Apple Watch: An Exercise in Frustration

When the Apple Watch was first announced, a good deal of my idle time was spent in an internal struggle of whether or not to order one. On the one hand, I have needed a watch since my last one was stolen over a year ago. On the other, this watch was Apple’s first foray into the product category and, like all Apple products, it was given a rather high price point. In the end it was the hype that kept me from making an order. I did not want to have to sit by my computer and wait for midnight to order and queue in line for delivery with umpteen million other persons. The Apple Watch is not important to my career advancement and was not going to offer any can’t-miss functionality, so I’d let the rabid masses have at it and stroll by in peace without giving myself that stress.

Boy am I glad I gave the Apple Watch a miss.

Last Monday, the company received a 42mm space grey Apple Watch with a black sport band and I was lucky enough to be the first person to take it for a demo wear. I have worn the watch every day for a week. My final conclusion as I travel in to work today to return it is: good riddance. Not that I hate the idea of a smart watch, nor that I fail to see where it might be an incredibly useful accessory, but that the first generation Apple Watch just doesn’t cut it. My analysis of the watch ( both good and bad ) is listed in bullet points below.

  • Price: The Apple Watch is expensive, yes, but no more expensive than a high quality ‘dumb watch’. The watch I had stolen from me over a year ago retailed at over $600, so any concept of indignation at paying $350 for a watch that can do more is kind of ridiculous. None of us should be complaining about the price of smart watches.
  • Style: While we should not complain about price, I think all of us should be complaining loudly about style. A watch is a style accessory and very few smart watches ( Apple Watch included ) pass muster in this area. In fact, the only smart watch I have seen that gets style right is the LG Urbane.

The LG gets style so right that I very honestly spent a couple of hours Saturday night researching Android phones and what kind of apps I might be able to use to replace iMessage ( by far the most convenient feature in the Apple ecosystem ). Yes, the style of a watch led me to seriously consider an entire ecosystem switch ( frankly, I’m still considering it ).

Apple knows that style matters with smart watches and put a lot of effort into their aesthetic choices. They just got it wrong. Stylish watches look like this Brietling:

or this slightly cheaper Citizen:

They don’t look like the Apple Watch.

  • Telling Time: The primary purpose of a watch is to tell time. While a smart watch is meant to add features to this primary function, the primary function must continue to be filled. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch has to keep its screen off for the majority of the day in order to conserve battery and make it from morning to night without going dark. The screen is supposed to turn on automatically if you turn or lift your wrist so that you can conveniently see the time, messages, or alerts. In my week using the watch, I often found myself either frustrated by staring at a blank screen when I wanted to make a quick ( and discreet ) check on the time or frustrated by my eyes catching and being distracted by a screen lighting up because I moved my arm while doing something else. I know the Apple Watch isn’t the only watch that does a screen shut off for battery savings, but if there is one argument for the Pebble Watch, my significant frustrations with Apple’s on/off screen are it.
  • Notifications: So long as you manage your notifications well ( and you should already be doing that with your phone ), the notifications you receive on your Apple Watch are actually very nice. Except for when you want to subtly look at a notification while talking with someone, in a meeting, or even just typing on your computer. Then, all you see is a blank screen. Thanks Apple. That’s exactly what I wanted. To stare at a blank screen after you ‘taptically’ notified me that I should be looking at my wrist. Talk about frustrating.
  • Stand-Up: I’m going to split Apple Watch’s fitness features into three separate components, just as they do on the fitness app. Anyone who spends even a little time thinking about health and fitness knows that it’s a good idea to stand up and walk around at least once an hour. Apple has helpfully given us an app that will remind us to do so and track our progress through the day. The only problem is, it doesn’t quite do a good job of it. After about a day, I noticed that I almost always received a ‘stand’ reminder at the :50, even if I had just sat back down from a ten minute walk around a few minutes ago. My brother, another Apple Watch user, told me to update my firmware because this feature had specifically been updated because of that issue. Unfortunately, when checking for updates, I found that I already had the latest software installed.

Throughout the rest of the week, I tested the ‘stand-up’ feature for reliability and found it frustratingly bad. In one case, I purposely stood up at :30 past the hour and went outside, watered some newly planted Virginia Creeper vines, and did a perimeter check of the yard. I was up and walking around for approximately seven minutes. Thirteen minutes after I sat down ( at the :50 ), I received an alert from my Apple Watch that it was time to stand up. I ignored the alert, but I was annoyed that it had not credited my walk around and that I would then be ‘docked’ an hour in my daily progress. Similar experiments and results continued to occur throughout the week. One particularly hilarious example was a moment in which I received the notification to stand-up while standing. Granted, I wasn’t moving at the moment, but I had been and was simply leaning against my kitchen counter for a few moments while having a conversation.

