I’m up early to try to kickstart a habit at the gym, trying to teach myself to like the routine. My phone and wallet and car keys get in the way; I like to come here as minimalist as possible. My watch is the only thing that feels natural and it’s comforting to start recording an elliptical workout from my wrist. I still find it hard to keep glancing at my wrist as I exercise.
But this is the dream: a little world on my wrist.
I look at it for the weather; I look at it to peek at how the Mets are doing. I have it thump me to remind me where the exit is as I’m driving. I think to myself, “At least I’m connected.” But isn’t that why I have my phone? Yes. The Apple Watch is another security blanket. The Apple Watch and the iPhone act as a pair. I can ping and find out where my iPhone is through the watch, and I feel more hooked-in to what I need.
After a year, I don’t look at my phone any less. In fact, I might look at it more.
Apple Watch, one year later
All the time people ask me if they need the Apple Watch.
Short answer: I say no — wait for the inevitable sequel.
Longer answer: I say that, in a lot of different ways, the Apple Watch can do things for me that I like. That it represents a taste of a future we’re all rapidly heading toward.
I’ve used the Apple Watch off and on for the last year, mostly on. And it’s become one of my favorite smartwatches. But since its April 2015 release, three things have happened. Apple has released a few round of software updates; a lot of competing smartwatches and watch-like fitness trackers have been released; and — most importantly — Apple dropped the price of the entry-level Sport model. As of this March, the 38mm model now starts at $299, (£259, AU$429), and the 42mm one starts at $349 (£299, AU$499).
With those changes in mind, should you get one? Or should you wait?
I’d lean towards waiting. If you can find a deal on one and are curious (and, have an iPhone), maybe get one. But my year-old thoughts on the Apple Watch largely stand: I think it’s more of a toy than a tool.
That could change…I just don’t know when.
Why you should consider the Apple Watch
Here’s what I like best about the Apple Watch:
Great for quick-glance info. Need weather at a glance, or don’t want to miss a call? Are you working in a place where it isn’t easy to use your phone or even check it? This is for you.
Easy wrist payments. I’m not saying Apple Pay on my wrist always makes sense, but as more terminals get Apple Pay I feel more and more like I’m in a wallet-less world.
Turn-by-turn directions while driving. But you have to use Apple Maps to get the best experience, which doesn’t always pick the most efficient routes.
It’s a pretty good fitness tracker. The Watch tracks steps, heart rate, and little daily achievements. And it works with a lot of third-party apps, even though they’re not all great.
Nice design, for a smartwatch. Lots of finishes and really good-looking bands.
Apple’s smartwatch is compact, really nicely built, and packed with features. Too many, probably. It can vibrate when you get messages. It gets phone calls on your wrist, which you can answer in public if you dare. It’s a fitness tracker. It has Apple Pay. It can store a little bit of music from your phone and connect with Bluetooth headphones like a mini-iPod (which I rarely ever do, but runners might). It has hands-free Siri (but you have to raise your wrist and say “hey, Siri.” And it tells the time.
It’s the easiest smartwatch to accessorize; a variety of bands, from Apple-made models to designer labels, cover a broad gamut. And the Apple Watch models themselves come in different metal finishes and colors.
Apple Watch has a lot of apps that cross-load onto the watch from your phone. Many are lackluster, and some load so slowly I’d rather just take out my phone, but they’re mini tools. Far better are the little at-a-glance bits of info you can put on your watch faces called complications, many of which launch apps with a finger-touch.
I check weather; I use the watch faces to add bits of info; I sometimes pay for things in cabs. I keep up on messages that I might have missed, like texts, calendar appointments, Facebook Messenger or tweets. I can see when my home alarm has been deactivated (I monitor it via an Alarm.com app). Like most smartwatches, it’s a pager on your wrist.
And the Apple Watch’s handling of messages and bits of info is better than nearly any other smartwatch. Its microphone for on-wrist calls is great, too (that speaker, not so much).
I also use it while driving, to get directions on my wrist. Basically, it’s my catch-all way to get info without looking at my phone.
Why you should hold off on Apple Watch (for now)
There’s a lot that the Apple Watch could be better at. A year into its life, the top annoyances are basically the same as they were on day one:
Short battery life. Keep that charger handy, because you’ll need it. You’ll get a day and a half max.
It still needs an iPhone. You need one to pair it and sync it, and you need one nearby for the Watch to be truly useful for most apps.
Most of its apps run really slowly. And they’re annoying to find, hidden in a grid of tiny icons. That needs improvement.
Its interface still feels too complicated. Pull-down messages, pull-up glances, and lots of pressing and swiping to get to many features.
If you’re looking for something simple and easy on your wrist that you don’t have to deal with much, don’t get an Apple Watch. I find it helpful, but a regular watch would be a lot easier to maintain. It also wouldn’t give me messages.
Other smartwatches like Pebble and Fitbit’s Blaze are less expensive, lower-maintenance, and easier to check messages on thanks to an always-on screen — and the Pebble is waterproof for swimming. Google’s Android Wear watches work best on Android phones, but you could use one for basic functions with an iPhone.
