Review: Apple Watch

Introduction

Update: It’s not long now until we expect to see the new Apple Watch 2 land to re-invigorate the wearable market once more – although details are still thin on the ground.

You can read all about what we know in our Apple Watch 2 release date and news hub, but we’re expecting a slightly thicker model to increase battery life and include a camera for Facetime – and even the possibility of using the screen as a second strap.

If you’re still deciding about buying the current Apple Watch, it’s worth waiting to see if the sequel shows up in March – it might even fix a few of the elements that buyers have missed on the first iteration.

Original review:

The Apple Watch is still ticking away on my wrist even months after launch, and while it never ended up being called the iWatch, it really is “my watch” and Apple’s most personal gadget yet.

The iPhone 5-and-up-compatible smartwatch comes more than 40 flavors, with different case materials, colors, sizes and interchangeable Apple Watch bands. None are inexpensive.

They start at $349 (£299, AU$499), and peak at an exorbitant $17,000 (£13,500, AU$24,000), meaning it’s for impatient early adopters and boutique store regulars. Apple’s vague sales numbers hint at just that.

Is it worth that tough-to-swallow Apple Watch price? Well, beaming apps like Messages, Mail and every iPhone notification to an always-on-hand gadget is certainly a convenience.

Apple Watch review

I no longer retrieve my seemingly always-hiding iPhone 6S every time someone texts me, and I can locate my phone whenever it’s lost or buried beneath the couch cushions. It has the easiest to use Find My iPhone app yet.

Similar conveniences are carried over to the thousands of apps. Checking into a flight thanks to a wrist-mounted QR code sure beats scrambling for my phone or paper boarding pass while moving my bags up in the security line step-by-step.

Apple Watch review

Those steps, it turns out, are being counted in the Apple Watch’s fitness app. It’s not the most comprehensive fitness tracker, but it enables me to keep tabs on metrics like my steps walked, calories burned and heart rate. Surprise: I need to move more when I’m writing reviews.

Apple’s Watch OS 2 update opens up its Engine, Digital Crown and microphone to developers, meaning we’ve got a whole host of incoming apps that are set to supercharge the watch experience.

The Apple Watch update also features Wi-Fi connectivity, new watch faces with different customizable options, better Siri capabilities, email replies and even Transit directions courtesy of iOS 9.

Apple Watch review

Apple is supposed to be building on this novel idea with a proposed Find My Watch feature, which is the reserve of this handy retrieval system, and an Android Wear-like “smart leashing” detector to deploy a light tap on the wrist when the wearer wanders too far from his or her phone.

But not having to fetch my phone for each and every vibration in my pocket is very much a luxury rather than a necessity, and not one every iPhone user needs – at least for the current asking price.

Why buy an Apple Watch?

Apple Watch is often oversimplified as an iPhone on your wrist, and almost everyone I have demoed it to has accidentally referred to it as “your phone” – even I slipped up once.

It’s not an unreasonable comparison. The square-shaped smartwatch is like a mini iPhone; it enables me to read emails, summon Siri and make and receive phone calls from my wrist.

Apple Watch review

The size is just right too. While many Android Wear watches look and feel chunky to the average person I talk to, the 42mm Apple Watch fits my wrist much more unobtrusively.

An even smaller 38mm size is also available, although most people should for opt for the bigger of the two. It offers better battery life and more useable touchscreen space (but does come at a slightly higher cost).

What feels strange about writing this review is that there’s no point in really comparing it to Android Wear at all. Nobody chooses a smartwatch first and then decides on which phone to go with it; no, if you’re reading this, you’re probably either scanning through my review on the iPhone or with one close to hand, wondering if it adds enough convenience to make it worth the extra cost.

But do I need this Watch? On the one hand it’s been great for changing my behavior, as too many times I’ve instinctively run to my phone, charging in another room, because it’s ringing or because the default SMS chime has turned me into one of Pavlov’s dogs.

