Is it the future yet? A week with the Apple Watch

I bought an Apple Watch, and I’ve been wearing it for about two weeks. I’m a notorious mobile computing fanatic and early adopter. How does it hold up to real-world use? How does it compare to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been waiting for an Apple Watch for a long time. While a lot of people were quick to dismiss the whole idea, I’ve been on board with the idea of a wrist-mounted companion to a smartphone since I first started using a smartphone. I never bought a Pebble or any of the other first generation smart watches, largely because I’ve been around the block long enough to know that it’s hard to be an early adopter, but partially because I wanted to wait and see what Apple would come up with.

hypecycleThe hype cycle.

In other words, I started the hype cycle years ago, and I’ve been climbing the peak of inflated expectations ever since. My descent into the trough of disillusionment started shortly after the Apple Watch announcement. Unsurprisingly, the first chink in my armor was about battery life. There’s no escaping the fact that a watch that you have to charge frequently is a major inconvenience. To fully understand what kind of an issue it is for me, here’s a picture of the watch I’ve been wearing for most of the past few years.

gshockMy Casio G-shock.

It’s solar, so it never needs a battery. It’s radio-connected to the atomic clock, so it always tells the correct time. It’s bomb-proof, so I never need to take it off for any reason. It’s got a backlight, so I can use it to see if I’m in pitch dark. It’s bulky, but also titanium, so it’s light. I’m accustomed to always wearing a watch, so swapping out a smart watch is easy, except for the fact that it needs to be removed to be charged and it’s not nearly as durable as my G-shock, so I need to be careful about when I’m wearing it. It also identifies me as a nerd.

On the other hand, I still find the central value proposition of the smart watch to be very appealing: better interaction with notifications. I think of the kind of people who scoff at this because “you can just look at your phone” the same way I think of people who eschew wristwatches because “you can just look at your phone:” I don’t understand them. Why would you stop and dig into your pocket dozens of times per day when you could take a quick glance at your wrist?

I get notified about a lot of things; sometimes they’re important and sometimes they’re not. In all my years of using a smartphone, every single day I’ve wished that I quick glance would tell me who’s calling, or what was in that last text, or who’s messaging me on whichever messaging platform I happen to be using, who’s commented on my Trello cards, when my flight is delayed, which calendar events I’m about to forget, which things I need to be reminded of, and all the other things that I’m to ADHD to keep track of.


Probably the biggest advantage I’ve been looking forward to is that I’m tired of missing calls and texts because I can’t hear my phone (or it’s silent, or I left it charging in the other room, or some combination of those). I often can’t feel the vibrating alert (and when I do feel it, it’s not actually vibrating, or it’s not even in my pocket, and it’s just a phantom sensation). If the alert is on my wrist, the subtle bleeps and haptic kicks are more effective at getting my attention (at least in theory).

After a week and a half of using the Apple Watch, I am confident that some day I will be able to keep track of all of these things with a glance at my wrist. The 1.0 reality, however, I’ll give three out of five stars. The watch is definitely designed for all of these things and more, but I’ve discovered that it doesn’t always deliver. Sometimes the notifications don’t come through (maybe the Bluetooth is flaky). In many cases, the granularity of the settings isn’t sufficient for my needs. The watch alerts me to things I don’t care about while neglecting things I want. The notifications come, but they don’t actually give me the information I need at a glance because there’s not enough room on the screen, so I have to fiddle with the UI to get what I need. All that being said, I’m confident that these are minor kinks that will be worked out, and the Apple Watch will be a notification powerhouse by version 2.0.

Here’s a summary of my findings:

The good:

  • Some notifications
  • Haptics
  • Texting
  • Voice calls
  • Apple Pay
  • Fitness
  • Camera remote
  • Map integration

The bad:

  • Apple maps (no surprise)
  • No podcast support
  • Watch faces (big surprise, actually)
  • Settings for glances
  • You can’t remove or hide standard apps (remote, stocks, )
  • App launching
  • 3rd party support in general

Not yet living up to its full potential:

  • Quantified self
  • User-centered/locational/Situational awareness and intention-based UI
  • Voice control

I’ve been particularly surprised by two features that I didn’t think I’d use: texting with the watch and voice calling with the watch. I’d always assumed that the Apple Watch would be a great way to receive texts, and it is. Surprisingly, though, it’s also a great way to send texts. The watch recommends a series of context-aware reply messages to choose from, such as “OK,” “Thank you,” and “Call you later.” I use those sometimes. It would be better if it could learn from my conversation history to make better recommendations. But you can also elect to reply to the text by speaking your reply into the watch (like a dork). Unlike my typical experience with Siri, the Apple Watch transcribes my voice quickly and without error. I can even hold the watch up to my mouth and sub-vocalize the response so quietly that other people in the room would barely be able to tell I was doing it. For short messages, its error rate is minimal.

