I don’t think I can stress this enough: It’s a watch.
I say this because people are lumping far too many expectations on to the Apple Watch, a product that’s barely a week old and something few people have had a chance to use.
I let my boss try it the other day, and he launched into a tirade before the thing was even fastened to his wrist.
“Why do I need this? I already have a giant iPhone that does everything!”
He was baffled.
We’ve seen similar arguments when other new product categories launched.
Chromebooks are just limited computers that only let you use a web browser. The iPad is just a big iPhone. The iPhone is just a BlackBerry without a physical keyboard.
They were all wrong.
Just as those who expect the Apple Watch to work as a tiny iPhone on your wrist are wrong.
I’ve spent over a week with the Apple Watch, and just as so many people misunderstood what iPhones, iPads, and Chromebooks were for, I can now see the same thing happening with Apple’s first wearable.
The Apple Watch is not a replacement for your iPhone. It’s not something you’re going to use for extended periods, your arm held at an uncomfortable angle while squinting at tweets and emails on the small screen.
The Apple Watch is best used as that: a watch. It’s something you check for a second or two and then put away. And in 2015, it’s nice to have a watch that can do more than simply tell time. We can carry it around with us everywhere we go, and it springs to life when it receives a notification: a text, an email, a tweet, a Facebook message. Those notifications don’t always need a response, but they are important to glance at, just like the time.
There’s more going on in your digital life than just the time and date, and the Apple Watch is a watch infused with an extra bit of technology that makes all of that much more accessible.
Does that make the Apple Watch a must-own gadget like a smartphone? Absolutely not. Does that make it a cool thing to have? Absolutely.
There’s a learning curve
You don’t control the Apple Watch like an iPhone or iPad. It has a traditional touchscreen, but there’s a dial called the digital crown for scrolling and zooming, and another button for quickly accessing your favourite contacts. There are a lot of gestures, swipes, taps, and presses you have to learn to navigate through the software. It took me about a day to finally master all of it.
After that I was flying. But even with all the stuff the Apple Watch can do, I still found myself using it mostly to glance at the time or incoming notifications, two things I found incredibly useful. Everything else the Apple Watch can do is gravy.
Using it as a watch
I mostly found myself using the Apple Watch to tell the time. It’s silly that I have to say that, but because Apple packed so many features into this thing, the broad expectation for the Apple Watch seems to be that it’s much more than that. It’s not.
The Apple Watch comes with 10 interchangeable watch faces. There isn’t an option to download more than that, but a few of them are heavily customisable. I prefer the simpler watch faces, but you’re free to tweak others with everything from the price of your favourite stock to your next calendar appointment.
The watch display is dark almost the entire time. It lights up only when you raise your wrist to take a look, and it shuts off a few seconds after that if you don’t do anything. There were several instances during the past week when I lifted the watch and nothing happened, but, for the most part, as long as I lifted my wrist in a natural “I need to check the time motion” it worked well. (You can also tap the screen to switch it on.)
I haven’t worn a watch regularly in over a decade, so I’m not the best person to comment on how the Apple Watch feels compared to normal watches. But I did find it perfectly comfortable and nice to look at. I tested the steel model, which costs $US549 and up, but you can get the Sport model of the Apple Watch for $US349 or $US399, depending on the size you choose.
You can also swap out the bands. My favourite, after trying them all, is the sport band ($US49), which I think is the most comfortable and versatile. Apple’s other bands aren’t cheap. Expect to pay $US150 to $US450 (yikes!) depending on which one you choose.
Notifications are useful
Besides the time, app notifications are the next best part of the Apple Watch. By default, the watch mirrors every notification that hits your phone, which is obscene and intimidating at first. The watch works much better if you switch off notifications for everything but the stuff you care about most.
For me that’s text messages, calendar alerts, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Now. I hate email, so I switched that off, but you may want to activate the “VIP” email function, which pushes emails only from the people you want to hear from.
When you get a notification, the watch gently vibrates to alert you. It’s more like a gentle tap on your wrist than an aggressive smartphone vibration. Unlike a smartphone, the watch’s screen doesn’t light up with every notification; you have to raise your wrist to see it. It’s more like your watch telling you “Hey, there’s a new thing here for you to check when you get a sec” than alerting everyone around you that your girlfriend sent you a text.
