I Beta-Tested The Apple Watch So You Don’t Have To
Two weeks ago, I started wearing an Apple Watch. I’ve come to a conclusion: I just paid hundreds of dollars to be a glorified beta tester for Apple’s latest product. But you know what? I’m glad I did-because Apple’s latest product really needs a kick in the pants.
What Is It?
A meticulously crafted aluminum, steel, or 18-karat gold wristwatch with a tiny Apple computer inside. A computer that needs to be paired to an iPhone (5 or newer) to send info to your wrist over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It tells time, delivers weather reports and stock info, plays music, tracks your fitness and heart rate, helps you find your phone, navigates to destinations, even makes calls from your wrist if needed. Not to mention pay for things without a credit card, set alarms, timers and reminders, read email, and check your calendar.
Oh, and most importantly: it runs apps. Lots of them. Apps which could theoretically let this device do anything else you’d ever want to do with a watch. There are lots of other smartwatches out there, but nobody does apps like Apple.
Why Does It Matter?
Everybody’s been waiting for the Apple Watch to show us if smartwatches are actually a smart idea, or just a passing fad. Why? Apple knows a thing or two about establishing consumer electronics demand. Remember how the iPod dominated MP3 players? How the iPhone wiped out Palm and Windows Mobile? How the iPad succeeded where other tablets had failed? Yeah. Apple’s got a track record of swooping in right before an existing technology becomes a huge success, providing key ingredients (like multitouch screens) to finally make them work.
But unlike smartphones and MP3 players before Apple swooped in, there isn’t really a market for smartwatches quite yet. The best smartwatch-the Pebble-only sold one million copies as of last year.
Do people want smartwatches at all? That’s still a real question.
Too bad the state of the current Apple Watch means we’ll have to keep waiting for the answer.
So This Is What The Future Looks Like
Before I tell you why I desperately want my money back, I should probably get this off my chest: from a hardware perspective, the Apple Watch is one of the loveliest gadgets I’ve ever used. It looks pure and simple and timeless-even more than most Apple products I’ve tried.
For my beta test, I bought the most basic model you can think of (the $350 Apple Watch Sport with the aluminum case and plain white elastic band) because I’m a cheap bastard. And yet, I can’t stop admiring the fit and finish of even Apple’s most basic timepiece.
The way the curved glass edges perfectly meet the rounded metal frame. The inky black of the excellent AMOLED screen. The precision of the laser-etched digital crown. All of which are only amplified, by the way, if you pick the shiny steel version, which adds gravitas in every sense of the word. (It’s hefty-reassuringly so-and the buttons feel way better.)
Apple Watch 38mm vs. the original Pebble-look how far we’ve come.
Another constant delight: how small the Watch really is in person. Even the 42mm version makes the Android competition look unnecessarily chunky, but my 38mm Watch is a marvel of miniaturized technology. To be honest, the 38mm frame is small enough that it actually looks a little dainty on my man-wrists… but I kind of enjoy getting in touch with my softer side. (Is it still politically correct to say that?)
The best part: Apple’s surprisingly comfortable sport band. I’ve tried on every single band in Apple’s collection, and the $150 Milanese Loop is definitely the most fun. (It’s got MAGNETS!) But the simple, pedestrian Sport Band that came in the box is super comfy. I can wear the watch all day long without ever feeling a burning desire to rip it off. The strap takes a little getting used to at first, since you buckle it the opposite of how you’d expect, but the result is a rubber cradle for your wrist-soft and unobtrusive enough that you don’t have to take it off when working at a laptop or desk.
I even admire the way you attach and detach the straps. No tools or fiddling required here: just slide one in, and a little spring-loaded button pops into place at the perfect moment to lock it right in. It’s kind of like inserting a fresh magazine into a semi-automatic pistol-you just slide it in, and the mechanism takes care of the rest. I love how it feels.
