Simple, sophisticated and with iPhone and Android support, the Pebble Steel is the best smartwatch we've used
Pedometer: Yes, Heart-rate monitor: No, Display size: 1.26in, Resolution: 168×144, OS support: Android, iOS, Battery life: 5 days
While the other smartphone manufacturers and platforms, such as Android Wear and the upcoming Apple Watch, are going for full-colour touchscreen displays and plenty of on-watch control, the Pebble Steel stands out with its monochrome display and simplistic operation.
That may sound like a recipe for disaster, but both it’s the screen and simple operation, not to mention Android and Apple support, that makes the Pebble Steel such a winner: this is a device that adds to your smartphone; not one that tries to replace it.
Build quality and design
While the original Pebble looked a little cheap thanks to its plastic body, the Steel, as it name plainly gives away, has an all-metal body. It immediately makes it look like a much more expensive and premium product. More importantly, the Pebble Steel look like a proper watch, albeit a rather retro one, rather than a bit of technology that you strap to your wrist. While Motorola gave a more watch-like design to its Moto 360, in the flesh that model is rather chunky and fat and jumps out as a smartwatch; the slimmer and neater Pebble doesn’t.
It ships with a leather watchstrap in the box, although we think that it looks better when paired with the metal strap (available separately for £25). It doesn’t use a standard watch strap fitting, so it’s a bit of a pain to fit. In particular, you have to make sure that you screw the maintaining pin in well, otherwise the natural movement of your wrist slowly undoes it, and could lead to the strap falling off. We have to say that we think the hassle and expense of changing strap are worth it, and we think it nicely finishes the Steel off.
It’s great to see that this model is also waterproof to 5 ATM (40m), so you can go swimming in it or do the washing up without worrying about damaging the watch.
Part of the reason that the Pebble Steel is comparatively thin is because of its 1.26in monochrome screen. This isn’t an e-ink screen, as used on the Amazon Kindle, but an e-paper, low-power transflective display manufactured by Sharp. The difference is that the e-paper screen has better contrast and faster refresh rates than e-ink does, which makes it better suited to watch and app use. However, it’s still always on, so you can always see your watch, and it still draws very little power (more on battery life later).
With a resolution of 168×144, it’s not a very high-resolution screen and looking hard at text and icons you can see the limitations, with some jagged edges. For normal viewing distances, the display is more than adequate and we’ve no complaints about it.
For use at night, the watch has a motion sensor and ambient light sensor, turning on a backlight automatically with the flick of your wrist when it would be too dark to view it otherwise.
Controls and interface
As we mentioned, this display isn’t a touchscreen model, but then it doesn’t need to be; operating a touchscreen this size is the definition of frustration. Instead, four physical buttons give you all of the controls that you need.
On the left-hand side of the screen is a single back button, which steps backwards through apps. The right-hand side has up, down and select. As you’d imagine, all of the apps and options on the watch are designed to work beautifully with this system.
From the main watch face you can use the up and down buttons to cycle through the other faces you have installed (more on this later), while the select button jumps to the main menu where you can access settings and installed apps. On some apps, the on-screen icons change how the buttons work. For example, on the music app, you use the top button to skip forwards, the middle button to play/pause, and the bottom button to skip backwards.
Notifications and built-in features
Connecting the Pebble Steel to your smartphone is as simple as installing the app and pairing the watch to your phone via Bluetooth. There used to be big differences between the experience on Android and iOS, but the gap has shrunk and there’s little to tell between the two.
Out-of-the-box, the Steel automatically pops up notifications on your phone on your wrist, with vibration alerting you. For most notifications, you can only read, but not interact, but that’s still useful. For example, get a new text message and you can read the message from your watch without having to pull out your phone, and then you can decide if you need to reply. It’s also extremely useful for calendar notifications, as you can see where you need to be without messing around with your phone.
Get a phone call, though, and the Pebble will show you who’s calling and gives you the option to answer the call (handy if you’re wearing a headset, but otherwise a little useless), or to hang-up. On top of that, the Pebble Steel also has a music app built in, which lets you see that track that’s playing, play/pause your music and skip tracks. It’s a great way to navigate audio, but it’s a little strange that you can’t hold the track skip buttons to fast-forward or rewind.
A Do not disturb mode lets you choose when to silence the watch and you can even schedule it for set times, such as at night. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tie into the same setting on the iPhone. Aside from notifications, the watch also lets you set alarms. It can only vibrate and is otherwise silent, so you’ll need to be wearing it for the alarm to wake you.
Pebble has updated the firmware for the Steel to version 3.0 and this brought with it the Timelime feature. This was first introduced with Pebble’s newer watch, the Pebble Time. As the name suggests, Timeline arranges all of your important information in a chronological list pulling in useful data such as calendar appointments and weather notifications. To access your Timeline you just press the top and bottom buttons on the Steel to navigate backwards and forwards through your day. Timeline will also pull in useful data from compatible Pebble apps.
To update to the new 3.0 software, you’ll need to use the Pebble Time, which will also be used for managing your Pebble Steel. The Pebble Time app for iOS and Android is generally better designed than the previous Pebble app and makes it easier to rearrange your apps and change settings.
|Waterproof||Yes (5 ATM)|
|Display technology||E-paper (low-power transflective)|
|OS support||Android, iOS|
|Battery life||5 days|
|Price including VAT||£180|