One charge review of the Apple Watch [part 1/2].

I like watches but I don’t like wearing them. I don’t like the dead weight.

first full charge of the watch arboring a slightly modified watchface I did fine tune to my liking

If you already read my intro for the Pebble Time “One charge review of the Pebble Time”, skip to ‘First look’.

At the same time I also believe smartwatches are probably the most plausible evolutionary step between wearable and implantable electronics, both for health-activity tracking or knowledge enhancement.


But since my first try to smartwatching with a Casio Databank in the eighties (not much more than a watch with a memo and agenda), better screens, new sensors, direct or indirect network connectivity, are slowly working on me and things are looking fun to try again. I may want to change my mind, and I’m ready to try them newcomers.

Most attention naturally went to the Apple Watch (c.f. “Why the Apple Watch is (not) right (yet).”) and now is time for a ‘one charge review’ of it.

First look.

I first got it out of the boxes (yes it is packaged in a plastic case resting in a solid cardboard box) at an Apple Store (their geniuses will now guide you through the installation process if you desire; I got a steel version as I wanted the unscratchable saphirre screen, with a black sportsband). The watch first striked me by the apparent quality of its making. Until it is synchronized to your iPhone it basically is worthless, but beware if you ask to synchronize it to all of your apps (as I did), this can take for a while and you can’t cancel...

I like my watchface to be simple — only having the date on the right, battery level on the bottom left and local temperature on the right

The case, the screen, the single button and the digital crown all seem precision-made, much more than what we are accustomed in personal electronics. It really didn’t strike me as being jewelry but looked more or less like products made by high quality pen manufacturers (à la Caran d’Ache or Mont Blanc — with a feel definitely reminding me of the Caran d’Ache RNX.316 multifunction). Thought it doesn’t par in feel with the works of most high quality Swiss watchmaker, you do feel the higher-grade industrial precision, and that is a plus (I don’t care about the fashion thing). It feels rather light too.

The object design has been spared any apparent surface discontinuity, the glass seems to follow the case curves, and the case integrates smoothly with the wristband. The contactless charging system enables the backcase to be as smooth as you could expect, which is a nice touch, but not really practical nor necessary (let’s face it, this isn’t a Jaeger Le Coultre Reverso).

The attaching mechanism for the wristband also feels and looks like that of a precision tool and not of a jewelery item (thought not incompatible). While good looking, the emphasis here seems more on practicality and quality (resistance, ease of use, to change or clean) than for the love of pure esthetism. It also enables you to attach various adapters (not sure they are Apple approved) in case you want to go more traditional or for whatever weird band. This sports wristband supposedly ‘innovates’ with its simple closing mechanism, it does look good and work well, but lacks the locking security I like to rely on (it once opened halfway during a sports activity).

the digital crown and the single button makes the watch interactive only on its right side, while the underlying heart-rate sensor bulges a bit underneath, probably to guarantee better contact with the skin

No logos or branding on the case, which is a great thing and helps guarantee the overall harmony of the design. The object’s overall lines look and feel good. The digital crown and button are mostly made of metal, and feel great, sturdy and precise. The later works a lot like four buttons would (one back, one menu, one up and one down), but the feel is definitely more sensual and practical when scrolling through long lists of items. The lack of a left sided button might be a downer.

Indeed if you’re right handed and wear it on your left wrist, the touch/press mechanism is not very comfortable. Your right thumb, the one nice to press with, is of no use except for support. Often you need to press or force press the screen only to follow with a digital-crown press to get out of someplace. That one finger downforce followed by a left-oriented lateral press on the crown doesn’t feel right, and you’ll do a lot of that here.

Anyhow, the overall orfevrerie of the tool is high-grade but not so much as the marketing seemed to imply, and while this is quite a nice piece of industrial design and I like it, it hardly is on par with higher end watch-making.

Interestingly enough, some have told me my watch looked a bit weird on my wrist when off, standing there as some kind of anti-arthritis bracelet, or as if it wasn’t working.

The works.

The UI interface is based on that pressable digital-crown and one independent press-button, but more importantly on the pressure and movement sensitive touch screen. This makes your understanding curve a bit steeper compared to traditional timepieces or button-based smartwatches (swipes, touches, double-taps, force-press, rotations, … is more really more?).

