Most of the time, reviewing tech is easy. Acer brings out a new laptop? Benchmark it, examine the fit and finish, use it for a few days, write it up. Apple brings out a new phone? Test the new features, live with it for a few days, write it up, and hunker down to weather the barrage of hate from Android users for anything positive you’ve said about it and the barrage of hate from Apple fanboys if you’ve dared to criticise any aspect of it.
The Apple Watch, though, is not only something quite new – at least for Apple users, denied the fitful sputterings of the Android Wear ecosystem – but something that is basically completely unproven. As such, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to review; reactions to it can vary wildly even among people who’ve bought one, and you probably need to buy one and live with it for a year before you know if you should buy one, and if you have access to the time machine you’d need in order to pull this off, there are some more pressing world history matters that could use your attention first.
Basically, I’m going to have a damned good stab at telling you whether or not you should buy an Apple Watch in this review, but if we’re honest, it’s so personal and unknown a device, and requires so much time and open-mindedness to understand and exploit, that it’s not going to be a bald yes or no.
What is It?
It’s a bloody conundrum, is what it is. I mean, sure, yeah, on one hand it’s quite clearly a watch; one with a series of watch faces that can be configured to show different snippets of information, such as activity levels and temperature. On the other hand, it’s a fitness tracker which measures not just your movement but also your heart rate. And on the third hand – which, coincidentally, is how many arms you’d need if you wanted one each of the three different versions the Watch comes in – it’s a tiny computer whose role is at least currently that of an extension to an iPhone.
But it’s not clear, even after many days of using it, what it really, truly, actually is.
Who’s it For?
At a bare, logistical level, it’s for anyone with an iPhone 5 or later. It needs to be tethered to an iPhone, and only the 5, 5c, 5s, 6 and 6 Plus are supported – don’t expect that to change.
At this stage, it’s essentially for people with some disposable income who are curious about new technology, and like finding out for themselves how valuable (or otherwise) a new class of device can be in their lives. More so than any other piece of kit I can think of, the Apple Watch requires a leap of faith to buy; for most, it’s not immediately obvious what problems it will solve, and especially what problems it will solve that the iPhone you already have by definition hasn’t already solved. Apple haters, and even the more curmudgeonly Apple users, will seize on this gleefully, and will ridicule those of us who preordered ours within minutes of them going on sale.
That said, even in the few days it’s been on my wrist, I already know I don’t want it to go away. It has insinuated itself into my life in a way quite unlike anything else before – not with a lot of razzamatazz but like a freshly minted butler; a little green, but already unobtrusively helpful, and with plenty of obvious potential once we get to know each other.
Predictably, the design is good. I know it looks tubby in pictures, and to be sure it could do to lose a third of its thickness, but somehow that bulk seems less conspicuous once you strap it on. Everyone comments that even the larger of the two sizes (42mm vs 38mm) is smaller than they’d imagined; I have pretty slim wrists and don’t suit big, macho watches, but the 42mm sits perfectly, comfortably on my arm.
I bought the ‘cheap’ Sport model (£339), and the rubbery ‘fluoroelastomer’ strap feels genuinely fantastic – and like no other ‘rubber’ you’ve felt before. What’s more, the (initially slightly unnatural) way the clasp works on the Sport edition means you don’t get an end flapping about and catching on stuff as on a traditional watch strap.
Of course, one of the Watch’s strengths is the range of designs and materials to suit your style – though at a price. Remember that what’s inside the Watch, and therefore what it does, is the same regardless of whether you buy the £229 Sport edition, the £13,500 Edition model, or something in between. In other words, because it’s so hard to know what value the Watch will have to you, unless you’re particularly affluent, the smart money will buy a Sport edition.
The screen is terrific: it’s detailed and clear (with clearly laid-out information, in part thanks to a dedicated new font), and because it’s OLED, blacks are truly black, even in darkness. You do need to squint in bright sunlight, and at some angles you can see the air gap where the screen itself is recessed slightly from the bezel, but in general you get the impression that information is embedded directly onto the face of the Watch.
Finally, apps – at least, Apple’s own apps and the first smattering of third-party apps we’ve had so far – look bold and smart, and that scrolling ‘fish-eye’ Home screen on the Watch never fails to delight; on those rare occasions you actually use it, that is.
