Apple Watch review: Beautiful form, frustrating function

  • joko
  • May 4, 2015
  • Comments Off on Apple Watch review: Beautiful form, frustrating function

I’m all-in on Apple products. At my house, I’ve got two Macs, an Apple TV, an iPad, two iPhones, and an Apple router. I’ve never owned an MP3 player that wasn’t an iPod, or a tablet that wasn’t an iPad. And now I’ve got an Apple Watch to converge my Apple universe right on my wrist.

I really do like my Apple Watch, even though it drives me crazy. It’s slow. The navigation can be confusing. I like wearing it, but I’m still unsure if I want to wear it every day, forever (or at least until there’s a new one). After a week and two weekends of nonstop use, it’s yet to change my game in any profound or major way.

Apple calls the Apple Watch its most personal product ever, and as such, people’s reactions to it and opinions about using it will be highly subjective. One person might be delighted by the gentle taps on the wrist every time she gets a text message, while another might find those same taps jarring, and rush to turn them off.

This review contains my subjective opinions on the Apple Watch, intending to serve as a reality check for anyone still on the fence. In a world of Macs, iPhones, and iPads–not to mention accessories, peripherals, apps and services for them–we have to prioritize our spending on technology, and $350 and up is a lot to ask. For a lot of people, I don’t think this first-gen Apple Watch needs to make the cut.

Fit and finish

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get one if you really want one, and I understand why you would. The Apple Watch is a beautiful object. It doesn’t dominate my entire arm like a larger-screened Android Wear watch or even a Pebble. At 10.5 millimeters thick, it protrudes from my wrist enough that I do bang it on doorways and walls occasionally, but it doesn’t seem clunky or unwiedly. (And I haven’t yet picked up a single scratch, although your mileage may vary, of course.)

I’m wearing the 38mm stainless steel Apple Watch with the Milanese Loop band. I love that the metal band is comfortable and infinitely adjustable, and it goes with everything, casual to dressy. The magnetic clasp snaps shut and stays put, so I’m never worried about it falling off or loosening in the slightest as I wear it. One day I had it on from 8 a.m. straight through until 1 a.m. (and the battery was still at 13 percent when I took it off). By 1 a.m. the band was starting to feel itchy, and I couldn’t wait to take it off, but usually it’s fine. The Apple Watch Sport is a little bit lighter: My configuration weighs 73 grams (40 for the case, and 33 for the band), while my colleague Leah Yamshon’s 38mm Apple Watch Sport with pink Sport Band weighs 67 grams (25 case, 42 band). But the Apple Watch doesn’t feel heavy or cumbersome.

I’ve ordered a Sport band to wear when running, but I’ve done lighter workouts on my stationary bike while wearing the Milanese Loop, and it was fine. Apple says the water resistance rating is IPX7 (not including leather bands). So you can wear it while exercising, in the rain, and when washing your hands, but submerging it isn’t recommended. IPX7 is technically rated as submergible in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. So if you drop it in the toilet accidentally, or jump in the shower without taking it off, it should be fine. Tim Cook says he showers with his–I’m too nervous to try that myself, plus I wouldn’t want soap gunking up my pretty Milanese Loop.

Battery life has been excellent. Using the Workout app hits the battery a little harder, so if you work out once (or more!) every day, you might just barely make it to bedtime with power left. But on days I don’t use Workout (I’m typically up around 7 a.m. and go to sleep around midnight), it’s rare for me to get below 20 percent charge remaining when it’s time to plug it in.

This definitely feels like a high-end product, which shouldn’t surprise Apple fans. But being pretty isn’t enough to justify paying hundreds for the Apple Watch and keeping it charged up and strapped to your wrist every single day. It’s got to be useful too.

What’s the point?

The Apple Watch isn’t designed to suck in your attention–you’re supposed to use it in small bursts, so you aren’t holding your arm up in the air interminably. For example, I used the Phone app to call for a pizza, tell someone I’d be late, and find out when the library opened, but I wouldn’t use it for a sit-and-chat call with a friend. It’s handy for checking the weather, periodically triaging incoming email (after you’ve skimmed a message, you can do a deep “force press” to flag it for followup or delete it), and looking over new notifications to decide if any of them are worth answering on your phone.

