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. If you sit tight and wait for the Apple Watch 2, you’ll be giving Apple and third-party developers more time to discover what smartwatches are good for, beyond conveying the time and short snippets of information.
—I chose a “Utility” watch face that shows my next calendar appointment. I like seeing what’s coming up, and tapping on that complication takes me directly to the Calendar app, where I can glance into the past or future using swiping gestures or the digital crown (an overhyped but still useful aspect of the Watch’s industrial design). I can also add new appointments or reminders using Siri. But doing any serious calendar management requires switching to a phone, tablet, or laptop.
—During these early weeks trying out the watch, I’ve also set the watch to tap my wrist every time a new e-mail message comes in. One clever feature of the watch’s operating system is that it’s context-sensitive; if you do the wrist-flick motion right after a notification tap, the watch shows incoming notifications such as e-mails first, rather than the watch face. That means I can see the From and Subject lines of incoming e-mails at a glance. But I’m probably going to turn off this feature, as I feel it tethers me to my inbox too tightly.
—Most other features of the Apple Watch are merely incidental. They seem to be there because Apple’s engineers could build them, not because they make a lot of sense on a watch. For example, there’s a Map app, but it’s nearly useless. The maps take forever to load. And bizarrely, if you ask the app for the route to a destination, it always shows driving directions rather than walking directions. There’s an app that functions as a remote control for your iPhone’s camera, but it’s mostly a party novelty. There’s a Photos app that lets you browse your most recent pictures, but why would you want to do that on a tiny 38-mm or 42-mm screen?
—As for third-party apps, well, I haven’t found many that I like. The New York Times app shows a handful of recent headlines and lets you save interesting ones for later reading on your phone or tablet. That’s probably my favorite so far. It excels by keeping things simple. I think it will take mobile companies a while to figure out whether and how their own apps make sense on the Apple Watch, whose strength, again, is its ability to make snippets of information immediately glanceable.
—Most Apple Watch reviewers have complained that the watch’s interface is tricky to learn, and they’re right. Even longtime iPhone users will find that it isn’t obvious how to navigate within and between the watch’s functions.
Part of the challenge is that the watch introduces two new interface modes, the digital crown and something called “force touch” (a strong press on the watch face, as opposed to a light tap). Another key thing to memorize is that a downward swipe from the watch face reveals notifications such as text messages, calendar alerts, and e-mails, while an upward swipe reveals a tray full of “Glances”—single-screen summaries of data from other apps, such as the weather, your heart rate, or your progress toward your activity goals. You navigate through the Glances by swiping from left to right, and you can tap on any of them to open the full app.
Confusingly, you can only access notifications and Glances from the watch face. That’s probably because in other apps, upward and downward swipes have their own meanings. The digital crown doubles as a kind of Home button—but not really, because it, too, does different things in different contexts. If you have an app open and you press the crown, it will take you to the watch face. If you have the watch face open and you press the crown, it will take you to the home screen, with all the tiny app icons.
It’s all very new. But while the learning curve is steep, it’s also short—I got used to most of the conventions within a few days.
By the way, battery life isn’t an issue with the Apple Watch. Yes, it’s a good idea to charge the watch every night, so that it’s ready to go when you leave home in the morning. But when I take the watch off at night the battery meter is usually still above 50 percent. I’ve run out of power only once.
My final verdict? The Apple Watch is a very good 1.0 product. The software needs more work—I’d love to see Siri become much more capable and reliable on the watch, for example. And there are obvious things to improve about the hardware. The watch is thicker than I’d like. And hey, if you’re going to build a wireless smart watch, it really ought to have a front-facing camera for Dick Tracy-style video calls.
But I’m enjoying my Apple Watch, and I have absolutely no buyer’s remorse. People who aren’t gadget geeks may be slightly less enchanted, and I don’t see any reason to buy the more expensive versions. ($17,000 for the gold Apple Watch Edition strikes me as a ludicrous amount of money to spend on an electronic gadget that will be outmoded within a year or two.)
The point of a smartwatch is not to provide an immersive experience like a tablet or a smartphone. It’s to relay important information fast, from a location on your body that’s never more than a glance away. For a look at wearable computing’s future, go to an Apple Store and try one on for size.
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