Usually, when you get a new gadget, you spend all day fiddling and playing with it. The Watch is different. For one thing, since by default it mirrors the behaviours for notifications that you’ve spent years tweaking and honing on your iPhone, it feels specifically less like a brand new gadget and more like what it is: an extension of an existing gadget. More importantly, it’s not intended as something you spend a large proportion of your day using; after the initial set-up process – which is intellectually simple but can be a bit overwhelming – and a little tweaking in the first day or two to get things just how you want them, the Watch just sits quietly on your wrist until you need it.
Or perhaps more accurately, until it needs you. Because this isn’t really a device you turn to in order to open an app and do something like you would on an iPhone. You can do that, though the apps are understandably very cut down on the Watch. No, here instead it’s about your Watch gently tapping you on the wrist – really, it’s weird! – to alert you to the fact that something you’ve deemed important has happened, or about you quickly glancing at snippets of information such as walking directions, upcoming events, weather forecasts or indeed just the time.
And it really, really seems to work well for that. It’s not about replacing your iPhone, and you’ll quickly go mad if you try to do every task that could be done either on a Watch or an iPhone on the former; if you’re holding your iPhone, use that, or if it’s a sufficiently complex task, pick up your phone and do it there. But if your phone is in your pocket and your wife texts to ask you to pick up beer as you’re walking home, being able to raise your wrist and see the message, then tap a button to send back ‘OK’ (or some other canned response you have defined), all without breaking stride, is fab. Equally, if your phone is in your pocket and you feel it buzz, in most cases you have no idea whether it’s important or trivial, and so have to pull it out before you can even figure out whether something is worth responding to, but with the Watch, you can glance at an alert and choose to ignore it till later if you like without breaking your flow.
One impressive thing is that even if, like me, you have an iPhone, an iPad, a Mac and now an Apple Watch, in general all are aware of the others, so that if, for example, you’re having a conversation with someone in Messages on your Mac, their replies don’t buzz on your wrist; Apple generally does a terrific job of making it so you don’t have to clear streams of did-I-read-these-or-not duplicate notifications on multiple devices.
An aside: usually, if you want to type more than an emoji or send a canned response, you should just turn to your iPhone (a task made simpler with Handoff), but don’t forget about the text dictation feature. It’s eerily accurate, and I speak, somewhat indistinctly, as someone whose Scottish accent may as well be Klingon for dictation software of the past. Siri too is a huge boon on the Watch; as an example, for setting timers when cooking, and for getting stuff done in little bits of time between big, to-do-list-type jobs; there’s an example in Test Notes, below. In both cases, if you work in an office, you might feel silly speaking to your watch, but I suspect attitudes to that might change over the next couple of years, in no small part thanks to smartwatches.
So, basically, even though you spend a vanishingly small fraction of your day using the Apple Watch, in most cases, once you’ve got things set up to suit you, each one of those tiny interactions makes your life a smidge smoother and easier. It might not sound like much – and to be sure, there are irritations, detailed below – but the cumulative effect is already noticeable and welcome, and should only increase both as Apple improves the basic experience, and as developers get better at, and get better tools to make, third-party apps.
– I was in the living room of my flat and noticed our heated clothes airer was on. Knowing I was going out later that day, as I walked back to my study, I simply raised my wrist and said “Hey, Siri; remind me to turn off the radiator when I leave the house.” This created a reminder to alert me when my iPhone left the geofence of my home address, and I didn’t have to stop and make time specifically to set it up, or even physically touch a computer; when I arrived at my desk, I could just sit down and get to work. That’s what I mean about the Watch letting you get stuff done without breaking your stride.
– Nobody cares. I don’t know if it’s because it looks so much like a watch, because it spends so much time with the screen off, because I use it in short bursts and am focused on it rather than people around me during that time, because smart watches are an accepted thing, or just because as a society we’re quite used to new bits of tech now, but the Apple Watch barely registered a glance when I was out and about.
– My low-grade panic about picking my phone up every time I left a room started to abate a bit. Stray too far from your phone, even when your Watch is in range of a Wi-Fi network, and you won’t be able to use all its features, but it’s still less of a worry you’ll miss something. (Not everyone will be as mildly neurotic as me about this, but you might recognise the desire to keep connected.) Handily, though this meant I wasn’t as sure where my phone was at all times as I used to be, you can ping it from the Watch to make it easy to locate.