But most notifications do need to be dealt with on your phone. The Apple Watch has Handoff, so you can pick up on your iPhone and reply to the same email you just saw on your watch. (Just wake your phone and look for a Mail icon in the bottom-left corner. Swipe that up to open the same message you’re viewing on your watch.) You can reply to text messages directly on the watch, which is convenient as well as fun, but dealing with notifications for Facebook, Twitter, email, and most other apps happens back on your iPhone.

The Apple Watch did get me to rethink which notifications are important. I like being able to see the score of the Giants game from my wrist, but I don’t need to know when new podcast episodes are available in Instacast. You can tweak which notifications go to the watch in the Apple Watch app for iPhone, and of course you can adjust which notifications go to your iPhone in the Settings app. But be prepared to spend a lot of time fiddling with both in your first week with the Apple Watch. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I hope Apple overhauls the notifications system in iOS 9, because the Apple Watch just added another layer of complexity.

Things I love about it

I’ve found Apple Watch’s fitness features more motivational than using a Fitbit or a Jawbone UP2, since the progress goal is right on my wrist. I like how a workout isn’t counted as Exercise minutes if your heart rate isn’t high enough. But the prompts to stand up and get active aren’t as smart as I’d like: for example, I hate when the Watch asks me to stand during my bus commute, especially bcause my phone can tell when it’s in a vehicle. I’d also love for the Watch to factor in what’s on my calendar, too, perhaps prompting me to move for a few minutes right before I’m scheduled for a long meeting or call.

The Apple Watch excels as a remote control. The Remote app is great–I love being able to control my Apple TV without hunting for the actual remote. It’s got all the features of that remote, and I can navigate menus and select items without even looking at the watch. The Now Playing glance is terrific too, providing play/pause, forward/back, and volume control for whatever app my iPhone is using to play music.

I’m really looking forward to when HomeKit finally launches (maybe with iOS 8.4?), and I’m finally able to access lights and security cameras on the watch, and use Siri to set scenes. It’s a little frustrating Apple didn’t launch HomeKit before the watch, since they started teasing it nearly a year ago as part of iOS 8, and we’re at 8.3 now.

I’m glad that the Apple Watch opens Apple Pay to more users too. (Apple Watch requires an iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, and 6 Plus, and of those, Apple Pay only worked on the 6 and 6 Plus.) Once you set up your cards using the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, you don’t even need your iPhone present to use Apple Pay on the watch. It’s just as easy as using your iPhone–two taps of the button is all it takes to call up your card.

But it’s slightly more awkward, because with the iPhone the screen is pointed toward you, but with the watch, you typically have to point the screen to the reader. Still, you’ll feel a buzz and hear a beep when your payment goes through. I do feel more self-conscious using my Apple Watch to pay for things than my phone (it gets noticed!), but that might fade over time, as the watch becomes less novel.

I love getting wrist-taps to signal turns when using the Maps app on the watch. When I’m in the car, I use the iPhone to navigate, but I also like to listen to podcasts, and it’s a drag when the Maps app’s voice prompts keep interrupting my podcast. But if I turn off the voice prompts, I’m liable to get too engrossed in the podcast, space out, and miss my turn. So having the watch tap me on the wrist–10 taps before a right turn, and 6 taps as 3 pairs for a left turn–is great. I tend to still glance at the iPhone’s screen in my Tackform dashboard mount to confirm I’m turning onto the right street, but it’s been great, and I’ll be using Maps instead of Waze from now on, at least when I’m listening to podcasts on the road.

But the Maps app isn’t all bliss: I quickly turned off its corresponding glance because I don’t need to pinpoint my position on a map very often (maybe I’ll turn that back on when traveling), and the Maps glance loaded more slowly than any other besides Heart Rate…which has a reason to be slow!

Things I hate about it

That brings me to my main complaint with the Apple Watch: Its poky performance. Since the lion’s share of the data it presents comes from your iPhone, be prepared for lags. Even scrolling around its face, the refresh rate seems a little laggy compared to what I’m used to (and spoiled with) on the iPhone and iPad. Location-based apps, like Maps and Weather, seem the slowest, as well as using third-party apps that pull data from apps I haven’t used on my iPhone for a while. The lagginess isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a bummer. The watch is definitely the slowest Apple product I’ve used in years.