Swapping out the $50 Sport Band for the $150 Milanese Loop
I think it’s pretty safe to say Apple’s solved the first problem with wearable technology. The Apple Watch is attractive. And if that were the end of my beta test, I’d be so, so happy.
The Smartwatch Dilemma
Here’s the bigger problem with wearable technology-most of it has no reason to exist. If you want to wear an Apple Watch, you need to own an iPhone. So why not use the phone instead? Why would you ever choose to fiddle with a tiny screen on your wrist when you can use the nice big one that’s always in your pocket or purse? I call it the Smartwatch Dilemma.
Still, over the past year or two, I’ve heard a lot of theoretical answers to that question. So I used the magical new Apple Watch to put them to the test.
“It’s rude to pull out your phone during social situations, but you could check a watch instead”
Have you ever used a watch? Checking your watch is the universal symbol for “I’m worried I might be late for something more important than you.” Besides, it turns out that checking a watch in the year 2015 is way more conspicuous than looking at a phone. Everyone has a phone, and nobody bats an eye if you pull out a particularly nice one. (They all cost $200 on contract.) But every time I pull out the Apple Watch, people notice. They see I’m the guy who spent hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars on a luxury item-and that I’m fiddling with my wrist instead of talking to them.
“You can leave your phone behind-say, when you go out on a run-and still have a useful gadget at hand”
Not unless your watch has a cellular connection! The Apple Watch does have Wi-Fi, which means that you can walk around your own home without a phone and still be able to use your apps, ring your phone remotely when it’s buried knee deep in your luxurious corner sofa, or even make calls from your wrist when you’re sure nobody will see you talking to your hand.
But the moment you step outside Wi-Fi range, practically everything stops working. Sure, you can track that run, reward yourself with a Starbucks latte using your stored credit card, even listen to a limited selection of music if you own Bluetooth headphones
… but that’s about it. Oh, and you’re not going to be dialing 911 down that dark alley, you’re not going to be there for urgent calls from friends and family, and you won’t have any GPS directions if you get lost.
Yeah, I think you’ll probably keep your phone on hand.
“You could save so much time by checking a watch instead of fumbling for your phone.” and “Isn’t it cooler to control the world from your wrist?”
Only if you aren’t then fumbling with your wrist. Which you will. A lot. Because as I’ve kept hinting for roughly the last 1,200 words, this thing can be a pain in the ass.
Here’s my answer to the smartwatch dilemma: it only makes sense to use a watch when it’s faster, cooler, or more intuitive than opening an app on a phone. When you’re in a situation where you can’t or wouldn’t easily pull your phone out of your pocket… or when it’s just way more fun to do things with a sci-fi wrist-communicator. Like communicate with sci-fi wrists. (More on that later.)
The Apple Watch showed me that such uses DO exist. They’re just hamstrung by Apple’s frustrating user interface. So let’s talk about that.
Controlling the Apple Watch
The Apple Watch effectively has three buttons, a touchscreen, and a dial. One of those buttons is actually the dial itself, and one of them is beneath the screen if you press down hard, but that’s not the confusing part. What’s confusing is that they don’t always do what you’d want.
An earlier draft of this review, in Evernote.
Take the Digital Crown, the gorgeous laser-etched dial on the side of the watch. It’s my favorite thing about this tiny machine. Scrolling through lists of notifications, text messages, even entire email threads is a buttery smooth dream. I never would have thought reading on a watch would make any sense, but this dial makes it work.
The app carousel.
But if you want to scroll through apps, forget about it. Apple makes you swipe around its pretty little carousel of app icons with a terribly tiny touchscreen instead. A touchscreen small enough-particularly on the 38mm version-that I often miss the app I’m trying to tap and launch another by accident.
Like I said, you can press down on that screen to activate a button-Apple’s Force Touch. But there’s never anything in any app to tell you that Force Touch is an option-you have to experiment for yourself to see what it does.
