Apple’s first attempt at a smartwatch shows promise with notifications, voice calls and fancy pressure-sensitive taps, but is very much an expensive first generation product with bugs, quirks and confusions.
Apple is late to the smartwatch game. The first smartwatches were launched by Microsoft in 2004, but were dead within four years. In 2013 Pebble relaunched the smartwatch category after a very successful crowdfunding campaign and went on to sell more than 1m watches by the end of 2014.
Samsung had not one but six stabs at the smartwatch between 2013-2014, and Google finally got into the smartwatch game with Android Wear in June 2014.
And with the arrival of Apple’s Watch, there has been greater consumer awareness outside of geeks and early adopters, with many asking: do I need really a smartwatch?
Smaller than you’d expect
Apple’s first smartwatch comes in three variations and with either a 38mm case, which is roughly the size of a slim Casio watch and just twice the thickness, and a larger 42mm case. Neither sizes are as large as most other smartwatches and are tiny compared to large mens’ watches. The 42mm version has a larger battery.
The minimum price of entry is £300 for the aluminium Apple Watch Sport, the stainless steel Apple Watch starts at £479, and the gold “Edition” stretches up to£13,500. All three have the same innards.
I can’t speak for the Edition, but the rest of the Apple watch range are without doubt, the best made smartwatches currently available.
The fit and finish is great, the watch feels thinner than most of its competitors, and even the rubber strap is nicer with a quality heft to it. But given that even the cheapest and smallest of them is at least twice the price of even the previous most expensive Pebble or Android Wear smartwatch, you would hope so too.
The OLED screen is relatively sharp, but visibly not quite as crisp as an iPhone. It is also not quite bright enough to read without squinting in direct sunlight.
Tap, tap, twist
Apple has introduced – or reintroduced depending on how you look at it – two ways to interact with a device. The first is the “Force Touch”, which is a hard press on the screen and acts like a right click or options menu button, and second the jog-dial on the side called the “digital crown”, which scrolls through lists or text or can zoom in or out in a map, for instance.
Both work as described and are effective, if a bit confusing – more on that later.
The Apple Watch also has a new type of haptic feedback that taps on your wrist instead of just vibrating. It works very well and is a lot more distracting than a vibrating wrist, which can be easily missed. I hope this becomes the norm for future wearable devices.
What does it do?
The primary function of a smartwatch is put notifications from a smartphone onto a wrist; the Apple Watch is no exception. Every email, text, tweet or Facebook message can be pushed to the wrist, meaning the phone can stay in the pocket.
The usefulness of such a service depends on how many notifications you receive and how strict you are at checking them. If you aren’t bothered by multiple pings and vibrations of the phone – you’ll get to them when you get to them – then a smartwatch isn’t for you. If, however, you’re a compulsive phone checker, then a smartwatch could be useful.
Like most smartwatches, the list of apps that can send notifications to the Apple Watch can be tailored via the companion app, which will be important because most will not want every notification to disturb them. In effect, the Apple Watch can be a filter for notification overload like any other smartwatch.
Notifications override anything when they come in. An email, even if you don’t care about it, will interrupt whatever you’re doing on the watch. If the notification doesn’t have a dismiss button at the end – some do, some don’t – a swipe to the left reveals it, or you can swipe up from the bottom to hide notifications.
Tapping on a single notification takes you into the full app. For an email that means the full email, or at least the text of it. HTML emails needed not apply. Swiping from the top down dismisses it, but if you want to get to options such as mark as read, flag or delete you have to scroll to the bottom, which can be a lot of turns of the crown.
Beyond notifications you have apps, both built in and third-party. Apple’s apps include mail, messages, music, calendar, weather, photos, maps and Passbook. They work a little like glorified widgets, not quite the full deal as would be on the iPhone.
The Apple Maps app is worth noting for its excellent turn-by-turn walking directions that taps your wrist when you need to turn a corner, as is Remote app that allows you to control other Apple devices such as the Apple TV.
A solid selection of third-party apps are already available, which is one of the Apple Watch’s biggest strengths – developers seem to actually care about it, where other competing smartwatches have struggled to attract big-name apps and developers.
Twitter’s app, for instance, allows users to browse their full feed, or simply see what’s trending. Notifications also take you to the Twitter app, allowing you to reply, favourite or retweet straight from the watch. By comparison Twitter doesn’t have an Android Wear app at all.