Speaking of apps, with such a small home screen, Apple should let users hide built-in apps they don’t plan to use. You’re stuck with each app that comes on your Apple Watch, and you can’t even banish them to a folder like you can on your iPhone. I don’t plan to use the Stocks app, but it’s going to take up space on my home screen anyway.

The timekeeping functions of the watch are broken out into five separate icons on your home screen: the watch face, plus World Clock, Timer, Alarm, and Stopwatch. I don’t want to remote those functions from my Apple Watch entirely, but they really don’t need to take up five icons–I would be happy to hide the icons and launch the apps with Siri, or just have Siri interface with the apps for me. (She’s happy to tell me what time it is in Barcelona, or set an alarm for 7 a.m.) Calling the un-delete-able, un-hide-able Stocks app “bloatware” seems a little harsh, but it really does annoy me to no end that I don’t have full control over my watch’s icons.

I’m also annoyed that the watch keeps me so tethered to my iPhone. Just being on the same Wi-Fi network as your iPhone isn’t enough to maintain a connection–you need to be in Bluetooth range as well. The Apple Watch has both Wi-Fi (b/g/n) and Bluetooth 4.0, but it seems to use Bluetooth to broadcast its presence, and only engages Wi-Fi to actually transfer data. (I asked Apple to confirm this, but haven’t gotten a definitive answer quite yet.) My house is pretty small (1100 square feet and cute as a button), so I’m almost always in Bluetooth range of my iPhone, even if it’s charging in another room. But at the office, my Apple Watch will lose the connection to my iPhone on my desk once I get more than 30 feet away, even though the Wi-Fi network extends through the entire floor. This isn’t a dealbreaker either, but I assumed I’d need either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, not both.

Jury still out?

I have mixed feelings about some of the Apple Watch’s other marquis features as well.

Digital Touch. The exclusive watch-to-watch communication feature is fun to play with–Caitlin can tap my wrist from 3,000 miles away if I didn’t notice that she submitted a story for editing, which is great. But drawing tiny images with your finger is more whimsical than useful, and sharing a heartbeat is almost too intimate to do with anyone you’re not getting naked in front of on a regular basis. But I do think it’ll be the biggest seller of his-and-hers Apple products since FaceTime.

Handoff for so much. I get that you can’t–and shouldn’t–do everything from the Apple Watch, and using Handoff to send some tasks, like answering email, back to the phone is absolutely the best way. But when Siri hands you off for something that you know you could do on the watch, it’s frustrating. If I ask Siri to play an unheard voicemail, she wants to hand me off to my iPhone, instead of launch the Phone app on the Apple Watch, which does have a button for playing that voicemail.

Siri. Raising your arm should wake your watch (if it doesn’t, go to Settings on the watch and look for “Activate on wrist raise”), and then you can say, “Hey, Siri.” But I’ve found this a little hit and miss. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes Siri comes up and waits for me to ask something. Sometimes Siri pops up but immediately jumps to processing what I said, but I didn’t say anything, so I just have to wait until she realizes I didn’t say anything and asks me for a command. Pressing and holding the Digital Crown has been more reliable. (Some righties are even reorienting the watch’s display so the Digital Crown is on the bottom left instead of the top-right, just to make it easier to press with the right thumb.)

Bottom line: Who’s it for?

The Apple Watch isn’t an essential tool for most people. I can’t say that “no one needs this” after reading Molly Watt’s excellent piece about using the Apple Watch as someone with Usher’s Syndrome. She’s deaf and blind, and the haptic feedback and Digital Touch feature are already making a big difference to her.

It absolutely isn’t perfect, but it does what it set out to do, and I don’t necessarily agree that Apple is trying to make the watch do too much. Different people will find different killer uses for it, and those will change over time as you use it more and experiment with different apps. I could go on and on about how it’s the perfect way to navigate in the car when you’re listening to podcasts, but that’s a pretty specific use, and maybe only 10 percent of people who read this will care–and only 10 percent of those will care enough to spend $350 to solve that problem.

If you’re the experimental, early-adopter type, well, you already know if you want it or not. If you’re really on the fence, I would let the software mature and the hardware get faster before jumping in. It’s a lovely piece of hardware, and the Apple Watch Sport is a decent value since it does everything the more expensive versions do, but I think the responsiveness needs to improve, and the process for adjusting notifications needs to be overhauled, before it’s a mainstream must-have.

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