The Apple Watch had a rough launch: atypically critical reviews, extended shipping delays, and public skepticism surpassing the launches of the iPhone and iPad. But as I write these words, Apple is just beginning next-day shipments of the first Modern Buckle, Leather Loop, and Space Black Stainless Steel Apple Watches, which means that tomorrow will be the first day when the entire Apple Watch lineup is actually in (or on) consumers’ hands.
Since a month has passed since pre-orders opened, I wanted to revisit an article we published in early April — a summary of 15 user experience problems revealed by early Apple Watch reviewers. When the article was published, some people accused the reviewers of bias, but others saw the issues they identified as legitimate. Now that the “new product” dust has had ample time to settle, this follow-up article asks two questions: first, did each of the issues turn out to be real? Second, if each issue was legitimate, how should Apple solve it, if it hasn’t been solved already? The answers are actually worth discussing…
1. “An Overly Complex UI.” Was this a legitimate concern? Yes.
Flagged by many reviewers as confusing and non-intuitive, the Apple Watch’s user interface would certainly benefit from some major tweaks. First-time users are almost certain to be confused by the interplay between the text-free Home screen, the watch face (the only way to swipe up to see Glances and down to see Notifications), the button to activate Siri, and the other button that calls up a list of favorite contacts. None of the features works exactly as expected — there is indeed a learning curve, as well as a persistent and frustrating sense that you should be able to access the things you want, faster.
Solution: Apple shouldn’t be afraid to do what it did repeatedly with the Apple TV and the wearable sixth-generation iPod nano, namely a major Home screen redesign. Ideally, the Home screen would blend better with the Watch’s time-telling functionality, while providing a less fidgity way to access notifications/glance information, communication tools, and core apps. A rethought icon grid — possibly zoomed in by default — wouldn’t hurt, either.
2. “Getting The Screen To Turn On Can Be Challenging.” Was this a legitimate concern? Sort of.
Several reviewers flagged the Watch’s auto-on/auto-off screen as an annoyance for various reasons, primarily its tendency to not actually turn on whenever desired. While the complaints were valid — including ones that the screen turns off too quickly when in the midst of use — the problem is not as pronounced as the worst howls suggested. The feature works most of the time, and when it doesn’t, a tap on the screen turns it on.
Solution: Hopefully, a software update will make the accelerometer a little more generous in recognizing “wrist up” motions, and the OS a little less willing to shut the screen off mid-use. Until then, a quick tap on the screen will suffice.
3. “Notifications Are Annoying By Default.” Was this a legitimate concern? Yes.
Early reviews painted Apple Watch’s notification system as a nightmare; the Bloomberg review claimed that sounds and vibrations from multiple sources quickly became a flood: “If you’re a busy person who communicates constantly on your phone, [notifications get] overwhelming fast.” Once again, there’s truth in the complaints, but the major problem turns out to be the Apple Watch’s initial setup process — it’s just not managed properly. Apple was so concerned about delivering a quick “boom, your Watch is working” experience that it didn’t worry enough about making the Watch start out delivering the right number of notifications (as well as balancing out a few other key things). This is why every Apple Watch user currently has to spend time tweaking settings after the initial set up process.
Solution: Setting up your Watch should involve a making a few key choices up front, particularly for notifications, installation of apps, and syncing of music and photos. Five simple questions would make a world of difference: do you want notifications as taps or sounds? Do you want to start with 1, 3, 5, or 10 listed apps notifying you? Which apps from the following list do you want to install? Which music playlist do you want to sync? And which photo library do you want to mirror, if any? You shouldn’t be forced to hunt through settings to discover these things yourself, and Apple could easily prompt you to make these choices in advance using the iPhone Apple Watch app, as soon as your device is shipped. This pre-arrival Q&A process might even justify the app’s generally unwanted presence as a non-removable part of iOS 8.2 and later releases.
4. “Fitness Sensors May Require Swapping On Apple’s Sport Band.” Was this a legitimate concern? Sort of.
Some reviews hinted that the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor would depend on a tight band, such as a Sport Band, and we later learned that some tattoos could create issues, as well. It’s clear that there’s a potential issue here for users who want fitness tracking but also want to keep wearing fancier, more expensive bands (or… tattoos) during workouts. But there’s not a magic solution.
Solution: Wear the Watch tight if you care about persistent tracking, and consider one of these increasingly numerous, affordable third-party bands as a more fashionable or disposable fitness option. If you have wrist tattoos, a chest-mounted heart rate monitor might be a better idea.
5. “The Speakerphone Is Only Semi-Useful For Phone Calls.” Was this a legitimate concern? Not really.
