Two weeks with Apple Watch

Digital technology is now so pervasive in our lives that an increasing number of people talk of “digital detox”. We’re increasingly desperate to get away from the incessant pinging of our phones and tablets; anything to stop us from drowning in a tsunami of Likes, emails, retweets and instant messages.

In that context, the emergence of ‘wearables’ seems counterintuitive. In direct contrast to the digital detox, millions of people are now literally strapping their technology onto their bodies.

Apple is one of the newest entrants to this burgeoning wearables market. Maybe you’ve heard about it.

It’s called Apple Watch.

I’ve got one. I’ve been wearing it for about two weeks. And this is what it’s like.

What’s the point of a smartwatch?

To understand Apple Watch, you really have to understand the purpose of a smartwatch. When Tim Cook got on stage a little over 6 months ago, introducing the Watch to the world, he said Apple — much like with the iPhone before it — made this product to do three specific things really well:

  • it was the most accurate time piece ever made.
  • it allowed you to communicate with others in much more personal ways.
  • it enabled you to lead a healthier life.

Pretty simple. But it’s not the only philosophy of what a smartwatch can do. If you want to understand the point of Apple Watch, you have to look beyond Apple’s own sales pitch.

I’m not new to wearing a smartwatch. For about the last two years I’ve been wearing a Pebble; perhaps the first smartwatch that caught the imagination of the market, and in many ways defined what a smartwatch should do at its core. Any assessment of whether a smartwatch is worth it’s weight in circuit boards has to consider the concepts introduced by Pebble as a benchmark for the category.

For Pebble, it was all about notifications, apps and long battery life. Really long battery life, in fact. It’s e-paper display — similar to the tech you find on Kindle e-readers — allows Pebble to run for an entire week on a single charge. The upcoming Pebble Time Steel can go for 10 days on a single charge.

Perhaps more than the battery life — which no other platform can match right now — the other two planks of the Pebble ecosystem (apps and notifications) were category defining.

On the original generations of Pebble, notifications were all about triage. Notifications come into your phone, are instantly pushed to your wrist and you can choose to simply dismiss them from the wrist, or grab your phone to respond if it’s important. It was a revolutionary concept.

Whilst Pebble’s notification concept — much like Apple Watch — makes you increasingly more aware of your notifications than ever before, strapping them to your wrist puts you back in control of your digital life. When a notification sounds, you no longer get the urge to grab your phone just in case it’s something or someone important. You don’t have to. You already know from what you see on your wrist.

Apps were equally important for the Pebble concept — they allowed you not simply to receive data passively, but to actively search it out without ever touching your phone. Being a third-party device, which was reliant on a middle-man app, rather than having direct access to the OS, the potential of apps on your wrist was never really exploited to its fullest benefit. Whilst the concept was strong, apps on Pebble were never very useful if they relied on an Internet connection thanks to lags or bugs. Deep OS integration to make it work still hasn’t materialised. Nonetheless, a more capable and tightly integrated device, such as Apple Watch, should be able to sell the benefits of apps on your wrist.

So those are the measuring sticks we have here. For Apple Watch to be not only better than other smartwatches, but actually useful and valuable as an adjunct to the phone, it has to be able to:

  • keep me informed so I don’t miss anything, but don’t feel overwhelmed (great notifications)
  • allow me to do things more easily than I could by using my phone (great apps)
  • last at least all day so I’m not worried about battery life
  • allow me to tell the time (it’s a watch, stupid!)
  • keep me in touch more easily than my phone could (great communications abilities)
  • help me get and stay fit and healthy

Of course, that’s not all a smartwatch needs to do. It would be great if it looked good, felt nice to wear, and lots more besides. That said, this at least gives us the answer to a swathe of user needs.

The important thing to note though — and this is really the only question that needs answering — is whether Apple Watch can do everything my phone can do better than my phone can do it. If it can’t, then the Watch is nothing more than an expensive lump of metal strapped to my (apparently tiny) wrists.

Technology and timepiece as fashion

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Apple Watch works as a watch, and it does the job capably. It would be embarrassing if it didn’t, given its in the device’s name.

It apparently keeps time far, far more accurately than almost any watch or clock ever made. Whilst that mightn’t seem like a big deal, for me, it actually is. I’ve never been able to wear analogue watches; it doesn’t matter how much I spend on them, they always ‘lose’ minutes of time every few days. No such trouble with this watch.

If I’m honest though, I’m not sure why Apple is making such a big deal of the fact it keeps time well. Every smartwatch calibrates itself over the Internet to be accurate, even without Apple’s apparent over-engineering, and not everyone has my apparent issues with malfunctioning mechanics.

