Like many other Apple enthusiasts, my owning a first generation Apple Watch was inevitable. I fell in love with the Mac in the 90s, owned a first generation iPod, and waited in line to get my original iPhone. Each of these products at the time that I first used them not only had the benefit of being great, but also happened to compete with truly lesser products. Windows 3.x still felt like the Dollar Store version of Mac OS. Early MP3 players had terrible interfaces, compromised on either storage or size, and suffered from original USB’s slow-as-molasses I/O. Smartphones prior to 2007 were app-less, browser-less and joyless machines used primarily for work email. I would argue that for the better part of the last decade, Apple could confidently release enjoyable and well designed products without any real fear of quality based competition thanks to a race-to-bottom mentality from the late 90s. With the viable alternatives being crap, I would further argue that Apple’s luxury brand status was at least partially won by default.
Times have (somewhat) changed.
Largely influenced by Apple’s success, technology companies have increasingly started factoring quality into their offerings. Much to our benefit, the technology landscape now has an array of decently put together from a variety of manufacturers (with some of them more original than others). I think that Apple is still on top in terms of design and quality, but that a large part of maintaining that lead relies on their ability to refine their products into an increasingly premium experience. The current digital watch market epitomizes this dynamic. While there have been plenty of underwhelming watches released in the past year or so, there have also been some solid offerings. I think an Apple Watch released with the manufacturing prowess of an iPod would have fallen flat in today’s market, particularly with the level scrutiny that naturally comes with being the largest company in the industry.
While still a consumer product, the 42mm Steel Apple Watch with Milanese Loop is the nicest Apple product I have owned.
I ordered the Steel version for three reasons— first and foremost I have a sensitivity to aluminum and while I have heard that this may not be a problem with the Sport collection, I did not want to take any risk. Second, I knew immediately that I wanted the Milanese loop which goes best with the Steel model. Lastly, I am not a millionaire which eliminates that other collection.
Having smaller wrists, I was torn between the 38mm and 42mm, and was originally leaning toward the smaller face until seeing various warnings that the watches were much smaller in person compared to the gigantic product shots on Apple.com. After some research, it looked like the 38mm would look a bit small while the 42mm would be a little large. Calling it a wash, I decided to pre-order the larger version for the bigger screen and larger battery. Luckily a try-on appointment confirmed my research and the size still feels appropriate after wearing the watch for the past few weeks.
The Watch & Bands
Instead of feeling mercilessly bent or carved into submission, the steel casing around the Apple Watch feels entirely natural, as if it was born with this shape. This combined with a near seamless curved sapphire display and back give the sense of wearing something closer to jewelry than a tiny computer.
I was initially worried that the Milanese Loop might look too gaudy. Luckily, that really hasn’t been a problem. The steel mesh is somewhat neutral which doesn’t stick out next to the matching steel case. The few comments I have received have all been complimentary with one person remarking that they would wear one as a bracelet if they could. Functionally-wise, I find it fairly easy to put on and take off despite moments of the strong magnet clasp prematurely sticking to various other parts of the band. While the band does loosen over the course of a day, I rarely feel the need to readjust it. A bigger issue is a false sense of haptic feedback that sometimes occurs as the band loosens.
The black sport band I purchased to work out also looks good enough to provide a more casual alternative to the Milanese Loop. My aforementioned smaller wrists dictated that I use the S/M band, an option that oddly wasn’t available during my try-on. The band fits comfortably and works great though it does require a bit more dexterity to put on than the loop.
The Digital Crown & Side Button
The digital crown doubles as both the home button and a traditional watch wheel. A perfect combination of resistance and smoothness gives the digital crown a sense that I am somehow effortlessly rotating something far heavier, a feeling far better than any Apple input mechanism I have used. Apple touts the digital crown as a revolutionary input mechanism on par with the mouse, iPod click wheel, and multitouch. From a purely functional standpoint, I find this claim a little overblown simply because all of the other innovations served as the primary (if not exclusive) way to navigate their respective interfaces. The crown on the other hand shares input with watch’s own multitouch screen. Many functions such as bringing up notifications and navigating Glances are entirely driven via swipes. That said, the crown’s usefulness shines in any scenario where a bidirectional input is possible. Scrolling, scrubbing and particularly zooming would be terrible with just multitouch on a watch screen so tiny that it can be mostly obscured by a single finger. The Digital Crown not only solves this problem, but also provides a luxurious experience in doing so.
Oh, and the crown also happens to be a fantastic home button.
The side button is also solid as expected. Its existence and position has been pondered since the Watch’s announcement last fall. I think the second button is fundamentally more necessary than Apple has let on given the number functions they had to support (home, power, Apple Pay, screenshot, Siri, and Friends). As to why it shares the same side as the crown? My theory is simply that there is no better alternative. The top and bottom sides are easily ruled out because there is already too little room with the bands, especially considering the expected thinner models to come. The opposite side seems plausible, but pressing the digital crown is much easier when squeezing both sides of the face, which makes me wonder if this was tested and ruled out after one too many accidental screenshots. (Similar to an iPhone, screenshots are taken by simultaneously pressing the secondary/power button and digital crown/home button.)
