Apple Watch review: a pleasant, if pricey, surprise
It was the headline that shook the wearable world: late last month, in just 24 hours of preorders, Apple had sold more of its smartwatches than its competitor Google had managed to sell in an entire year. This is the kind of blitzkrieg we’ve come to expect from Apple, with its talent for transmuting even mundane releases into world-altering events using sheer marketing muscle. Indeed, some of us wondered whether the initial wave of preorders would prove to be the zenith of public interest in the Apple Watch. Given its lukewarm reception in the broader press and a target audience that seems hardly convinced of the need for any smartwatch at all, it seemed reasonable to consider that interest in the Apple Watch might peak early.
After spending two weeks with an Apple Watch of our own, we’re gonna go ahead and say that this new wearable is no such flash in the pan. While adherents of other platforms will point to Apple’s “reality distortion field” as the driving force behind its popularity, the fact of the matter is that Apple’s first smartwatch is a very good smartwatch, and I’m going to miss it dearly when I send it to Jaime Rivera for our usual fusillade of followup features later in the month. Before that happens, though, we’ve got a review to get through: join me for a tour of its ups and downs in Pocketnow’s Apple Watch review!
Apple Watch Review Video
Specs & Hardware
We buy our own review hardware when it comes to Apple products, so for our demo device we opted for the model that most folks are likely to buy –and the one that’s a little kinder to our own wallet– the Apple Watch Sport. Even at this entry-level tier, Apple’s obsession with fit and finish is obvious. On the right side of the aluminum/composite casing, the knurled digital crown and its accompanying function button bear the clean lines of precision machining, and each offers just the right amount of travel and feedback. The placement of the heart-rate sensors behind a circular window on the back echoes the display enclosure up front, with the 1.32-inch screen protected by a layer of ion-stengthened glass that blends almost seamlessly into the metal below (the higher-end “Watch” and “Watch Edition” builds feature sapphire cover glass and steel or gold finishes). At 290ppi, the screen itself is very sharp, its OLED matrix adept at rendering the bright neon colors of the software – though it is a bit dim in direct sunlight.
The Apple Watch Sport’s 81g total mass (30g for the Watch itself, 51g for the 42mm white band) is exactly as hefty as it should be, neither too light nor too heavy on the wrist. The band itself, whose fluoroelastomer material looks rubbery and stiff in some photos, is actually comfortable and velvety soft, with two adjustable sizes included in the box. But if you still don’t like the look or feel, swapping it for another one is just a button-push away thanks to the most elegant watch band mechanism we’ve seen. Sadly, that ease of replacement is tempered by the prices you’ll pay Apple for a substitute band: we were very tempted to spring for the “Quilted Venezia leather with adjustable magnetic closure,” but for the additional $149 Apple was asking we might as well have taken the step up to the midrange Watch instead. It’s no wonder people have taken it upon themselves to start trading Apple Watch bands online.
You’d think the Apple Watch’s high prices would entitle even buyers of the lower-end Sport model to a few hardware perks, but sadly that’s not the case. As those who joined us for our unboxing video will recall, the Sport ships in a glossy plastic capsule all too familiar to those who’ve ever seen a pair of Apple Earpods. Charging the Watch is a decidedly frill-free affair, too: the included charging puck is a far cry from the useful pedestal that Motorola includes with its much cheaper Moto 360, which allows that watch to serve as a bedside clock while charging. The Apple Watch charger is a much simpler design that mostly requires the Watch to be laid face-up on a table. On the bright side, the puck attaches magnetically, recalling the MagSafe connectors on Apple’s MacBooks, and all things considered, it’s a very easy charger to travel with on account of its small size.
Speaking of size: our review device is the 42mm version of the Apple Watch. Those with smaller wrists will appreciate that there’s a 38mm variant as well with almost identical specs, and all builds of the Watch can be configured for either right- or left-handed users during initial setup. No matter which size you go for, the Apple Watch bears an ingress protection rating of IPX7, meaning it can theoretically survive immersion in a meter of water for at least 30 minutes. (Apple, perhaps envisioning scores of water-damaged Watches flooding into its Genius Bars, naturally doesn’t recommend exposing the Watch to anything beyond the occasional splash.)
