When Apple first announced the Apple Watch, I thought the company was sort of playing a game of catch up. It was finally entering the wearable market, an area where Google, Samsung and Pebble have been dabbling for more than a year. Early rumors suggested Apple’s device was going to be far different. It was going to be some sort of magical health unicorn that could track every last piece of our being.
Of course, that didn’t end up being true.
When Apple unveiled the watch, I walked away unimpressed, happy with my Pebble and my Moto 360, two smartwatches I’d been using almost daily. Sure, the apps looked cool, but the Apple Watch just seemed way too expensive to me. $350 to start? That’s insane, especially for a watch that comes with a band made of rubber.
Then I got a call from our President Jon Rettinger, who asked me to review the device. He had ordered a few from Apple and was sending one my way. “Sure,” I said. I was excited to see what Apple had built, and to play with the Apple Watch, but I also didn’t think I was going to come out impressed. And yet, here I am, drafting my review after 5 days with the device, and I love the darn thing so much I’m buying the unit from TechnoBuffalo.
Why? The answer to the question you seek follows in my review below.
I’m not going to dive into the many models of the Apple Watch that are available, but I’ll do a quick top level overview. There are three models: the Apple Watch Sport, the Apple Watch and the Apple Watch Edition. Prices range from $350 to $17,000, and I reviewed the 42 mm Apple Watch Sport with a lime green band that retails for $400.
As we’ve said in our hands-on videos with the Apple Watch, the sport band is super comfortable and seems durable enough. I found that I fit into the smaller of the two bands that ship in the box, which is surprising since I’m not that small of a human. The strap was easy enough to slide out and replace. Still, there’s something that bothers me about the whole rubber strap situation. I just can’t wrap my head around a $400 watch that ships with something that’s almost certainly very cheap to manufacture, but, alas, that’s just how luxury things are I guess. Thankfully, the actual body of the watch is pretty impressive.
The Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum enclosure with a composite back that offers the same color found on most of Apple’s Mac products. The display isn’t sapphire as it is on the other models, instead it’s a strengthened “Ion-X glass display” that’s lightweight but also resistant to scratches and impacts, just not as resistant as sapphire. It gets nice and bright, is easy to view under direct sunlight and, somehow — and my wife will be shocked — my unit still isn’t scratched after 5 days. I’m the kind of guy who has a scratch on his phone after a day of use, so I’m surprised.
The back side of the Apple Watch enclosure is home to the heart rate monitor, which looks just like four glass circles that rest on your wrist. It’s also used to identify when the Apple Watch is being worn, so that it doesn’t require a pass code and can be used for things like Apple Pay (which we’ll address later). The Digital Crown exists on the right side of the watch, and can be turned a full 360-degrees to scroll through lists and other menus. It can also be pressed in as a quick way to navigate to the home or app screens. There’s a second button below the Digital Crown that provides quick access to all of your contacts, and a double tap on that same button also automatically launches Apple Pay, which is useful.
Finally, Apple doesn’t suggest you wear your Apple Watch in the pool or shower, but Jon wore his in the shower and didn’t have any problems. I haven’t tried it, and don’t plan on getting mine wet on purpose, even though I saw one survive a dunk in a pool.
Software and Apps
As we have already displayed in our Apple Watch UI video, the Apple Watch user interface is unique, far different from anything on any other wearable. At first it looks sort of daunting, and even still I feel like I’m discovering new features here and there. After a few moments with it, however, it’s very easy to get used to and I think it’s easier to control than Android Wear, which to me still feels too convoluted.
Force Touch is a huge part of the Apple Watch, and it enables new functions that otherwise aren’t served by the Digital Crown or the hardware button on the side of the device. I had to always keep that in the back of my head while using the Apple Watch and wondering if there’s a way to do something more efficiently. For example, after about three days of use, I finally discovered that a Force Touch can be used on the notifications panel to clear everything out. It’s useful, and I definitely see this technology making its way into future iPhones.
You’ll spend most of your time looking at the main watch screen, the face that tells you the time and date. Depending on which watch face you choose, you can change out the colors to suit your tastes, show the moon phase, upcoming appointments, the weather, how far along in your activity progress you are for the day, remaining Apple Watch battery life and more. I preferred the “Modular” watch face since it allowed me to show almost all of those aforementioned data pieces on one screen. My second favorite watch face was the “Motion” option with an animated jelly fish, though it didn’t show enough information at once to be truly useful for me.
