The Apple Watch is now on the wrists of members of the general public for the first time, and opinions about its usefulness are flying fast and furious.
Here at TechCrunch, we’ve been sharing our thoughts in an ongoing diary, featuring daily entries describing what it’s like to use the Watch as we become more familiar with the new gadget.
Now, though, after over a week with the Watch, here’s a more cohesive look at how my thoughts on the wearable computer and its place in my life have jelled. This review should give you a more direct answer to the question, “Should I buy one?”
- 42mm (390×312 pixel) display (as tested)
- 50g, 42mm x 35.9mm x 10.5mm stainless steel case (as tested)
- Apple S1 processor, 8GB onboard storage
- Up to 18 hours battery life
- Heart rate, accelerometer, gyroscope and ambient light sensors
- MSRP: $599 + $149 for second strap, as tested
- Product info page
- Terrific hardware design
- Basic features offer instant utility
- More advanced features are less than intuitive
The Apple Watch is a design feat, no matter how you look at it. The construction of the case, and the attention to detail paid to elements like the digital crown and strap connector are outstanding. In general, the feel of the Watch on the wrist is way beyond anything that anyone else making smartwatches has so far produced.
Some of the standout design features of the Watch include the weight of the case, which is substantial enough to satisfy a regular watch-wearer like myself without feeling burdensome. The aluminum models feel featherweight by comparison, which just goes to show that Apple took into account a range of user comfort-levels and experience with wrist-worn accessories; for my money, though, the substance and perceptible density of the stainless steel Watch collection is where it’s at.
The Apple Watch is a design feat, no matter how you look at it.
My review unit came with the white flourelastomer sport band, which proved surprisingly comfortable, and easy enough to get on and off the wrist once you get used to its unique pin-and-tuck clasp mechanism. Said mechanism ends up being much better than a standard strap, in fact, because the tucked portion acts as a shim to snug up fit comfortably, and you don’t have that tail end hanging off the way it often can.
Generally, I’ve been wearing the Apple Watch from when I wake up to when I go to bed, with nary a break in between (except to shower), and the Sport Band’s comfort-oriented design really shines with this kind of use. I’ll go from using it at my computer to hitting the road for a run, then simply rinse it down quickly in the bathroom sink before it hits my wrist again, and so far, it’s been nothing but a pleasure to wear in all these different settings.
On the other hand, the black leather loop bracelet has been more of a mixed bag. This strap option, also supplied by Apple for the purposes of this review, closes thanks to magnetic segments that attach to one another, surrounded by a sealed external skin of leather. The leather extends all the way to the connector component at the end of the strap, making this a versatile option for those looking for something that matches both aluminum and stainless steel case options, so in that regard it’s a good general choice.
Overall, I’m satisfied with the band and will definitely continue to use it, but it does have a tendency to slip somewhat looser when you bend your wrist, as the magnets slide against each other and drop down a couple of links, meaning you’ll find yourself readjusting throughout the day. It doesn’t happen that often (only when my wrist bends at a fairly dramatic angle from my forearm) but it’s just enough to ensure the leather loop strap isn’t strictly a set-it-and-forget it option once it’s on your arm.
Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for knobs and dials. These elements remind me of the mechanical and automatic watches that I love, and Apple’s design team was clearly on the same page when they came up with the Digital Crown.
Apple’s crown takes the traditional watch crown as its primary design influence, but the function it serves is quite different. A regular watch’s crown lets you set the time, date (if you have such a complication) and, in the case of mechanical watches, wind it to build up a reserve of energy to power the movement of the hands. Apple’s Digital Crown allows for a very different kind of input, controlling scrolling primarily, and acting as one of two physical buttons on the Watch when you press down on the top.
Using the Digital Crown is pleasant, and offers a lot of tactile satisfaction, with the proviso that you do have to take some time to get used to it. It’s very responsive, and as such, can feel a bit fiddly at first. I think I was used to having to perform more exaggerated gestures with devices that serve similar functions on the desktop, like the mouse scroll wheel, which meant having to get used to the Digital Crown’s fine-tuned level of heightened motion sensitivity.
Using Force Touch (pressing down more firmly on the watch than is required for basic taps) to expand your control options is another Apple Watch feature that isn’t instantly apparent, but that quickly becomes second nature when using the gadget. The reason it takes time to get used to is that it’s brand new, appearing only on the new 13-inch MBP and 12-inch MacBook in addition to here, and that there aren’t any visual cues to let you know that you should press down to expose more options.
I quickly found myself Force Touching whenever I encountered a road block on the Watch, however. The process went as follows: recall or expect some function from a native Watch app that I can’t seem to find, Force Touch, and in most cases find said function.
I quickly found myself Force Touching whenever I encountered a road block on the Watch.
