Inconvenient Truths About The Apple Watch

When Apple first showed off the Apple Watch, I was stunned. It looked glorious and larger than life. Shiny and precision-machined. Like an object from the future that time-traveled back to the present just to blow everyone away.

This past Friday, the first day that the public was allowed to handle and play with the Apple Watch, everyone who had been obsessing over videos and photographs finally got the chance to use one firsthand. I made it to the Apple Store on Friday and was one of those people.

I came away underwhelmed and a little disheartened.

These are my thoughts on the Apple Watch after actually using one.

Some Background

I have owned 8 iPhones. I’ve been using a Mac since 1996. For my birthday when I was a kid, my Mom took me to the MacWorld Expo in Boston. I write iPhone apps. I’m a die-hard Apple person.

I used to be a serious watch person until I started carrying an iPhone in my pocket and typing at a desk every day (buckles on watches scraping against a keyboard are not my favorite thing.) I own a beautiful Panerai chronograph, a nice pilot watch, a bunch of Swatch watches and a bright orange Nooka digital watch. I’m deeply fascinated by mechanical watch movements and have (briefly) attempted to design my own in 3D software before realizing it’s extremely hard. I aspire to own a Lange Datograph some day.

Now that you know my Apple and watch cred, let’s get into it.

Inconvenient Truth #1:
The Apple Watch Is Really Small

I was shocked at how small and slight the Apple Watch felt on my wrist. I’m a larger guy (6' and built like a linebacker who retired and got a little fat) and when I tried the 42mm Apple Watch Sport on, I thought it was the 38mm. I thought it was tiny and there was some mistake. It is the smallest watch that’s ever been on my wrist.

But wait! The 42mm Apple Watch isn’t that small, right? I mean, it’s 42mm and lots of mens’ watches are around 40–44mm nowadays. Here’s the problem with that, and I think Apple has put a little marketing smoke and mirrors into play here.

Most watches are round. When a manufacturer says that their watch is 42mm, it’s the diameter across the case of the watch. Depending on the exact type of watch, it’s usually 42mm all the way around. However, when Apple says that the Apple Watch is 42mm, they’re measuring it from top-to-bottom. From side-to-side it’s only 35.9mm wide which is tiny in the world of men’s watches and actually closer to a woman’s watch size. Here’s a true-to-scale comparison between the 42mm Apple Watch Sport and some other popular men’s watches.

Most popular men’s watches now are 42mm-46mm measured as a diameter across the watch face. Some watches by Diesel, Guess, Fossil and other “mall stores” are actually much larger, sometimes up to 50mm wide or larger. Bigger watches are very popular now. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch isn’t large at all. Men who are used to wearing 42mm round-faced watches will definitely notice that the 42mm Apple Watch sits smaller on their wrist than they’re accustomed to. Men who are used to wearing 44mm watches (or larger) may think the Apple Watch feels more like a little kid’s bracelet than a substantial and expensive watch.

I was thinking a little more deeply about this size perception issue, and I think one reason that the Apple Watch’s diminutive size struck me is because in all of Apple’s marketing materials it’s portrayed as larger than life. Look at this still from the introduction video.

See how gigantic the digital crown looks? In real life it’s absolutely teeny tiny. I could hardly make out any of the cut-in little ridges when I used an Apple Watch in person. It’s very small and requires precise fingering to turn it while wearing one. Here’s another one from Apple’s website.

These hyper zoomed-in detail shots subconsciously set me up to think the Apple Watch would be big with all tiny details visible. I was very wrong. The watch itself is extremely slight. I wish it was larger, felt heavier on my wrist, and had a larger screen. Maybe that’ll come in a few years.

Here’s a final comparison shot between the Apple Watch and the Motorola 360. The Apple Watch looks absolutely tiny by comparison.

Inconvenient Truth #2:
Apple’s Leather Bands Feel Cheap

Apple went out of their way in marketing materials to speak to the quality of the leather they are using. Here are some quotes about their leather straps from Apple’s website:

The Venezia leather for this band is handcrafted in Arzignano, Italy. With an artisan heritage spanning five generations, the tannery has a history of partnership with some of the most prestigious names in fashion. A delicate milling and tumbling process enhances the beautiful pebbled texture.
To make the leather straps for Apple Watch, we start by hand-selecting hides from three of the world’s best-known artisan tanneries. The subtly grained Dutch, pebbled Venezia, and supple Granada leathers are chosen for their superior quality and uniform texture.
From the renowned ECCO tannery in the Netherlands, the Dutch leather used for this band is milled to give the grain a subtle, distinctive texture.

So this all sounds nice, and if you’re reading words on Apple’s website to make you feel better about a leather strap combination you chose I’m sure the above quotes go a long way, but, unfortunately, if you feel Apple’s leather bands in person you can tell it’s just lip service.

I’ll just get right to it: Apple’s leather bands feel terrible. They feel like fake leather. You know how chicken nuggets are made out of that heavily processed pink chicken sludge? That’s what I think Apple does to make their leather bands. They start with real leather from some fancy tannery and then grind and engineer and twist and mold that original, nice leather into something that only has a passing resemblance to leather in the finished product.

Here’s a zoomed-in photo of the Modern Buckle leather band.

