We’re also on the eve of watchOS 2’s public launch—the first significant update to Apple’s Watch platform since the device became available in late-April. Indeed, the imminent release of watchOS 2 is part of the reason I’m finally getting around to publishing this—I’m interested to see how many, if any, of the critiques I articulate below are addressed by the new OS.
But the main reason I’m taking the time to write this is to provide prospective buyers with a generalist’s perspective on Apple Watch. All the reviews I’ve seen to date have come from very specific points of view—mainly tech pundits, but also fitness fanatics and horologists. While I do have an interest in both technology and fitness (watches, not so much), I’m by no means an expert in either field. So, hopefully, this review will prove useful to those considering an Apple Watch, not as the latest-and-greatest tech gizmo or fitness device, nor as a key inflection point in the history of personal timekeeping, but simply as a device that does or does not impart benefits that outweigh its costs.
The Top 3 Benefits of Apple Watch
1. Instant access to time & meeting information.
Whenever someone notices that I’m wearing an Apple Watch, they invariably ask, in one way or another, what I like best about it. My answer, from my first week of wearing it till now—over four months in—remains the same: the fact that I can instantly see the current time along with a summary of my next meeting (the latter is available on most, but not all of Apple’s built-in watch faces as an added “complication”—see Apple’s page on watch faces and complications for more).
Most people seem to find this an uncompelling answer. I suspect that they want a more technologically exotic response, such as making calls from my wrist (something I do find useful, but only occasionally), or paying for things at stores (again, cool, but only occasionally useful) or some other gee whiz feature. But I think Apple decided to call this device Apple Watch for a reason. Yes, it is an order of magnitude more capable than any watch that’s come before it, but, much in the way that iPhone’s most compelling benefits remain rooted in communications, the Watch’s most compelling benefits remain rooted in time.
“But I can just pull out my phone to see the time,” is a frequent retort. And that’s certainly true, but I’ve found that there’s a meaningful benefit to knowing exactly where to look to see time-based information in an instant. Whereas the location of my phone frequently changes—it might be in any one of four pants pockets, a jacket pocket, a compartment in my bag, the cupholder in my car, etc.—my Watch is always on my wrist. This might not sound like a particularly sexy benefit, but it’s what I’ve continued to value most about my Apple Watch.
And speaking specifically about the ability to see calendar information at a glance, anyone who, like me, works in a meeting-intensive corporate environment will immediately fall in love with this feature. Not only is it miles more convenient than having to first fish out and then unlock your phone, the ability to see your next meeting on your wrist also makes it possible to discreetly check your schedule while participating in a meeting. This is a sometimes necessary evil that’s very difficult to do on a phone without distracting those around you. In addition, unlike instant access to the current time, this is a feature unique to smartwatches and is, in my experience, executed far more elegantly on Apple Watch than on any other mainstream smartwatch platform.
2. Eliminates notification anxiety.
As someone who keeps his phone on vibrate and generally stashes it in a pants pocket, I was often surprised by just how many phone calls—let alone Messages, Mail or app notifications—I would miss. If I went for even an hour without using my phone, my lock screen would invariably be filled with missed notifications the next time I checked-in. And it’s not as though I wear parachute pants (at least not on a regular basis), yet, more often than not, I would fail to notice the actuation of my phone’s vibration motor.
With Apple Watch, that’s a complete non-issue. After a simple and elegant initial pairing process, the Watch mirrored the notification and VIP settings from my iPhone. After a few days, I customized those settings, limiting notifications relayed to my Watch to only those people and apps that might ping me with important, time-critical messages. Since then, over a period of more than four months, I can probably count on one hand the number of on-Watch notifications I’ve missed.
It’s not that the Watch’s built-in Taptic Engine is super disruptive. In fact, even on its strongest setting I’d describe its feedback as subtle. The difference is that the Watch sits directly against my skin all day long, as opposed to my phone, which might be in a pants pocket, where a vibration would have to travel through multiple layers of fabric to reach my skin, or in a jacket pocket, where jackhammer levels of vibration would be necessary to attract my attention.