After one charge and thanks to the screen and digital crown, the interface hasn’t become comfortable yet (I will therefore come up with a fairer work-week review soon).

the OLED screen is of top quality with vivid colors and very nice definition — its emissive nature makes it however prone to lose its lisibility in specific conditions — macro detail of the Weather Pro app extension by MeteoGroup (shown here in French)

The OLED technology used for the display is very impressive per se (it does look stunning when demoing or in medium-lit environments) but is a definite minus for general readability in everyday use. The sapphire is also very reflective (reviews say the glass version fares better, but I didn’t try one; addendum cf part 2/2).

I found three causes for the impaired readability:
1 — the screen drains the battery hard, so most of the time it is off and needs you to move or touch it to turn on
2 — in high luminosity environments, it doesn’t emit enough photons to maintain good enough contrast, combined to the glare this is not good
3 — in low light environments, even with the well-tuned adapting mechanism, it works a bit as a beacon, focusing your environment’s attention everytime, so you tend to hide it

This screen tech basically doesn’t feel natural and you therefore need to adapt. Most of the subtle moves you would do to look at a traditional wristwatch won’t suffice to turn the screen on, while using a staircase rail to walk up will (want to spare the batteries, take the elevator)… And many times, the watch display already would have been in good position for you to read, if only had it been on.

side-by-side view of the Apple Watch (seen here synchronizing for the first time) with a Pebble Time at the Apple Store — quite explicit view of how the chosen tech seems inappropriate even playing in its own home turf

That’s why notifications don’t really work as I would have hoped or expected. The vibration will let you know when something comes in, but the screen will not kick-in until you apply the correct gesture (tap or swing). That makes for an interaction in a way similar to that of getting your cellphone out.

While it will minimize your wiggling, it will not remove the displeasure your interlocutors will have (I actually read a daily newspaper interview of a local developer that said the opposite, but that was the day after one of his friends told me how his Apple Watch seemed responsible for his somewhat absence during a conversation... I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder). And this is definitely not on par with some other smartwatches (again c.f. “One charge review of the Pebble Time”).

There are quite a few pre-installed apps, and thousands to download.

The agenda app works as one could expect, with both a daily and list view, but doesn’t impress more as one could have expected thanks to the touchscreen.

The email client is a nice plus, but for someone like me with 20k unreads, usability was quite close to nil. It is however a logical limitation for such a little screen real-estate, until some other smarter app or update.

example of the text display on the Apple Watch — thanks to the Stocks app — why the hell can’t I delete it by the way?

A great functionality that actually scores a point is the ability to voice-respond to text messages. Sadly it is still only for the Messages app (SMS and iMessages) with no way yet to respond using your other favorite messaging apps. You also have short predefined phrases ready to the touch whenever talking to your watch isn’t an option.

My first charge obviously didn’t let me test the watch in sufficent or fair detail. Most things I only lightly checked, and this thing is definitely an incredibly versatile wrist computer.

Metronm — the first musical-activity energy tracking app — works ok as a remote, but the first software developer kit sadly didn’t offer access to sensors in the watch, this self-project revealed however how hard it was to find uses for the new device — the new WatchKit will offer much more to developers

I did try the Maps app, and it seemed to work as expected, showing my position and the streeets around. The Phone app lets you phone, but has you act and sound a bit weird (this will probably look more natural in the near future — remember the first earsets on the streets and how people seemed to talk to themeselves?).

I didn’t try wireless payment, but I tried a few extensions from my favorite and self-made iPhone apps. This bag was really mixed from success to failure (not in order: Twitter, Navigon, Radar.Social, Weather Pro, …) but it does look promising.

while bicycling you can’t expect to glance at your watch and read the time or whatever notification the vibration was for — not only the reflectivity of the saphirre screen is huge, but the screen will stay off until the correct wrist-action or screen touch

Thought I’m an activities person, I didn’t really use its related capabilities. Also there is that lame circles-powered Activities app that tells you big-brother-style what daily moves and activity goals you haven’t done yet (a great way to exercise your wrist as it regularly notifies you to stand up or to inform you that you just did — for me you can put that in the ‘more cowbell’ app category).

Anyhow, apps usually work as you would expect on such a small screen, and they do it pretty well. Except because of the screen, as they all go dim before things would get readable comfortably. This is a serious downfall. The stress on the battery to get a day-length charge seems so intense, that the overall experience has been willingly truncated by Apple to compensate, and basically the burden is transferred onto you.

the bottom’s green glare used to sense heart rate (basically looks for peak blood flow by tracking skin color changes), the device seems to be quite apt at measuring that

Let us point out that I never had any trouble with phone connectivity or with the iPhone Apple Watch app. I only wished there would be some kind of ‘app store’ solely for watch compatible apps. This is a bummer if you expect to easily find new applications in order to run your innovative new interface to the virtual world.

