Review: Updated: Pebble Time Round

Review: Updated: Pebble Time Round

Introduction and features

Update: Pebble has announced two new styles for the Time Round that are available for a limited time on its recent Kickstarter supporting the Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core.

For US$199, you can pledge for a polished gold or silver model, each upping the bling-factor considerably over the standard brushed metal build materials.

While the innards are the same, this is your opportunity to jump into the Pebble pool if the lack of a real stand-out look held you back before.

Original review follows below.

Pebble is not like the rest of the big smartwatch names. Where Apple and Motorola use software most people have heard of and big bright screens, and offer limited battery life as a consequence, Pebble has traditionally gone with a much dimmer screen and custom software, enabling its devices to last way longer between charges.

The Pebble Time Round changes all that. While its software and features are similar to the Pebble Time, it sheds the nerdy look, resulting in one of the most innocuous smartwatches you'll have laid eyes on. It's like Pebble's take on the Withings Activite, a watch you'd never know was smart from its looks.

It's just a pity that such a design comes at a price, both monetary and in terms of slashing battery life from seven days to two and removing support for many key Pebble apps. It's a lovely little thing, though, if the limited feature set and £229.99 (US$249.99, around AU$350) price tag don't put you off.

Design and comfort

While I've just called out the Pebble Time Round as making a bit of a 180 on the Pebble mission statement, I can also flip that argument around. All Pebble watches have light hardware, small batteries and relatively slim frames. This one just pushes that angle way harder.

Pebble Time Round review

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the Pebble Time Round is that I have had a panic a few times over the last couple of weeks, sure that I'd lost the thing. "What the hell am I meant to tell my editor?"

It was still there, though, ticking off the day's minutes. The Pebble Time Round is one of the comfiest smartwatches I've used, and at this point I've tried most of them. There's no magic to this. The back isn't even ergonomically curved. It's just very light and has a strap that's all-but-guaranteed to be comfortable.

Pebble Time Round review

At first glance it looks like a plastic strap, doesn't it? However, it's actually a very smooth, very soft leather one. There's none of the crusty bulkiness you get with so many leather straps.

Its face is 38mm in diameter and thinner than many a conventional watch, casually throwing off the chunk tax that seems to weigh down just about every other smartwatch. Being a size-zero smartwatch ain't no big deal, Pebble seems to say.

Pebble Time Round review

Such a style also means the Pebble Time Round doesn't care about gender. It'll fit on dainty wrists without looking ridiculous, and while you're looking at the version with the 20mm strap here, Pebble also makes one with a 14mm strap; you can't switch between the two because the strap's anchor points are actually part of the casing, so make sure you buy the right model.

Where most smartwatches feel like they are secretly (or not secretly at all) made for dudes, with at most the odd nod to women, the Pebble Time Round designs are either gender-neutral or leaning towards a feminine style. It's a pleasant change.

Pebble Time Round review

You've probably already spotted the bad thing about the Pebble Time Round's looks, though. Like the other Pebbles, there's still a great big area of screen surround between the actual display and the edge of the watch. It's something Pebble can't shake, and it makes the screen look a bit like a porthole, and appear smaller than it actually is.

It means the Pebble Time Round doesn't seem as glitzy as an Apple Watch. But it's not really meant to, and it's still made of high-end stuff. The casing is stainless steel, and the screen covering is Gorilla Glass, as used in a lot of smartwatches and phones. A word of warning: the black coating on this particular version's display surround is very easy to scratch.

Display

The screen itself is similar to the style used in the Pebble Time but, no prizes for this one, is round. And has resolution of 180 x 180 pixels.

In person it looks a bit like a Kindle screen, but has some dull-ish colours to it and much poorer sharpness than the very latest Kindle models. However, the tech is totally different.

Pebble Time Round review

While you might see the Pebble Time Round display described as e-paper, don't confuse that with E Ink. This is actually a kind of LCD, which likely has more in common with one of those fancy graphical calculators a few of you probably lusted after back in school. For readers under 25: we used to use calculators in school.

You can level plenty of criticisms at the display. It looks bit blocky, a 64-colour display appears dated next to almost any other smartwatch, and it looks little small too (it's 1.25 inches in diameter). All are valid grumbles. However, I still find this a totally valid alternative to an OLED display.

Pebble Time Round review

The big bonus is that the screen is on 24/7, displaying the time. Some OLED smartwatches now offer an always-on screen mode, but this one is clearer than all of them in bright sunlight, because it thrives on ambient light. It's only indoors or on a glum day that it looks bit dim, at which point you'll want to call upon the blue-y front light.

