Pebble announced Tuesday that its smartwatch has officially become a bona fide activity tracker—and an affordable one at that.
Last year, its PebbleKit software developer kit gave app makers access to the device’s accelerometer. Now that effort has born fruit with a new breed of more robust fitness-tracking features from partners Swim.com, Jawbone and Misfit.
This news alone might appeal to fitness buffs, but Pebble—the little Kickstarter startup that sparked the recent smartwatch trend—had another announcement that could give this news a major boost: a steep price cut. The watch starts at just $99.
So for a price that costs less than many standalone step counters or smartwatches, customers can have both in one device.
Track This, Quantified Selfers
Several existing Pebble apps promise some fitness-tracking features, but they’ve been a bit half-baked. Some merely channel and display details from a companion smartphone app. Others use the accelerometer, but are roughed out and can only run when the relevant Pebble app has been launched.
Not so with the new Pebble-sanctioned troika of quantified fitness, which take advantage of a new update that lets them run in the background continuously.
As the name suggests, the Swim.com app tracks swim workouts, including distance, pace, times, strokes and efficiency while people swim with their Pebble watches (which are water-resistant up to 5 atmospheres). The watch app can then sync the data to the phone and over to the cloud.
Jawbone has been very busy, opening its API (see our API explainer) so developers can work with its system, launching a new wristband-free mobile app, and developing for the Pebble platform.
Now it’s ready to launch its new activity-tracking watch face. In some ways, it manages to do what its full-blown step-tracking bracelet can’t: It puts the data directly on your wrist. The physical Jawbone wristband has no display.
Misfit’s watch app, which first debuted in June, now gets an update that takes advantage of round-the-clock tracking to reveal steps, show weekly activity and log sleep.
These are likely only the first waves of this new class of Pebble apps. Earlier this month, the company issued an iPhone update that let loose some handy features, like iOS 8 compatibility and the ability to dismiss notifications right from the wrist. But for activity tracking, the more interesting tidbit is the new support for the watch’s built-in compass.
Not only can users download the company’s free, basic Compass app now, but developers can also support it for geo-caching features or even full-fledged mapping. Those could come in very handy for runners, bicyclists, hikers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts.
If you don’t want those watch apps to sync to your phone or the cloud, they don’t have to, since they don’t require companion smartphone apps. So if you only want Jawbone on your watch, but not your phone, you have that option. According to a company rep, Pebble can hold about a day’s worth of data, should you choose to record the numbers elsewhere. (Update: The Jawbone UP watch face app, however, lists seven days’ worth of data. Your mileage may vary.)
Stepping Things Up
All that background tracking makes the device more useful, but it will also affect battery life. However, according to Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky, the hit isn’t as bad as you might think. “The average Pebble user gets a six-day battery life,” he said. Part of the secret to that sauce is the low-power, non-touch e-paper display. End result: “When you run activity tracking in the background, the power implications are roughly half a day,” Migicovsky said.
If that holds true, it should result in four-to-five day battery life, which seems average for dedicated fitness trackers. My Jawbone UP24 lasts for at least five to seven days; the Basis fitness watch offers three to five days. (The next-generation Basis Peak heart rate monitor, tracker and watch promises to improve on that.) The Fitbit One claims to offer at least 10 days.
As for smartwatches, competitors like Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony can’t hold a candle to Pebble’s battery life—with or without full-fledged activity-tracking enabled. I’ve tested several of those devices, and while those beautiful color touchscreens are far more beautiful than Pebble’s display, they are a major factor in that downright depressing battery life.
By all accounts, Apple’s upcoming wearable won’t improve on that experience either. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, his Watch will require daily charging. So it will only last one day, at best. Possibly even less.
Migicovsky considers the Apple Watch interesting, but as “an expensive, high-quality luxury watch made of high-class materials,” it’s a different category of device than his Pebble. He’s not wrong. Smartwatches from major companies run roughly $250 to $350, with Apple hitting the high end of that range. Pebble—in its new fruity colors—is what he deems a “fast fashion” wearable, with a fast price set to move units.
The classic plastic model takes off about a third of its $149 retail price, landing at $99. The more grown-up steel version chopped about $50 off, for a $199 price tag. For the money, users get new activity-tracking features (with more on the way), longer battery life, a bustling watch app store and dual-platform support for Android and iOS.
For a while there, it looked like Pebble was getting eclipsed by far bigger tech companies’ smartwatch initiatives and their ambitious health and fitness ambitions. Android Wear gadgets have Google Fit, and the Apple Watch will boast its homegrown Health app and HealthKit system for health and fitness monitoring. Now Pebble rolls in, armed with a new round of fitness watch apps and boasting a few things even the big boys can’t touch.
It’s great timing. How apropos for a smartwatch company.
Photos and Pebble watch images by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite. Actual Swim.com, Jawbone and Misfit screenshots courtesy of Pebble.
Update: Perhaps emboldened by new features that keep it competitive in a landscape filled with giants, Pebble couldn’t resist throwing a little shade in one’s direction. On Getpebble.com, the landing page takes a poke at Apple design honcho Jony Ive’s reverence for his own work, which includes the Apple Watch. We’ll see if this scrappy smartwatch maker didn’t just wake a sleeping giant.