Apple Watch isn’t great at being connected without an iPhone paired to it. It can do some things over Wi-Fi, but it’s hard to guess what will load or work and what won’t. The Apple Watch is water-resistant, but I’d like full waterproofing. Along with that, better battery life. A day and a half isn’t great.
A smaller watch would be great: lighter, sleeker. I’d prefer battery life over a smaller size, though. And really, I’d like the Apple Watch to just be more aware of the world around me. Tell me what to look for when I arrive someplace; give me reminders contextually; show me remote controls for connected gadgets I use as I approach them.
All this will take a more connected world that isn’t here yet — and a more advanced Apple Watch. (Rumors of a next-gen Watch with cellular connectivity are bubbling up, but that seems like it would involve a bad battery tradeoff.) I want a real-world companion, not just something that siphons off the notifications on my phone.
While the Apple Watch has Siri, its voice recognition and speed is nothing like the Amazon Echo. I’d love the watch to be quicker, more attentive and more intuitive at handling voice commands. Usually Siri on the Apple Watch is just too slow to be useful.
And even though the Apple Watch is better at fitness than most smartwatches, it’s lacking quite a bit. No social networks to challenge friends like Fitbit. No predictive life-coaching that can study trends like Jawbone. No sleep-tracking, like most long-battery fitness trackers. The Watch’s nutrition-tracking and weight management flows into third-party solutions, instead of using the built-in Activity app. And a way to back-up my Watch to iCloud so when I switch phones down the road I won’t lose any data.
Most importantly, there isn’t a watch face store yet. Apple Watch is stuck with the dozen or so customizable watch faces it comes with out of the box. I want my New York Jets watch face, or a weird animated magic trick watch face that makes a coin turn into a rabbit. Or a They Might Be Giants watch face. Whatever you want, Android Wear and Pebble have tons of funky options that Apple Watch just doesn’t.
Note, too, that the big 2015 software update (Apple Watch OS 2), wasn’t the big fix we were hoping for. All of the watch’s major issues — slow-loading apps, a limited collection of watch faces, and a functional but not-great battery life — are largely still present. For big changes, we’re stuck waiting for Watch OS 3, and new hardware.
Waiting for Apple Watch 2
So if Apple does release a new Apple Watch, what will it have and when will it arrive? Most likely, it’ll come alongside the iPhone 7 in September. It might be smaller. It might have better battery life. It might have better water resistance. It might have improved speed, and maybe even work without a phone using cellular. Or it could get something crazy, like a front FaceTime camera to talk to friends. We don’t know. But odds are it’ll at least perform better than the first-generation Apple Watch. On the other hand, it might just be a slight upgrade, or even a step-up model.
At this point, if you’re looking to spend $300 on your wrist, you might just want to wait and see what happens. The current version works well enough for what it does. Not good enough to be a must-have; I’m not even sure anymore that the idea of a smartwatch is something that everyone should get onboard with. I like having one, but I don’t like charging it. And I wish it were better.
Smartwatches may one day be the future of phones, or a seamless extension of both them and your home, or any number of connected devices. Right now, they function as phone accessories. And that’s where the Apple Watch lands. It’s helped me stay more connected, but I still use my phone more than I should.
Below is the review of the Apple Watch as I updated it in July 2015, months after my original take at its April 2015 debut. If we were to recommend one now, it would still be the entry-level Sport. Don’t spend a lot. And be forewarned, there could be a new one as soon as September. I prefer having one to not having one. You might feel differently. And unless you’re desperate to try one, I’d say you might as well wait.
This review has been updated several times, most recently on May 3, 2016. The content below is largely how the review originally appeared in April 2015, with some subsequent updates rolled in to reflect software and price changes.
The original Apple Watch review: What it does, what it is
Much like most other smartwatches, the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone device — it’s a phone accessory. Android Wear, Samsung Gear, Pebble and others work the same way. But here, you must own an iPhone 5 or later to use the Watch. A few Apple Watch functions work away from the phone, but the watch primarily works alongside the phone as an extension, a second screen and basically another part of your iOS experience. It’s a symbiote.
Communication, fitness, information, time: these are the core Apple Watch functions, but the Watch is incredibly ambitious, packed with many, many features and apps. In scope, it reminds me of Samsung’s ambitious Gear smartwatches, but more fully realized.
Apple Watch receives messages from friends, send texts and lets you dictate messages, make speakerphone calls, ping people with animated emoji, give love taps long-distance or send your heartbeat as a sort of long-distance hug. It tracks your steps, logs runs and monitors your heart rate. And yes, you can use Apple Watch to listen to music via wireless Bluetooth headphones. You can play songs like an iPod, get notifications and run apps like a mini iPhone and make payments with Apple Pay. And it has a totally new force-sensitive display that’s never been seen before.
And yes, it tells the time.
But, once again, this watch needs your iPhone to do most of these things. And it either needs to be in Bluetooth range (30 or so feet), or it can connect over Wi-Fi in a home or office to extend that range further.
Apple wants you to think of the Apple Watch as fine jewelry. Maybe that’s a stretch, but in terms of craftsmanship, there isn’t a more elegantly made piece of wearable tech.
