Apple Watch Smartwatch Review: A Frustrating iPhone Accessory

by Reads (2,070)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Design
      • 8
      • Features
      • 6
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Durability
      • 6
      • Utility
      • 4
      • Functionality
      • 5
      • Total Score:
      • 6.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Well built
    • Great display
    • Navigation and messaging prove useful
  • Cons

    • Confusing and inconsistent UI
    • Few decent apps
    • Notifications can cause madness, managing them burdensome

Quick Take

The Apple Watch sports a great design and display, but what little utility it does provide is not enough to justify its price tag. Ultimately, the Apple Watch is a pricey iPhone accessory that has a few neat tricks, and plenty of potential to frustrate.


Apple wants to define the smartwatch. Just as it defined the tablet and smartphone, Apple wants consumers to look at the Apple Watch and say “that’s what every wearable should be.”

Apple Watch Sport

Apple Watch Sport

It follows a predictable pattern. Apple is not the first to market here. Google’s Android Wear is pushing a year old, and Samsung, Pebble, and half a dozen others have been in this market for longer than that. But like BlackBerry and the smartphone in 2007, Google thinks it has the smartwatch just about figured out.

As we stated in our Android Wear review:

Google has a clear vision of what it wants Android Wear to offer: concise and useful information for the user, pushed out to the user, when the user needs to see it, all available at a glance.

Google thinks this will save time, keep heads out of smartphones, and keep us all engaged in the real world. It will alleviate the smartphone distraction, while still keeping us connected.

The problem for Google is that Android Wear is not quite there yet. The user interface is too awkward, Google Now alerts are too unreliable, the apps are too gimmicky, and the devices require too many compromises, particularly in regards to battery and display.

That leaves a large opening for the Apple Watch. Surely Apple can build a smartwatch with better battery than what the Android Wear delivers. Surely Apple can come up with an intuitive smartwatch OS. Surely Apple can inspire app developers to build must-have apps; the kind that take full advantage of the form factor and improve users’ lives.

Surely, Apple will give us a reason to own a smartwatch. Right?

Build and Design

There are three styles of Apple Watch, each available in two different sizes according to the watch face height, 42mm and 38mm. We reviewed the larger Apple Watch Sport, which has an anodized aluminum case (available in either silver or a slightly darker space gray) and Ion-X glass. The more expensive Apple Watch has a shinier stainless steel build (available in black or stainless steel) and a presumably tougher Sapphire crystal display. Finally, the high-end Apple Watch Edition comes in either yellow or rose 18-karat gold, also with Sapphire crystal.

Apple Watch crown

Apple Watch crown

All Apple Watches feature the same crown, or scroll wheel, just above an oblong button. Small speakers and a mic hole occupy the opposite edge. The display dominates the front, while a dark magnetic circle rests on the underside, between two strap release buttons. Within the circle are two round charging receptacles and two round LED lights, used for measuring heart rate.

The straps are secure but easily removed, and any Apple strap fits to any same-sized Apple Watch. The rubberized Sport bands are the cheapest, starting at $49, with prices ranging up to $449 for the stainless steel Link Bracelet.

Let’s set aside the fact that $49 is way too much for a glorified rubber band (to say nothing of the $449 option). The Sport strap is soft, comfortable, and fits well through a pin-and-tuck closure. It’s loose enough as to not agitate your wrist during a run, but secure enough to keep from flying off.

Apple Watch back and LED hear-rate monitor

Apple Watch back and LED hear-rate monitor

The Apple Watch Sport ships with three straps of varying lengths. The others only ship with the two standard straps.

When worn, the Apple Watch rests comfortably on the wrist, and has a bulbous design thanks to its rounded edges. The 42mm Sport we reviewed weighs 30 grams (about .07 pounds), with the other models ranging from 25g to 69g. It measures 42 x 35.9 x 10.5 millimeters (H x W x D), or about 1.65 x 1.4 x .41 inches, while the smaller unit measures 38.6 x 33.3 x 10.5 mm (1.5 x 1.3 x .41 inches).

It’s water and splash resistant, but not waterproof. Practically speaking, that means that you can wash your hands while wearing the Apple Watch, or head out in the rain. Don’t go swimming with it, though, or submerge it.

