I was one of the lucky ones. My 42mm Apple Watch Sport arrived on the actual first day, April 24th, that it could arrive. I got to play with it, puzzle over it, and write an early first “glance” about what I thought after a few days. Then the real test began: to see how it would perform in real life stuff. Using mobile devices when dealing with the rigors (or not rigors) of real life stuff tells me more than just testing gadgets for review purposes. On some level that’s a sucker’s bet. On others it is just a job.
- The User Experience
- Third Party Apps
- Battery Life
- Connectivity and the Watch Companion App
- Health and Fitness
- Wearability and Durability
- The Watch Face and Complications
- Summing Things Up At This Point in Time
Since I first strapped on the Apple Watch, I’ve gone through a relatively painful move from one apartment to another, enjoyed a trip out of town, and dealt with a few other real life complications, all with this new gadget strapped to my wrist. I’ve learned quite a bit. For some context, I’ve been a hesitant fence-sitter when it comes to wearable technology. I understood the concepts, but haven’t seen how the promises could turn into the practical.
Bottom line? I obviously ended up keeping the watch. That was a question from the beginning as I bought it on the BTR (buy, try, return) plan. The clock ticked past the deadline to make a return and the Apple Watch Sport stayed on my wrist.
Bottom line with more context? I’m enjoying the Apple Watch more and more the less I pay attention to it and wear it in daily life. That said, before the Apple Watch turns into something I can recommend to anyone looking for a smartwatch or fitness tracker, Apple still has some work to do. But, for my purposes, this is a very well designed, reasonably well-executed first generation piece of hardware with some software and UI issues that need attention that I’m enjoying fitting into my life quite a bit.
Actually, scratch that last statement. I’m not fitting it into my life. Smartphones I fit into my life. Tablets I fit into my life. Laptops, desktops, accessories and peripherals I fit into my life. This smartwatch I strap on in the morning and largely forget it is there until I take it off before hitting the hay at night.
Believe it or not, it’s like wearing a watch. Shocker. But then it is also more than wearing a watch. I enjoy receiving notifications on it. I enjoy using it as a remote for a few things. I enjoy using it to pay attention to my exercise and health needs/desires. I occasionally enjoy using an app or two, and I enjoy using it to keep track of time.
This “fire and forget” aspect (strap on and forget?) is, I think, the key to why the Apple Watch works for me. It’s there when I need or want to reference it, not something that competes for my attention the way a smartphone does. The taps on the wrist may call to me, but for some reason I don’t feel the need for the same quick, almost Pavlovian response that smartphone buzzes or notification sound effects seem to demand. The psychology is entirely different.
In fact, one of the joys I’ve discovered in using the Apple Watch is the number of distractions I’ve been cutting out of my smartphone life. No, I’m not suggesting the Apple Watch is replacing the smartphone. In my opinion those that think that it could/should/might replace a smartphone are not just barking up the wrong tree, they are doing so in a desert denuded of anything deciduous, coniferous, or boreal, with the wavering heat from the sun baking their brains.
Instead, the Apple Watch is helping me come to a cleaner understanding of what notifications and other distractions I have simply kept evergreen on my smartphone through inertia. (Laziness.) Much the same way my wife and I discovered things that we’ve kept around over the last 15 years that this recent move led us to uncover. Less is slowly becoming more as we continue to prune away some once cherished items that neither of us can remember how or why we started cherishing in the first place. Less is more in my usage with the Apple Watch. Less is becoming more on my iPhone as more apps fall away like leaves in autumn.
And I’m not just talking about a quantitative measurement. I’m talking about developing a keener ability to discern what provides enjoyment, real practicality and real value rather than just seemingly uncontrolled undergrowth running wild under a heavy canopy.
Switching analogies, my iPhone is like the big box hardware stores I’ve been visiting during this move, full of every conceivable item under the sun, brimming with enough over stimulation to drive a man on a mission for one single item to distraction. The Apple Watch feels more like the old reliable hardware store I just discovered a few blocks away where I can pick up that one item easily and efficiently and get quickly back to work.
What provides me with enjoyment and/or practicality may be different for anyone reading this, but then the Apple Watch has been called Apple’s “most personal device” yet. I would have to agree with that. So much so, that I think the omni-present search for the “killer” watch app is a misguided quest that just doesn’t apply here. “Killer App” is old school thinking that implies someday the masses will be using Apple Watches to all do the same thing or things. Beyond telling the time, that thinking ultimately may prove to be as frustrating as waiting for Godot or looking from some mythical grail, holy or not.