If you swipe down from the top of the screen, you can get a list of your recent notifications, and you can swipe up for Glances: itty-bitty single-purpose screens. Like your current location, your current heart rate, your next single calendar item, your music controls, and the all-important page where you can set the watch to silent. (You’ll want to do that-notification pings are loud and tend to annoy anyone and anything within earshot.)
Oh, but those swipe controls I just mentioned? They only work from the watchface where you tell the time. Not from the app carousel, and not from inside any other app either.
So you just press the home button to go back to the watchface, and then swipe up, right? Isn’t that what home buttons do? Nope. The so-called “home” button is actually a back button – it only takes you back one step at a time, and it’s frustrating as all get-out.
How to get to Glances if you’re inside an app: three presses and a swipe.
Let me illustrate: if you’re inside an app, you have to press the home button three times to get back to the watchface: once to go back to the app carousel, again to center the app carousel, and a third time to actually go home again! Or you can press it two times very quickly to switch between the watchface from your app. Unless you’re already on the app carousel, in which case it’ll switch back to the app, not the watchface. Confused yet?
How not to get to Glances.
Here’s what happens in practice: I’ll want to skip to the next song or see my heart rate, and I’ll press twice… but a little too slowly. The app carousel pops up, then centers. I’ll swipe, thinking I’m on the watchface… but instead, I’ll just shove the app carousel in a random direction. Cursing, I’ll press again to go to the watchface… only to merely center the app carousel again. Frustrated, I’ll press twice quickly, and find myself back in the app instead of the watchface. This is the point I generally stop giving a shit, and people tell me I’m a pretty patient man.
Other controls aren’t so confusing. You press the bottom button once to start texting your friends, twice to pull up Apple Pay, and holding it down lets you turn off the watch entirely. But given that all of those are things I’d rarely ever do on a watch, and the touchscreen/home button combination feels so iffy, I wish that second button had been used a little more wisely.
It’s also probably worth noting that the Apple Watch isn’t particularly speedy. There can be some nasty lag here and there even just swiping around the interface. Apps can take so long to load that you’ll think they’ve crashed. Which they also do, on occasion. And when they do, there’s nothing you can do about it other than reset the watch or pretend they don’t exist.
All of which makes it pretty damn hard for watch apps to clear the bar of being faster, handier, or cooler than pulling out my phone.
So, with no further ado, here are the many, many Apple Watch features that failed to meet that bar, and the few where I actually felt I was getting some value for my money.
Where The Apple Watch Falls Short
As a watch
It tells the time, sure, but you have to deliberately raise your wrist and wait a moment for the screen to turn on. It doesn’t take long-certainly less than to unlock a phone-but when we’re talking about checking the time, any wait at all feels pretty dumb. And it feels even dumber every 20th time or so when it doesn’t activate reliably.
I’m also not really in love with any of the 10 included watchfaces-though it’s really cool how you can add little widgets to them to show things like your upcoming calendar events and progress toward exercise goals. And I guess it’s cool to see when the sun will rise and set with the flick of a dial.
Keeping the screen on
Not only do you have to deliberately raise your wrist to turn the screen on, it’ll also automatically turn off-whether you like it or not. Sometimes, it’ll turn off even if you’re still using it. I’ve had the screen shut off while trying to open an app; when looking at the time; and even while the watch was supposedly actively listening for my voice commands. I get that Apple’s trying to keep the battery life in check, but it’s super frustrating.
Apple promised the Watch would tell me when I’d been sitting too long, and track my calorie burn with precision. Sure enough, the Watch comes with a built-in heart rate monitor and asks me to stand occasionally… but both features are pretty useless. For instance, the Apple Watch regularly reminds me to stand when I’m working at my standing desk. (Think about that for a second.) Last week, it asked me to stand right after I sat down.
The heart rate monitor? It only really works when you turn it on. I ran my ass off during a giant Nerf war, and discovered the watch hadn’t taken a single reading. Not even one. Turns out the ambient sensors only work when you stand very still. To turn on the active ones, you need to actually tell the Apple Watch that you’re going to start exercising-and in so doing, sacrifice your battery life to the green LED gods.