How many times have I missed an important call or text? Just as important, how many times have I rushed to the phone and it was an unimportant telemarketing call or a friend replying with a text that simply says “OK” to something I said three hours ago?

Apple Watch review

These missed connections and potential disappointments are less insufferable thanks to the Apple Watch, and the ability to either pick up or dismiss these alerts in a tenth of a second.

Custom watch faces, like we’ve seen from Android Wear watches, are here (although only those that Apple makes, as it’s sadly not permitting third parties to do the same thing), as well as new exclusive technology like the pressure-sensitive Force Touch touchscreen.

Apple Watch review

There are also a large number of Apple Watch apps already, including the easy-to-use Apple Pay in the US and UK, and the frequently used Uber car hailing service, equivalents of which have been slow to launch on Android Wear.

What’s missing?

There are plenty iPhone features that aren’t carried over to the wrist. Apple Watch is not a fully-fledged iPhone replacement.

It makes calls, but it can’t add new contacts. It listens to dictated texts and sends them as an audio message or transcription, but it doesn’t have any sort of edit function.

It tracks basic fitness goals, but not it’s GPS-enabled and doesn’t track sleep. Likewise, it can name songs through the Shazam app, but it listens with the iPhone microphone, not its own.

Having to carry a phone still is a weird disappointment to a lot of people who are missing the point of current smartwatches. “Wait, I still need my phone?” is the response I’ve heard from baffled people.

Of course you do. The Watch isn’t big enough for watching YouTube videos on its tiny display size, and trying to comment on Facebook posts while pecking away on a teeny keyboard would be terrible.

Apple Watch review

Who would want to don a giant watch capable of such specs or a large enough battery to run that? You still need an iPhone with you at all times, but you’ll use it less than before.

The bigger questions: can is do enough to be worth its price, and is it fashionable enough to wear everyday, by geek chic and non-geeks alike? Let’s examine the design first.

Design and display

Apple’s build-up to the Watch’s launch was all about the style, how it was forged in Ive’s clean furnaces and made of angel tears (or something), and how it’s capable of replacing the emotional connection thousands of us have with our current timepiece.

Apple Watch review

That really depends on who you ask and which Apple Watch you’re talking about. There are three models, the aluminum Sport, stainless steel Watch and gold Watch Edition.

I’ve tried on every Apple Watch model, outside of the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, before ordering, but I stuck with the entry-level 42mm aluminum Apple Watch Sport in white.

Apple Watch review

It’s the cheapest configuration slightly more comfortable than its two posh counterparts that are made of heavier steel and gold.

They vary in price and unnecessary weight more than they do in attractiveness, although when switching to the steel Watch with Milanese loop I found more people preferred the shiny exterior of the more expensive model.

But if lightness is what you’re after, the Sport’s anodized aluminum case and Ion-X glass make it 30% lighter. It’s 30g instead of the steel’s 50g, and gold’s 69g. That adds up on my wrist when I’m wearing this thing for 18 hours a day before the battery life is zapped.

Apple Watch review

After a day of wearing the lightweight Apple Watch on my right wrist and a heavier Moto 360 on my left wrist – for testing purposes, I assure you – I almost couldn’t feel the Apple Watch. For the same test with the Garmin Fenix 3 when running – a much, much larger watch – I noted the same effect, showing Apple’s got the balance pretty right here.

Its aluminum frame matches the iPhone build and is therefore duller than the shiny stainless steel Apple Watch, but it still goes with a steel band like the Milanese Loop just fine.

Apple Watch review

A bigger problem in the future may be that the Apple Watch Sport is missing the premium sapphire crystal glass, which is supposed to be almost scratch-proof. The good news is that the Ion-X glass substitute on the Sport model has proven resilient so far, after seven months of testing.

Since the launch of Watch OS 2 I’ve also been checking out the Rose Gold variant of the Apple Watch that, as you can probably guess, doesn’t do much more than just making your wrist look a bit fancy (and it doesn’t really match with many colors of band out there).