It’s a lovely thing to wear, and it’s already proven itself useful in dozens of tiny but welcome ways. I suspect it will grow on me further as it settles and matures – and as I learn where its strengths are versus where I should instead use my iPhone or Mac. As with any entirely new class of device, I need to figure it out – and Apple needs to fine-tune and extend its vision for it now they’re in the hands (or at least, on the wrists) of the public.
Navigating strange cities on foot with haptic feedback and the occasional glance to confirm you’re on the right path is fantastic for not making you look like a tourist; there’s something delightfully futuristic about changing my Hue lights from my wrist; controlling a Keynote slide deck with the Watch when lecturing feels both natural and improbably sci-fi; and being tapped on the wrist and being told it’s about to rain for the next seven minutes by the uncannily accurate Dark Sky is surely enough to convince any Brit of the Watch’s potential.
I’ve read conflicting reports from people better qualified than I on the accuracy and usefulness of its health features, but for me – someone with a pretty sedentary lifestyle unless I specifically chose to exercise – it’s just the quantification and nudge I need to prod me into action.
The battery has easily been good enough in my 42mm (which has a slightly bigger battery than 38mm models) to last a long day without having to step down into the ‘it only functions as a watch’ Power Reserve mode, but it’s still a pain to take it off nightly to charge, and I miss the sleep tracking my Withings Activité or Activité Pop did.
That said, merely doubling or tripling the battery life wouldn’t really solve the problem: it needs to improve by orders of magnitude to make a qualitative difference; none of that is going to happen soon. Indeed, looking at Apple’s track record with iPhones and iPads, it’s likely power and slimness will change but the day-long battery will be a fixed point.
I also wish it was fully, properly waterproof, in part so I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to take it off before I shower, but also so I could track the meagre amount of activity I do when I swim.
There is also a delay when information is pulled across from the iPhone. (Remember, apps don’t really run on the Watch; they’re just proxies back to the iPhone. It’s likely this might change in June at Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC.) Though some have complained about it, for me the delay was usually entirely bearable; occasionally, it would be an irritation, but that was the exception.
One easily fixable problem: on those occasions where data was slow to pull in and the little ‘waiting’ spinner was on the Watch’s screen, the battery-saving algorithm could flick the screen off before the data had loaded. Apple is clearly aggressively managing power use on the Watch, but that’s just the wrong compromise to make. In general, I found the activation of the screen to be excellent, though since I’m easily reaching the end of the day with battery to spare, I would like the screen to stay on for a heartbeat or two longer.
The feedback from the Taptic Engine is delightful and subtle – but while it’s easily noticeable when working at a desk or sitting around the house, it’s perhaps a little too subtle when walking or driving.
Apple Pay is currently still US-only, so we can’t pay for stuff with the Watch yet, but that’s not its fault – and in any case, I bought a coffee in Starbucks using the 2D barcode Starbucks card in Passbook, by waving my Watch in front of the till’s scanner.
Should You Buy It?
This can be an easy decision. If you fall in the Venn diagram intersection of ‘owner of an iPhone 5 or later’, ‘sufficient disposable income that at least three-hundred quid won’t mean fundamental sacrifices’, and ‘enthusiastic and curious about technology’, then yes, you should; it’s rewarding and intriguing. Fail on any one of those, though, and it’s a no. That last one’s the most touchy-feely, but as the Watch lacks a simple, specific reason to buy – it’s not solving a problem we know we have before we use one – you need to want to explore and tinker, and to be prepared to let the Watch reveal its usefulness to you.
Equally, the decision not to buy one can be ‘no’, and for basically the same reasons. As much as I think I’ll come to find the Watch all-but indispensable, at the moment it’s certainly not something most people have any actual need for. (And that’s OK – we buy and enjoy many things we don’t need.)
Between the yes and the no, though, there are a thousand shades of maybe.
It’s a 1.0 device – but a very strong one. You could wait and buy the inevitably improved second or even third version, though it’s by no means certain the Watch will be on an annual release cycle. But since you’re reading Gizmodo, and have read this far, there’s probably a little ghost of envy at the back of your mind gibbering at people who already have an Apple Watch and are flooding your Twitter stream with their thoughts and discoveries about it.
I say, it’s worth dropping a few hundred quid on the Sport if you can afford to, and if by the time the second generation comes out it hasn’t proved useful, chalk it up to experience and move on. I suspect, however, that having failed to do so this time round, you might be up and frantically mashing the refresh button on the Apple Store page, a total Watch convert.