Most days, the Apple Watch battery actually isn’t a problem for me at all-I’ll go to bed with 40-50% left in the tank! But the day I used the heart rate monitor for a single hour, the watch didn’t last the evening. At least it’s always tracking your steps, I suppose.
Power reserve mode
When the battery reaches 10%, the Apple Watch prompts you to switch over to power reserve mode. Don’t bother. It does literally nothing but show you the time, and even that requires a button press. And if you want to switch it back on for a quick look at something, you can’t. Not till you drop it on a charger again.
The one thing I’ve always enjoyed about smartwatches, ever since the Pebble, is getting notifications on my wrist. If you ask me, it’s the single most important thing a smartwatch can do. Which is why it blows my mind that they’re often harder to use on the Apple Watch than any other platform.
While most of them seem to come in on time, I’ve seen some arrive in fits and starts, some ridiculously late, and others uselessly bunched up. Why tell me generically that I’ve got “three Facebook notifications” and “two Gmail messages” when there’s a lovely dial there that could let me scroll through the actual messages myself? Worse, dismissing those notifications on the watch is a chore-you either have to tap and swipe on every single one, or nuke ’em all with a Force Touch.
Maybe you’re dreaming of reading and replying to your Gmail from your watch. Don’t. There’s no Gmail app for the watch, and you can barely make out the beginning of messages in the notifications that Gmail’s iPhone app will beam over. Apple’s Mail app will let you read messages, but it won’t actually push Gmail to your phone. You have to manually pull them down from the cloud. And you can’t reply anyhow. It’s so much easier to just pull out a phone.
Supposedly, you can start reading things on the watch and finish them on the phone-like those poor Gmail notifications above. But I can’t figure out a way to make the blasted thing work reliably. Sometimes, I’ll see a little icon when I unlock my phone to indicate that a Handoff is ready. Then, I’ll unlock my phone. Sometimes, it’ll launch the right app. Sometimes it won’t!
And Handoff seems to assume that you’re going to unlock your phone the old-fashioned way-you know, before Apple added an amazing fingerprint sensor that instantly unlocks your phone when you place a finger on the home button and press down. Does Apple really expect me to re-lock my phone and then unlock it again?
See “Controlling the Apple Watch” above.
It’s actually pretty awesome to use the dial to control volume on my phone from across the room… but first I have to tap tiny touchscreen buttons to get to your music app of choice, and/or pull up the music playback glance. (See above for why that’s a pain in the ass.) You might even need to switch between the app and the glance repeatedly, because some app developers aren’t building volume controls right into their apps. Oh, and as far as I can tell you can’t play audio over the Apple Watch’s speaker-not even talk radio. I’ll stick to my phone.
Almost all my phone calls
Walking down the street with an Apple Watch right up to my face is just asking for it to get punched. Which is pretty much what it looks like you’re doing to yourself when you rapidly move the watch between your ear and your mouth. Stick to your phone.
Almost anything in the car
I’ll talk about driving directions in a bit. They’re actually fairly cool. But otherwise, the driving experience is pretty broken. Like, I-can’t-believe-they-shipped-it-like-this broken. When my iPhone is connected to the Apple Watch and my car at the same time, incoming calls no longer go to my car. They don’t go to the watch either-only the actual iPhone itself. Somehow, Apple has managed to make these two wonderful pieces of wireless technology cancel each other out. Sounds like something that’ll get addressed in an update, though.
Yelp, failing to load a list of nearby cafes
Almost anything involving third-party apps
There are over 3,500 apps available for the Apple Watch already, and most of them are shit. The worst part: there’s no good way to tell until you try them. Apple’s promoting a small collection of them in the Apple Watch app, but you have to blindly search the App Store yourself for the rest-and since watch apps are considered to be part of the iPhone apps, you might pick something with fantastic user reviews only to find the watch version is disgustingly bad. I’ve been grabbing anything and everything that looked even remotely interesting, and here are the most common sins:
- Apps with touchscreen buttons that are too tiny to press (I’m looking at you, Blackjack)
- Apps with completely unrelated functionality to their iPhone counterparts (Buzzfeed is just a daily quiz)
- Games which aren’t actually games, but just companion apps for actual games on the phone (Want to play Modern Combat 5 on your watch? Yeah right.)
