Apple Watch: The Future Is Now (or, at least, soon)

The digital wristwatch was my introduction to gadgets, and gadget lust. It all started with the Texas Instruments LED digital watch I received one boyhood Christmas morning, way, way back in the late 70s (you had to push a button to see the time — in bright, red, LED glory.) I’ve worn a digital watch almost every day since. Over the years, I’ve owned and enjoyed digital watches of various flavors: from the classic, black-resin Casio LCD, to one that could dial a touch-tone phone, through various G-Shocks (one with atomic time sync), to my trusty Suunto Core with altimeter, barometer, and compass (ABC). In addition, I was an early Kickstarter backer of Pebble (both because I wanted to write apps for a smartwatch and because I wanted to receive notifications on my wrist.) So, naturally, I placed my order for the 42mm Space Gray Apple Watch Sport promptly at 12:04 am on April 10, right after the Apple online store opened. I still wasn’t sure if I’d keep that order, or cancel it, but I wanted to make sure I would get a watch early-on as I knew there’d likely be a shortage. I had been intrigued with the watch since the first rumors, but I didn’t know if it was really going to work for me personally.

Three days after I placed the order, I went to the Apple Store to check out the Watch in person. My initial reaction was reminiscent of the first time I played with the original iPhone — I was blown away by the sheer coolness of the thing: The build quality was fantastic, the form-factor was smaller and thinner than I thought it would be, the display was brilliant, and the software seemed more responsive than indicated by some of the early reviews I’d read. Nevertheless, I still wasn’t sold on the watch — two of my biggest reservations were the fact the watch wasn’t waterproof and it had limited battery life. Also, I didn’t like that the watch wasn’t “always on” — you couldn’t just glance down at the watch to see the time. Still, I decided to keep the order and evaluate the device myself. I was intrigued by all the communication and fitness functionality, and since I’m a mobile developer, I wanted to evaluate the reality of writing apps for the device. But alas, even though I placed my order a few minutes after the store opened, I would have to wait until at least May 13th to receive the device (Space Gray was clearly a popular choice).

To my surprise, the watch arrived much earlier than expected, on May 1st (just one week after the official launch.) I’ve been actively wearing, using and testing the Watch for just over a week, and here are my thoughts and observations as a long time digital watch wearer and gadget aficionado (I’m not going to spend much time on the Watch’s overall functionality, design and software — that’s been covered in depth by others.) Also, as I’m a pretty active person (I ride my bike everywhere and I swim regularly), I’ll focus somewhat on the fitness tracking ability of the Watch.

My first smartwatch, the Pebble

Before my Apple Watch arrived, I had been wearing the Pebble almost every day. The Pebble is a decent enough device. It’s not cool looking, and it has some issues, but it’s generally very functional. Some of the positives: it’s waterproof, it has a crisp display and the battery lasts a long time. I swim 3 days a week and I love the fact I can wear the watch in the pool — in fact, that’s the primary reason I was interested in Pebble in the first place — it has a built-in gyroscope and I bought the watch so I could write a lap-counting app to use while swimming. Unfortunately, while I did play with the SDK a bit, I never found the time to actually write that app. Still, the Pebble worked for me — on long bike rides, I enjoyed the fact I could read a text without taking my phone out of my jersey pocket. I could pause a podcast from my wrist. More importantly, I didn’t have to charge the device very often — I found if I turned off bluetooth and connected to my phone only for things like those bike rides, the battery would last for 7–10 days. Also, the Pebble has some rudimentary fitness tracking abilities. I used the Misfit app to count steps and found it to be pretty accurate (almost in sync with the number of steps recorded on my iPhone 6.) Finally, the navigation buttons on the Pebble are intuitive, and work well to switch between apps and various modes.

Conversely, there are many real problems with the Pebble: The bluetooth connection is flaky — sometimes notifications work, other times they don’t. Also, the Pebble seems to suck my iPhone battery dry pretty quickly. Then there are the functional issues, many because it’s a first generation device: if I get a text, there is no way to respond — especially on those bike rides. I have to stop, pull out my phone and type. Same with a phone call — the watch will notify that I am receiving a call , and I can answer or reject the call, but talking to someone on the phone when your phone is in your back jersey pocket doesn’t work very well.

Enter Apple Watch

The watch arrived. I promptly opened it up and starting playing with it (although I must admit, I did contemplate leaving it untouched and selling it on Craigslist where the going rate seemed to be around $600–800 for the Sport.) As others have noted, the Sport Band, while a little difficult to buckle, feels great. It’s soft, supple and very comfortable. I have tiny wrists, so I ended up swapping out the included smaller band immediately (the mechanism for swapping bands is very Apple: simple, elegant, and solid.) Sync setup was amazing. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, there’s no fiddling with bluetooth settings or entering pairing codes — just point your phone camera at the super-cool animated graphic and BOOM, paired — again, very elegant and easy.