It’s no less “geeky” than any other smartwatch on the market, despite Apple’s attempt to market it as jewelry, at least on the high end. In fact, if not for the crown, it would be hard to distinguish the Apple Watch from any Android Wear device.

Apple Watch Sport band pin

Apple Watch Sport band pin

That said, the Apple Watch does not betray Apple’s reputation as a maker of quality devices. It’s very well-constructed, with the scroll wheel especially impressing with its tight control. It’s also proven durable during our review. Despite a numerous runs, a few drops, and a nick or two against a desk and cubical wall, the Apple Watch Sport still looks like new.

The Apple Watch ships with a round magnetic charger that connects to the typical Apple wall adapter via USB. It’s an elegant charging solution, but the magnet does not hold as well as it should unless the Apple Watch rests flat on the charger. Too often it slipped off the charger during our time with it.

Display

The 42mm Apple Watch has an OLED display, with a 390 x 312 resolution (the 38mm has 340 x 272 pixels), and it looks great. This may be the first Apple product with an OLED display, and it will leave iPhone and iPad owners wondering why their larger devices don’t have the same screen technology.

Apple Watch display

Apple Watch display

The Ion-X glass is reflective, but overhead glare only presents a moderate issue thanks to the brightness, stark contrast, and vibrant colors; all of which are hallmarks of OLED technology. The Apple Watch also has an ambient light sensor, making it all the better for fighting the sun. Fingerprints and smudges will accumulate, but we easily wiped the screen clean with just the cuff from a long-sleeve shirt.

The Apple Watch’s touch sensitivity and accuracy aren’t nearly as impressive as the display. The Apple Watch has what Apple is branding as Force Touch, which enables the Apple Watch to distinguish a tap from a press. While a tap might open up an app, a press will open up the settings or other options within that app. It takes some practice to get just right (it’s a tap and press, not a hard tap), but it proves accurate.

Too bad the taps and swipes don’t follow suit. The Apple Watch is often slow to register swipes, and taps misplaced. This is especially evident when setting or inputting the four-digit PIN lock code. Be prepared to mess this up by accidentally pressing the number above or below your selection. But it also happens when selecting apps from the app grid.

Part of this is due to the small display, where accuracy is tough to judge. But you can’t help but think it’s also a calibration problem that hopefully will be addressed with a future update.

The display stays off by default, only lighting up when touched, when the crown or side button are pressed, or when you raise your wrist for a glance. At least that’s how it is supposed to work. A tap or button press work near 100% of the time, but raising a wrist requires too much motion for it to register regularly. In fact, the range required is downright uncomfortable.  The display can also be manually turned off by covering with the palm of a hand.

Battery

Apple claims that the Apple Watch has up to an all-day battery life up to 18 hours with mixed use, though “actual results will vary.”

When we first fired up the Apple Watch, ours varied to the tune of about 6 hours, as we explored the device and tested the various apps. Once we got into a routine with it, the Apple Watch lasted the full work day and well into the evening. In this regard, the Apple Watch is right in line with the Android Wear devices, in that it needs charging every day.

The Apple Watch does have a Power Reserve mode that disables all but the time, and that will extend the life of the Apple Watch up to 72 hours. Our Apple Watch charged slowly, taking about three hours to charge completely, and two hours to hit about 80%.

Setup

The Apple Watch requires an iPhone 5 or later running at least iOS 8.2. Apple iPad or iPod touch owners are left in the lurch here as Apple Watch set up and management depends on an Apple Watch app that’s iPhone exclusive.

Apple Watch app for iPhone

Apple Watch app for iPhone

Setting up the Apple Watch is a breeze, and only requires a few taps, a Bluetooth connection, and pairing via a swirling comos-style QR code and the iPhone’s camera. It takes about 10 minutes.

The Apple Watch will automatically install a set of core apps (Activity, Calendar, Mail, Maps, Messages, Passbook & Apple Pay, Phone, Photos, Reminders), and users then choose if they want all supported apps already on the iPhone (ESPN, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) installed, of if they would like to choose apps later. The Apple Watch also includes an onboard Music app, camera controls, an Apple TV remote, various watch apps and faces, Stocks app, activity tracker, Workout app, Phone app, and settings.

