My 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch shipped at the end of April. In the three months since, I’ve worn it every day. I’ve biked in it, slept in it, taken it to both U.S. coasts and have gotten used to having it in my life.
While we’ve known about Apple Watch’s existence for almost an entire year, and while I have spent lots of time with mine, it’s still a very hard thing to write and talk about, and the reasons for that are complicated.
By the time the iPhone showed up in 2007, the smartphone category was already around, and while Apple disrupted it, their device wasn’t entirely new. The iPad in 2010 benefited from being instantly familiar to any iPhone owner.
The Watch doesn’t come with either of those head starts. Even as a user of several fitness bands and even the Pebble (albeit briefly), the Watch really feels like a new category of device.
Additionally, there’s all of the weirdness around the product. Apple’s initial messaging about the device was less than clear, and the UI can be confusing in places. In short, I’m more than a little conflicted about my fancy new watch. I like it, and I would miss it if it went away, but it’s not even close to being a critical part of my life as a nerd.
I know this review is more-than-fashionably late, but it’s taken me this long to gather my thoughts. Something like a smartwatch has to sink into your routine before its true value becomes known.
First-generation hardware is a funny thing. When it first comes out, it’s usually seen as an amazing feat of technology and engineering, but time does first-generation hardware no favors. In several years, we will probably be looking back at this watch and wondering how we wore something so thick and heavy on our wrists.
With that in mind, I think that the hardware is pretty damn good. Yes, Apple Watch is thicker than what I was wearing previously, but its smooth, stone-like profile allows it to slip effortlessly under long sleeves.
The screen is incredible. While in direct sun, it’s easy to tell where the LCD ends and the frame begins, most of the time, the front of Apple Watch is just one smooth, unbroken sheet of black. I love the way it looks ringed in stainless steel.
As mentioned, I purchased the stainless steel version. The case of my watch weighs 50 grams according to Apple’s website, up from the 30 grams of the 42mm aluminum case found on the Sport collection. I’ve had the opportunity to play with — and wear — the Sport, and while the weight difference certainly is noticeable, I’m not dragging my left arm around as if it’s tied down with a ball and chain.
While the Sapphire crystal display and ceramic back seen more or less impervious to scratches, that is not true of the case itself. I haven’t dropped mine or banged it into anything hard, but the case has a good number of scuffs and small scratches.
Of course, that’s to be expected with stainless steel jewelry. None of the scratches are more than surface-deep, and I’m sure I could buff them out, but in practice, they don’t bother me as much as I thought they would. I view it like the backs of all the iPods I have owned over the years: the wear and tear gives it some personality.
The Watch has two analog inputs: the Digital Crown and what Apple calls — somewhat amazingly — the side button. The poor thing doesn’t even get capital letters in its name.
The Digital Crown is remarkable in the sense that it is exactly what you expect it to be. It’s easy to turn, precise and textured in a way in which it’s easy to manipulate. I have had mine get sticky on a couple of occasions, but a quick rinse under the faucet — something Apple actually recommends — has always righted the issue.
Likewise, the side button is a nice button. There’s never any doubt in my mind when it’s been depressed, as it has a nice clicky feeling.
Perhaps the most remarkable bit of hardware is inside Apple Watch: the Taptic Engine. Here’s Apple’s over-the-top marketing bit about it:
It’s called the Taptic Engine, a linear actuator inside Apple Watch that produces haptic feedback. In less technical terms, it taps you on the wrist whenever you receive an alert or notification, or press down on the display. Combined with subtle audio cues from the specially engineered speaker driver, the Taptic Engine creates a discreet, sophisticated, and nuanced experience by engaging more of your senses. It also enables some entirely new, intimate ways for you to communicate with other Apple Watch wearers. You can get someone’s attention with a gentle tap. Or even send something as personal as your heartbeat.
Marketing mumbo-jumbo aside, the Taptic Engine feels like a tap on the wrist. It really is that easy to describe. There’s no sound, and it doesn’t feel like an iPhone vibrate motor strapped to your arm.
Noticing the taps, however, requires the band to be quite snug. Taps from a watch that slides up and down your wrist are easily missed.
Lastly, the issue of battery life. I’ve run my watch into the reserve mode exactly one time, and it was after a 13-hour drive in which I was using Apple Maps almost the entire time. These notifications (and keeping my arm on the steering wheel) kept Apple Watch awake far more than it is most days.
