Pebble’s next smartwatch is here

I’ve had a chance to spend a few days with the Time Steel, and it’s easily the best product Pebble has ever made. Its steel construction is much nicer than the plastic used on the standard Time, and its tolerances and build quality trump the Pebble Steel from 2014. It’s slightly thicker and heavier than the Time, but that affords for a larger battery and longer time away from a charger — in the six days that I’ve been wearing the watch, I’ve not yet had to recharge it. It’s not so thick to be uncomfortable, and the added weight gives it a higher level of perceived quality.

Pebble Time Steel

The display on the Time Steel is dramatically better than the Time’s, and that might be enough of a reason to pony up for the the fancier model. It’s still a small 64-color LCD with a limited palette and muted colors, but it has less glare and is easier to read indoors. It also doesn’t have the noticeable air gap between the glass lens and LCD panel that’s on the Time’s display. I still would prefer more vibrance and it can still look washed out when the backlight is on, but I didn’t have the same readability issues with the Time Steel as I did with the Time. (I’ve also learned that black text on a white background is easier to read on either watch compared to white text on a black background.)

The main issue I have with the Time Steel’s design is the massive black border surrounding the display. It’s more prominent than on the Time (ironically, because the Time Steel has a smaller metal frame around the bezel), and it makes the display look even smaller than it actually is. It’s one (rather significant) blemish on what is otherwise a nicely designed device — even my wife wasn’t offended by its appearance on my wrist, and she’s been very critical of smartwatches in the past.

The Time Steel has the same software interface as the Time, including Pebble’s new Timeline feature that lets you look forward or backward in time to see events, weather information, and other useful data. (For more on the software, check out my full Pebble Time review.) Pebble has been slowly improving the software via firmware updates over the past few months, and it’s now possible to control the intensity of the vibration alert and the brightness and duration of the backlight. Those are pretty minor things, but they make for a much better experience when using the device.

Pebble Time Steel

Pebble’s companion app and app store for iOS and Android is still, sadly, a chore to work with, but it’s slowly getting filled out with more apps and watchfaces that can take advantage of the Time and Time Steel’s color displays. Most of the apps are still very basic compared to what’s available for the Apple Watch, and the Pebble store doesn’t have nearly as many big name developers. Some of the app gap has been filled in by third-party options for missing apps (such as an app to control Philips Hue lights), but those are almost invariably inferior to a first-party option.

The Time Steel’s biggest drawback, especially compared to the Apple Watch, is its limited functionality on iOS. Just like the regular Time, the Time Steel can’t do much with notifications other than clear them — there’s no option to reply with a canned response or voice dictation as you can with the Apple Watch. Nor is it possible to filter which notifications come to the watch, which is something I miss dearly from the Apple Watch. Android users have it a little better, as it’s possible to reply to messages right from the Time Steel with either emoji, a preset response, or voice dictation.

AT $250 TO $300, THE TIME STEEL IS A TOUGH SELLOf course, despite the advancements made by the Time and the Time Steel on top of it, the question remains if it’s a compelling option compared to the Apple Watch or the variety of Android Wear devices. At $249 or $299, the Time Steel is getting dangerously close to the price of the Apple Watch, and it’s priced higher than virtually all Android Wear watches worth considering. To make the Time Steel a viable choice, you really have to value its strengths, which are long battery life, always-on display, and, to a limited extent, cross platform compatibility. And as the popularity of the Apple Watch has shown, most smartwatch buyers don’t seem to value those features as highly as others.

Photography by Sean O’Kane

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