I’ve been struggling to come up with the best way to appropriately “review" the Apple Watch. We don’t do many hardware reviews of Apple products because our primary platforms are the iPhone and iPad, two product families that are arguably pretty dumb to review because in the case of the iPhone we’re on the 8th generation of a device that’s only gotten better. Additionally, the historical precedence of how awesome iPhones get with each revision leads most people to (admittedly, very safely) buy one on day one. Sure, there’s been a few *gates here and there between Antennagate and Bendgate, but by and large, every iPhone is better than the last one. I doubt very many people are out there who are waiting for the reviews to come in before buying a new iPhone, and people who do fall inside that demographic are likely just going to wait for the next (print) issue of Consumer Reports. Almost the exact same thing can be said for the iPad.
The Apple Watch, however, is a totally different animal. It’s a whole new product line for Apple, with an entirely new operating system and usage patterns. Of course it comes with all the lofty claims of any Apple product including how it’s their “most personal device ever," and they’ve aptly positioned it as more than a gadget, with celebrities everywhere rocking the watch, effectively turning it into a fashion object to lust over. The scarcity of the Apple Watch combined with so many people waiting to see how the Apple Watch pans out before deciding to get one makes it feel very worth reviewing. In fact, the Apple Watch is so scarce right now that despite having my order in by 12:03 AM the night preorders went up, I didn’t get mine until Tuesday.
Being The Most Personal Device Ever and all, it makes sense to do a series of reviews as my personal usage of the Apple Watch evolves along with the inevitable maturing of the third party Apple Watch software ecosystem. So, keep your eyes peeled for weekly installments on life with the Apple Watch.
First off, a bit of background on me as a watch person. For whatever reason, I’ve been into watches all my life. As a kid I was always wearing various digital watches, I had The Legend of Zelda Game Watch (which wasn’t much of a game) and a bunch of similarly gimmicky late 80’s / early 90’s time pieces. My first “nice" watch, or at least nice in the eyes of a ten year old, was a Dick Tracy watch I got from Disney. It served the dual purpose of being a real non-digital watch and everyone knows Dick Tracy had the coolest watches, so of course this one was also super cool. (If you want to be similarly cool, the same watch now sells for $15 on Etsy and now apparently is “vintage." *sigh*) From there I was absolutely captivated by Timex’s Indiglo, and briefly dabbled in the earliest of “smart" (That’s being generous.) watches with the advent of Timex Datalink, which might still be the weirdest sync solution I’ve seen. Essentially, you’d sync over the few tiny pieces of data the watch was capable of storing which initially was just brief contact data and eventually evolved into “apps" (Again, being incredibly generous.) in later iterations by holding your watch up to your CRT monitor which blinked like crazy. I hit peak crappy-late-90’s-“smart"-watch with the Times/Motorola Beepwear which was the unholy union of a Timex Datalink watch and Motorola pager. Linking back to the original Dick Tracy watch, this was the first watch that actually felt anything like the way the Dick Tracy watch was portrayed as functioning in the Dick Tracy universe.
The reaction to wearing such a ridiculously massive watch led to be taking a total 180 in wrist-wear and as pagers stopped being cool I switched teams over to rocking mechanical watches. I came to appreciate the art of horology, and watches became less of a gadget on my wrist and more of a living piece of horological history as I learned more about the intricacies of different movements and manufacturers. My first “real" mechanical watch was an Omega Speedmaster I picked up from the incredible Wanna Buy a Watch in West Hollywood, CA. This exposed me to the amazingly vibrant second hand watch world, and after trading up, selling, and buying I eventually settled on my “forever watch," a gloriously date-free Rolex Submariner ref. 114060- Objectively the best watch. (Of course this didn’t stop me from cheating on these watches with the Pebble, Pebble Steel and weird Galaxy Gears, but, I digress.) You may be wondering why all this is relevant, and it’s because it seems like in the tech world many of the people reviewing Apple Watches have little to no experience with the world of watches with rare exception.
So, on to the Apple Watch. I settled on a 42mm Apple Watch with link bracelet, but I’ve done two different try-ons and fiddled with all the bands and both watch models and you’re going to have a real hard time criticizing the build quality of any of the choices in the lineup. I thought the leather Apple uses for their bands felt a little plastic-y, but it’s always difficult to judge leather bands when they’re brand new. Most leather bands mature into something awesome with age, so I’ll be very curious to see what Apple’s leather bands look like in 6-12 months. I’m rather surprised by how much people like the Milanese Loop, as it’s really not my cup of tea- But that’s what’s kind of neat about the Apple Watch, just how personalizable it is with their array of different bands.
