How Pebble's new smartwatches outrun Apple

It might be easy to forget after the media storm surrounding the recent Apple Watch debut that Apple (AAPL) didn't invent the modern smartwatch. To be honest, Pebble didn't either, but you can trace the modern obsession with smartwatches to Pebble's 2011 Kickstarter campaign for the Pebble Watch.

And now Pebble is back with a new pair of watches: The Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel. These watches aren't for everyone, but Tim Cook & Co. should take notice because Pebble nails much of what Apple gets wrong.

The Pebble Time Steel is the premium version of the Pebble Time. It's pretty much the same, except it has all-steel construction, is about a millimeter thicker and has slightly better battery life (10 days vs. Pebble Time's 7). And the Steel is $50 more expensive, at $250 instead of $200 for the Pebble Time. So, it's easy to talk about these two watches collectively.

Pebble Time's single most distinctive feature is its color e-paper display. While the original Pebble ran for days on a charge, thanks to its simple black and white e-paper display, the new watch shows 64 colors. That's not much compared to the millions of colors modern electronics typically display, but the advantage is that e-paper uses almost no power, which gives you really long battery life.

This is where you'll either love the Pebble or hate it. Yes, the Pebble Time runs for a week on a charge. But when you shake your wrist to turn the backlight on, the display is best described as dim and pale, with muted colors. When the backlight is off (which is most of the time), the display is downright murky.

The trade-off, of course, is that the display (such as it is) is on all the time, like any watch's should be. Remember that the Apple Watch comes on only when you flick your wrist, and even then it can barely make it through a single day on a charge.

The Pebble Time's styling is also updated. It looks more grown up than the original Pebble, which was unabashedly plastic. As the Steel's name implies, it has all-steel construction and can be paired with an attractive steel band (included in the Kickstarter campaign, but optional at retail).

That said, it's still not as pretty as the Apple Watch, primarily because the display looks tiny, surrounded as it is by a huge nonfunctional bezel. And it's not a touch-screen device -- you'll have to interact with it via four buttons. As if it were still 1957.

While the new Pebbles maintain compatibility with the thousands of existing Pebble apps, the watch's interface is completely redesigned. Now, the Pebble is all about its timeline. That's where you'll mostly be, stepping forward and backward though events. Pressing the down button on the side of the watch, for example, steps you through upcoming activities. After seeing sunrise and the weather, you'll see each meeting and scheduled event on your calendar.

Apps that are timeline-aware can also insert notifications in the timeline. It's a powerful and convenient way to interact with a smartwatch. So much so, in fact, that Apple is copying it and including something similar in its fall update for the Apple Watch.

Pebble, of course, lets you read incoming texts and messages, and get notifications on your watch that you'd ordinarily have to check your phone for. But your experience will vary widely depending upon whether you're using an Android or an iPhone. You can respond to messages via voice dictation on Android, for example, but messages are read-only on iOS. And you can't specify which types of notifications come to your watch from the iPhone: It's all or nothing. But you can filter out unwanted notifications on Android.

Pebble also can't compete with the deep integration Apple gave its watch, like the way notifications are routed exclusively to the watch while you're wearing it and only to the phone when you're not. Your phone and the Pebble erupt simultaneously every time a notification comes in.

Pebble Time owners get one more surprise: smart straps. Later this year, straps will start to appear that have extra hardware built in, like GPS, heart rate monitors and extended batteries. It's a way to build the perfect watch (for you) by mixing and matching these high-tech straps with your base Pebble Time.

So, where does that leave us? The Pebble Time is clearly an important product and a worthy alternative to the overpriced and underwhelming Apple Watch. But it's far from perfect. People more concerned about aesthetics -- and a watch is jewelry, after all -- will be put off by its dim display, lack of touch screen and retro bezel.

But a week or more of battery life can make up for a world of aesthetic sins. Smart straps, waterproofing to 30 meters, the ability to do overnight duty as a sleep tracker are all checks in the Pebble's favor, and it costs far less than Apple Watch.

Although the Pebbles aren't a slam dunk, Apple should certainly be taking notice of these compelling smartwatches.

Photo courtesy Pebble