That road trip aside, I’ve had zero complaints about battery life. Most days, by the time I snap it onto its charger, my watch has at least 40% battery life remaining — often far more. If I’ve used it for tracking a bike ride or run during the day, that number is lower, but the moral of the story is that this thing can easily last through a day.
Battle of the Bands
I ordered my stainless steel Apple Watch on launch night with a black Sports band. In the time since, I’ve picked up not only a white sports band, but the Classic Buckle as well.
My two sports bands are more different that I expected. The black one’s material is softer and more supple (if I can use that word to describe fluoroelastomer) than the white one, which feels more like plastic than rubber. That’s not to say the white one is bad, but the black band definitely feels better.
The leather Classic Buckle was pricey, and I’m not in love with it. It’s very comfortable and very lightweight, but those two goals come at a cost: the leather strap is crazy thin, and it makes it feel cheaper than it is. I’m only using this band if I’m in a dress shirt, and as that’s not a thing I do very often, it stays in the dresser most of the time.
Most days, I choose to wear the white sport band. I love the look, but I have noticed it draws more attention to my watch. The only times I’ve gotten questions about Apple Watch in public have been while I’m wearing the brighter band.
watchOS is a weird mashup of new ideas and some borrowed from iOS.
There’s no need for me to dive into how watchOS works at this point, as the basics are well-known. There’s a watch face with notifications and Glances just a swipe away with a world of apps just a push of the Digital Crown away.
There is a real learning curve to this thing. The first several days, I would tap the Digital Crown expecting something to happen, just to be reminded that things aren’t always quite what they seem when it comes to watchOS.
I don’t think, however, that the learning curve is a show-stopper. Once I was a few days into wearing Apple Watch, my brain got everything under control and my fingers now know what to do without me stopping and thinking about it.
The OS itself is really interesting. Due to the size of the display, most things are broken into manageable, bite-sized chunks. Where on the iPhone, the timer, stopwatch and alarms are all packed into one app, the Watch treats them separately.
The whole OS is designed to be used in short bursts. While I may stare at my MacBook Pro for hours while writing a review, I will read an iMessage on my wrist in the matter of a few seconds.
watchOS does what it can to make information ready for you when you want it. If you feel a tap on the wrist, by the time you raise your arm, the incoming message or notification is in view, obscuring the rest of the UI. Scroll down on the crown, and you can take action on the incoming data with pre-populated options behind large, easy-to-tap buttons.
Glances also take the whole screen, but provide on-demand information, unlike Notifications. A simple swipe up from the bottom of the display and a horizontal row of cards provide all sorts of information, as well as quick links right into apps.
From what I’ve heard others say, I think I’m using Glances more than most. I have 8 currently setup, and while I do have to wait for the third-party ones to update their information from my iPhone, I expect that will be better with watchOS 2 this fall.
The stand-out feature for me on Apple Watch is Siri. It’s super easy to raise my wrist while cooking or watering the yard to tell Siri to start a timer or set a reminder. While we’ve had Siri for a while, it feels brand new in this new form factor.
Likewise, dictating a reply to an iMessage is simple, and easy to do. Siri seems far more accurate here than on the iPhone, and while I’m sure there are actual reasons for that, it just makes me all the more frustrated when Siri on my iPhone mangles things.
Siri and dictation have a big downside though: I feel horribly embarrassed just thinking about talking to my watch in public. I’m just not going to reply to a text with my voice while at the store. However, around the house or in my car, it’s pretty sweet.
I wrote about watch faces at length back in May, but I think some of it is worth repeating here.
There are ten different watch faces to choose from, and most of them can be outfitted with Complications, or little bits of data like the temperature, upcoming calendar events and more. This means that the face of the watch can become a mini-dashboard for more than just the time.
I bounce back and forth between the Modular and Simple faces, depending on how busy my day is. I wish all of the faces were more customizable, but it’s not hard to get a few workable options set up.
I’ve broken apps out into their own section for one big reason: I don’t think they’re fully necessary at this point.
Thanks to the lack-luster performance due to the limitations of WatchKit, I’m not using many third-party apps on a regular basis. While there’s a conversation to be had on whether Apple handled this rollout in the best way possible, the truth is that third-party apps are slow and clunky at this point.
I suspect that I’ll use apps more after watchOS 2 ships with native app support, but it’s hard to tell. I can say that Apple’s first-party apps — for the most part — are fluid and smooth. It’ll be nice to see that experience come to all the little circle icons on my Watch.