From that main home screen, you can tap the digital crown to access apps. There’s an entire separate Apple Watch application on your phone where you can manage which apps show up on the home screen and which don’t. I tried to keep my notifications and everything down to a minimum in general, so I only kept ones I knew I’d use frequently, like City Mapper, Uber, Trip Advisor, Dark Sky, Starbucks and theScore. When you launch an app, it’s really powered by your iPhone, instead of the Apple Watch, so it takes a bit of waiting for it to launch. That gets annoying, and I hope Apple fixes the wait times in future software updates.
The apps are organized in a sort of honeycomb fashion, and they’re hard to tap if you have larger fingers as I do. You can zoom in on specific areas, however, using the Digital Crown. We hope Apple revisits this user interface so that it’s easier to tap on apps more accurately.
Tap the Digital Crown from the app screen and you’ll return home to the clock. If you scroll up on the screen with your finger, you’ll open what Apple calls “Glances.” These are cards that provide quick piecemeal information from applications that are synced with your Apple Watch. Again, I kept this at a minimum, so that I only had glances for weather, public transit information my calendar, activity progress and remaining battery life. Plenty of Apple Watch apps provide support for Glances, but not all of them actually need to exist.
I found the Glances to be the clunkiest, slowest part of the Apple Watch experience, and while they can be useful, depending on the app, I didn’t find myself using them much. theScore, for example, showed the score of the Yankees vs. Mets game during the sixth inning an entire day after the game finished. But you may find it totally different: Jon loved the Glances and found them more useful than the actual apps.
Finally, like on the iPhone, there’s a notification shade that pulls down from the top of the screen. This is where you’ll find information on text messages, sports scores, email alerts, missed calls and more. And it’s also where you’ll find quick access to Passbook cards that might be available depending on your location. My Starbucks card was always available in this shade when I was near one, for example, which I found incredibly useful.
Messages and Siri
The Apple Watch offers much more than simple notifications on your wrist. It’s also a full fledged and really solid communications device. You can organize a list of your most frequently used contacts and friends through the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, after which you’ll be able to easily view and contact each of those people by tapping the side button on the Apple Watch just once.
The user interface is circular, and it works really well. Simply turn the Digital Crown to select the contact you want, tap on the person’s photo, and then choose whether you’d like to send a text message or call that contact. If he or she also has an Apple Watch, you can tap the screen to send small haptic notifications to their wrist, hold down with two fingers to send your heartbeat, or send a variety of fun animated Emoji. I really liked sending and receiving these, but I don’t think the option to send my heartbeat will be used ever again after my review.
If you want to send a message to your friend, you can send one of a dozen or so prewritten messages like “What’s up?” or “I’m on my way,” or any custom message you’ve added from your phone. You can also use Siri to speak out a message, which worked really well in my tests. Then, after you’ve spoken the message, you can choose to send it as text or as an audio file. It’s pretty awesome, and it’s definitely a standout feature of the Apple Watch.
Siri isn’t just for dictating messages, however. You’re supposed to be able to call her up by saying “Hey Siri” at any time, though this rarely worked for me. Even when I brought the watch right up to my mouth and yelled at it, Hey Siri worked maybe half the time, if that. You can, however, always launch Siri by holding in the Digital Crown. Then you can use Siri for typical usage scenarios, like checking the weather, sports scores, setting reminders and more.
Finally, yes, you can actually call people from the Apple Watch. It routes the phone call through your iPhone, so it’s not actually communicating without the need for a separate phone, but you can place a call without taking your phone out of your pocket. The audio is pretty soft, even with the volume cranked all the way up, and background noise was an issue while I was streaming a video, but it worked well enough for a quick 30-second call to my managing editor Roy Choi.
I’ve opined a few times about how I deeply yearned for the day that I could use my phone for mobile payments. That day came with Google Wallet, which worked OK in some places, and then the tech was made better through Apple Pay. Still, I felt awkward trying to pay with my phone, especially if my fingerprint didn’t always register right away. I felt guilty about the long line of customers growing behind me. That entire issue is solved with Apple Pay on the Apple Watch, and I love it.