Apple Watch OS 2

It’s certainly better-looking if you’re after a more fashionable statement with the Watch, and while this is the 42mm version it looks more elegant the smaller, 38mm, end of the spectrum.

Apple Watch OS 2

I’ve seen several “drop tests” videos of shattered Apple Watch Sport glass, but more relevant real-world tests would consist of minor wall and corner scraps for wearables. Geeky iPhone diehards whose equilibrium is off may want to spring for AppleCare just to be safe, but I’ve not seen a problem.

Everything else is the same among all the models. The case sits 10.5mm off of my wrist, slightly thicker than an Android Wear watch, but it has a stylishly curved glass and rounded off corners on the top, and a small bump to its black composite back’s heart rate sensor.

Apple Watch review

It’s reasonably thin for now, but I can already imagine Apple making a “world’s thinnest smartwatch” several times over for the Apple Watch 2 and beyond.

Its thickness does leave room for two large buttons, a classy sounding digital crown and an uninspiringly named “side button.” Both are located on the right side for twisting and pressing through menus. A microphone and speaker are on the left side.

Apple Watch review

The Apple Watch Sport band is made of fluoroelastomer, which is Apple’s fancy way of saying synthetic rubber, which is supposed to be extremely durable. It’s held up, but the white color does get dirty and require a monthly scrub down.

The smooth strap, available in white, black, blue, green and pink colors, feels comfortable and is easier to buckle than any prong-clasped Fitbit I’ve tested. It tucks the excess band in a hole so that it hides behind the beginning the strap.

The difference between using the Sport model with the rubber strap and the Watch with Milanese loop felt like I was stepping up to a “proper” Watch. That’s more the band than the model itself, so a swift switch between the two (providing you outlay the high cost to buy another band) is fine to improve the look.

Apple Watch review

My watch came with two bands in the box, a larger and shorter size in the same white color. Changing the strap was incredibly simple and required no tooling, unlike the Moto 360. A secure fingernail tip-sized button underneath the watch releases each strap.

Apple Watch review

Although many Android Wear smartwatches work with third-party 22mm bands, the transition to a new Apple Watch band is more seamless. Cheaper third-party straps are in stock at Amazon.

Overall, the design of the Apple Watch is probably the biggest thing it’s got going for it, and although I still feel like an early adopter, I do feel like it’s becoming more acceptable to wear one (and a lot of people have asked about the Rose Gold variant too).

Apple Watch os 2

After a few months, the hype has died down and the idea of having a smartwatch on the wrist doesn’t seem so crazy, which has perversely helped the Android Wear story too.

Display

Behind the Ion-X or sapphire glass of the Apple Watch sits a bright and colorful OLED. It’s sharper than other smart watches, most notably the pixelated LCD of the Moto 360.

It’s the right screen technology for smartwatches, as OLED displays draw much less battery when showing a darker screen. With OLED only the pixels used are turned on, and fewer pixels equals less battery drain.

Apple Watch review

That’s why most of the Apple Watch faces are surrounded by deep black background. It also helps the colorful app icons and watch face element pop.

The 38mm Apple Watch resolution is 272 x 340, while a 42mm version is 312 x 390. The bigger display’s necessary extra power is offset by a larger Apple Watch battery.

Apple was able to design a sharp-looking flexible OLED display for the Watch, but it didn’t go as far as creating a circular screen for a truly classic watch look.

Last year’s Moto 360 did exactly that to the envy of iPhone owners who weren’t able to get in on the modern smartwatch craze outside of the first two Pebble watches.

Apple Watch review

All of Apple’s flowery marketing rhetoric about reinventing the classic watch look – from digital crown to complications – didn’t end up translating into that that traditional round watch design, which is one of my largest criticisms with the form factor. I appreciate that the square is better for interacting with the Watch, but with the apps interface being spherical and ‘traditional’ watches just look better when round.

