The dust is starting to settle and we've been able to spend some serious time putting Apple Watch through its paces following its release, so we're ready to let you know what we think of Apple's entrance into the smartwatch world. Is it worth the cost, and will you really get any benefits out of slapping one on your wrist? Read on to find out.
Apple Watch: Apple's entry into the smartwatch world
Apple Watch, by the Numbers
Apple Watch is available in three models: Apple Watch Sport (aluminum), Apple Watch (stainless steel), and Apple Watch Edition (gold). All come in two color choices: silver or space gray for the Sport, silver or space black for the steel model, and gold or rose gold for the Edition. You can also choose between 38mm and 42mm screen sizes for each.
The 38mm Apple Watch Sport weighs 25g, and the 42mm version weighs 30g. The stainless steel model weighs noticeably more at 40g and 50g. The rose gold Edition weighs 54g and 67g, while the yellow gold model is 55g and 69g.
Pricing starts at US$349 for the Apple Watch Sport, $549 for the Apple Watch (stainless steel), and $10,000 for the Apple Watch Edition.
Apple Watch Sport (left), Apple Watch (center), Apple Watch Edition (right)
Considering Apple Watch is intended to be strapped to your wrist all day, weight is a real consideration. For some the extra heft of the steel or gold models may be more weight than they want, but for others it's exactly right. TMO's Bryan Chaffin told me he prefers a heavier watch because it feels better on his arm. For me, less weight is key because I don't want to feel the watch on my arm.
Apple Watch Sport uses Ion-X glass for its display, and the stainless steel and Edition models use synthetic sapphire. Ion-X glass isn't as scratch resistant, but it also isn't as brittle as synthetic sapphire. So far, the Ion-X glass is holding up just fine on my Apple Watch Sport, and I'm expecting that to hold true unless my watch slams into something especially hard like a rock face or the sidewalk—both of which are possibilities considering how much time I spend playing outdoors.
Using your Apple Watch in the rain, or wearing it while washing your hands won't be an issue. Apple Watch is IPX7-level waterproof, which means your Apple Watch can withstand being submerged for half an hour at a depth of one meter.
I stood out in the pouring rain to see how my Apple Watch would fair just so you wouldn't have to, and I didn't have any issues. That's exactly what I expected, and since Apple clearly states Apple Watch's waterproof rating, it isn't any surprise at all.
There are reports of people swimming with Apple Watch, but I'm a little leery of trying that myself. The water pressure your watch will be exposed to if you're swimming hard could potentially be enough to blow past Apple Watch's seals, leaving you with an expensive and non-working glass and metal bracelet.
Apple Watch Screen
Apple Watch uses an OLED display with a 340 x 272 resolution for the 38mm model, and 390 x 312 resolution for the 42mm model. It's bright and easy to read, and most of the time I was able to see the screen in direct sunlight without any problems. That was a pleasant surprise because I've always wanted an easy way to get a quick look at my progress when I'm running or hiking. With Apple Watch, that's totally possible. Just a quick look at my wrist, and I haven't even had to slow down.
The colors are rich and bright, and Apple calibrated the display to match the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus so images will look pretty much the same on both devices. The images I tested looked about the same on my iPhone 6 and Apple Watch, although I wasn't able to test how close they really are with a colorimeter.
Since Apple Watch probably won't be a serious part of anyone's color-corrected workflow, meaning jobs where exactly matching colors really matters, I'm fine saying the colors look the same across devices. The short version: colors look good on Apple Watch, and the resolution is really nice, too. If you're a professional photographer, however, don't expect to see true-to-life colors.
Apple Watch Battery Life
The battery in Apple Watch is supposed to get you through the day on a single charge, and that's what I experienced—with plenty of breathing room to spare. I typically ended the day with over 40 percent charge left, and never dropped below 30 percent except for the day I intentionally ran the battery into the ground so I could run through a complete charge cycle.
My typical day included several Glances for OmniFocus and Activity, notifications from (and sometimes responding to) text messages, Dark Sky, Hooks, Slack, and Withings Home, tracking workouts, using the Remote app to control Apple TV, using Maps for directions, buying drinks at Starbucks via Passbook, using Apple Pay, and checking the time.
