Sousveillance time with PineTime

After spending a few months with a Pinetime around my wrist, I thought I’d share some impressions about this open source smartwatch, with integrated step counter and heart rate sensor.

Apart from curiosity and a fondness for gadgets, I don’t really need a smartwatch. I could have probably settled for a mechanical one. I did convince myself that if I would follow this self quantifying trend in some way, it had to fit my personal threat model. Meaning, I should be in control on how the biometric data is collected and stored. Also, if felt like it, I should be able to look at how the software is built and apply some changes myself to fit my needs.

There aren’t many commercial models that you can choose from fitting those needs. One company has made a business out of selling hardware clones of popular technology products while delegating the software to run them to an open source community. And off that company comes the PineTime, an open source smartwatch with a step counter and heart rate monitor. A small price, an active software development community and a version one point O of the InfiniTime operating system for the device convinced me to give it a shot.

The watch feels and looks like its price point. It’s simple and light. Its dark aspect makes it discreet enough. Right out of the shipping package, it boots up and charges without issues. I could connect it to my phone running Lineage OS using the GagdgetBridge app downloaded from the F-Droid store. During the first few days, I ran into connectivity issues. If my phone would go into airplane mode or be too distant from the watch and drop the Bluetooth connection, then it would not reconnect and I had to do the pairing process all over again. I fiddled a bit with my phone settings but ultimately what solved the connection problem was to update the Infinitime firmware.

Updating the firmware of the watch is a simple process. It requires downloading the latest release from a Github repository and, using the GadgetBridge app, send the whole zip file to the watch. There are no other steps than those. I’ve already done it a few times since the development around the software is quite active. New versions of Infinitime come regularly, fixing bugs and improving things.

The community around Pinetime is quite dynamic, at least in the chat channels. The website both on Pine64 and seems it has not been updated in a while and contains documentation that feels sometimes a bit dated. But the IRC channel #PineTime is very active. People use it to ask for help, exchange ideas, discuss alternative firmwares or show off development progress of new features. When running into trouble, I always looked at the chat channel first. And most of the time, someone else was already asking the same question. I used to follow the channel a lot at the beginning to see what people were doing and learned quite a few important tricks.

Let’s talk usage of the device. Yes, it counts steps (and I’ve compared during a walk with a friend that has a proprietary device and we had a similar count). It registers those in the GadgetBridge app on your phone, so you can see every day how much working from home has impacted your daily movements. No, it does not track your sleep patterns. GadgetBridge shows you a lot of potential graphs that never get any data because Pinetime does not track all that. I wish GadgetBridge was a little smarter there and only showed me what it had data for. But I guess that’s a message that is a bit out of scope for the Pinetime community. Or is it?

The heartbeat counter is what I was most interested in, but have mixed feelings about it. It definitely drains the battery faster once you have it on. I can keep the Pinetime up without recharging for about a week if I don’t use the heartbeat meter. That drops significantly if I have it on for a long period of time. GadgetBridge also does not seem to record any heartbeat measure over time. While sports tracking app like Opentracks do connect to the Pinetime and can record heartbeats as part of an exercise. So I guess that will be probably the main use of it.

About the accuracy of the heartbeat meter, it’s difficult to say. I have nothing to compare it to. I don’t know if other devices in the same category might be providing better metering. My feeling is that it’s not super accurate. But I lack data to prove it. One thing is for sure though, it gets the attention of developers. The heartbeat detector received improvements according to the latest firmware changelog. So all is not lost and this feature will get better over time.

After a few months with the Pinetime, turns out my main uses are for tracking time, set an alarm, set a chronometer or set a timer. All this I would usually do with the smartphone. But it’s easier to do with the watch. Those things with a phone need to take the phone out of my pocket, unlock it, open the watch application, etc. The Pinetime makes that much more directly accessible.

What is not accessible with the current version of Infinitime, the software that runs on the Pinetime, is the font size. In some parts of the system, the font is so small, it’s just impossible to read. I’m starting to need glasses to read but don’t have them on my nose all the time. And so I’m unable to read the texts from my notifications because they are way too small for me. Some of the icons also are very difficult to identify due to their size. Smartphone operating systems let you change the default font size for people with visibility impairments, but not yet the Infinitime. I say “not yet“, because I hope to suggest those improvements to the development team. And maybe someone will find the time and energy to tackle those. Maybe that’s even on their roadmap already. It’s definitely a challenge since the screen space is quite limited. But I definitely can see room for larger text and icons.

To end this long review already, I believe the Pinetime is an excellent tool for the privacy-aware free software enthusiasts. It’s a fun gadget that will not take all your time while providing some hours of fun exploring its feature and connecting with its community. Its continuous software development is also part of the charm. The bugs of today might not be there at next update and you could be the one who helped fix it.