Android Wear vs Pebble: how do they compare?

August 21, 2014
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There is no doubt that a new frontier in technology is looming above us, wearable tech. Despite the splash that Android Wear made when it blasted onto the scene at this year’s Google I/O, other smartwatches have had a little time already in the space. The most popular of the bunch, arguably, is the piece of tech born of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign – the Pebble.

In this comparison, we’ll take a look at what these two systems look like, how they work, and what might be different in their fundamental designs.

Hardware

pebbles

What might matter most to users of any smartwatch is how it looks, after all, it has to match one’s style and not doing so is a big detractor. Thankfully, there are a few choices in either camp and the spread should continue to grow.

The Pebble originally started out as a plastic device with a silicone band and a bunch of new, flashier colors have recently been released so that you really have your pick of the litter. While the plastic version has been my choice in the Pebble space, there is another version called the Pebble Steel that will fit better for anyone used to a metal or leather watch. Its body is much heavier than its older counterpart and the Pebble logo is proudly displayed on the lower third of the face.

What might matter most to users of any smartwatch is how it looks, after all, it has to match one’s style and not doing so is a big detractor

The construction of a Pebble is basically the same no matter which version you choose. A special LCD screen akin to e-paper displays allows for great viewing even when in broad daylight and its low power consumption helps battery life go for as long as a week with moderate usage. Surrounding the screen are buttons that are used for all of the navigation – there is no touchscreen capability here – and in either version of the Pebble presses are meaty and provide a tactile experience much different from Android Wear.

LG G Watch unboxing initial setup (10 of 13)

In the case of Android Wear, its name is the designator for the software ecosystem rather than the hardware that runs it. And when looking for which Android Wear watch fits better for you, there are currently a few main choices with plenty of new iterations coming in the next few months. Right now we have the LG G Watch, the Samsung Gear Live, and the impending Moto 360 that sports a round face rather than the more conventional square smartwatch unit.

When looking at the different styles, right now we can say that the LG G Watch is more simplistic compared to the Samsung Gear Live. While the Gear Live takes on the look of Samsung’s already established Tizen smartwatches, the G Watch is more like strapping a small screen onto your wrist. The 1.65 inch screens on either device are touch capable, with the Gear Live arguably getting the upper hand with a vibrant AMOLED display. Unfortunately, these kinds of screens also mean that battery life won’t often reach even two days – for most users, this tips the scales in the Pebble’s favor.

samsung gear live unboxing aa (14 of 15)

While the screen and buttons of the Pebble affords it better daylight viewing and battery life, Android Wear’s need for a full touchscreen pushes it further into the ‘smart’ portion of the term ‘smartwatch'

While single buttons may be found on the Samsung Gear Live and the upcoming Moto 360, they are not used for anything more than accessing the system menu or waking/sleeping the device. Extras added into this general formula are currently very few, with the main one right now being the heart rate monitor on the Samsung Gear Live. The LG G Watch provides the best implementation of Android Wear’s general control – taps, swipes, and presses. Navigation throughout all of the cards, notifications, and menus are done through the touchscreen or, in particular cases, via the sound of your voice.

So, when you are choosing between the Pebble and various Android Wear devices, you do have quite a few choices; however, it is important to note that the way each piece of hardware is fundamentally constructed come with implications. While the screen and buttons of the Pebble affords it better daylight viewing and battery life, Android Wear’s need for a full touchscreen pushes it further into the ‘smart’ portion of the term ‘smartwatch.’

Smartphone, meet smartwatch.

pebble-to-phone

Connecting either smartwach to the smartphone is about the same procedure, though with Android Wear a more recent version of Android is needed for full functionality. In the case of the Pebble, it is a matter of downloading the Pebble app from the Play Store and connecting via bluetooth. What is great about the fairly new Pebble app is that it now consolidates all of the different apps and watchfaces that can be installed, as it all used to be scattered throughout the interwebs. Most apps and watchfaces will be installed straight to the Pebble without the need to install anything extra on the phone, though sometimes watchapps function as companions to already installed apps like Runkeeper.

wear-to-phone

Connecting any Android Wear watch to your smartphone is largely the same. An Android Wear app will make the bridge via bluetooth and from there the application allows you to pick the default applications for various tasks, like picking between Google Keep and Evernote for taking notes. The difference is in how the apps are found. The majority of applications installed on the watch are done by the apps already installed in your phone, which makes things a little difficult. No one place provides all of the apps and watch faces that you can install on your Android Wear device, so it often comes down to waiting for your already often used applications to finally get Android Wear support.

