As some of you know, I was (and am) a big fan of Pebble smartwatches. Sadly, they shut down last month and stopped development on their then-upcoming next generation of watch: the Pebble Time 2. I backed the Kickstarter, so I was pretty bummed to hear that it wasn’t going to come out.* I’ve owned three smartwatches, the original Pebble, the Moto 360, and the Pebble Time, and there are some things that Pebble just does better than the other mainstream smartwatches out there.

1) Battery life

One problem that smartwatches may always suffer from is battery life shorter than that of conventional watches, which are simply less complicated and don’t contain a radio transmitter. Assuming relatively consistent power use and battery size, Wired calculates that powering even a low-powered smartwatch with motion (as some mechanical watches use) would take roughly one full arm swing every 3-4 waking seconds.

Android Wear watches and the later Apple Watch seem to compromise at about one day’s worth of battery life, depending on the model, which seems to me like the bare minimum for usability. Most people charge their phones overnight, and it makes sense to charge your watch overnight as well, but it means one more charger to carry with you if you ever travel or sleep somewhere other than your own house. Pebble, on the other hand, lasts 7-10 days on a charge, in large part due to its low-power screen. This is very, very useful and means that your watch is usually one less thing to worry about.

2) Screen

This one is probably more controversial, but I think that e-paper is an almost strictly better screen format for wearables than traditional LCDs. It only has to redraw when a row of pixels changes, so that for an average watchface, it only has to update the screen every minute. This saves a ton of power, and lets the display stay on 24/7, as opposed to LCD smartwatches, which usually dim or turn black when not in use and still only last a day or so. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s very useful to be able to glance at your watch without having to move or tap your wrist, which is a bit of a nuisance and probably a turnoff for prospective smartwatch owners.

E-paper is also more visible in brighter (e.g. outdoor) light, while LCDs are the opposite. Unfortunately, Pebble’s contrast is decreased somewhat on the color models as opposed to the black and white models, but it’s still head and shoulders above LCD displays when outside. It also means that if you’re wearing your watch in a dark room, you’re not constantly emitting light whenever you rotate your wrist (I’m looking at you, theatergoers).

Photo of a Pebble Time

Pebble’s UI also has stylized, vector-art-by-way-of-pixels icons for common apps, which I think are pretty cool.

The main tradeoff here is that the color palette and framerate are more restricted on e-paper screens. This would make it a bad choice for, say, a smartphone, but I think the use cases of a smartwatch don’t intersect with those of a smartphone enough to make it a big deal. For example, you’d be restricted from making a very good web browser on the Pebble compared to what you could have on, say, Android Wear, but I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted to browse the web on my watch for any reason other than a proof-of-concept. Usually I just want to read notifications and news on my watch, not look at high-fidelity visual content.

3) Buttons

This is probably where I’m going to lose most of you, but hear me out. The Pebble doesn’t have a touchscreen, and I think this works better than having one. For the vast majority of my use of the Moto 360, my interactions consisted of:

  • Flicking notifications right
  • Flicking notifications up
  • Flicking notifications down
  • Flicking notifications left
  • Voice commands

What controls does the Pebble Time have?

  • A right (“confirm”) button
  • An up button
  • A down button
  • A left (“cancel”) button
  • A microphone

The advantage here is that with physical buttons, everything costs less attention. If you get a notification you don’t care about, you press ‘left’ and you know it’s gone because you pressed the button–you don’t need to keep looking at the watch while you swipe it away. If you’re listening to music, you can control it without even looking at your watch, since you know you just have to press ‘right’. The buttons will never accidentally be pressed by a wet sleeve or by brushing your hand across your wrist.

Again, for a smartphone, an all-purpose touchscreen is generally the best design solution for the problem of supporting different applications’ controls. But on a watch, nothing I usually want to do requires controls more complex than up, down, select, go back, and text entry. This does preclude the use of some features, like some games or drawing emoji, but I don’t need to do those from my watch. For me, playing games on a watch is like playing Snake on an old feature phone–there’s not much reason to do it unless you’re otherwise very bored, and you can already play Snake with buttons, so it’s sort of a moot point.

The future

So far, Fitbit hasn’t announced whether they plan to use Pebble’s IP or hardware designs (which they bought along with the company) in any future products. Generally, though, I think smartwatch manufacturers could learn from Pebble’s example**–that you don’t need to put a smartphone UI on a watch to have it do what you need. Pessimistically, this seems unlikely to change anytime soon, for the same reason Amazon doesn’t make color e-paper Kindles–not because the technology doesn’t exist, but because LED and smartphone controls (as with the Kindle Fire) are “good enough” for color content for most people. However, now that there’s no longer a mainstream, cheap, long-lasting smartwatch option, more manufacturers might start moving into that space. Either that, or the market further divides into “expensive smartphone-watches” and “cheap activity trackers”.

* Thankfully, all Kickstarter backers got refunds, which is more than most failed Kickstarters can say and is a great show of good faith on Pebble’s part. Reportedly, this was part of the terms of Fitbit’s acquisition.

** Er, not the going out of business part.