By Will Shanklin
After more than two years’ worth of rumors, the Apple Watch is finally here. As the company’s most closely-watched launch in five years, can it follow the Sasquatch-sized footprints of the iPod, iPhone and iPad?
In terms of innovation, the Apple Watch is more like the iPod than it is the iPhone or iPad. The iPhone was (and is) Apple’s most important product. It was like nothing else before it, pulling us all into the world of mobile multitouch that we live in today, one curious shopper at a time.
Three years later, the iPad took that same interface and adapted it to a much bigger, more immersive display. At launch, both were without peers.
But the Apple Watch? Like the iPod, it doesn’t really do much that its competitors weren’t already doing. It just squeezes it all into a smaller and more elegant package.
That analogy only goes so far, though, because the quality and design gap between the Apple Watch and the best smartwatches to come before it is much smaller than the gap between the first iPod and its clunky predecessors. Wear watches are far from perfect, but they’re infinitely better as smartwatches than the Creative Nomad and Diamond Rio ever were as MP3 players.
The Apple Watch is a delightful smartwatch that’s a ton of fun to use. Of all the wearables we’ve handled (and we’ve handled quite a few), the Apple Watch is the most refined and human-oriented, as well as the easiest to fall in love with.
Apple squeezed its wearable tech into a smaller body than we’ve seen from any of the Android Wear or Samsung Gear watches. It’s actually the closest in size to Pebble Steel, which has a black & white, non-touch display and primitive processing power. It’s quite the feat that Apple crammed some pretty advanced tech into a casing that’s around the same size as Pebble’s barebones watch.
The Apple Watch isn’t trying to look like a regular timekeeping watch, but the fact that it’s as small as one makes all the difference. We find this approach to work a little better than watches like the Moto 360 (above, with the Apple Watch) or Asus ZenWatch, which look a bit more like standard watches than the Apple Watch does, but are also noticeably bigger.
… and keep in mind that we’re only handling the 42 mm Apple Watch, which is the bigger model. The 38 mm model stretches that size gap between it and Android Wear watches even farther. The Apple Watch is the first smartwatch that women with smaller wrists can wear without looking like Dick Tracy’s awkward twin sister.
The Apple Watch Sport that we’re using is the entry-level model, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. Its aluminum body looks and feels smooth, and its fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) band is, somewhat paradoxically, a rubber watch strap that actually feels pretty high-end. If you were thinking about paying a few hundred bucks more for the stainless steel Apple Watch, mostly out of fear that the Sport is “the cheap one,” then don’t worry. We think this space gray Apple Watch Sport looks very sharp.
Apple is all about simplicity, so you’d expect its smartwatch software to be the simplest, right?
Well, not this time. Apple’s “Watch OS” actually has the most complex wearable interface we’ve used, with its user interface and input methods requiring a bit of a learning curve. Unlike an iPhone or iPad, this isn’t something that a child can pick up and just “get” within a minute or two.
Though the Watch is more complex than we’d (historically speaking) expect from Apple, it’s every bit as intuitive as you’d expect. After learning the software layout and different ways of interacting with the watch (this took all of half an hour), we realized how naturally it was all laid out.
While that slight complexity the first time you put it on may be surprising to Apple Watch buyers, it also gives developers more ways for users to interact with their apps. Once everyone learns how to use the Apple Watch (trust us, it won’t take long), and developers get some time to cut their teeth on it, there’s a lot that we’ll be able to do on these tiny screens. More so than other wearable operating systems, Watch OS feels like an exciting new frontier.
That’s because the Apple Watch doesn’t rely solely on a touchscreen and a button or two. It has the touchscreen and it has two physical buttons, but it also has a second, never-before-seen way of touching your screen, known as Force Touch, along with the winding “Digital Crown” you see below.
Here’s a quick breakdown of all the different ways you can interact with the Apple Watch:
- regular touchscreen input is still the first way of getting around: you know, taps and swipes like you’d use on any smartphone or tablet
- pressing down farther on the touchscreen activates a “Force Click” – a secondary touch that often brings up menus or other options (also seen on Apple’s latest MacBooks)
- pressing the Digital Crown (again, that’s the winder on the watch’s top right side) serves as a back button and shortcut to your apps screen
- twisting the Digital Crown lets you scroll up and down lists and messages, as well as zoom in and out of your app collection and images
- double-pressing the Digital Crown jumps to your most recent app
- long-pressing the Digital Crown starts Siri
- single-pressing the lower right side button jumps to a list of your favorite contacts for easy messaging
- double-pressing that messaging button activates Apple Pay
That’s eight different input methods, all on a teeny-tiny device with only a screen and two physical buttons. So while the Apple Watch’s UI might not be the simplest from the moment you pick it up, it still does more with less than any other wearable we’ve used. Once you learn the ropes, this is the most advanced and intuitive smartwatch OS today.
The last thing to note about that learning curve is that it isn’t a chore. On the contrary, we found it to be a fun process of discovery. The first time I felt an alert “tapping” my wrist (as opposed to the motor-like buzzing you’ll find on other smartwatches) I was reminded that Apple still gets the whole human touch thing better than any other tech company.
The Apple Watch has a gorgeous display. It isn’t alone in this respect, as rivals like the Samsung Gear S, Asus ZenWatch and LG G Watch R also have great-looking AMOLED screens (technically P-OLED for LG’s). But we would put the Apple Watch’s Retina Display at the top of that group. It has a satisfying blend of rich colors, sharpness (302 pixels per inch, which looks very crisp at a typical watch-viewing distance) and color balance.