The Apple Watch must stay tethered to an iPhone for full use. Bluetooth gives it a range of about 30 feet, but the Apple Watch also supports Wi-Fi. It can’t connect to a network on its own, but it stays connected to an iPhone sans Bluetooth if both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network. This is especially useful for those that want to leave their iPhone charging while they work around the house, but there are limitations. The Apple Watch does not support the 5GHz Wi-Fi band, and secure corporate-style Wi-Fi will also throw it for a loop.

The Apple Watch app proves effective for managing the Apple Watch. From here, users can rearrange apps, tweak settings, set notifications, and find new apps. Things can get daunting, particularly with notifications, as we’ll describe later, but keeping most Apple Watch management confined to one app was the right move.

User Interface

The Apple Watch has a complex and inconsistent scheme built around swipes, taps, presses, the watch crown, and the oblong button underneath it. Frankly, it’s frustrating.

Apple Watch app shortcuts

Apple Watch app shortcuts

The button has three functions. One press brings up Digital Touch, which is a glorified favorite contacts list. It can be used to call or send messages to set contacts, or send drawings or a heartbeat to other Apple Watch owners. Two quick presses brings up Apple Pay. A long press brings up the power and power reserve toggles. Quick access to Apple Pay is a great idea, but we found Digital Touch to be close to useless. Letting users set a favorite app for quick launch would be preferable.

The watch crown can be used to scroll in lieu of finger swipes, pressed as a sort of “home” button, or double pressed for quick access to the last used app … sometimes.

It bears repeating that the Apple Watch’s contextual user interface is confusing. For example, pressing the crown may bring you to the watch face, the apps page, center the apps page, or bring you from inside an interactive watch face back to the watch face home screen. A double press with either bring you back to the watch face, or if already in the watch face or another app, to the last used app.

Apple Watch settings Glance

Apple Watch settings Glance

The same is true of Force Touch. For example, it can be used to mark a message in the email app, start a new message in the Messages app, search in the Maps app, or nothing at all in the apps that don’t support it.

There is no simple consistency from app to app, and because of this, it’s impossible to know what an app actually does until you swipe, tap, and press your way through it. It’s frustrating, and it’s likely that the many users drawn to Apple products for their elegant simplicity will be turned off by this.

There is one other app shortcut from the watch face home screen. Swiping up from the bottom brings up what Apple calls Glances, or pertinent information from apps. Users can set those apps from the Apple Watch app on an iPhone, but by default they include quick settings, the music player, heart rate monitor, battery indicator, Activity app, calendar, weather, maps, and the World Clock app. A tap within Glances opens up the respective app.

Siri and Handoff

Of course, users can skip all that confusion and just use Siri to get from app to app or pull off simple commands, like setting alarms, turning on Airplane mode, or starting a workout. Siri also retains its signature sass, and will pull in Wikipedia information when it can. There’s no audio, however. Siri on the Apple Watch is text based.

Apple Watch Siri

Apple Watch Siri

Siri responds from a long press of the crown or the words “hey Siri.” It often takes too long to load, and we frequently found ourselves repeating commands. But it recognizes words and commands well when the timing is right. The caveat here is that you have to know exactly what to ask, and have an understanding of the Apple Watch’s capabilities.

Siri’s default answer for when it can’t do something on the Apple Watch is to turn to Handoff. This feature allows you to start a task on the Apple Watch and continue it on the iPhone. For example, the Apple Watch can’t compose emails. Ask Siri to do it, and it’ll turn things over to the iPhone, with an email message open and ready for dictation.

Handoff also works in certain apps, outside of Siri. If you’re in a mail message on the Apple Watch, for example, a mail icon will also appear on the lower left corner of the iPhone lock screen. Swiping up from it will take you into the mail app.

Notifications

Like any smartwatch, notifications are key to the Apple Watch’s utility. Whereas Android Wear utilizes Google Now for the bulk of its notifications, the Apple Watch relies on apps and messages.