The link bracelet is really rad, and is sized without any tools. Typically with link bracelets you need a supremely tiny screwdriver and an eye for what you’re doing to resize them. For most people, this means taking it back to wherever you bought it from whenever you need to get it resized. On the inside of Apple’s link bracelet are buttons on the removable links which you press with your fingernail to get them to release. It’s ridiculously easy, although I do wonder about long-term durability of all these tiny moving pieces. While the tool-less design might seem awesome out of the box, I feel like I might be wishing it was sized the traditional way if any of the tiny clips and clasps that make up the link band end up failing. The butterfly clasp itself feels incredibly delicate too, although that’s me judging it against the new Rolex Glidelock clasp and Oyster bracelet which admittedly isn’t very fair considering the exponential price difference. Grading on a curve of smart watch link bracelets, Apple wins here hands down.
Oddly enough, outside of resizing the link bracelet, my out of the box experience with the Apple Watch was surprisingly lackluster for an Apple product. Aside from those giant pieces of protective plastic which joyously peel off in one piece, getting the Apple Watch up and running was pretty frustrating. My first two initial attempts at pairing the Apple Watch with my phone failed. The way it’s supposed to work is you turn the Apple Watch on, it displays a swirly pattern on the screen, you open the Apple Watch app on your phone, and automagically everything is paired together.
Herein lies one of the major problem with Apple stuff, and this isn’t unique to the Apple Watch at all- When something doesn’t work how it’s supposed to, there’s really no step two. Something not syncing to iCloud? Well, uh, that sucks. Your iPad inexplicably not liking a particular WiFi network? Uh, I guess reboot it? When the Apple Watch doesn’t pair, there isn’t really anything you can do aside from reset it and try again. Problem is, this whole “reset and try again" thing takes a surprisingly long time, almost like it’s restoring itself instead of just rebooting. When it failed the second time, I rebooted my phone and that seemed to solve the problem, but this sort of set the scene for the rest of my initial experiences with the Apple Watch.
Once you actually get it to pair, the Apple Watch app takes care of the rest. It asks you if you want to sync over the apps you’ve got on your phone which also have Apple Watch components, which seemed like a good idea. I might have more stuff on my iPhone than most people, but this also seemed like it took a surprising amount of time- So much so that I was actually running late for the dinner plans I had and ended up leaving while the transfer was still in progress. No big deal, I’ll figure it out on the way, right?
What’s weird about the Apple Watch is how surprisingly unintuitive it is to use for before you learn how everything works. I suppose the best point of comparison would be using the original iPhone for the first time, and I really don’t remember not knowing how to do things on it. Maybe it was because the feature set was so limited with iOS 1.0, or perhaps the iPhone’s software was just designed better than anyone was willing to give it credit for at the time, but everything made sense. On the Apple Watch, you’re thrown into a system filled with tons of little icons (Particularly if you let it go wild installing stuff on your first sync.) and no clear division of what the difference between an Apple Watch app and an Apple Watch glance (Glances being the screens that appear when you swipe up on the watch face.) are. Some apps feel like they should be glances, and vice versa. Additionally, configuration options are all over the place. Some things are buried away in the Apple Watch app’s settings on your iPhone, others are found via the “hard press" Force Touch gesture with no clear indication of how or why the user would know about those functionalities.
Essentially, it feels really strange to need to Google basic things to figure out how to use your Apple Watch as everything on the iPhone/iPad side of the fence is so painfully obvious that my late almost entirely computer illiterate father could flawlessly operate his iPad with little more explanation beyond the concept of how the home button and home screen worked. A few days later and I feel like I’ve got most things worked out, but an Apple device with a learning curve definitely feels foreign, and nowhere near “the most personal device ever" that Apple is pitching it as- And this is all coming from someone who is a very computer literate gadget person who quite literally works with iOS stuff daily.
Another strange thing about the Apple Watch is as a watch, it’s really not great. Wearing watches all my life, I’ve grown incredibly used to just quickly glancing down and seeing what time it is. On a traditional watch, the time is always there, and you really don’t realize how nice that is until you’ve got a device strapped to your wrist that requires a tap or a gesture to simply tell you what time it is. Worse yet, the gesture you need to do to make the Apple Watch turn on is very much the international sign for “You’re really boring me, I’ve got somewhere else to be." The way to get it to activate with 100% certainty is to lift your wrist and pull it towards you with the screen face straight up. Basically, imagine how you might exaggerate checking your watch, that’s not far off from what you need to do. The problem is worsened by the fact that this is how you also check the alerts you’ll be getting all day long on your Apple Watch- It took less than 24 hours for my partner to tell me how much they hate my Apple Watch, as it’s real hard to not look at your wrist every time it buzzes, and you’re just constantly sending the “I’ve got sh*t to do" body language.
I feel like Apple made too big of a sacrifice in going with the Apple Watch’s OLED screen. Sure, it beautiful and the animations on it are great, but from a functional standpoint the e-Ink display of the Pebble is so much better that it took me a week of wearing the Apple Watch to fully appreciate the extent. I totally, totally get what Apple is trying to do here. Retina displays are amazing, and the effort they’ve put into the different watch faces and various animations of the watch OS put it in its own league visually compared to every other smart watch out there. The problem is, I use gadgets as tools, so imagine this kind of thing in the world of actual tools. If you had a power drill that lights up like a light bike in TRON, has flames down its side, and instead of making that annoying drill sound it plays the ThunderCats theme song that’d be super rad, and would be great to show off, but if it didn’t work so well as an actual drill, what’s the point? That’s where I’m at with the OLED screen of the Apple Watch.
