I like watches, but I don't like spending money.
This has obviously made smartwatches a hard sell to me, since I already have a few dumb watches which work well, look great and never need charging.
But I'm a sucker for small luxuries. I like the idea of being able to check my step count, heart rate and notifications while I'm out on a walk without having to pull out my phone, but I don't want to blow hundreds of dollars on a device just for that. The culture of gratuitous spending which seems to have grown up around Apple's phones and smartwatches makes this prospect even more painful. I do kind of want to know what life is like among the Apple Watch-wearing elite, but I don't want to feel like a plebe because I don't feel like paying $50+ for a gaudy band to go with my fancy $300 watch.
So I long ago stopped caring about smartwatches, fitness trackers and everything in between. Even as I was rooting through the best Prime Day deals and sales this week looking to snap up gifts for the holidays, I couldn't bring myself to spend anything on the Prime Day Apple Watch deals that Amazon, Walmart and other retailers were offering.
But I did end up buying my first smartwatch, and after a week of wearing it I'm really happy I did because I got most of what I wanted from a wearable in a package that costs a tenth the price of an Apple Watch, yet is far more interesting and intriguing to me.
I'm talking of course about the PineTime, an open-source smartwatch designed and sold by Pine64 for $26.99.
Folks interested in developing apps and interfaces for the open-source watch can buy a PineTime Smartwatch Dev Kit for the same price, but such technical wizardry is beyond the meager faculties of yours truly. No, I opted to purchase a PineTime sealed against such tomfoolery, which is nice because the waterproof glue used to seal the non-developer version of the watch gives it IP67 water resistance.
With its rounded rectangular design, this minimalist black wearable looks a bit like an Apple Watch SE at a glance, but a closer look reveals this cheap, durable plastic and zinc alloy smartwatch to be something else entirely.
For starters, the 1.3-inch 16-bit color IPS touchscreen is smaller and has a lower resolution (240 x 240 pixels) than your average Apple Watch, though I have no complaints about the display. It responds quickly to my taps, and I appreciate having access to a handful of different watch faces I can flip between as my tastes change. Obviously the 5 or 6 I can access on my PineTime running InfiniTime is a lot less than the 50+ you can choose from on an Apple Watch, but frankly I've found the limited selection offers more than enough variety for my needs.
It's not the fastest or most capable wearable, either, which makes sense since the PineTime runs on a low-power SoC (system on chip) sporting a 64MHz Arm Cortex-M4F CPU with access to 64KB of RAM and 512KB of flash memory. That's pretty anemic compared to the best smartwatches, and yet in day-to-day use I have few complaints about the watch feeling slow or frustrating to use.
And when I did start to feel like complaining, the comforting weight of a spare $200+ in my bank account helped remind me why I like the PineTime.
Sure, the animation when I flip between analog watch face and system menus is a little slower and chunkier than I'm used to seeing, and some features of the InfiniTime firmware don't work as reliably as I'd like, but after wearing this watch for a week I'm not bothered by any of these minor issues.
I like having a cheap smartwatch I can strap on when I leave the house. It's a great little tool for checking the time, tracking your steps and heart rate and staying on top of notifications from your phone, and that's all I want it for. But it can't match the versatility or ease of use offered by Apple's smartwatches, which cost far more in part because they're more capable devices designed specifically to work well with iPhones.
The PineTime can pair with iPhones (when you're running the right software on it) and offer some of the same value as an Apple Watch, but that's not really what it's built for. This cheap open-source device is marketed chiefly at tinkerers, developers and open-source software enthusiasts, so it requires a bit more care and attention to set it up the way you want it. Heck, this watch has its own wiki replete with schematics, chip and component datasheets and links to community groups where you can find other people brave (or foolish) enough to invest in an open-source smartwatch.
But getting started with one is easier than you might assume, and now that I've gone through the process of setting up my PineTime I think it's actually endeared me more to my watch because I know a bit more about how it works and what I can do with it.
The joy of having to do it yourself
And that's really what I want to emphasize when talking up the PineTime: How much more I appreciate it because I had to spend a bit of time tinkering with it and setting it up the way I want to use it.
The fact is, right from the jump I handicapped myself by trying to set my PineTime up to play nicely with my iPhone 13. Apple's phones simply aren't as open or easy to work with as Android phones, and so I had to hunt through Apple's App Store to find a great companion app which can pair with the watch.
The PineTime arrives running its default InfiniTime operating system, but it can't do much out of the box. You need to pair it with a PC or smartphone in order to to do things like update the firmware, send notifications to the phone, control music playback via the watch or download your steps and heart rate logs. There are a variety of companion apps available on Android, Linux and Windows that support some or all of these functions, so if you have access to those platforms you get some room to move when deciding how you want to use your PineTime.
But since I wanted to use mine with my iPhone, I was stuck using the one good iOS companion app I've found so far: InfiniLink. Luckily it works great, at least in my experience, and within 15 minutes of opening my PineTime I'd downloaded InfiniLink, paired watch to phone and started investigating all the cool things it can do.
That includes the basic stuff like tracking steps and heart rate, but there's some fun features to discover in InfiniLink that showcase what creative developers can do with even cheap, low-powered hardware. There's a "flashlight" feature that lets you use the watch to light up dark spaces by basically cranking the brightness on a pure white watch face, for example, as well as metronome and a handful of games you can play.
Sadly, my $30 smartwatch can't do as much as I could if I owned an Android phone or was deeply into Linux, since the PineTime has features which aren't well-supported (yet) by InfiniTime on iOS.
There's a nascent Navigation feature on the watch that I can't take advantage of, for example, because it doesn't work with Apple Maps, Google Maps or anything else I have on my phone. And the PineTime's ability to control music playback on iPhone currently only works with Apple Music, which means I don't get much use out of it since I rely on Spotify.
But I don't miss those features at all, and I don't feel like I got cheated or suckered because again, $30! Instead, that low cost of entry (coupled with the PineTime's elegant, durable design and open-source nature) has made me excited to tinker with and experiment on the watch the way I'd never feel comfortable doing with a $250+ Apple Watch. Heck, it's even got me thinking I might switch to one of the best Android phones when it's time to upgrade this phone.
After a week with my PineTime I've really fallen for this little open-source slab of wearable tech, and I'm excited to see what else creative developers build for it in the years ahead.
But really, the best part is that rather than feeling yoked to my watch because it's an expensive, fancy piece of tech, I feel free to live my life without worrying about my wearable. If I lose it on a hike or accidentally wash it with my whites, I won't care because I paid $30 for it—yet this device that cost me less than a nice lunch in the city has already taught me so much about how wearables work, and how I can make them work for me.
Now, am I brave enough to try and muddle my way through coding my own custom watchface? Probably not. But it's kinda cool to know I could!