Apple Watch is more colorful than its iPhone-connected rivals though, especially the new Pebble Time, and readable in all but the brightest sunlight. But it comes at the expense of its battery life.

Battery life and clever charging

Apple Watch is supposed to have 18 hours of battery life, which would translate into a full day if I were to ever keep to a normal sleeping schedule.

I was able to lengthen the uptime of my watch to a full 24 hours on days in which I didn’t make battery-taxing phone calls with it, or use the half-as-power-hungry heart rate monitor.

Apple Watch review

I’ll put it simply: I think Apple deliberately downplayed the battery life of its Watch to make sure it didn’t get hit with angry users should the numbers not stack up. I’ve had days where I’ve been for a couple of hours’ run and it’s still easily lasted the day, and not once in the week of testing did I get to the evening approaching critical levels of power.

Apple Watch depletes the battery in three hours if used for non-stop phone calls. Working out with the heart rate monitor or listening to music does the same in six hours. Conversely, just checking the time every so often boosts it to 48 hours.

But you’ll also need to think about the future here. Like Nokia’s old attempts at smartphones, the battery life on the Watch is good because you don’t find yourself wanting to play with it a lot because, well, it doesn’t do a whole lot right now.

Apple Watch review

That’s going to change though. As developers get their hands on the Watch and start making use of the inbuilt NFC or other sensors, you’ll find the battery life will drop faster as more apps start making a play for its reserves.

Talking of which, a 72-hour Power Reserve mode kicks in when the Apple Watch battery reaches 0% so that it doesn’t shut off completely. It only tells the time doesn’t keep the fancy watch face.

This sent me running to a charger since it does nothing else in this catatonic state. Making it even more perilous, it was actually a bit difficult to exit this catatonic state. The watch takes a solid minute and a half to reboot, which initially made me think I didn’t know how to reboot the device and was accidentally resetting it every time.

Power Reserve mode

The official Apple Watch recharge time is 1.5 hours to 80% and and 2.5 hours to 100%. That’s a bit slower than the average smartwatch. Moto 360 charges up in 2 hours flat. But I’ve been able to completely recharge my Apple Watch in the same 2-hour window.

Apple Watch review

The 205mAh battery pack is predictably sealed into the device, and is smaller than the battery on other Android Wear devices.

My faster-than-expected charging time may be because, at 0%, the watch still has its limited time-checking Power Reserve state to go. I had charged the watch when it and entered this special mode, so it technically had some juice left to it.

Inductive charger

Apple Watch’s inductive magnetic charger takes cues from the company’s popular MagSafe chargers, which come with all MacBook Air and MacBook Pro computers (but not the New Macbook).

It combines a MagSafe magnet with an inductive charger for a wire-free solution. It helps when you’re in the dark or in tight situations, like a coach seat on an airplane, and need to simply clip on a charger and be done with it. Magnets, boss.

Apple Watch review

As much as I don’t like having yet another type of cable to carry around, it’s way better than the flimsy Pogo charger designs used by Pebble, LG, Samsung and others. It wire-free design also means that Apple Watch is sealed and is therefore water-resistant to a point.

The new Watch OS 2 upgrade brings with it nightstand mode, which is pretty cool if you’re after a mini alarm clock. The display will even start to brighten up as your alarm appears, which is another neat touch that Apple’s added in.

It doesn’t stay on all night though – and you can even turn off the mode in the Watch app too. It’s a nice idea and great if you’ve bought a stand like the Griffin WatchStand (although this does look a little like a dragon’s genitalia when sat on your nightstand without the Watch on).

There’s the newly unveiled official Apple Watch charging dock, but as with anything made by Apple, it’s more expensive for what it’s worth. The included charger or a third-party option will do most people justice.

Using the Watch day to day

There’s something a little more complicated about this shrunken Apple product compared to the now familiar iPhone and iPad. It took a few days to wrap my head around the interface, which is surprising for an Apple product. The Watch is nowhere near as intuitive as most will expect.