More interesting than its accuracy is the design of both the watch, and the watch faces.

I’ve got the 42mm Apple Watch Sport in black anodised aluminium with a black ‘fluroelastomer’ (it’s not rubber) band. If slow shipping times are a demonstration of demand, then this is certainly the people’s Apple Watch — the direct opposite of the more ostentatious, ultra exclusive 18ct gold Watch. But whilst this version of the Apple Watch is clearly the favourite of the masses, I suspect it’s because of price rather than looks.

The Apple Watch — the Sport model at least — is beautifully utilitarian. It’s well crafted, and it feels of an incredibly high quality. But it isn’t beautiful. It’s not a fashion statement. Much in the same way Apple altered direction slightly between the iPhone 5S and 6 to make the device more curved and less jewellery like, Apple Watch takes the same friendlier design cues.

For a device which has three wildly different price points, the differentiating feature of which is its physical appearance, that the Watch goes almost unnoticed in public and at worst could be described as inoffensive is somewhat surprising.

But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps this device is deliberately subtle. After all, it’s designed to be worn — gaudy design won’t win Apple Watch followers.

Where the physical device is a masterful blend of friendly and utilitarian design, the watch faces are somewhat more diffuse. The Watch comes with numerous faces built in, all of which can be customised in some way.

There’s a watch face to suit most tastes, even with the limited number available. My favourite is the ‘Simple’ face, but ‘Motion’ is a nice alternative (there’s something mesmerising about having a jellyfish floating around on my wrist).

Many faces allow you to add ’complications’ to them; extra pieces of functionality like displaying the date or your upcoming appointments. Some also allow you to change the aesthetic appearance of the face. You can adjust many elements of each face, such as the colour of the second hand or how much detail appears on the dial, or whether there is a dial at all. It makes for a great array of choices so that Apple Watch can look just as you want.

I feel like more time was put into designing the face than designing the complications though. Many of them look so hideously out of place that I’ve gone for the most barren design for my preferred watch face.

So that’s Apple Watch as design. Inoffensive. Subtle. Customisable. But not beautiful.

Is it enough to justify paying more than £300 for the device? No. And if you’re looking for a fashion piece, you won’t find much joy here.

Powering through the day

Most people expect their watch to last for months on a single battery. Smartwatches, unsurprisingly, don’t come close to that with their increasingly advanced technology and always-on radios.

I said battery life defined the smartwatch category when Pebble launched on Kickstarter. When it was released, a one week battery life seemed incredible. But Pebble had an e-paper display and only very crude functionality compared to Apple Watch. The Watch has an OLED, full colour, high-density display, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and a touchscreen; and the battery life reflects that.

I’ve found myself getting through the day more than easily, but getting a full two days of use out of Apple Watch would be near impossible. Regardless Apple Watch lives up to Apple’s promise. It is an “all day battery” and that’s just fine. In fact, it’s more than fine; it’s brilliant.

The problem I continually faced with my Pebble was that it ran out of battery unexpectedly. I forgot to charge it all the time because battery life was wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it would last a week, sometimes only 4 days. Apple Watch may only have a single day’s equivalent charge, but the habit of charging every day means I never have to worry about it running out mid-day.

And charging is super simple. It’s a bit annoying that you have yet another proprietary charging cable, but despite that, wireless charging is a boon. I hope they add it to the iPhone and iPad soon too.

All day battery life isn’t a reason to buy the Watch, and Apple knows it. That’s why they tried to avoid talking about it. You don’t buy a watch — let alone a smartwatch — because battery life is good; you simply avoid the ones that are poor. But there’s no reason to avoid Apple Watch — battery life is fine.

Staying informed

I’ve said already, but it’s worth repeating. For a smartwatch to be worth buying, it has to not only do something better than other smartwatches, it has to go further. It has to allow you to do things better than you can do on your other devices like your iPhone.

It’s a pitch that Apple made when it introduced iPad. iPad had to do email, browsing, and a whole host of other things better than both your iPhone and your laptop. If it couldn’t, there would be no point in the device existing.

For Apple Watch, the task is to be better than iPhone at the small things. It has to be better at the things you do frequently, but only spend 5-10 seconds doing on your phone. It has to make you prefer using Watch over iPhone for things like checking the time and, as we’ve covered, it does that just fine. But think about the other things you check on your phone regularly and for fleeting moments. Notifications is probably the biggest and most frequent.

I’ll get straight to the point. Right now, the best reason to buy Apple Watch — or indeed any smartwatch — is for the quiet revolution in the way you deal with notifications.

