Reviewing the Apple Watch is something I’ve been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure. A product that has been so heavily previewed since it’s announcement and eagerly awaited that it’s easy to feel that I may not have anything to offer as a review.
As I move past that crisis of confidence, it occurs to me that this isn’t about reviewing the product, but a follow up on a world I’ve been living in for two years; The world of wearables.
The first review of a wearable on this site, was of the Kickstarter edition Pebble Smartwatch. At the time I declared that living in the future was great. A year later, I did a follow up on how the Pebble had changed my digital life.
In all of this time, there was one aluminium elephant in the room. Apple would enter the wearables market and when they did, they would dominate it. Their competition knew it and the ‘Apple Observers’ amongst us knew it was coming too. To that point, in March 2013, I declared that Apple would not make a typical wearable, they would create a Star Trek style Communicator that would do the following things:
- Instant communication with crew (contacts if you will)
- Voice activated interaction with the ship’s computer (bit like Siri)
- A location beacon (bit like ‘find my friends’)
- Digital ‘I.D. Card’ and Log in
As I look back on this list of predictions from 2 years before an actual device ever got in to customers hands, I can’t believe how close I was. If you add that to the impact of using a wearable for two years, you’d think that when the Apple Watch arrived, I would be underwhelmed.
That was a real worry of mine. Even after having a hands on session with the different types of Apple Watches, there was still this little niggle in the back of my mind. ‘What if it’s not as good as it should be?’
That’s why, this review has taken a bit of time to put together. The iPhone, is the device I spend the most time with through my digital life. Well, it was. As the Pebble changed my relationship with the iPhone and the iPhone 6 Plus changed my relationship with the iPad. The Apple Watch has changed my relationship with the iPhone all over again and, importantly, it’s changing my relationship with communication.
What’s any of this got to do with hundreds of Pounds of Stainless Steel and Sapphire? Well, this is where the notion of reviewing the Apple Watch becomes a pain. What is it to the person reviewing it and what do readers want to know?
- Is it everything we dreamt of?
- Is the cost difference between the ‘Watch’ and the ‘Sport’ worth it?
- How well does the software stack up?
- What are apps like to use?
- How is it as a fitness tracker?
- What is it like as a first generation product?
- What does it mean for Apple / Wearables / Communication?
- What colours does it come in again?
Do you see where I’m coming from? Never before has one device had so many questions about it and that’s with the better part of 7 months of PR and news around it.
Here on Tame Geek, product reviews are always broken down in to nice sections that aim to address all the areas of interest in a product and that way, you the reader, can get to the information that matters most to you. With that, here’s the sections for the review of the first generation Apple Watch:
Arriving on the afternoon of the 24th of April, a box. Inside it a white box that has very similar dimensions to the original iPod box. This white box is bold, even by Apple standards. An embossed Apple Watch logo on the top, a sticker on the side to say what’s inside and disclaimer sticker set underneath.
Unwrap the plastic and slowly removed the top of the box and you’re greeted with two plastic tabs which you pull up on and bring out the polycarbonate box that your Apple watch is in. You pull a tab on the plastic and open this Apple version of a jewellery case and there it is. Sat in it’s felt lined home, your Apple Watch.
All of this pageantry leads you to believe that all of the people that Apple hired in the lead up to the Watch have been busy with every aspect of how these kinds of goods should be seen and received. Side note – as well as my technology, I love time pieces. I have and Omega and as special edition Oakley. They too have the ceremonial aspect of opening the boxes to reveal the exceptional piece of engineering contained within. All of this is Apple ‘painting the back of the fence’ in their pursuit of detail.
Inside this plastic sarcophagus, your Apple Watch is waiting. You take it out immediately, you have to. The process so far has been so inviting, it’s impossible not to. The plastic comes off, you put it on and power it up. As the Watch boots, you notice how it feels. It feels like a watch. To clarify, it feels like a crafted watch. Not like a horological masterpiece and not like a timepiece worth several thousands of Pounds but certainly like something expensive and thought through.
As I’ve sat and looked over the Apple Watch, there’s some excellent examples of attention to detail. Firstly, it’s seamless. We knew this from the videos before launch, but those are renders and this is the real product. There’s no breaks in the surface of the device. It’s Apple’s Uni-body journey taken to the next level of materials. The sapphire display covering feels amazing. I do wish it had worked with GT Advance last year and we got sapphire iPhone displays. There’s something reassuring about knowing that screen will not scratch unless you use a diamond on it.
