Pebble Time Steel – Constant Companion

For today’s Throwback Thursday, let’s look at the Pebble Time Steel, which remains the pinnacle of Pebble watches, considering that Pebble itself went defunct late last year and the replacement Time 2 never materialised.

HISTORY

The brainchild of the Kickstarter wunderkind Pebble, the Time Steel was part of their second successful crowd-funding campaign following the huge success of the original Pebble. 

The new Pebble Time pretty much continued the design principles that was behind the first. It was all about usability and longevity, and the always-on e-paper display and week-long battery life echoed that focus.

The Pebble Time really wasn’t a smartwatch as much as it was just a watch made smart.

And with an all metal body and an upgraded 10-day battery life, the Time Steel was undoubtedly the flagship of the line.

DESIGN / BUILD QUALITY 

The Pebble Time Steel features a 144×168, 64-colour e-paper display with an LED backlight, encased in a full Marine-Grade steel chassis with steel buttons – unlike the Time which only has a metal bazel and a polycarbonate chassis. 

Not that the Time wasn’t hardy in any way as it also has a Gorrila Glass 3 cover glass and is Water Resistant to 3ATM just like the Time Steel. That said, the fully metal chassis does feel better as the added heft helps remind you that you actually have a watch on as the Time can feel rather light on the wrist.

Both the Time and Time Steel also has 22mm lugs compatible with normal watch straps, which was pretty neat as you’re not tied to using straps from just Pebble.

From a usability standpoint, it’s arguable whether the button-driven design of the Pebble Time Steel gives it a disadvantage over the Button + Touchscreen navigation of Android Wear devices, simply as using just buttons can be a lot more intuitive while on the move.

The 10-day battery life and 3ATM water resistance does make the Time Steel pretty much lifeproof, which is more than could be said for most of its other competitors back then.

That said, the Pebble Time Steel wasn’t without its caveats. For one, the design was considered more toy-like than other more watch-like smartwatches, an issue it shared with the plasticky first generation Pebble.

Furthermore, the display was relatively tiny in comparison to the main body, which in turn made the bazels on the Time look absolutely huge. This was exacerbated in the Time Steel, which reduced the frame around the display, further enlarging the bazels.

Finally, the PebbleOS, while adequate for most tasks, wasn’t the most flexible of interfaces, and for some felt restrictive due to the things that it can’t do – as we will see more in the next section.

PERFORMANCE

On the performance side, the Time Steel (and the Time) was driven by a 100Mhz Cortex-M4 processor with 16MB of storage. It communicated with the smartphone it was paired with through Bluetooth 4.0, and was also equipped with a bevy of sensors and a microphone for voice-to-text dictation. 

Thanks to the hugely streamlined experience that is PebbleOS 3.0, the Time Steel ran like a dream, with effortless pairing and use with either Android or iOS devices.

It was responsive, stable and also supported the installation of multiple apps, limited only by the storage space on the watch compared to 8 apps max on the first-gen Pebble.

However, in comparison to the Android Wear devices of the time, the limitation of PebbleOS 3.0 and the relatively modest hardware it was running on was beginning to show, even with the usability upgrades over the previous 2.0 version.

Apps, as they were on PebbleOS were pretty basic, and it didn’t help that the button driven navigation meant that input was pretty much gimped for many of them. Also, there was a huge reliance on the cloud for many of these apps, which meant that once the Pebble drops connection with its host phone, it’s pretty much *just* a watch. 

Additionally, the OS animations were also considered childish by a few reviewers, which further reinforced the toy-like outlook it had for some.

The limitation of only text-dictation that was imposed on the microphone also meant that it wasn’t usable for anything else including answering calls, which was point of contention to many. Thanks to Nuance voice-recognition technology, the text-dictation function is rather usable though, which was much appreciated.

VALUE

At launch on Kickstarter, the Time Steel was offered at $250, with an eventual MSRP of $299. Unfortunately, at these prices it wasn’t surprising that people found it to be quite a stretch, especially compared to Android Wear smartwatches that were available for about the same price.

That said, with the current dissolved status of Pebble as a company, you can probably see the Time Steel being deeply discounted everywhere as retailers start getting rid of their stock. I’ve seen it going for $130 on Amazon nowadays which I think is pretty fair for a new one – though it will come with zero support now that Pebble is gone.

The second-hand market will probably provide even better value if you don’t mind getting one used, considering I got my own Time Steel for about $70 from a local user.

Also, from the software side, Pebble has promised that the servers supporting PebbleOS will be kept running through 2017 at least, with the future beyond being pretty uncertain. However, there’s a good chance that the software (and servers) would be rescued by the very avid Pebble fanbase, but there’s no real guarantee of that happening (EDIT: Thankfully there IS an actual active community effort going on and its called Rebble). 

That said, if you have at least some computing skills at your disposal, a compatible alternative to the Pebble software is currently available for Android (at least) that will remove all reliance to the Pebble servers. It’s called GadgetBridge and you can read more about it HERE.

All in all, it’s pretty hard to discuss value for the Pebble Time Steel, now that it has been relegated to being more an “underground” device. It’s still pretty much the best smartwatch available, especially at today’s prices (especially used), but you will probably need to jump through hoops to use one past 2017, particularly if you’re not using an Android smartphone as a host.

CONCLUSION

The Pebble Time Steel was pretty much the high point of the Pebble saga, as it encapsulated everything that a smartwatch should be, at least to me. 

Sure it didn’t have niceties like a heartbeat sensor or a touchscreen, but really, when was the last time you demanded such things from a watch? The Pebble Time Steel had everything essential to being a “smart” timepiece and nothing more – which to me is the real beauty of it.

However, now that Pebble is gone and the future uncertain for the remaining users of Pebble watches, it’s only a matter of time before something else comes along to shake the Pebble Time Steel off its perch.

Even with that in mind, as of now, the Pebble Time Steel is still very much a reliable partner that I think should be part of every Tech-Nomad’s arsenal… though now the recommendation does come with a lot more caveats, especially for the less tech-savvy amongst us.

Well, at least as long as they’re still available anyway… which should not be for much longer to begin with.

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