I’m enjoying the Apple Watch as much, if not more, than any first generation new device that I’ve owned. But as I mentioned in my first glance at the new device, there is an impressive amount of work still to be done that will ultimately tell the tale.
The User Experience
Much has been made in various quarters by the patient and the impatient about the user interface on the Apple Watch. For some it seems impossible to grasp, for others it makes complete sense after spending a few minutes with the new time piece on their wrist. Initially I was right in the middle of that spectrum. The combination of swipes, dual buttons, and the digital crown left me a bit confused in the early going. We are not going to see videos of young toddlers picking up an Apple Watch and magically figuring out how to interact with it. But then again, I ask how many folks have difficulty remembering what buttons to press in what sequence to change the time or enter a certain mode on a mechanical watch?
There’s no wonder some don’t take the time or exhibit the patience to figure it out before rendering judgment. Take this well reasoned explanation by John Gruber of Daring Fireball as an example. It lays out the user interaction patterns of the digital crown nicely. But no one these days has the time (except perhaps Mr. Gruber) to think that all through and figure it all out.
The myriad number of ways one can interact using the digital crown is one thing but when you add swiping, tapping, and Force Touch to the equation there is an abundance of interaction experiences to choose from. It begs the question are there too many?
I don’t think so. For this “most personal” of devices I think the number of choices allows each user to find their own way, provided they exhibit a little more patience than that of an easily distracted small child opening gifts on Christmas morning. Or a gadget reviewer on deadline.
In my own personal experience I found myself almost completely ignoring the digital crown in the early going, relying instead on my finger tips to scroll through items on the small display. Once I started experimenting a bit with the digital crown I found that I actually prefer it in some circumstances (scrolling through a list of podcasts or a playlist), but prefer scrolling with my finger for others (perusing a list of notifications.) There’s only one interaction I’ve found that absolutely requires rotating the digital crown and that’s to scroll around the dial of your friends if you want to reach out with a message.
Glances is the UI concept that Apple got completely right. It is also the concept that needs the most future work if it is ever going to be more than just a tease. The semiotics behind the term “glance” implies the deftness of a quick take that is elusive, alluring, and telling; not a studied stare waiting for something to be revealed. There are no stolen glances on the Apple Watch, only time lost waiting for some Glances to load.
The challenges here have been well chronicled. The Apple Watch pulls much of its data, especially for third party Apps from the iPhone. This slowness is most noticeable for apps that need GPS data such as weather apps, but it happens in other apps as well. There is a promise for the future (see below) that these sort of awkward Glances will become less so, perhaps with an on board GPS chip and 3rd party Apps that are actually loaded onto the watch. An early update to the Watch OS (1.01) smoothed some of this out, but not enough to keep the problem from turning into watchus interruptus at the most inopportune of moments.
The Glances concept is sound. And in fact, as I pare more and more Apps away from my Apple Watch I can see myself using Glances as one of the primary ways of launching Apps when I find the need to. I believe that’s how I want to use this device going forward. More on this later. At the moment though I find myself too often needing to launch an app in order to refresh a Glance.
Put it this way, nothing throws cold water on demoing the watch to an interested friend like sliding up a Glance screen to see it still polling for data as the Apple Watch’s display fades to black. It’s the most significant downer about the Apple Watch experience.
Third Party Apps
A few developers who have finally gotten their hands on actual devices have made some good changes. Two examples of that include Overcast and the NY Times. But by and large many apps still feel as tacked on and without purpose as an overabundance of inflatable Christmas lawn ornaments displayed in a small yard. That looks like it is going to change. Apple’s Jeff Williams, speaking at the most recent ReCode conference hinted that a full SDK will be introduced in a few weeks at WWDC, with apps perhaps rolling out this fall that have a closer relationship to the watch hardware and OS. Time will tell whether that news is reliable enough to be something you can set your watch by.
Regardless of what Apple makes available through an SDK, I highly recommend reading Marco Arment’s saga of how he rethought and reworked his podcasting app, Overcast, once he got his hands on an Apple Watch. Note that his initial attempt at an Apple Watch app was one of the better ones available at launch in my opinion. The second version is arguably improved, and if all of the early watch apps I’ve tried out could make that same sort of leap with their next version, things would quickly improve for users.