It’s counterintuitive, but by being more aware of everything happening in your digital life, it is exponentially easier to prioritise. You know what you need to deal with now, and what you can safely ignore. And even better with Apple Watch, dealing with notifications is a breeze.

It’s difficult to appreciate when you haven’t worn one, but having used Pebble previously and the Watch now, this convenience feature really is the killer feature.

Here’s the deal though — it’s not perfect. Expecting it to be on a first generation device is possibly too ambitious. But it’s good enough for the vast majority of things.

The core problem is actually not Apple Watch, but iOS and iPhone. Apple has greatly expanded the things you can action directly on a notification in iOS compared with just a few years ago, but it hasn’t gone far enough to make Apple Watch uniformly useful.

On iPhone, Apple’s native apps are still the only ones that can access things like text replies in the notifications bar. For third-party apps, they can give you customised buttons — like ‘retweet’ or ‘favourite’ on Twitter — but that’s all. Anything more involved requires an app to open. That translates to Apple Watch in an equally poor way.

With the Watch, I can respond to SMS and iMessages with my voice or canned replies in seconds. But if I want to reply to a Facebook message? No such luck without an app; and of course there isn’t an app yet.

No doubt these issues will get worked through as iPhone, iOS, the Watch and Watch OS evolve, but right now there’s an element of frustration in using the device. If the value of Watch is that it can enable fast interaction and negate the need to use iPhone, then right now, that value isn’t fully realised.

Getting notifications on Apple Watch, feeling a (sometimes too subtle) tap on the wrist and being able to do something with them other than simply dismiss them is an improvement over Pebble in many respects, but it’s not different enough to claim Apple created the best smartwatch and it’s not — in isolation — a compelling case for buying a smartwatch if you’ve never had one. It’s the best reason to get one, sure, but it’s not enough.

Staying in touch and using apps

This feeling of things being good, but not good enough, is a theme that runs throughout the Watch’s capabilities.

Tim Cook said Apple Watch allowed you to stay in touch in better, more personal ways when he introduced the Watch. Certainly, there are new ways to communicate, but whether they are additive rather than just different is unclear.

Digital Touch, a new communications app designed specifically for Apple Watch is a great example of this. With Digital Touch you can send taps, sketches or even your own heartbeat to other Watch users. It’s kind of fun, but it’s also kind of pointless. Not only that, but I don’t know what it adds to my user experience; it’s not something that couldn’t be replicated by my iPhone, and it’s not really that useful either. It’s far easier to send a text. Features like this aren’t better than using my iPhone, and they don’t demonstrate the value of a wearable device at all.

Far more useful is the ability to send messages from your wrist. Being able to raise my wrist and say something like:

Hey Siri, send a message to Nick. Fancy a drink later?

And for it to be done in seconds, and accurately, is easier, simpler, and faster than grabbing my phone from my pocket and using an app. That’s a scenario where Apple Watch is better than my iPhone.

Unfortunately, additive experiences like this, where I prefer to use my Watch above my iPhone, are few and far between. And it’s clear third-party app makers are a long way from getting the balance right too. Instagram is an obvious example of this. Why would anyone want to browse their Instagram feed from their wrist?!

Much like with Pebble, I’m far less convinced with the concept of fully fledged apps on my wrist than I am notifications. And it isn’t helped by a confusing and slow menu system based on a concept that I thought had gone the way of the Dodo with Windows Mobile 6.5. (Seriously though, Apple, why the honeycomb layout? What was wrong with grids and lists?! Nothing. That’s what).

The one exception to the app problem is a feature called Glances. These are a shining example of what a smartwatch could be about. Immediately accessible, highly information dense widgets that let you do just enough to be useful, but not too much that you feel your arm aching. They make you want to use them instead of grabbing your phone. You can control your music, check your daily activity, and much more, just with a swipe. Sure, they could be more useful, but right now they are the best part about apps on your wrist.

Again though, Apple appears to have made a great smartwatch without making a good case for owning one. When the pieces fall into place and work together, they make using Apple Watch useful and additive. But the vast majority of the time, I could do these activities faster and better on my iPhone. Resolving these specific gripes is likely a case of patience, as the third-party app market matures and Apple builds more functionality into iOS and Watch OS, but for now and like its predecessors, apps and communications aren’t a compelling reason to spend your money on this device.

Fitness first

The third big feature Tim Cook wanted to flaunt at the Apple Watch announcement event was fitness tracking. Apple spent a lot of time talking about this; they even got a supermodel — Christy Turlington Burns — on stage and blogging about it for weeks afterward to hammer home the message. Apple — and in particular, apparently Tim Cook — really believe in the potential for Apple Watch to change the way we think about our health. Does it?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. Apple Watch is certainly a great activity tracker. The built in Activity app encourages you to do three things:

  • sit less
  • move more
  • get some exercise

It represents each of these objectives on a set of concentric circles in the app (and the glance, or on a complication). Your goal each day is to fill your rings. Pretty simple.

