Editor’s note: Just over a year ago, I purchased an Apple Watch and intended to write up some thoughts and observations. That draft then made its way into a soup of other text files, and I eventually forgot about it. However, this past week, I stumbled back across my old notes, and given the recent launch of Apple Watch Series Two, I thought it would be fun to publish my thoughts on the previous model. Readers should note that although these observations were written over a year ago, I did take an hour to do some light copyediting, as the original was not quite publish ready.
Furthermore, the Apple Watch I purchased a year ago doesn’t technically exist anymore. When Apple announced Series Two, they also upgraded the processors in the now-available Apple Watch Series One. One could make an argument for calling my model Apple Watch Series Zero, but such an argument would be laughed out of the AF newsroom.
What I will miss most about my Apple Watch is the Sport Band. I think you could focus an entire review on the variety of bands and the incredibly intuitive latching mechanism. Truly, I’ve never worn anything quite as comfortable as when I wore my Apple Watch.
Wore, as in the past tense. I no longer own an Apple Watch, primarily due to what I saw as the functionality to cost ratio being tipped ever so slightly in the wrong direction. This cost-benefit analysis will probably go through the minds of many first generation Apple Watch buyers, although I’m sure many will end up keeping theirs. For me, it was a little too much money for too little functionality.
At my local Apple Store, I tried on the 42mm Apple Watch Sport edition in black. I paired it with the high-performance fluoroelastomer1 with pin-and-tuck closure Sport Band. $450 later, they were mine. Around three days after that, they were Apple’s again. What follows are some of my initial impressions of the hardware, software, and how they’re trying to come together.
WatchOS feels constrained, but in a good way. Constraints force us to make tough design decisions, and Apple’s decisions tend to be in favor of the simple and intuitive. Some of these decisions work better than others, but some of my favorites were: tilt your wrist, see the time; push through the screen (Force Touch) and you could change the watch face; spin the Digital Crown too far past the end of a list, and the watch would vibrate like a rubber band had snapped.
Overall, I liked WatchOS. Part of my enjoyment is because there are so many new design patterns, all created for this tiny screen on a flagship product. Of anything related to software, I’m most excited to see how Apple molds and matures the design language of WatchOS in the future.
Price was the primary factor when it came to choosing an Apple Watch model. However, even if I had been comfortable paying for the normal Apple Watch in stainless steel, I don’t think I go home with anything but the Sport edition. This is for two reasons: a.) personally, I find the aluminum to be more aesthetically appealing than the stainless steel, and b.) my primary usage of Apple Watch would be centered around fitness, so the lighter, more sporty model makes sense.
Getting access to WatchOS means that my iPhone also now had access to the Activity app, which tracks and logs your, well, activities. The health data is what you’d expect from this type of fitness tracker, but I already get many of the provided data points from my current wearable: a Fitbit HR. After going running, the data from both devices was similar, and from a purely data perspective, it really comes down to what you do with the data that makes the whole experience something more compelling.2
With Apple Watch, the data exists, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Fitbit’s accompanying app lets your data be used as a motivator for both you and your network. I’m biased and conditioned to want this type of thing — I’ve been using my Fitbit for a number of months — but the lack of any friend-based competition makes the experience with Apple Watch feel lonely. This is a shame, because one of the best parts of owning a Fitbit is getting to see how you’re doing against all your friends. Daily steps, as simple a metric they are, can be a huge motivator to get back outside and log a few more laps around the apartment; particularly if you’re just a couple hundred of steps behind 1st place.
When compared to other trackers, Apple Watch isn’t just competing on features; many times it will have to compete against a pre-existing support network.
Ironically, given my enjoyment of tracking fitness data, the health-related feature I enjoyed most were the hourly reminders to stand up and walk around. It was a great example of how Apple Watch could slide into the background, but also help you make small improvements to your daily health.
Health and fitness feel secondary to Apple Watch’s main functionality: offloading notifications from your phone to your wrist.3 After a couple of hours, I found not needing my phone to triage notifications a pleasant experience, which is a far cry from the torment I was prepared for. This positive reaction can be attributed in large part to the excellence of the Taptic Engine, which offers a very satisfying, and convincing, tapping sensation. This subtle, silent form of notification is pulled off to near perfection, and you really need to feel it for yourself to understand. When a notification comes in, I felt a small tapping on my wrist, at which point I could turn my watch upward to reveal a slick little animation that ushers new content onto the screen. It worked great, and I loved the vibrant colors and typography, underscored by the superb San Francisco Compact typeface.4
However, interacting with notifications quickly became a one-way street. Notifications could come in, but responding and interacting with them was a mixed bag of emotions. This was particularly maddening when replying to text messages. On WatchOS, the only way to create text on-the-fly is to dictate your message to Siri.
Once you’ve finished dictating your message, there is no way to edit it. You get one shot, which leaves you at the mercy of Siri and her a.) availability and b.) accuracy - neither of which performed well for me. Often times the whole experience with Siri would veer from excitement to “what just happened”.
Apple Watch tries to do a lot, but it’s currently at a cost that was hard to justify. Of all the apps I tried using, the only two that were partially useful were OmniFocus and Due. OmniFocus let me quickly check off items as I was doing them, and Due’s reminders were a fantastic demo of how useful notifications can be on your wrist. That’s just two apps, out of tens that I had available.
I feel somewhat confident in saying that Apple Watch is in the same place that the original iPhone was at launch: polished in many areas, but lacking functionality. I’m hopeful that Apple Watch can mature into a compelling product, especially once the SDK is out, but it’s not there yet. For some, the health benefits may justify the price, but the overall performance and functionality doesn’t do it for me. If you want an Apple Watch purely for the fitness abilities, I’d encourage you to first check out the competition. If, however, you want Apple Watch for the coolness, then go pick one up. It was undeniably cool.
Only having it for a couple days meant that I will have obviously missed many of the subtleties that would accompany a week or more of usage. My ownership began and ended within a work week, so I didn’t use it over a weekend. Additionally, I probably didn’t get more than 75 total notifications; although that’s probably more about my popularity than anything applicable to this piece.
Those things being said, now that I’ve returned everything, I do find myself missing things about Apple Watch. I’ll miss most everything about the physical interactions: the Taptic Engine, the Digital Crown, the Sport Band. I’ll also miss some of the ways it augmented my usage of certain apps, albeit most apps seemed to provide just short of the enjoyment threshold needed in order to be worth using at all.
Apple Watch felt like a device with tremendous potential, and for something permanently attached to your body, it was incredibly comfortable and svelte. However, much like child of a product it is, there are indicators all throughout the experience that Apple Watch isn’t sure what it wants to be when it grows up. Time will certainly tell.
Fluoroelastomer is one hell of a word. ↩︎
Whenever it comes to personal data, particularly personal health data, privacy is paramount. However, I’m not arguing for any sort of Game Center-style integration (although that does play into the gamification of exercise); rather, I’d be more interested in a Find My Friends approach, where the data sharing process is both granular and intentional. I’m not sure why this sort of thing isn’t there at launch. ↩︎
Ultimately, there’s not a lot you can do within WatchOS 1.0. The software is limited to displaying apps that do all of their processing on your phone, which ultimately means that you spend a decent bit of time waiting for apps to launch, waiting for data to be refreshed, and waiting for calculations to be performed. It’s not a good experience. ↩︎
Francisco Sans might have been fun too, although I’m sure west coast natives would have my head for bastardizing the name like that. ↩︎