Notable entries in the “we’re still figuring this out” category include Withings and Dark Sky. The Withings app, for example, requires you to open its corresponding app on your iPhone before it will update info on the Apple Watch either in the Glance or in the app. That defeats the entire purpose of having the App installed on the watch.
The Dark Sky app, although much improved from its first incarnation, still lags far too much to use it reliably as a Glance or an app.
I have tried another weather app called Living Earth that contains some nice features and lovely images of planet Earth, but when it comes up in a Glance as a wire frame waiting to load data from the phone the impact is lost. (see picture above.)
Here’s something I’m discovering about apps. In most cases, if an app developer has put together a suitable iOS Notification scheme for the iPhone that includes actionable notifications when appropriate, the app itself my not be needed on the Apple Watch. Again, I’m speaking of how I’m finding myself using the watch and not in a general sense for all of Apple Watchdom.
Take Dark Sky as an example. It’s a clever weather app for iOS that notifies when rain or snow is expected in your immediate vicinity. Without the Dark Sky app installed on the Apple Watch, I still receive those notifications, provided I have them turned on for the iPhone. So, I’m getting one of the primary benefits that the Dark Sky app offers without the disappointment of a laggy app experience on the watch. The same is true of the Yahoo Sports app. I get the notifications I need/want on my wrist without the benefit of an app as I’m following the Chicago Blackhawks through the playoffs.
Call it a hunch bordering on speculation, but I think that some iOS and Watch OS developers would perhaps be better off devoting resources to rethinking and refining their iOS notification schemes with the Apple Watch in mind than they would developing a watch app at present. But that may all change after WWDC.
Notifications is indeed the area where the Apple Watch really is showing its value for me. Now that I’ve spent some time adjusting which notifications I receive, the Apple Watch as a notification extension of my iPhone is proving extremely valuable. If a notification taps my wrist I know it is important enough to warrant my attention, either immediately or when I next have the opportunity. The key here is to remember you, not your phone, your watch, or your apps are in control of the notifications you receive.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t feel the same visceral need to respond that I have with notifications on a smartphone. I can’t place my finger on why, but I certainly do enjoy placing my finger with a Force Touch to dismiss a series of notifications all at once. I also don’t feel the same need to swipe down to reveal notifications on the Apple Watch in the same way I feel the need to do so on the iPhone.
Many of my notifications come in via iMessage or SMS. I receive updates on the local transit lines my wife and I use if there is a service disruption as an example. I’ve turned off Twitter notifications entirely through apps, but instead receive them via text messages for the ones I want to see.
Other notifications come in via apps through my iPhone. I mentioned Dark Sky earlier. Fantastical is my iOS calendar of choice and its actionable iOS notifications for events and alerts come through efficiently, allowing me to take appropriate action when necessary. Severe weather alerts via the NOAA app come through nicely as well.
I’m also noticing that notifications from some Apps don’t trigger the taptic engine when they pass through the iPhone to the Apple Watch. I don’t have Instagram on the watch, but I do receive notifications from the iPhone, although without a tap. The same is true with Facebook. Granted there isn’t a Facebook app for the Apple Watch yet. To be honest, I’m actually hoping that there may never be. It’s been sort of a blessing without it so far and might actually lead me to jettison it from my iOS devices. Less keeps becoming more.
I’m sure there are those who want more battery life between charges. No one will ever complain if they get more juice. But I’ve found that with the exception of the first day that I put the watch on, I’ve never retired in the evening with less than 20% charge remaining. Usually it is somewhere between 35% and 42% for my average 14 to 16 hour day. Extrapolating that out on the low end, Apple’s claim of 18 hours would be more than accurate in my usage scenario which includes receiving Notifications, Health and Fitness monitoring, glancing at information, and as a remote for playing podcasts or content on the Apple TV.
There’s talk that future native apps might but a strain on battery life. But the opposite might actually be the case in my thinking. If an app via the current WatchKit doesn’t have to access the radios to pull data from the phone, it might all average out in the wash. It will be interesting to see how this times out.
Charging the Apple Watch is a no brainer at night. Certainly how one uses the Apple Watch will determine battery life in different circumstances and your mileage may vary. Various hints and tips about saving battery life abound on the Internet, (it’s a cottage industry), and although I didn’t really feel the need to do so for battery life, I did decrease the display brightness. I don’t find that to be an issue in viewing the watch and have kept that setting.