Getting a notification on the Pebble is a wholly different experience. An alert will get pushed out, and it’ll just live on the screen of your Pebble until you have a chance to glance down and look at it on the persistent e-Ink screen. Using a Pebble feels like using a watch that does extra stuff. Comparatively, getting a alert piped to your Apple Watch results in a noise (which I muted almost instantly) and a buzz. In theory, different alert types should have different buzz patterns but right now everything gets funneled through the generic double tap buzz. To see what the alert is, you have to do the exaggerated checking the time gesture mentioned earlier. Additionally, if you don’t do this right away, your alert gets pushed to the watch’s notification center… So if you’re a few seconds later, instead of the exaggerated watch checking gesture, you need to do that, and swipe down. It sounds dumb to complain about, but it’s such a massive difference from the Pebble that it’s unreal.
I’m pretty vocal about how much notifications on my phone annoy me, and as such, I’ve got the alerts I actually get pared down to things that are super important or immediately require my attention. This still feels excessive on the Apple Watch, particularly with the extra steps to see the actual alert. Weirder yet, if you get two alerts at once, there’s no way to display the actual individual alerts short of dismissing them and viewing the alerts in the watch’s notification center. One of my biggest source of important alerts are from IF by IFTTT (Free) which I use to monitor all the crazy RSS feeds I use to source TouchArcade stories. IFTTT only scans RSS feeds a few times an hour, and if it’s a busy feed there will be multiple alerts, which lead to the aforementioned problem being my primary alert type on the Apple Watch. Admittedly, I’ve got kind of a weird setup going here, but it’s worth mentioning.
As far as the actual Apple Watch software, basically everything feels half baked and very, very version 1.0. The “Hey Siri" functionality is the coolest thing the Apple Watch does, but it’s so slow and spotty that it feels like a treat when it works versus something you can count on all the time. It makes demoing the Apple Watch sort of embarrassing, and reminds me a lot of The Newton being featured in The Simpsons:
Nearly all of the third party apps I’ve tried very much feel like they were obviously developed without really knowing how people were going to use the Apple Watch. I’ve tried most of the games, and none of them feel compelling enough to make you want to play them on your Apple Watch versus just taking the extra five seconds to take your phone out of your pocket and load something up. The best one so far seems to be Runeblade (Free), but once the novelty of playing an exceptionally lightweight RPG on your wrist wears off inside of about 30 seconds I haven’t found myself compelled to go back to it. The most useful thing my Apple Watch has done so far is run the Apple Watch component of the iDevices Connected (Free) app which when paired with the iGrill 2 shows the temperature of the meat you’re cooking on your wrist which is surprisingly handy while you’re trying to make sure all the elements of your dinner are done at roughly the same time.
Additionally, the glance Dark Sky ($3.99) provides is great. It tells you exactly what you need to know about the weather right now. If it’s raining it’ll tell you how long it’s going to rain for (and how hard), if it’s in the afternoon it’ll tell you how much daylight there is left, etc. It’s all I need to know about the weather, in a quick glance, and I feel like this kind of thing is what’s going to be really great on the Apple Watch. It’s just developers realizing this, and implementing it.
As far as battery life is concerned, like others have reported, the Apple Watch has vastly exceeded my expectations. Even on my heaviest use days complete with lots of app usage, an hour-long workout, and a silly amount of notifications I’ve yet to crack 30% battery remaining wearing it from around 8:00 AM until around midnight. Typical days end up in the high-40% to low-50% remaining range. Given how much headroom there is on the battery, it’d be supremely cool to be able to make the Apple Watch accelerometer a little more sensitive to trigger the watch to come on, or the screen lighting up on an alert instead of just on the wrist raise gesture. Instead, the only real toggle you have for how the watch utilizes battery is having it in normal mode or reserve mode. It’d be nice to have a “I don’t care too much about battery, go wild" mode, and maybe something in between normal and reserve mode to still get alerts but maybe kill all other watch functions?
This might come off as thousands of words complaining about the Apple Watch, and while that’s pretty much the case, that doesn’t mean I’m not excited for the future of the platform. The vast majority of the “problems" of the Apple Watch could be solved through software updates, and it’s no surprise to anyone that the very first wave of Apple Watch third party software isn’t great. We’re undoubtedly going to see many growing pains with the platform, and that’s OK.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment, where I’ll hopefully have a better idea of how much the activity tracking and other aspects of the Apple Watch change (or don’t change) my daily routines. So far I’ve been pretty good about filling my circles and standing, but, weekends are a powerful catalyst for laziness. Oh, and you never know, an Apple Watch game that’s actually sort of cool might come along.