And, rather than being disruptive, I’ve found that getting subtle notifications on my wrist makes me feel more empowered. That probably sounds corny, but it’s true because I no longer suffer from notification anxiety.
You know the feeling: You’re having a conversation with someone and feel a buzz in your pocket; you want to check the notification in case it’s important, but don’t want to be rude. So you spend the remainder of the conversation distracted because part of your brain can’t stop imagining all of the possible life changing ramifications of missing that critical notification. You come up with some excuse to perfunctorily end your talk and hurriedly whip your phone out of your pocket, only to find that the notification was triggered because your Mom just posted photos of her new dresser to Facebook. F&%$!
With the Watch, that’s all gone away. For starters, based on the way I’ve tweaked my notification settings, if a message makes it through to my Watch, I know it’s from someone I care about and was sent through a medium that suggests time sensitivity. For example, a text from my Mom would trigger a notification on my Watch, whereas that aforementioned Facebook post would not. So I know in advance that any notifications I receive on my Watch are worth looking at sooner rather than later.
Apple Watch also makes it very easy for me to quickly view and act on my notifications. You can read some of the more technical reviews of the Watch to learn the specifics of how this works, but suffice it to say that I find myself responding to texts and other time-sensitive messages more quickly than I did pre-Watch. And that’s a plus because it means I no longer have to rely on my sieve-like memory to recall all the people I need to get back to at the end of a given day.
3. Tracks workout intensity in real-time.
As I noted in the intro to this review, while I do exercise regularly, I’m by no means a fitness junkie, nor have I ever understood the motivations of quantified-selfers. But I do like to have a sense for how hard I’m working when I’m working out, and there’s no simpler metric to gauge that than heart rate.
I’ve tried chest strap-based HRMs in the past, but I've found them too cumbersome and uncomfortable—especially given that all I’m looking for is an indication of my workout intensity, not ultra-accurate heart rate readings.
A quick aside regarding heart rate accuracy: I’ve read mixed reports on the accuracy of the Watch’s heart rate monitoring. Consumer Reports compared Apple Watch to their highest rated heart rate monitor, the chest strap-based Polar H7, and found no significant differences between the readings from the Watch and those from the Polar model. A similar comparison conducted by MIT Technology Review, however, showed a wide disparity in readings between the same two devices. I suspect that differences in testing methodologies had a lot to do with the inconsistencies in these results.
While I’m not equipped to speak to the accuracy or inaccuracy of Apple Watch’s HRM (I don’t have a medical grade ECG handy for comparison), I can report that the readings from my Watch have been consistent over time. And that’s perfect for me, because that day-to-day consistency is all I need to compare my current level of effort to my resting state and to previous workouts.
Beyond giving me a simple number that lets me know if I’m pushing myself as hard as I should be, keeping track of this data has led to some interesting insights. For one thing, I learned that running keeps me at a higher effort level than any other workout, including a tough elliptical workout that I subjectively believed required greater effort. I still do elliptical work to get the benefits of cross training, but, based on this information, I’ve incorporated more running into my weekly exercise regime.
I’ve also found that my Watch can give me advance warning of illness. On two occasions, I noticed that my heart rate was roughly five beats-per-minute higher than it would normally be during a given activity. I wasn’t exhibiting any outward signs of sickness at the time of these measurements, but, on both occasions, I began to show typical cold symptoms within a couple of days.
Clearly, my body was already fighting a virus when the Watch started to pick up my elevated heart rate, so it’s not that it can prevent sickness. But by giving me advance warning, the Watch did enable me to take countermeasures earlier on, which many studies have shown can significantly shorten the duration of cold symptoms.
The short of it is that I’ve found the heart rate monitoring provided by Apple Watch to be very useful. I only wish Apple provided a better, more consumer-friendly way to review my historical heart rate data, which might enable me to uncover important trends over time. As is, the only way to see my historical data is via the Health app on my iPhone, which offers an interface that only an actuary could love. If anyone has recommendations for third-party apps that enable richer visualization of existing Health data, please tweet them to me @edotkim.
