The Pebble watch was awesome. Inexpensive, week or so of battery life, and a robust DIY echo system. So good that fitbit bought and killed it. I was able to keep using mine another year or so without some of the cloud based services like voice recognition but the core functions of notifications and music control still worked. Until my Samsung Note 5 suddenly died and I had to upgrade phones.
Enter the Rebble Alliance! They basically took over the ability to add apps and to provide the missing cloud services. The software is free but the services cost about $3 a month which I was happy to pay. But… I can’t seem to keep the pebble bound to the Android 10 (Ulefone Armor 11) phone. I tried all the tricks and removed battery optimizations, etc but it would randomly disconnect. If I open the app on the phone it would reconnect fine but that’s too late. My primary purpose for a smartwatch is to keep the phone silent and get still notifications.
Ulefone promised Android 11 but it hasn’t dropped yet and not sure it will but that’s another story. Android 10 does seem to have a lot of bluetooth problems and I was hoping that would fix it. When OTA updates dropped a couple weeks ago I was hoping that was it. It was small incremental update and it actually made the problem worse. Now I have to constantly re-bind the bluetooth. So that’s a showstopper.
Enter the search for a replacement. I know there’s no real replacement for what the Pebble offered but surely there’s something reasonable. The thing that made the Pebble inexpensive with long battery life was not trying to be another stand alone device. It was made as a companion to your phone. And also it didn’t try to add GPS and a lot of other sensors. Those are on your phone. The whole smartwatch industry seems driven by sports which isn’t really what I wanted.
My requirements for a smart watch, obviously colored by my Pebble experience.
- Inexpensive. Ideally under $100.
- See specified notifications
- Reply to notifications (voice/canned)
- Control music
- Waterproof for normal showering swimming at least
- A week of battery life under normal use
- Camera trigger
- Integrate with map apps?
- Make my own apps
- Other sensors for health?
When my Note 5 died I decided to take a chance and order a Chinese phone from Banggood. There were better choices, really good prices, and shouldn’t have the bloatware of major labels and carrier provided phones do. This was a fantastic success so what about for a watch?
Bangood has a bunch of smart watches mostly under $100. I still wasn’t sure but I saw the Blitzwolf BW HL-1 for about $20 that included the health sensors for heart rate, O2, and even blood pressure somehow. It sounded too good to be true but there’s only one way to be sure. I ordered and it showed up in about 10 days. Very quick for shipping from China these days.
I have been using it about 3 days so here’s some initial observations. First, it is what it says it is! The fit and feel is at least as good as my pebble. Nothing fancy I guess it is supposed to look like that fruit watch? It has a crown that spins but only seems to work as a button? Otherwise it is touch screen so I don’t know why they have a crown.
Let’s see how it compares:
- Inexpensive. Ideally under $100. — The pebble was about $150 before it went closeout. This is $20!
- See specified notifications — Yes but… it seems limited to which notifications it shows where you have to specify the app from their list, not what is actually on the phone.
- Respond to notifications. — Pebble let me use canned response or voice. BW NO??
- Control music — Yes but it doesn’t seem to display the title/artist.
- Waterproof for normal showering swimming at least — so they say
- A week of battery life under normal use — yes, I went 3 days without charging it was reporting 75% full
- Camera trigger — I don’t know if the pebble did this. but it seems to use the app’s camera and not the system camera.
- Integrate with map apps? — I don’t think so. This was handy on the pebble where it would show my trip distance from Maverick
- Make my own apps — Nope. They have a bunch of different but otherwise similar faces to choose but no way to add your own.
- Compass — I never used it in the pebble but BW doesn’t seem to have it.
- Other sensors for health? — The pebble has walk, the BL adds blood sensors.
So in general it meets most of my requirements and is an acceptable replacement. I am really surprised I can’t respond to a message as that seems like a no brainer but at least I can see that I got a message. I played with the health sensors but haven’t compared them to dedicated sensors. Seems about right except the blood pressure seems to show better results than I expect based on using an external cuff. I can only imagine the guess work to get BP out of optical sensors.
UPDATE: When Ulefone finally got their Android 11 update I went back to the Pebble and Rebble alliance and it stays connected much better again. I am still impressed the build of the Blitzwolf for the price but disappointed in the usability of the software. It’s clear they checked off some boxes of “me too” features without really creating a good experience.