I immediately started receiving texts and emails on my wrist, as expected, and I could easily dismiss what wasn’t vital. This sudden flurry of notifications was actually welcomed. However, to do much with these alerts, I had to learn to bounce between three menus: watch face, app launcher and glances, and the methods of flicking between them doesn’t feel natural.

This learning curve exists because the software tries to do too much at once, and smartwatches offer extremely limited interface real estate. Plus, the Apple Watch is part of a brand new product category for everyone.

Apple Watch review

Remembering to swipe down to see my backlog of notifications or swipe up to see my pinned “Glances” widgets is complicated by the fact that this only works when in the watch face menu. It doesn’t work in any other app or the app launcher menu, where with the iPhone swiping up or down is pervasive.

Sometimes I hit the side button because it looks like the iPhone sleep/wake button only to realize that it brings up my contacts list. Pressing in the digital crown does the trick here. Double tapping the crown will switch between apps, but it’s a soft press and doesn’t always feel like it’s registered, and the easiest way to get back to time is to let the watch dangle by the wrist and then bring it back up again.

Apple Watch review

That’s not intuitive, and is the sort of thing that gives the Watch naysayers (of which there appear to be a few) ammunition when you’re having to jump through hoops just to tell them the time on your watch.

Double tapping the side button now brings up your Apple Pay card, stored on the device, to allow you pay for things contactlessly quickly. It’s a speedy transaction and one that works pretty well. You’ll have to have the passcode set up so the Watch knows it’s being worn by the right person though.

There’s also the issue of slowdown that flickers intermittently throughout Watch use, with opening the settings menu the biggest offender. Hit the teeny icon (you can scroll the digital crown to make things bigger, but that feels like an odd extra step) and you’re greeting with icons that have no words next to them, and a couple of seconds later everything blinks into view.

The same happens with most lists, where using the digital crown to scroll through is fluid, using the finger (the more intuitive way to do things) lags and jumps a bit.

Apple Watch review

The setup is fairly seamless too. I booted up my iPhone’s Watch app, which comes in iOS 9, and it asked me to take a photo of my new Apple Watch. Done. It was paired.

Syncing my existing apps happened automatically too, but took a couple of minutes. After that, I was able to customize my watch face and load up a springboard of circular apps. The device connects using a weird fusion of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but unlike the phone, you can’t use Bluetooth when the Watch is in flight mode, which makes Bluetooth music streaming a no-no when in mid-air.

The My Watch menu within the iPhone companion app is astonishingly complex, which may end up being a good thing once I get the hang of it but will displease Apple fans who crave simplicity, where the thing just works.

I can disable notifications for specific apps and just about every setting can be mirrored from the iPhone or be set up individually, from Do Not Disturb to Messages notifications. Texts can repeat twice all the way up to ten times if I hate myself.

Apple Watch review

Apple Watch doesn’t contain all of the intricate gears of a Swiss watch, but it has a lot of moving parts to its software. It has taken a few days to learn and configure to my liking, but I feel as though the less-interested iPhone audience, like my new smartphone-owning parents, needs to wait until it’s further refined and more apps come to the Apple Watch app store.

A brilliant new breed of apps

The Apple Watch needs a headline feature, and while it doesn’t really have it yet (beyond sending random pictures to other Watch-wearers) the apps that live on it are going to be the real reason to buy one.

Sure, they’re not there yet, but the in-built choices and first goes from third parties are pretty good already, meaning this is a device with a lot of potential.

Watch faces

Apple’s watch faces take advantage of the pressure sensitive Force Touch display. Holding down on the glass, with a bit of exertion, zooms out of the current watch face and loads up a gallery of faces, from the information-packed Modular to the toe-tapping Mickey Mouse. Utility ended up being my favorite because it was simple, yet fit all of my customizations.

Apple Watch review

These let me insert information snippets onto the watch face, such as the full date, my next calendar appointment or the sunrise and sunset time if I really wanted to know daily. Most faces make room for smaller, pre-select spaces in the corners too. These let me display the critical Apple Watch battery life percentage, my daily fitness graph and the time in another city, which has been great for traveling.