Force Touch also provides moments of light, but fun surprise, like when I realized earlier today that you could deep press on the color picker in the Digital Touch sketch app to get a color wheel that allows you to go beyond the pre-set options. Overall, it’s a feature that feels ripe with promise, especially once third-party apps get the opportunity to explore it further.
The Digital Touch features of Apple Watch are those unique messaging features you’ve probably heard a lot about, which work exclusively watch-to-watch and which allow you to send your friends sketches, taps and even an approximation of your heart beat.
At first, as I shared in our Apple Watch experience diary, these features seemed primarily novelties that I didn’t really see much value in. That was due largely to the fact that I had a very small group of potential recipients to use Digital Touch with. Sending my lovely boss Matthew Panzarino my heartbeat, or goofy sketches and oddly intimate taps was, in a word, weird.
But it wasn’t quite as weird when a couple good friends received their Apple Watch units on the first day of availability, and it was far less strange when I picked up a 38mm Apple Watch Sport for my girlfriend via an online classified. Long-term, based on what I’ve experienced so far, most Digital Touch features are probably going to be used exclusively between myself and her, but that doesn’t mean they’re extraneous to the experience; in contrast, it actually emphasizes just how right Tim Cook is to call the Apple Watch its “most personal device ever.”
Sending my boss my heartbeat was weird.
With a little work, I could see additions to the current Digital Touch feature set making it more appealing for use among a close circle of friends, but for now, for me, it’s an aspect of the Watch with essentially an audience of one.
Besides Notifications, the Apple Watch feature that I use most frequently is without a doubt Glances. You access these by swiping up from your watch face, which then shows you one of up to 12 single screens complete with information from a corresponding companion app on your device. Apple offers a number of stock glances with its system software, including Battery, Weather and a Now Playing screen, but third-party developers can also populate Glances with info from their own apps.
I’m still tweaking my own selection of Glances, but I generally find myself using the Battery and Weather ones most frequently. These just happen to be the pieces of information I find most useful beyond system notifications on my Watch, and since I don’t necessarily like the Battery complication flinging my total remaining power in my face all the time, I much prefer keeping it hidden but still close at hand.
The Calendar Glance is also clutch for giving you a heads-up on any looming appointments and meetings, and in terms of third-party apps, I’ve been greatly enjoying the Air Canada Glance, which actually provides an ongoing countdown to your next scheduled flight, provided it’s occurring within 24 hours of when you take a look.
Glances aren’t perfect, however; data refresh often takes time, especially when it’s fetching the info from third-party apps on your iPhone over Bluetooth. But while the Glances implementation something that leaves me hopeful for improvements in future versions of Watch OS and with future hardware, it’s still an essential experience even as-is, and something that I’d have a hard time giving up now that I’m used to it.
This native app is worth a separate shout-out since it’s such a great feature for those who’ve come to depend on their iPhones as their primary cameras. The Camera Remote app from Apple gives you a real-time preview of your smartphones viewfinder on your wrist, as well as the ability to tap to choose focus/exposure, and to trigger the shutter, or implement a timer followed by a 10-frame burst.
It’s a great feature if you want to do anything other than point and shoot with your camera, and it’s great even just for ‘periscoping,’ or reaching higher heights by extending your arm to get a shot you wouldn’t otherwise be able to capture. I’m still just starting out in terms of testing the full range of what you can accomplish with this and simple accessories like a tabletop iPhone tripod, but it’s definitely a super cool built-in feature.
The Apple Watch’s performance was something that I honestly wasn’t expecting to find all that impressive, given the consensus from early reviews. And when it comes to third-party apps, there’s definitely work that needs to be done since funneling data from your phone leads to holdups, as you can clearly see in the video review above. But overall, the performance of the device was a pleasant surprise, perhaps in part because I had low expectations going in.
In short, despite some disappointing waits for data to load in apps like Instagram, Apple Watch’s performance is up to snuff for just about every thing you’ll likely end up using it for most, including activities like checking the time, receiving and triaging notifications, and using the native Glance extensions. Below, you can see how it shapes up broken down across specific features.
The Apple Watch is many things, but it might be surprising to some to find that it’s a great Dick Tracy watch, in that the speaker phone functions of the wearable are extremely capable. The built-in speaker is clear and loud enough, and the microphone, according to call recipients, is also easy to listen to and understand.
Where the Watch Phone app encounters some issues is in actually being able to field calls consistently, as I had a few examples of trying to accept a call on my wrist but not having the action register. In the end, though, it’s a very handy feature, especially if your phone is in your bag – provided you’re alone or unconcerned with looking a little awkward talking to your wrist on a busy street.
Siri and Dictation
I seem to be one of the lucky ones for whom Siri works almost perfectly in terms of gleaning my intended meaning, and that luck continues on the Apple Watch, once the feature is active. The voice prompt of “Hey Siri” doesn’t work all that consistently, activating the feature about two-thirds of the times I intend it to, but the Digital Crown long-press is always effective, and Siri transcribes my words nearly perfectly once it’s active.