Some of the early reviewers didn’t seem to understand how the Watch was supposed to be used for phone calls — it’s basically a small speakerphone that works from your wrist, and isn’t intended to be held up to your ear like a phone or used as an intermediary for a Bluetooth headset. It turns out that the Watch’s key virtue for phone calls is keeping a microphone and speaker closer to your mouth than the iPhone in your pocket or elsewhere in the room. You can have a normal phone conversation with someone while you’re doing other things with your hands, like lifting boxes. The biggest issues are the peak volume level of the speaker and the noise cancellation of the mic, which are actually impressive given the Watch’s small size and location, but not as powerful as the larger iPhone.
Solution: Get used to how the speakerphone is supposed to work, and the situations where it’s useful, and you’ll appreciate its convenience.
6. “The Apple Watch Is Slow, A Particular Problem For Maps & Location Services.” Was this a legitimate concern? For some things, definitely; for other things, no.
There have been a lot of complaints about the Apple Watch’s speed. In most cases, you won’t notice problems, and the Watch’s speed is not bad overall. But when it gets hung up on something, it’s definitely annoying, and yes, the issues are indeed pronounced when using maps. The root causes appear to be complex — a mix of buggy apps, overdependence on the tethered iPhone, and underoptimized Watch OS system software sometimes struggling to handle multiple processes efficiently.
Solution: These issues are 80% Apple’s responsibility to fix with better Watch OS software, and 20% on app developers to make better use of the software.
7. “You Need (At Least) Two Hands To Use It.” Was this a legitimate concern? Sort of.
Two reviewers noted that the Watch, unlike an iPhone, can’t be used solely with one hand — a potential problem when drinking a cup of coffee — and that the Sport Band can be tricky enough to put on that even two hands don’t make it easy. Both complaints are legitimate, though not show-stoppers: the Watch works one-handed as a watch, and Siri can do certain other things with just a quick hold of the Digital Crown (or screen activation plus saying “Hey, Siri”). You’ll learn to put on the Sport Band over time, even though the process certainly requires two hands.
Solution: Adding more functionality to Siri — and guaranteed reliability in executing requests — is key to improving the user experience here. It would help a lot if Siri could talk, rather than just answering responses on the screen. (No, VoiceOver doesn’t count.)
8. “Apple Pay and the Passcode Lock.” Was this a legitimate concern? No.
Some reviews suggested that Apple Pay and other biometric tricks such as opening hotel room doors depend upon Apple Watch to be manually unlocked with a passcode every time it’s put back on your wrist. The process isn’t particularly challenging, but having to type a pass code every day could get annoying — if it was true. Thankfully, it’s not that bad: as some early reviewers figured out, Apple Watch can in fact be unlocked automatically by a proximate iPhone.
Solution: Flip the Unlock with iPhone switch on under Passcode, if it’s not on by default. Then keep your iPhone close and your Apple Watch closer.
9. “Third-Party Apps Aren’t Very Good.” Was this a legitimate concern? Definitely.
See point 6 on this — like the complaints about a “slow” Apple Watch, third party apps just aren’t great right now. Many developers couldn’t even get access to test Watches ahead of the launch, and some didn’t get in-house Watches until a week or more after the launch. Even today, third-party apps suffer from all sorts of issues, ranging from failures to load data to slow loading times to mediocre functionality. Apple has compounded the issue by optionally auto-installing all of the Apple Watch apps that developers are offering as companions to their existing iPhone apps, creating a parade of disappointment as users discover app after app worth deleting.
Solution: Don’t install third-party apps unless you’ve looked through the App Store preview and found specific functionality that sounds useful. Await 2.0 and 3.0 Apple Watch app updates that improve upon their predecessors.
10. “iPhone Dependence Is More Complex Than Previously Understood.” Was this a legitimate concern? Yes.
The relationship between the iPhone and Apple Watch isn’t totally clear, and although a few reviewers sought to explain it, it’s tricky. In short, “the Watch depends on an iPhone, except when it doesn’t.” When the Watch is connected to the iPhone, which is “almost always,” it draws down the iPhone’s battery at a noticeably faster rate. Yet it can definitely operate as a standalone music player and fitness tracker without the iPhone, and somehow join Wi-Fi networks, even though Apple has marketed these features so poorly that many people still don’t know they exist. Moreover, there’s no way to see when the Watch is on your Wi-Fi network, no Bluetooth icon on the Watch’s screen to indicate pairing, or other way to understand how much the Watch is pulling data from your iPhone.
Solution: Apple should treat the Apple Watch’s iPhone-free capabilities as a feature and give users a little more insight into how they work, ideally as part of initial setup (see point 3, above). For users who don’t want as much of a hit on their iPhone or Apple Watch batteries, and don’t need up-to-the-second notifications, there should be a mode that lets the devices communicate only intermittently — say, once every 5, 15, or 30 minutes — when the Watch is being passively worn. Not every watch-wearer is obsessive about time or timely notifications, particularly when battery life is affected.