Now, talking into the watch like Dick Tracy is so ridiculous I’m sincerely embarrassed to be doing it, but in a lot of cases it’s just a lot more convenient than taking my phone out. Since the watch is attached to my wrist, I can talk on it while using my hands for other things. The speaker is strong enough that I can hear clearly in a quiet room with the watch at my side, and in a loud area I can hear if I hold the watch close to my ear. I wouldn’t want to hold a long conversation like that, but for routine “where are you?” and “don’t forget to buy butter” type calls, it’s fine.

Dick TracyDick Tracy.

I’ve also been surprised at how much I’ve used Apple Pay and Passbook more generally. I have an iPhone 5s, so I didn’t set up Apple Pay when it first launched. I’m a bit of a travel hacker, so I have a lot of different points-earning credit cards, and they earn bonuses at different places, so I want one card for restaurants and another for office supplies, so being able to store a bunch of cards in my watch instead of having a bulging wallet is like a dream for me. Since Apple pay isn’t accepted everywhere, that dream is a bit deferred, but nevertheless I find it extremely convenient to click-click on the button to bring up my default credit card and tap the machine at the grocery store. Same deal with bringing up my Starbucks rewards barcode. More convenient than either fishing out my phone or digging through my wallet.

I like to walk, hike, and mountain bike, but I’m a bit lackadaisical about fitness tracking. I never bothered with a fitbit, and even stopped using bike computers years ago. But since I have the watch with me anyway, I’ve really enjoyed tracking my walks and rides, and I find the information the watch tracks and the UI for viewing it to be interesting and pleasant to look at. I’d prefer it to be a little more automatic, and I’m looking forward to more tools to track my activity over days and months in a more holistic way.

Probably the neatest gimmick built into the Apple Watch is its usability as a remote viewfinder and trigger for your phone’s camera. You can prop your phone up, use a tripod, hold it above your head or around a corner, and see what it sees in the watch screen, then push the button to snap the shutter.

Camera RemoteThe camera remote.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Apple Watch’s Maps integration. On the one hand, I love being able to set a location on my phone and then have the watch buzz and give me the upcoming turn or direction. The distinct haptic indicators for left and right turn are fantastic. On the other hand, Apple Maps is still awful. It burned me too many times a few years ago when I first tried it out, sending me into residential neighborhoods when I was looking for office buildings (and in Apple’s backyard in Palo Alto, no less!). But even though it’s improved since then, it still lacks so much that Google Maps has. The lack of bike directions and good transit info is a dealbreaker for me. For now, Google Maps has no watch integration, and I suppose I shouldn’t hold my breath, but I will hold out hope.

The next disappointment is the lack of podcast support. I’m a podcast fiend, and I listen to them both when I’m walking and cycling around town. In either case, I’d love to be able to queue up the next podcast without taking the phone out.

My biggest surprise upon personalizing my watch was just how boring the various watch faces are. There’s a handsome traditional analog face, but it’s lacking in both readability and features. There’s a cram-it-all-on-there digital face (the one I use) but it’s artless and lacks panache. There’s a pretty animated butterfly face, but it’s too minimalistic. The astronomy one is really nifty, but not that useful unless you’re lost in space. Mickey Mouse is a cute trifle, but a waste of whatever licensing fee they paid Disney. I’ll look forward to new ones being available with each OS release.

facesWatch faces on the Apple Watch.

