Precision. That’s the word that immediately came to mind the minute I picked up my Apple Watch for the first time. Something about this device felt different, on an almost subconscious level, from any other Apple product I’ve used before. Perhaps I was just caught up in the moment. After all, the Watch is the first totally new product to come out of Apple since the introduction of the iPad, which feels like so many years ago. On the other hand, I knew from the onset that I planned on buying the Apple Watch mostly for its design. I wasn’t so much interested in all of the software features it could offer me, I just couldn’t imagine not having this shiny little box on my wrist. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the Apple Watch strictly as a design piece.
The watch I purchased is the 42mm stainless steel case with the Milanese Loop. I knew I’d want the bigger of the two watches, and I also felt that the stainless steel finish looked much more premium and timeless than the aluminum finish of the Sport model, which is more in line with the looks of an iPhone. The first thing I discovered about the Apple Watch is that it’s tiny. If you’ve been browsing Apple’s marketing images on the watch’s website, you’ll be in for a shock the first time you get to use the device in person. I was worried that the case would sit too high on my wrist because it looked so thick in photos. In reality, it’s quite a svelte watch. That’s not to say it can’t (or shouldn’t) be thinner, but I’m not at all upset about the device’s dimensions.
Picking up the Apple Watch without a band attached is the best way to appreciate how solid the device really is. It feels incredibly dense without being heavy, and you never get the impression that there’s any wasted space inside. While Apple differentiates each collection by its metal finish, the majority of the watch is covered, in my case, by sapphire crystal and ceramic, which comprise the front and back faces. That’s not to say the stainless steel is minor. It frames the face and provides a stark contrast to the deep blacks of the display.
Stainless steel doesn’t mean scratch-less steel, however. This watch can (and will) get scratched up, right away. Scratches seem to be especially attracted to the vast expanse of metal on the left side of the watch, right by the speaker and microphone. I was initially annoyed that my $700 watch was scratching on day two, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it to happen. Fear not, these scratches are not permanent. As we’ve already demonstrated, you can remove scratches from your Apple Watch with some cheap polish and a rag.
On the back of the watch is a bulging disc of sensors, covered in ceramic, and flanked by two band release buttons. In some ways, the back of the Apple Watch looks as good as the front. These sensors have a very modern look to them, yet feel like a callback to the backsides of traditional automatic watches, in a way. As soon as I saw this bulge, I began to worry about how the watch would feel. Wouldn’t a curved back like this be uncomfortable pressed up against my wrist? The answer is both yes and no. When I have the band adjusted relatively tight, the sensor disc does dig in to my wrist and make it uncomfortable to wear. Adjusted with a little slack though, I sometimes forget the watch is even on my arm.
In the same way that a traditional watch is nothing without a good clock face, the Apple Watch would be nothing without a good display. Fortunately, the display is excellent. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it blows the iPhone’s display out of the water. This is primarily due to the fact that the Apple Watch uses OLED technology for its display, meaning that blacks are incredibly deep and blend right into the sapphire bezel, creating a seamless illusion (as long as you’re not in sunlight.) Compare that to the likes of Apple’s last “wearable,” the 6th generation iPod nano:
If you’re used to the incredibly pixel dense display of the iPhone 6 Plus like I am, you might notice that everything on the Apple Watch feels just a little jagged. The watch’s display is only 290 ppi for the 38mm model and 301 ppi for the 42mm, slightly less than the iPhone 6 at 326 ppi, and significantly less than the iPhone 6 Plus 401 ppi. I was able to notice the less dense display right away, but it’s certainly not awful. If you own an iPhone 6 or below, you probably won’t notice at all, since every other Retina iPhone has a display with pixel density similar to that of the Apple Watch.
