pebble

 

Pebble’s latest entry is aimed squarely at those who want full smartwatch functionality, but don’t like the idea of a big, bulky wearable strapped to their wrist. I spent several weeks with the Pebble Time Round and it not only lives up to the billing of being the sleekest smartwatch out there, with Pebble’s continually expanding app store and accessories’ it’s a very capable one as well.

Pebble Time Round Initial Impression

I’ve had the opportunity to unbox many smartwatches in my day, including the one I currently wear, a 42 mm Apple Watch Sport. It takes something pretty cool to make a big first impression with me these days. The Pebble Time Round managed to pull it off.

Pebble says the Time Round is “the world’s lightest, thinnest smartwatch.” They aren’t exaggerating and it makes for a pretty stunning first impression.

First, as its name suggests the Pebble Time Round has a circular watchface and case, like a traditional wristwatch. This alone helps it to stand out from the pack, including previous Pebble models. The stainless steel case (my review unit sported a black finish) is remarkably thin (just 7.5 mm) and very nicely sculpted. The buttons are more widely spaced and seem more precise than in previous models, making it easier to use for someone with large hands. And the weight is truly remarkable. With their respective straps on, I put my Apple Watch and the Pebble Time Round (which is the 20 mm version) on the scale, coming up 50g and 30g, respectively.

Because it’s so thin and light, it’s easy to forget you’re wearing the Pebble Time Round and that is something that seldom happens with other smartwatches. It’s not just the wearer who can forget they have a smartwatch strapped to their wrist, those around them may not realize it either, making this an ideal stealth device.

Round, Colour ePaper Display

One of the defining features of Pebble smartwatches is their battery-sipping ePaper display. It’s similar technology to the eInk displays used by e-readers. With the Pebble Time, colour ePaper was introduced and the Pebble Time Round has this colour ePaper technology as well.

With the round watchface, it makes for an attractive combination, although there is a fairly wide bezel. The approach has pros and cons and may be one of the key reasons why some people either choose Pebble or pass in favour of something else. The ePaper display has the advantage of being always on. No having to wave your arm around to activate the display. That is a big plus. So is the ability to read the display easily outside, even in full sunlight—between the glare and the backlight being overpowered by the sun, my Apple Watch doesn’t far so well outdoors in daylight.

The Pebble Time Round has an effective backlight for low light situations. 

On the downside, ePaper can’t compare to the LCD or OLED displays used by competing smartwatches when it comes to brilliant colour. If you want a smartwatch that you can look at photos on, the Round isn’t the best choice. There are also some apps that haven’t yet been updated to support the round screen, although all the major ones I tried were fully compatible.

At the end of the day, the Pebble Time Round’s display advantages will far outweigh the downsides for many people.

Pebble Time Round Key Specs

  • Always on, LED backlit ePaper display at 180 x 180 pixels
  • Scratch resistant Gorilla Glass cover
  • 56mAh battery rated at 2 days, 15-minute fast charge
  • Charges via USB cable (included)
  • Bluetooth 4.0+
  • Built-in microphone
  • Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, pedometer, magnetometer, gyrometer, compass
  • vibration alert
  • IPX7 splash resistant
  • 316L Marine Grade stainless steel case and bezel
  • 38.5 x 38.5 x 7.5 mm (weighs 32 g)
  • Available in 20 mm band size or 14 mm band size
  • Supports iOS 8+ and Android 4.

Pebble App Store Keeps Growing

It’s hard to understate the importance of apps when it comes to a smartwatch. It’s apps that really let you customize your experience and they are proving as important to the success of a smartwatch as they were for smartphones and tablets. Pebble started early with its own App Store and quickly gained the support of third party developers. While the early Pebble App Store was dominated by watchfaces, it’s continued to mature and now offers a wide range of apps, including some of the most popular mobile apps. There are games, social media apps, weather apps, sports tracking apps, mapping apps, a huge number of health and fitness apps, and lots of customized watchfaces.

A quick browse through the Pebble App Store showed offerings like:

  • Maptastic
  • Uber
  • TripAdvidor
  • Tiny Bird
  • ESPN Daily
  • Misfit
  • Hue On-Off

There are even Pebble versions of Siri/Google Now/Cortana being offered, such as Slate, which lets you use your Pebble Time Round’s microphone to ask questions, set a timer or add calendar events. Overall, the Pebble App Store is one of the biggest, with 10k+ apps (many of which are free), and it continues growing.

