Reviews

Apple Watch Review: The one worth watching

Apple Watch

Not since the first iPhone has Apple released such an ambitious product. Back then, it was a different company, one whose name still included Computer. This is a different Apple and a different time. Smartphones are no longer a niche product and estimates have Apple iPhone users in the U.S. eclipsing 65 million. One could say that the Apple Watch is the first truly new platform since iPhone. That’s if you’d accept the argument that the iPad, while offering unique software experiences, was largely a versioning of the iPhone. The lines between those two product lines continue to blur with the iPad mini and iPhone 6 Plus, both from design and software. But enough about phones and tablets, it’s 2015, marking the debut of Apple Watch. For the first two weeks since its release, I had been wearing a 38mm Apple Watch with black sport band that I purchased. More recently, I’ve switched to a 42mm Sport, for comparison of materials and size. Despite some commonalities with iPhone, interacting with Apple Watch feels like a different experience. One that can be exciting, confusing and at times, frustrating. That’s pretty much indicative of any version one product, including the first iPhone. Tim Cook often states how Apple cares most about delivering great customer experiences, a promise that each and every iPhone has delivered. Does the Apple Watch live up to the promise? Is it the next in a long line of insanely great products? Our Apple Watch review aims to provide a comprehensive, unbiased look at the good, bad and yes, the ugly.

Apple Watch review

The out of box experience

I joked that at first sight, I was like Magatu from Zoolander. “Dear God, it’s beautiful.”

I feel that’s an appropriate movie reference, given it’s humorous take on fashion. There is a big time fashion component to Apple Watch. That being said, I’m about as qualified as the characters in this movie to offer fashion advice. All totaled, there are 38 models, enough to satiate the style requirements of most anyone. You can opt for small (38mm) or medium (42mm). These aren’t to be confused with the big-body Pebble smartwatches, which scream, look at my technology-laden wrist. The watches always look bigger in photos. If you like the way the 38mm looks in photos, chances are you’ll be happy with a 42mm. These are good-looking watches, with a nod to the stainless models for a more premium look.

sport-vs-stainless

The packaging differs between models. The Sport version comes in a long, large box. A big, yet very basic presentation. When you jump to the stainless model, it comes packaged in square, glossy white box that resembles the old Airport Extreme. Its presentation more akin to boxes you’d receive when purchasing a higher end watch. Both come with the band you selected and an inductive charging base, attached to a longer than usual charging cable and a 5w USB power charging adapter. The base of the magnetic charger varies between the sport to mid-range, going from white plastic to steel. It’s a nice value add for those jumping to the middle-tier. Apple sells the more premium magnetic charging cable for $39.

Digital Crown

It’s a beautiful looking product, much like the first generation iPhone. It’s chunkier than I’d like, but I found that I didn’t notice the depth of the watch case when wearing it. The stainless model is slightly more heavier than the aluminum of the Sport, which alone with other reasons, gives it a decidedly more premium feel. The side button and Digital Crown both have a more distinct click that I attributed to higher quality materials. I found it to be only slightly heavier than a J.Crew Timex. This is important if you don’t typically wear a watch. The stainless steel model is susceptible to fine scratches. I was careful, yet you can see fine scratches. It reminds me of the older stainless steel backed iPods. You can buff these out with Brasso, which I still have from the old days.

The transition from not wearing a watch at all to Apple Watch is not without bumps. There is a bit of brain re-training. Initially, I found the sport band to be irritating. Switching to a larger band and ultimately, a looser fit resolved my issues. This does however have a slight impact on usability. You can activate the display by either tapping on the screen or by raising your wrist. For the display to turn on, there needs to be a definitive twist. I would have sacrificed battery life if I could adjust the sensitivity, allowing for more casual glances offered by slight wrist movement. If you opt for a sport band, your watch will ship with two sizes, making it easier to find a perfect fit. I’ve had a few try-ons with other bands. Though it wasn’t enough time to properly evaluate them, I did find more comfort with the more fashionable bands.

