Smart watch

Review: Pebble Steel

February 25, 2014: 4:46 PM ET

Is this $250 "smart watch" worth it? It depends on how often you pull your phone out of your pocket.

By Jason Cipriani

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The Pebble Steel (left) and the original Pebble watch.

FORTUNE -- In the age of the smartphone, wristwatches are no longer worn primarily as timekeepers. But the Pebble Steel isn't a watch -- it's a "smartwatch." Instead of serving as a fashion accessory, the Pebble Steel acts as an extension of your smartphone. Notifications are sent to your wrist, requiring only a glance to decide if you need to reach into your pocket or bag for your phone.

The Pebble team didn't have a booth at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show, but that didn't stop the company from trying to steal the spotlight. On the first day of the show, Pebble announced it would release a new version of its eponymous smartwatch. Dubbed the "Pebble Steel," the device would bring an air of sophistication to the company's lineup by using a stainless steel housing that recalls the lines of Cartier's iconic Tank watch and the inPulse, the team's first foray into smartwatches, in equal measure. No matter who I talked to at CES, the Pebble Steel took up the bulk of our conversation. For most, the main concern was whether or not the new watch warranted the $250 price tag.

I enjoyed wearing the original Pebble, and came to rely on it to notify me of important e-mails or text messages. Though the plastic housing wasn't anything to boast about (and prone to scratches), I had no complaints. Aside from its metal housing, the new Pebble Steel carries Corning's Gorilla Glass for scratch protection, just like a modern smartphone. The new enclosure is a tad smaller than the original Pebble, but heavier. On the wrist, the Steel feels as light as its predecessor. Strangers and friends alike inquired about it when I wore it around town.

The Steel offers the same 5 ATM (as in "atmospheres"; it translates to a depth of about 50 meters) waterproof rating and the same 5 to 7 day battery life as the original Pebble. On the left side of the watch is a magnetic charging port -- new for this model -- and a button. On the right side there are three additional buttons for navigation. Inside the bezel, there is a Pebble logo, which feels out of place. (I would have preferred none at all.) Just below the display is a single RGB LED light that acts only as a charging indicator, though I don't see why it couldn't be used by developers in other ways. The watch comes in metallic and black matte finishes. Whatever color you choose, you'll get two bands: One that's black leather, the other made of metal links.

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Which brings me to the first drawback of the Steel: Watchband compatibility. Instead of using a standard 22-millimeter band, the Steel uses a proprietary band. Until third-party companies start making custom bands, you're stuck with the bands Pebble wants you to have.

Nevertheless, setting up the Steel was a simple process that took about five minutes to complete. After installing the companion application on an iOS or Android device, you pair the two devices using Bluetooth. Once connected, the watch will begin displaying alerts. For those with iOS devices, that includes any alert that's set to show up in Notification Center. For those with Android devices, you can enable or disable alerts on an app-by-app basis using either the official Pebble app or a third-party Pebble notification app.

The second version of the Pebble operating system, new with the Steel, brings new features and improvements to the platform. One such improvement is the ability to view missed notifications. Previously, if you missed a notification, there was no way to retrieve it on the watch -- frustrating. Now you can browse a list of them.

The Pebble Appstore is also new, and includes apps from companies like Foursquare, Yelp, and GoPro. Though the Appstore is only available for iOS users -- Android is coming "very soon," the company says -- the inclusion helps Pebble's functionality stretch beyond the display of alerts or manipulation of music. (Pebble says there were over 1,000 apps and watch faces available at the Steel's launch. Yes, that's right, you can download watch faces. Welcome to the future.)

MORE: 36 coolest gadgets of 2013

My favorite app is called PebbleBucks. The app will display your Starbucks account balance and your Starbucks Card barcode, which is handy at checkout. The first time I paid for a cup of coffee using nothing more than my watch, I felt like I was from the future. (And the barista looked at me like I was.)

The watch can only store eight apps or watch faces on it at any given time, owing to storage restrictions. Pebble tries to make this less of a burden on the wearer by providing an "app locker" where people can store favorite Pebble apps. In a future software update, I would love to see watch faces and apps have their own memory allocation, instead of both items counting towards the hard cap of eight.

But let's not quibble over technical limitations. If you seek a "smart" watch that doesn't look like it fell out of a gym bag, the Pebble Steel is a fine choice. It may sound trivial to no longer have to reach for your phone for every alert, but it's not. When you don't have to have your phone in hand all the time, you find that you're more relaxed. Which is exactly the kind of technology we need more of in the update-happy world we live in.

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