Buttons, Force Touch and Software

As other reviews have pointed out, the first time you try to use the watch, things get a little wonky. The interface and interaction with the Digital Crown, the “Side Button” and the touch screen is a little odd. It’s not hard, but it’s not completely intuitive and it does take some getting used to. I found myself (and still find myself a week later) pressing the wrong button to get “out” of a screen.

There’s one thing in particular where I think Apple missed the mark: it’s very confusing when navigating back to an app or a app’s main view from its detail screen. For example, in most apps, you enter the app by depressing the Digital Crown and then tap the screen to view details from the main view (for example, in the Mail or Messages app, you tap an item from the list view to view a message details.) However, to get back, you must tap the tiny on-screen navigation button in the upper left corner (much like the standard navigation controls in iOS). This seems weird to me. I find myself wanting an actual physical button on the upper-left side of the watch that takes me back (much like the Pebble, or even one of my beloved Casios.) What I think could have really worked is if Apple had placed the “friend” or Side Button on the upper left side of the watch instead of below the Digital Crown — the functionality could be the same — if you’re viewing a watch face and you press the friend button, it works exactly as it does today. However, if you’re deep in an email, or an iMessage, or a Yelp review, you merely hit the friend button a couple of times to get back to the app screen and maybe once again to the watch face (an aside: the Yelp app is one of the better 3rd party apps, as is the New York Times watch app.)

Activity Tracking

As I mentioned above, I move around a lot: I bike to work almost every day. I swim, and on the weekends I enjoy longer road rides, mountain biking or hiking in the woods. Accordingly, I find the fitness functionality of the Watch very appealing. I’ve tried some of the other fitness trackers out there (Nike Fuelband SE, Fitbit) and found them lacking, especially for cycling. I even tried one of the newer GPS enabled “fitness” watches, the Garmin Fenix 2. It was a cool device: it tracked my bike rides and it even counted indoor laps in the pool quite accurately. But, it was also bulky and didn’t really do much more than my GPS-enabled bike computer already did, so I returned it. But I digress. Back to the Watch: One of the first things I did with the watch was take it on a longish bike ride (35 miles). I tried the Workout app and the 3rd party Strava watch app (I use the Strava app on my phone all the time — it’s a great app for tracking your rides or runs and sharing your activity with friends.) The Strava watch app, however, leaves a lot to be desired. I won’t spend much time discussing why, but I found when I tried to start an activity on the watch, it wouldn’t start recording the activity on the companion phone app, or it would start recording on the phone, but not show anything (except a blank screen) on the Strava watch app. I track my “real” rides pretty actively and I didn’t want to risk losing the recording, so I uninstalled the Strava watch app, and just used the Strava phone app to record my ride.

The Apple Workout watch app, on the other hand, is pretty nice. I like that it has a lot of preset workouts and it’s easy to start a real workout with just a few taps. I tapped the “Outdoor Cycle” activity and started my ride. As I rode, I could view my distance, my burned calories, and my speed, and even my heart rate by raising my wrist. Handy. One major irritant: if I tried to interact with the app while riding…to swipe to see different screens, it was very frustrating. I’d raise my wrist, the Watch display would light up, but when I’d go to swipe to another screen, the Watch would turn off and I’d have to tap the Watch to get it to turn back on, try the swipe again and all the while keep from swerving off the road or running into an oncoming car (one nice feature: if you’re in a workout, the Watch doesn’t revert back to the watch face when it goes to sleep, it stays on the Workout screen.) When in the Workout mode, the Watch should stay on for a longer time period when you raise our wrist or wake it with a tap. Also, the heart rate tracking was a little frustrating as it would sometimes take up to 10–15 seconds to report my heart rate. Another interesting point I learned after the fact: by default the Workout app monitors your heart rate much more frequently than the Watch’s “normal” mode — a definite battery suck — after my 2.5 hour bike ride, my Watch battery was at 27% (it was nearly 100% when I started the ride.)

Fortunately, I learned later you can disable this constant heart-rate monitoring in Settings and save your battery (Apple Watch App -> My Watch -> Workout -> Power Saving Mode.) All in all, though, the Workout app tracking is very accurate and quite helpful. I especially like the “Outdoor Walk” mode — it’s a good way to rack up those green “exercise” rings in the Activity app, like when you’re out walking the dog, or walking home from the train station. I only wish I would have had the Watch on a recent family trip to NYC — we averaged over 10 miles a day walking around Manhattan — think of the all the bright green rings I could have collected!!

This leads me to my real disappointment in the Watch as a fitness tracking device: I wish the damn thing was truly waterproof (yes I’ve seen the video of the Australian dude wearing his Apple Watch in the pool, but what I want is official Apple support for swimming.) I swim several times a week and I’d love to track that workout with the Watch — I was very sad the first day I showed up at the pool with my new $400 Watch and had to leave it in my locker. I even thought about wearing the Watch on one wrist and the Pebble on the other that day so I could have a trusty stopwatch in the pool — luckily, even I couldn’t justify being that much of a dork. Come on Jony! It would be so awesome to wear this thing in the pool. I’d love to track my heart rate, my time, my calories burned — hell, throw an accelerometer in there and let me count my flip turns.