Apple Watch profile

What you’ll love about Apple Watch

Having a watch to tell time

Phones in some respects have replaced the need for watches. After all, time and date is always just a home button click away. That’s unfortunate, because our phones aren’t always at arm’s length. Going back to wearing a watch has offered that convenience of having that information accessible with a simple raise of the wrist. There are an assortment of watch faces designed by Apple. Each of which offers different customization. Depending upon your needs, you can change the look of the watch face from a simple clock to one that has information regarding calendar events, battery life, activity levels, world clocks, a stopwatch and more. There are 10 options in all. Anything that you’d typically find on a standard watch is here, in digital form, which offers the advantage of changing colors or choosing a design that animates. Sounds crazy, but you’re buying a watch and this will be the most used feature, by far. I can see how some might find frustration in Apple now allowing custom watch faces. I’ve always deferred to Apple when it came to the UI design on the iPhone and I’m more than content with the current crop of watch faces. I would however like to see the custom wallpaper option that was mentioned during the initial product introduction.

Apple Watch face

Apple Watch takes messaging to a new level and it’s awesome

The killer app on Apple Watch is Messages or better yet, messaging on a whole. It’s the one function that immediately felt natural, as if I had been messaging from a watch for years. When you receive a message, it’s effortless to tap replay and use one of the pre-set messages. These can also be customized, adding further utility or you can use standard emoji. Tap on a thumbs up emoji and it gets sent. If would be ridiculous to add a keyboard. There are times when emoji or a select list of messages just won’t cut it. That’s where Siri steps up and in a big way. I’ve been a harsh critic of Apple’s voice assistant. Maybe it’s my Long Island-ese, but her track record hasn’t been stellar. When it comes to finding a contact using Siri, I typically get around her ineffectiveness by making use of relationships. Messages are unique, so it’s paramount that she’s able to be more effective at dictation. I found Siri to be vastly more efficient. If you do run into an issue, you’re presented with an option to send as Audio Clip or text message. I prefer sending text messages and to date, have yet to send a single audio message. I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent accurate, but I’ve been more than pleased with the results.

Messaging on Apple Watch

When you tap on the emoji icon, there are all new animated emoji options. Within each of the three panels (accessible by swiping left to right), lets you select each group. You can change the look of that particular emoji by using the Digital Crown or by swiping down on the display. With each turn or swipe, the animation will change, smiling to frowning, a heart to broken hearts or a fist bump to a hold sign. The hand signs feature a white glove. Apple’s recent expansion of emoji has seen them offer greater diversity. Given the limited options of these new animated emoji, the glove does serve its purpose, despite it looking odd. I could see how they might appeal to a younger audience. As for my tastes, I have a tough time reconciling the use of a refined classic timepiece to send a tongue wagging emoji.

Emoji on Apple Watch

Messaging gets some other new tricks on Apple Watch in the form of Digital Touch. You can send doodles using your finger and a choice of seven colors. Even when tasked with a pen, my drawing skills are poor at best. Using my finger resulted in abominations. This is a novel idea, with that novelty wearing off rather quickly after a few sketches. Even drawing short words I found my finger slogging around the display.

Digital Touch doodle

Apple takes advantage of Digital Touch with both the heartbeat and tap features. Someone can be across the country and feel the Taptic Engine of your heartbeat or a tap. The physical nature of this type of interaction elevates messaging and communication. It’s really well done, but its use will be limited depending on the adoption rate of your friends and family.

Text messaging on Apple Watch

Bite sized information

Information flows through you iPhone to Apple Watch. This comes in the form of notifications, glances and inside applications. How much, where and when you see information is controlled through the companion app. Let’s take this one by one.

Notifications are pushed to the watch coupled with a tap on the wrist and text tone, both of which can be customized to your liking. I’m particularly careful when allowing apps which are permitted to use notifications. By default, notifications on the watch are set to mirror your iPhone. Instantly, without needing a compatible watch app, you’re receiving notifications from all of your apps. I found the watch quickly became my default notification center, with the iPhone being relegated to the middle-man. Information never gets lost in the recesses of the iPhone’s notification center with Apple Watch. Having a device that’s strapped to you can certainly boost the delivery rate of notifications. Whether you’re at home or the office, your iPhone may not always be in reach. It doesn’t have to be when you wear the watch and I found this to be an immediate benefit. In many cases I did find the lack of a supported app resulted in what I’ve deemed a notification dead-end. It became an instance where the watch actually increased my iPhone usage, since I became so aware of each notification, the moment I was tapped on the wrist.

