Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pebble introduces the new Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, and Pebble Core, with fitness in mind

Image: Engadget

Way before there was Android Wear or the Apple Watch, there was Pebble. It was arguably one of the more successful smartwatches on the market, raising a whopping $10 million on Kickstarter with its simple e-ink design. It's faced quite a few challenges since then, but it came fighting back last year with the Time, a revamped version of the Pebble, complete with color e-paper screen and a redesigned user interface. Still, Pebble wanted to take it further. So this year, it has. Say hello to two new Pebbles: The Pebble 2 and the Pebble Time 2. The big new addition on both? Built-in heart rate monitors.

The reasoning behind that is simple; health and fitness is the focus for Pebble this year. Activity tracking, says Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky, is the second most popular usecase of the Pebble, right next to communications. It's why the company added more functionality to its Health app and it's also why it just introduced the Pebble Core, a standalone connected wearable designed for runners. It's all part of a renewed effort by Migicovsky and team to target the health market, but with a something that's more sophisticated than a simple Fitbit. "It's the best of the smartwatch world combined with an amazing fitness tracker," he says.

The Pebble 2 is the more casual of the two new models. Its style is reminiscent of the original Pebble -- right down to the black-and-white e-paper display -- and features a similar sporty design, albeit with a softer and more flexible silicone strap. Just like before, it's water-resistant up to 30 meters so you can swim with it if you like, and has a quick-release button so you can swap out the strap with other 22mm bands. Though it has the same 1.26-inch display as before, the surrounding bezel is noticeably thinner, resulting in a slimmer watch overall (39.5 x 30.2 x 9.8mm) . It comes in five different colors (Black, White, Aqua, Flame and Lime) and supposedly has a seven-day battery life. Also of note is that the heart rate monitor continuously tracks your heart rate -- both active and resting. Migicovsky tells me it tracks your resting heart rate every 10 minutes. The heart rate monitor on the Pebble Time 2 works the same way.

Speaking of the Time 2, it's essentially an updated version of last year's Time, except Pebble decided to fuse it with the Time Steel. That means the Time 2 is built out of Marine-grade stainless steel, not plastic, but ships with a silicone strap (Though you can always buy a separate leather or metal option for $30 or $50 more). It also retails at just $199, which was the price of the original Time. Unlike the Pebble 2, the Time 2 has a color e-paper display, boasts a 10-day battery life and is also a touch bigger (40.5 x 37.5 x 10.8mm). The big news with the Time 2, however, is that it has a dramatically larger screen. It measures 1.5-inches diagonally, which is around 50 percent bigger than the original and takes up almost the entire watchface. The display resolution has also increased to 200 x 228 pixels, which is about 80 percent denser than it was before.

In addition to introducing new hardware, Pebble is also updating its software. If you'll recall, one of the benefits of the chronological Timeline interface it introduced last year was that you could easily see what was coming up just by hitting one of the buttons on the side. You could basically "peek" what's coming up next without having to open an app on your watch. Now, the company is making that process one step easier with a new setting that'll automatically surface that "peek" 5 to 10 minutes before an event. It's basically like a calendar notification, except it doesn't take over the entire watch screen. Instead, it just takes up a small sliver on the bottom of the watchface, which resizes automatically based on the size of the "peek."

Another new feature is called Actions, which lets you access certain apps and functions a lot faster than before. Think of it as a list of shortcuts; you bring up the list with the top button and select the action with the center button. "Instead of having to open a list of apps and then navigate to the app and then choose one of the features, we want to make you have the ability to do it within seconds," says Migicovsky. So, for example, if you access the weather app through the Actions list, it'll automatically call up the weather in your current city without you having to specify it. You could also set it up so you can text one specific person -- say your significant other -- really quickly.

Migicovsky was especially keen to show off the Uber app integrated into Actions. "It takes a lot of concentration to choose an Uber -- you have to choose what car you want, confirm your location, and so forth. We wanted to simplify everything down to one click." With Actions, the app will automatically do all of that thanks to your preferred settings. Migicovsky gave a demonstration where he was able to call a car the instant he pressed a button; no need to confirm it or anything.

These Actions will be introduced as an open API and built on top of Javascript so that developers will find it easier to build these integrations. The actions can then be distributed on the Pebble App Store and downloaded just like a regular app.

The company also wanted to make something that would let people run without their phones -- it needed to have GPS and be able to play music. Unfortunately, bundling all of that functionality into a watch would make it very expensive, so Pebble didn't want to go that route. Instead, it built something entirely different. This is the Pebble Core, the company's first-ever non-smartwatch. It's an Android-powered wearable designed for runners. It has GPS so you can track your runs and, here's the interesting part, a built-in 3G modem that lets you stream music over Spotify. Think of it as a next-generation iPod Shuffle.

That's not all. That same 3G modem can be used to send emergency SOS notifications if you're in trouble. It has WiFi for syncing your running stats with apps like Runkeeper, Strava, MapMyRun, Google Fit and Under Armour. You can map the Core's buttons -- there's a big one and a small one -- to activate certain apps or actions, like ordering an Uber or calling your spouse. There's a 3.5mm headset jack for earbuds but it also has Bluetooth if you prefer to go wireless. On its back is a magnetic clip, which can be clipped on to your shirt or your pocket.

As for that Spotify streaming we mentioned earlier, you do need a SIM card for that. Also, Pebble tells us the streaming only works with Spotify Premium thanks to a special partnership between the two companies. But the Core should still be perfectly functional without a SIM card. You won't be able to stream music, but it does have 4GB of storage that you can load up with songs over WiFi. 4GB isn't much, but the idea here is that the amount should be enough for an hour-long workout session at least.

"We've split up the capabilities that runners want into two products," says Eric Migicovsky, Pebble's CEO and founder. "You've got the watch for doing heart-rate and a display. And [the Core] is a tiny little computer that you keep in your pocket." The Core has other potential uses too. Migicovsky says you can clip it to your kid's backpack and it instantly becomes a kid tracker. It's also kind of like a Tile -- attach it to your keys, for example -- and you'll be able to find it from anywhere thanks to the GPS and 3G modem.

The Core is usable without a Pebble watch, but having one does add a little bit more functionality. The watch essentially adds a display, with which you can use to track your speed, distance and pace in real-time. You'll also be able to see what song is currently playing and changing tracks would be a little easier too -- otherwise, music controls are relegated to the buttons on your headphones. As for its battery life, Migicovsky tells me it should last 9 to 10 hours before needing a recharge. It comes with a wireless charger or you can charge it via an included headphone port cable.

As for the price? It'll retail for $99, but it's currently available for preorder on Kickstarter for $69. "We think the Pebble 2 and the Core makes a very compelling combination," says Migicovsky. Seeing as the Pebble 2 is only $129 retail ($99 on Kickstarter), buying both devices would set you back $228 ($168 on Kickstarter), which he says is still pretty affordable when compared to other smartwatches on the market. That proposition might only be attractive to those already in Pebble's camp, but if you're a fitness nerd on a budget, it's not a bad idea. Still, you'll have to wait awhile before you can get your very own Core -- it'll start shipping in January of next year. 

The Pebble 2 and the Pebble Time 2 will be available for pre-order on Kickstarter starting today. Just as before, Migicovsky and crew are essentially using the crowdfunding platform as a way to reach out to the community and get a certain amount of public confidence; it's not because Pebble is in any dire need of finances to make the products. The Pebble 2 and Pebble Time 2 will retail for $129 and $199 respectively, but their Kickstarter prices are just $99 and $169. Both are expected to ship in September this year.

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