To help you along the way, Apple Watch sends you notifications that remind you of your progress throughout the day. If it doesn’t detect you standing for over an hour, it nudges you to get up and move around. If you haven’t hit your calorie burn goal, it sends you a notification alerting you to how far you have to go.

Apple Watch tries to incentivise your activity too with awards. You earn achievements when you do things like hitting your goals on consecutive days, or you close one of your rings several times over in a day.

It’s a pretty effective way of making you more aware of, and thus more likely to do something about your general fitness.

Where things start to go a bit wrong is when the Activity app meets the Workout app. I’ve been testing out several of the fitness apps designed for Apple Watch, and the only one that works is Apple’s. Why? Because the Watch doesn’t give third-party the same ability to track your heart rate properly.

Apple Watch has a heart rate monitor built into the underside of the device. Every 10 minutes, it uses infrared and visible light LEDs to take your pulse. When you’re using the Workout app, Apple Watch takes it every minute. That means it can more accurately track things like calorie burn. The problem is that when yo use a third-party app — like Runkeeper — the Watch only tracks your heart rate every 10 minutes.

Now you might think that’s not so bad; you can just use the Workout app instead and move away from your normal workout app of choice. But there’s further trade-offs.

Part of the fun of apps like Runkeeper is that you can map your runs, share them on social media, and add commentary and photos. All of that is enabled by an app on your iPhone.

But the Workout app is only on the Watch, and it only surfaces basic data into the Activity app on your iPhone. So you get far better fitness tracking, but none of the other bits that come with it.

Aside from this, the Watch is only tracking cardio activity; if your heart rate doesn’t get raised enough, it won’t recognise you’re doing exercise.

Another annoyance is the default behaviours of apps when you’re not using them.

By default, Apple Watch closes apps open on the Watch after around 30 seconds, and returns you to the home screen — your watch face. That’s the right thing to do. Except when it’s not.

If you’re using the Workout app, it stays open when you’re exercising. That’s also the right thing to do. And it doesn’t require any change of the settings either; Apple — smartly — made sure the default was closest to the user need. When I’m running, I want to see the data, not my watch face. For third-party apps like Runkeeper though, the app will close itself and the only way to stop that from happening is to change a setting on your iPhone. Whilst this is only a minor inconvenience (that you’ll have to do twice — once to turn on, and once to turn off the setting), it’s an inconvenience nonetheless, and it forces me to use the Apple app out of bad design, not out of preference.

Luckily, the Workout app is actually quite good. It can track pace and provide live telemetry much more accurately and quickly than apps like Runkeeper have ever been able to. I just hope Apple adds more functionality to it, rather than expecting third-parties to do all the additional work, because right now, third-party fitness apps on the Watch are awful.

Fitness is one area that again shows the value of wearables though, even with these imperfections. It’s much more convenient to glance at my fitness data on my wrist, and the experience is tailored for that device. My phone can’t offer me heart rate monitoring, but even if it did, it would be less convenient than the persistent monitoring that Apple Watch provides.

That said, fitness tracking is pretty niche. Unless you’re particularly motivated to get more healthy, Apple Watch will be more of an annoyance in this area than a reason to purchase. Again, this feature isn’t a sufficient reason to go and buy an Apple Watch — especially if you’re a sofa-dwelling lard arse and like it that way — but together with the other features, you see a compelling overall reason to buy the Watch.

A stitch in time saves nine

If you solve a problem immediately, you’ll save time later, so the proverb goes. That’s the promise of wearables, and the promise of Apple Watch.

Apple Watch is a strange and unfocussed device, and no one feature makes it worth buying independently. When you start to combine these features though you end up with the best reason of all to buy Apple Watch. Convenience.

It’s much more convenient to have notifications more immediately available and knowable to me on my wrist.

It’s much more convenient to have a device that passively monitors my health and fitness without me having to even think about it.

It’s much more convenient being able to respond to a text message with a single button press from my wrist.

These little conveniences are only going to get more frequent and more useful as Apple Watch matures as a platform; of that, I have no doubt.

No, the Watch isn’t perfect. And no, it probably isn’t worth you buying one yet — too many things don’t work well enough, and using it can be an exercise in frustration. But give it 12 months. Wait until Apple Watch 2 or Apple Watch 3. That’s when you’ll most want one, and that’s when there will be a genuine reason for you to want to wear a watch again.