The Digital Crown, to me, is the hallmark feature of the Apple Watch and my primary input method. It’s my favorite part of the design of the device, and I find myself idly spinning it around, even when the watch’s display is off. For being a mechanical component, it feels remarkably sturdy and smooth. You won’t find any sloppiness or play in the crown while spinning or pressing it, and it provides a solid click every time. The side button, located right below the Digital Crown, feels just as stable. Personally, this has been a totally different experience than I’m used to with home buttons on iPhones, which vary widely in quality and have a tendency to feel sloppy when pressed. Spinning the crown is so smooth that if it weren’t for a series of tiny notches engraved into the edge of the button to grip your finger, you’d hardly know it was turning at all. I have my concerns that dust or dirt will get trapped in the crown someday and ruin this feel, but so far it hasn’t been an issue.
Visually, the crown on the stainless steel Apple Watch reminds me of refined knobs from a 1970s era stereo, but this look varies between collections. Apple Watch has a black accent in the center of its crown, while Apple Watch Sport sports an entirely aluminum crown. Apple Watch Edition has either a black, white, or red crown accent, depending on the model.
Even though the digital crown is so mechanical, something about using it feels leaps and bounds more modern than scrolling on the dead, flat surface of a glass display. I find myself never using the watch’s display to scroll content, and often catch myself trying to use the crown in situations where I’m forced to “fall back” to the display. As silly as it probably sounds (and looks), I’d love to have a Digital Crown on my iPhone. The sensation of actually moving through a list, paired with the haptic feedback of hitting the end of scroll area is highly satisfying.
I made up my mind the first day I saw the Apple Watch that I wanted the Milanese Loop band. As pre-order date approached, I experimented with other combinations of watches and bands, trying to save money, but I knew I just wouldn’t be happy with my purchase without that band. In my eyes, the Milanese Loop is the ultimate Apple Watch band. Nothing else comes close in terms of style or classiness. I’ve heard people say they think it’s too “flashy” or “blingy” for them to pull off, but I think flashiness is the point of it. When you step out into the sun, the metal weave of the band glimmers and shines in the sunlight, even brighter than the watch itself.
The Milanese Loop is a band you really need to see in person before dismissing. Apple’s website paints it as a coarse, heavy band, with the appearance of chainmail. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While classic milanese watch bands with a much more coarse weave do exist, Apple’s interpretation gives the illusion of a metal fabric. Brushing your hand across the surface of the band feels like you’re touching snake skin, not metal. This incredibly dense mesh makes the band extremely comfortable to wear. It’s also relatively thin, making it much less bulky than other metal bands.
At the end of the Milanese Loop is Apple’s other improvement on traditional milanese bands: the magnetic clasp. Magnets mean that this band, in Apple’s own words, is “infinitely adjustable.” I was worried that the magnet wouldn’t be strong enough, and that the watch could slip off over time, but the opposite is true. Sometimes I feel like the magnet is almost too strong, and I have trouble gripping it to remove it from the band. Apple obviously took this into consideration, and has included a small indent on the bottom edge of the magnet to catch your fingernail on, but it’s not always enough to get a secure grip on it. For those wondering, yes, the magnet will also scratch. Apple has remedied this solution on the underside of the clasp with a small rubber gasket to keep the two metal surfaces from touching, but the face of the magnet is free to scrape across your desk or any other surface it might come in contact with. I’m not entirely sure how well these scratches can be polished out without removing the brushed finished on the clasp.
I don’t want to paint this band as perfect. Many of its blessings are also its curses. Having an infinitely adjustable bands means I’m adjusting it an infinite number of times a day- just because I know I can. Like I mentioned, the magnet is very strong, and this can cause annoyances when taking it off or putting it on, as the magnet will sometimes inadvertently stick to the band where you don’t want it to. The tight mesh of the band also means that if you have a hairy arm, you will get pulled arm hair. Perhaps the most unexpected annoyance of the band has to do with the Taptic Engine, an entirely unrelated component. I’ve found that if the band is adjusted to be a little bit looser than optimal, the Taptic Engine will cause the metal on the band to buzz together when you receive a notification, and a small metallic buzzing sound will accompany the otherwise silent taps on your wrist. This is fixed by simply tightening the band, but it’s still an annoyance.