Driving the day-to-day experience is Watch OS 1.0, which is based on iOS and powered by Apple’s S1 processor. The feature set is where Apple goes the extra mile with the Watch compared to much of its competition: once you’ve paired it to your iPhone, there’s an awful lot you can do without taking your phone out of your pocket. Like Pebble, Android Wear, and other wearable contenders before it, the Apple Watch can fundamentally alter the way you use your smartphone.
The Watch is most useful in its simplest functionality as a notification courier. It’s very good at knowing when you’re looking at it and when you’re not; raising it from your side to chest level, or even twisting it slightly toward you while resting your arm on a table, will illuminate the display. Whatever alert you’ve just received will automatically be displayed, so if your other hand is occupied carrying a bag of groceries, a child, or one of those old-fashioned books you like to smell so much, you can still read whatever’s just come in. If you miss that chance or just want to review notifications you’ve received over the past few hours, you can swipe down from the top of the watchface to view a list of them (and dismiss them if desired). Swiping up from the bottom of the screen gets you access to Glances, simple cards which range from miniaturized versions of apps like Apple Health, Calendar, Twitter and Instagram … to collections of functions like power management, heart rate reading, media controls, and the Watch’s control panel. The latter functions almost exactly like Control Center on the iPhone or iPad, with toggles for Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, and Silent settings. These are accompanied by a large button that will command your iPhone to sound a shrill ping if you’ve lost it somewhere nearby – a handy feature when you’ve got a taxi waiting outside and no clue which jacket or pair of pants you left your phone in.
While these are just a portion of the available controls for fine-tuning the experience, the Apple Watch does lag behind its Android Wear competition in some areas of convenience. For example, Android Wear carries a handy shortcut for those places (like movie theaters) where you don’t want your watch screen lighting up with every movement of your wrist: it just takes two swipes of a finger to keep your Moto 360 or LG Watch Urbane from illuminating at all. On the Apple Watch, the same action requires you to click into the launcher, find the settings menu, and drill down from “General” to “Activate on Wrist Raise” before finally toggling the setting to “off.”
There are also more levels of interaction available on the Apple Watch than any other smartwatch, which gives it a steeper learning curve than most of its competition. In addition to the usual touchscreen taps and swipes, Apple’s digital crown allows for scrolling and zooming so you can keep your finger clear of the display – a genius move that uses a traditional wristwatch component in an entirely new way. Unfortunately it’s also a bit of a tease in that it only functions in lists or maps; we often found ourselves twisting the digital crown and hoping it would allow us to scroll through Glances, for example, only to have the Watch stare dumbly back at us, doing nothing. And while you might think that pushing in on the digital crown selects the currently highlighted item, it doesn’t: it functions as a home key instead, returning you to the watchface or app launcher (or to the last-used app with a double-click). If you’re like us, that’s something you might have expected from the side key beneath the crown, echoing the jog-dial-and-back-key configuration of the smartphones of yesteryear, but you’d be wrong again. The other key functions as a shortcut to your favorite contacts, Apple Pay, or the power menu, depending on whether you click it once, twice, or hold it down.
The coolest interface element of all is also the one most likely to appear on the next iPhone. Force Touch works just like it sounds: instead of long-pressing on the display, you push a little harder to access the deeper-level options that old-schoolers would call the “right-click menu”. It’s a good action to learn because it’s sometimes the only way to end an activity; a navigation session, for example, can only be terminated by Force-Touching the screen (or arriving at your destination). It’s also the only way to change the watchface.
The ten faces Apple ships with the Watch are all you get for now, which puts the Watch solidly behind most of its competitors in terms of customizability. Fortunately, the faces are modular and almost totally tweakable: you get your choice of analog or digital layouts, with information density ranging from bare-bones time and date, to multi-dial chronographs, to a solar clock and beyond. Thanks to some smart layout decisions on Apple’s part, it’s pretty easy to cram a bunch of information onto a watchface without ruining its aesthetics. My personal favorite configuration uses the “Color” template, with an analog watchface in bright blue surrounded by four mini-widgets showing the date, outside temperature, exercise level, and battery remaining. Also, Apple’s new-found love of horology appears to have served it well; the Apple Watch does an excellent job of keeping time in all of its various modes, from clock to timer to stopwatch.
As this review goes to press we’re on day 22 of our time with the Apple Watch. That’s more time than we generally allocate to a review, but in this case we’re glad it’s taken this long. Had we tried to evaluate the Watch after five days, it’s likely the score would be much lower, our impressions much harsher. Like many first-generation products, the Apple Watch is a device that takes some getting used to.
