Living With an Apple Watch

Introduction

Although I’ve never directly addressed the subject on this blog before I am strongly part of the Apple ecosystem. I’m writing this on my MacBook Air connected to my iPad Mini, my wife and I both have iMacs at home, there is an Xserve with Xserve Raid as part of my home lab and I’ve got an iPhone in my pocket. Most recently there’s an Apple Watch strapped to my wrist and that’s what I thought I’d write about today.

A key reason to purchase the Apple Watch was for use as a development device, to skill up with new technologies and to determine how best the devices can be used in technology. As this is a new form factor I decided to give myself a few weeks using the device before jumping in to coding and thought I’d write a little something about why I selected the device.

Apple and Me

Despite the love of Apple products I’ve got a selection of Google-based products, run VMware Fusion extensively to support a selection of development environments on other products and use Windows and Linux based systems as much as I do Mac OS X. Apple offers some great solutions but I can also list the amount of problems I’ve had over the years. I bought my first MacBook as soon as the Intel-based Macs were released and haven’t looked back.

For me it isn’t as much of a semi-religious experience as some Apple fans – it just seems pretty simple – I like the designs and think the hardware is resilient to the beatings I give it. That first MacBook got taken to dozens of festivals and thrown around in the crowd and then returned to my desk as a shining aluminium beacon. I love their hardware even if it is arguably over-priced and under-specced.

My affinity for Apple’s design cues made the Apple Watch something I needed to try out – a Watch is, after all, one of the ultimate statements in design that people use to express themselves. More importantly the battery had just died on my analogue watch so why not update it a little bit?

Which Watch?

Many people seem to have spent a long time deciding which the right watch is for them. I’ve seen online comments where people have spent literally weeks deciding which will meet their lifestyle and deciding which watch will they have strapped around their wrist. I couldn’t be bothered with this and mainly stayed out of all the pre-sale research that true Appleites seemed to be doing for months.

Having taken a look through the various options online on the morning of pre-sale I decided to go with the mid-ranged 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch with the Milanese Loop strap. Despite large hands I’ve got fairly dainty wrists for a 6’1” man so wanted a large strap that could be done up fairly tight. I chose the stainless steel over the aluminium as this device is going to end up being bashed around a fair bit on my desk whilst I’m developing and for a minor price difference I thought the anti-scratch features on the screen would be worth the extra. I decided this in about 5 minutes on the morning of release with no significant drawn out decision make process and placed my order within a few minutes of them being available online having never seen one in the flesh.

Apple Watch Milanese Loop - Stock Photo
Apple Watch Milanese Loop – Stock Photo
Apple Watch on my wrist
Apple Watch on my wrist

Unboxing

Unpacking the Apple Watch is much like any other Apple product. The packaging is lovely and it takes about three years to remove all of the plastic protection wrappers. Once you’re inside you’re greeted with a watch that’s not as thick as I thought it would be – in fact it looked a lot better than I thought it would. On a purely aesthetic basis I think that Milanese Loop 42mm Apple Watch looks as though it’s worth its price for a watch alone without even considering the technological capabilities. Once you switch it on there’s a very swish looking QR-code equivalent to pair with your iPhone. I initially thought this was a screensaver showing a star-like image but it turned out to be how it pairs. It seems Apple decided to make what is in essence a QR code something quite beautiful.

Apple Watch packaging - source unknown
Apple Watch packaging – source unknown

To pair it you just start the Watch app on your iPhone, point it at the device and then wait for what seems like an eternity whilst it finishes pairing. I left all the defaults initially and just let it put all compatible apps from my iPhone on the device.

Apple Watch pairing QR code
Apple Watch pairing QR code

Cons

I’m going to look at the negatives of this device first.

The biggest issue is the interface – it just isn’t intuitive. One of the things I’ve historically loved Apple for is their interface. My mum has an iMac but it runs Windows natively. On my three week honeymoon I got a text message which led to me believing her Windows install was corrupt. I sent a text back explaining how to boot in to Mac OS and a quick guide on how to start the web browser and she was good to go and needed no further help. That’s the kind of interface that I like. The Apple Watch on the other hand just doesn’t make sense. I intentionally read nothing on how to use this device first and I expect Apple are aware that this is a problem due to the amount of “how-to” guides they have created, which I’ve never seen them do before.

The largest button on the device is used for one purpose only – getting to your favourite contacts. Now this is a feature that I don’t use and even if I did use I cannot see the point of it on the Apple Watch regardless. In reality the Siri integration and other features would surpass it.
You’ve then got the way to get between applications and the watch using a combination of the digital crown, pressing it, turning it and tapping the very tiny screen. When you’ve eventually figured out the order to do things you realise that as fun as the honeycomb home screen looks it’s not terribly usable and there are far too many icons that look the same (is it a clock, a stop watch or an alarm – the only way you’ll know is by launching it?).