Apps and Watch Faces

I’m not going to say too much about the built-in apps or the Watch faces, as most of the reviews out there focus on this. The faces are all great — quintessential Apple. I love the Watch face Complications and the ability to customize them. I’m hoping soon Apple will open up these Complications to 3rd party devs. I’m not too antsy about Apple giving developers the ability to create actual Watch faces — there are far too many crappy watch faces on the Pebble, and we don’t need 10,000 Watch faces in the Apple Watch App Store as well.

In general, I think the home screen UI works — the app buttons could be a tad bigger and spaced farther apart for easier launching but the paradigm is sound. I agree with the general point several reviewers have raised: The Watch is a get in and get out device. I was skeptical of Apple’s claim that the watch will enable more presence in your interactions with real people, but after wearing the Watch for the week, I really fell in love with the notifications, glances and the fact I can peek down and see if something really is distraction worthy. I especially love the gentle tap on the wrist, although I wish it was a tad stronger. The Maps app is really great — I tested it on a recent car journey to my kids’ track meet, even though I knew where I was going. It’s really a great addition to navigation to be able to raise your wrist, note the next turn, and continue on your way. Another favorite is the phone app. Now, if I’m riding my bike and the phone rings in my back jersey pocket, all I have to do is lift my wrist, and tap the green answer button. The call quality isn’t great, but it’s certainly good enough to say “Hey, I’m on my bike, can I call you in a minute?” The future, now.

Battery, Bluetooth and Siri

I was worried about battery life, but it’s a non-issue…. the trick, unlike my Casio, is you need to plan on charging every night when you go to bed. This is a deviation from your normal digital watch, but if you plug in your watch when you plug in your phone, you’ll have no problem with battery life. Also, Siri works beautifully on the Watch — I have responded to many text messages using Siri (some even while riding my bike) and she gets my dictation correct about 90% of the time. I’m impressed with the improvements Apple has made to Siri over the past year — I used to always default to using Google for voice commands on my iPhone, but now, because of my experiences with the Watch, I’m beginning to trust Siri on the phone as well. Finally, I love the way the bluetooth connection between the watch and the phone “just works” — I’ve never had the watch lose the connection, and I seem to get every notification. Best of all, the constant connection doesn’t seem to drain my phone’s battery nearly as much as the Pebble does.

Final thoughts

This all brings me to my final point: The Watch is a wonderful device, but it needs a few tweaks. As others have said: the Apple Watch is the coolest digital watch to date, but it’s not without limitations. Truthfully, I find myself wanting, mostly a little, sometimes a lot, when wearing it. Does that mean I will go back to my previous watch, the Pebble? No way. While I like my Pebble well enough — it works for the most part, I get notifications, the screen is readable and it’s waterproof — it simply doesn’t compare to the Apple Watch. In fact, if you place them side by side, the Pebble seems downright crude — the Apple Watch is superior in almost every way — but, critically, not every way. This 1st generation of the Apple Watch reminds me a lot of the first iPod. When the original iPod came out, I had an Intel MP3 player — it was functional, it played MP3s ok, but it was ugly, the UI was a disaster, and it held only about 100 songs. The iPod literally blew it (and, as we all know, all of the other MP3 players at the time) out of the water. But, it took a few generations of the device to really catch on. Same story with the iPhone (although many, including myself, would argue the iPhone blew away every competing smartphone in its 1st generation.)

I think the Watch is more like the iPod — it’s the best smartwatch available today, but it will need to get a lot better (and less expensive) before reaching ubiquity. Not unlike that red LED digital watch I received that Christmas morning so many years ago, where I had to push the button to see the time, it’s obvious the Apple Watch is the start of something huge. Like my LED watch was the first step before the always-on LCD, then the calculator watch, then the alti-baro-compass, then the GPS watch and finally, the smartwatch; the Apple Watch is the first step to a bigger and brighter digital watch future. You can almost taste it: in a few years, it might be weird to see someone NOT wearing a smartwatch, in the same way almost everyone seems to have a smartphone today. And that watch truly will be something to see (or wear) — a watch, a health tracker, a notifier, a communication device, a credit card, a car key, a house key, and more — all like the Apple Watch I’m wearing right now but thinner, faster, and more waterproof! For now, I wish I could give the Watch a few small traits from the Pebble, or even that old Casio, but I wouldn’t want to give up anything I can do with the Watch today, so I’ll stick with the current Apple Watch. It’s not perfect, but it’s the coolest digital watch I’ve ever owned. What about those days I head to the pool? Well, for now, the Watch will have to wait for me in the lonely, dark, gym locker. Hey Siri, wouldn’t you like to go for a swim?

For more, follow me on twitter.