This automatically comes on when you press a button or make a flicking movement with your wrist. And there's also an ambient light sensor under the display to judge the required level.

The Pebble Time Round is a fundamentally low-tech setup, though. There's Bluetooth and a note-taking microphone, but no Wi-Fi. And no heart rate sensor. And definitely no GPS. Sorry.

Interface, specs and performance

One important element that sets the Pebble Time Round apart from most other smartwatches is how you interact with it. This watch does not have a touchscreen, but rather four buttons, one on the left and three on the right.

If you've not used a Pebble before, you may well find yourself prodding at the touchscreen to start with because, well, that's what we do with everything else isn't it?

Pebble has thankfully used the much softer-feel buttons seen in the Pebble Time Steel, rather than the stiff ones of the standard Pebble Time. They have a superfluous two-phase action a bit like a camera shutter button, but feel pretty good.

Pebble Time Round review

The interface is almost exactly what I saw in the Pebble Time Steel and Pebble Time. Everything is laid out as an up/down list, with some cute visuals to stop it seeming too dull and prosaic.

Looking at the right side of the Time Round, the top button takes you up the interface, the bottom one down.

There are just two main areas to cover in order for you to get your head around Pebble OS. Use those up/down buttons from the clock face and you'll skip through a feature called Timeline. This knits together things like calendar events and weather reports to display what you're up to in the coming days, and have been doing recently.

This swings between being almost useless and totally brilliant, depending on whether you actually live your life through your phone, using Google Calendar effectively and so on.

Pebble Time Round review

I tend to organise social events on mental Post-It notes that swirl around like silver notes in the final round of The Crystal Maze, so I tend to spend more time in the apps menu of the Pebble Time Round.

Press the middle button from the clock display and you reach the apps menu. This lays out all your apps as a horizontal list, one per page. It can get pretty long once you install a whole bunch of apps, but the companion smartphone app does enable you to choose the order they sit in.

Pebble Time Round review

As the Pebble Time Round uses page-based software managed through buttons, it doesn't feel quite as smooth or slick as Android Wear or Watch OS at their fastest. However, its performance is also very reliable. You don't get weird geriatric pauses here, just predictable ones.

For example, apps that haven't been used before (or in a long while) take a few seconds to load, but after that it usually takes just a fraction of a second.

The Pebble Time Round's apps are exceptionally light, meaning the watch can use very modest hardware and get by just fine. It has a Cortex M4 CPU, 128KB RAM and just a few megabytes of storage.

You shouldn't really compare the Time Round to Android Wear rivals and the Apple Watch other than to say this is much, much less powerful; anything more definitive just isn't helpful.

You can still install loads of apps, and as they're all geared for the Time Round's hardware they all tend to run just fine.

However, having just 8MB of storage is a real limitation. While not many people play locally-stored music on a smartwatch, it's just not feasible at all here. And it further restricts what the Pebble Time Round can do without a phone. For example, an Apple Watch can sync photos so that you can, I dunno, look at them while on the toilet or something.

That a lot of advanced smartwatch features end up being superfluous to many is why I believe some detractors rule out Pebbles too quickly. It can't do loads, but it can do what a lot of people want from a smartwatch.

Notifications

It'll receive notifications and give you a buzz when they come in, acts as a music remote control and (with an Android at least) can be used as a way to bypass phone security.

What I appreciate most is how notifications stick around on the Pebble Time Round. With most other smartwatches you have to really look at your wrist as alerts come in to avoid having to interact with the thing to actually bring them up again. But here the always-on screen means they'll be there five minutes later when you decide to check what that wrist-buzz actually was about.

Pebble Time Round review

This is one of the key appeals of a Pebble for me. It sounds small, but it comes into play many times a day. With an Android phone you can also reply to messages and emails using – drum roll please – your voice. It'll send the voice recording from the Time Round's mic to the phone, where it's transcribed. It works reasonably well, and even works in beta form for iOS SMSs and iMessages.

If you're keen to really get stuck into smartwatch life, the Pebble Time Round feels very much like a smartphone accessory, though. It can manage step and sleep tracking without a phone, but that's about it.

Pebble Time Round review

I also find the step tracking a bit generous, to the extent that I wake up with 300-odd steps on the clock. And, fingers crossed, this isn't the Time Round diagnosing me with a sleepwalking disorder. It's likely the algorithm just doesn't really snip out those 'steps' that aren't really steps, just your arm flailing about a bit.