What stands out to me:

  1. The side of the “leather” band is finished so precisely that it looks machined or formed. Neither of those things are desirable in a leather strap that costs $250, or hell, even $150. A $250 leather strap should look like it was crafted and finished by a single leather artisan. This looks like it was pumped out in a factory, perhaps fussed about and shaved down by one of the million CNC machines Jony Ive commands.
  2. There are no stitches! Are you kidding me? Leather watch bands have stitches because that’s how you make leather watch bands, or any leather good of a decent quality. Coach purses and wallets and bags all have stitches. Louis Vuitton purses and wallets and bags all have stitches. Hermès leather goods all have stitches. Even the cheapest leather bands you can buy online for $30 have stitches. Apple’s leather bands don’t. Apple is selling ultra-premium leather watch bands where you can’t actually tell if a human was involved in the process of making it.
  3. When the leather band reaches the watch, it gets thicker and then has a precisely-cut circular hole cut into it. When real leather bands get thicker, you can typically see extra folds of leather being used to make it thicker. The band here looks like it was formed in a mold. And that hole for the lugs? It’s too perfect. This thing was absolutely made by a machine.

In case you’re not a watch aficionado, or don’t know how leather watch bands should look, here’s how Hermès makes their leather bands. And to make Apple’s watch bands and their prices even more absurd, you can purchase the hand-made Hermès leather band shown below (and highlighted in that previous link) for less than what Apple’s Modern Buckle costs.

Now let’s get to the Leather Loop.

It feels like a bunch of little ABS plastic pills all glued together. It feels like Apple took a leather hide, sliced it into 10 pieces all 1/10th the thickness of the original, then wrapped those Filo-dough-so-thin-is-it-really-still-leather sheets around hard little pellets. To me, it didn’t feel like leather at all, and it’s certainly not made by people’s hands because of the precise tolerances needed to jam little hard magnets into each segment and then machine each edge flat. It’s an engineering marvel, but it’s not a buttery-smooth, hand-crafted luxury leather strap.

I think the most off-putting aspect of the Leather Loop, and all of the leather straps, is that the surface texture looks so fake. It looks like it was stamped on after the sorta-leather had been pressed into shape. It looks like Apple repurposed the PNG leather textures of iOS 6 to make 10-ton embossing presses.

I could probably forgive these quality issues if the prices were lower, but they’re not, they’re astronomical. The Modern Buckle is $250 (granted, it comes with a nice deployant clasp), the Leather Loop is $150 and the Classic Buckle is $150. Did you know that for around $100–150 you could buy a hand-made, exotic leather strap like crocodile or sharkskin? Hell, you could even buy yourself a really nice stainless steel link bracelet for that much. But Apple doesn’t provide 3rd-party watch band adapters yet, so you’re stuck paying the Apple Tax for machine-made, factory-made, only-sorta-real leather bands with a seemingly-fake texture printed on top.

On the plus side, I thought the Sport Band was the nicest available band. It elegantly drapes over the wrist and feels smooth, not rubbery. It’s a premium latex-rubber-ish strap. In all the ways that Apple’s leather straps are bad, the Sport Band is good. It’s the perfect band to wear when exercising with your Apple Watch strapped to your wrist.

Inconvenient Truth #3:
The Screen Isn’t As Sharp or
Bright As You Probably Think

For months I’ve been studying Apple Watch photos on Apple’s website. Every photo, every detail. The screen, the interface, the apps, the glass, everything. But when I’ve been looking at photos like these for months…

Imagine my disappointment when I saw the screen actually looks like this:

The photos on Apple’s Website, for the most part, are 3D renders with perfectly-crisp vector recreations of the Apple Watch’s interface. On Apple’s Website, everything animates perfectly smoothly, all apps load quickly and without delay, the screen’s colors pop just like on the iPhone, and the interface looks like it was painted on the glass.

Unfortunately, this gave me unreal expectations for what the real Apple Watch would be like. I thought the screen would be sharp like my iPhone. I thought the colors would pop like my iPhone.

In reality, this just isn’t true.

You can see pixels. You can see a bit of an airgap between the digital screen and the glass. Nothing is as sharp as I thought it would be. To be honest, this was a huge letdown. I was getting myself psyched up for the Apple Watch by looking at photos and watching videos on Apple’s Website, but in reality, it didn’t meet my expectations. Apple didn’t underpromise and overdeliver, they did the opposite.

When I first saw the iPhone 4, with its glorious retina screen, it was better in person than it looked in photographs. When I first wrapped my hands around the iPhone 6's svelte, thin case, it felt infinitely nicer than I thought it would. Last Friday, before I checked out the Apple Watch, I played with one of the new MacBooks and, boy, it’s a stunner. It looks better in person and feels impossibly light.

The Apple Watch is the first Apple product that looks nicer in press photos than it does in your hand, or in the Watch’s case, on your wrist. It’s smaller than I thought it would be. It looks and feels way less substantial than I expected from a $500+ watch. The leather straps feel worse than I thought they’d feel. The link bracelet felt flimsier and lighter than I expected. The interface and 3rd-party apps were more sluggish than I thought they’d be. The screen isn’t as sharp as I anticipated.

I hope Apple improves the display in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th-gen models. They have to. I don’t think the screen is up to Apple’s impossibly high standards. It feels like a compromise because the screen uses OLED and maybe Apple couldn’t figure out how to make an incredible OLED screen. Hopefully they figure that out at some point.

You Should Buy One If
You Want To Buy One

I have an Apple Watch preordered because I plan to write apps for it, and hope that the full SDK is released in June at WWDC. I’m not going to tell you to buy one or not to buy one, that’s completely up to you. Other Apple Watch reviewers have been happy to tell their readers if they should pick one up, or which one to splurge on. I think that route is disengenuous. If you’re interested in the Apple Watch and are considering buying one, go to an Apple Store and try it on. Then play with the interface demo boxes for 30 minutes to get the hang of it. Form your own opinions about the quality of the leather straps. You might think they’re fine. You might think they suck. But regardless, play with one in person and then make your decision. Don’t base your opinions on gorgeously fake 3D renders.

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