Apple Watch Review: You’ll Want One, but You Don’t Need One
The company has succeeded in making the world's best smartwatch
I’m in a meeting with 14 people, in mid-sentence, when I feel a tap-tap-tap on my wrist. I stop talking, tilt my head, and whip my arm aggressively into view to see the source of the agitation. A second later, the small screen on my new Apple Watch beams to life with a very important message for me: Twitter has suggestions for people I should follow. A version of this happens dozens of times throughout the day—for messages, e-mails, activity achievements, tweets, and so much more. Wait a second. Isn’t the promise of the Apple Watch to help me stay in the moment, focused on the people around me and undisturbed by the mesmerizing void of my iPhone? So why do I suddenly feel so distracted?
Let’s back up. Any way you figure, the Apple Watch is an epic product release. It’s the company’s first new product category since the iPad and the first new product since the death of Steve Jobs. It was created almost entirely under the guidance of Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, and it’s the first device from Apple that was designed—hardware and software—by Jony Ive. Apple has also sunk money into new retail experiences (led by left-field hire Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry), and positioned the device as both the latest must-have gadget and a bona fide luxury item. The watch starts at $349 and climbs above $10,000. To say it’s a major moment for the company would be an understatement.
No one is questioning Apple’s ability to mint money with its gadgets and services (see: $178 billion in the company’s cash reserves), but the ambitions of the watch speak to Apple’s broader ambitions. With a possible entry into the auto market on the horizon, Apple’s success at getting into—and winning—a whole new category of product is kind of a big deal. Although analysts’ predictions for 2015 Apple Watch sales range from 8 million to 41 million, putting them in roughly Year One iPad range, no one even knows whether the thing is a good product.
Apple faces two huge challenges with the watch. It has to make a beautiful gadget, one that hews to the company’s history of groundbreaking design and technological innovation. For Apple, these are table stakes. But there’s more: Because it’s a brand-new product category, the company has to make a case for the very existence of not just its watch, but any watch. It has to persuade people that they need technology on their wrists. So far, the biggest question about wearables—there are already plenty of products on the market—is really: Who needs one?
Ready, set, go
The Apple Watch experience begins before you get one. It starts at an Apple Store, where you can opt to have a Apple salesperson give you a personal demonstration and set up your device. Because they aren’t at retail shops yet, I got an approximation of the experience: A company rep gave me a guided tour of the watch’s functions, set it up, and removed links from the stainless steel bracelet I chose. (Sadly, Apple didn’t make the 18-karat gold version available to reviewers.) Later, I picked up a leather loop, which I found more comfortable.
After a brief preview of the health functions during a walk through Central Park, I was off on my own, desperately hoping no one noticed the furious glances at my wrist and all the initial flicking, swiping, and scrolling that goes along with a first-time watch experience. Once alone, I could finally admire the device.
The hardware of the watch is beautiful in a surgical way. The little cube of metal and glass wouldn’t seem out of place in a futuristic lab or sci-fi movie. It is very much an Apple product: clean, sleek, remarkably solid. But as a piece of jewelry, it’s similar to other digital watches—including Casio’s iconic calculator watch, as several people pointed out to me. It also looks like other smartwatches on the market, such as Asus’s ZenWatch and Samsung’s Gear Live, in particular. (Both run Google’s Android Wear.) Like most things we adorn ourselves with, you have to love the way this looks on you. Apple’s design doesn’t compete with Rolex, Omega, or Breitling for sheer style, but the more I wore the inconspicuous thing, the more I liked it on my wrist.
The looks are just the beginning. It’s loaded with cutting-edge technology. The tiny Retina display has a new form of pressure sensitivity Apple calls Force Touch, which responds not only to where you touch the screen, but how hard you press. The watch notifies you with extremely nuanced vibrations via its Taptic Engine, which can produce strikingly realistic sensations, almost like a bell tapping on your wrist. Perhaps most important, the watch’s “digital crown” helps you navigate long menus, set options, and zoom in and out of maps and photos. And all the speedy software and motion tracking is controlled by the company’s new S1 processor, which packs in multiple components on a single chip. It’s an impressive package. After using it, I had no question that the Apple Watch is the most advanced piece of wearable technology you can buy today.