The ceramic back of the Apple Watch sits in constant contact with your skin. Like the stainless steel of sapphire backs on more expensive time pieces. This stops the Apple Watch from ever feeling cold on your wrist. It feels connected and never abrasive or intrusive.
On the side, the digital crown and the only other button on the device are well balanced. The digital crown could have easily have been a train wreck. It’s not. The rotation of the crown is well judged in it’s smoothness and engineered resistance. The cuts in to it add grip but don’t latch on to your skin. Pressing the crown in gives a very sure sensation of button depression and never feels like it’s moving something inside or like it’s going to fail. This make the button below it somewhat boring. The button below isn’t a ‘Sleep/Wake’ button, but it is shaped like one. Though it does function as the power button.
In my haste to order my Apple Watch, I decided to get the Milanese loop strap with my 42mm Apple Watch. I knew that if it’d opted for the sport strap, I would come to buy the Milanese loop down the line, so I just went for it. I’m so glad I did. It’s like Apple designed chain mail. It’s infinitely adjustable and you will be adjusting it through the day. The magnet that closes it is very strong and can be a bit of a pain when removing the watch, but it takes a little getting used to.
In the box, come the charger and the charging cable. The new UK charger unfolds like it was designed by Transformers fans and you can expect to see it in this year’s iPhone 6s Plus box (The regular 6s won’t get it would be my guess).
The magnetic charging cable with the Apple Watch is covered in stainless steel, unlike the purely plastic version of the Apple Watch Sport. The charger connects with a satisfying little click and feels a little odd, given that you can move it around while it’s still connected and charging your Watch.
Battery Life is worth mentioning at this point. Here’s the straight answer; It’s better than Apple said it would be. On a standard day’s use, I can get it down to about 50% from 100%. If you put it in Power Reserve mode and turn it back on the next morning, you’ll have barely lost a single percent and can easily go for the rest of the day with the remaining 50%.
If you push it and really hammer the Watch, you’ll burn through the battery in less than a day, but considering an iPhone 6 Plus can go for 2 days without a charge or 3 hours if you play Infinity Blade 3 on it constantly, it’s all ways about what you’re doing with a device decides how long the battery lasts.
Another thing that helps the battery life (as well as the software) is the display. The Retina class OLED display is completely clear in direct sunlight. I thought that was a trick just for my Pebble, but the Apple Watch’s display is fantastic.
When it comes to software with the Apple Watch, it’s very much like iPhone OS 2 was on the original iPhone and on the iPhone 3G. The built in apps are great, the third party apps, not so much.
But just like that first generational shift, there’s one important similarity. When the first apps landed, the only people using them and sending data back to the developers, were a small group of Apple staff and members of their own team. The same is true of Apple Watch apps.
In the lead up to the Apple Watch’s release, it seemed like every app I updated on my iPhone came with a Watch app. It was a little annoying really. All these apps with functionality I couldn’t access for the better part of 3 weeks in some cases. Then finally it was time to use them and the vasty majority are slow and buggy. This, is no body’s fault. Simply, the developers wanted to ensure they had place on those first shipping devices and without the feedback the devices provide from time with users, they couldn’t fix bugs.
Over the next few weeks and months, and almost certainly after WWDC next month the Watch App situation from developers will indubitably get a lot better.
With all that in mind, it’s well worth talking about the way the software feels to use. As it would appear, the internals of an Apple Watch are about as powerful as an iPhone 5 but running a version of iOS specifically modified for use on a small screen in the same way iOS on the Apple TV is modified for large screens.
The small circular icons in the the user interface were previewed in 2013. Seriously, look back at the design video from the launch of iOS 7 and you’ll see how all app icons were designed by Apple to have the prominent information inside the circle inside the rounded edge square. The circle app icon isn’t new, they have been planning it for years.
The app icons move round as if they are sat on top of a sphere. It’s a nice effect, that with the black background give the impression of depth and of a 3D display, just like iOS 7 & 8, to further engage in the 3D effect, you zoom in and out of the apps when opening and closing. The digital crown allows you to manually control this too.
The kind of apps you have on the Watch are restricted by the screen size, forcing an app to do something specific. The apps for the Watch aren’t for you to get lost in, they are for you to get things done. What’s arguably more useful than the apps them selves is the ‘Glances’. These are like widgets that you access by swiping up on the watch face. From here, you swipe left and right to get tidbits of information, which you can literally, just glance at and then dismiss. If you want more information, you can tap on it and open the app.
