Apple has just lifted the embargo on the Apple Watch for reviewers, allowing the technology press the to give their verdict on the device ahead of Watch preorders on the 10th. The device will actually be available to the public on the 24th. The Apple Watch is a huge release for Apple, its first new product category under Tim Cook. The anticipation for Apple Watch has been simply immense. The pricing model alone is a huge step for the company, entering ‘high-end’ luxury for the first time with the Apple Watch Edition … and a price tag in the $10,000 range. These reviews are our first glance at whether Apple succeeded in making the next hit product.
Reviewers got a demo of the entire Apple Watch buying process, from the initial Apple Store try-on experience right through to handling the device for a few days. Reviewers got to choose their watch-band combination, although the Edition was not available for reviewers (although you can see what Pharell thinks about it of course)
Read below for our roundup of the reviews from a handful of publications:
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Like most things we adorn ourselves with, you have to love the way this looks on you. Apple’s design doesn’t compete with Rolex, Omega, or Breitling for sheer style, but the more I wore the inconspicuous thing, the more I liked it on my wrist. … And all the speedy software and motion tracking is controlled by the company’s new S1 processor, which packs in multiple components on a single chip. It’s an impressive package. After using it, I had no question that the Apple Watch is the most advanced piece of wearable technology you can buy today.
As an object, it makes sense that the Watch is not nearly as cold and minimal as Apple’s recent phones and tablets and laptops. It has to be warmer, cozier. It has to invite you to touch it and take it with you all the time. Take the bands off and it’s a little miracle of technology and engineering and manufacturing, a dense package containing more sensors and processing power than anyone could have even dreamed a few decades ago. It’s a supercomputer on your wrist, but it’s also a bulbous, friendly little thing, far more round than I expected, recalling nothing quite so much as the first-generation iPhone. It is unbelievably high tech and a little bit silly, a masterpiece of engineering with a Mickey Mouse face. It is quintessentially Apple.
The Apple Watch is light-years better than any of the feeble, clunky efforts that have come before it. The screen is nicer, the software is refined and bug-free, the body is real jewelry. First-time technologies await at every turn: Magnetic bands, push-to-release straps, wrist-to-wrist drawings or Morse codes, force pressing, credit-card payments from the wrist. And the symbiosis with the iPhone is graceful, out of your way, and intelligent.
With that said, I’ve worn my fair share of smartwatches and none are as good-looking as Apple Watch. My “next-best” design award goes to the round-faced Moto 360, but its display isn’t as rich-looking.
The edges of the Apple Watch are gently rounded, and the Retina display pours into a barely-there edge like a tiny black infinity pool. In terms of size, the 42-millimeter Apple Watch feels just big enough. I like a bigger watch, and the the 38-millimeter model didn’t feel like enough Apple Watch for me. It’s also rather thick; multiple people have remarked upon this when they’ve seen it.
The Apple Watch is far from perfect, and, starting at $350 and going all the way up to $17,000, it isn’t cheap. Though it looks quite smart, with a selection of stylish leather and metallic bands that make for a sharp departure from most wearable devices, the Apple Watch works like a first-generation device, with all the limitations and flaws you’d expect of brand-new technology.
One big challenge Apple conquered is making its wrist computer small and stylish enough to wear without a nerdy pocket protector. My colleague Joanna Stern and I agree the Apple Watch is a fine watch for both men and women—a standard previous smartwatches couldn’t meet. Yet the $1,000 steel 42mm version I tested is still a bit thicker than I’d want, as tall as a stack of six quarters. And you can’t soap it up in a shower, though a little rain won’t hurt it.
Apple allows you customize the face of the watch, not only with tapping Mickey and other unique designs, but with little widgets it’s calling “Complications” (in a nod to classic horological terms). These items that dot the edges of the display can tell the temperature outside, signal your next calendar appointment, show the phases of the moon, and so on. In spite of the name, these Complications are one of the most useful parts of the watch, offering the kind of information that really does elevate the device beyond a simple timepiece.
The main watch face really is a complete self-contained experience: if the Apple Watch had no other functionality except for what you can do from the watch face, it would still be competitive. Customizing the Watch Face is the first time you’ll use Force Touch: you push a little bit harder on the screen, and you can swipe between Apple’s selection of watch face templates, each of which can be customized and saved as individual variations. Most of the templates are minor riffs on the same basic analog watch, but others are very strange indeed, like the animated butterfly and jellyfish. There’s no particularly great digital face, and there’s no ability to load up your own watch faces or buy new ones from the store, which is a clearly missed opportunity.
In Astronomy, you see the earth from space, correctly illuminated as it appears at this moment. If you tap the tiny Moon icon in the corner, you fly through space, the moon looming larger as you approach, until you’re viewing it as it’s currently illuminated.
In some faces, like Chronology, Utility, Color, and Simple, you can customize the complications that appear in the four corners. (In the watch industry, a complication is actually a desirable feature. It’s information beyond time-telling, like a date display or a moon calendar.) You might decide to display the sunset time, battery level, fitness goal, day/date, or stopwatch.
