Now that the early Apple Watch reviews are in, the consensus is clear: Apple has designed the best smartwatch yet, but it’s not an essential purchase. (Read our full summary of those reviews, including the positives and negatives, here.) In an interesting break with past traditions, quite a few of Apple’s hand-picked reviewers either clearly or subtly advised most readers to hold off on buying the Watch. Another surprise was that the reviews contained quite a few previously unknown or under-reported details about the Watch’s real-world performance, so we’ve summed them up here for you.
While all of the Apple Watch reviews were mostly positive — and some were, predictably, entirely positive — the quotes below mostly focus on user experience problems identified by multiple reviewers. The topics include Watch OS’s overly complex user interface, reports of awkward screen activation issues, overwhelming notifications, slow speeds, and even some unexpected conflicts with cultural norms…
1. An Overly Complex UI. Concerns about over-complexity of the Apple Watch’s interface began to leak out after last month’s Spring Forward event, but quite a few reviews have quantified the issues, some in such detail that average people will get confused trying to keep track of all of them. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo led two separate articles with discussions of the Apple Watch’s “steep learning curve,” first noting in his review that:
It took three days — three long, often confusing and frustrating days — for me to fall for the Apple Watch. But once I fell, I fell hard… It was only on Day 4 that I began appreciating the ways in which the elegant $650 computer on my wrist was more than just another screen.
If you want to dive deep into all of Watch OS’s complexity, Manjoo’s separate diary extensively discusses all of the new UI and control issues, eventually concluding:
If all this sounds complicated, you’re right. It is slightly difficult to get the hang of the Apple Watch, at least at first. The biggest problem is figuring out which types of actions are available on which screens. …Since it’s a brand-new device, it stands to reason there will be a bit of a learning curve involved. Still, the Apple Watch presents an uncharacteristic first impression, one that many may find daunting.
2. Getting The Screen To Turn On Can Be Challenging. In one of the more critical looks at the Apple Watch’s performance as a watch, Bloomberg’s Joshua Topolsky wrote:
But what about the watch as a timepiece? I’ve found the experience somewhat inferior to that with a conventional wristwatch, due to one small issue. The Apple Watch activates its screen only when it thinks you’re looking at it. Sometimes a subtle twist of your wrist will do, but sometimes it takes … more. Many times while using the watch, I had to swing my wrist in an exaggerated upward motion to bring the display to life…. Sometimes, even if you do the arm-swing motion, the screen doesn’t turn on. Sometimes it turns on, then off. Sometimes you tap it and nothing happens. For all the noise Apple has made about what a remarkable time-telling device its watch is, I found it lacking for this reason alone.
3. Notifications Are Annoying By Default. Many of the reviews mentioned that notifications were incredibly annoying by default, requiring manual management and time to reduce down to acceptable levels — the opposite of Apple’s typical “it just works” user experience philosophy. Bloomberg’s Topolsky offered a particularly vivid description of the problem and his eventual solution.
Apple sends a push notification every time you get a corporate e-mail, personal e-mail, direct message on Twitter, message on Facebook, and for interactions in countless other services. Each of these notifications pings the watch. For every message, there is a sound, a vibration, or both. (You can mute them.) If you’re a busy person who communicates constantly on your phone, this gets overwhelming fast. I found myself turning off notifications from entire apps, which seems to defeat the purpose of the watch in the first place. …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.
Similarly, Manjoo wrote for the New York Times:
Do you want every email to buzz your wrist, or just those from your VIPs? How about social apps like Twitter — when should you let them ring your watch? I spent many hours pondering such questions, and there was a lot of fine-tuning in the notification screen on my phone. In other words, it didn’t just work.
4. Fitness Sensors May Require Swapping On Apple’s Sport Band. Some people suspected this might be the case based on the way optical heart rate sensors operate, but the Apple Watch might need to be attached to a tight band — likely the Sport Band — for fitness tracking to work fully on some wrists. Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal said:
At the end of three workouts, both the Polar and the watch reported similar average beats per minute. That’s far more accurate than the Fitbit Charge HR and Microsoft’s Band. Apple’s sport band isn’t the most stylish, but it is the one you want for working out. With the looser steel Milanese Loop band, the watch struggled to lock in on my heart rate.
5. The Speakerphone Is Only Semi-Useful For Phone Calls. Several reviewers said that the Watch’s integrated speaker is underpowered, particularly outdoors; others noted that the microphone often picks up ambient noises that can interfere with calls and Siri. In an otherwise very positive review of the Apple Watch, David Phelan of The Independent amusingly mentioned:
Call quality was good, though on balance I found using the iPhone directly better. Also, maybe it’s just me but holding your wrist up to your ear for extended periods got tiring. Calls on the Watch are fun, and best designed for short calls.