Most third-party apps are simplistic, and some developers have expressed their dismay over how little they can actually do on the watch. That is likely to change over time.
They are also infuriatingly slow to launch and pull data from the iPhone compared to Apple’s apps, powered not by the watch but by the iPhone. The system is designed to offload tasks to the more powerful phone with a larger battery, but it damages the user experience. I started with as many apps as possible on the watch, but deleted most of them as they weren’t worth the time or effort.
Heart rate and activity tracking
Apple made a big deal about the Apple Watch as a fitness and health device. It comes with two fitness apps – a workout tracker and an activity tracker.
The workout app uses the heart rate sensor and the accelerometer to track walks, runs, cycling, rowing, stair stepping and elliptical workouts. It works without the phone, but needs it when outside for the GPS to track route of runs. For most activities you can set a calorie, time or distance goal.
The activity tracker runs all the time in the background counting steps, the number of times you stand up and the amount of “exercise” you do, which is anything from a brisk walk and up.
The app nags you with taps on the wrist when you’ve been sat down and idle for an hour, although it can’t differentiate between being sat at a desk or being in a car. Irritating.
Overall the Apple Watch works as well as a good £40 fitness tracker such as the Misfit Flash, with added heart rate tracking but not much beyond, connecting to a Activity app that pops up on the iPhone when an Apple Watch is paired.
The heart rate monitor seemed to significantly underestimate my readings compared to a dedicated heart monitor, saying that I had a rate of 50 beats per minute or below when just sat on the sofa, where others rank it more in the 60 to 65 bpm range. Anyone serious about using their heart rate for training or monitoring health will need to look elsewhere.
Telling the time
The Apple Watch wants to replace not only fitness devices but watches too. Many people no longer wear one, and those who do are often obsessed by knowing the time, as am I.
As a watch, Apple Watch isn’t great. The screen is only on when you press a button or do the wrist lift gesture. It’s not possible to simply glance at the time.
The gesture works ok. Most of the time it lights the screen, but forget it in bed or at odd angles, and there are more times than I’d like where it fails to light requiring a second hand to press a button. That normally happens when I’m rushing for a bus or a train, precisely when knowing the time down to half a minute is crucial.
I also found the screen would turn off while I was trying to use the watch just because I had shifted my position. It came back on when I moved again, but it kept happening enough to be irritating.
Of course smartphones weren’t great phones, but what they lacked in phone features they made up for with now essential functionality.
Apple’s watch faces are highly customisable. Each one of the 10 can have the amount of detail adjusted such as minute and hour markers, as well as “complications” added or removed such as the date, another time zone, battery life and other useful bits.
Most will find a watch face they like, some will find the designs restrictive especially if they’ve come from a high-end watch.
Dick Tracy eat your heart out
Making calls on your wrist feels space age, but isn’t practical. In a quiet space it works fine, but everyone can hear your conversation, outside I struggled to hear my caller.
Like the iPhone, but not
The Apple Watch runs a version of Apple’s iOS, which currently runs on the iPhone and iPad among other devices, but it doesn’t look like the iPhone. The icons are the same, but the home screen is a honeycomb-like mesh of small icons accessed by pressing the digital crown, which acts as a home button.
Tapping on the icons is hard when moving about – you need a fairly steady finger to avoid hitting the wrong one. Jumping into and out of an app is smooth, with detailed animations. A double click of the crown swaps between the last used apps, but to get back to the watch face you need to slowly press the crown three times or cover the watch with a palm and then reactivate the screen.
The Apple Watch has a steep learning curve that really needs a quick guide on the Watch’s first boot. You have two buttons, a jog-dial, a light tap, a heavy tap, a two-finger tap, as many swipes as there are sides of the screen, and a palm over the screen to silence it.
I found myself not knowing whether to force touch, tap, swipe or hit one of buttons. Invariably I’d actually hit a dead end and that’s as much as the app could do, but it wasn’t obvious. A number of times I forced touched only to see a bouncing “this doesn’t work here” animation, which puts you off experimenting further.
The music app allows you to sync a playlist of music up to 2GB in size from an iPhone and play it through Bluetooth headphones without an iPhone. But to play music through the watch not the iPhone you have to force touch the screen and change the source to the watch, which was certainly not obvious.