After verifying your security code on the phone, you’ll be able to easily add your existing Apple Pay credit cards into your Apple Watch. Then, when you’re ready to check out, double tap the hardware button on the side of the device and pick the credit card you want to pay with. All you have to do at that point is hold your wrist up to the NFC terminal, wait for the beep, and walk out of the store. It worked incredibly well during two tests, though the cashiers were pretty shocked at what I was doing, and I plan to continue using Apple Pay in this form.
Finally, it’s not Apple Pay so much as it is Passbook, but paying with other cards is a great experience, too. I was able to easily bring up my Starbucks card daily, which presented the bar code on the Apple Watch for scanning at check-out. I found it was always easier than pulling out my phone, which just shows how lazy I’m becoming with this thing on my wrist. Or am I?
I’ve purchased and owned plenty of activity trackers from Garmin, Fitbit, Jawbone and others. I end up wearing them for a bit — I like the UP24 best until I got the Apple Watch — and then ultimately retire them to a desk drawer. The Apple Watch has built in tracking for steps, calories burned, and standing time. It reminds me to get up and stand for at least a minute each hour, and praises me as I approach my calories burned goal.
The user interface is colorful and easy to use. I like trying to beat my previous day’s burned calories, and the Apple Watch has me taking my dog for more walks than she wants to go on, all in the name of trying to make myself be more active. It also tracks my heartbeat, pretty accurately it seems, but I didn’t find much use for that information. I admit I don’t go to the gym much. I don’t train for marathons, and I haven’t tested the Apple Watch in those scenarios, so knowing my heart rate isn’t always that important to me, while it might be for more regular fitness nuts. If you’re a sedentary Joe like me, though, and want to try to become a bit more active, the Apple Watch might help out with that.
I was probably one of the first people to knock the Apple Watch for having what seemed to be poor battery life. Apple said you’d have to charge it daily, which I thought ridiculous. Except, now that I own one, I don’t find it all that bad.
I put the Apple Watch on daily around 7:30 a.m. and each night, around 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., the Apple Watch had between 40 percent and 50 percent of its battery life left. In Jon’s tests, he had about 30-40 percent left. I could have stayed up later and made it well into the early morning without a problem, but I snapped it into its magnetic charger and hit the hay instead. There is a bit of a toll on iPhone battery life, though, and Jon and I found it sank about 10 percent with the Apple Watch on. It’s a tiny hit, especially if you own an iPhone 6 Plus.
The only drawback to the nightly charging is that I couldn’t take advantage of apps that tracked my sleep. I didn’t even attempt to use any of them, since most are third party and I wanted a full Apple Watch battery the next morning. And unlike some of the fitness trackers I’ve used and retired because I didn’t charge them, I actually want to use Apple Watch and find myself charging it nightly.
I really, really like the Apple Watch. I didn’t think I was going to. I thought it was going to flood me with notifications and annoy me all of the time. Except, if you manage it properly, it doesn’t do that at all. Instead, it’s a useful tool for finding the weather, sports scores, activity data and more. And you can easily stay in touch with friends or family without pulling out your phone.
The cool part about this review is that Jon, who filmed the video, and myself, have totally different opinions on the Apple Watch. Jon found that it doesn’t really offer much more than Android Wear or Pebble, while I think the high quality display, hardware controls, Force Touch interface and premium design actually do. Jon’s ambivalent toward the watch, and he suggests that you wait for the second generation version when native Apple Watch apps might be introduced.
Jon and I went back and forth on appropriate scores for the Apple Watch review. He wanted to give it a 7, I thought it deserved higher, at least an 8. We met halfway in the middle at 7.5. It’s not perfect, and clearly your opinion of the watch will certainly vary depending on what you expect out of it, and what you end up actually using it for.
Me? I love the darn thing.
TechnoBuffalo purchased both Apple Watch Sport units used for this review. Jon used his for a full week while Todd used it for 5 days before starting the review.
- Beautiful design
- Decent battery life
- Excellent for messaging
- Software can be clunky
- Apps can be slow