For years, Apple was rumored to be working on a wearable device. And finally, last year, the company finally unveiled what it was hiding up its sleeve. It wasn’t the first tech company to launch a smartwatch, but could it be the best? I’ve been wearing the Apple Watch for the past two weeks, and it’s about time I got around to reviewing it.
If there’s one thing that Apple absolutely got right, it’s the focus on design and fashion. The company wants us to think of the Apple Watch as an evolution of the watch, not “just another” smartwatch. While other tech manufacturers and operating systems have focused on what the watch can do more than thinking of fashion and changing styles, Apple has managed to think of it all.
There’s a huge number of combinations possible with the Apple Watch. You can get a light aluminum, a shiny, classy steel or gold in 38mm or 42mm cases. And each of those metals has at least two different color options. What’s more, there are a handful of different color sport bands, leather straps, metal link bracelets or Milanese loops. And swapping them out is as easy as pressing a button on the case and sliding the strap out.
The rubber sports band is light, flexible and incredibly comfortable to wear. And the leather classic band I’ve been wearing most is soft and also very comfortable.
Each Apple Watch essentially looks like the other. It’s a square-ish shaped case with rounded corners and edges. And — as you’d expect from Apple — attention to detail is absolutely superb.
Just taking the Digital Crown as an example, its reflective finish on the stainless steel model and the precise grooves around the edge look stunning. What’s more, the smooth scrolling action coupled with the perfect response on screen is such a nice touch. Then there’s the way the screen curves towards the edges to give one seamless surface to the entire watch. It’s impressive, even more so with the stainless model, which has this incredible reflective nature.
As I mentioned in the comparison between the Sport and stainless models, there are different materials used in each one. The chief difference for me, though, is the material used on the display. While the aluminum Sport watch uses ION-X glass, the stainless uses a sapphire crystal glass, and there has been a clear difference in quality in my own use. Within days, my Sport had multiple light marks and scratches on the surface. They weren’t obvious, but I could see them in the right light. The steel, after more than a week has no mark whatsoever. Not one. And while steel might scratch easily, it’s also easy to repair using cheap metal polish. The stainless model is also heavier and has a reassuring weight that I immediately appreciated as soon as I picked it up.
Functions, Software and Performance
On to functions and software, and it’s here I feel Apple needs to do the most work. For the most part, I like the Apple Watch software. I like the clear distinction between layers. Notifications drop down from the top and access to useful Glance cards is a swipe up from the bottom. You get to the home screen of apps by pressing in the Digital Crown from any app, then press it again to get back to your chosen watch face. Press and hold the crown to launch Siri. Think of it as your watch’s home button. I also really like that I can scroll up and down lists and messages, or zoom in and out of maps and photos by scrolling the Digital Crown.
The other button gets you to your favorite contacts, a list controlled by the Apple Watch app on iPhone. Press and hold the button and you can power off the watch or set it to Power Reserve.
Of course you can scroll up and down by swiping your finger across the touch screen display. And, for the most part, it works well.
The one part of the touch screen I still can’t get used to after two weeks is Force Touch. Somehow, the touch sensors can tell how hard you’re pressing the screen. This is the default way to find extra features within Watch apps, like clearing your notifications or getting to your available watch faces to customize them. The experience of using it is unnerving to me. My finger can sense that I’m not physically pressing anything in and the surface of the screen isn’t moving, and yet, the content and software knows I’m pressing harder. It’s weird, and it’s not intuitive by any means.
My main frustrations, however, are aimed squarely at Apple Watch performance and software. Because all of the Watch's apps are hosted on the iPhone, there are delays between launching them and seeing content on the Watch screen, especially if the app needs to access data as well. For instance, loading the Dark Sky app to check weather quickly takes a few seconds to load the forecast. Totally a first world problem, but in an age where smartphones deliver content and data almost instantaneously, it’s more than a little irritating. Apple really needs to come up with a way to make this faster. Whether that’s boosting the watch’s internal components, storing native apps on the watch or giving it its own access to data somehow, something has to change. At the very least, Apple needs to increase the number of functions it can undertake without needing to be tethered to an iPhone. Right now, that list is very limited.
My other frustration is the same as with most smartwatches: personalizing notifications. Although you can choose individual apps to silence, I’d like the ability to customize contacts to receive communications from only those I deem important. Close friends, family or important work contacts, for instance. Regardless of how they’re communicating with me, I’d like to get that notification.
With the sound on, notifications coming through are generally irritating. But switch them off and you’re alerted by a gentle vibration from the Taptic Engine. It’s so much more subtle than the vibration from other watches and infinitely less annoying.
Perhaps the Apple Watch's most unique feature is the selection of intimate communication methods you can use between yourself and other Apple Watch owners. You can send tap patterns, draw sketches or even send your heartbeat. It’s a little weird but equally cool, despite being very limited due to the lack of other people with compatible watches.
I found the Watch's raise-to-activate performance to be outstanding. When I lift my arm to read the Watch, it activates the screen virtually 99 percent of the time. What’s even better, it switches off immediately when I drop my arm again. The heart sensor, pedometer, and other sensors used for counting steps and activity are very accurate too. It’s a fantastic fitness accessory and has replaced my old Jawbone UP. And if you have an Apple TV, you’re going to love using your Watch as a remote control. My kids are convinced I now have a magic watch.
As for battery life, I can comfortably get through two days of use with a full charge before I need to rest it in its box and attach it to the shiny magnetic charging disk.
The Apple Watch is designed to be a companion to the iPhone, not its own, separate gadget. It’s designed for quick glances and short interactions. Anything that takes more than a few seconds is pointless on a watch, and I may as well just use my iPhone. But it’s been an absolute timesaver when it comes to replying quickly to messages from my wife, setting reminders, alarms and the like.
But then we get to the price: Is it worth it? For me, choosing to keep the stainless steel model over the Sport was a no brainer. The extra quality in materials and design was worth it for me personally. But could I advise someone else to spend hundreds on a shiny gadget that’s got a lot to improve on before it’s a must-buy for everyone? Probably not. It needs to improve performance and software. In a lot of ways, this feels like a first generation product, albeit a really, really ridiculously good-looking one that I’m not taking off anytime soon.