Notifications on watch

Notifications are pushed, where as glances are pulling information, at your request. Swiping up from the watch face, will show you informational glances. Within glances, swiping right and left moves you between each app glance. These are single panels of information. Tapping on them will launch the corresponding watch app. Once I pared down the apps to those I’d commonly use, I found it to be an efficient way to check the weather, see how my activity goals were progressing, control my music and get the score from the previous night’s Yankees game. A quick settings glance offered a bonus, the ability to ping my iPhone. Sure enough, my iPhone would emit a sound and was easier to locate. More often than not, glances were pulling information. Controlling the Music app was the exception, providing you with a controller.

Music app on Apple Watch

Applications buck the trend, for the most part. I was able to view my inbox, but some are not readable on Apple Watch. Instead it lets you know that a full version isn’t available, but you can read it on your iPhone. It would have been great to have the capability to reply to emails much in the way you can reply to messages.

sensors on Apple Watch

Battery life is not good, it’s great

While battery life on the iPhone is very good, it remains an area that many would like to see improved. Leading up to the release, battery life on the Apple Watch was supposed to be its achilles’ heel. It dominated headlines feeding into initial concerns over battery life. It’s rated as having a battery life of 18 hours of mixed use. Battery ratings can differ based on the user. They’ve provided the following which provides a bit more information on different uses and the impact.

Apple Watch battery

No one is going to use the watch for three hours of talk time within a day, unless you’re using it wrong. This is a mixed use device, once that supplements your iPhone experience. My initial assumptions were that on the first few days, I’d be reaching for the charger by day’s end or earlier. That could not be further from the truth. On heavy use days, not once did I reach the point of where Apple Watch went into Power Reserve mode. That’s been a consistent trend, after weeks of use. My custom watch face started with the option to view current battery levels. I’m quickly finding that it’s no longer a need, at least on day one. There are days when I don’t have to charge at night. I attribute this to how I use the Apple Watch coupled with tweaks they’ve made to maximize battery life and the overall rating.

Battery life isn’t just good, it’s great.

Phone feature is useful, really

What I found interesting about my experience are the comparisons between how I anticipated using the watch and how that contrasted with real-world usage. You can make or take phone calls with the Apple Watch. It’s the one feature that while necessary, didn’t seem like it was going to be a good fit for me. Why would I use my watch, when I’ve got a perfectly good iPhone 6? When life takes over, sometimes the watch makes more sense. Having a 2-month old baby it’s not uncommon for me to be holding him, while my iPhone is out of reach. On more than one occasion, the watch would ring. I’ve been able to take calls and have conversations, without having to search for my phone. In some ways, it’s like having the convenience of a Bluetooth headset, without having to look goofy, because talking into a watch doesn’t look goofy.

The call quality is surprisingly good, on both ends. I went in thinking I would not use it for calls. As it turns out, I like talking calls on the watch and will use it often for this purpose.

Apps can be very good

You’re going to read plenty about apps on Apple Watch. Let me start by saying that some applications are great. In particular, I’ve found apps that act as a remote control or controller tend to be work well. My hope was that the watch would radically change smart homes. To this point, smart homes often contain a mash-up of really great technology. Corralling and controlling that technology can be a daunting task. These are the sorts of interactions that excel on Apple Watch, provided the manufacturer has upgraded their app.

Philips Hue app on Apple Watch

For me, the best Apple Watch app experiences have been those which extend widgets to the Apple Watch. They tend to render faster, since little to no information is being pulled from the iPhone. Commands via tap are processed quickly, with only a slight lag. Though some apps work well, it can be disappointing when you learn they don’t support Glances. Instead, they require you navigate the sea of app icons.

Apple Pay, Passbook is wonderful

There’s not much not to like about Apple Pay and Passbook. Both offer an extraordinary level of convenience and Apple Pay is one of the most secure payment methods available today. My only complaint has been wanting more stores to support it. In time, that will happen. When you are checking out, there is the issue of pulling out your iPhone. While there are security advantages, essentially your pulling your iPhone out of your pocket or purse, instead of your wallet. Apple Watch lessens the burden.

