Pebble vs Android Wear
Being a tech freak, and particularly a smartwatch geek, I’m often asked this question: “Which is better: Pebble or Android Wear?”. The fact that I created a website about Pebble smart watches should give you an idea about my ultimate preference, but Android Wear has a lot going for it too. There is no clear answer because everybody’s needs are different. However, you’re here for answers, so I’m going to do my best to explain the differences to help you along the way.
At their core, all smartwatches serve one purpose: they relieve you of the necessity to be continually reaching for your phone. This may not seem like much. I thought so too—until I started wearing smartwatches. I quickly became a convert. I no longer have to carry my phone with me every step I take. I can have the phone somewhere vaguely in the vicinity, safe in the knowledge that I won’t miss any important notifications. Better still, the countless unimportant notifications can be ignored with a quick glance at my wrist, rather than fishing the phone out and entering the unlock code, only to find out that it is nothing important.
Of course, both Pebble and Android Wear serve this purpose. Any notification (e-mail, SMS, reminder, twitter notification, etc.) which will ping your phone can be made to ping your watch as well.
Use as a Watch
Just as we are in danger of forgetting that our smart phones can actually make calls, it’s all too easy to forget—in the excitement of the added functionality—that the shiny gadget adorning our wrist is a smartwatch. It has a primary function of telling the time.
Android Wear watches have a relatively power hungry LED or AMOLED display to feed. Because of this, they do not show constantly. The first generation of Android Wear watches mostly shut off the display altogether after a few seconds of showing you the time. To get it to display again involves either touching the screen, or a (sometimes quite theatrical) movement of lifting the arm and turning the wrist. The downside to this (aside from the aforementioned ham acting) is that it will often trigger unintentionally. When driving, for instance, I usually turn off the wrist gestures in Android Wear, otherwise the act of turning the steering wheel will very often trigger the light. I am also a piano player. Playing a piano will cause the display to regularly turn on and off—not to mention playing havoc with the step counter in either Pebble or Android Wear! They didn’t make these things with us pianists in mind!
Because Pebble smartwatches use a low-power LCD display, they can afford to be permanently on, and still have extremely long battery life (up to ten days). This means that no convoluted gesture is required, and there is no false triggering. This also means that a quick glance is possible while, for example carrying something.
New versions of Android Wear watches have improved this situation by reverting to an “ambient mode” after a few seconds of display. Ambient mode is usually a low brightness, monochrome version of the watch face. As before, touching the watch face, or making the wrist gesture will turn the display fully on for a few seconds.
As we leave the subject of use as a watch, there is one thing that may push you towards either the Pebble or Android Wear. It is visibility in different light conditions:
In a nutshell, Pebble watches get even easier to see as light levels increase, Android Wear watches get harder to see. Conversely, Pebble watches get harder to see in poor light (necessitating the use of the backlight), whereas Android Wear watches get easier to see. What this means in reality is that one type may be better for you than the other, depending on where you spend much of your time. Work or spend a lot of time outside? Pebble may be best for you. Spend a lot of time in dark places? Android wear will save you using the backlight.
As you can see, the Pebble Steel is very easy to see in sunlight. The Zenwatch 2, at its brightest setting, becomes extremely difficult to see. To be fair, the Zenwatch 2 does tend to wash out more than some other Android Wear watches, but this illustrates the point.
Indoors, the situation in somewhat reversed. The Pebble watch is a little more muted, whereas the Zenwatch 2 (still at its brightest setting) shines brightly.
Android Wear and Pebble differ markedly in the way that you interact with the watch. Pebble watches are operated by four buttons placed around the case of the watch (one on the left, and three on the right). The left button serves as a back button, and to turn on the backlight. The three right buttons are up, enter, and down respectively. Android Wear watches have a touchscreen, which means that interaction depends on the particular application you are using—much like your smartphone.
Which method you prefer is personal choice. Personally, while I enjoy Android Wear, and the touch screen, when I think about practicality, I always come down on the side of buttons. Experience wearing both has shown me that there are times I really appreciate having buttons. I can interact with the watch without looking down at it. A simple thing such as changing music track while driving; changing volume, or dismissing a notification can be easily achieved without looking at the watch. Buttons are more positive also. I’m sure we’ve all experienced missing a software button, or a swipe not being registered correctly with a touchscreen. Those issues are amplified when you’re dealing with a much smaller screen.
That’s not to say that a touchscreen is not a useful method to interact with a smartwatch. It is very high-tech. However, it most certainly is not necessary—especially when you consider that most interactions with a smartwatch are reactive. You are mostly taking one action, such as dismissing a notification, opening an application on your watch, muting a phone call, etc. All of these things lend themselves towards quick, single actions for which the humble physical button has always sufficed.
Overall, I find that most things take more actions; swipes or button presses to achieve on Android Wear than on Pebble. I feel that this is partly down to the infancy of Android Wear, and partly down to the nature of the different methods for interaction. When your primary method of interaction is with four buttons, you have to design a lithe, succinct operating paradigm to cater to use them effectively. This is an area in which Pebble excels.
Now, one other way in which you interact with your smartwatch is through voice. This is where—due to its integration with Google Now—Android Wear offers more. Although—with the later models of Pebble—you can dictate replies to messages, take notes, translate dictated speech, etc., Android wear has a lot more possibilities. Even though voice control on Android Wear can currently be very hit-or-miss, there is something very impressive about saying to your watch: “OK Google. Show me a picture of a Shitz-tzu.”, and seeing this:
This actually took me about nine attempts before it worked, but it’s impressive, nonetheless.
Overall, Android wear—while having some great possibilities—feels quite immature. Many of the impressive features are a little sketchy, but I’m quite sure that Google is working feverishly behind the scenes to improve things. It is fun. It will appeal to the tech geeks among us, and it will only get better. On the other hand, Pebble has a longer history, and they are not trying to be all things to all people, or trying to turn a watch into a wrist-born tablet. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for the geeks to play. I have mine, for instance, triggering some quite impressive functionality in my phone. With a press of a button on my Pebble my emergency contacts will be sent a google map of my location. I can trigger a fake call from a discreet button press on my Pebble, or turn on audio recording. The sky’s the limit!
Whichever you decide is best for you: Pebble or Android Wear, it is an exciting time for us technology freaks. While it is impossible to cover every aspect of the differences between Pebble and Android Wear in an article of reasonable size, I hope this article has provided you with some food for thought; some help in deciding which is best for your application. And if you still can’t decide, do what I did: have both!