- Apps which fail to install on the watch until you manually activate them on the phone. (Too many to name)
- Apps which require you to log into a service on the iPhone before you can proceed, when you’re not sure you wanted the iPhone version to begin with (Ditto)
- Apps which take forever to load (Flipboard) or crash
- Apps which are arbitrarily limited to a tiny amount of their normal content
I think it’s the last one that irks me the most, because that gorgeous dial really makes it easy to scroll through lots of text. Scrolling through five tweets at a time, or a single lousy story in Yahoo News Digest, just makes me want to weep. Instagram’s square pictures and “just heart this” mentality are perfectly suited to the Apple Watch. So why can I only see the last nine images in my feed?
I’d like to use Apple Pay. I might even enjoy it someday, But right now, pulling out a $350 watch in front of an underpaid clerk makes me feel like a giant douchebag. Particularly when I realize that the store in question doesn’t actually accept Apple Pay. (I’ve done that twice now.)
What I Actually Do With My Apple Watch
It’s strange to think, but true: the most reliable control on the Apple Watch is your voice command. Fed up with the touchscreen, I use Siri for practically everything now. I just hold down the digital crown, speak a few words, and up pops an app or text message or new entry in my calendar.
Reply to text messages
My life likes to text me. She should probably know better, because I rarely reply. I often don’t see them come in, I can be absent-minded when I do, and I kind of hate banging out replies too. But with voice commands (see above) I just say a phrase into the watch, and it’s remarkably good at interpreting my voice, even with music playing, over my car’s engine, or in a noisy room. Google also has good voice recognition, but I think Apple is better at canceling the noise.
Field short incoming calls
PR people call me-a lot-and I like to at least pick up the phone. Except I don’t actually enjoy the part where I pick up an actual phone. The Apple Watch lets me do so hands-free while I keep on sifting through tech news, and callers are none the wiser. It sounds just as good as a speakerphone, which is pretty impressive for a device this size.
Find my phone
One reason I don’t like picking up the phone while working is that I often misplace it. A few button presses and a swipe on the watch, and the phone will start ringing.
Get silent turn-by-turn directions
Okay, so it’s not quite as good as my Moto X, where I can literally just say “Okay Google Now, Navigate Home” and automatically get full turn-by-turn GPS navigation even when my phone is locked. But I can say “Hey Siri, Navigate Home” after waking up the screen, wait about ten seconds, then tap an annoyingly tiny button on the screen to get something even a bit better.
Because once I do that, I can just peek at my wrist at any point and see my next turn, even scroll ahead to see the turns after that-and every time I get close to a turn, it’ll silently buzz my wrist in a pattern that lets me know if I need to turn right or left. If it weren’t for the way the Apple Watch screwed up incoming calls in the car, and how difficult it is to pop up Glances to change the volume, I could definitely see myself using this more. Oh, but Apple really needs to compensate for speed of travel when deciding how soon to alert.
By the time I unlock my phone, I might have already forgotten what I want to remember. With the Apple Watch (or, let’s face it, any Android Wear smartwatch), I can just say “Hey Siri, remind me to take out the trash when I get home,” or and it’s smart enough to do it. I set alarms the same way-if I’m parking in metered spot in downtown San Francisco, a quick voice command can help remind me to move my vehicle. Ditto the Evernote and Trello apps, where I can jot down ideas with my voice and file them away for organizing later.
Two presses to quickly identify the song that’s currently playing, without hunting through the icons on my phone. I still need to hunt through the icons on the watch, of course, but it’s a teensy bit faster and more convenient. I just wish I could ask Siri to identify the song directly, the way I can with Google devices. (Right now, Siri prompts me to use Shazam on my iPhone. Siri’s not so bright.)