You can tap into Apple Pay with a quick double tap of the side button. I found that it can be slightly awkward to twist your wrist so that the contactless reader can process your payment. The gentle tap of the Taptic Engine and beep offered both auditory and physical cues that my payment had been made. As more people are using their Apple Watch to make payments, stores will use this cue for more optimal placement of their contactless payment readers.

Activity Tracker

I approached this section of my review understanding my coach potato status. I’ve never owned, nor had an interest in purchasing a FitBit, Nike Fuel or other tracker. Still like many others, I do have a general interest in improving my health. At one point, I was extremely active, almost completing the entire P-90 program. Those days however, are long gone. The Activity Tracker gladly accepted my request of the lowest goal setting of 320 calories, 30 minutes of exercise and a once-per hour stand goal of 12. Each is tracked and represented by circle that when filled is a target. On the single day that I came close to achieving all three goals, it did provide me with a sense of accomplishment, something I didn’t see coming. So while the Apple Watch didn’t spur me to dust off my gym membership, it did provide me with attainable goals. As someone who works in front of a computer all day, I welcome the reminders to stand. At a minimum, I’ve tried to achieve my standing goal. The iPhone app does a great job of reminding me just how sedentary my lifestyle has become. It was somewhat depressing to see a visual representation that highlighted weeks of unfulfilled goals.

Time to stand

My concern with Apple Watch is no different than any high end watch. Do you want to subject to it the rigors of the gym, the sweat of hard work? I can see an advantage to those rubberized activity trackers that are built to withstand just about anything. However, if you haven’t invested in one thus far, I can’t see why you spend $100 on a one-trick pony. For a few hundred dollars more, you get infinitely more features and there are a number of highly rated fitness apps that already support Apple Watch.

What’s no so great about Apple Watch

Apps are awful

But wait, you just said apps can be great. It’s been my personal experience that they are few and far between. Apple says there are 3,000 apps for Apple Watch, which sounds like a large number. These are existing iPhone apps that are compatible with Apple Watch. When you look at your stable of apps, the ones that you love enough to install on your iPhone, that number end up being a small percentage of what’s available. I don’t see Apple Watch compatibility as a compelling enough reason to switch from your favorite iPhone app. I should note the term Apple Watch apps can be a bit of a misnomer. Some are fully fledged apps, with some being nothing more than a widget, but on your watch. The apps that I spoke so glowingly about are all widgets. It’s as if they were transported from the Notification Center to your wrist. Apps that do the least, shine on Apple Watch.

Isn’t that headline a bit harsh? No, in fact it is entirely appropriate to properly express my disappointment with apps on Apple Watch. Most apps, including some of those included in Watch OS, are painfully slow. There is nothing you as the user can do to speed things up. Despite having a fast WiFi connection at home and the iPhone in close proximity, apps would continuously spin at launch. It’s been so bad that the display on the watch will time out multiple times before you see any information. I’ve had a popular app (a 4.5 star rating with over 21,000 reviews) which had chosen to support glances, display zero information. If you tap on it, you jump to the app and experience time-outs. The rare slow-loading app is actually an improvement.

This isn’t the fault of the developers, including those who have shipped apps and those considering support for Apple’s new device. They find themselves in a bit of conundrum. The current Watch OS SDK (software development kit) does not allow for native apps. These apps were developed on a computer and not using an actual watch. There was no way they could anticipate the unbearable load times.

If and when Apple allows native third party apps, there’s no guarantee that will improve things. Stock apps like Maps can also render slowly. It all feels very beta and it’s made worse by the fast-loading, awesome apps found in your pocket, on your iPhone. Understanding the challenges of developers and that’s it not one app, the fault lies with Apple. Either that’s software that needs refinement or attempts to push the limits of the hardware, which I’d still consider an amazing technical achievement. Technology is harder when you’re dealing with incredibly small devices. Greatness takes time, refinement and advances in critical components like chipsets. There also needs to be a better understanding between developers and users on expectations and what makes a great app experience on Apple Watch. As it stands now, that’s not happening with any regularity.

