Today is the last day I can return my Apple Watch. It’s the day I decide if I really need the Watch in my life.
For me the Watch already had a few strikes against it before I even put it on. I generally don’t like to wear things around my wrist. I also had reservations about adding yet another piece of tech to my life with the potential to distract me even more.
The first wave of Watch reviews were less than satisfying to me because they were based on one week of usage — probably not enough time to understand how the device really fits into the fabric of everyday life.
I’ve had my Watch for a month now, and I’ve worn it every day, showered with it, run with it, worked out with it, walked around town with it, slept with it, driven with it, worked with it, and socialized with it.
Instead of talking about how the Watch looks on paper, or about how well this feature or that works in a vacuum, my goal is to give you an idea of how well my Watch helped me stay on top of my life on a day-to-day basis.
Looks and wearability
After putting the Watch on my wrist and wearing it around for a while, I noticed that I wasn’t thinking much about the feel of the band. Nothing seemed to get caught in my abundant wrist hair — something that’s happened with other wearables.
And this is one of the little design innovations you begin to notice after using Apple products for a while: The underside of the watch band is slightly hollowed out so that much of it doesn’t actually make contact with the skin. This cuts way down on the clammy, sweaty feel of plastic against flesh.
Still, I noticed that it did feel good to take the Watch off at the end of the day. And I found that on the weekend I sometimes left it sitting on the desk.
The Watch itself is a thick little device, but I had no problems with the distance that the thing protruded from my wrist.
Ultimately, my feeling about the look of the Watch is neutral. I have the aluminum Sport model with a white band. It’s not a bad-looking device — in fact it looks a bit better in real life than I thought it would.
But it’s not fantastic-looking.
A notifications device at heart
The Watch is not a remote control for the phone; it’s not a media-playing device; it’s not a killer fitness gadget; it’s not an invaluable communications device — not by a long shot.
No, the main job of the Apple Watch, for now at least, is delivering notifications from apps on your phone to your wrist. You’ll see these notifications throughout the day.
The exercise app will remind you to stand up or alert you that you’re close to your daily exercise goal. You’ll see texts and phone calls coming in. Various apps will alert you of things like an Uber arriving or when it’s time to drink more water.
I already get notifications on my iPhone, so these are certainly nothing new. But the presentation is much more personal. Notifications come with physical buzz or tap to the wrist created by the Watch’s Taptic engine, a sound from the Watch’s speaker (usually a bell sound), and a visual message on the watch face.
The fact that you’re being physically tapped on the wrist to alert you to, or remind you of, something makes it a far more visceral experience than a phone notification. It’s certainly harder to ignore.
Some early Watch reviewers complained that they were getting distracted by too many notifications on their wrist. I think this is a legitimate criticism of the Watch, although the Watch app provides ample means of controlling which apps can give you alerts, and how, and when.
Still, Apple made a couple of mistakes here. When you’re first setting up your Watch, Apple asks if you want to mirror the the apps and notifications settings on your phone. Wanting to get through the setup process, I answered Yes to that without really considering what that might mean for the volume of notifications.
The Watch app doesn’t present you with a setup screen that asks you exactly which apps should be allowed to notify you, and to what types of events. You may want to receive notifications from your calendar app, but only for upcoming meetings and not new invites, etc. You may want a certain type of taptic buzz to accompany upcoming events notifications.
Only later do you find out that to get down into the details of your notifications you have to go to the Settings of the phone, and then select “mirror phone” in the Watch app settings.
Less distracted or more distracted?
There are definite social implications to notifications. As The Verge’s Nilay Patel points out, looking down at one’s watch can suggest to a person you’re talking to that you are bored or would rather be somewhere else. It suggests that you are marking the time, when really you may have just been notified of some event or message.
This happened to me this morning, and the person I was with immediately began to wrap up what she was saying. I apologized. The cultural more of interpreting a glance at a watch as a dismissive gesture isn’t likely to change until smartwatches are ubiquitous, if even then.
Jony Ive said in a New Yorker interview a few months ago that good technology shouldn’t distract you, but rather help you stay engaged with your normal, real-world interactions with friends, family, and coworkers.
When we reach for our phone to do a certain task, we often then move on to other tasks; 20 minutes later we realize we’ve been zoned out in the digital realm and have forgotten all about what’s going on in the real world.
