You can’t deny it’s tempting, especially with Amazon now offering the Pebble Time for £50 – a third of the price it cost new only 18 months ago. But even though the Pebble Time remains one of the best pieces of kit I’ve ever bought, you’d have to be the kind of person who takes in stray, 15-year-old cats to consider giving a home to a Pebble smartwatch now.
Pebble effectively went kaput about six months ago. Although the highly varnished version of the story says the company was sold to Fitbit, the truth is that Fitbit merely picked the flesh off the carcass, acquiring Pebble’s intellectual property and leaving the rest to the rats. And while Fitbit has preserved some of the back-end services required to keep Pebble watches functional, the lights are slowly being switched off and the future looks as bleak as Nick Cave’s nightmares.
Open the Pebble app on your smartphone and it becomes immediately obvious that all is not well. Thumbnails of installed watchfaces have begun to be replaced with placeholders and ominous-looking warning signs. And while it is only the thumbnails that have gone missing — the watchfaces do still work — it’s the equivalent of the unopened milk bottles starting to pile up outside an elderly neighbour’s home.
The Pebble app store remain functional, but it’s hardly a hotbed of innovation. Nobody appears to be curating the content. The “Fresh Picks” section contains apps released in February and March. Most of the apps on the homepage are hardy perennials. There’s nothing new to see here, and the Store itself is almost buried within the app: you can only reach it by pressing the + button in the bottom right-hand corner of the apps section, which is the third tab along. You’d be forgiven for failing to notice it was even there.
Lack of support
In terms of support for your £50 smartwatch, you’re on your own. Amazon and other retailers would still be duty bound to repair or replace faulty handsets within a reasonable timeframe, but Pebble warranties expired with the company itself – Fitbit isn’t responsible for any of the company’s liabilities. The Support pages are still live on the company’s website, but who knows how long that Mary Celeste of a site will stay afloat?
Which brings us to the apps. Although the Pebble app is still functional on both Apple and Android, you might be one OS update away from disaster. It only takes Apple or Google to tweak something in the way the OS deals with Bluetooth devices for something to break, and then you’re basically relying on Fitbit’s generosity to fix the issue.
The smartphone app is even hinting at the oncoming apocalypse. A recent update to the Android app stipulated that “this app lets Pebble devices keep working, even if online servers are not accessible for any reason”. Such as Fitbit getting sick of paying the server bills, for example.
“The login process can be skipped, apps can be side-loaded, and the latest watch firmware can be installed,” the app reassures owners, without giving any indication of how to do any of these and blithely redirecting you to the Pebble Developer site.
There is a potential life support machine in the form of Rebble – an unofficial attempt to “replace key pieces of the Pebble ecosystem”, including the watch’s firmware, app store and mobile apps. But that’s still a work in progress. The first release of the firmware drains the watch’s battery within five hours, for instance. That ain’t great for a watch that could previously last five days.
A £50 gamble?
Is it still worth taking a gamble on a Pebble smartwatch if you can find one for £50, or even less on eBay? Possibly. It is still a great smartwatch in its current state. But pretty soon, you’re almost certainly going to be wearing a dumb lump of silicon and plastic. Unless you’ve got a healthy appetite for risk and you’re the kind of person who’s happy spending a Sunday afternoon flashing an experimental set of firmware onto your smartwatch, I’d reluctantly advise you to leave well alone.