Like the iPhone before it, everyone was talking about the Apple Watch long before it was announced by the company themselves. Shortly after going on sale, shipping dates for new orders slipped to June or later, as early adopters rushed to part with their cash — but is it worth it?
I’ve spent a week playing with an Apple Watch Sport to find out, and we have one 42mm and another 38mm unit to give away to two lucky MakeUseOf readers at the end of the post.
The New Apple Thing is Out
Few companies can generate the hype that Apple seems capable of, even if that is met by a fair amount of criticism. Every time Apple announces (or is thought to be working on) a new product, news outlets and blogs alike go into overdrive, speculating about features and design decisions — you’d be forgiven for getting sick of it.
This review focuses on the 42mm Apple Watch Sport, but it’s also available as a metal-banded Watch, and needlessly-expensive Apple Watch Edition. The Sport is strictly limited to using a silicon band (available in a range of colours), while the standard Watch can use a milanese loop, stainless steel links and other using a different connector.
All of the Watch models include the same core hardware inside the watch, with different materials and finishes to differentiate the models. The Sport is made of lightweight aluminium, the Watch of tougher stainless steel and the Watch Edition of gold.
Each is available in a 38mm or 42mm, with the Sport versions costing $349 and $399 respectively.
The watch itself is presented inside a weighty, and somewhat unnecessary heavy plastic case. Included is a magnetic charger with plenty of spare cable and the watch strap you requested when you ordered. There are no spare straps included, but you can buy and change them yourself.
The Apple Watch is unique in that there’s really no competition. You might think that other smartwatches provide some sort of competition, but in reality they don’t. This is a device designed for iPhone users, and it depends entirely on also owning an iPhone. At present no other smartwatch is able to do what the Apple Watch can do with an iPhone – and that’s not going to change any time soon.
It’s also unique in that the Apple Watch has been announced for quite some time, and WatchKit — the software development kit (SDK) used by app developers to prepare software for the device — has enabled third-parties to hit the ground running. From the get go there is a surprising amount of support for Apple’s new wearable, something that has been seriously lacking with other smart watches.
But a lack of competition and ample third party development tools does not guarantee success. In order to make this special, Apple has created a truly smart watch. It’s so different to what most regard as a “watch” that it shouldn’t necessarily be compared with traditional “dumb” watches (is that a term yet?) – it fulfils a completely different purpose.
And that’s where I found myself surprised by how effective the device is at fulfilling its objective. I wasn’t interested in a smartwatch before this, and even when it had been announced I was lukewarm to the idea. As a moderate to heavy iPhone user, you probably won’t find a better way to get rid of a spare $400 burning a hole in your pocket.
All For Show
Regardless of the version you choose, the Apple Watch is a sleek and sophisticated bit of kit. From the matte finish on the Sport to the “first gen iPhone” polish of the shiny Watch, these are beautiful wearables that mimic the weight and thickness of a rugged wristwatch.
Rounded corners fit perfectly with Apple’s current iPhone 6 aesthetic, and as this is a device that goes wrist-in-band with the iPhone, this is surely a trend that’s set to continue. Holding it in your hand it feels typically well-made, despite the relatively soft aluminium finish being prone to scratches.
Like many other Apple products the Watch is really just a big screen, and nothing gets in the way of the main show. There are no buttons or on-screen controls, but you can drag, pinch and tap to make selections. The screen is bright, clear and surprisingly easy to read in bright sunlight — the most you’ll have to contend with is glare from the Ion-X glass.
There are a total of two physical inputs: the digital crown, a replacement for the traditional watch winder used to set the time and wind and a dedicated speed dial button for quickly accessing your contacts. I’m not too sure about Apple’s hype regarding the digital crown (it is after all just a rotating bit of metal), but it’s well-implemented and has excellent knobfeel.
There’s a small degree of water resistance, courtesy of the IPX7 water resistance which guarantees devices to a depth of 1 metre for 30 minutes. After some accidental testing I can confirm it’s shower proof, and it also survived some pretty enthusiastic dishwashing. The screen seems to handle touch input pretty well, even with water droplets on the screen.