Thankfully, however, there is a pretty good spread of apps that you can use so Android Wear doesn’t fall too far behind the already well established and more mature Pebble ecosystem.

As a notification hub

pebble steel aa-20140321-029-7

Before I get into my points of contention between these two types of smartwatches, I will say that both of these systems perform the main function very well – being notification centers. At least right now, the smartwatch is supposed to be an easier way of looking at pertinent information without needing to remove phones out of pockets. In the case of the Pebble, notifications arrive in pages and are dismissed with button presses, though you can customize which notifications come to the watch with one of the many replacement notifiers found in the Pebble App Store. As your phone goes off, so does your watch and you get to decide if reaching for your smartphone is needed.

cards

The same goes for Android Wear, though its approach is quite different. Notifications come in via very Google-esque cards that stack up. Swiping up and down will allow you to scroll through them, while a swipe to the right dismisses them. Move to the right and some extra options are available, like changing music tracks for the Google Play Music card or for starting voice replies for Hangouts messages. And with the colorful touchscreens on any Android Wear device, it might be the most attractive way to work with your phone’s information currently available.

Control

pebble steel aa-20140321-039-10

But the screens are where the differences really come into play. We’ve already discussed how the e-paper-like display of the Pebble affords it much longer battery life and always-possible viewing especially with its backlight, making it a little more practical for anyone that doesn’t want to take their watches off every day just to charge. But having a touchscreen as opposed to buttons for navigation made for a much more important notion – if smartwatches are supposed make looking at our phones less frequent, what if we are just replacing our phone screen with another distracting display?

Android Wear succeeds at taking my eyes off my phone, but it is just as effective at taking my eyes off the road

It sounds like an obvious implication, but think for a moment how the buttons of the Pebble are like any buttons you got used to using on a digital watch. Over time, you likely got used to how many presses were needed to do particular tasks, making looking at your watch less necessary unless you really needed to know the time. This is the same for the Pebble, whose buttons afford the user this same ability. For example, I know exactly how many presses it takes to get to my music application and then I can easily change the song or volume without needing to look at my watch. This is especially useful when I am performing any important task that requires my attention, like driving.

music-wear

Now imagine the same scenario when on the road, but with an Android Wear device. Because the watch requires taps and swipes, seeing what you are doing is crucial to its usage. And so, when needing to check any notifications or, in this example, controlling music, bringing up the LG G Watch is arguably just as dangerous as reaching for my phone and fiddling with it. Android Wear succeeds at taking my eyes off my phone, but it is just as effective at taking my eyes off the road.

Even when not driving, this fundamental difference in control is the sole reason why I have to really think about which watch I want to don on my wrist before heading out. For the most part, I have found the experience between either device as useful as the next and as long as my batteries are charged, I can almost always just reach for the nearest one and have a good time. But when safety is a factor, needing to keep my attention somewhere important has me reach for my Pebble more often than not because its button navigation makes control easier in such situations.

That’s not to say Android Wear doesn’t have its own trump card: in the absence of buttons, you can simply use your voice. Dictating tasks and replying to messages using the LG G Watch is still one of its coolest features and is a marquee ability of the Android Wear ecosystem. Successfully dictate a response to a text message and you’ll be hooked. As an alternative to getting out your phone to do the same task, Android Wear very much succeeds.

Conclusion

wear-vs-pebble

And so, there you have it. A look at Android Wear and Pebble, including how they fundamentally change the way that I use wearable tech. To be honest, the driving example is the best way to really showcase the differences in usage, because on a core level both of these watches perform incredibly well. While there has been more time for the Pebble ecosystem to grow, much of what is possible on the Pebble is already possible on Android Wear, plus the ability to use voice commands.

The difference between buttons and touchscreens is, really, the main point of contention between these two. Otherwise, you have a choice between different versions of both the Pebble and Android Wear, so find what is best for your style. If you need your watch to last much longer, the Pebble definitely has the edge there. But if you want to easily respond to messages using your voice, Android Wear has that on lock. As the scale continuously evens out no matter what situation you throw at them, it is ultimately up to you to truly know what it is you need out of your smartwatch.

In the meantime, more Android Wear watches are on the way and we’re sure Pebble has plenty more up its sleeve to contend with Google’s own take on the smartwatch.

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