My Apple Watch home screen
My Apple Watch home screen

The final way to interact with the device is by using force touch. This is quite nice but it doesn’t always quite feel right and there is a massive disconnect in the individual app design paradigms for when this makes sense and when it doesn’t. On an e-mail notification scroll to the bottom and hit dismiss to get rid of it. On the notifications screen push the screen firmly and get an overlay popup that lets you dismiss all notifications. On the notification screen itself swipe left to display an “X” to remove a notification. These are things that have to be learnt but are far from obvious.

The next thing you’ll notice is that it doesn’t always turn on when you want it to. It usually does, but not always without a somewhat exaggerated turn or tapping the screen. I’ve found myself wanting to know the time with my hands full and have, several times, ended up tapping my nose against the screen where I’ve not wanted to drop things just so I can see the time. Not exactly graceful. The most common thing I’ve developed, and I suspect a lot of Apple Watch owners are now doing, is over-exaggerated arm movements. On my daily very speedy walk through London I constantly check the time to see if I’m going to make my train home. To guarantee I can actually tell the time I have to move my arm and turn it over in a very obvious way. I look a little stupid and feel stupid doing this even two months in to ownership.

I found most of the apps installed from my phone useless. I just couldn’t see a use-case when I’d actually want to use them. I still feel this and actually only use the native Apple apps. There may be some killer apps out there but everything I use at the moment works out quicker for me to get my phone from my pocket, unlock it and start the app – I can usually do this quicker than I can start an app on the Watch. The announcement of the Watch OS 2 SDK will likely help this to some degree but having looked at how it works I still have some doubts. For now we’re back in iPhone version 1 territory – the only useful content is that provided by Apple directly. From bad user interface paradigms to incredibly slow start-up speeds none of the third party apps work how I’d expect them to or enhance my life significantly.

Apple Watch loading screen - seen regularly
Apple Watch loading screen – seen regularly

Using the device a little longer there are a couple of other things that start to become annoying. When you get a notification for a really long e-mail that you want to delete you have two choices – ignore it and do it on your phone or scroll for ages with the digital crown to get to the bottom to press delete. There needs to be a “scroll to bottom” and “scroll to top” to minimise interaction times or additional force touch functionality in areas like this.

I eventually customised the device a lot more from the iPhone Watch application and played around with the various glances. I rarely use these. Other than turning my Watch on to or off silent or checking my exercise progress I’ve found the rest of them haven’t been used other than to show it off to people.

Finally one of the most annoying features of the watch is that if you re-image your iPhone then you also have to re-image your Watch and restore from a backup. The pairing doesn’t just work and pick up where you were. This means that after re-imaging an iPhone you’ll be out of action on your watch for the best part of an hour. This isn’t really a problem for most people, until new iPhones come out later in the year, but I happened to be doing some testing the week after buying my watch and restored it from a backup 3-4 times. Very annoying. The Watch does keep its own backups which can be managed in the iPhone Watch app.

Pros

So there are certainly quite a lot of negatives – even for a first generation device. But there are positives too. Firstly – I love the look of this thing. Let’s not just review it from a technological perspective but for a watch. If all this thing did was tell me the time would I be happy with the look of it and build quality for its price? Yes. It’s easy to spend the similar or far more on watches that don’t look as nice or feel as nice as this. I love the Milanese Loop in particular – it’s infinitely adjustable, stays secure for the day, doesn’t hurt my wrist and is breathable due to its construction which is one of my annoyances with traditional watches. This thing looks lovely, it’s not too big, it’s not too heavy and I really like it. If you wouldn’t spend £500 on a watch normally you won’t necessarily get this – but if you treat watches like a fashion accessory I think Apple have hit the nail on the head.

I’ve listed negative things about the glances and mostly not using them – but the few that I do use are very useful. A turn of my wrist and a quick slide up and I can see how I’m doing for steps in the day, check my heart rate whilst walking or see how much battery I’ve got left. I use this mostly for health information and it’s very useful to be quickly accessed.

The heart rate monitoring is also really good. Comparing it with traditional heart rate monitors I have found it to be very consistent. I don’t have a huge need for health accessories at the moment as other than 4 miles of walking a day I’ve got no spare time for exercise – but having this on my wrist actually inspired my wife to go and buy a Fitbit. The user interface for the heart rate glance is simple and quite beautiful. As the line is slowly pulsing around a heart it moves across the top in a “bu-bum” heart beat effect. Little features of the user interface like this are what are missing through most of the device.