I'm not worried about battery life because Apple Watch seems to be able to get through the day easily, and I don't want to wear my watch to bed. It charges overnight and is ready to go when I sit down at my desk in the morning.
Apple Watch Bands
Apple made customizing the look of Apple Watch easy by offering a line of bands in various styles. They range from a rubber-like sport band to leather to metal, and all look great.
The release mechanism for swapping out the bands is easy to use, but there isn't any chance of your watch accidentally coming loose. Apple's lugs hold the band firmly to your watch and it takes a little bit of force—but not too much— to slide a band free.
I'm using the the plastic-like band that ships with the Apple Watch Sport, or in Apple's parlance, the high-performance fluoroelastomer band. Star Trek technobabble aside, this is the most comfortable plastic, rubber, or vinyl band I've ever tried. Compared to the bands on many of the wrist top fitness trackers I've tried, Apple's feels like luxury.
Apple's other bands are equally impressive, too. The Milanese Loop band feels like some kind of magical fabric the Elves would give to Frodo on his quest to Mount Doom in Mordor, and the Leather Loop band might as well be of magical origin, too. My only disappointment is that the Leather Loop band is available only for the 42mm Apple Watch models, so I can't get one for myself.
The prices for Apple's bands will give some consumers pause, although they seem fairly reasonable compared to quality bands for high end watches. The fluoroelastomer costs $49, or for $149 you can get the Milanese Loop, Classic Buckle, or Leather Loop. The Modern Buckle band costs $249, and the Link Braclet costs $449.
If those prices are all too steep for you, just be patient. Apple is letting other companies make Apple Watch-compatible bands, so there will probably be something you like at a more affordable price soon.
Next up: Getting your Apple Watch up and running
Setting Up Your Apple Watch
Setting up Apple Watch is fairly straightforward, although Apple doesn't include instructions on how to actually turn on your watch when it first comes out of the box (Spoiler: It's the long flat button, called the Side Button, next to the digital crown). I tapped the screen, pressed the digital crown, and shook my watch all to no avail. I eventually tried pressing the Side Button, but I can imagine people who are less technically inclined getting frustrated because they can't figure out how to power up their brand new watch.
You can set up your Apple Watch left or right-handed. This makes me happy.
Pairing involves holding your Apple Watch in front of your iPhone's camera. That links the two together, and gives you options for setting up Notifications and installing apps. My advice on apps: don't let the setup process install any for you. Instead, use the Apple Watch companion app on your iPhone to selectively install only the apps you really want. In many cases, the alerts your iPhone pushes over will be all you need.
Most Apple Watch settings require a visit to your iPhone
The out-of-the box experience for setting up an Apple Watch is actually pretty nice. Apple did a good job of making the process as simple as possible, and for most people it'll take only a few minutes. Once you're done, however, that doesn't mean you're really finished. Fine tuning settings, adding and removing apps, controlling Glances and Notifications, and most anything else you want to customize on your watch involves a trip back to your iPhone.
Managing the apps on your Apple Watch, as well as almost all of its settings, is done from your iPhone. iOS 8.2 put the Apple Watch app on compatible iPhones, and with good reason. Without it, you can't customize very much on your watch. If you aren't sure how to change a setting for pretty much anything on your Apple Watch, start in the companion iPhone app. Odds are the settings are there.
The app works fine and really drives home the point that Apple Watch is an iPhone accessory. Your watch truly is tethered to your iPhone and can't do much without it around.
Customizable Apple Watch Faces
Apple includes several watch faces to choose from, and you can custom design your own, too. But if you want to deviate at all from the options Apple offers, get ready for some frustration.
My custom Apple Watch face may be spartan, but it has almost everything I want to see
Watch faces are customizable, but probably not to the extent you want. For example, I started with the Utility face and was able to include almost everything I wanted in a layout that works for me. What I couldn't do was add in my daily step count where it makes sense for me. As as result, I don't have my step count on my watch face.
Apple could give us more flexibility for customizing watch faces, or give developers the ability to create cool designs much like you can already do with the Pebble smartwatch. Considering how tightly Apple controls the user experience, I'm not counting on that happening any time soon.