There are “millions” of combinations, according to Apple, but these custom pre-determined spaces can’t be moved around and, in reality, there are just ten faces. Apple has yet to open up its watch face API to developers and it’s currently banning third-party faces.

With the new Watch OS 2 update, Time Travel is now enabled. This means that on the modular Watch Face you can use the Digital Crown to swing forward or backwards through the day to see what’s coming up on your calendar, how the weather will be (or was) and when the sun will set.

These ‘complications’ are set to get wider as apps now have access to them, letting you choose more modules in this section.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

However, I can’t really say that I loved Time Travel all that much yet, as I think I’m not alone in saying that my calendar isn’t as complete as it should be. If you are one of those that plops every single appointment into the mix though, this is a great way to see what’s coming.

I’m more looking forward to more apps coming to add into this mix – the ability to see what happened in sports games through the time, the chance for iTranslate to suggest key phrases at the right time of day – these will all be excellent additions that I’m looking forward to checking out.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

I’m really digging Timelapse pictures though – the ability to have a high-res image that changes throughout the day of iconic places around the world is just brilliant (even though it does expose where the edges of the screen are a little too much).

Apple Watch OS 2 review

The photos gallery is nifty too – you’ll need to set the album on your handset too, but these will cycle through nicely. Apparently they’ll even show dynamic photos if you’ve got an iPhone 6S handy, which means more motion on the wrist every time you look at your watch.

This really does help it feel much more personal, and the high-res screen is perfect for showing off the photos in the background.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

Apple has to catch up to Android Wear here as it’s one of the things I love about Android Wear (the Goldeneye and PacMan faces are real crowd pleasers) and if Apple is serious about making the Watch personal, being able to choose more faces is a must.

Built-in apps

Apps, on the other hand, are open to developers, and it shows. There are loads are launch, and the best Apple Watch apps are those from Apple itself. Siri answered my basic questions, like “who is the governor of New York” and “when in the next Phillies game.” Anything more in-depth than that, and the silent virtual assistant proposes you “handoff” to your iPhone.

Apple’s built-in timer let me set the timer for cooking and the laundry, without requiring me to take out my iPhone (which were in my other jeans).

Apple Watch review

Passbook worked flawlessly at the airport (although be prepared for the ‘Early Adopter’ syndrome when you try and check in at a desk where the attendant has no idea why you want to use your watch) and Apple Pay enabled me to buy food at McDonald’s (for testing purposes) while I continued to play on my smartphone.

Apple Pay on a phone? That’s so 2014.

But a real USP of the Watch would be that runners who have left the phone at home can still get vital hydration or a ride home in an emergency thanks to the contactless capabilities of the Watch.

Well, that’s if I’d ever use the Apple Watch as a standalone running device, which I’d struggle to at the moment (more on that later).

There’s no camera on the Apple Watch, but it does have a Camera Remote app that let me snap photos remotely in conjunction with my iPhone’s iSight camera. That was handy, unlike the actual Photos app, which was a tiny way to look at your photos from the phone.

Apple Watch review

The watch isn’t a particular visual experience and it’s restricted by its 8GB of internal storage (with about 6GB available), with Music running into the same dilemma, so controlling your iPhone’s music collection is a better choice.

That said, you can pair a set of Bluetooth headphones and tell your iPhone to shove some of your playlists over to the Watch. However the most you can have on there is 2GB of music (which you have to change from the 1GB default) so this is no iPod replacement.

It’s good for music when you’re out running though, and is a nice touch from Apple letting you choose between the phone and Watch for audio pleasure.

Apple Watch review

Apple Maps on Apple Watch let me navigate the streets of New York City without forcing me to foolishly take out my iPhone at every new turn, like a tourist. The iPhone app also opened up in my pocket, just in case I needed to change up the directions or see the route in full.

Related