Time with the Apple Watch

As my first and second entries on my experiment with the Pebble smart watch showed, I am really not a “watch guy.” I could never get used to having the device strapped to my wrist. I also never had the desire to develop comfort with it 1.

Yet I remained invested in the concept of the smart watch as an idea. When my son requested a relatively inexpensive Android wear device for his birthday this interest peaked once again. Having tried a Pebble, I began to look for a way to experiment with an Apple Watch. I wanted something which was intimately connected with the iOS ecosystem, rather than a compromise like Pebble or Android Wear devices 2. The problem was, I didn’t feel like I wanted to drop $200 on an experiment which was little more than curiosity scratching.

Thankfully the same neighbor who lent me his Pebble Steel also has an Apple Watch. When he decided to rotate watches to one of his other devices 3, he graciously allowed me to borrow it. After several days with the device I’m ready to share some thoughts.

Design

I’m testing the 38mm Sport model, with the accompanying wrist strap. It’s shocking to me, given my previous revulsion, but I barely notice wearing it. There are times when it gets in the way, such was when I go to put my hand in my pocket, but typically it’s disappears from my consciousness. Even when typing, the silicone band is far less intrusive than the metal band of the Pebble Steel I had previously borrowed 4. The watch doesn’t feel as though it’s scraping the aluminum frame of my MacBook, which changes my perception of it’s usability significantly. The screen is bright, and has a decent enough contrast to be viewed in bright sunlight. It’s not perfect, as fingerprint smudges increase glare noticeably, but it’s still quite a feat for an active screen.

The digital crown is a wonderful interface, and I quickly became comfortable with it’s use. I was slightly concerned the crown would “drift” throughout the day, which would create a time offset on the watch, but this never happened. The speed of scrolling through content with the crown is great for shorter lists like notifications. In longer lists, as I discovered when I was scrolling through my contacts to add “friends,” it feels a bit slow. This is a compromise to make it usable for 90% of the crown’s uses. Still, a search feature for longer lists would be most helpful.

Notifications

One of the selling points for the Apple Watch was “notifications at a glance,” without having to pull out one’s phone. I never saw the appeal, and when I was previously trying out a Pebble I actually found these notifications frustrating. I could read them, but not respond.

The Apple Watch is hit or miss with notifications in this regard. Messages are “respondable 5,” with pre-written, replies. These have been fairly useful, and when I want to send a longer message I’m able to use voice dictation – as can other messaging apps like Google Hangouts. Slack, on the other hand, would only allow me to read notifications, but not respond in the same team or channel. As Slack is one of my primary collaborative tools, this was very frustrating.

Voice dictation worked well-enough, but it also takes away the “be unobtrusive” workflow which is suppose to be Apple Watch’s strength. Thankfully, Apple is addressing this with watchOS 3.0, which will add the ability to “scribble” replies 6. When scribble lands in the fall, notifications will actually be more useful than I find them to be a present.

Apps

As with notifications, apps on the Apple Watch are a mixed bag.

Some are functional, such as Pandora, but suffer from the lack of hardware buttons. This is a problem, especially when driving. With hardware buttons, skipping a song in a playlist would be as easy as pressing the appropriate control without ever needing to take one’s eyes off the road. As the Apple Watch’s screen is not always on, and lacks physical buttons for application events, skipping a song via the watch felt more distracting than tapping a button on my phone screen 7.

The weather and messaging apps all worked fairly well, though the Facebook Messenger app was painfully slow. Slack, as was mentioned above, couldn’t send replies through the notifications. I was excited to see the Audio Memos app had a watch version, but was disappointed that it was only for recording memos on to the watch itself which were later synced to the phone. I would have much rather had controls to start/pause/stop a recording being done on my phone. The Starbucks app looks like it will be cool, but it was very slow. I’d much prefer taking out my phone and scanning my barcode that way. I didn’t have the opportunity to use the Wallet app or Apple Pay, though I’m sure both work just fine. The problem is, as convenient as having my tickets or loyalty cards on my wrist might be, I’m not sure it’s worth buying into an Apple Watch in order to have them.

Other apps were needless difficult to set up.

The Keynote application took a while to configure correctly, and required watch reboot. Even when it was set up, going through the phone to the actual presentation running on my Mac was less than helpful – it consumes two devices for one task. I can’t see myself ever wanting to use this.

Health Tracking

It surprises me to write this, but health tracking is absolutely the killer app of the Apple Watch. The three activity circles, present right on the watch face in my preferred setup, are incredibly motivational without feeling oppressive. It’s something about the circular arc of the progress bars. The distance never feels all that far, and the closer you are to your goal, the closer back to the beginning you become. During the time I’ve had the watch, I have found myself deliberately deciding to be more active. I’ve stood more, walked more, and spent more time engaged in exercise. So encouraging is this data I even wound up walking for over an hour of the Apple WWDC Keynote on Monday. For the past few days, at least, the Apple Watch has encouraged me to live much healthier. That is quite a feat.

Yes, I could gather much of this data with less expensive alternatives. What I find myself doubting, however, is whether an alternative result would be nearly as effective. The morning I wrote this post I even checked my email while walking up and down my stairs for five minutes.

Phone calls

Of all the Apple Watch’s features, the ability to make phone calls from the device was the one I found least appealing. I’m already annoyed by people who hold loud conversations on their phone out in public, hearing both sides of the conversation through the watch speaker is not something to which I want to be privy. 98% of the time, answering a call on the watch would simply be obnoxious.

In the few days I’ve had the device, however, I have also encountered the other 2% of moments when using the watch as a speaker phone actually makes sense. Typically, this has been in my home when I temporarily leave my iPhone in another room. Whether I’m in the kitchen washing dishes 8, or down in the basement exercising, the ability to answer calls actually has come in handy.

Battery Life

Other than app speed, the one major disappointment I’ve had with the Apple Watch is battery life. During my previous Pebble experiment, the wisdom of using eInk for a display was seen not only in it’s “always on screen,” but also through a battery life which stretched for days. It was remarkable.

The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is less impressive. In two of the days I’ve tested the device, I’ve hit a low battery warning before I was ready to remove it for the evening. Monday was the more serious of the two instances. I hit a 10% warning several hours before I went to bed, and took it off early. This was after using the watch to read notifications during the Apple WWDC keynote, as well as a lengthy workout track, but I’m finding myself suddenly worried about how often I actually use the device. For a product touted as being “peak and respond,” I really shouldn’t feel the need to be this battery-conscious.

Conclusion

The ultimate question of a “first experience” exposé is, “Would I buy this product?” I’m still early on in my experiment, but as it stands currently I actually would consider such a purchase.

This is a conclusion which has me personally shocked, the Apple Watch is a well-designed device with some decent uses. I’ve worn the watch in significant heat without feeling uncomfortable, typed without restriction while wearing it, and followed it’s promptings to have a healthier balance to my days. I’ve also used the device to assist with certain tasks, particularly chat, and those features only appear to be getting better as watchOS improves.

I’m not a “watch guy,” but there may be an Apple Watch in my future.


  1. Even after I had the watch on the correct wrist for a left-handed person. 43 years and no one ever told me. 
  2. This really need to be changed. I know Apple is all about user experience, but it would be nice to give other smart watches access to siri and other features of iOS. 
  3. He also has an Android Wear device. He’s not just a watch guy, he’s also a smart watch guy. 
  4. Or, I am assuming, any other metal watch band in existence. 
  5. A totally made-up word. 
  6. Former Palm Pilot users, rejoice! 
  7. Though Siri is even more useful here, when she decides to work. 
  8. Yup, I do those. 

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  1. Can it control Google Play Music from the watch face?

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