  • Exercise: Maybe there is a detailed explanation of what exercise means to Apple somewhere on the internet, but I never quite figured out what counted as exercise or not during my week of wearing the watch. I do like that my activity was tracked and really don’t have many complaints about this feature, but there were some days I was credited for a lot more exercise than I thought I had engaged in. Like a good 10–15 minutes more.
  • Calories: I understand that Apple cannot measure or predict an individual’s basal metabolic rate. However, receiving a measurement that says I have burned 627 calories for the day makes the old personal trainer in me laugh out loud. I need to eat more than 3000 calories a day to maintain my body weight, and Apple has told me that I burned 627? And that measurement is given to me despite including my age, weight, height, and general activity level into the watch. A much more useful readout for everyone would really be to make a best-guess BMR for a person based on this given info and then to add ‘activity-calories’ to the BMR estimation for the day. If I have a complete caloric measurement, I can look at foods and make appropriate estimations. Right now, the ‘activity-calories’ only measurement is useless for anything other than a feel-good number ( and I would argue that a larger total number would feel better anyway ).
  • Apps: One area of weakness for the Apple Watch that truly surprised me was the poor functionality of apps on the device. Not only are all of them slow and kludgy ( including Apple’s own apps ) on the watch, but many of them just don’t work right. One particular example of failure was my experience with the app RunKeeper. I was particularly interested in tracking watch performance during exercise and so took it with me on all three of my long runs last week. I normally use RunKeeper to keep track of my time and distance and so tried using it from the watch on the 2nd day ( the first day I used Apple’s native fitness app ). It completely failed to work. Completely. I pressed the “Start Running” button on my watch and it failed to respond. Eventually my phone started talking as if I had started a run, but when I finished there was no record of the run. So much for using apps through the watch.
  • iPhone Pairing: The actual act of pairing the watch with my phone ( and of resetting / clearing it as I prepared to turn it back in ) was very easy. But then I tried to do even very simple things without my phone and I realized just how useless the watch is on its own. At this point, Apple Watch really is nothing but a second screen for your phone. A feature-stripped second screen to be exact. I don’t need a lot of functionality out of the watch, especially in a first iteration, but it would be nice to go running without having to also carry my phone. Some ( even limited ) WiFi or LTE capability would be nice as well. I’d like to be able to be gardening outside, leave my phone inside, and still be able to receive text messages or a notification of an incoming phone call. I knew the watch was tightly coupled to the phone before going into the week, but the extent to which the watch is totally dependent on my phone being right there as well was more annoying than I imagined it would be.
  • Messaging: It’s great to receive messages on your watch. Sort of. Not really. I loved the idea until I realized that I could do very little in the form of replying. The default responses supplied by Apple for text/iMessage notifications are almost entirely useless and somewhat rude sounding. And you can only customize a limited set of those. I understand that space on the watch is limited and that voice replies are enabled ( I find Siri is still often very wrong when trying to interpret my voice and remains a feature so frustrating that I do not use her even on my phone ), but I would kill for even a half-functional keyboard navigable in the same way that the app screen is navigable. Alternately, having a selection of words I can customize and use to craft a return message would be great. For instance, if I could create a list of “Driving, Running, Meeting, Talk in, 5, 10, 15, 30, min” I would be able to craft 4 selection responses that would take care of 80% of my Apple Watch response needs. “Driving Talk in 15 min” would take 4 word selections and a submit. Such a feature would be messaging I could use. Further, that replies are only possible for text messages and not for Facebook Messenger or Skype is annoying. I know it is the fault of the app developers in these cases, but it is still annoying. It would be nice to have my customized reply-builder universally accessible to all messaging apps.
  • ‘Taptic’: Maybe I’m relatively clueless when it comes to touch, but I would say that I noticed only about 60–70% of notification-vibrations from the watch. Realizing that I had missed some vibrations ( such as from Skype message notifications ) an hour or two later was pretty annoying. Further, as an individual who is often involved in social conversations or has headphones on, audible notifications just did not work for me. They don’t work for me on the phone either though, so that’s ok. Somehow, my phone vibrations do work. Apple Watch ‘taptic’ vibrations were less easy to recognize ( and yes, I had them turned pretty far up ).
  • Fit: Maybe some of the other bands are more comfortable, but after about the fourth day of wearing the watch I found myself really not looking forward to putting it on in the morning. The band just was not comfortable to wear. Further, I tend to wear my watches a bit loose, so the Apple Watch locked itself a few times during the first couple of days in the belief that I had taken it off. I know I can remove the lock-when-off functionality, but that the watch did not think I was wearing it lead to other issues like steps not being tracked or notifications no longer being sent to the watch screen ( which was kind of ok since the screen would always remain blank when I tried to look at it anyway ). The conclusion is that if I am going to wear an Apple Watch, I have to wear it tight on my wrist, which means it needs to be comfortable. It is not comfortable. At least the sports band is not comfortable.

I’ll be honest, when I started writing this review I had the impression that I’d come away with 3–5 complaints and that’d be it. The list ended up being much longer. While I certainly would not begrudge anyone buying an Apple Watch and finding usefulness out of it, I find myself somewhat relieved to be getting rid of it today. I very much want to grab a smart watch for myself sometime in the near future, but this one wasn’t it.

What are your own experiences with the Apple Watch? How about other smart watches? Do you have any suggestions for me? I have a Pebble Time Steel on order and really have been continually returning to the LG Urbane page and staring at its stylistic look, but I still feel very undecided at this point.

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