A Digital Watch
I have mostly stopped using the Apple Watch as an analog timepiece. While I initially started out using the Simple watch face, I quickly discovered the inherent usefulness of Modular. Modular is more-or-less a digital watch face that in addition to smaller complications, it also has a large center complication which I have showing me basic info about my next meeting. This might seem insignificant, but on a typical day, my job involves anywhere from two to six meetings. Being able to quickly see how long I have to write an email or grab lunch is a huge convenience. The other complications I have settled on are weather, date, timer and activity. Part of me wonders if third party complications will ultimately become more valuable to users than both Glances and apps.
Notifications, Taptic Engine, & Siri
Notifications are a major reason I bought an Apple Watch. Because I work in an open office, my iPhone is on mute and its vibrate mode often isn’t quite noticeable. Before the Apple Watch, I would regularly miss my iPhone’s notifications. This was particularly frustrating because I have long curated my notifications to just the few things and people I really care about. The Apple Watch has effectively solved this problem as expected. In addition to typical vibration, the watch also has what Apple has been calling the Taptic Engine, which produces sensation closer to being gently tapped on the wrist. The gentle taps generated are far more pleasing than existing vibrate modes and are easily noticeable despite their subtlety. This leads me to a second unexpected benefit. Unlike my iPhone or Mac, where notifications regularly pile up, clearing or dismissing them comes naturally with the Apple Watch. The only notification I typically handle on the watch is Messages. Messages offers various contextual predefined phrases which are marginally useful for quick responses. Then there is Siri. On the iPhone, I typically use Siri primirily for dictation while walking on busy New York streets. With that, I find that Siri on the watch is just useful enough to outweigh the awkwardness of talking into a watch.
Music, Workout, and Activity
Recently I realized that, as of this year, I have been a regular runner for most of my life. The Apple Watch is roughly the fifth category of music player that I have run with starting with a Walkman in the 90s. Loading up the watch was fairly straightforward as I was already using a running specific playlist. My biggest issues have been with Bluetooth headphones. I am not sure, but Bluetooth seems to be shaky whenever the watch is in range of my phone. I first experienced the issue while bringing my iPhone on the recommended calibration run, but have since noticed it even when I am briefly in range while leaving my apartment. Adding to my suspicion and helping mitigate the problem is how Bluetooth seems to work fine once I am out of the range of my iPhone.
Workout’s heart rate monitoring and general activity tracking seems sufficient enough for me, but it’s distance accuracy could be better for running. Out of four runs, about half were measured an with accurate 3.6 miles while the others rounded me up to 4 miles, giving me a bonus of about 10%. GPS will be a welcome addition in future models.
Activity, specifically its complication has been an excellent motivator for getting me to stand and move more throughout my day.
App Screen and Glances
I really enjoy the fluid icons on the app screen. The sparse number of apps installed combined with my relatively small fingers make the app screen ideal as my primary method for accessing apps. Apple’s Glances promise a convenient view into various apps such as Weather or Stocks by swiping up from the watch face. In my case, Glances have been largely neglected as I find they’re mostly limited in functionality and laggy. This combined with the fact that only a single Glance is visible at a time further push me to using the more responsive app screen where multiple apps are accessible at any moment. That said, I expect Glances will improve with upcoming updates and the native SDK. I also agree with John Gruber’s point that Glances provide the most intuitive flow when in the more predominant watch mode. Simply swipe up to see Glances, click on a Glance for more engagement/functionality, then hit the home button to go back to the watch face. Considering this, it’s obvious that Glances are akin to frequently used items in the Mac OS X dock where as app mode is everything else similar to the Applications folder.
- Having had the opportunity to use Apple Pay for the first time (still on an iPhone 5s) and from my wrist is an entirely magical experience. The same was true for using a Passbook to enter a movie theater. Now I want everything to be NFC and I want it all to be accessible from my watch.
- The watch’s maps with haptic feedback is leaps and bounds more convenient than constantly checking a phone.
- I don’t think I have seen the battery go below 20% yet.
Conclusion and Legacy
From the announcement through launch, I have been impressed with Apple’s ambition with the watch. The iPad was Apple’s previous major product release, the last one announce by Steve Jobs, was derided as a big iPhone. While that criticism is overly dismissive, I think it’s accurate to describe the iPad as a sibling in the iOS generation. The Apple Watch is of its own generation. Maybe this is my Mac bunker mentality from the 90s, but I can’t help but notice a bated expectation for Apple to falter, particular given the aforementioned increased competition and since Steve’s passing. I get the sense that if somehow the products were reversed, if the Apple Watch was Steve’s last product and this were a review of the newly released iPad, the doomsayers would be in full swing citing a death of innovation at the once beloved fruit company. Instead we live in a reality where the first product line released by post-Steve Apple is the most premium product in the company’s over 30 year history.
It’s new. It’s ambitious. And despite some flaws, it’s very solid and I can’t wait for the next version of Apple Watch.