it took me only an evening or so to get the hang of it, and a second evening to port Jamie Zawinski's classic Dali Clock to it. (If you want, you can download my port, or go look at the source.)

Okay. So. What's the conclusion? I think the conclusion is that there is none. It is pretty solidly neutral in my life. I think I'll keep wearing it, though I am rather conscious to take it off when I'd rather not be seen with it. I think my judgement of it remains more or less as it was before I bought it: might be cool if there's a special one-off deal on it, but otherwise something of a toy. If you easily justify buying toys, it might be your cup of tea, but otherwise, you probably won't buy one right now.

There is something about it that feels like the future. Glass seems like its goal is to get in your way; it cries out for detachment, and screams "Use me! Don't pay attention to your surroundings!". Maybe that's why the people who are the surroundings seem to dislike it so much. But smartwatches seem like they have a real, genuine possibility to enrich. This one differentiates itself from the others right now because it asks not to be used -- and maybe that's why it's so charming. This one might not be 100% there yet -- but the next few will be very very interesting.

[1] Disclosure: I received the Pebble at a discount when I went to dinner with some friends of friends who worked there. Pebble did not ask me to write a review (or anything at all) about the device; I wrote this only because I felt it to be a novel enough thing that I couldn't resist.

(hello. I have 4 potato cannonses | buy PVC)

[User Picture]
Date:March 23rd, 2014 07:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the review! I've been wondering about the new smart watches and you were definitely clear and to the point. Not planning on getting one given it's not that hard for me to detach from my phone anyway, but perhaps in the future, especially if it was connected to a work phone, it would be a good way to stay informed without having to check the actual smartphone constantly. This was actually a problem at GAI when I was constantly receiving e-mails and texts about work on my phone and I can imagine being able to have these sent to a watch would be *way* easier.
Date:March 24th, 2014 03:31 pm (UTC)
Is broken Bluetooth endemic? My Nexus4, which you think would be well supported by The Google, also has iify Bluetooth,
it keeps dropping connections with the car.

All I want is a remote notification light, in a ring or wristband or pin. This seems like an obvious Bluetooth Low Energy thing, but
I haven't found a clear candidate other than cancelled kickstarters.

[User Picture]
Date:March 27th, 2014 08:26 am (UTC)
I think it is. My Galaxy S4 can't seem to maintain a connection with the car reliably, either. I have heard that there exist devices with working Bluetooth -- someone on Facebook mentioned that the Pebble works great with the Nexus 5 -- but I haven't found any of them yet.
[User Picture]
Date:March 25th, 2014 12:02 am (UTC)
Ditto the first comment -- thanks for a nice post! I had vaguely hard of "smart watches" (and that they may be kind of dumb), but I hadn't actually read anything about one yet. Now I know :-) And I can definitely relate to your points about not wanting to be surrounded with more computers and about other people hate it when someone is. One of many reasons I will probably end up as the last person in the U.S. still without a smartphone...
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