Last week at CES 2014, we saw one of the most intriguing smartwatches to date. The Pebble Steel takes the guts of the original Pebble and puts them in a snazzy-looking watch that could be right at home sitting next to a Rolex. Read on, as we compare its features and specs to those of the Samsung Galaxy Gear.
The Galaxy Gear's main body is larger, as it includes a curved portion that bends around to bleed into the watch's band. Generally speaking, the Gear is going to look and feel a little bit bulkier on your wrist. Pebble Steel is going to feel more like a standard watch.
Neither watch is going to feel noticeably heavy on your wrist, though the Gear is listed as being lighter.
Both watches' main bodies are housed in stainless steel. Having spent time with both devices, though, we'd say the Pebble Steel is easily the more premium-feeling of the two. The Galaxy Gear, meanwhile, looks more like a tech gadget that happens to live on your wrist.
Pebble includes two bands with each Pebble Steel. You get both a metal band that matches your color of choice for the main body, as well as a black leather strap. The Gear's integrated band is made of a firm plastic.
The Pebble Steel is sold in two colors, while Samsung offers six different hues for the Gear.
There is a big difference here, though. All but one of the Gears have identical bodies, with only their bands providing different colors. The two Pebbles' bodies are different and you can swap their bands for any other that you like. You'll just need to pick up a standard 22-mm band in your color of choice.
As we just mentioned, the Steel lets you swap for any standard band, while the Galaxy Gear's band is a permanent part of the product.
This is one of the key differences with Pebble. As long as the watch is powered on, its screen is on. The Gear's screen, meanwhile, stays off until you wake it up with a motion-sensing gesture. This makes Pebble a much better choice for fitness tracking, as you can glance down at any time without any fiddling or arm-raising required.
The Pebble Steel uses a power-sipping "e-paper" (Sharp LCD) screen while the Gear uses a smartphone-like Super AMOLED display. The Gear's is also a color touch screen, while the Pebble's is black & white and relies on physical buttons for navigation.
The Gear's display is noticeably bigger, with resolution that's going to look a bit sharper too.
Compatibility is a huge advantage for the Pebble, as most Android phones from the last couple of years will play nicely with it. The Galaxy Gear, meanwhile, only syncs with a handful of Samsung Galaxy handsets. You can check out Samsung's complete list to find out if your phone and firmware combination is Gear-friendly.
Another big advantage for Steel, as Pebble hooks up with iPhones.
What do you use a smartwatch for? With this first batch of wearables, the number one answer has been notifications. Both of these watches will buzz your wrist whenever a new alert comes in. You can customize which apps you receive notifications from, so you won't get interrupted every time a new Fruit Ninja nag message pops up.
The wrist is also a great place to display workout data, and though neither of these are dedicated fitness trackers, they each have compatible pedometer apps. In both cases the actual tracking takes place on your phone, but you can read the data on your watch.
As we already mentioned, this is one area where the Pebble's always-on display gives it an advantage. The Gear will show you your current workout, but you'll have to tap and swipe the screen a couple of times to see how far you've gone.
Another handy use for a smartwatch is to quickly control your phone's music. So if your handset is sitting on the other side of the room while it streams Kool and the Gang to your Bluetooth speaker, you can pause, switch tracks, or tweak the volume from your watch.
Because anyone can develop and release apps for Pebble, it taps into the creativity of third-party developers ranging from mega-corporations to a guy on his laptop. An upcoming Pebble update will add an app store to its iOS/Android companion apps that will only make it easier to find those apps.
Samsung, meanwhile, only lets hand-picked developers release official apps for the Gear. So far that list is very short – and underwhelming.
When it comes to battery life, Pebble Steel is the clear winner. You'll only need to snap on its magnetic charging cable once or twice a week. You'll need to put the Gear in its odd charging cradle every night or two.
The Galaxy Gear has a camera built into its band. It's only 1.9 megapixels, but takes surprisingly solid photos for that resolution. It's debatable whether having a camera on your watch is essential, but it does let you capture Kodak moments with minimal delay.
Pebble Steel doesn't have its own camera, but there are third-party apps that let you use it as a remote shutter for your smartphone's camera.
Voice control is a handy feature to have in a smartwatch, but unfortunately the Galaxy Gear uses Samsung's crappy Siri knockoff, S Voice. It's good for dictating text messages – a very handy feature on a watch – but not much else.
You can also make and take phone calls on your Gear. The call is technically taking place on your phone, but the effect is as if the Gear is your phone. You can use Pebble Steel to answer and reject calls, but you'll need to pick up your phone when it comes time to actually talk.
You can shower and swim while wearing Pebble – just don't expect the Bluetooth connection to hold while you're underwater. The Gear's water resistance is much more limited, only allowing for the occasional splash.
The Gear has a faster processor, but we found Pebble Steel's UI to be pretty zippy. Updated software makes it a little faster than the current software on the standard Pebble (though it should soon get that speed-boosting software update too).
Pebble Steel starts shipping in late January, though current orders are now pushed back to "shipping by mid-February." The Galaxy Gear has been on store shelves since late September.
Pebble Steel rings up for US$50 cheaper than the Galaxy Gear. If you want to save a few bucks, and don't mind a plastic body, then the standard Pebble will only set you back $150.
But Samsung really dropped the ball with software. Browse the Galaxy Gear section of Samsung's app store, and you'll see a virtual ghost town. There are a few big names, including eBay and Evernote, but the list is way too short. Again, it comes back to an invite-only status for app developers – and Samsung doesn't appear to be too concerned with bringing new blood into that fold.
So though we aren't here to declare a victor, we think the Pebble Steel is probably going to be the smarter bet for most customers. If for no other reason, the fact that Samsung hasn't done much to boost the Gear's app selection should be a yellow flag. And rumors of a second-gen Samsung watch launching within the next three months or so aren't particularly encouraging either.
Updated 1/18 to state that Pebble Steel requires Android device running 4.0 or higher. We had originally stated that it was compatible with Android phones running 2.3 or higher.
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