It’s just a watch.
I’ve had my Apple Watch for three weeks now, and I have no qualms about telling you that the device’s killer app is telling time.
That’s what I was expecting. After all, it looks like a wristwatch, you wear it in the same place as a wristwatch, and the first thing it shows you when it comes to life is a clock face. The pre-release hype about the Apple Watch—the idea that because it’s an Apple product, it would somehow become the regulator of a good and healthy life—was just silly.
All that said: It’s a very good watch—probably the most versatile and interesting one you can buy. It’s the first “wearable” device that’s actually worth wearing. From its perch on your wrist, it can deliver many kinds of information, some that are merely fun, others that are truly useful. It is to other watches what the first iPhone, in 2007, was to previous mobile phones.
Of course I had to get one. As a lifelong gadget geek and Apple fan—and as Xconomy’s former San Francisco editor and consumer technology columnist—I couldn’t ignore the company’s first new product since the iPad in 2010. Reasoning that it’s the prototype, and therefore certain to be substantially improved in the near future, I selected the cheapest version, the $349 Apple Watch Sport, with a “Space Gray” aluminum case and a black rubber wristband. (Space Gray is really more like matte charcoal. It looks nice with the black display.) I put in my order on April 10, the first day you could buy one, and the watch arrived five weeks later.
The Good News
I’ve been having a lot of fun with the watch. If you’re thinking about getting one, allow me to offer a few good excuses to go ahead. In a minute I’ll list some reasons you might want to wait.
—To repeat, it’s a great watch. For years, I was on the fence about wristwatches. I stopped wearing my old mechanical watch (a cheap Fossil) in 2006, partly because I’d started carrying another clock-bearing device—my smartphone—almost everywhere. Eventually, though, I got tired of reaching for my phone every time I wanted to check the time, and started to reconsider the advantages of a wristwatch. Now I’m wondering how I lived without a watch for so long.
The Apple Watch does everything a watch should do. You can choose from a variety of attractive watch faces, both digital and analog. There’s a stopwatch and a timer. You can also program the watch face to show a variety of “complications.” That’s a horological term that used to connote the dials on old-fashioned watches that showed things like the date, the day of the week, and the phase of the Moon. Apple’s new complications include things like an activity summary, the weather, the next appointment on your calendar, the time in other world cities, the percentage of battery power remaining—even the position of the planets.
All told, the watch face can show you seven or eight categories of information at a glance. The screen is usually dark, to save power. It turns on by itself when you rotate your wrist to look at the watch, and it turns off after a few seconds when you drop your hand, or if you don’t provide some new input. I was initially worried by reports that the watch was slow to light up upon the wrist-flick motion, but I haven’t experienced any sluggishness.
Note: If you enjoy having a gloriously watch-free wrist (to quote XKCD) or if you don’t like the way clocks regiment our lives, the Apple Watch probably won’t change your mind.
—The second greatest thing about the Apple Watch, to my mind, is Apple Pay. With two clicks of the side button, you can bring up whatever debit or credit card you’ve registered with Apple, and then pay instantly by holding your watch near the NFC payment terminal at any retailer participating in Apple Pay.
It’s just like using Apple Pay on your iPhone, except that you don’t have to pull out your phone. I do wish the Apple Pay network were more extensive: it’s a pity that you can’t pay this way at Starbucks or CVS, for example. But at participating stores, paying from the watch is quick, easy, and rock-solid.
—Another feature that makes total sense on the Apple Watch: text messaging. Once you’ve paired your watch with your iPhone and told it which notifications you want to receive on your watch, texts will show up on your watch rather than your phone. You can see them at a glance, without having to pull out your phone. (Are you seeing a theme here?)
There are three ways to reply to a text on the watch: tapping on a short canned answer like “Okay” or “I’ll call you later,” recording an audio message, or dictating a text using Siri’s built-in speech recognition engine. I’ve found that the speech recognition system is accurate enough for most situations. The only annoyance is that there’s no way to correct the occasional error; you have to cancel the message and start over.
Of course, you can also initiate conversations, rather than simply responding to incoming texts. A single tap on the side button brings up a screen showing your frequent contacts. Select one, and you can send the person a text or place a phone call. (The call goes through your iPhone, which must be nearby, or on the same local Wi-Fi network. Audio quality isn’t great. You’ll want to make or receive calls on the watch as a stopgap, not a regular practice.)
—Because it’s a general-purpose computer with wireless connectivity and a built-in accelerometer and heart rate monitor, the Apple Watch obviously outguns most other devices as a fitness monitor. You can set it to monitor your daily movement in steps and miles walked, your minutes of vigorous exercise, and the number of times you stand up throughout the day. If you haven’t stood up for a while, it will remind you with soft tap on the wrist. (The noiseless, nonintrusive stimulus provided by the watch’s so-called “Taptic Engine” is one of the gadget’s nicest features.)
The watch comes with a Workout app that lets you track your walks, runs, or bike trips, showing data like speed, pace, distance, and heart rate along the way. The data from your completed activities is saved in the Health app on your iPhone.
All of this works well, and means you don’t have to use a separate fitness tracker such as a Nike FuelBand, a Jawbone Up, or a Misfit Shine. Naturally, a number of startups that make fitness or activity monitoring apps for smartphones, such as FitnessKeeper and Strava, have added Apple Watch functionality to their apps. I haven’t tried any of these yet.
The Not So Good News
After showing the time, letting you pay for stuff, relaying text messages, and prompting you to get off your duff, the Apple Watch has a long list of other fun functions, but they aren’t as natural or compelling. … Next Page »
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