Author and blogger Matt Gemmell argues, compellingly, that the Watch helps us avoid being pulled back into the digital world by the way it presents content. He points out that Watch notifications are small, glanceable bits of mostly non-actionable information, and that this information is often enough to rid us of the need to grab our phone.
For example, when you get a text message you may be able to ascertain from the small amount of information on your wrist (who it’s from, roughly what it’s about) that it doesn’t require immediate action.
That sounds sensible enough, and I thought about it for a few days while wearing the Watch, but in practice it just didn’t turn out to be true for me. Even though I recall some times when glances at the Watch saved me from having to pull out my phone, the fact is I was getting more notifications — and they were just closer to my face and harder to ignore.
Even if I didn’t need to pull out my phone I was often distracted by the need to respond to, or look deeper into, something that showed up on my wrist. In practice, the Watch invited me into the digital realm more than it saved me from it.
It’s true that certain Watch functions like Apple Pay and the music player (which stores playlists and plays back on wireless headphones) obviate the use of the phone altogether. But there are not nearly enough of these autonomous functions — not yet. The Watch is almost useless without a phone paired with it.
As for texting, it’s a mixed bag. You can immediately see who is texting you by looking down at your wrist. And you can create simple responses by dictating to the Watch, or using canned phrases (“I can’t talk now”), or using emojis. But this isn’t easy or quick, unless you respond with one of the canned phrases.
The digital crown
Perhaps the most notable physical feature of the Watch is the digital crown, which you press to toggle back and forth between the main apps screen and the watch face (time, temp, etc.). The crown’s functions are contextual: Sometimes it zooms you in and out, as when you’re looking at a map; sometimes it scrolls you through text; it controls the volume of music playing back on your phone. Pressing it down and holding turns on Siri.
The point is that the crown does a number of things and they aren’t all obvious. Not one to read manuals (I thought with Apple products I shouldn’t have to), it took me a while to learn the full function of the crown.
How well the thing works was never a question. The interface seems to react quickly and smoothly to the actions of the crown, with the possible exception of maps, which I thought zoomed in and out less than smoothly.
The ‘social’ button
The button by the crown pulls up a quick group of your social contacts. You can click on these to initiate calls (on your iPhone) or to dictate text messages. I didn’t hit that button very much, and I’m a bit surprised that Apple’s designers dedicated a large button just for enabling limited communications with a small group of contacts. Also, there are several other ways to initiate calls or text messages. You can select either of those apps from the apps screen, or you can simply call them up by giving Siri a command.
Thankfully, the large button by the digital crown has one more purpose. You double click it to call up the mobile payments function, which I used quite a lot.
If you swipe up on the home screen (not the app screen, but the one that tells the time) you’ll see a series of screens — or “glances” — that you swipe side to side to flip though. You see a line of small dots at the bottom the screen telling you how many Glance screens you have, and where the one you’re looking at falls in the order. You use the Glances screen in the Watch app at setup (or anytime) to choose which apps you want glances of, and how they are ordered.
As a concept, glances are a good idea. They provide a way to get key information quickly from any of a set of key apps. I did start to get into the habit of using them. Beyond waking up your Watch and looking at the time and temperature, it’s the next logical thing you’ll do to access more information. You may want to glance at your exercise progress for the day, or look at what kind of weather is coming, or check on a stock price.
The only problem I had with glances is that it sometimes felt clunky calling them up and moving among them. At times the touchscreen didn’t respond immediately to my upward swipe to access my glances. Then, moving among the glances felt clunky, as some of them hurried to load up current information from the corresponding apps.
This was especially hard if there was any perspiration on the screen. So finding my heart rate glance during a hard workout was a challenge.
The Watch is not the ideal device for mapping because the screen is just too small. But I give Apple points for making the maps at least somewhat useful on the wrist.
While you’re taking driving directions from the map, it’s somewhat helpful getting tapped on the wrist and hearing the little blinker sounds coming from the Watch to let you know you have to turn soon. It’s better than relying only on the voice commands coming from the phone. But the tragic flaw here is that you can’t hear the spoken directions coming from the Watch itself.
Note that the Watch relies on the GPS radio in the paired iPhone for directions, so you always have to have your phone with you to get directions or track your routes. This usually isn’t a problem (I’d want my phone with me anyway), unless you want to use a workout app to track your progress while you run, bike, or swim.
The Watch comes with two very basic wellness apps: Workout and Exercise.