Look at the Apple Watch from a distance, and it might appear unremarkable in its rectangular simplicity compared with bolder, circular Android Wear watches. It’s clearly a revamped sort of iPod Nano. But get closer, and you can see the seamless, excellent construction.
I reviewed the stainless-steel Apple Watch, with a steel link band — a $1,000 configuration. I also wore it with two different Sport Bands, one white and one blue.
The Apple Watch feels a bit chunky compared to Apple’s stable of super-slim gadgets, but it doesn’t look big on the wrist. The larger 42mm version has length, width and thickness similar to the Pebble Steel , one of the smaller smartwatches available. The 38mm version is even smaller. The 42mm version I reviewed felt great on my wrist and didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
Apple Watch’s curved-rectangle form will polarize: some will find it looks great, others will see it like some sort of space-age iPod. Others will be annoyed it’s not circular, or isn’t thinner. Some won’t like the curved glass (or sapphire crystal) that covers the edges and makes it seem like scratch magnet. The steel version I’ve worn for months has gotten a lot of scuffing and scratching all over its polished body, but the display has stayed pretty scuff-free.
The Digital Crown, Apple’s specialized way of interfacing with the watch, sits off to the side, looking just like the part of the watch that used to wind older watches. But in this case, the crown is a mini scroll wheel. You can click it or turn it, and it moves smoothly and beautifully. A second button below brings up favorite contacts, or triggers Apple Pay with a double-click.
Most navigating happens by swiping and tapping the display, but that crown can be used for some navigation in some apps, or as a pinch-to-zoom replacement. I kept forgetting to use it at first, except to press it to get back to app menu (that grid of apps which I’ll get to in a bit). Over time, I got used to it, but I still tended to use my finger for swipes instead.
Under the hood
All Apple Watches have a new S1 processor made by Apple, that “Taptic” haptic engine and a force-sensitive and very bright OLED display, which is differently sized on the 38mm and 42mm models. The watch has its own accelerometer, gyrometer and heart-rate monitor, but no onboard GPS. It uses Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz Wi-Fi to connect to your phone or your home network. There’s a built-in speaker and microphone, but no headphone jack.
The many-nested worlds of the Apple Watch interface
The old iPod Nano had a grid of apps to swipe through, like an iPhone. Samsung’s Gear watches use a similar approach. Google’s Android Wear uses a blank slate at first, pushing notification cards while hiding its apps behind a scrolling menu.
The Apple Watch has its main watch faces, but also two levels of apps: Glances, which are a lot like the quick-glance app summaries in iOS 8’s pull-down “Today” menu (or the occasional cards that appear in Android Wear), and full-fledged apps. You swipe up for Glances, down for on-watch notifications like texts or Twitter/Facebook alerts and click the Digital Crown button in to get to that “home screen” grid of glowing circular apps you’ve seen in all the ads.
Let’s start from the top.
Watch faces: Things of beauty
Apple has spent a lot of time making its collection of watch faces great, and the effort shows: these are a beautiful bunch. The old iPod Nano had fun watch faces, but many of Apple’s are actually clever and useful: a chronometer becomes a customizable stopwatch; a solar cycle face shows actual sunset and sunrise times, presenting changing arcs depending on the season; a jaw-dropping planetary face shows the Earth and Moon, but properly lit to reflect day, night, and lunar cycles. You can see all the planets in their current alignment, or spin the crown and see their positions change by date. There’s also Mickey Mouse.
The watch faces are customizable, to a point: numbers can be added, colors changed and many “complications” (a watch industry term for extra information on a watch) altered. You can see battery life, calendar appointments, daily fitness and more at a glance. Tap, and those zones open the full app.
Apple’s clock collection won’t currently allow third-party extensions or watch faces to join in the fun, but that will change in the fall with WatchOS 2. Apple will also add more watch faces then, including a few that can add customized photos or photo albums. But, still, the watch face assortment feels limited compared to Android Wear. It’s also odd how many of the 10 watch faces opt for round analog designs even though the watch is rectangular. I would have preferred more digital-style options like those on the Pebble Steel.
Glances and notifications, taps and pings: How you get information
There are a lot of ways to look at little bits of info surfaced by the Apple Watch. Notifications pop onto the screen as on most smartwatches. You can swipe down and look at them all, if you want, or delete them. There are also Glances, permanent little slides of mini-info that basically work like Widgets on iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite. Swipe up, and you can swipe back and forth through little interactive tiles. Most apps work with Glances, but not all. Battery life, weather, music control, basic airplane mode and find-your-watch pings, quick news headlines — you get the picture.
As I wore the watch on the first day, I felt a rippling buzz and a metallic ping: one of my credit card payments showed up as a message. Apple’s “Taptic Engine” and a built-in speaker convey both a range of advanced taps and vibrations, plus sounds. Unlike the buzz in a phone or most wearables, these haptics feel sharper: a single tap, or a ripple of them, or thumps.
Sometimes the feelings are too subtle: I don’t know if I felt them or imagined them. My wrists might be numbed from too many smart devices. I set my alerts to “prominent” and got sharper nudges on my wrist.