That said, I don’t think I’ll be suddenly using many more apps than I currently am. As discussed, the Watch is best used in short bursts, and too many apps on my iPhone just aren’t a good fit for that kind of interaction.
Take to-do lists for example. The Watch is great for checking items off as I walk through a store, but I don’t want to perform a review of my entire task system or re-order a bunch of projects on my wrist. Today, the best watchOS apps are simple, and I think that will continue to be the case. Complaints about not having the entire Facebook experience on the Watch are just stupid. Here’s my friend Katie Floyd on this topic:
Personally, I find the lack of Facebook, Snapchat and most of Google’s apps on the Apple Watch fantastic. Our phones are with us all the time. No one want’s to miss that urgent call or message. But having these devices with us all the time means that any time we have a few extra seconds we can check email, browse the web, see what’s happening on Facebook, catch up on Twitter or any of a number of other things. Have 30 seconds in the checkout line, pull out the iPhone. That’s fine, but it’s also a little mind-numbing.
One of the things I love most about my Apple watch is that I can’t do these things. Instead, information comes through the Apple Watch (via a paired iPhone) to me. Once the notification settings are properly tweaked, only the most important messages, items truly worthy of my attention, will come through. In the three months since I’ve had my Apple watch I’ve found I’m happy to leave my iPhone at my desk or in my purse rather than always carrying it in my pocket because I know if something important comes through, I’ll get a gentle tap on the wrist. I’m no longer that person who is out with friends and family and is constantly checking their phone rather than being in the moment.
I couldn’t agree more.
Fitness tracking is a core feature of Apple Watch, and the device makes it fun to keep up with steps taken, minutes spent active and hours spent standing.
Throughout the day, information is gathered from the accelerometer and heart rate sensor. This data is captured and translated into a set of rings that slowly fill up as the day progresses.
This simple gamification of fitness is genius. It keeps me interested and invested in my activity level throughout the day. I’ve often gone outside for a walk during the middle of the workday to add some color to the Move and Stand rings.
For me — and I suspect for many people — the Exercise ring is the one I fail to fill the most often. Adding color to this ring can happen by going on a brisk walk, bike ride or run. The ring is filled with or without the built-in Fitness app running, but I tend to open it so I can track things like distance and speed while cycling by simply looking down at my wrist.
I can’t speak to the scientific accuracy of Apple Watch’s fitness tracking, but I know that for me and many others, it’s making a difference in our daily lives.
I’ve owned several fitness trackers over the years, but Apple Watch is more compelling than any of them. The data captured is more comprehensive, more integrated with the rest of my iPhone, and is built in to a device I already want to have on my body. It’s a win.
In addition to timekeeping, technology and fitness, Apple pitches its wearable on the fact that it can be used for intimate, personal communication with another person.
In addition to receiving and sending iMessages, Apple Watch includes what the company hilariously calls Digital Touch.
The whole interface lives behind the side button, where a ring of friends’ faces await you, assuming you’ve set them up in the iPhone app for managing the watch.
Select a person, and you can call them, send them a regular iMessage (complete with freaky animated emoji) or a Digital Touch.
With Digital Touch, you can doodle a little picture to a friend, send a tap or — if you’re sure they won’t take it the wrong way — a representation of your heartbeat, which will play out via the Taptic Engine in their watch.
These communication methods are only available to people wearing an Apple Watch, and that may be why this hasn’t really taken off in my life. Sure, it’s funny to send Myke Hurley my heartbeat or draw a stick figure to Federico Viticci, but I’ve never used it to seriously communicate or get someone’s attention with a tap.
I suspect that I might feel differently if my wife had an Apple Watch, but as she’s opposed to that, Digital Touch will remain a funny thing to do with friends, and not evolve into the private, intimate, communication method Tim Cook promised on stage.
As I said over 2,800 words ago, I’m conflicted when it comes to thinking about Apple Watch.
I’d recommend it to anyone who is strongly tied to their iPhone and is looking for something to track their fitness.
That combination is what sets Apple Watch apart from things like the much-cheaper Fitbits of the world. Having one wearable to deal with notifications, fitness and more is great, but by no means necessary.
That’s where the rub is with this thing. Apple Watch is much more about want than need. I can’t judge that for anyone but me, but it is something to think about. The Apple Watch probably isn’t going to change your life, but it will make it better in a bunch of small ways. I find it a valuable addition to my life, but not everyone will, and that’s fine. After all, as Apple says, its the most personal device they’ve ever made.