Setting up Apple Pay on your Apple Watch is totally counterintuitive compared to configuring other apps. When you choose "Mirror my iPhone" for other apps and settings, that's what happens. With Apple Pay, however, that's exactly not what happens. In fact, it's the opposite of what happens because none of the cards you set up in Apple Pay on your iPhone are there.
To really have your Apple Pay credit cards on your wrist involves adding them in the Passbook & Apple Pay section in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone. Until you do that, you won't have any credit cards available on your Apple Watch. As far as I can tell, "Mirror my iPhone" is there only to confuse us.
Apple Pay works like a charm on Apple Watch
After it's set up, however, Apple Pay on Apple Watch is wonderfully slick. Just double-tap the oblong button on the side of your watch to invoke Apple Pay, then hold your wrist near the credit card reader. The worst I dealt with was figuring out how to contort my wrist to the right angle. Some readers are difficult enough with plastic cards, and even more so when you're trying to get your wrist in the right position.
I'm not seeing security as an issue because Apple Pay on Apple Watch requires a passcode. As soon as your watch leaves your wrist it locks and turns into nothing more than a watch. Once Apple Watch is on your wrist again, enter your passcode to unlock it and Apple Pay.
Siri and Dictation
Siri works surprisingly well on Apple Watch, at least for me. While the display is awake, just say "Hey Siri," and start issuing orders. This is my new favorite way to get directions. "Hey Siri, I need directions to Starbucks," lets me pick which location I want, and then gets me on my way.
Alternately, you can long-press the Digital Crown to invoke Siri, but I love the hands-free feeling of simply saying, "Hey Siri."
My only disappointment with Siri on Apple Watch is that she replies with text instead of actually speaking.
I'm hoping all of the promises of HomeKit come soon because now I really want to say, "Hey Siri, turn off the lights" as I'm leaving my place. Please, Apple, give us that magic.
Dictation, which is the voice component that turns what you say into typed words, works really well, too. The feature works so well, in fact, that It's my preferred method for replying to text messages. Typing on my iPhone suddenly felt antiquated after I started using my Apple Watch.
Next up: Apple Watch Glances, phone calls, and third-party apps
Glances give you a quick look at little bits of information. That could be something like your schedule, weather conditions, or how active you've been today. The "quick" part, however, is little more than a pipe dream—at least for now. Glances tend to be horribly slow to load in part because they're pulling information from your iPhone.
Glances give you little snippets of information, but can be slow
That process can be so slow that I wonder at times why I'm bothering at all. If I can pull my iPhone out of my pocket faster than it takes for a Glance to load, that's a complete fail. That, in an a nut shell, is exactly how poorly Glances work.
There's some hope that'll improve soon. Apple is aware of the performance issues for Glances and has said a fix is coming. That'll be part of a software update to be released at some point, although Apple hasn't said offered up any hints as to when that'll happen.
Apple Watch for Phone Calls
Apple Watch isn't a phone, but it does work as a sort of speaker phone for your iPhone. You can answer incoming calls and even make calls, too, although only to the people on your favorites list.
Incoming calls appear on your watch as well as your iPhone; just tap the Answer button on your the Apple Watch display to start talking. You'll want to hold your watch fairly close to your face so you can clearly hear callers, and so the built-in mic can pick up your voice. If you're in a quiet environment, however, a little distance won't impact audio quality. I was able to carry on phone conversations while at my desk, for example, while my hands were on my Mac's keyboard.
You can answer calls on your Apple Watch, but they don't sound great
Call audio quality is acceptable in that you can hear what's being said, and what you say can be understood, too. This isn't, however, a replacement for answering from your iPhone. The speaker quality is tinny and flat, and the people I tested the feature with said it sounded like I was talking through a toilet paper tube. I found the audio quality to be nothing more than functional.
That said, Handoff for phone calls is really cool. I tapped the phone icon on my iPhone's lock screen, and the conversation seamlessly transferred to my phone where the audio quality was much better.
Answering and making phone calls from Apple Watch is really just a convenient way to make quick hands-free calls, or a handy way to answer when you can't get to your iPhone fast enough—just answer on your wrist, and then jump to your iPhone once it's in hand.
