About 2 weeks ago, my wife handed me a box that contained a 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch w/ a black Sport Band. It was an early Father’s Day / 5 year Anniversary combo gift, but it had showed up about 2 weeks early and she knew there was no way my impulsive self would have been able to function knowing that box was somewhere in our house. So, thanks to her generosity I’ve had a few weeks now to put things through their paces and report my initial impressions.
But first, I wanted to back up to what my expectations of the Apple Watch are to provide some context to my thoughts. After the keynote in September of 2014, I was excited about the future of wearable tech and definitely thought that the actual hardware looked fantastic. However, I wanted to see it in person before making any decision.
What I was looking for in the Apple Watch
The things I’m looking for in a device like the Apple Watch, roughly in the following order:
- Use my phone at home less
In the past 6 months, I have started running 5 days a week, and combined with watching what I eat I’ve lost over 25lbs. I want to keep that going – 15 more pounds to go!, and I’m the sort of guy that needs data to keep me motivated. I was previously using a combination of my iPhone and a FitBit, but I wanted something a bit nicer to track distance run, heart rate, steps walked during the day, etc. I’ve been relying on Apple’s HealthKit to be the glue that holds together apps like MyFitnessPal, Runkeeper and Pedometer++ to give me an overall picture of how much I’m active, how much I eat, and how my runs are going. Finding something more portable than an iPhone and more powerful than a FitBit sounded like a good reason to try the Apple Watch on its own. Add to that the motivational features like reminders to get up and move, goals that change over time and ‘badges’ for sticking to a workout regimen and I was sold.
Additionally, I’m a bit addicted to having my phone on me when at home or at work. I wanted to find a way to break that tether a bit and thought a device like the Apple Watch would allow me to leave my phone behind while I’m not out and about. Being able to see and respond to simple texts and see/dismiss notifications from my wrist seemed very appealing to me, and I was hopeful this would reduce my dependency on an iPhone while at home.
I’ve also just wanted a new watch. My wife bought me a watch as a wedding gift but it’s a bit too dressy for daily wear. I wanted something that could counter that for daily use and also add some of the above benefits.
Finally, I was at least somewhat interested to see what the first generation apps on the Watch looked like. I had pretty low expectations given the early reviews and the architecture behind the WatchKit apps (essentially, the ‘apps’ are nothing more than projections of UI from your phone to your watch via bluetooth. Any data, computations or new views would have to make a round trip from your phone to your watch. I expected this to be slow and generally useless for most tasks). I think that the future of apps on the Watch is exciting but didn’t expect a lot for 1.0.
My first two weeks
The first few days I found myself tinkering with everything – watch faces, apps, notifications and settings – for the better part of the day. I nearly killed the battery every day because of this, but I never got to 0%. That definitely impressed me, as most folks were fearful of what would happen in real-life use. Once I started to ‘forget’ about the watch on my wrist a bit more, average battery life was at about 40–50% at the end of the day (a day for me starts around 7am and ends around 11pm, with a 30 minute run 5 days a week).
I’ve had to re-train myself to use Siri more often, but now that I’m getting into that habit, dictation is fantastic. I was mowing the lawn recently and was able to respond to a few messages from my mom while the mower was going. I just had to turn away and speak very close to the watch, and my messages were transcribed perfectly. Totally dorky, but I felt like I was living in the future. I’m responding to texts, setting calendar alerts, asking for directions and issuing lots of other commands very frequently with the watch and it works very well.
A few odds and ends:
- It took me a few weeks to get used to the UI – it’s so easy to think of the Watch as a tiny iPhone but it really is a whole different paradigm.
- The Apple Watch app on the iPhone is (other than the icon) pretty well done and makes managing the device a breeze.
- My kingdom for a systemwide concept of VIPs. I would love to only show notifications via text or email from folks I really care about.
- The watch face brightness level can be turned down to the lowest setting and is still great even in direct light. I’d imagine it helps with battery life but I haven’t really seen a difference yet.
- I used my Watch to buy from a vending machine, as a boarding pass at the airport and to make a few purchases at stores. Compared to the reaction I get with my phone, people think I’m a spy from the future (and probably kind of a dork too)
The fitness tracking is great – subtle reminders to get up to move around and the visible ‘fitness circles’ on the watch face keep your activity front of mind. I love how easy it is to start and stop a workout from your wrist, as well as control your music. Right now, I still run with my phone in my pocket for podcasts but I’ve also taken the watch for a spin on its own to see how things work when it is unpaired.
I’ve been very happy with the workout app on the watch as it gives you glance able info about your run/walk/bike ride but also tracks heart rate very accurately as well as calories burned. I do wish it handled intervals like runkeeper, but for now I’m just glancing to check my pace from time to time. I’ve also done a few runs using the runkeeper app on the watch and it works quite well if you’re doing interval training. The downside is that it’s reliant on the phone so if you want to be as minimal as possible while running that’s a problem.