Pebble Offers Frequent Updates

Another consideration when choosing a smartwatch is updates. Firmware and operating system updates enhance the smartwatch’s capabilities, while app updates improve the critical interaction between your smartwatch and your smartphone.

Pebble definitely sets a tough pace for other smartwatch makers to keep up with, with frequent system updates. Functionality is always marching forward and the company also works hard to bring key new features to its older devices. A huge one was December’s firmware update that introduced Pebble Health, a native health tracking application with an API to share data with third party apps. The company also recently released the Timeline UI introduced with the Pebble Time to its original smartwatches. I had a firmware update waiting when I first unboxed the Pebble Time Round, and another on the day I wrapped up testing.

This pattern of regular updates is important, because if you choose a Pebble Time Round, you can be sure your smartwatch experience will keep getting better.

Pebble Smartstraps Offer New Functionality

One of the big moves Pebble made recently is to open up the charging port on the back of the Pebble Time series smartwatches, including the Pebble Time Round. This charge port doubles as a data port and that has led to the development of third party accessories that can significantly boost functionality.

Smartstraps replace your Pebble Time Round’s original strap, but include a connector to that data port. There are many different Smartstraps currently for sale or under development and they bring new hardware capabilities like a heart rate sensor or mobile payment chip.

Retains Key Pebble Advantages, but Loses One

Pebble Time Round is a dramatic change from previous Pebble offerings, yet still retains many of the key advantages that made them so popular. It supports both iOS and Android smartphones, the ePaper display looks just as good outdoors as indoors, it’s compatible with standard replacement watch bands and it’s affordably priced.

The Pebble Time Round is a really good smartwatch, but adopting the ultra-thin, ultra-light form factor does come with a penalty: battery life. One of the big selling points of Pebble smartwatches has always been their stellar battery life and the Pebble Time Steel manages an incredible 10 days between charges. However, with the Pebble Time Round that’s more like two days. I actually got three days or more if I used it lightly, but in typical use—with notifications on, using the fitness tracking to count steps and flicking the backlight on in low light situations, two days is pretty realistic.

That may sound terrible compared to the Pebble Time Steel, but it’s worth remembering that once you go outside the Pebble world, two days is better than most other smartwatches can manage. I have to charge my Apple Watch nightly. So two days is actually a good showing–especially considering the tiny space available for a battery—just not up to the usual Pebble standard. The battery also charges quickly, with 15 minutes to half an hour giving you enough power to go a full day of use, and the watch gives you plenty of friendly warnings as your power gets lower.

The other concession compared to previous Pebbles is water resistance. The Pebble Time Round is rated IPX7—which is essentially splash resistant—where previous models could be worn in a swimming pool to depths of 30 metres or more. You can still wear the Pebble Time Round in the rain, but no diving.

Conclusion

The Pebble Time Round fills a unique position in a smartwatch market that’s becoming one of the hottest tech categories around.

Charging the Pebble Time Round is fast and easy with the magnetically-attached, USB to charge-port cable

Unlike many competing smartwatches, Pebble doesn’t force you to choose a platform; iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, it doesn’t matter. Pebble has been pushing out firmware and app updates that have added significantly to functionality through new features like Pebble Health. Third party apps have also been growing at a rapid pace, including favourites like Uber, ESPN Daily, Maptastic and Tiny Bird. By letting hardware manufacturers access the data/charging port with Smartstraps, the base functionality of a Pebble smartwatch is just that—the base level. You can add key new features as you see fit and as new technology is developed. In short, Pebble is mature smartwatch platform with proven success.

Pebble Time Round offers the advantage of an always-on display that looks great in bright sunlight, where LCD and OLED displays struggle.

With the Pebble Time Round, you get a stylish, super-slim smartwatch that offers all the notifications, music control and app functionality you want, but in a familiar classic wristwatch form factor that’s thinner and lighter than anything else out there.

The big decision you really have to make is around battery life (and to a lesser extent water resistance). If a primary reason you’re considering a Pebble is battery life, you’ll probably be happier with the Pebble Time or Pebble Time Steel.  However, if charging every few days isn’t an issue (and remember, that’s still better than many competing smartwatches), the the Pebble Time Round is a pretty compelling option.

Check out the Pebble Time Round, available now at Best Buy

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.