The Apple Watch as a watch
For starters, the Apple Watch does function as a watch, one which has literally millions of different dial combinations. The timekeeping that Apple is using is so precise, it’s within 50 milliseconds of the global time standard known as Coordinated Universal Time. Apple has had some fun with this: Because every Apple Watch is perfectly in sync with the others, if you’re in a room full of Mickey Mouse faces, Mickey will tap his foot in perfect sync on every watch. It’s incredibly cool.
Apple allows you to customize the face of the watch, not only with tapping Mickey and other unique designs, but with little widgets it’s calling “Complications” (in a nod to classic horological terms). These items that dot the edges of the display can tell the temperature outside, signal your next calendar appointment, show the phases of the moon, and so on. In spite of the name, these Complications are one of the most useful parts of the watch, offering the kind of information that really does elevate the device beyond a simple timepiece.
(Actually, seeing these highly useful bits of information on the tiny screen of the watch made me realize we should have had them on the iPhone for a long time. I asked Steve Jobs in 2010 why the company hadn’t included more “glanceable” information on the iPhone and iPad, such as the widgets Apple had pioneered for the desktop. He told me they were just getting started and that “anything” was possible. Is this watch the thing I was waiting for?)
But what about the watch as a timepiece? I’ve found the experience somewhat inferior to that of a conventional wristwatch, due to one small issue. The Apple Watch activates its screen only when it thinks you’re looking at it. Sometimes a subtle twist of your wrist will do, but sometimes it takes … more. Many times while using the watch, I had to swing my wrist in an exaggerated upward motion to bring the display to life. Think about the way people normally look at their watches, then make it twice as aggressive. As a normal watch-wearer, the idea that I might look down at my wrist and not see the time was annoying.
Sometimes, even if you do the arm-swing motion, the screen doesn’t turn on. Sometimes it turns on, then off. Sometimes you tap it and nothing happens.
For all the noise Apple has made about what a remarkable time-telling device its watch is, I found it lacking for this reason alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep excellent time—it just doesn’t offer the consistency of a traditional timepiece.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things to wrap your head around is the way the watch extends—and often replicates—the functions of your phone. You can receive and send text messages on the device, for instance, but doing so on the small screen with your hand cocked in the appropriate position isn’t ideal if you’re working on something longer than a one-line reply. And although it connects deeply with the phone, the watch also has a completely new way of doing things. Because navigation is split between swipes of your finger, scrolling with the crown, and taps of varying pressure, it takes a while to get oriented. One of the crucial pain points I experienced was this constant, subtle battle with myself over whether to engage a notification on my watch or handle it on my phone.
The notification scheme is a little maddening at first. Apple sends a push notification every time you get a corporate e-mail, personal e-mail, direct message on Twitter, message on Facebook, and for interactions in countless other services. Each of these notifications pings the watch. For every message, there is a sound, a vibration, or both. (You can mute them.) If you’re a busy person who communicates constantly on your phone, this gets overwhelming fast. I found myself turning off notifications from entire apps, which seems to defeat the purpose of the watch in the first place. Mercifully, Apple has included a way to clear all those notifications: Just Force Touch on the list.
Eventually, I figured out that getting the watch to really work for you requires work. I pruned a list of VIP contacts in my mail app to make e-mail notifications more tolerable, I killed several app notifications that I found to be consistently interruptive, and I streamlined my list of applications to those that seemed truly vital to my day.
What’s odd is that in many ways, the watch functions a lot like a small iPhone. Though there are new ways of getting to your apps and interacting with them, much of the phone's model interface has carried over. So you end up in a lot of situations where you not only have to take action, you have to decide where to take action.
Still, as the days wore on, I did find some balance between the two devices. Checking text messages and e-mails by quickly glancing at the watch saved me some time, and it was certainly helpful when I was deeply engaged in an important activity. My 14-month-old daughter, who is completely obsessed with the iPhones in our house, didn’t seem to notice that I was getting an update on my wrist. Score!
As I mentioned, the watch also has a few fresh tricks. Within Apple’s new suite of functions, I found both hits and misses.
On the plus side is Apple’s new Activity app, which presents you with three basic sets of achievements to hit every day—and makes hitting those goals almost frictionless. One metric it watches is how many calories you’re burning every day by moving, a number that can be changed, depending on your skill level. A second is exercise, which is any period in which you’re engaged in strenuous activity that keeps your heart rate up. The third is a notification for standing, to make sure you get up on your feet at least once every hour.