Third Party Apps
Aside from a handful of really well thought out and useful apps, like OmniFocus and Workflow, third-party Apple Watch apps so far are a bust. Most are flakmy at best, some refuse to launch, and almost all leave me asking two questions: Why did the developer bother, and why did I even try?
I loaded up my Apple Watch with all kinds of apps right away because I was so excited to see how productive I could be from my wrist. That path led to disappointment and despair because pretty much everything I've tried so far is broken, doesn't include any useful features, or both. At this point I'm pretty sure Dave Hamilton and I are among the world's experts on managing Apple Watch apps from my iPhone because I can add and remove stuff now practically in my sleep.
There are over 3,500 apps available for Apple Watch. Choose wisely.
At first, I was cutting developers a lot of slack because they were coding for a device they hadn't ever seen with little information from Apple to work with. They couldn't do any real world testing, and for now they're limited to essentially mirroring features in iPhone apps.
After running through Apple Watch apps like a rogue Jedi through padawans, I've changed my tune. Instead of rushing to the App Store just to have something available for launch day, most developers should've waited until they could learn more about Apple Watch and get some serious beta testing under their belts.
And now to play Devil's Advocate with myself: Apple put a lot of pressure on developers to have apps ready to go on launch day. Developers were trapped in a Kobayasui Maru scenario where they were damned for missing launch day, and damned for releasing buggy and slow apps.
The problem is that both Apple and developers are leaving users with a bad first experience, so we delete the apps from our watches and move on. "It's going to get better with updates" doesn't cut it because I've already had the bad experience and I'm not all that interested in chewing through update release notes to see if I want to try again. What I really wanted was the announcement a couple weeks after Apple Watch deliveries telling me about your just released app done right.
Games. I'm not even going to talk about games. A postage stamp-size screen is not the place for a good gaming experience, and I can't even imagine playing games on my wrist. If you want a small screen for games that isn't your iPhone, go buy a Gameboy—and if you don't know what a Gameboy is, get off my lawn.
The best Apple Watch game idea I've heard so far came from TMO's own John Martellaro: Whack-A-Mole. It's brilliantly perfect for Apple Watch. A single mole pops up in the middle of the screen, and to tap it. I'm picturing thousands of people (well, hundreds because Apple hasn't been able to ship all that many watches yet) walking into street signs because they're transfixed on tapping a little mole on their wrist.
So I just contradicted myself twice. I said I wasn't going to talk about gaming on Apple Watch, and that I couldn't imagine playing games on my wrist. Whack-A-Mole, people. It's going to be brilliant.
Next up: Jeff's epic take on Apple Watch fitness features
Getting in Shape with Apple Watch
Health and Fitness is a big part of Apple Watch, from reminding you to stand up and walk around every hour to tracking your workouts and heart rate. For the most part, Apple Watch manages those tasks without any action on your part, but if you trust your new smartwatch to log all of your activity you'll be disappointed
I found Apple Watch's sensors aren't always spot-on when it comes to automatically tracking your fitness activity. In some cases, for example, 20 or 30 active minutes counted as only three. The fix for that frustration is to manually start and stop tracking in the watch's Workout app. Sure, that adds an extra step to your exercise routine, but in ensures your time will be logged.
Apple Watch is surprisingly accurate at tracking your steps and distance traveled in workouts, but not until you calibrate your watch. The trick is to walk or run for 20 minutes with your watch and iPhone, and the more often you bring your iPhone along, the more accurate your Apple Watch will get.
After a single 40 minute walk my Apple Watch was tracking within a few steps of my Fitbit One every day. My early concerns about step and distance tracking were clearly off base, and I'm pleasantly surprised by that.
Apple Watch (right) were consistent with my Fitbit One (left)
Once I felt comfortable my Apple Watch had a handle on how I walk, I took it on paved trails, up into the mountains, on city streets, in buildings, and just about anywhere else I could go. It continually matched my Fitbit One step count so well that I'm comfortable relying on it as my primary pedometer.
Where it fell flat was on stairs. Even though Apple's marketing materials say Apple Watch tracks how may flights of stairs you climb, I haven't been able to find any real evidence of that. Instead, it looks like Apple Watch isn't tracking stairs at all, which means you'll need your iPhone for that. From the Apple Watch website:
So Apple Watch measures all the ways you move, such as walking the dog, taking the stairs, or playing with your kids.