You can use different step-tracking apps, though. I've largely been using the default Pebble Health one for this review, but in the past I've spent weeks using the Misfit app with former Pebbles, and it works with the Time Round too.

Fitness goes further using the Time Round as a second screen for your phone. There's a Runkeeper app, for example, which offers a sports watch-style experience for your Pebble, even if it's still your phone doing most of the work.

Exercise obsessives after a smartwatch-like experience should also check out the Garmin Vivoactive as an alternative, though. It's way uglier than the Time Round, but lasts an awful lot longer, has full GPS tracking and still does notifications.

Pebble Time Round review

There are basic games for the Pebble Time Round, and apps like Nav Me and TripAdvisor leech data off your phone for turn-by-turn navigation and checking out nearby attractions and restaurants. This watch is best at the simple stuff, but there are some clever apps out there too.

However, having used Pebbles for well over a year now, I'm not finding a great deal of progress on the app front. After an initial flurry of apps were released, the Pebble OS catalogue looks familiar month after month. And that only gets worse with the Time Round.

Firing up the Pebble Time companion app, it loaded up the 25 or so apps I last had installed when I used the Pebble Time. Almost exactly half of them don't work with this newer watch – it's likely because the round screen cuts off significant parts of the UI, given how similar the hardware and software otherwise are.

You can expect some of the ongoing projects to get an update, but a lot of Pebble apps seem to be released with few or no follow-up updates, so they'll be left in limbo. When Pebble OS apps are free and generally simplistic, you can understand why devs might lose interest.

Companion app, compatibility and battery life

While a lot of the Pebble Time Round hardware and software is totally different from Android Wear, its companion app is fairly similar. On Android at least.

The phone app is where you download new apps, manage how they're arranged, and check your phone and watch are properly synced. You also get decent control over notifications, and are able to switch them on and off on an app-by-app basis.

Pebble Time Round review

There's a whole app store contained within the app too. I find it a bit tricky to find niche picks because if, say, you want to find a 'cinema times' app you won't find any of the big names there, and you'll have to play around with keywords a bit. But the relatively small app selection makes it do-able.

Phone support for the Pebble Time Round starts at Android and finishes at iOS. No Windows 10 support here. Android is really the way to experience this device too. It's all about how the Pebble Time Round can respond to notifications. You can reply directly from the watch, or archive/delete emails.

I'll admit I haven't used these extra features much, but they're so discreet you can pretend they don't exist if you don't want them. iOS has just started to offer this sort of interaction with a beta voice-based SMS/iMessage reply feature, but it's way behind. Bear that in mind if you're an iPhone 6S wrangler.

Battery life

All of these pros and cons apply to all Pebbles, not just the Time Round. What's different here is battery life.

The Pebble Time Round only lasts a third as long as a Pebble Time Steel, which costs exactly the same price nowadays. We're talking a quoted two days of use between charges.

On the first day of use I barely scraped past a day before the battery was drained, but that was down to the extra strain of software updates. After that I've managed around two days fairly consistently. Sometimes a few hours less, other times an hour or so extra. The Pebble claim is fair.

This is not great for such a low-power device. It's poor, in fact. However, it's no surprise when the device has just a 56mAh battery. The Pebble Time has a 150mAh unit, and the Time Steel a larger one still.

Pebble Time Round review

The battery is so small in order to keep the Pebble Time Round slim and slight. It's as simple as that. My issue is that this kills what I appreciate about other Pebbles most, other than their neat always-on screens: namely, you don't feel like you're charging the thing all the bloody time.

Here, I'll be honest, I got that feeling. Even the ultra-bright OLED LG Urbane lasts two days with its always-on screen mode engaged, which reflects badly on the Pebble Time Round.

An obvious counter is that the battery is quick to charge. You'll get to around 70% within 15 minutes, and to 100% within a half hour or so. It does feel a bit misleading to call this fast charging, though, when the thing has just two per cent of the battery capacity of something like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+.

As with other Pebbles, the Time Round uses a magnetic cable that hooks up to connectors on the back. For a 'stylish' Pebble it's a shame something a little more elegant isn't used, but it is at least easy and quick.

And to give some credit to Pebble, it has put in a rather nice battery notification feature that tells you the Time Round will stay charged "'til tomorrow" or until the evening. It's pitched just right: informative, not annoying.