The Apple Watch runs a separate operating system to any device Apple has released in the past, known as WatchOS. It shares many similarities with iOS, and for good reason: it’s based on the same code. You’ll find many of the same applications here that you have on your iPhone — Messages, Mail, Maps and Calendar to name but a few.
The Watch is entirely dependent on an iPhone 5 or better, though you are able to track workout data, play music and pay for things with Apple Pay (more on this later) without your phone being present, should you need to.
When you put the watch on, it will ask you to unlock it either by inputting a passcode or choosing to have it unlock with your iPhone. The Watch knows when you’re wearing it so you don’t have to unlock it more than once after putting it on. When you take the watch off, it automatically locks again.
Notifications arguably steal the show, appearing over the top of everything you do and providing a tactile ping on the wrist thanks to the power of haptic feedback. This is where the Apple Watch comes into its own, providing you with instant access to everything that’s happening in your pocket without having to stop what you’re doing and reach for your iPhone.
To activate the watch, simply raise your wrist and the screen will light up. If you just got a notification, the notification will be displayed. If you didn’t raise your wrist correctly, which sometimes happens if you don’t give it enough force, a tap of the digital crown activates the device.
In general I found the gestures work well, and I even got used to the slight delay between raising my wrist and the screen activating — just don’t try it with a cup of hot coffee in your hand.
WatchOS is just like iOS in that it displays all of your “apps” on a springboard. You can use the digital crown to zoom in and out, and use your finger to choose an app. Just like iOS, everything is a separate “app” — though that might be a stretch, as many of these are simply slimmed-down versions of iOS mainstays.
As an example, the BBC News app only shows short versions of stories. Messages, though well-integrated, relies on canned responses or voice input (which works excellently, despite background noise) and you can start a workout via the RunKeeper app, but you can’t do very much else. The Watch at no point tries to replace the iPhone, and that means it never feels that fiddly to get where you want to go.
Siri support is very well implemented, with full “Hey Siri” support providing hands-free access to most functions in less taps.
Telling The Time
The “everything is an app” approach also means that the time is an app, albeit the “default” app. Double-click in the digital crown while in another application and you’ll be returned to the time, and whatever watch face it is you’ve chosen.
There are a total of 10 watch faces to choose from, including Mickey Mouse, traditional analogue-style faces, and completely new ones that visualise time using graphs and animations. Many of the faces can be customized to add information like moon phase, weather, upcoming appointments and fast-access to the timer app.
Despite always being a fan of the traditional rounded watch face, I found myself sticking to the information-rich “Modular” face which seems to make full use of the screen by cramming-in the time and five additional bits of information. Tapping any of these customizable areas takes you to the corresponding app, while count-down timers and calendar appointments update in realtime.
At present there are no third-party faces, with little more than speculation over whether or not these will be added. Not opening up watch face design to developers surprised many, but it’s typical of the level of control Apple likes to maintain over new products — just look how long it took them to add third-party keyboards to iOS.
The default watch app is where you’ll spend most of your time, accessing what Apple dubs “Moments” — short bursts of information from system and third-party services, accessed by swiping upwards from the watch face. These can be entirely customised from the Apple Watch app on your iPhone and include heart rate monitoring, the current weather, power status and more.
You can also access Do Not Disturb, Airplane Mode and mute controls, in addition to the oh-so-handy “ping my iPhone” button which is perfect for when your iPhone goes walkies (even if it’s in silent mode). Everything is within reach, though it can be a bit of a slog swiping through eight screens to get to what you want.
Third party apps can use Moments, though so far I haven’t noticed anything really worth shouting about. I was excited about the prospect of fast-access to the Shazam on my wrist, but the Moment doesn’t let you ID music — suggesting that Apple is maintaining tight control over the feature.
Life With The Apple Watch
The Apple Watch isn’t the sort of device you realise you want until you’re handed one and told to play with it, perhaps even over the course of a few days. You have to adjust to life with the Watch before you start to see just how well it fits into the iOS ecosystem, but even then it’s not a necessity — and, fancy heart rate sensors aside, it doesn’t do anything your iPhone won’t.