Calling out Apple Watch's lack of a barometer as the reason for no stair counting sounds good, but doesn't fly because this is something other fitness trackers have done for a long time. The years-old Fitbit Ultra that got me into fitness tracking, for example, accurately logged flights of stairs without the benefit of extra sensors.
That's a big disappointment because counting stairs climbed matters when you're closely watching your overall fitness activity. It's also disappointing because that means situations where I want to run or hike without my iPhone means any steps I climb won't count towards my daily goals.
Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Morrison, Colorado, is a local favorite spot for fitness training because its steps are just the right size for running, walking, lunges, and all sorts of intense workouts. Working the stairs with just your Apple Watch for tracking is out of the question, yet it's a perfect example of where it would be awesome to leave your iPhone behind.
I see this as a big problem for fitness training, and it's something I hope Apple can address through a software update.
Serious runners may be disappointed with Apple Watch's tracking capabilities without an iPhone, too. Since Apple Watch relies on your iPhone's GPS for precise location tracking, that simply isn't going to happen if you leave your phone at home. The built-in Workout app is nice, but may fall short for the pros because it doesn't let you easily set up intervals—for serious training you'll have to look to third party apps.
That isn't necessarily a failure on Apple's part because the Workout app has the features most people will need. For everything else, a trip to the App Store will probably be in order.
I know serious runners who had substantial differences in the distances their Apple Watch logged compared to their wrist GPS running watch, too. A run that logs as five miles on a GPS watch, for example, logged as half a mile longer on Apple Watch. That may be a calibration issue, or other factors could be coming into play. Either way, serious runners should verify the results they're getting before relying strictly on Apple Watch for long routes.
That said, the results I got from my Apple Watch were totally in line with the distances on my maps. I'm comfortable trusting the numbers I get from my watch, but that's because I tested routes where I already knew the distance. You should do the same if step and distance data is really important to you.
Sleep Tracking is something that you aren't going to do with your brand new Apple Watch. This isn't a feature Apple is supporting right now, likely in part because the battery is designed to get you through a single day. Charging, it seems, is something Apple expects you to do while you sleep.
Apple Watch may be a little lacking in the stair counting and sleep tracking department, but it shines as a heart rate monitor. It's so accurate, in fact, that it pretty much matches the results from the Mio Alpha—a dedicated heart rate monitor for athletes known for its spot-on accuracy.
Sensors on the underside of the Apple Watch use infrared and LED light to measure your heart rate at ten second intervals, or five second intervals during workouts. The Mio Alpha samples your heart rate every three seconds, which most likely accounts for the slight variance between its readings compared to Apple Watch. Apple could increase readings to every three seconds with a software update and probably show the exact same results as the Alpha. The slightly longer interval, however, is most likely a tradeoff to help squeeze as much out of the Apple Watch's battery as possible.
Apple Watch's heart rate sensors
One frustration I encountered was that if the heart rate sensors registered a break in contact with my arm, my workout would pause. Since my wrists tend to swell as my heart rate rises, I wear my Apple Watch just a little loose so it doesn't get uncomfortably tight when I'm exerting myself. That usually isn't a problem, but for those few times where my watch thinks it's off my wrist for a couple seconds, my workout essentially stops.
In the relatively short time I've had my Apple Watch, I've missed out on logging substantial parts of long hikes because my watch locked and paused my workout shortly after I started, and I miss seeing that happened. I wish workouts would continue to log even if the heart rate sensor loses contact for a few seconds because I'd rather miss out on some heart rate data than all of my steps and distance.
Apple Watch is great at reminding you to stay active
When Apple first showed off Apple Watch I was intrigued and curious if it could become my all-in-one health and fitness tracker. The short answer is, disappointingly, no.
The longer answer: Apple Watch tracks a lot of data accurately, but it doesn't track everything it could. I need an iPhone to track stairs and it doesn't track sleep, both of which my Fitbit One handles without any problem. Its one-day battery life is perfectly acceptable when I'm in civilization, but makes Apple Watch useless for multi-day back country trips—another place where my Fitbit One excels.
Still, I'm really impressed with Apple Watch as a fitness tracker and I plan on using mine daily. Instead of consolidating my tracking into a single device, however, it's going to be yet another piece of tech I'm carrying with me everywhere I go.