On the iPhone, I don’t often find myself using Siri, but it’s been a more regularly accessed resource on my Apple Watch thus far. Especially in cases where the canned responses set by Apple (and customized by myself) are insufficient for replying to messages, a quick dictated response has proven immensely useful and almost never disappoints. Again, your mileage may vary, but the Siri of Apple Watch may not be the Siri you remember if you haven’t used the virtual assistant in a while.
One of the recurring joys of using the Apple Watch, especially for a gadget fiend like myself, is just taking in the quality of that screen. I’ve used just about every Android Wear device on the market, and they honestly don’t even compare – looking at them now is almost like looking at a VGA display after using a Retina iPhone.
Text is so crisp that the size of the font doesn’t bother me at all, though again, it’ll depend on your specific needs here (I dial down the system font size on iPhone, for context). It’s pretty enough that I always now read out the entire email on my wrist when it’s plain-text formatted, in fact, rather than opening up the Mail app on my iPhone.
Touch is very responsive, as you’d expect from the company that changed touch input forever, and in general even though touch targets tend to often be small, I had no problems in terms of missed or mistaken input (including with the tiny number pad you use to input your passcode, where I still expect a miss every time despite myself).
There’s one notable exception to that rule however: Whenever there’s a single-line text link at the top of the screen to return to a previous page, I have trouble getting the Watch to respond to my tap on that consistently. It seems to be limited to that specific instance, so it seems likely that Apple can target it for improvement in future software updates.
Touch is responsive, as you’d expect from the company that changed touch input forever.
On the whole, response and tap accuracy were great, though, and as an added bonus, taptic response when you Force Touch during things like Workouts are great workarounds for making a touchscreen device more usable while engaged in more active use.
Speaking of that Taptic Engine, it’s a real game-changer when it comes to wearable tech. Apple’s take on haptic feedback really does merit a different name from what others have offered, because it provides a very different experience. Especially with Prominent Haptic turned on (I did this after a couple of days and have left it on since), you won’t miss any important notifications, or helpful indicators like turn directions when navigating.
The best part about taptic may be that it seems almost certain to make it out to the rest of Apple’s product lineup eventually (it’s already in the new Force Touch trackpads, after all). Experiencing it on the Apple Watch, it’s hard not to get excited about a future in which Apple’s devices share not only industrial design and software language, but also a signature haptic response, as well.
Activity and Workout
With the Apple Watch pre-launch push, a big part of the story Apple told was around the device’s health-related features. These are found mostly in the Activity and Workout apps on the Watch, where you can track your general physical wellness, and specific activities like runs or bicycle rides respectively.
I’m an avid runner, and have used a host of different wearables and activity trackers to try to maintain some kind of record of my regular runs (between once a day and once every two days, depending on how lazy I get). I am not, however, very committed to continuous heart rate training or anything so specialized, just to give you a sense of how I approached evaluating the Watch as a fitness device.
For my purposes, it’s the perfect activity tracker, mostly because it’s one I’m already wearing. I’ve never been able to consistently use things like the Fitbit or Jawbone UP (it inevitably ends up in a drawer because it’s too niche) and dedicated devices for more serious athletes like GPS runner’s watches likewise end up gathering dust.
Apple Watch is an effective fitness tool because it tracks your activity whether you tell it to explicitly using the Workout app or not, and therein lies its value. Whatever you may think about its scientific accuracy or suitability for high-performance training, it’s the first activity tracker that stands a good chance of remaining in active use for a long period of time, and that’s what counts for most people, and for me.
The Apple Watch’s battery works as advertised, meaning you’ll be able to use it for a full day, and you’ll have to charge it during the evening or at night – every day. It’s not a dream situation, but it also becomes a habit faster than you might expect.
I was also expecting to have to watch my usage closely to make sure I made it through a day, given how much I anticipated using it; luckily, the closest I’ve come to exhausting the battery (aside from day one, which involved a lot of filming and setup) was when I hit the bed with 3 percent remaining after a long day with not one, but two active Workouts. Throughout the rest of my time with Apple Watch, it’s hit the charger with around 30 percent remaining.
The Apple Watch is a unique device that was, for a host of reasons, harder to review for a general audience than just about any of Apple’s other products. Part of it is the personal nature of a computer you wear nearly all the time. That said, during the course of my experience with Apple Watch, it’s become apparent that I won’t go back to life without one.
For most people, the Apple Watch Sport is probably the best choice right now, given some of the version one hiccups the Watch still exhibits, but I think most iPhone users will find it adds significantly to the experience of owning an Apple smartphone, and the list of benefits it offers is only going to get longer over time.