After you first set up your Apple Watch and pair it with your iPhone using Bluetooth, you’ll think, “What the heck is going on, where do I swipe to see things, how do I get rid of this notification that just popped up?” And so on.
With some other smartwatches, that feeling never fully evaporates. With Apple Watch, it does.
The main face is the watch face. There are currently ten faces you can choose from, and you can customize each one to show things like date, weather, activity levels and battery life. Apple is calling these tiny info displays “complications,” a nod to mechanical watches.
Eventually, I figured out that getting the watch to really work for you requires work. I pruned a list of VIP contacts in my mail app to make e-mail notifications more tolerable, I killed several app notifications that I found to be consistently interruptive, and I streamlined my list of applications to those that seemed truly vital to my day.
But the biggest missed opportunity is that there’s no way to customize the notification sounds and Taptics on the Watch. I couldn’t set a different alert for messages than for mail or calendar invites; they all just sort of felt the same. Without this ability, the Taptic Engine is just a small improvement over existing smartwatches. Let me create and set my own notifications, and it’s a revolution.
Getting notifications on the way to work also highlighted a key issue that the Apple Watch shares with Google’s Android Wear: you have to be really bought into a single ecosystem for everything to work well out of the box. If you’re not a believer in all of Apple’s apps and services, the Apple Watch is going to be a little frustrating until developers build more support for it. For example, it’s easy to send iMessages from the Watch, but there’s no way to use WhatsApp or Hangouts. I spend a huge part of my day in Slack; it’s somewhat useful to know people are mentioning you in a chat room because of taps on your wrist, but it would be much better if you could actually do something about it. There’s a lot of work left to be done here.
On that topic, Apple’s notification management is excellent. You have total control over which kinds of messages tap you on the wrist. You can choose “The same ones I’ve set up on my phone,” or override those settings for the Watch.
And if some call or alert starts ringing at an inopportune moment, you can shut the watch by pressing your palm against its screen, as though to say, “QUIET!” That’s handy in libraries, churches, or chess matches.
If you press down firmly on the touchscreen Watch display, it will perform certain functions. If you want to clear all notifications, for example, you can use Force Touch. You can read entire emails on the watch, but that’s often a lot of text for a small face. Out of the many (many!) notifications I’ve been getting on my wrist, I’ve liked seeing and responding to iMessages the most.
Finding nirvana with the watch involves adjusting your notification settings on your phone so that your wrist does not constantly buzz with information that doesn’t make sense on the Watch — like Facebook status updates, messages from Snapchat, or every single email about brownies in the office kitchen. Apple’s notification settings have long been unduly laborious; battling them while your hand is buzzing off the hook is an extra level of discomfort.
On the plus side is Apple’s new Activity app, which presents you with three basic sets of achievements to hit every day—and makes hitting those goals almost frictionless. One metric it watches is how many calories you’re burning every day by moving, a number that can be changed, depending on your skill level. A second is exercise, which is any period in which you’re engaged in strenuous activity that keeps your heart rate up. The third is a notification for standing, to make sure you get up on your feet at least once every hour.
Setup for the health features was completely painless, and I immediately started seeing the results of being made so aware of my activity levels. I wanted to walk more, was excited when I got a brisk jog through a train station, and yes, I felt better because I was standing up during the day on a regular basis. I have no idea if this will have any lasting impact on my health, but I think Apple’s beautiful and frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction.
The Watch’s health and fitness features are broken up across two apps: Activity and Workout. The Activity app is beautiful, but extremely basic — it’s what monitors your movement. You can set goals for your calories burned, exercise, and standing, which are displayed as three concentric rings. Red is calories, green is exercise, and blue is standing. I’m not sure why standing is measured in “hours” — the Watch just bugs you to stand up for a couple minutes every hour, and that’s good enough. It’ll also show you your steps and total distance, which is nice.
The watch’s motion sensor (accelerometer) knows every time you take a step, but it doesn’t know how far that step has taken you. But if you start out your watch ownership by going for a run with your phone, which does have GPS, the watch correlates your number of steps (and frequency) with the distance you’re covering.
In other words, the watch soon learns how much distance you cover with each footstep—it even differentiates between quicker footsteps and slower ones. Thereafter, it can calculate the distance you’ve run all by itself. That is slick.
The most interesting observation from my workouts so far is that the heart-rate readings I’m getting from the Apple Watch during indoor cycling are very close to the readings I’ve gotten from a chest monitor. I haven’t yet seen the kind of wildly-erratic readings that I’ve experienced with other health watches that measure heart rate through the wrist.
I like Apple Watch’s regular reminders to get up and move. It does this even when your watch is offline, as mine was during a recent six-hour flight.
I also like that Apple Watch lets you record a variety of activities, from running to cycling to the stair-stepper. But I don’t like that everything outside of that list is categorized as just “Other.” Yoga is very different from, say, weight lifting. Yet here, they’re just “Other.”