Next up: Apple's own fitness apps
Apple's Fitness Apps
Apple bundles its own fitness apps with Apple Watch: Workout and Activity. Workout lets you tell Apple Watch what kind of activity you're doing, like running or biking, and logs your time spent, distance traveled, and calories burned. Activity lets you review the workouts you log.
Workout is fairly easy to use. Just tap on the activity you're about to start, set the goal you want to track such as distance, time, or calories burned, and go. Ironically, the Workout app includes Stair Stepper as one of the activities it can track.
Be sure to start a workout so Apple Watch doesn't miss logging your efforts
When you finish your workout firm-press Apple Watch to show the end workout and pause options. You'll see report showing the data collected during your workout, but nothing is saved unless you scroll down at tap the Save button. There isn't anything indicating more options are available, or that you'll lose your activity if it isn't saved.
I don't get how Apple can think this is an acceptable interface design. Without any cue to let users know they need to look for essentially hidden buttons, the average user will most likely miss finding them, and lose their workouts. I'm betting a software update can address this glaring issue, and I hope it's something Apple is working on.
The Activity app shows how active you are, your active calories burned, how much time you've spent exercising, and how often you stood. That's great, except that it only shows data for the current day, and doesn't give you any way to look at the more detailed information Workout collects. To see that, you'll have to go back to your iPhone and use the Activity app that magically appears when you first pair your Apple Watch.
Here's another fitness fail for Apple: There isn't any indication the iPhone Activity app is there, other than its icon shows up after pairing with an Apple Watch. I noticed it by chance, and I know several people who had no idea it was there until I pointed it out. I'm guessing Apple was going for a Jedi thing here and assumed people who really need the app will sense its presence.
Despite the fact that Apple didn't think we needed to know Activity was on our iPhones it includes a lot of useful information. You can see your step counts and distance traveled, active calories burned, and more. You can also look back at previous day activity, which isn't an option on Apple Watch.
Use the Activity app on your iPhone to see previous days
What it doesn't show is stairs climbed. I can only assume Apple figured since it isn't showing stairs on Apple Watch, it didn't need to show them on the iPhone.
When I look at the native fitness apps on the iPhone and Apple Watch, I have to think the Apple is targeting casual fitness users. The apps feel anemic and present data as more of an overview. There isn't even a weekly overview, instead leaving users to look at just their daily activities.
I'm glad that the data Apple collects feeds into HealthKit so there are alternatives available. I've been using FitPort ($1.99) on my iPhone to look at the data my Apple Watch collects, and I'm glad it's available because it offers more viewing options than Apple's own Health app.
If you're looking for more than the basic activity overview Apple offers, you'll have to turn to third-party iPhone apps that tap into HealthKit. Lucky, there are plenty to choose from, so there's a chance you'll find something that works for you.
Next up: Should you buy an Apple Watch?
The Bottom Line
After spending as much time as I have with Apple Watch I sure found a lot to complain about. Speaker phone quality is marginal, watch face customization is too limited, Glances and third-party apps tend to be sluggish, it doesn't track stairs climbed…I could go on.
And yet I love my Apple Watch. It's great for quick and discreet notifications and I'm finding my iPhone stays in my pocket more now because I don't need to pull it out to see who's calling or messaging me. I can reply to texts by dictating, and even though I have a few gripes I'm actually pleased overall with Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
I love that Apple Watch doesn't look like the smartwatches I see other people wearing, meaning devices that are clearly smartwatches. I also expect many of the complaints I have will be addressed in software updates that'll be coming soon, and after WWDC when developers learn more about coding for Apple Watch.
After all that, I can say Apple Watch has earned a place on my wrist, which is something no other smartwatch or band-style fitness tracker has managed to do. Whether or not it deserves a place on your wrist is another question.
No one really needs an Apple Watch, or any other smartwatch, because it doesn't give us features that aren't already available on our smartphones. The conveniences I get from Apple Watch make it great for me, and the potential it has gets me really excited, too. If you're in the market for a smartwatch or fitness tracker, check out Apple Watch because you'll probably want one. You may want one so much, in fact, that you think you need one.