For that reason it’s not surprising to see hordes of angry commenters condemning the device to a fate worse than the Newton. It’s easy to write-off, particularly at this typically Apple price point, which is why it’s important that the Apple Watch is compared with other wearable gadgets, rather than cherished hand-made timepieces.
Battery life is a major concern for many, and understandably so. Before encountering the Watch, I was highly skeptical of a device that apparently couldn’t even manage a day — but I found that this unit lasted two whole days with moderate use. Intensive use and lots of fiddling saw me through a full 24 hours.
So really, it’s just another device you’ll have to get used to charging. When the battery gets low you’re warned, and a power saving mode is available that enables you to tell the time (but deactivates all other features, including wrist raise detection).
In many ways, many of the features found on the Apple Watch were found on our wrists as digital watches became more advanced in the 80s and 90s. With the rise in popularity of do-everything mobile phones, these features migrated from the wrist to the pocket. Such a device redresses this.
Alarms and timers are far more useful within reach, and you can set up a timer simply by saying “hey Siri, set a timer for one minute,” for completely hands-free operation. Taking phone calls on your wrist when you can’t find your phone has you feeling like Inspector Gadget, and it works tremendously well. Similarly, when exercising I found it liberating being able to set off RunKeeper or one of the included Workout apps without having to get my phone out.
There was a point while testing the watch where I could see that Apple had succeeded in achieving what they had set out to do, even if this wasn’t particularly important to my own personal agenda.
The first example of this was carrying bags of shopping up a hill and receiving a text message. The second was using Evernote on my wrist while cooking to check a recipe. Controlling other apps, accepting phone calls, sending a quick speech-to-text message while in a rush — these are all things the Apple Watch succeeds at doing.
The question is whether you find these useful, or simply nice but altogether unnecessary. You don’t need to use your Apple Watch to access an iOS feature, but it’s generally a nicer way of doing so.
Encouraging Healthy Living?
The Apple Watch is expensive, sure, but it might be a small price to pay for a longer lifespan. While testing the watch I was impressed by its ability to track physical activity and movement, to the point where the device encourages you to stand up after long periods of inactivity. Sedentary lifestyles are contributing massively to diabetes and obesity epidemics worldwide, which means earlier graves for those of us who spend a long time at our desks.
The Apple Watch actually buzzes your wrist when it thinks you need to stand up, and tells you to move for a few minutes. This is in-line with advice from healthcare professionals, except it’s tailored to your activity and pretty hard to ignore.
Some people might not like their watch telling them to move more, but for me it was a standout feature with potentially long-term benefits. And, while the Apple Watch is expensive, so are heart medications.
Apple Pay: A Disclaimer
Unfortunately, due to Apple still not having launched Apple Pay in Australia, we were unable to test Apple Pay with the Watch. According to Apple, the technology works without an iPhone being present and requires two taps of the button below the crown before touching your watch near the NFC terminal and paying away.
It’s possible to use Apple Pay outside the US provided you have a card that is registered to certain US banks, but users have reported hit and miss results. Fingers crossed Apple Pay goes international soon.
A watch is a timepiece, something you buy occasionally — maybe only once every 10 or so years, so you want it to be good. For my money, the Apple Watch is not a timepiece, it’s a wearable gadget — another device, like an iPad or a pair of bluetooth speakers. It will get old, it will stop working, and it won’t last anywhere near as long as most mechanical timepieces sold in this price range.
But for what it does — provide oft-used features, connectivity and at-a-glance information — it works wonderfully, and you’ll quickly become reliant on it. If you’re taken by this, the real question is whether or not you want to buy a first-generation model or wait.
At present the Apple Watch is very good, but you know the next version will be even better — it will be thinner, it will have a better battery life and Apple may even introduce a more capable waterproof rating. Unless you want to be buying another Apple Watch in a year or so, it might be worth holding on for the inevitable improvements.
But for a first go, this is an incredibly promising start. Apple has done what no smart watch manufacturer has so far, and that’s make a device that’s not technically impressive but pleasant to use and genuinely useful — it just won’t be a “must-have” for everyone.
If you want a smartwatch for use with your iPhone, the Apple Watch won’t disappoint. If you’re uninspired, don’t write it off until you’ve had the chance to spend some time with it.
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