I appreciated the activity updates, even the awards for hitting milestones. If I could hang up the 200% Move Goal award I received for reaching a target twice in a day, I would. But the prompts to stand up every hour got downright annoying. I don’t stand enough, I know, but I don’t plan to change that in the middle of a meeting, or after I’ve burned 300 calories at SoulCycle. (I did leap out of my seat…when I found out how to turn the stupid prompts off.)
By the end of each day, I was hyper-aware of how low the Apple Watch battery had gotten. After one particularly heavy day of use, I hit 10 percent battery at 7pm, triggering a wave of anxiety. But most days were actually fine. Apple had a big challenge getting a tiny computer like this to last a day, and it succeeded — even if that success seemingly comes at the expense of performance.
But Apple is right about one thing: You’ll have to charge this thing every night. They’ve made that as easy as possible, especially if you have one of the bands with magnetic clasps that aren’t fussy to remove. The charger is a sweet magnetic disc that snaps automatically onto the back of the watch and charges it via induction—you don’t have to align it any particular way. And the cord is 6 feet long, so it’ll reach from your bedside table to a power outlet near the floor.
This means, however, that you won’t be wearing the watch at night. That’s a much bigger problem than anybody seems to be acknowledging. For one thing, that fact makes the Apple Watch the only fitness tracker on the market that can’t track your sleep.
Apple has promised that the battery will last 18 hours per charge with normal use. It hasn’t yet died on me during the day, or even late at night. My iPhone actually conked out before the Watch did; this happened to Bonnie, too.
One day this past week, I woke up at 5:15 am, exercised for an hour using the Watch, ran Maps during my commute, made phones calls and received notifications throughout the whole day, and by 11:00 pm the Watch was just hitting its Power Reserve point.
The battery lives up it its all-day billing, but sometimes just barely. It’s often nearly drained at bedtime, especially if I’ve used the watch for exercise. There’s a power-reserve mode that can make it last a few hours longer, but then it only shows the time.
The Apple Watch’s screen does an adequate job outdoors, but less so in the direct sun. Most of the Apple Watch’s screens feature white text on a black background, which helps some.
The watch is not life-changing. It is, however, excellent. Apple will sell millions of these devices, and many people will love and obsess over them. It is a wonderful component of a big ecosystem that the company has carefully built over many years. It is more seamless and simple than any of its counterparts in the marketplace. It is, without question, the best smartwatch in the world.
The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.
There’s no question that the Apple Watch is the most capable smartwatch available today. It is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus: it can do tiny bits of everything, instead of a few things extraordinarily well. For all of its technological marvel, the Apple Watch is still a smartwatch, and it’s not clear that anyone’s yet figured out what smartwatches are actually for.
But that’s technology as fashion; it’s not quite yet fashion itself. If you’re going to buy an Apple Watch, I’d recommend buying a Sport model; I wouldn’t spend money on how it looks until Apple completes the task of figuring out what it does.
But the true answer to that question is this: You don’t need one. Nobody needs a smartwatch. After all, it’s something else to buy, care for, charge every night. It’s another cable to pack and track. Your phone already serves most of its purposes. With the battery-life situation as it is, technology is just barely in place to make such a device usable at all.
In the end, therefore, the Apple Watch is, above all, a satisfying indulgence. It’s a luxury. You might buy it to bring you pleasure—and it will—much the way you might buy a really nice car, some really nice clothes, or a really nice entree.
Or a really nice watch.
It’s swiping through pictures of family on your wrist, seeing your heart rate spike when you’re watching an exciting game, and getting a glimpse of a message when you’re rushing between classes or meetings. It’s trying really, really hard not to look at your wrist when you’re in the middle of a meeting. In our new world of too-many-devices, it somehow becomes the second thing you reach for when you roll out of bed.
Smartwatches are still unproven, but Apple has made a pretty strong case for them.
I also used the Watch to pay for New York cabs and groceries at Whole Foods, and to present my boarding pass to security agents at the airport. When these encounters worked, they were magical, like having a secret key to unlock the world right on my arm. What’s most thrilling about the Apple Watch, unlike other smartwatches I’ve tried, is the way it invests a user with a general sense of empowerment. If Google brought all of the world’s digital information to our computers, and the iPhone brought it to us everywhere, the Watch builds the digital world directly into your skin. It takes some time getting used to, but once it clicks, this is a power you can’t live without.
The body is bound to get thinner; the edges could stand to be less rounded. It isn’t just the aesthetics, either. Soon, we won’t have to charge the battery every night, the software won’t ever get stuttery and those health sensors will get even more accurate. When was the last time Apple didn’t improve first-gen hardware’s performance while making it sleeker?
The running theme of all of these reviews is that the Apple Watch is a nuanced product. It is widely deemed by these publications as the best smartwatch, but still does not do enough to justify the smartwatch as an ‘essential’ part of daily life. Some of these concerns will be resolved with future software updates to the device but other missing capabilities may have to wait until Apple Watch 2 to be fully resolved. The public will make up their own mind when the device goes on sale on April 24th.