Competition

Apple Watch

Apple Watch

Chalk vs cheese? We can't ignore a comparison with the Apple watch, especially with some retailers dropping the price for the cheapest Sport model to £249/$249. It lasts even less long than the Pebble Time Round, and is both chunkier and heavier, even in its smaller 38mm frame version.

The Apple Watch can do more, and has more big-name apps, but the question of whether it can really do anything extra that's really life-changing is up for debate. It's a clear winner for iPhone owners, though, given the still slightly limited features of Pebble with iOS.

Pebble Time Steel

Pebble Time Steel

If you like Pebble's style, this is really the Time Round's biggest rival. It's not as pretty or as light as the Time Round, but the Time Steel is still fairly petite and very comfortable. It also has better app support right now, while lots of apps won't work with the Time Round thanks its round screen.

The real difference is battery life. The Time Steel lasts for up to a week, the Time Round two days. As it costs the same amount as the Time Round, it's the better choice for many.

Moto 360 2

Moto 369 2

Is Android Wear worth considering over the Pebble Time Round? Well, the top pick Moto 360 2 is a bit more expensive than the Time Round and a lot thicker, but also looks pretty great if you don't mind a more eye-catching look.

However, as with the Apple Watch, battery life is worse. In return you get a more vibrant-feeling apps space, but Wear doesn't actually handle basics such as notifications any better than the Pebble Time Round.

Samsung Gear S2

Samsung Gear S2

Samsung's latest smartwatch may be a good choice for you if you're not a fan of the Pebble Time Round. The Gear S2 runs on Tizen software and in our review we called it a real rival to Watch OS and Android Wear watches.

It features a rotating bezel that gives it an entirely different design to everything else you can buy right now. There's a round design, which is thicker than the Pebble Time Round but also looks great on your wrist.

If you're after another beautiful round smartwatch, this may be the choice for you. Just be warned about the lack of apps, Tizen is still struggling with that at the moment.

Garmin Vivoactive

Garmin Vivoactive

If the Vivoactive wasn't a bland-looking block, the Pebble Time Round would be in big trouble. This watch offers full GPS (not dependent on your phone), multi-sport tracking and smartwatch essentials like an app store and notifications. And battery life is streets ahead: three weeks basic use, 10 hours of GPS.

It doesn't handle notifications as well, and earns far fewer smartwatch points. But we wish the Pebble Time Round had some of its chops.

Verdict

Is the Pebble Time Round a case of style over substance? Not quite, but for those who don't care much about looks it does eat away at that traditional Pebble appeal.

We liked

The Pebble Time Round is ultra-comfortable because it's so slim, so light, and has such a malleable strap. You'll probably forget you're wearing it on occasion – I did.

Pebble can handle notifications pretty well these days, letting you dictate replies to emails and messages right from the watch thanks to an integrated mic. This is a big part of making the Time Round feel like a proper smartwatch, rather than a glorified pedometer.

The always-on screen is a big boost too, meaning you can be very casual about how you check your notifications, and even the time.

The very fast battery charging is also useful, although this is really down to the tiny size of the cell rather than the fast-charging tech we see in phones.

We disiked

The Time Round trades away the main appeal of previous Pebble watches, which is that they last much longer than the average. With just two days' use between charges it's no better than the longer-lasting Android Wear crowd.

It really doesn't feel like it's at the cutting edge of the smartwatch development either. The Pebble platform has a reasonable amount of apps, but most seem to be made by tiny dev teams or lone coders. And the Time Round is incompatible with an awful lot of existing software, including many important apps.

You get the feeling it can't do much beyond basic fitness tracking without a phone either. While this isn't necessarily a huge issue, it does mean the price is grating when it loses out on battery life too, compared to older Pebbles.

Final verdict

The Pebble Time Round is a very 'nice' smartwatch – and I mean that in both the positive sense of the word, and the meaning that comes with an ever-so-slight sneer.

It feels great, handles notifications just fine, and is so slight you could forget you're wearing it.

However, it doesn't work with a lot of existing Pebble apps, a situation that seems unlikely to be fully remedied. More important, it trades away the convenience of previous Pebbles for looks, with a battery that only lasts two days, or less with intensive use.

This takes away from the laid-back style worth appreciating in the Time Steel. But if you don't mind the sense you're charging it all the time, the Pebble Time Round is a very pleasant watch to live with.

First reviewed: February 2016

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