Finally, as it isn’t officially waterproof but only water resistant, it always feels a bit ackwards if you’re of the sports activity persona. Watersports are a risk, but even if it should be ok, if you sweat a lot, you don’t feel comfortable using it (at least I didn’t).

Autonomy.

One word: bummer. The one-charge review of such a formidable tool can’t be fair with such a limited smartphone-era autonomy. Expect no more than a day with normal usage (it did last longer, but died on me in the midth of my second day, without any electrical outlet near — I was testing activities on a boat..).

When you know the kind of engineering skills and energy necessary for the creation of such a product, you can only question Apple’s choice of display and screen technology. This makes me wonder how much an e-ink based display (as in the Pebble Time) would have lasted on this device. And since when do the small guys get it right and the ‘innovating’ Apple beast wrong (once again in my humble opinion)? I find this troubling.

an example of the ‘exceptional’ readability in the shade of a high luminosity environment, yes it is on, combined to the non-waterproofing sailing is therefore not of the recommended activities — here an example of the low-consumption time-only brick mode once battery is drained

Going back to the autonomy, short of the screen readability, this is the worst part of the experience. We tend to forget how bad an every-night recharge experience is since every phone manufacturer followed Apple in that unnatural move to single-day autonomy (thanks to the original iPhone’s physical limitations). For those of us who remember or crave pre-smartphone autonomy, this is really bad. And if you forget to charge, it will go into hibernation and transform into a state of the art time-displaying brick.

It doesn’t make the Apple Watch a bad product, far from it. This device, thought expensive, is probably the best value-for-the-money smartwatch on the market, but it just reminds me of early-ninetees electric cars. They were incredible feats for the time, but they didn’t work right, yet. And let’s remember a color smartwatch with work-week autonomy is something of the present, thanks to a better smart screen display technology choice, and that it does free you of that terrible “where are those %*?&!! charging cables” syndrome. Talk of a competition.

If you’re a bit of a user like me, you’ll crave to put the watch next to you on the desk when at work. But then, no more notifications because no display. So as introduced, the resume holds in a single word: bummer. Maybe soon, maybe next time.

The afterthoughts.

For that way-too-short review of the Apple Watch, what came first was a great impression followed by slight disappointment.

the screen display can be gorgeous but you need to be in optimal conditions not to have any reflections (photograph taken with a black reflector to minimize them — using the preloaded Activity app)

The phone-freedom I could have expected never reached my expectations as the screen just kept turning on and off (if turning on) to keep energy consumption acceptable. Even with all the smart mechanisms Apple had designed to spare electrons, you still do have to charge it every day.

More disappointing is the fact that the screen doesn’t deliver as much as I expected. It is a theoretically a beautiful display of colors and blacks, but it is sub-optimal both in terms of reflectivity (having a saphirre version probably didn’t help), than of contrast with sub-optimal lisibility in low-light (everybody sees you) and high-luminosity environments (you don’t see well).

Eone’s Bradley watch, thought not a smartwatch, it is the living proof one can innovate in watch interfaces — this magneto-mechanical UI even works in your pocket or in black night

Every vibrating notification still needs you to physically react to know what it’s all about, subtle moves are usually insufficient to turn it on, the screen remaining dead black. And thus you can’t use the watch on your table as a simple notifying display.

In my oh so short review, the tactile screen did help interaction, but didn’t have a major impact on the overall experience. Force touch is a nice move too as it not only offers more interaction choices for such a small screen, but also prevents you from accidentally selecting options of greater impact.

So why bother for all that innovation?

I do understand this review was too short, but that’s also the idea behind a “one charge review”: how much do you get for being untethered. What’s the use of such a device if it doesn’t enhance your connected experience? I will therefore probably continue with a “one work-week review of the Apple Watch” soon in an attempt to make things a bit fairer for such a potentially formidable device.

As always, comments and reactions welcome.

addendum:
And here it is, the ‘One week review of the Apple Watch (vs Pebble Time) [part 2/2]’.

And if interested in smartwatch design: “The 4 key elements of successful smartwatch design”.

addendum 2: 
Since the Pebble has been ‘discontinued’ (and with it the concept of the promising Pebble Core), I continue checking and actually developping for the Apple Watch. For those who asked, the Apple Watch 3 has changed nothing about my first review, except for battery life optimization. It still, in my humble opinion, sadly doesn’t provide the basics of what could be a smartwatch revolution… Apple is force-feeding us their concept and playing it safe with extensive marketing and communication reality-distortion fields.

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