I don’t think I have changed my mind so much on a mobile product in all of the years I have been writing about phones, tablets and the like, and to this day I am still somewhat perplexed by the Apple Watch.
It’s been a bit of a battle and one that at times has been quite frustrating, but the need to write about it in detail for a freelance project has opened my eyes to much of what it can do, and the intentions behind why it does things in a certain way. I am going to cover each part of the Apple Watch experience in turn and at the end try to explain what all of that adds up to which is much harder than it may sound because so much of this is completely new.
I shall look at the competition first which in some ways is not important at all because of the very limited success they have had to date. Android Wear has been a bit of flop in terms of sales numbers and quality. I have used the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R and came away most unimpressed. With a clunky interface which is only suited to a square watch face and even clunkier handling of many of the functions, it screams version 1.0 all of the way through and is likely to change dramatically in the near future. Too many features have been added to the watch and in too many areas it mimics the Android experience far too closely. A clone on your wrist which does exactly what your phone does, only not so well, is little more than a gimmick.
I have also owned 3 Pebbles to date and feel that the software is far too one-sided to be of genuine use. It alerts you to the alerts that are already alerting you about 2 feet away and has the ability to run a selection of rather simplistic apps. The basic Pebble is a travesty of watch design, but the Steel has some merit in terms of aesthetics. However, from what I have already experienced with the Apple Watch, the Pebble platform is way behind in terms of functionality, usefulness and considered usability. Not one of my Pebbles lasted for more than 2 weeks because after a while I simply could not see enough benefits to make me wear something like this on my wrist.
So, the competition is not great at this time and there are a few reasons for that. Google rushed Android Wear just to get in early and does not appear to have considered how it actually works. Pebble has good motives and a clear path, but it feels a little like Palm OS did when the iPhone got real apps. The differences are stark and the Pebble solution appears to have aged in my mind by 5 years in the 1 week I have been using the Apple Watch.
“We take our passion for innovation beyond our products and into our practices. As part of our continuing mission to leave the world better than we found it, we’re partnering with The Conservation Fund to protect and create the type of forests we use in our packaging. We’ve developed a renewable micro‑hydro project to power our data centre in Prineville, Oregon. And we’re building a solar farm in China to offset energy used by our offices and retail stores. Because it’s our responsibility to make sure that while creating beautiful products, we’re also caring for our beautiful planet.”
I will leave that quote from Apple and the photo of the Apple Watch packaging there for your consideration.
This leads me on nicely to how Apple is marketing and selling the Apple Watch, a process that has never sat comfortably with me. This is a small computer that just happens to be attached to your wrist- a selection of wires, a processor, a battery and whatever else is needed to make it work. The understated design of Apple products has always appealed to millions of people and the hyperbole can be largely accepted because it appears to feel genuine and the products back up the talk.
The Apple Watch, however, does not feel particularly luxurious to me and in many ways scream plastic all of the way through. On my wrist, it does not stand out and more importantly, it does not feel unique or worthy of the price tag. My iPhone does, my iMac does, my Apple Watch does not.
I had a look at the Watch (stainless edition) edition in store and it offers a completely different feel. The casing is lovely to touch and to look at, but at £519 it has an unjustifiable price tag for what it is. Maybe it is my fascination with real watches that causes this, but I have to say that the design feels lazy to me. It would indeed be lazy of me to suggest that it looks like a small iPhone, but it kind of does.
I love most of my Apple products, but have always felt uneasy with the marketing and the Watch has exacerbated those feelings a lot over the past few weeks. To me, it just doesn’t tick the boxes of luxury and no amount of gold plating or fancy boxes will change that. Apple is a company that puts the best products in the hands of everyone, millionaires will use a £600 iPhone, but this departure into creating a sense of luxury from nothing does not quite fit.
Bands / accessories
I won’t say much about these. The charger is nice and sits besides my bed waiting for me to drop the watch onto it. The bands are too expensive for what they are and bear no relation to the real world. I have a ‘thing’ for watch straps which sits nicely alongside my ‘thing’ for watches and I know what is out there. The Sport Band is actually rather smart (in black) and very comfortable. The Milanese Loop is very impressive, but feels expensive at £129. The Classic Buckle is wildly overpriced at £129 and the Modern Buckle (£209) and Link Bracelet (£379) speak for themselves. Finally, the Leather Loop just doesn’t feel like leather and offered no feeling of quality when I tried it on, and at £129 is also very expensive.
