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Editors’ note, December 7, 2016: Pebble has announced that its assets and it will no longer release new products. While the Pebble 2 and other Pebble watches will continue to work, no new software updates or features will be released. Pebble also warned that down the road functionality or service quality may be reduced.
I like the Pebble 2 as a watch, but I don’t like it as a fitness tracker.
Smartwatches are about compromise. Fitting everything on a tiny little wrist-gadget isn’t easy. And one thing most smartwatches cut short is battery life. That’s why Pebble’s watches have always earned a soft spot in my geek heart: they compromise on other things, but deliver on longer battery.
Pebble watches have features that no other smartwatches have really been able to crack: longer battery life, truly always-on screens, and all Pebbles (except the ) have been water resistant, even for swimming.
Now, the Pebble 2 is going after full-on fitness tracking. Fitness trackers dominate sales on the list of top watches and wearables. The shifted into a fitness-forward mode. And so it’s no surprise that Pebble has jumped into fitness feet-first now, too.
New to this year’s Pebbles is an optical heart rate tracker: both the Pebble 2 and upcoming (a color-screened sequel to last year’s , coming later this year) have them.
The Pebble 2 is, otherwise, like a true sequel to the original, utilitarian black-and-white Pebble model from 2013, keeping that plastic design and tiny Game Boy-like screen. The Pebble 2 adds some improvements, like a Gorilla Glass-covered display and a built-in microphone to create voice notes or voice-respond to texts and Gmail (even on iPhones). It’s more compact, too. But it’s that fitness tracking, specifically heart rate, that’s new.
The Pebble 2’s going for fitness, not style. Can heart rate, combined with automatic step and sleep tracking, turn this smartwatch into a full fitness tracker…for $130 or £100 (equivalent to AU$170)?
Well, that’s where I ran into problems. I wish I could say everything worked as well as promised. I’ve been wearing the Pebble 2 for a week, and it’s far from what I’d call a great fitness tracker. But it’s trying really hard.
Pebble as fitness tracker: Leaving a lot to be desired
Thanks to updates, last year’s and Time Steel have already been able to track steps and sleep automatically, with decent success. The Pebble 2 + HR model reviewed here (there’s another heart-rate-free Pebble 2 that costs only $100; this heart-rate-enabled version costs a bit more) takes things another step forward, with an optical heart rate tracker that sits on the back of the watch and spits out flashing green LED lights.
There are compelling reasons for the idea of Pebble-as-fitness-tracker: its battery lasts longer than any Android Wear, Samsung or Apple Watch (five days, even with heart rate enabled). And yes, the tracking for Schwammfilter heart rate, steps and sleep is all automatic. It’s swim-friendly. And the only thing you need to manually do is start and stop workouts via a new included Fitbit Workout app.
But…Pebble’s fitness tracking feels like a bonus feature more than the main event, and that’s where many people will get turned off from the start. Pebble doesn’t have any of its own fitness watch faces, meaning you’ll have to find a third-party one that works for you if you want at-a-glance data without clicking down into Pebble’s app menus.
There are tons of watch faces on Pebble’s app store, many of them fitness-related, and some tap into the Pebble’s onboard heart-rate data, but they mostly look terrible, and aren’t easy to look at or use. A few are keepers. They tend to have a home-made, throwback, slightly ugly aesthetic. Pebble’s watchfaces aren’t easy to swap out, either, and can’t be easily be customized with complications — bits of at-a-glance data. Some watch faces support customizations, but you’ll have to hunt for a solution. I’d kill for a handful of good baked-in Pebble fitness watch faces.
To see steps, sleep and heart rate data, you press up on the Pebble 2’s side buttons. Steps and activity are tracked automatically, which is handy. The Pebble phone app also syncs this data and presents graphs of daily steps and sleep, and all-day heart rate charts.
But workouts are a problem. A new Workout app has been added to the watch, which tracks walks, runs or generic “workouts.” Starting a workout means heart rate data, distance, pace and steps are shown at a glance. I found, however, that tracking walks or runs sometimes ended up with the app folding in data from before my stated workout time…as if the app sensed I had been walking already, and wanted to count those steps. But what if I don’t?
Looking at the workout app, and even starting and stopping exercises, isn’t easy either: the Pebble 2’s side buttons are super small, and hard to recognize by feel (there are three buttons on the right, one on the left).
Even worse, the Pebble 2 doesn’t currently sync workout data to the phone app at all. An update to allow this is expected by November, but right now it means there’s no meaningful accumulation of workout info. So, right now, the Pebble 2 doesn’t keep track of workouts.
Pebble stores fitness data on the Pebble phone app, but doesn’t cloud-store the data like Fitbit. That means if you install the Pebble app on another device, you’ll lose the data. Pebble can sync its data (minus heart rate) via Apple’s HealthKit or Google Fit, but I’d be worried about suddenly losing a lot of accumulated charts down the road. The Pebble 2 works with a handful of other fitness apps, including Runkeeper, but support for these apps is a mixed bag, and not everything works with the Pebble 2’s heart rate monitor.
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