Overall I am very happy with the workout features and it feels like Apple is walking the walk on making this a great device for people looking to take more control of their personal fitness. The workout app on the iPhone gives a great overview of how you are doing and tracks the ‘awards’ you unlock as well. Very polished app, and another one in that new ‘dark’ theme. Hmm…
Putting my phone down
I look at my phone way less often than I did pre-Watch. When I’m at home now, I tend to leave my phone on the table on whichever floor I’m on instead of keeping it in my pocket most of the time. When I get things like texts, notifications or emails I can now quickly look down and see if it is important and either respond or get back to playing with my son. The same applies for when I’m at work and want to quickly see when/where my next meeting is or what the weather is going to be like if I’m about to step out of the office. The reason that this sort of thing is important to me is that I have the awful habit of getting ‘sucked in’ when I pull out my phone to do something fairly innocent like checking the weather and end up screwing around on Twitter for 20 minutes. Removing these huge distractions gives you tons of time back to focus on things like doing puzzles with your 2 year old, paying attention in a meeting, having a conversation with your wife, or simply improving your phone’s battery life.
To the last point, my iPhone’s battery life is much better since I’ve settled into a rhythm. I look at my phone way less now. By setting important notifications to come to my wrist, the two OCD things I’ve done in the past (checking the time and seeing if I have any new notifications) don’t require taking the phone out of my pocket. By not picking up my device and turning the screen on so often, I’m noticing I end the day with about 45–55% left, where previously I was in the 30% range. There was one glitch on the 3rd day that I owned the Watch, however – I had to unpair/repair when I noticed an issue with the iPhone’s battery life. In short, something was causing the phone to never go into ‘idle’ mode and was trying to keep a constant connection with the watch, causing the battery on both devices to drop pretty significantly. After a fresh re-pairing, I’m noticing great battery life on both the phone and the watch.
It does seem like driving with my watch wrist (left) is causing some battery drain. I guess it’s turning the screen on more than I notice, which is dropping the juice considerably.
I tried on a handful of models in the store before deciding this was something I wanted, but that’s only a few minutes in a store. After wearing the 42mm stainless model for a few weeks, I do like the way it looks on my wrist. It’s a great size, it’s not too heavy and the Sport Band is super comfortable. I plan on getting a leather or nylon strap pretty soon to replace the Sport Band as my ‘daily’ band and using the Sport for working out, but even the default looks pretty good (at a distance it looks like leather, honestly). I’m very happy with the way this looks and since I plan on owning this model for the next few years (my goal is to own it until it’s obsoleted by a software update or when proper GPS is added, whichever is later) I’m hoping the stainless will age well.
As stated above, I wasn’t super optimistic about the 1.0 Apple Watch landscape going in for a few reasons. I was fearful that a lot of the developers were rushing to have their apps available on day 1 at the expense of using the device and then designing/building an app. Further, the technical limits of WatchKit 1.0 had me pretty lukewarm on the whole idea. If the whole point of a smartwatch is quick, 3–5 second interactions, I’m not sure super laggy interfaces and latent data transmission via bluetooth is really going to lend itself to a great experience.
Unfortunately, my fears were mostly spot on. A huge chunk of watch Apps are mostly useless. It should be noted that ‘glances’ are a bit better – these are the data sources you get from swiping up from the bottom of the screen. I use the following glances: Settings, Battery, Power (for iPhone), Now Playing, Heartbeat, Activity, OmniFocus, Pennies, Calendar, Weather, NYTimes, Maps. All of these provide quick bits of data or singular actionable buttons that are mostly a pleasure to use. I barely touch the actual apps at this point, though.
- Most stock apple ones.
Not So Great Apps
Most of them. Almost any app that needs data from my phone struggles to deliver it in a timely fashion unless the phone is very close by. I’m hoping watchOS 2 addresses this with native apps and better wifi networking.
The future with watchOS 2.0
A lot of the issues I have right now are performance based and I’m really hopeful that watchOS 2.0 squashes a lot of those. Custom complications, time travel and native apps alone are huge updates and I can’t wait to try them out. It’ll be interesting to see how long each generation is supported – are they going to try to position Watches as longer term investments or just another consumer device you should upgrade every few years? I’m not hopeful it’ll be sold/marketed any differently but it’ll be interesting to see how the next few rounds of software and hardware releases unfold.
So, is it worth it?
To me, the biggest selling points when folks ask me “do you like it?” is that I genuinely feel more motivated to be active because of the Apple Watch, and I have noticed a significant drop in the amount of time I’m just staring at my phone. As the watch starts to ‘disappear’ and become less of a novelty in your life, the more value it actually brings to your day to day life. That’s a huge value proposition, and one that Apple has struggled to make in my opinion. I get it – selling a thing that makes one of their other things used less seems like a bad pitch, not to mention admitting how addictive smartphones can be. I can’t stress how much I value not having to worry about missing a notification but still being able to set my phone aside.
In short, the apps kind of suck and probably will continue to do so until watchOS 2 is released. Data transfer of info to glances and apps can be glacially slow at times. Sometimes the watch won’t wake up unless you master a fairly demonstrative wrist flick gesture. The UI can be confusing at first. The lack of custom complications make some of the watch faces kind of useless.
And yet I love this thing. It’s totally a 1.0 product but I am very happy that I got one, and can’t wait to see where things go from here.
I think that anyone who is fairly invested in the Apple ecosystem and wants something akin to a FitBit but is willing to pay a bit more should look at the Apple Watch very seriously. For $350/$400 you can get something that is extremely well built – without hesitation, I think this is the nicest Apple device I’ve ever owned – and gives you tons of fitness possibilities. You can mostly ignore the apps for now and still have something worth owning for the price, and I think the usefulness of these types of devices is going to skyrocket over the next 6–12 months. Investing in the stainless or gold versions are a bit riskier given how quickly this sort of tech turns over, but I think that anyone who is somewhat tech savvy and physically active would benefit greatly from owning an Apple Watch.