Lauren Goode of Re/code suggested a different workaround that really doesn’t need the Apple Watch at all:
Both my boss, Walt Mossberg, and my mother told me that call quality was very good, and that they couldn’t even tell I was calling from a smartwatch. The volume on the watch doesn’t go up very high, though, so calls sounded best when I was wearing Bluetooth headphones.
6. The Apple Watch Is Slow, A Particular Problem For Maps & Location Services. Several reviewers complained about the Watch’s speed, most notably The Verge’s Nilay Patel:
Apple Watch, as I reviewed it for the past week and a half, is kind of slow. There’s no getting around it, no way to talk about all of its interface ideas and obvious potential and hints of genius without noting that sometimes it stutters loading notifications. Sometimes pulling location information and data from your iPhone over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi takes a long time. Sometimes apps take forever to load, and sometimes third-party apps never really load at all. Sometimes it’s just unresponsive for a few seconds while it thinks and then it comes back. Apple tells me that upcoming software updates will address these performance issues, but for right now, they’re there, and they’re what I’ve been thinking about every morning as I get ready for work…. Transit is set to show me the nearest mass transit options, but it takes so long to find my location I… could have just pulled out my phone. …the Uber app takes so long to figure out where you are that you’re better off walking home before someone notices you staring at your $700 Watch and makes a move.
7. You Need (At Least) Two Hands To Use It. Unlike the iPhone, which can be used with one hand, Patel noted that “you simply can’t one-hand the Apple Watch. It’s the simplest thing, but it’s true: because it’s a tiny screen with a tiny control wheel strapped to your wrist, you have to use both hands to use it, and you have to actually look at it to make sure you’re hitting the right parts of the screen. You have to carry your coffee cup in your other hand if you’re not interested in spilling on yourself.” The Wall Street Journal’s Stern commented that “snapping the sport band’s little clasp to your wrist, however, makes you wish for a third hand.”
8. Apple Pay and the Passcode Lock. Many reviewers described Apple Pay as one of the Watch’s best features, though it requires security measures — the Watch is passcode-locked, and must be unlocked every time you put it back on your wrist. The Independent’s Phelan said:
Every time you take the Watch off your wrist, it locks. You need to put in your passcode before it will do anything. You can disable the passcode lock, but it’s not recommended.
However, at least one review noted that the Watch could be unlocked automatically by bringing it into proximity with your iPhone. Shamrock Shake-loving Lance Ulanoff from Mashable described the Apple Pay process:
You register credit cards with it, just as you would with the iPhone. You take pictures of the cards with your phone and they feed into the Apple Watch utility, which pops them into the watch. Each one you put in gets a unique token. Apple Watch includes wrist detection, and Apple Pay won’t work if the watch isn’t on your wrist. If the watch is on your wrist, it’ll automatically unlock if your phone is nearby. If not, you’ll have to enter your preset PIN.
Other than that, it’s incredibly easy to make purchases with Apple Watch. I bought a Shamrock Shake at McDonald’s, where the clerk didn’t bat an eye when I double pressed on the side button, selected the credit card I wanted to use and then waved the watch over the NFC reader.
9. Third-Party Apps Aren’t Very Good. Many of the reviewers said that the first round of third-party apps don’t do much, and some described problems even getting them to work reliably. For instance, Manjoo of the New York Times said:
Third-party apps are mostly useless right now. The Uber app didn’t load for me, the Twitter app is confusing and the app for Starwood hotels mysteriously deleted itself and then hung up on loading when I reinstalled it. In the end, though, it did let me open a room at the W Hotel in Manhattan just by touching the watch face to the door.
Mashable’s Ulanoff concurred:
However, I often found that new apps took forever to install, and they then worked sporadically. I installed Trivia Crack and initially couldn’t get it to work. It took initiating a game on the iPhone for it to finally be available on the watch.
10. iPhone Dependence Is More Complex Than Previously Understood. Several reviewers pointed out details about the Apple Watch’s link to the iPhone that weren’t known before. Yahoo’s David Pogue said:
When the Watch is in a known WiFi hot spot, the watch can perform the most essential online functions even when your phone is completely dead, turned off, or absent. It can query Siri, for example, send and receive texts, and send/receive drawings and tap patterns to other Watch owners. That’s impressive.