Connectivity and the Watch Companion App
It took awhile to get our network set up correctly to get coverage throughout our relatively long new apartment. Until we did, I had some connection issues with the Apple Watch when I moved out of Bluetooth range and into the fringes of WiFi coverage. Once things were set up correctly things have worked relatively well.
But on another connectivity front, the Apple Watch and the iOS companion app seem to have an on again/off again relationship at the oddest of times, regardless of Bluetooth or WiFi signal strength. There have been numerous instances where the companion app presents a blank screen, or a screen full of empty icons. This requires killing and restarting the app to correct, and occasionally requires restarting the watch. Certainly not a preferred scenario, but then this first version of the Apple Watch is a very expensive beta proposition. I’ve noticed this behavior both before and after the 1.01 update, and I’ve seen others complain just as curiously as I do about it.
In my first glance at the Apple Watch I mentioned that Siri seemed to work better for me on my wrist than it does on the iPhone. I find that to still be true. I’ve turned off the function that allows me to speak to Siri simply by raising my wrist and speaking, “Hey, Siri.” I prefer to just tap the digital crown to activate when I need Siri’s attention, and that is efficient enough for my use.
Launching apps via Siri works very well, again obviating a need to return to the app “home screen” to seek out and start an app. This comes in particularly handy if you use the Stopwatch, Timer, Alarm, or World Clock native apps that all have similarly looking and hard to distinguish icons on the small display. But it also works well with other apps.
If there’s a function Siri needs on the Apple Watch it is a method to easily make a correction. I have no idea what that could be, but it is frustrating when you can’t fix a tiny faux pas and you need to start the message over again.
Health and Fitness
I’ve entered the portion of my life where I have to pay attention to some health issues. I’m hoping the Apple Watch will be a capable assistant in that regard. So far I’m intrigued by the possibilities, but confused a bit by the implementation. Prior to the Apple Watch 1.01 update I noticed some interesting behaviors.
As I said in the introduction to this piece one of the real world experiences I’ve been through with the Apple Watch was moving from one apartment to another. Yes, we had movers for the heavy stuff, but I did a lot of the pre-moving of boxes and other things myself.
We moved from an elevator building to one where we have three flights of stairs to reach our second floor apartment. Both my wife and I welcomed that change as what we hope will keep us both a little more active, assuming we want to enter and exit the apartment. On one of the days where I was going to be toting quite a few loads up the steps I thought I would check out the Exercise app on the Apple Watch to see how it recorded that kind of activity.
That test came after I was slightly disappointed that a previous day’s toting of things up the steps did not register as exercise at all. I figured that all of that lifting and stair climbing would elevate my heart rate enough to register as such. Wrong. So, I parked the car, hit go on the Exercise app and started a 30 minute session of unloading and toting things up the stairs. It worked as advertised. Each subsequent day of moving I did the same and managed to close the green ring satisfactorily each time.
Fast forward a couple of days after the movers had done their thing and we had quite a few boxes large and small to get rid of that had been gathering on our large back porch. Fortunately there is a landing that I could simply drop the flattened boxes from before loading them in the car to head off to the recycling center.
What I noticed that morning while doing so without firing up the Exercise app, that activity counted as a full workout of more than 30 minutes. I found this extremely odd, given that my exertion rate was obviously far less. I mean I was dropping light cardboard off of a landing instead of carrying full boxes up three flights of stairs.
After the 1.01 update I have also noticed that if I walk at an elevated pace I don’t need to activate the Exercise App for that activity to register as exercise. It just does. So, I’m a bit confused by the inconsistency, or at least my understanding of how things are supposed to work.
I should also note in this section that since the 1.01 update I have also seen inconsistent heart rate measurement intervals. Apple has since changed its web info on this, declaring that the different measurement results happen when your arm might be in motion when the watch attempts to take a measurement. Apparently that is a now a feature and not a bug. The explanation makes sense. The reveal of it doesn’t.
Another oddity is that Apple’s iOS Health App doesn’t register steps in the same way that other step counting Apps do. For example, after a recent brisk walk the Withings App and the Argus app each register that I’ve totaled 12,821 steps today. Apple’s Health App shows only 10,583.