Apple Watch heart rate animation
Apple Watch heart rate animation

Health is overall a great feature of the device. The device prompts you for some basic information (age, weight, height, activity levels) during setup and comes up with suggested activity levels. Throughout the day these are tracked and you get gentle reminders. Add in some gamification through rewards and it’s a pretty nice system. The calorie and step tracking capabilities as well as detecting when I’m active at points in the day are all accurate. The addition of suggesting once an hour that I stand up has increased the number of cups of tea a day I get at work and this has actually added an extra mile onto the total I walk in a day. It’s nice – it just works. This is Apple and it appears to be where they’ve put their focus mostly. The problem is that it’s just one app on the device.

Apple Watch daily calorie summary
Apple Watch daily calorie summary
Apple Watch activity summary
Apple Watch activity summary
iPhone activity daily breakdown
iPhone activity daily breakdown
iPhone health awards for gamification
iPhone health awards for gamification
iPhone activity daily summary
iPhone activity daily summary

It gets my attention – that’s another big plus. I’m terrible at noticing when I’ve received texts or e-mails on my phone as I keep it on silent all day and the vibrate functionality never actually gets my attention when it’s in a pocket. Having something on my wrist to shake my hand and grab my attention is just what I needed. The vibrations are all slightly different although despite Apple having taken the best part of a year trying to understand what tap expresses “how it feels to receive an e-mail” versus “how it feels to be woken up” they’re pretty much all the same to me and I couldn’t tell you (other than a phone call) when any of the individualised taps mean. If I were using many more apps this would become overwhelming but with only a selected number of apps at the moment I’m finding the balance of vibrations on my wrist that would otherwise disturb me to be good.

The watch faces do their job. More than anything I use this as a watch to tell me the time and I have a very large digital face that shows nothing but the time in a giant font – perfect for glancing at whenever you want to do what the device is fundamentally good at. I did try a few of the more face ones and added on various other notifications – but found them either too distracting to read or too small for my terrible eyesight. I think the mix that comes out the box is a good range for most people but I would have liked to have seen a few more out of the box and each with a few extra configuration options.

My Apple Watch face
My Apple Watch face

One feature that I’ll never use on a daily basis but is surprisingly fun when you inevitably test it is making a phone call from your wrist. My iPad, which would be wonderfully suited to conference calls, doesn’t work for phone calls but this tiny square on my wrist does. This meant that the very first thing I had to do was run and hide in the house and call my wife from my wrist (I’m sure much to her delight). Other than feeling like a cast-member of a James Bond film it works surprisingly well – the audio is clear and it is usable. The only problem is outside of novelty there is no value in this.

A surprising improvement to Apple’s product range from the Apple Watch is Siri. I’ve always had problems using Siri in noisy environments but find it works pretty well on the watch. I only tend to use it for a couple of tasks – setting reminders, sending a text whilst driving (more on that) and starting countdown timers when I’m cooking. It understands me almost perfectly every time which is a nice improvement and it is useful. Whilst this does work in a car I cannot emphasise enough how bad of an idea it is to use the Watch whilst driving. Some of the first app ideas I considered involving a car and now there’s no chance I’d do it. The watch is much more distracting than any other input device and Siriously risks the chance of you crashing whilst trying to read a text. It has been useful for the odd notification glance at traffic lights – but anything more than that and you’re asking for trouble in my opinion.

Siri on Apple Watch
Siri on Apple Watch

Siri on Apple Watch

Overall Opinion

Waste of money? Probably. Worth it? It depends…

There is definite utility in this device and it is more user-friendly and more functional than the Google Glass was – but you would expect that considering the glass was a developer prototype. Every day I use it regularly yet every day I still on several occasions get my phone out my pocket to check the time as it is so engrained.

There are so many pieces to the puzzle that Apple have missed here that it isn’t a must-have, but it is a nice gadget and if you’re willing to spend the money on it then why not?

If you’re looking at the Edition then just buy it – that’s a decision on brand, design and statement so it will do exactly as you expect, the technology makes up such a small part of that buying decision.

If you’re looking at the Sport then the question comes down to how much would you miss that money? If you can cope without it and will use some of the health functions and don’t already have a fitness tracker then it’s probably worth it. It’s not, however, worth scrimping and saving for just so you can say you have one as unlike an iPhone you will be disappointed.

The normal “Watch” with the widest selection of bands is a tricky one due to its price placement. I think the biggest question here is can you justify 75% of the cost on a watch that looked the same but with no smart features? If so (and in my case this is true) then absolutely get one, if it’s not then consider a sport instead as the straps and design changes are not going to be enough to justify your spend. If you’ve got the money to spare you’re not going to care about a couple of hundred dollars but this is not a device to push yourself on – get an LG Urbane for something that’s equally functional and attractive or wait a year and get the next generation.

I will report back further on Watch OS 2 in the future now that I’ve got a copy of Beta 2 it downloaded and ready to deploy to my wrist. This will be where I get to actually start working with the SDK in more details and I have some ideas here that I’ll be detailing over the coming months.

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