While the setup process is in many ways a delight, it’s followed by some of the most frustrating speed bumps of the entire Watch experience. You might as well keep your iPhone out and handy for the first hour, because nearly every time you try to do something for the first time on the Apple Watch, you’re going to be forced over to the phone to allow the relevant permissions. Why Apple decided it couldn’t fit these typically brief permission requests on the Watch screen is beyond us. Once you get done with that, your next step (assuming you grew up with Dick Tracy, Knight Rider, Inspector Gadget, or Admiral Kirk) will probably be to try a phone call from the Watch – and it’s likely your first call will also be your last. The speaker is so tinny and quiet that it’s unusable in any but the quietest of rooms, which is doubly disappointing considering Samsung’s much louder (but admittedly larger) Gear S.
But give it a few more days to get past those frustrations, and there’s so much to like here. Thanks to the linear actuator Apple calls the Taptic Engine, notifications really are more gentle tap than rattling vibration. Voice dictation is (usually) an accurate and fast way to reply to texts, and Siri on the wrist is a big help when it comes to simple requests like “show me walking directions to the closest coffee shop.” Leaving my phone in my backpack, I successfully navigated a four mile suburban walk to a specific restaurant just by telling Siri to take me there, with the Watch notifying me of each upcoming turn via a quick tap on the wrist. A longer hike through some hilly woods was made more fun with the excellent exercise tracker. Even on my more sedentary days, the reminders to get up and stand every hour were less annoying than encouraging, thanks to the gentle taptics and the easy-to-read activity meter. On top of this, navigating the app launcher is much easier than it looks, and Apple is off to a great start encouraging developers to build apps that also work on the Watch – though it must be said that you’ll often be waiting longer for an app to load on the Watch than you would on the phone. (This is an unfortunate, if unavoidable tradeoff for a device that’s supposed to make life more convenient.)
In terms of endurance, the Apple Watch keeps pace with Android Wear but lags behind Pebble’s longer-lasting offerings. Apple claims up to 18 hours of use on a single charge, and our testing seems to suggest that the company is actually lowballing it with that estimate. Even with lots of wrist navigation and heavy notification traffic, our Watch would usually have more than a half charge left at the end of the day. When we forgot to charge it one night, we made it through most of the following day before the Watch expired; had we used the Power Reserve mode, it would probably have lasted us into the evening. Considering the Watch’s tiny (205mAh/0.78Wh) battery, this is quite an accomplishment. While it’s still inconvenient to have something else to charge every night, that’s a problem you’ll run into with nearly any modern smartwatch. Apple’s tiny charging puck makes that process, if not a joy, then at least fairly painless.
+ Excellent build quality
+ Powerful, feature-packed software
+ Better than all-day battery life
+ Sharp, vibrant display
+ Sizes available for most wrists
– Expensive device, expensive accessories
– Interface needs honing
– Tinny, quiet speakerphone
– Only average sunlight readability
How you feel about the Apple Watch will depend entirely upon how you feel about wearables as a whole. Every time we review a smartwatch there’s the inevitable contingent of commenters who wonder what the point of such a device is; if you’re one of those people, the Apple Watch won’t be for you. For all its bright points, it doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before in this space (sending heartbeats to friends aside). It’s a little clunky in both hardware and software. And like most Apple products, it’s expensive – especially considering the nigh-inevitable revised models that will render this one obsolete in a few years’ time.
If you’re coming from the other side –if you’re an iPhone user who’s experienced or coveted the convenience that smartwatches offer– then the Apple Watch absolutely deserves your attention. It echoes the fit and finish of the iPhone while also emulating its software interface, delivering on Apple’s promise of an experience that’s “totally new, yet instantly familiar.” And it’s built by the company that’s proved –twice– that it can spur developers to create an entirely new app ecosystem from scratch. While you could save some money by going with one of the competitors from Alcatel Onetouch, Pebble, Cogito or Martian, none of them offer the particular mix of features, functions, and fit and finish that the Watch boasts. In the world of iPhone-compatible wearables, the Apple Watch is where the action’s at … and all things considered, that’s some pretty sweet action indeed.
Editor’s note: This review went to press just as the first Apple Watch software update landed. As such it does not include observations about the performance of that newer software build. We’ll follow up with coverage on this update shortly.