Usability and software challenges

The Apple Watch isn’t as easy or intuitive as an iPhone. There’s a learning curve to finding things. Navigating uses a mix of the Digital Crown, side button and the display. At times, there are hidden options which are revealed when you apply more pressure to the display or what Apple calls Force Touch. I’d say that it took a day or three to find my comfort zone. Even so, it’s far from perfect.

App layout

From the watch face, pressing once on the Digital Crown brings up a sea of tiny app icons. The layout can be customized to your liking on the companion app. There are multiple ways of opening an app. You can scroll with your finger and tap when a target is big enough. I found the added space of the 42mm display helped with my targets. I also kept my favorite apps on the edge of grouping of apps. Apple’s method of dealing with smallish icons is to allow you to use the Digital Crown to zoom in and launch an app. I guess they suspect you’ll navigate with your finger and zoom with Digital Crown to open. I presume they want to help those with large fingers that blocks the display. If there were ever a time to allow the removal of default apps, the Apple Watch is shining example. There is a desperate need to remove the clutter of unwanted apps.

I found myself wanting the Digital Crown to act like the iPhone’s home button, a single click returning me to the safe zone of the watch face. That works, some of the time. When you are navigating within apps, it can act as a back button. To get from within an app back to the watch face, you need to execute two quick clicks.

I find myself generally enamored with notifications and glances. The latter can get crowded and quick. Even the default settings are a bit overwhelming. You might have a different tolerance level for scrolling left to right, but I see little value past 7 or so glances. This isn’t the fault of Apple, but a limitation of wearables. Limiting the number of glances and re-ordering them can make a world of difference.

When the Activity app first recommended I stand, I welcomed my new found transition to a new, healthier me. There were a few occasions where it would ask me to stand when I was standing and moving. It also asked me to stand when I was driving. It’s been two years since the Moto X was released and it would switch modes if it recognized you were driving. One would think the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch could figure this out?

After a few weeks, I’ve had my fair share of miscellaneous software issues. I’ve had the watch lose its iPhone, despite being on a the same WiFi network. It will also routinely lock, despite not being removed. These are minor quibbles and I expect there will be quite a few interface changes as this product progresses.

The Apple Watch app is confusing, convoluted

I’m not going to call the companion app a dumpster fire, but there are burning embers inside of that app. Every setting is jammed into one long scrolling list under the My Watch tab. It’s all set against a black background, as if to intentionally change the UI to stand out from iOS. Glances can be set in two places or not at all. Some apps required I open their respective app to enable it for the watch. I had one app that showed glances as available, but it never happened on the watch. I’m not entirely sure if the millions of individual settings speak more to the complexity of Apple Watch or the inability of Apple to create an app that is simple, easy and effective.

Companion app

One of the tabs is filled with commercials, though if you dig deep, there are some general use videos that may prove helpful. Rounding out this app is the Featured and Search tabs, which acts as a filtering of the App Store to display nothing but watch apps.

While I appreciate the granular level of the settings, there’s something inherently wrong with its presentation. This app looks and feels like I’ve been kidnapped and forced to use some convoluted settings you’d find in Android or worse yet, a Samsung device.

Hey Siri, can you hear me now?

I found Siri to be excellent when I dictated messages. On Apple Watch, Siri is always on and you can make requests by saying, Hey Siri, followed by your request. I found this feature to be extremely inconsistent and frustrating. I’d summon Siri and issue a request. There were no shortage of times that I was met with the watch face, meaning she was asleep at the wheel. I also found that Siri responded the default message “Interesting question, Christopher, ” when she had no answer. This would happen when she correctly heard my request and times when it was half a sentence. Other times, I’d have to tap on the microphone icon to engage voice recognition. Some times I’d see Hey Siri and white line bouncing back and forth. When it works, it is like magic. I did find Hey Siri useful for setting timers when cooking.

Hey Siri

Again, referencing my time with the 2013 Moto X and it to this day is world’s better at this sort of passive listening and acting on requests. This feature is supposed to be a time saver and it is, when it works. It’s these sort of half-baked experiences that had me using Siri less on the iPhone and might limit my use on Apple Watch.