The fact that Apple has made the bands proprietary is bad enough, but to limit the selection to only a few expensive straps is even worse and this takes me straight back to how the watch is being marketed. If I spend £80 on a handmade leather strap for my watch, I am buying craftsmanship, longevity and the knowledge that a human was involved in its creation. If I spend £129 on a leather strap from Apple, which doesn’t even feel like leather, I am left cold.
The good news is that Apple has just announced ‘made for Apple Watch’ which should greatly increase the availability of cheaper bands, but I would be happy to use a traditional 22mm pin and swap whatever band I want each day. That feature was never broke and the Apple Watch set up is not a fix.
I haven’t dropped below 30% so far no matter how much I use the watch and so have been pleasantly surprised by how well it lasts. The nightly charge has not proved to be too much of a bind and for the first time ever, I am happy with battery performance on an Apple product.
I still strap on another watch at night, but for someone like me changing watches during the day is not a new thing. My main concern before purchasing was the battery and it has turned out to be invisible in daily use which is exactly what any watch should be like.
So, what is it like?
All of the above is fluff because it is all objective, but how the Apple Watch actually works and what benefits it offers is crucial.
The way Apple Watch works is quite risky in terms of how people will feel about it in the initial stages. Apple has chosen to make the integration with the iPhone more than just a one-way process and more than merely mimicking the notifications on both devices. If you are using the iPhone actively, you will not receive a notification on your watch which makes perfect sense when you think about it. You can answer text messages using emojis or dictation and for many tasks, only the watch is needed. Calendar alerts, fitness notifications and so many other features work very well on the watch thus enabling you to not pick up your iPhone and turn on the screen. This system is not overly ambitious and it is obvious that much more can be done in the future, but at this time it does offer a sense of potential.
The risk in making a system that only notifies you when you are not using your iPhone is that you can go for long periods without using it. This then leads to a sense that it doesn’t do a lot and could make the user question the purchase price further, but the reality is that this is likely the best way to work. If you think of it as a watch above all else, but one which also does some clever things on top you will appreciate what it can do.
The ability to receive calls on it and hold a conversation is a novelty and one which has surprisingly come in handy a few times for me so far. Checking the weather is useful as is Passbook, which brought out a confused stare at the cinema when I used it, and of course the Apple TV remote is there. Never again will I have to use a device that is not strapped to me to control the TV.
The fitness tracking is pretty impressive as well and a lot of information is presented on the associated iPhone app. It feels invisible because it is part of a watch and is probably the best I have used to date apart from the lack of sleep tracking. Throw in the controlling of music and offline playback to Bluetooth headphones and it all comes together bit by bit to make your day just a little better. The small things that the Apple Watch can do are on the whole worked out well and I have found myself starting to rely on them.
Third party apps
Seriously, I do not have one installed because they take forever to load and most have been programmed with an obvious lack of knowledge of what the watch is all about. The second point is down to Apple not having been able to give hardware access to developers in good time, but then again so is the first point. I understand why there is a delay and the way the information is handed off, but it is not a system that is working at this time because it goes against the whole idea of the watch. By the time the information loads, you may as well have picked up your iPhone.
From what I have heard, a handful of apps are genuinely useful (Uber is an example), but until apps are stored on the watch, I cannot see too many benefits.
Many question remain unanswered by the Apple Watch.
Is it the best smart watch to date? Yes, absolutely.
Is the idea of a smart watch fatally flawed? I still don’t know.
Does the Apple Watch offer benefits over the iPhone that make it a must-have product? At times it feels like it does and the integration with the phone does make it feel like that are working in tandem very well. It also feels like the iPhone is more useful because of the watch, but I am still going through phases where one day I love it and the next I don’t even wear it.
I feel that Apple has created a clever platform that integrates well with the iPhone and one that works more naturally and less invasively than Android Wear or Pebble OS, but I remain unconvinced that the design of the watch is anything special. There is no sense of wearing a special object, but every now and then it does something that makes me truly appreciate that it is there.
The success of the Apple Watch will be defined by what people think after 1 or 2 months of use and that is the boat I am in. It is not a product that can be assessed in a week of use, but it is one that will likely have to improve and which will require us all to understand what it offers over time.
I will come back to this subject in a month and we will see if it is still on my wrist or if it follows the short term route carved by Pebble and Google.