After the 1.01 update it appeared Apple had fixed the “time to stand” equation to not nag you when it was time to stand up if you already were. That was a happy thing, although I’ve seen this notification creep back in a few times at the magical 10 minutes to the hour mark after just recently finishing a period of actively moving about. So, I’d say this moved away from being a comically predictable bug to one that is curiously still there at odd times, albeit at 10 minutes to the random hour.
Health and Fitness monitoring is a “tent pole” feature of the Apple Watch. Apple needs to proactively present some better explanations for how its monitoring apps work so that casual users like myself, much less those who are more hard core, have better guidance. If Apple ever wants the Apple Watch to perform as a serious health assistance or activity monitoring device it needs to be accurate and on point constantly with this information. Otherwise it is just a marketing ploy subject to the uninformed opinions of politicians who pretend science and data are black magic.
Wearability and Durability
One of my concerns about the Apple Watch was how it would feel to wear. Those fears have been erased. I’ve got both a blue sports band and a Milanese loop, and regardless of which one I’m wearing the watch is comfortable on my wrist throughout the day.
As I’ve said I spent a good 10 days or so in moving mode; some of it doing heavy lifting, some ripping apart empty boxes, hanging pictures and doing many of the chores one does when one moves from one housing location to another. I wore the blue sports band throughout this activity and while it did have a few days that garnered some accumulated sweat and grime, rinsing it off brought it back to a clean state easily enough. I did manage to get a slight little white nick on the band, but I consider that a relocation battle scar.
Throughout my life I’ve been notoriously hard on watches. Door knobs and corners of things attract watches on my arm like magnets. And during this period of moving activity there were quite a few times where I heard that sound of the watch catch some hard surface or edge. Gladly, I haven’t noticed a scratch or a ding on the watch or the watch face, even when I’ve feared the worst. But so far the body of the watch is as pristine as the day I took it out of the box.
The Watch Face and Complications
I mentioned earlier that if Apple can eventually turn Glances into more than a mere flirtation that it might become one of the primary interaction methods I use to access information on the watch. The other primary way I can see myself accessing information is via watch face complications.
Depending on the watch face you choose to sport on your Apple Watch, you have options of adding “complications.” It’s counter-intuitive nomenclature for all but watch aficionados, but a complication essentially provides you a way to access more information with a glance (ahem) at the watch face; examples being date, day, weather, world clock, appointments, moon phases, etc…
On the Apple Watch, unlike mechanical watches, you can launch the apps that provide this data to your watch face with a tap. I find this handy when I want to check in on my Activity data or the calendar. One tap and I’m in the app.
There’s been some chatter that when Apple provides a full SDK for the Apple Watch that we might see third parties able to add watch face complications in the future. This would provide quick access to those apps directly from the watch face should that be needed.
Combined with Glances and launching apps via Siri, this use of watch face complications furthers my speculation that we actually might not require a “home screen” full of app icons or a user could effectively do without needing to access it in the future.
Summing Things Up At This Point in Time
In my view, there is still much that needs to be done to move the Apple Watch from a first generation worthy new entry into one that might one day see mass adoption. At the moment the Apple Watch could be called an expensive novelty and I’m not currently recommending that others make a purchase just yet. But I’m glad I did. Not because I see some great and new future down the road, but because even with its current flaws, I’m enjoying wearing and using this first edition Apple Watch today.
In fact I’m actually a bit surprised at how much I’m enjoying it giving the flaws and issues I’ve outlined above. But putting it through its paces through a strenuous apartment move and some other real life adventures, I have discovered that the Apple Watch can indeed be a helpful companion, and also be an aid in helping prune out some of the mobile clutter I’ve allowed to take root in my life.
My wife and I did some pruning of “stuff” during this move, getting rid of items, some of which had been tucked away in unpacked boxes from two moves ago. The Apple Watch is helping me make a similar purge of my “mobile stuff” as it has helped bring a keener focus to what I should consider really important versus the superfluous stuff that might be good to hang on to for some point in the future.
In a few weeks I’ll enter into a series of rehearsals for plays I’m directing and I’m anxious to see how the Apple Watch aids in a process that is about as equally stressful as moving between apartments, if not more so.
If Apple’s promised release of an SDK that allows App developers more access to the hardware and the OS comes to fruition, we may begin to see the benefits that might yield in the middle of that run of other directing projects this fall. I guess what I’m hoping is that we’ll see an improvement in the Glances concept, but not necessarily a flood of apps that make me regret the simplicity the Apple Watch seems to be driving me towards at the moment. But then, everything changes with time.