The watch’s most serious shortcoming is in the UX arena. Now, to give Apple’s designers credit, they’ve overcome an almost unimaginable obstacle. Manipulating such a tiny little computer is seriously problematic, and their combination of touch, force-touch, button, and the fantastic digital crown manipulations really make the best of a bad situation. However, selecting and launching the various apps and features is still way too fiddly, and the available shortcuts for frequently used apps are not flexible or customizable enough yet. From the watch face, you can swipe down to access “glances” with some of your most needed features available to swipe through. But there are some things you can’t put into glances, like text messages. Overall, the process of browsing and selecting your apps is sub-optimal, and the fact that you can’t remove certain standard apps, like Stocks and Remote, just makes it worse, because each app clutters up an already hard-to-navigate field.

You apparently can’t set reminders using the phone; there’s no app for that. And of course, it being a new ecosystem, the third party app availability and quality is a bit light. Google Maps and Podcasts are the ones I miss most.

Carrying such a sensitive and connected divice around with you wherever you go opens up some fantastic opportunities to measure and analyze information about your activity and wellness. I’m hoping that widespread adoption of this watch and other smart watches will spark some major innovation here.

As I mentioned earlier, the transcription of text messages via voice is pretty good, and the lack of good input options necessitates good voice UI. But Siri has failed to reach her potential. I’d like to be able to give my watch complex instructions, like “Map me a bicycle route to Dolores Park,” or “Play me the latest Planet Money podcast.” Multi-app, multi-service instructions, like “what’s the cheapest gas along I80 between here and Sacramento?” are even further into the realm of science fiction, but shouldn’t be technologically impossible.

The Apple Watch’s most pressing area of unachieved potential is the same thing that’s lacking across the mobile computing landscape in general: a failure to use what it knows about me, my history, my location, my vital signs, the time of day and my calendar’s events, the people I’ve communicated with recently, my current and upcoming modes of travel and all of the other tidbits that my phone and watch could know to anticipate what I’m going to need and tee it up, utilizing the abilities of the whole suite of apps that are installed. We’ve been talking about these kinds of things for years, but we basically stalled out once we listed the restaurants within a 4 block radius. We’re not even capable of automatically finding the Starbucks that’s the closest to our intended route.

I mentioned before that I have little patience for smart watch naysayers whose objection boils down to “my phone already does those things.” I’m a little more charitable toward people who don’t want to wear a smartwatch because they’re unaccustomed to wearing a watch at all. I suspect, though, that once they got used to having a thing on their arm, constantly fishing their phone out to see what time it is or who just texted you would feel pretty prehistoric. Just a hunch. The anti-smart watch cohort that I feel the most kinship toward are the “watch guys;” people who spend time and money on marvels of miniaturized engineering from the likes of Rolex, Omega, or Patek Phillipe. A miniaturized iPod with a strap is not a substitute for a fine mechanical wristwatch.

With the Edition watches, Apple is making an interesting calculation. Fine watches aren’t more expensive because they tell time better (they are actually less accurate than cheap watches). They don’t have more features (My Casio has them beat hands-down). They’re fetish objects because they’re beautiful and have fine craftsmanship and materials, but they’re also expensive because people desire expensive markers of their wealth and taste. Apple is gambling on that same dynamic translating over into sales for their fancier versions, and early reports seem to indicate that some well-heeled buyers are taking the bait. I suspect that some high-end watch buyers will buy the expensive Apple watch they same way they might buy a Rolex for its brand cachet. But the people who buy mechanical watches for their ineffable aesthetic joys will not buy smart watches, no matter the workmanship of the bands and cases, and I can understand that.

I however, didn’t buy a gold Apple Watch, and I can assure you I never will. I was tempted to spring for the stainless steel one with the fancy bracelet, but I’m pretty sure that 2017’s watch will make 2015’s one look pretty lame, so I’ll stick with the cheaper one for now. Personally, I think that $400 is a reasonable price for a miniaturized computer of such exceedingly fine quality craftsmanship. The size is good, and it really is quite beautiful in a utilitarian way. If they can only come up with some way to get a week’s battery life out of it, then I’ll be happy. Most of the software problems seem like either easy fixes or fundamental shortcomings within mobile computing in general, including the standard irritating anti-consumer app ecosystem empire building. The Apple Watch isn’t for everyone, but it doesn’t need to be. You may think you don’t need one, but I suspect that I’ll get awfully used to having it on, and I don’t think it’s going to end up in the drawer next to my rarely-used Bluetooth headset.


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