The Pebble smartwatch gets a lot savvier

With Google's (GOOG) Gear devices like the Moto 360 and Apple's (AAPL) long-awaited Apple Watch arriving on the market, there's little doubt that 2015 is shaping up as the year that truly starts the smartwatch era.

But with all the attention focused on these newest, more refined gadgets, what about the pioneers? A few brave companies brought first-generation smartwatches to market last year, and they run a big risk of simply fading into forgotten tech history, like Microsoft's (MSFT) SPOT watches from 2004. (If you remember those, you have a good memory for obscure tech products -- or you were one of the few who actually owned one.)

Pebble, however, isn't backing away from new, stiff competition. The company has been steadily improving its watch for the last year or so with a regular batch of firmware updates. The Pebble you can buy online or at Best Buy (BBY) today -- while still the same hardware as the original 2013 version -- is a vastly different and far superior product compared to what the company first released.

For iPhone users, Pebble improved dramatically when iOS 7 was released. Pebble's simultaneous firmware update allowed the watch to display any notification the phone could generate, putting it more or less on level ground with the Android version of Pebble.

More recently, Pebble posted some new updates to coincide with iOS 8. First, it delivered a relatively small change but one that actually improves the watch's usability significantly. It allows you to dismiss a notification from the watch so it doesn't appear on the phone. That's great, because it reduces clutter and adds value to seeing notifications on your wrist.

Much more important, though, the latest update transforms Pebble into a hybrid device that not only shows notifications but can also perform as a fitness band. It can now do nonstop monitoring, such as pedometer step counting and sleep monitoring -- things that were never envisioned in the watch's original feature set. Even with an ordinary watch face on display, the Pebble can track this data in the background.

This works in conjunction with apps optimized to track fitness data, such as those already available from Misfit and Jawbone. And Swim offers a similar app that measures swimming metrics like distance, pace and strokes. That's possible because unlike most smartwatches, Pebble is waterproof and can be submerged for an extended period. And because Pebble lasts four to five days on a single charge (which almost no other smartwatch can now claim), it's practical to use as a sleep monitor.

In a few months, the Apple Watch will be here. And then, Pebble will have a much tougher rival. In the meantime, it's differentiating itself on both features and price. It's now just $99 (the Steel edition is $199), which should make it more attractive when compared to Google Wear watches.

But the clock is running on whether Pebble can to carve out a place among the next generation of smartwatches.

Photo courtesy Pebble.