No Reminders app

One Apple app that didn’t make the cut was Apple’s excellent Reminders app. To me, this was a glaring omission and one that I immediately miss on the watch. I use Reminders to share grocery and other lists with my wife. Having access to these on my wrist would be a huge win. You can use Siri to set a reminder, but you can’t get a pure list without using a third party app.

Reminders

A complex purchase

The different size watch cases and bands make this an incredibly complex purchase decision. Prior to taking shipment, I ventured to the Apple Store shortly after the pre-order frenzy. I wish I had the luxury of a try-on before making my purchase. Also weighing heavily was price and the fear of early adopter hurt. Let’s face it, it won’t be long until we’re talking about the second generation Apple Watch, which will be slimmer, faster and more refined. If you need evidence, look no further than iPhone > iPhone 3G or iPad > iPad 2. Prices start at $349, but know this, it’s easy to find yourself slowly moving up the product line. If you want a 42mm watch with something other than a sport band, expect to pay $699 or more, unless you purchase the band separately. You can always add a band later, but you’ll save $50 if you buy it with your watch. That is, if you have no interest in the sport band, which is the base model (least expensive) for Sport, mid-range and Edition. I should note that all bands work with all watches, provided they are the same size (42mm, 38mm), though they might not look great. The purchase process can be confusing, which is why we created an extensive Apple Watch Buyers Guide. Should you decide to purchase a watch, it should help provide you with the guidance you need to make the right decision. Should you have further questions, our Apple Watch forums are a great place to get feedback from real folks who are using the Apple Watch.

Pros:

  • Messaging is fantastic
  • Watch design and bands are fashion conscious
  • Siri shows significant improvement for dictation
  • Battery life is well beyond expectations
  • Notifications, glances are useful
  • Apple Pay gets easier
  • Doubles as activity tracker

Cons:

  • App loading times are painful, often resulting in an awful experience
  • Watch cases are chunky
  • Hey Siri is hit or miss
  • Configuration using companion app can be confusing
  • Display can be difficult to view in sunlight
  • Expensive
  • Buggy software
  • No Reminders app

Conclusion and Rating

The Apple Watch represents the fanatical design ethos that’s expected of Apple. Whether you’re spending $350 or $18,000, the companies meticulous attention to detail spans the entire range. The flexible design allows for easy swapping of bands to meet your personal style, though at present you’re confined to pricey options sold by Apple. Despite what I found to be stunning hardware, the cost of admission might sting when the inevitable thinner, faster next generation appears a year later.

Hardware aside, it’s software where Apple Watch earns its place as first generation product. Third-party and to some extent, native apps are plagued by painfully slow loading times. At what point is the convenience of having information on your wrist compromised by slow loading apps? Siri continues to be a mixed bag. Apple’s voice assistant excelled in her ability to handle dictation. Hey Siri attempts to provide completely hands-free access. I found it to be inconsistent at best, finding myself staring blankly at the watch face. There were a number of miscellaneous software issues emblematic of a 1.0 product, which I suspect will get corrected in the forthcoming software updates. Overall, these were minor and shouldn’t impact your purchase decision.

In Watch OS, the groundwork has been laid for a seriously compelling platform, but one that will always require an iPhone in the background doing all of the heavy lifting. Most times, this is transparent to you, the user, until its Taptic Engine taps you on the wrist. The Apple Watch instantly became my new hub for managing notifications, controlling lights, alarms and music. All the while, it was tracking my every step, every calorie burned and gentle suggestions to stand offered a subtle way to a healthier life. It’s take on messaging was fast and fun, taking it to new levels with Digital Touch. And there were surprising aspects of its feature set like taking calls that actually have their place in real-world usage.

In Apple Watch, you get a smart watch that boasts impeccable hardware design with the promise of a product that improve over time as the software matures and third party developers learn how to exploit its capabilities.

An inside look at the good, bad and the ugly of the Apple Watch. An unbiased Apple Watch review that is a must read.
Apple Watch
Date Published: 05/13/2015
Review overview
7 / 10 stars
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