So what do you do with an Apple Watch? The answer to that doesn’t differ much from other smartwatches. Like Android Wear and Samsung Gear, Apple’s Watch centers around things like notifications, reminders, voice control and fitness tracking. The common theme is that it’s all glanceable and easily digestible.
A smartwatch isn’t meant to be a fully immersive device. Instead, it’s something you use in short little bursts, often while you’re on the move or in the middle of doing something. It replaces the habitual whipping out of your phone.
Think of all the things you’d do on a smartphone. Now subtract all of the things that you’d also do on a tablet. What you have left should be a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that work well on a smartwatch. It’s the quick-access kinds of tasks – checking alerts, sending a quick message, looking at the forecast, getting directions, etc. – now living on your wrist.
As you might expect, the Apple Watch is launching with a much better selection of third-party apps than Android Wear or Samsung Gear’s Tizen did. In fact, Watch OS might already have a better library than those two do right now – and both of those platforms launched in early to mid-2014.
Why all the app love? Well, developers don’t have to second-guess whether the Apple Watch will sell, and they know iPhone owners aren’t afraid to spend money (as evidenced by iOS app spending). Fair or not, the Apple Watch is the first smartwatch to have a damn solid selection of apps on Day One.
Some of the early highlights include Uber (calling a car from your wrist is pretty convenient), Amazon, Philips Hue, Shazam (for some reason Android Wear still doesn’t have a song ID feature) and, if you’re into social media, Twitter.
There is, however, one big problem with running apps on the Apple Watch: most of them are slow as molasses to load. We’re talking “pick up a smartphone from four years ago and use it with today’s apps” slow. Many apps – both from Apple and third-party developers – make you stare at a loading screen for as much as five or six seconds before they start. In the world of today’s speedy mobile devices, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Once they’re loaded, they’re as zippy as they need to be. And those Glances (widgets or cards) that live below the main clock face don’t take any time to load.
Of course we can look forward to a second-generation Apple Watch that will have a faster processor. Maybe Apple will even be able to push some software updates that will help to cut down on the problem in this first-gen Watch.
But for now, app loading times can be a big annoyance in what’s otherwise a very smooth and airtight experience. Especially when you’re on the go and trying to do something quickly, you don’t want to wait five seconds to use an app (first-world problem, yes, but for a device that starts at US$350 and runs as high as $17,000, it’s disappointing).
The Watch shows you your fitness details in a handy little graphic that, like the Watch’s software as a whole, seems complex at first glance, but then turns out to be a more economical way of doing things.
Three nested rings, with different colors, denote your progress towards your daily goals of standing time (hours in which you’ve stood for at least one minute), exercise time and calories burned. Once you learn which ring means what, it’s a more glanceable way of keeping tabs on your fitness – and one that doesn’t clutter up your screen with a bunch of numbers.
Battery life is good, and not too far off the pace of the longest-lasting Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches. On a 16-hour day with moderate use, it usually ends the day with nearly 50 percent battery left. We recommend following Apple’s advice and charging daily no matter what, but as long as you do that, you shouldn’t have any problems.
The Apple Watch’s charging mechanism is pretty elegant (though the Moto 360’s wireless charging is still the best approach we’ve seen). Hold the Apple Watch’s magnetic charging nub near the back of the device and it will snap into place. And if that doesn’t work for you, third-party accessory makers are already churning out charging stands to hang your Apple Watch on at the end of the day.
The Apple Watch is a new frontier in wearables, one that’s enjoyable to use on Day One and will only get better as developers continue to cut their teeth on it.
Do you need an Apple Watch? Of course not. It doesn’t do much that your smartphone won’t already do. It just does it a little more conveniently. After a decade or so full of flourishes of innovation in the mobile world – digital music players, smartphones and tablets – we’re now to the point where the latest and greatest devices don’t really change our lives so much as they remove a step or two from the process. In this case, that step is whipping out your phone.
Smartphones changed everything, putting multitouch computers in our pockets. Tablets then created a new middle-ground product that was more immersive than a phone but more handheld than a laptop. But what do wearables do? They just take all the things we’re already doing, and give us slightly easier access to them.
That has value, but it also makes sense that smartwatches have been slow to catch on. Though they’re fun, convenient and – in some cases – fashionable, they aren’t going to make an enormous difference in your life. The Apple Watch, at least right now, is no exception.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for smartwatches. First, this stuff can be fun: the joy of using a well-designed new gadget, along with a little bit of convenience, may be all the justification you need. And as the app ecosystem grows, and as connected home (“internet of things”) types of devices expand, we may actually get to the point where we “need” smartwatches – even if they’re just an expensive luxury right now.
We won’t pretend to know whether a smartwatch is a wise purchase for you today. But we can recommend the Apple Watch as the best of the current bunch, even if that lead is the smallest we’ve ever seen for a brand new Apple mobile product on Day One. Android Wear is a promising platform as well, and Samsung is going to keep trying new things with its Tizen OS. It will be fascinating to see how those rivals react now that the elephant in the room is out in the open, and strapping itself to early adopters’ wrists.
The delightful Apple Watch is available now in Apple’s online store (though it’s backordered by more than a month), starting at $350 for the 38 mm Apple Watch Sport. The 42 mm space gray Apple Watch Sport that we handled for this review costs $400. All versions require an iPhone 5 or newer to pair with it.
Product page: Apple