When it comes to interaction with the Apple Watch, the need for the digital crown becomes even more apparent. The crown allows for a fine level of control over things such as zooming in and out of images and maps. It also works to control the volume of music and can be used for physically scrolling through information, rather than swiping.
Pressing the crown in activates the menu and also functions as home button, to take you back to the watch face and back again. Press it twice and you jump to the last used app. Tap and hold and you will awaken Siri.
Siri on the Apple Watch works much in the same way as the iPhone, with one noticeable difference. Siri on the Apple Watch is really, really, good. There’s no voice feedback from Siri on the Apple Watch. It’s al either on screen or in tandem with a tone and a tap from the Haptic Engine. The voice recognition is great. In weeks of use, it’s only made about three mistakes. It works in loud environments and it’s fast. This is what Siri should have been all along and If this is what Apple will bring to iOS 9, it’s going to be very welcome.
The other button on the Apple Watch, is a little redundant in the UK at the moment. With a double tap on side button in the US, you’ll gain quick access to your Apple Pay cards. In the UK, we don’t have this yet, so we’re only able to use it for the contacts menu.
This little dial lets you get in touch with your favourite contacts (which can be different to the ones in your iPhone’s favourites) by text message, recorded voice message, animated emoji or to call them. If they happen to have an Apple Watch, you get the third option of being able to share your heartbeat, tap them on the wrist or draw them little pictures. At the moment, I know two other people with Apple Watches. In 4 years when a lot more people have them, this kind of subtle contact will become common place and more intimate than ‘xoxo’ at the end of a text.
It’s also worth addressing what seems to have been a big issue for some reviewers. Gestures and interaction. Many have complained that the software can be confusing and unnatural. Frankly, this is a compliment. Why? Because this is what the same people said / would have said in 2007 when we were greeted with the original iPhone.
I remember the gasps as Steve Jobs scrolled through lists with a flick and swiped to move through photos. It was witchcraft. To that point, Apple released videos online, heavily demoing how this new paradigm worked. Then with iOS 7, Apple did the same. Now with the Apple Watch, their website is filled to the brim with videos on how the Watch and it’s software works and how to interact with it. The interactive gestures are not difficult or confusing on this new device, they are just simply, new.
One of my biggest complaints with the Pebble was integration with iOS. This was addressed some what with iOS 8, but still there were barriers. This was not Pebble’s fault, but it was a pain. Integration, however, is not just about how well two things work together, it’s how seamlessly they do it.
The Pebble had one big speed bump in the road to the perfect relationship with my iPhone. Connection. For the two years and two Pebbles that were on my wrist, there was one common problem. The connection would drop out for no reason. Some times, the would disconnect and reconnect and I’d never know. Other times, I’d have to delete and re-pair the Pebble and more than once I had to delete and re-install the Pebble app to try and repair my problems.
Not once, in all my time so far with the Apple Watch have I suffered one problem with connection. Yes, I’ve discovered that it is possible to go out of range and when you do so, a little red phone symbol appears in the top of the watch face screen. But as soon as you’re back in range, you’re connected. No human interaction required to reconnect, it is completely seamless and I love it.
Another thing that shows how closely linked these devices are is the way they handle notifications. If i’m using my iPhone and I receive a notification, it doesn’t show on the Apple Watch. This may not sound important, but when you’ve been in the middle of a game and keep getting your wrist vibrated by background activity, it can get very annoying or even worse, you’re in group chat and you move to another app, the Pebble would still keep buzzing where the Apple Watch knows you’re already using your iPhone.
Just as you put your iPhone in to Do Not Disturb mode, your Apple Watch will mirror that setting. Take your Apple Watch off and it’s stops displaying notifications and proceeds to lock the watch, so that only when its unlocked with a pin code, can they be viewed.
With OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, Apple introduced ‘Handoff’, where if you were doing something on your iPhone or iPad, you could pick that activity straight up on your Mac and continue with it. The Apple Watch also has Handoff and it’s very useful as soon as you notice it, which I didn’t until about 4 days of use.
For instance, you could have decided to reply to an iMessage on your Apple Watch, but then decided you have more to say. Look at your iPhone and in the bottom left, you will see that the Messages icon is there waiting to be swiped up for you to continue typing. Seamless. Answered a call on your Apple Watch but want to take it off speaker? Pick up your iPhone and there’s the Phone icon in the bottom left, swipe up and the call is instantly transferred. This is connected computing and exemplifies what a wearable should do. It doesn’t break your digital bond, it makes it frictionless.