I should note that I’ve also found the Watch’s ring-based Activity app to be a simple and effective motivational tool that actually does encourage me to be more active on a daily basis. But don’t take my word for it, read Jim Dalrymple’s review of Apple Watch to get a sense for the outsized impact this device can have on one’s health and well-being.
There are a lot more things that I like about my Apple Watch, but these are the three biggies. Still, my experience over the past four-plus months hasn’t been all moonlight and roses. Here are the things I’ve haven’t liked so much...
The Top 3 Downsides of Apple Watch
1. It’s too fiddly.
Okay, so fiddly may not be a technical term, but it’s the word that comes to mind most readily to describe the experience of configuring and interacting with Apple Watch.
As I noted in the section on notification anxiety above, the process to pair a new Apple Watch with an existing iPhone is as straightforward as you’d expect from an Apple device. You simply ensure that your Watch is powered on and then, on your iPhone 5 or later, launch the Apple Watch app that now comes bundled with iOS. The two devices will walk you through the initial configuration, which is very similar to the process for setting up a new iPhone and should take no longer than seven to 10 minutes.
That’s all pretty straightforward. It also introduces you to the fact that the Watch is very much a satellite device to your iPhone. Where things start to get fiddly is when you try to depart from Apple’s defaults.
For example, let’s imagine you want to re-arrange the apps on your Watch’s Home screen, which can quickly become crowded with inscrutable little glyphs. According to Apple’s documentation, it’s possible to do this from the Watch itself by touching and holding an app icon until all of the icons start to jiggle, but I’ve never seen this actually work. Instead, the icons just “bounce” as though I’ve made an errant tap on the screen. So I have to go to the Apple Watch app on my iPhone to customize the app layout on my Watch. And, even then, the process is needlessly fiddly, with auto-snapping behaviors that drive me bananas.
And many settings, such as determining which Glances appear when you swipe up from the bottom of your watch face, can only be configured via the Apple Watch app on your iPhone. I suppose this is similar to the early days of the smartphone, when a wired connection to a host computer was required to perform many critical tasks. But given that we’ve been “PC Free” since iOS 5, this reliance on a secondary device for basic configuration tasks feels like a step backwards, even if it is understandable.
Where I think Apple Watch gets really confusing, though, is in configuring app notifications. This is because control over the notifications that appear on your Watch is managed by way of an interplay of settings on the Watch itself, settings within the Apple Watch app and settings on the iPhone that you’ve paired with your Watch. In my experience, many people already have a hard time grokking the notifications interface on their iPhones, so it’s no surprise that adding additional layers of complexity should add to the befuddlement (see AppleInsider for a good primer on configuring Apple Watch notifications).
This is particularly unfortunate because you really need to tweak your notification settings to get the most out of Apple Watch. As noted earlier, the Watch mirrors your phone’s settings by default and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, this will result in notification overload. For example, do you really want to get buzzed on your wrist every time you receive an email, regardless of the sender? Or every time someone likes one of your photos on Instagram, or retweets you on Twitter? Probably not. Yet the fiddly nature of notification configuration for the Watch means that many users won’t get the most out of one of its best features.
There are several more examples of fiddly-ness I could cite here, but in the interest of concluding this review before the next ice age, I’ll move on.
2. Yet another device to charge.
One more device to charge every night—no big deal, right? That’s what I assumed when I ordered my Apple Watch. But after using it for several months now, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which the need to charge it nightly has colored my view of the device.
First, I should note that the battery life of my 42mm Stainless Steel model has exceeded expectations. I’ve heard some owners of the smaller, 38mm model report that their Watches hit the Power Reserve wall on days they use the Workout app (the Watch typically takes a heart rate reading once every 10 minutes, but this is amped up to once every 10 seconds when the Workout app is running, significantly increasing power draw), but I’ve tracked workouts lasting upwards of two hours and still ended the day with battery power at just a few ticks under 50 percent.