I also had trouble connecting Bluetooth headphones. It took two goes to pair a set of Plantronic Backbeat Go 2s, only for them not to work when I tried to go for a run. Subsequent pairing attempts failed, despite them pairing just fine with an iPhone and other smartphones.
The user interface isn’t consistent either. Some notifications come with visible dismiss buttons, while others are hidden behind menus. Tapping on notifications normally takes you to the app, if there is one installed, but when multiple emails come in at the same time the notification is not tappable and you have to go to the mail app manually.
Glances are not glanceable as the name might suggest, instead just widgets hidden under a swipe up on the watch face. Some are useful, like the quick settings and music controls, most can be safely ignored or removed. Tapping on them usually loads the associated app, which often does little more than that offered by the glance.
Watch to watch
Most of the messaging features can be sent to anyone with an iPhone or most just via text message. But some of them, such as sending your heart beat, remotely tapping on someone’s wrist or drawing on the screen with a finger, only work between two Apple Watches and only if both parties have iMessages active.
They’re gimmicks and unlikely to be useful to anyone but gadget-obsessed couples. Sending your heart beat to a friend, even your mum, feels a bit of an odd thing to do.
Apple’s digital assistant Siri is baked into the Apple Watch not only for searching and performing actions such as setting timers and alarms, but for dictation. There is no keyboard, so replies to texts and emails either rely on Apple’s canned answers such as “Talk to you later” or dictation into the watch. For the most part Siri makes a fair stab at understanding my speech – it struggles with “umbrella” for instance – but you can choose to send the audio recording instead of text if it’s made a hash of your message.
A day and no more
The Apple Watch needs charging every night without fail. But whether it makes it to the end of the day or not depends on what you’re doing. During the weekend, without being bombarded by notifications from work emails, I went to bed with a 25% charge left.
The working day was much harder on battery life, with frequent notifications, a couple of Siri queries and one phone call it hit 25% by 3pm and was into the time-only power reserve mode by the time I got home from work.
I also found that that firing up the heart rate monitor for tracking runs or walks reduced the battery life dramatically to the tune of about 1% every two minutes.
App usage didn’t impact the battery life all that much. Using the Twitter app didn’t cause a sudden drain, and of all the battery usage data shared with me by other users, everyone’s watches, whether 38mm or 42mm, faired similarly.
The constant connection to the Apple Watch impacts the battery life of the iPhone, but also reduces the need for the screen to flash on and alerts to ring out. For an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus there was little noticeable difference in battery life. The case may be different for the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5, which both have smaller batteries and less power efficient processors.
- Apple Watch Sport, with rubberised sports strap, aluminium case and “Ion-X” screen, costs £300 for 38mm and £339 for 42mm
- Apple Watch, in stainless steel with sapphire screen costs £479 for the 38mm and £519 for 42mm
- Apple Watch Edition with gold case starts at £8,000 and stretches up to £13,500
The various straps are available separately or with watches. The sport band is £39 in a variety of colours, the stainless steel milanese loop is £129 and the link bracelet costs £379 – more than the Apple Watch Sport.
For comparison, the Pebble Steel costs under £150 and the new Pebble Time Steel will cost approximately £170 in July. Google’s Android Wear watches do not work with the iPhone, but most cost £160 or less.
The Apple Watch is a very expensive smartphone accessory. It is beautifully crafted, is comfortable to wear, and introduces some really great new ways of using a device – I can see Force Touch and Apple’s “Taptic Engine” developing into something very useful.
It is also seamlessly integrated into the iPhone experience and boasts solid third-party developer support already, and it’s only just gone on sale.
But Apple has tried to do too much with its first attempt. The watch isn’t great as a watch because the screen isn’t always on. It demands a steep learning curve, often being counter intuitive and frustrating at times. The battery life is also not good enough – to be compelling as a smartwatch it needs to last two days at a minimum. Others have proved it is possible. It’s also not waterproof, despite using inductive charging.
At £100 or even £150, all these niggles would be forgivable. At a minimum of £300, Apple is asking a lot.
For those looking to buy a smartwatch for their iPhone I would recommend looking at the Pebble smartwatches. The Apple Watch is for those looking for a fashion accessory that just happens to be a smartwatch. Everyone else should wait until the second generation.
Pros: beautiful fit and finish, comfortable, magnetic charging cable, Taptic engine, Force touch, folding UK plug
Cons: one-day only battery, apps slow to load, relies entirely on the iPhone, inconsistent user experience, steep learning curve
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