Apple Watch email notification

Apple Watch email notification

Notifications take the form of audible pings and physical taps. Rather than simply vibrate, the Taptic Engine, which Apple touts as “a way to give technology a more human touch,” delivers subtle taps and vibrations depending on the alert. Tap strength can be adjusted, and they feel pleasant and fitting for a high-end device.

It’s hard to associate the type of tap to notifications, but it’s easy to see the potential here for contextual alerts. For example, the Weather app could potentially deliver a sudden and hard tap if a thunder storm is approaching. As it stands, Apple Watch owners can deliver their heartbeats to other Apple Watch owners. Yes, it’s gimmicky, but there’s real potential there.

Notifications are accessible from the watch face via a swipe down from the top. They can pile up and be individually accessed, individually dismissed with a swipe, or all cleared through a tap and press. Once dismissed, a notification is gone for good. Any unseen notifications are indicated by a red dot that appears atop the center of the watch face.

Any app that delivers notifications to your iPhone can do the same on the Apple Watch, whether the app has an Apple Watch version or not. For example, the podcasting app Stitcher is not available on the Apple Watch, but as long as it is installed on your iPhone with notifications enabled, it will alert you to new episodes of This American Life.

This is a potential recipe for madness induced by a constantly dinging and taping smartwatch. On top of that, notifications often interrupt whatever you’re doing on the watch, butting in over other apps. Thankfully, you can manage notifications through the Apple Watch app on the iPhone. Apple allows for some specific control over the core app notifications: Activity, Calendar, Mail, Maps, Messages, Passbook & Apple Pay, Phone, Photos, and Reminders. For all other apps, you can either “mirror iPhone alerts” or turn them off. If you’d like more granular control over those particular notifications, you must dive into the standard iPhone Settings and deal with it app by app.

We found this to be burdensome. The Apple Watch easily becomes cluttered with too many apps sending useless information. Do we really need ESPN to deliver baseball scores? Do we really need Cupcake Dungeon bugging us to buy more power ups? Even the Activity app, which provides a salient benefit, gets bothersome with its steady harping and progress updates.

And despite this, we want more control. Email alerts are important to many users, but busy inboxes mean constantly dinging Apple Watches. There is no way to prioritize messages from certain senders. Yes, we want the Apple Watch to notify when a message from a boss or colleague arrives, but not some spam newsletter.

Thankfully, the Settings Glance enables quick access to turn off all notifications (Do Not Disturb), or simply silence them, at which point you still will feel a haptic tap when they arrive. Adding to it all is the redundant Prominent Haptic option, which adds a harsher tap as a means of indicating the arrival of a notification, which itself includes a tap.

Messages and Phone Calls

Apple Watch preset message responses

Apple Watch preset message responses

The Apple Watch gets messaging right. It can send and receive texts and iMessages so long as it’s paired with an iPhone. Since there is no keyboard, messages have to be dictated, which again, is impressively accurate. Instead of text, you can opt to send an audio file. Users can also select from a series of preset phrases (Ok, Thanks, Can I call you later?, etc.), animated emojis, and standard emojis.  You can’t send images or video files, and you can’t send out a group message, though you can reply to one sent your way.  The Apple Watch can receive audio messages, images, and video clips with audio

In testing, these limits hardly hampered our day-to-day use. Messaging on the Apple Watch is just right – perfect for quick conversations.

With its on-board speaker and microphone, the Apple Watch is also capable of making and answering calls. Once again, it must be paired to an iPhone first. The voice quality is limited by the small speakers and microphone (Bluetooth headsets will pair with the Apple Watch but can’t be used for calls), but it’s good enough for conversation. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s an entirely goofy, if novel, experience. Apple Watch owners probably won’t be making many calls outside the iPhone after trying it on the Apple Watch once or twice.  

Apps

There are more than 3,500 apps for the Apple Watch as of this writing. Most of these apps are junk and serve no useful purpose. The Apple Watch either requires too many compromises, or app developers don’t yet know how to build a decent watch app.

Apple Watch ESPN app headlines

Apple Watch ESPN app headlines

The ESPN app for example delivers scores from your favorite teams and a handful of headlines that when pressed deliver short blurbs that often just repeat the headline info. The Twitter app brings a scaled-back view of a timeline five tweets at a time, top 10 trending topics, as well as the ability to tweet text, emojis, and location, in addition to reply, favorite, and retweet. Since the Apple Watch has no web browser, most tweets are reduced to dumb blocks of text.