My new addiction, Lifeline is a choose-your-own-adventure game that’s all about notifications. Somehow, you have a comm link to the sole survivor of a spaceship crash. He’s all alone, paranoid, and doesn’t know what to do. It’s your job to keep him alive by giving him good advice, then waiting for him (minutes, hours, even overnight) to report back on his progress. He’ll ping you at all hours of the day.
You can play it on the iPhone too, sure, and it’s got some delightfully atmospheric music if you do, but it’s pretty amazing to see “Incoming Message” pop up on the watch and see this spaceman talking to you on your wrist communicator. It’s one of the few things I’ve experienced on Apple Watch that actually feels cooler than on the phone.
I don’t check the weather much. Now, it no longer gets me in trouble. I paid a few bucks for an app called Dark Sky, which warned me right before it was about to start raining right outside my front door. Local info, pushed right to my wrist where I won’t miss it-that’s what a smartwatch should be about.
Does this seem like a pretty short list to you? Now you know why I’m returning the watch.
I love the way the hardware looks and feels. Superb, through and through.
Pretty cool how the Watch protects your data-it uses the heartrate sensor to detect when it’s on your wrist, staying unlocked, and locks itself as soon as it’s removed. You can either enter a pin, or just use the Touch ID fingerprint sensor on your nearby iPhone to unlock it once more.
The bands are fantastic, and the Sport Band version comes with two straps so you can adjust it for nearly any size of wrist. At first, I was worried my band was too small, but there was another one waiting for me right inside the package. Problem solved.
Unless you’re using the watch like crazy-or tracking any sort of exercise but basic steps-the battery actually isn’t a gigantic problem. You have to charge it every night, just like your phone, but I’m finding there isn’t much of a tangible difference between one day, two days, or three days between fill-ups. Unless you can last a week, more than a day’s charge can actually be worse, since you don’t build up the nightly habit you need to keep it charged.
I can’t believe Apple shipped this product with such a confusing interface. Sure hope it isn’t hard to fix!
Why the heck doesn’t the home button take you straight home, like it does in iOS?
Why does the screen shut off when I’m in the middle of using it?
There’s no good way to tell which apps don’t work when you’re away from your phone.
I like wireless charging, but I wish the magnet was a little stronger to keep it snapped to the watch. I’ve accidentally knocked it off my bedside table a couple of times, and found the battery nearly dead in the morning.
Should You Buy It?
No. Almost certainly not. There’s only one real reason to buy the Apple Watch today
: if you so badly crave a gadget that’s new and different that you’re willing to settle for something broken.
The good news: first-generation Apple products always suck
! Look at the original MacBook Air, the original iPod, or best of all the original iPhone. It cost a ridiculous $500 on contract, shipped without an app store and without 3G connectivity or push email. But one year later, the iPhone 3G cost $200 for twice the speed, twice the memory, and all those features built in.
Again, the difference is that nobody needs a watch. It’s optional. And there’s a very high bar for apps that the initial wave of app developers are doing a piss-poor job of meeting, even the apps that Apple initially recommends. It’s going to take a lot of careful thought on developers’ part, and curation on Apple’s part, for the watch to be a success.
Here’s a little advice from an early beta tester: Build your app around the gloriously tactile digital crown. Don’t assume you only have a tiny canvas to paint on, since the dial lets us comfortably scroll forever. Avoid touchscreen buttons smaller than a fingertip. Give us something new and different and uniquely built for the watch, not a companion to your existing app. If you’ve got an great existing app, push great actionable notifications to the watch instead. Build experiences for scenarios where people can’t or won’t pull out their phones… and make sure they’re way the heck faster than pulling out a phone anyhow.
And don’t buy an Apple Watch. Not yet.
With any luck, it’ll be out of beta by this time next year.
Contact the author at sean.hollister@Lexibet88.com.