11. “Apple Watch’s Battery Life Lives Up To Apple’s 1-Day Claim, Most Of The Time.” Was this a legitimate concern? Depends on your perspective.
You can take issue with whether it’s acceptable to charge a watch battery every day, but if you’ve said “yes” to that limitation, the Watch’s battery life is not likely to bother you. I’ve canvassed a lot of reader reactions to the Watch since it was released, and the broad consensus is that those who signed up for 1-day battery life have been largely satisfied with 1-day battery life. Apple’s next challenge is stretching that battery life so the Watch can be used for sleep tracking and alarms, or go charger-free during trips. Power Reserve mode, a feature that radically cuts the Watch’s features down (even including the watch face) to conserve power, does what it’s supposed to do but can’t be easily switched on and off.
Solution: Users should have the choice of a few different Watch operating modes, one with full functionality, another with reduced functionality, and then a slightly more functional Power Reserve mode that can easily be toggled on or off with a switch.
12. “Despite the MagSafe-Style Connector, Apple Watch Still Has Some Charging Issues.” Was this a legitimate concern? For some unlucky users, definitely. For most users, no.
Several reviewers discussed anomalous issues with the Apple Watch Magnetic Charging Cable, suggesting that there might be intermittent charging problems or issues keeping it connected stably to the Watch. Some people have commented that the Watch doesn’t charge fast enough, and others have noted that their Watches get very hot during charging, but the complaints have not been widespread. It looks like some early (and since-replaced) Watches were having bona fide problems with their inductive chargers, and it’s also possible that Apple’s translucent wrappers on the Magnetic Charging Cables were not getting fully removed during unpacking.
Solution: The wrappers on the Magnetic Charging Cables, particularly the plastic Sport versions, should be a little easier to see so they can be completely removed. And obviously, if there are hardware issues, Apple should (quickly) replace the defective units. I have every reason to believe Apple is doing this rapidly upon request.
13. “Apple Watch’s Music Playback Is Mediocre.” Was this a legitimate concern? Yes, but only for some people.
Given its iPod heritage, it’s hard to believe that the Apple Watch’s music playback functionality is underwhelming, but it is: Watch OS manages to step back in a bunch of ways from the music UI introduced for the similarly-sized sixth-generation iPod nano. Also surprising is the Watch’s apparent inability to play locally stored music through its own speaker — Bluetooth headphones or speakers are required, and Apple has set the Watch up to act primarily as a remote for your iPhone’s music library; you have to Force Touch to instead access the Watch’s locally-stored library. Some users like this, some don’t.
Solution: As noted in point 10 above, the Apple Watch’s ability to work as a standalone music player as needed should be a highlight of the device, not a buried feature. Apple should either split local music and iPhone remote music into two separate apps, or give users a better way to access the local library.
14. “Siri Is Pretty Restricted.” Was this a legitimate concern? Yes.
Some reviewers complained that Siri was too restricted on the Watch, often referring them back to the connected iPhone for assistance. If anything, their complaints were too restrained on this point: Siri on the Watch is weaker than any version of Siri you’ve ever seen on an iOS device. It can’t speak, it can’t access some of the Watch’s own apps, and when it fails, you’ll wonder why you didn’t just use Siri on your iPhone (which might, unfortunately, also fail, because… Siri). The only thing Siri does exceptionally well on the Apple Watch is figure out what you’re saying. This is useful when responding to text messages, but mistakes aren’t easily correctable because… no keyboard.
Solution: Siri needs some more work on the Apple Watch. I’ll just leave it at that.
15. “Apple Watch Breaks Cultural Norms In A Bad Way.” Was this a legitimate concern? The jury’s still out on this.
Some reviewers sounded a cultural alarm over using the Apple Watch in social situations, namely because fiddling with one’s watch is traditionally a sign that you have somewhere else to be or something better to be doing. But I’d argue that the reality is a bit more complex. Fiddling with a phone has become this decade’s replacement for fiddling with a watch, and many people now distractedly glance at phones in the middle of social (and private) situations. It almost seems like a lesser offense to glance at a smaller watch screen. But there’s no “right” answer on this; the issue is really individual judgment and behavior, not the Apple Watch.
Solution: See point 11 above — perhaps the reduced functionality power-conserving mode could double as an “emergencies only” setting, leaving your wrist at peace in social situations. The rest, namely deciding not to incessantly check your Watch, would be up to you.
In addition to editorials, I’ve written quite a few How-To and Best of guides for 9to5Mac, as well as reviews of worthwhile Mac, iPhone, and iPad accessories. Read more of my articles for 9to5Mac here (and don’t forget to click on Older Posts at the bottom of the page to see everything)!