Much has been said about the Apple Watch already. Much of it has been obvious, especially if you’ve been following along with the technology media’s obsession with the device. In light of this, I wanted to write up a quick blog post detailing my experience with the Watch over the past week, while trying to avoid some of the common threads that you’ve likely already read.
“Our Most Personal Device Yet”. It’s the first thing you see when you go to Apple’s website to read about the Watch. It’s certainly accurate, especially when you consider the fashion statement such a device makes. But I also believe it’s the biggest roadblock that Apple has to overcome in order to sell it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is a beautiful device. I’ve yet to read a review that properly expresses the engineering finesse that went into this thing. The display is sharp, crisp and detailed. The glass melds effortlessly into the metal case, which tapers around to your wrist. The strap, when worn properly, hugs to your skin. The body of the watch is a little thick, this is true, but the overall package has just enough weight to feel solid, yet just light enough that it’s hardly noticeable as you wear it. While it doesn’t match up to some of the finest wristwatches available today, it has a beauty all its own, and is light years better than any other smart watch on the market.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its hiccups. While the rubber band included with the Sport model is soft and comfortable, it does take effort to put on correctly. In fact, when first receiving the watch, I was worried I was going to drop the device as I fumbled to get the strap securely fastened. Luckily, this process gets easier with practice.
I also had an issue where the digital crown started to seize up. It was the day after a gym session while wearing the Watch. Whenever I tried to turn the digital crown, it would resist, requiring a firm initial push before it turned as smoothly as it had in the past. After a few days of research and assistance from Apple, it turns out that you need to rinse the digital crown under warm water for a few seconds in order to clear out debris or mineral deposits from sweat, to ensure it continues to turn freely. Let me tell you, deliberately running a $400 device under water is not an easy fear to overcome.
Lastly, the battery. This is one of those topics I want to avoid due to how much noise has already been generated by it. But suffice it to say that I have had no issues with battery. I regularly finish the day with 50% battery left, and charging is no more of a hassle than plugging in my iPhone — if not less of a hassle due to the simple magnetic connection. The battery life is only an issue if you try to use it like an iPhone — which is not the intended use.
Reading most reviews makes it sound like using the Apple Watch is an exercise in frustration. If you’re not learning new input methods, then you’re waiting on slow apps. And yes, it is true that some apps take a while to load due to transferring a lot of data from your phone. But that will get better as developers refine their apps and, honestly, third-party apps are not where you spend most of your time.
Apple’s native apps load fast, as do notifications pushed from your phone. For me, this is the majority of my interaction with the device — notifications, fitness, mail, calendar, weather and of course the watch faces themselves. If you’re already invested in the iOS ecosystem — which you probably are if you have an Apple Watch — then this all comes together quite seamlessly.
The watch can be activated manually if you raise your wrist, which is surprisingly accurate. When I first got the watch, I was quite deliberate and purposeful with this gesture, but I’ve started to experiment with various angles and movements, and only the most subtle fail to activate the screen. You can force activate it by tapping the screen, which is a simple workaround once you get used to it. There have been reports of a minor delay before the screen responds to a wrist raise, and while I’ve noticed something similar, it’s not enough to detract in most day-to-day use.
Interacting with the device is mostly straightforward. The digital crown is the slickest input device I’ve used in a while. It takes a day or so to break instinct and switch from scrolling using your finger on the touchscreen, to scrolling using the digital crown. But once you do, you never make that mistake again. It is smooth, with a weight that seems to correlate to how the content moves on the screen. When you reach the top or bottom of the list, the taptic engine releases a series of vibrations that makes it feel like the digital crown can no longer move. It is a strange sensation in that you realize it’s all smoke and mirrors, but you can’t help but react by easing off on the crown. Out of all the engineering achievements in the Apple Watch, the digital crown stands head and shoulders above everything else.
Force touching — where you push down on the screen firmly — isn’t an obvious mechanic. It’s meant for less-used functions, allowing them to be hidden until you truly need to perform that action. Sadly, there is no visual indication that it is possible to force touch for more options, and I haven’t got into the habit of trying a force touch when an option I need can’t be found. But when you need it to work, it works well — a slightly more forceful touch triggers a tap and the screen pushes in briefly. It almost feels as though your finger pushes through the watch and taps your wrist.
The Apple Watch is a great entry-level fitness device. The heart rate sensor is amazingly accurate, but the software behind it only tracks fitness data at a basic level. You can’t even view a trend line of your heart rate during a workout — the Health app’s most granular view is by day. If you’re serious about health data and tracking your fitness, the Microsoft Band is still the only game in town.
One minor exception is the Apple Watch’s reminders to stand up and move every hour. They’re subtle, pushing you toward a goal that is easily achieved, and improves your activity level in a fundamental way.
These are all interesting data points, but there is something else hovering just above the raw experience. It doesn’t really come across accurately unless you dedicate a section to it specifically. And it all comes back to that phrase at the top of the Apple Watch website:
“Our Most Personal Device Yet”
Personal how? Personal because it’s on your wrist, displayed to the world? Sure. It is obviously a fashion statement, designed to show the world who you are, and the kind of design you gravitate towards.
But there’s more to it than that.
The Apple Watch doesn’t vibrate. It taps you. Really. It sounds odd, but it actually feels like someone is leaning over and tapping the top of your wrist. Sometimes you don’t feel it, but most of the time you do — and that’s perfect. If you let something sit on your wrist, it can’t distract you too much. It should tell you, gently, that there’s something requiring attention when you have a moment. It shouldn’t yank you out of whatever moment you’re in, like when your phone vibrates urgently to alert you that a contact on LinkedIn added connections you’ve never heard of.
The Apple Watch is a companion. Like most new technology, it takes a few days to get used to. You have to learn its strengths and weaknesses, and spend time teaching it what is important to you. Mostly this involves pruning your notifications so that you only receive alerts for things that truly matter.
That small investment pays off. You get a gentle tap when you receive new mail. Another tap reminding you that you should probably stand up and move around a bit because you’re being lazy. Later on, a tap rewarding you with an achievement for your activity so far, with a personalized note of congratulation. Near the end of the day, you get a tap reminding you that your credit card bill is due — but it’s a tad premature, so you tell your companion to remind you tomorrow with a simple tap.
After work, you visit the grocery store. You have an app loaded on the watch that lets you create to-do lists, so you put your shopping list on there. A glance at your wrist tells you what you need as you browse the supermarket, allowing you to keep both hands free as you juggle shopping baskets and plastic produce bags. Checking out, you tap your companion twice to pay with a wave of your wrist.
It probably all sounds a bit too perfect, a bit too ideal. Or, more cynically, a bit too much like an Apple fanboy. On some level, perhaps that is true — I’m a geek, and I love playing with gadgets. It’s why I wear both a Microsoft Band and, now, an Apple Watch. But it’s also impossible to appreciate how useful a smart watch can be until you use one that’s thoughtfully designed.
And that is Apple’s biggest challenge.
As many reviews have stated, the Apple Watch is not something you need, and it’s not something that Apple can convince you to need. At best, Apple’s marketing, website and try-on appointments might convince you it’s a pretty accessory that you want. But it’s not until you use one for a few days — and spend that time truly getting to know your new companion — that you realize just how useful and fun a gadget like this can be.
The Apple watch has some rough edges, most of which I outlined here. But it’s surprisingly advanced, and I look forward to seeing the direction Apple takes it.