The Apple Watch is best for simply glancing at notifications. In a lot of cases, you’ll still need to use your phone to respond. But there are a few clever ways to respond from your watch. The Messages app lets you reply to texts with a canned response or animated emoji, for example. I found that really useful when I was busy in a meeting or at the gym.
All of that changed how I used my iPhone. I could keep it muted in my pocket and not feel like I was missing anything. All the important stuff got pushed to my watch, and I could choose to whip out my phone if need be. In most cases, a peek at an incoming notification was enough. In other cases, I could reply from my watch, tapping to star a tweet or selecting a canned response or emoji to reply to a text.
I disagree with the notion that the Apple Watch was designed specifically to make you use your phone less, but that ended up the case for me. My iPhone is my primary computer. The Apple Watch is a nice accessory for it.
Apps need a lot of work
Just about every major app, from Twitter to Instagram to Starbucks, has an app for the Apple Watch. So far, there are about 3,500 apps available, and most stink.
Too many try to mimic the smartphone-app experience on a tiny screen, which makes them cumbersome and unintuitive. There’s no reason to squint at an Instagram photo or scroll through tweets on such a small screen. Most developers don’t seem to realise that interactions on the Apple Watch work best when they’re as brief as possible.
Third-party apps load slowly because they’re technically stored on your phone, not the watch itself. All the data has to push from the phone to your watch via Bluetooth. I’ve spent far too long over the past week staring at loading screens for Apple Watch apps.
I’ve used only one app that really gets it, and that’s Uber. With one tap on your watch, the Uber app automatically sends a car to your location. There’s no futzing around with complicated controls. More developers should look to Uber’s Apple Watch app as an example for how apps should work on the device.
Simplicity is key. Until then, you’re better off ignoring most of the third-party apps on Apple Watch.
A good fitness tracker
There’s nothing revolutionary about the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker. We’ve been using devices like the Fitbit and Jawbone UP for years. Like those wearables, the Apple Watch can monitor your steps, calories burned, and heart rate. All that data shows up on your watch or the accompanying Activity app on your iPhone.
Also like those other trackers, the Apple Watch’s fitness features happen in the background. You don’t need to do anything other than wear the device. It’s nice to have if you like fitness tracking, but completely invisible if you don’t. The real benefit here is being able to wear a nice watch that doubles as a fitness tracker instead of a fitness tracker plus a nice watch.
Battery life better than expected
It was one of the biggest questions leading up to the Apple Watch launch: Would it last more than a day on a charge? Until March, Apple gave only the vague answer that you’d have to charge it nightly.
In my tests, the Apple Watch lasted well over a day. I’d start using it as early as 6 a.m., and I’d still have over a 50% charge by 10 p.m. when I’d go to bed. It’s still best to charge the Apple Watch every night so that you can start each day with plenty of juice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people could squeeze nearly two days out of a single charge, assuming they’re not constantly tinkering with it.
So much more
Those are the core functions of the Apple Watch, but Apple packed a lot more into this thing. You can answer calls and talk to people from your wrist Dick Tracy style. You can get directions from Apple Maps. You can dictate text messages with your voice. You can ask Siri questions. You can send your heart beat to another Apple Watch user. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
My biggest criticism with the Apple Watch is that it does too much. Apple is often slammed for introducing new products with limited features (the first iPhone couldn’t do a lot of things) and adding new stuff as the product matures. But that’s not the case this time. The Apple Watch mimics a lot of your iPhone’s functions, even though it shouldn’t.
I found it works best when you limit all the extras and stick to the things that matter most. The Apple Watch is best used as a watch, fitness tracker, and a way to check and respond to the notifications most important to you.
Over time, I imagine developers and Apple will have better solutions for this new type of gadget. But for now, you’re better off using the Apple Watch in a limited capacity.
Apple has not done a superb job explaining why you need a smartwatch. The strategy seems to be putting it in people’s hands and seeing how they use it. For me, that’s using the Apple Watch to track my fitness and check the time and important notifications from the apps I care about most.
I enjoyed my week with the Apple Watch, but that’s not to say it’s a revolutionary product like the iPhone. It will be years, or decades, before we see something new like that. But I did like it enough to buy one.
Does that mean you need to buy it? No. Will a lot of people want to buy it after trying it? Definitely.
If you do buy, I suggest getting the Apple Watch Sport, the cheapest model. It can do everything the pricier steel and solid gold models can do for a lot less.