Well it wouldn’t be a first generation product without problems now, would it?
There really are only two and one of them will be improved upon very soon. That’s the software, both third party and native. This Apple Watch OS 1.0 is built on one of the most widely used operating systems in the world, but it still needs work. It needs stabilisation fixes and enhancements to start landing over the next few months. They won’t. Honestly, I’m not expecting anything but a maintenance release till July at the earliest, as we’ll see something for it come WWDC in June.
The second part of the software problem, I eluded to above. The third party developers now have millions of devices in circulation and sending back anonymous diagnostic information for them to improve and enhance their app offerings. There is a universal factor that all developers need to look in to and that is loading time. Their apps take what seems like an age to load when compared to the native apps and given time, I’m sure this will improve.
The second issue, can’t be fixed with just software. Quite simply, it’s battery life. As it stands, as a device, its more than comfortably usable with it’s current battery life, but considering I’m coming from a device that would last for over a week on an hours charge, it’s a big difference.
This reminds me though of the argument between old phones and modern communicators. Yes, a Nokia 3310 would last for a week or longer on a charge. But where a Nokia 3310 could dent concrete, it couldn’t shoot HD video, browse the internet or play 3D games. These are the trade offs that we make with batteries and will until someone finally gets Graphine commercially viable.
It’s very easy to go on about what you think a technology can do and become. Mostly, because such things are based on conjecture fuelled by a little bit of actual evidence.
When it comes to the Apple Watch though, I feel that I’m not over emphasising the point when I say the scope for development of this first generation Apple Watch is genuinely exciting.
For instance. The motion tracking on the Pebble never really worked in a way for me that was useful. The Activity app baked in to the Apple Watch and iOS 8 has me noticing that I can make positive changes in my daily routine that will benefit my health. If we look where this could take us in the future, we find that Apple opened up their medical research technology to the world and have it integrated with American hospitals to ensure your keeping healthy and that any problems could be caught early. Living in the UK and having the idea that such technology could be integrated with our NHS makes me excited to think that I could reduce my potential impact on the health service by keeping active and having my health data linked with my medical records.
As the App eco system for the Apple Watch grows, there will be interactions, beyond notifications, that will be genuinely innovative and enhance the experience of using multiple devices and getting things done on just one.
Force Touch, the technology that detects the pressure that you put on the display and as such activates menus and so on, is a problem. The problem is it’s only on the Apple Watch and not on my iPhone and iPad. Seriously, it’s like Touch ID all over again. The sooner this comes to the iPhone and iPad, the better.
Two years ago, I started to coin the phrase ‘Apple Shackle’, in reference to the as of the time, un-released Apple wearable. Well, thus far I can say that the ‘Shackle’ has actually been somewhat liberating. The relationship with my iPhone has changed, again. Just as it changed when the Pebble came in to my life, it has changed again with the Apple Watch.
At the same time, I made some predictions about it’s functionality:
- Instant communication with crew (contacts if you will)
This is present and activated by it’s own button.
- Voice activated interaction with the ship’s computer (bit like Siri)
Not only is Siri there, but it works better on the Apple Watch than any other device.
- A location beacon (bit like ‘find my friends’)
A dedicated location beacon, not yet, but give developers time. Arguably, being able to share your heartbeat with someone is one very intimate way of sharing your location.
- Digital ‘I.D. Card’ and Log in
This was an idea based around biometric security and how the Apple Shackle would be the physical representation of your Apple ID, allowing you access to your devices and content. Given that you can use it to access / spend your money, I don’t think the implementation of something similar to this is far away.
From these, we can see that I got two of them almost exactly right and two of them that the device could do, but doesn’t quite yet. That’s good in anyone’s book, for predictions made two years before an actual product even existed.
Away from my own gloating, what can I conclude about the Apple Watch that you, my loyal and tired (you must be by now, this is a near 4000 word review) reader will care to know?
Well firstly and most importantly, I feel comfortable recommending the Apple Watch to almost everyone. To the people that use their iPhone more than they do a computer, an Apple Watch will liberate you. To people wanting to integrate their fitness with communication, buy at will.
Apple make an Apple Watch to suit most budgets and tastes. You can change it and customise the look of the screen and the straps to truly make it yours like no other Apple product before it.
Is it perfect? No, of course not. It’s a generation one product in a category that has yet to be fully defined.
Would I give it up? Hell no. It’s mine now and it will be as important to me as my iPhone has become.
That is, till the new one comes out.