Even with these gripes, I wouldn’t choose any other band. The classiness of the metal mesh and easy to use magnetic clasp overshadow my small complaints.
Apple has designed every Apple Watch and band with a special mechanism to make swapping bands easy and painless. They’re obviously encouraging users to purchase several bands, and wear each one during different occasions. Removing any band from the watch is simple enough, once you understand how it’s done. I struggled the first time I tried to reassemble my watch until I got the hang of it. To remove the band, simply press and hold one of the buttons on the back of the watch while sliding the band itself out of the slot. To reattach the band, slide it back into place.
I wish there was an audible click to signify that you’ve successfully locked your band back into place. Currently, the band just stops moving at a certain point, and you have to assume that it’s locked in place. The process doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. Installing any of the bands which use metal connectors is also a little nerve-racking. I don’t really care for the metal-on-metal feeling of sliding the connector in place.
The Taptic Engine is the best feature of the Apple Watch that you’ll never see. No design review would be complete without mentioning it, however. The Taptic Engine is very much a part of the experience of wearing the watch, and significantly critical to its design. It’s quite literally what makes the Apple Watch feel “alive.” Scroll with the Digital Crown to the end of a list, and the Taptic Engine will bump you to indicate that you’re at the end. Force Touch the watch’s display, and the the Taptic Engine taps you back, to indicate the successful completion of the press. This haptic feedback adds another dimension to using the watch, and dramatically alters the feeling of using the display and Digital Crown.
One of the best uses of the Taptic Engine has been for sending and receiving heartbeats with Digital Touch. The sensation of receiving a heartbeat on your arm is unique and much stronger than other haptic feedback offered by the watch. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the sensation is similar to that of feeling your own pulse after intense physical activity. It’s incredibly realistic.
To correspond with each collection of Apple Watch, Apple has developed specific chargers that match the various models. Each charger shares the same foundation: a magnetic, inductive charging surface that clicks to the back of the watch. When I say “clicks” I really mean “weakly attaches to.” The charger is incredibly easy to remove from the back of the watch, to a fault. Similar to MagSafe, the charging solution for MacBook Pros and Airs, if pulled on, the charging cable for the Apple Watch will simply pull away. The problem is, just touching or moving the cable around while attached to the watch can cause it to fall right off the back. The connection seems needlessly weak.
The physical design is where each model of charger differs. The Apple Watch Sport comes with an entirely plastic charging pad, while the regular Apple Watch comes with a plastic and stainless steel hybrid charging pad (pictured above), which is also considerably thinner than the Apple Watch Sport’s charger. Interestingly, the stainless steel finish on the back of the charger is brushed, not polished like the watch itself. And yes, it will also scratch. The Apple Watch Edition uses a unique charging solution, utilizing the box the watch comes in as a charging dock.
Ultimately, none of these details matter if the watch is socially unacceptable. If it’s not something you’d feel comfortable wearing in public, it’s a totally irrelevant product. I was admittedly a little nervous that the watch would be seen as “nerdy” or odd to the general public. The response so far has been surprisingly positive. Walking around in public with the Apple Watch, I never once felt like I was wearing a calculator watch, or some other kind of goofy gadget on my wrist. The gleaming stainless steel case and elegant band options really make the Apple Watch feel at home among other high end watches. It’s a legitimate fashion accessory, and in a totally separate league from other smartwatches.
Comments from others have been metered, but always enthusiastic. I wouldn’t call the watch a “conversation piece”, but those who have asked me about it have seemed genuinely interested in its features and design. To my surprise, almost everyone refers to the device as the “iWatch.” I’m not sure if this is a failure on Apple’s part to properly communicate the name of the watch to the general public, or if it’s just a byproduct of the success of the last 17 years of iMarketing.
Over the last week, I’ve often caught myself idly glancing down at my watch. Not to read a notification, not to check the time, but just to admire the craftsmanship and design of the shiny little box on my wrist. Truly, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”