There are a few standouts. Uber is simple and near perfect. It sends a ride to your location with a tap, and that’s it. OneNote and Evernote provide quick access to notes and allow users to create new ones. Wunderlist takes that a step further with editable to-do lists.

Perhaps more app devs will figure things out once they spend more time with the Apple Watch, though we’re not hopeful. Android Wear is more than a year old, and it still has the same app issue.

It’s a different story with the core apps. They really show the potential of the device.  Navigation is great. It provides turn-by-turn directions, tapping each time a turn approaches. This is invaluable for navigating while biking, or perhaps for helping those with disabilities get around the city. Even while driving, we found it helped reduce the distraction of constantly glancing at the phone.

Apple Watch ESPN app "story"

Apple Watch ESPN app “story”

The Activity and Workout apps are also superb. Activity tracks calories burned, steps taken, time spent exercising, and time spent standing. Workout goes a step further, tracking and measuring progress for various types of cardio.

Both these apps work when the Apple Watch is not paired to an iPhone, as do the alarms, timers, and stopwatch. Users can also load music onto the Apple Watch, which can hold up to 2GB of songs. Depending on the bit rate and song length, that’s upwards of 500 songs at the absolute max.

The process for syncing songs to your Apple Watch is cumbersome, and the songs won’t play over the on-board speaker. Hearing them requires a Bluetooth headset paired with the watch.

While that’s not entirely convenient, the combined exercise and music apps make the Apple Watch a great fitness tracker that as feature-rich as anything on the market. In regards to steps logged and heart rates taken, we can’t confirm its accuracy, but can say the measurements jive with Google Maps distance data and the various heart rate monitors at a local gym.

Apple Watch watchfaces

Apple Watch watch faces

Other core apps include a world clock, stock tracker, iPhone camera control, iTunes and Apple TV remote, and Apple Passbook & Apple Pay. The Apple Watch has NFC, so Apple Pay works effortlessly, provided the establishment accepts Apple Pay and your cards support it. All it takes is a double press of the oblong button, then a press of the Apple Watch face to the Apple Pay reader.

The Apple Watch has 10 different watch faces as of this writing. Apple hasn’t opened this up the third-party devs yet, so you’re stuck with what Apple provides. Fortunately, there are some great options, including an animated Mickey Mouse, interactive astronomy face, and an excellent “Modular” face that teems with information like calendar appointments, the weather, and battery level.  

Conclusion

The Apple Watch is very frustrating on multiple levels. There are times it figuratively clicks and works in a way unique to smartwatches. But there are more times it literally clicks and beeps with useless notifications. The display is fantastic, as is the tight design and construction. But touch accuracy is off, and the operating system and UI are both inconsistent and illogical.

Looking at the big picture, it’s easy to imagine a smartwatch of the future. One that opens smartlocks, starts up smartcars, adjusts smartlights, sets smart thermostats, and acts as a wallet, a concert ticket, and an airport boarding pass. The smartwatch of the future could guide us through unfamiliar locations while delivering contextual and useful information, like points of interest, bad weather, and traffic alerts.

The Apple Watch already does some of that, as does Android Wear. But Google’s wearable OS has the benefit of Google Now for contextual alerts, which isn’t reliable enough to support the platform just yet, but provides solid potential. Apple isn’t even close to Google here.

Apple Watch

Apple Watch

The rest is out of Apple’s control. Experts claim the smart future fueled by the “Internet of Things” is just around the corner, and that will provide the infrastructure to make the smartwatch a viable product.

But that’s not now. Now the smartwatch is a geeky boutique item. And at best, the Apple Watch is an expensive iPhone accessory.

Nope, Apple did not define the smartwatch here, and it has not given anyone a reason to buy one. What utility it does provide does not justify the cost, and it’s clear that as of this writing most app developers have no idea what to do with the form factor.

Pros:

  • Well built
  • Great display
  • Navigation and messaging prove useful

Cons:

  • Confusing and inconsistent UI
  • Few decent apps
  • Notifications can cause madness, managing them burdensome



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