Setup for the health features was completely painless, and I immediately started seeing the results of being made so aware of my activity levels. I wanted to walk more, was excited when I got a brisk jog through a train station, and yes, I felt better because I was standing up during the day on a regular basis. I have no idea if this will have any lasting impact on my health, but I think Apple’s beautiful and frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction.
There are rough spots, too. Apple is hoping to reinvent how we communicate with friends and family by adding three new methods of messaging, not all of which work. The first allows you to essentially “sample” your heartbeat and send it off. This seems to have limited use; once you’ve gotten your first heartbeat, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Also, I don’t know who, besides my wife, I would use this for. It’s weirdly intimate. The second is called Sketch, which allows you to draw or tap some symbols on your watch and send them to another Apple Watch user. This seems like a great idea until you realize how little space you have to work with. I sent a lot of weird-looking faces with no deeper meaning during my testing period. I did find hyper-discreet ways of using Digital Touch, however, such as a lone question mark when there was an unanswered question between me and the sender. Was it better than a texted question mark? Well, it wiggled more.
The third new message concept is 3D, animated emojis. At first glance, that sounds pretty great, until you realize that the emojis are really more like neutered, animated GIFs from the late '90s internet. What really struck me here was deep deja vu over an earlier Apple attempt to change the way we communicate with people: Ping. Ping was a “social network for music” that the company imagined would be the way that people wanted to share what they were listening to. In fact, people wanted to use other services, in thousands of different ways, to do that—ways that were much more natural and personal than the sterile option Apple provided. That’s how I feel about these animated icons you can send. We already have emojis, and Snapchat, and Instagram, and Periscope, and GroupMe, and Twitter, and Facebook, and WeChat, and on and on. There’s something forced and inauthentic about Apple in this space; it feels like a throwaway, a “Hey, we do that, too” move.
I’m split on one feature Apple includes on the watch, something called Glances. Glances act like little cards hiding underneath your watch that can give you a glimpse of information from first- and third-party apps. Twitter will display the latest tweet in your timeline, there’s a controller for your music app, or you can see a detailed description of your next calendar appointment. In theory, these screens should be wildly useful for quick access to information. In practice, I found them to be clunky and overwhelmingly useless. What hinders many of the experiences is that the watch must pull information from the phone, leaving you with a spinning wheel that indicates data loading, rather than a quick hit of info.
Yes, all these new functions, notifications, and tapping do make the Apple Watch very distracting. In some ways, it can be more distracting than your iPhone, and checking it can feel more offensive to people around you than pulling out your phone. The watch wants and needs you now, as its insistent taps make painfully clear. And to see what the Apple Watch wants and needs, you must physically move it into view. If while you’re talking to someone, you check your regular watch, it can feel as if you’re sending a not-so-subtle “let’s wrap this up” message. With the Apple Watch, factoring in the animated wrist-whip and the length of some of the notifications you receive, it’s downright rude.
Eventually I realized that this problem wasn’t about fixing the iPhone or fixing the watch. It’s not about making notifications more subtle or less frequent, or located in a place that doesn’t require a shift in your gaze. The thing that needs fixing is our sense of when—and when not—to move ourselves out of a moment so we can look at our devices. Strangely, it comes down to common courtesy and patience, more than a magical piece of jewelry from Jony Ive and Co.
The Apple Watch can certainly make you a worse dinner guest. But it can also make you a slightly better one. The difference is whether or not you’re willing to think about what really matters vs. what seems to matter.
The watch is not life-changing. It is, however, excellent. Apple will sell millions of these devices, and many people will love and obsess over them. It is a wonderful component of a big ecosystem that the company has carefully built over many years. It is more seamless and simple than any of its counterparts in the marketplace. It is, without question, the best smartwatch in the world.
So Apple has succeeded in its first big task with its watch. It made something that lives up to the company’s reputation as an innovator and raised the bar for a whole new class of devices. Its second task—making me feel that I need this thing on my wrist every day—well, I’m not quite sure it’s there yet. It’s still another screen, another distraction, another way to disconnect, as much as it is the opposite. The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.
For more on the Apple Watch, read this next: The Apple Watch in 15 Photos
(Corrects the starting price of the watch.)