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Pebble Steel Brings Smart Looks to the Smartwatch

Finally, a decent-looking smartwatch.

For the past week, I’ve been sporting a new watch, and to show it off, I’ve been waving my wrist around in friends’ faces and making exaggerated hand movements as if I were trying to get them to notice a new engagement ring (or at dinner on any of the “Real Housewives” shows). But no one has said a word about it. And I consider that to be a good thing.

The watch in question is the Pebble Steel. It’s the second smartwatch from the Silicon Valley startup that launched the original Pebble device almost a year ago. Its main job, other than being a watch, is to act as an extension of your iPhone or Android device.

It displays the notifications you receive on your phone on your wrist, so you don’t have to fish your phone out of your pocket or purse every time a new message or call comes in. But unlike the Samsung Galaxy Gear, you can’t use it to have phone conversations or take pictures.

So why do I consider it a positive sign that no one made a fuss about it? Because it shows that smartwatches don’t have to look like unattractive, geeky accessories.

To date, many smartwatches have been bulky, ugly or uncomfortable — or all three — limiting their appeal as a replacement for the everyday watch. When I tested other smartwatches, like the Qualcomm Toq and the Sony SmartWatch 2, friends often scrunched up their noses in distaste, or just pointed at my wrist and said, “What is that?” I wasn’t exactly thrilled about wearing them, either.

This wasn’t the case with the Pebble Steel.

Realizing that smartwatches need to be both functional and fashionable if they’re ever going to catch on, the company designed the Pebble Steel to have a more high-end and polished look — something you wouldn’t mind wearing to a business meeting or a night out on the town.

The watch is constructed from stainless steel instead of plastic, and comes in two finishes — brushed stainless steel or black matte. Each model comes with a metal and a leather wristband. The display is also covered in Gorilla Glass, which helps prevent scratches and gives the watch a more premium feel. Not surprisingly, all of this comes at a price, with the Pebble Steel costing $100 more than original Pebble, at $249.

It’s not all just cosmetic changes, though. There is now a dedicated Pebble app store, which contains more than 1,000 apps for the Pebble Steel and first Pebble, and streamlines the process of installing apps to your watch. In addition, many of the setup and performance issues that my colleague Walt Mossberg experienced with the original Pebble are gone. Beyond that, the two are pretty much identical, including battery life, which is estimated between five and seven days.

I’m still not convinced that anyone needs a smartwatch right now, but if you’re in the market for one, the Pebble Steel is one of the best models available.

I tested the Pebble Steel with my iPhone 5, since only the iOS Pebble app has been updated so far. The company says that it’s working on the Android app, and hopes to release the new version soon.

After downloading the free Pebble companion app, I paired the iPhone and Pebble Steel via Bluetooth, which was a breeze.

My Pebble Steel came with just a leather band, but I found it to be comfortable and of high quality. I thought the Sony Smartwatch 2 was comfortable, too, but its rubber wristband gives it more of a sports watch vibe, whereas the Pebble Steel feels more like a fashion accessory. I do agree with my colleague Lauren Goode, though, that the design of the Pebble Steel skews a bit more masculine.

Aside from the Gorilla Glass cover, the non-touch display remains the same, measuring 1.26 inches diagonally. It uses screen technology that’s similar to what you’d find on an e-book reader, so it only displays text and images in black-and-white. But it’s easily readable indoors and outdoors. There are buttons along the left and right sides of the watch to navigate through the menus and your notifications.

With the iPhone, the Pebble Steel shows every notification that you’ve enabled on your phone. This worked without a hitch, and required very little effort on my part. For example, unlike before, there’s no fussy setup to get alerted to new email. And you can now review each notification, even if you get a bunch in quick succession.

Aside from the basics (messages, phone calls, appointments), the watch vibrated every time I got a Twitter mention, a CNN breaking-news alert, and more — even when it was my turn in Words With Friends. On the few occasions where there was a flood of alerts, I got annoyed at the constant buzzing. But the only way to avoid this is by disabling notifications on your phone, which I wasn’t willing to do in most cases. Also, while you can accept or reject incoming calls using the Pebble Steel, there’s no native feature that allows you to reply to a text message with a canned response.

Still, there were times that I was glad to have the Pebble Steel on me. For example, over the weekend, I was getting my hair cut, and forgot to turn down the ringer on my iPhone. As a phone call came in, my ringtone started blaring at full blast in the relatively quiet salon, but I was quickly able to silence it by hitting the dismiss button on the smartwatch.

Additional apps can also extend the capabilities of the Pebble Steel, though you are limited to loading a maximum of eight apps on the watch (this includes watch faces).

Using the updated Pebble app, I easily downloaded utilities like a weather app and compass straight from the new app store. The company also partnered with some major companies like Foursquare and Yelp to make Pebble-optimized apps. With the latter, you can flick your wrist to get a venue recommendation based on your current location. But I found this to be more of a neat party trick rather than something useful. I think smartwatches will offer a lot more value when they become contextually aware.

Smartwatches are still very much a nascent technology that’s certain to grow and improve over the next year and more. That’s why I’d recommend waiting until the category matures a bit before investing in one. But if you’ve decided you want a smartwatch now, the Pebble Steel should definitely be at the top of your list.

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