The Workout app gives you a choice of aerobic workouts including indoor or outdoor walks or runs, stair stepper, rowing, cycling, etc. Apple says each workout uses a unique mix of sensor measurements and a special algorithm to accurately track your workout. You tell the app your how many calories you want to burn, there’s a countdown, and you’re off. While you’re working out it tells you things like your time pace, distance, heart rate, calories burned, etc., and after you’re done it give you a full report on these metrics.
I’m a runner and a walker, but not hardcore in either one. I found the information provided by the app was adequate, although I found it difficult to access the information during my runs and walks. This was because of perspiration making the touchscreen less responsive, as mentioned above.
The Exercise app is the thing that tracks your steps, calorie burn, and distance throughout the day. Your progress toward your daily goals is expressed in three colored circles, which turns out to be very easy to understand at a glance. The app also reminds you get up from your desk every hour, which I ended up liking once I got used to it. The app does not track your sleep as other fitness trackers so, but that might be added in future versions of the software.
Heart rate monitor
The heart rate monitor in the Apple Watch works the same way as monitors in other fitness trackers. It shines infrared light through the skin at your wrist to measure the rate of the blood flow underneath for 5-10 seconds then extrapolates the number of beats in a whole minute. I believe the results are more accurate than any other wearable I’ve tried.
My main problem with the heart monitor is that I had a very hard time accessing it while I was working out. If there’s any perspiration on the watch face, the touchscreen has a hard time understanding your touches. It also doesn’t respond well while your body is in motion, like walking.
Siri on the Watch is the dumb stepsister of Siri on the phone. Sitting in a quiet room it works well, but I’ve found that out in the real world the service failed at important times. Also, Siri on the Watch can’t talk.
Other reviewers loved how well Siri understands natural language, but I had worse results. It either seemed to not understand what I was saying to it (this was a real problem when using the phone outside, especially if there was any wind), or it understood my question but could not find an answer. Sometimes I said “hey Siri” over and over and couldn’t get Siri to wake up and listen.
When Siri misinterpreted the word, I found no straightforward way of clearing the error and restating the word (or, perhaps, spelling it) to the Watch. Instead, I had to delete the whole text message and start over. If that one problem word was essential, I had to pull out my phone to type it in.
Siri understands a certain amount of natural language search. So if you say “How do I get to Ocean Beach?” it will quickly pull up a map and show you, with directions. But if you ask it a question like “Who won the 1959 World Series?” it has to hand off the search to the paired iPhone to display an answer.
In theory you can talk to someone using the little microphone and speaker in the Watch. But it just doesn’t work very well. Even in completely quiet environments with no background noise or wind, the calls sounded crackly and far way. Same way on the other end, I’m told.
You double-press the large button by the digital crown to activate the Apple Pay mobile payments system. Then you hold your Watch up to a point-of-sale terminal, you hear a ding, and you’re done. This is one thing the Watch can do by itself, without the need of the phone.
Still, it’s not perfect. I was disappointed that you have to double-click a button to use Apple Pay. With Apple Pay on the iPhone 6, the phone automatically wakes up to the Passbook screen when you put it near the point-of-sale terminal; you don’t have to do anything.
Also, in order to set up Apple Pay on your Watch you have to password-protect the Watch. You have to enter that password any time the Watch has left your wrist, which will mean at least once a day because of the need to charge the battery.
Battery and charging
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Watch so far has been its limited 18-hour battery life, and I too found that to be a problem. My Watch never ran out of juice during a day of usage, but having to charge it every night was an annoyance.
You can’t sleep with the Watch because you have to charge it every night. If Apple didn’t mean for you to be able to leave your Watch on while you’re sleeping, why did it include the alarm clock function? (It’s actually quite cool to be awoken by a gentle buzz at your wrist.)
So . . .
In the end, I decided that the Apple Watch doesn’t quite earn its place on my wrist. While I appreciate the elegant design of both the hardware and the software, I really don’t miss the Watch when I’m not wearing it.
I don’t think the notifications made my life that much easier, and I see the Watch’s other functions (with the possible exception of Apple Pay) as secondary bells and whistles that I can get on less expensive devices.
The Apple Watch is solid first draft of a new kind of product. It’s already showing signs of brilliance, but the list of things that need to be added, subtracted, or fixed is just too long right now. And the app developer community needs to learn more about device before they can create apps that make it really sing.