So, in my experience, the 42mm Apple Watch offers more than enough juice to get through a day of heavy use. I’ve even managed to get through a full day, a full night and half of the next day on a single charge. But for consistent performance, your best bet is to charge the Watch every night.
Now, I may be an oddball here, but I’ve found that this need to charge nightly contributes to a certain amorphous sense that the Watch is a burden rather than a benefit. First, there’s the need to find a place for the Watch’s proprietary Magnetic Charging Cable on my nightstand, which is already over-crowded with devices; not to mention finding a place to plug in the associated power adapter, which is small but nonetheless takes up a precious outlet on the already over-crowded power strip hidden behind said nightstand.
Then there’s the need to remember to pack that cable and adapter when I travel, and then find a place to plug them in at the hotel, which always seems to skimp on accessible outlets near the bed. I’ve taken a few overnight trips in the four-plus months that I’ve owned an Apple Watch and, before each, I’ve paused to consider whether this rigamarole was worth the effort. In each case I ultimately decided it was, and I’m glad I had my Watch with me on those trips, but I had to think about it. By contrast, I wouldn’t spend even a nano-second considering whether it’s worth taking my smartphone with me on a trip.
In a nutshell, a smartphone blows away any cost/benefit analysis rooted in the day-to-day burdens it imposes versus the day-to-day benefits it affords. In the case of Apple Watch, however—even when you take purchase price out of the equation since I’ve already paid for mine—that burden-to-benefit ratio may not compute.
3. It lacks a “sense of occasion.”
I mentioned in the intro to this review that I’ve never been particularly interested in watches. That said, I was fortunate enough to receive an Omega Constellation as a graduation gift many moons ago and, though I rarely wear it, it’s something I’ve held onto and valued for its beauty as a manufactured object.
On those infrequent occasions when I do don it, I’m struck by the emotions that wash over me as I take it out of its box (of course I kept the box!) and slide it onto my wrist. After all these years it still feels special, and imparts some of that feeling of specialness onto me when I wear it.
It’s true that a stainless steel Constellation is a few times more expensive than a stainless steel Apple Watch with Link Bracelet—the most comparable offering in Apple’s line. But that same Watch design stretches up to $17,000 in Edition form, so I think a case-to-case comparison is valid. And, when viewed against competition of this caliber, Apple Watch simply isn’t in the same league.
Yes, Apple’s Watch is beautifully crafted and, with its electronic underpinnings, offers infinitely more functionality than even the most sophisticated Omega, Rolex or Patek Philippe timepieces. Yet, for all its cleverness, the Watch lacks the soul-stirring spark of specialness that even a non-watch guy like me feels when he slips on a decades old, mid-range Omega.
Jony Ive has described Apple Watch as “the most personal product we’ve ever made,” which is true. Unlike a computer or even a phone, you wear a watch. And not only that, you wear it on your wrist for the world to see. Consequently, whether consciously or not, a watch becomes an expression of your identity—as much totem as tool. And, now that I’ve started wearing Apple Watch on a daily basis, I find myself wishing it did more to deliver on the former.
But, hey, I’ve already told you that I’m not a watch guy. For a true horologist’s take on Apple Watch, go read Benjamin Clymer’s thoughtful review at HODINKEE.
Well, if you’ve been on the fence about Apple Watch, I hope this review helps to inform your decision making. In my case, I’ve found the Watch’s benefits to outweigh its shortcomings. But, after reading the above, you may conclude that one or more of the downsides I’ve highlighted is a show stopper. And that’s okay because my intent is to help fellow generalists make a decision you’ll be happy with.
After over four months with a 42mm stainless steel model, the only thing I’d do differently with the benefit of hindsight is to save $200 and purchase an aluminum Apple Watch Sport instead—especially with the recent introduction of gold and rose gold aluminum cases. At that lower price point, my critique regarding the “lack of a sense of occasion” is significantly diminished—especially considering that you retain 100 percent of the functional benefits of the stainless steel models.
Agree? Disagree? Have questions? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter @edotkim.