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The Pebble Smart Watch

Smart watches are set to become more mainstream this year. If you were looking for a smart watch today, you would have several choices. Not plentiful, but definitely a couple of good options. One of them would be the Pebble Smart Watch, a project that launched on Kickstarter last year with a record of over US$10M in funding.

If you’re a little lost about what counts as a smart watch, let’s just say it’s one that can run little apps, and typically can talk to your smartphone. It will do a hell lot more things that just telling you the time. The Pebble, for example, will display caller-ID of incoming calls, incoming text messages, Google Talk messages, etc. You can also use the Pebble to control the music app on your smartphone.

What makes the Pebble stand out is the use of E-Paper (or E-Ink) display, enabling it to be perfectly readable even under bright sunlight, while consuming very little power. The Pebble also looks reasonably well-designed, something you could wear around without being labeled a technology geek.

The E-Paper display works in any environment as long as there is some light. In the dark, a built-in backlight enables the display to be readable. The Pebble is quite clever about when to turn on the backlight, so you can be assured of maximum battery savings. More on this later.

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There are four buttons for user-input: one on the left, and three on the right. I’d say the buttons are too stiff for my liking. You would probably have to hold the watch on the other side for leverage in order to press the button on one side. The stiffness, however, could be a good thing in preventing accidental button press.

You get alerted only through vibrations. There is no sound output. This works quite well, since you wouldn’t not notice your watch vibrating, unlike a vibrating phone, so long as you’re wearing the watch, of course. At the same time, the silent notification wouldn’t cause a distraction to others.

The Pebble’s 140mAh battery runs for 7 days, and you should still get about 12 – 20 hours of use after the low battery warning comes on. Charging is via a proprietary magsafe-like connector on the left bottom side of the watch. Fortunately the other end of the cable is a standard USB connector, so you can easily charge off any USB port. The Pebble charges from empty to full in about 2 to 3 hours.

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Under the hood, the Pebble has ARM Cortex-M3 processor and runs a customised version of FreeRTOS. There is a vibrating motor,  3-axis accelerometer with gesture detection, magnetometer, ambient light sensor and backlight. The Pebble communicates via Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR and 4.0 Low Energy. The 144 x 168 pixel E-Paper display is a “memory LCD” made by Sharp.

Clever management of the backlight enables the Pebble to minimise battery consumption considerably. You can configure the backlight to be always off, in which case the backlight is not used at all under any circumstances.

If you set the backlight mode to “on”, the Pebble turns on the backlight in response to incoming notification, or when you press any of the buttons. If you enable “motion backlight”, then the backlight is also turned on when you flick your wrist or tap on the watch. The backlight turns off after a few moments.

The last backlight mode is “automatic”, and this is the most sensible setting to go with. If the Pebble is in a dark environment (according to the ambient light sensor, of course), then the backlight is turned on under the same conditions as the above “on” mode. Otherwise, the backlight is never turned on.

There are companion Pebble apps for both iOS and Android. You will need this, otherwise the Pebble wouldn’t be very smart on its own. (It will still tell the time, of course, if that’s what you want.)

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Once the Pebble has been paired up with your phone, it can start receiving various sorts of notifications. The standard notifications supported by Pebble include displaying caller-ID of incoming calls, text messages, email, calendar reminders, Google Talk (Hangouts), Facebook messages and WhatsApp messages.

With other 3rd party applications, you can set Pebble up to receive more notification types.

You can order your Pebble now for US$150 a piece. It went for US$99 for the early bird price on Kickstarter. Other colour choices apart from the Jet Black pictured in this post are: Arctic White, Cherry Red, Orange and Grey.

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This is not the first smart watch, but it certainly is a rather successful one. Yet, it’s just the beginning of many more great smart watches to come. There are numerous smart watch projects seen on Kickstarter as well as Indiegogo crowdfunding platforms. Check out an interesting one: HOT Watch.

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