That can be helpful, as you’ll notice a battery hit on your iPhone when the Apple Watch is being used. The Independent’s Phelan noted:
I noticed that my iPhone 6 battery burned faster when I was using the Watch (and therefore the phone) for a lot of stuff such as Maps and Workout. Some of this may be down to getting used to the Watch, and the phone never ran out of energy entirely. As I’ve used the Watch more, the iPhone usage has settled down, though it’s not surprising there’s been an impact using the two together.
A few reviewers (including the WSJ’s Stern) also pointed out that the Watch’s ability to operate independently during fitness activities, including runs, was impacted by distance/location accuracy issues caused by a lack of access to iPhone GPS data. However, they generally felt that the Watch’s performance improved in this regard over time, as Marissa Stephenson of Men’s Journal explained:
You may have heard that you can’t hit the road without your iPhone, because the Watch needs the GPS tracker to dial in the distance. In the beginning, this is true. (The Watch was wildly off for pace and distance the first time I went out for a run without my phone.) But according to Apple, the more I work out with my iPhone and the Watch, the more it will learn my personal movement, and dial in accuracy, so in a couple weeks, I won’t need to bring my phone with me. I noticed this start to happen after a couple of runs. But without GPS dedicated, runners will likely miss the map functions that provide more granular data like elevation gain, altitude, or an actual map of a run.
11. Apple Watch’s Battery Life Lives Up To Apple’s 1-Day Claim, Most Of The Time. Battery life was discussed at least briefly by many of the reviewers, who generally seemed satisfied by the Watch’s ability to last through a single day of regular use. Almost every review found that the Watch consistently survived until the evening, including Re/code’s Goode:
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… When your watch does die, recharging takes a long time — around two and a half hours to get the watch to 100 percent.
However, battery life remains a point of user anxiety, as noted by Patel at The Verge: “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.”
12. Despite the MagSafe-Style Connector, Apple Watch Still Has Some Charging Issues. Several reviewers noted odd recharging issues, but tended to write them off as anomalies, like Mashable’s Ulanoff:
For charging, the MagSafe inductive charging mechanism automatically snaps into place on the back of the Apple Watch. I never had an issue with it, though I did one time accidentally miss-seat the plug in a wall outlet and woke up to find the watch had 16% power. I got it to a full charge in an hour and a half.
The Apple Watch had a near-perfect record… until Sunday, when it inexplicably ended up with 5% power at 6 p.m. — hours earlier than normal. I enabled Power Reserve mode, which turned the Apple Watch into a very expensive digital watch of basics, no notifications, no apps, no activity tracking, just a digital readout of the time.
I also don’t love the design of the inductive charging cable. It’s too easy to accidentally disconnect the watch from the cable. I would rather have an inductive charging cradle like the one that comes with Moto 360.
13. Apple Watch’s Music Playback Is Mediocre. The Verge’s Patel noted that the Apple Watch’s music player isn’t great. “It’s not as good as wearing an old iPod nano on your wrist,” he said, discussing issues with the UI design. Mashable’s Ulanoff pointed out that the Bluetooth range is also limited, saying that “the effective range was no more than 25 feet between the watch and my Jambox before the audio started breaking up.”
14. Siri Is Pretty Restricted. Several of the reviewers pointed out that Siri’s performance on the Apple Watch isn’t great, including Re/code’s Goode:
[A]sking Siri specific questions on the watch often leads you right back to the iPhone.
Hey Siri, what time is the national championship on? Siri: Use Handoff to search the web for [insert question] on your iPhone.
Hey Siri, how much rain has fallen in California this year? Use Handoff to search the web for [insert question] on your iPhone.
Similar comments were made by Patel at The Verge: “When Siri did work, it was for the small stuff Siri is generally good at, like converting units in the kitchen or setting a timer. Anything more complicated generally resulted in Siri prompting me to use my iPhone.”
15. Apple Watch Breaks Cultural Norms In A Bad Way. Serious concerns about the Watch’s cultural impact were raised by The Verge’s Patel, who described his experience attempting to use the wearable in public while out with a co-worker.
“It turns out that checking your Watch over and over again is a gesture that carries a lot of cultural weight,” said Patel. “Eventually, Sonia asks me if I need to be somewhere else. We’re both embarrassed, and I’ve mostly just ignored everyone.”
Bloomberg’s Topolsky sounded a similar alarm:
All these new functions, notifications, and tapping do make the Apple Watch very distracting. In some ways, it can be more distracting than your iPhone, and checking it can feel more offensive to people around you than pulling out your phone. The watch wants and needs you now, as its insistent taps make painfully clear…. If while you’re talking to someone, you check your regular watch, it can feel as if you’re sending a not-so-subtle ‘let’s wrap this up’ message. With the Apple Watch, factoring in the animated wrist-whip and the length of some of the notifications you receive, it’s downright rude.