As anyone who knows me or follows me on Twitter will tell you, I’ve been openly critical of the Apple Watch and the entire concept of smartwatches for a long time now. Most people have responded with an attitude of “don’t knock it until you try it,” which I suppose is a fair attitude to have. The problem was that I had no plans to spend over $300 (or $1,000 for the model I really liked) to try an Apple Watch.
Recently, however, an opportunity arose to try the watch out for a while. I was offered a loaner watch to test out an app that I was covering. I accepted the offer and spent about a week with it, wearing it full-time and using it for everything I could (including, of course, using the app that I was testing whenever I could). Earlier this year my colleague Ben Lovejoy had been convinced to keep his after using it for a week.
Could I be convinced that the watch was, in fact, a convenient and useful gadget to have in the same amount of time? I went into this week with an open mind to find out.
My first day with the Apple Watch was mostly spent toying around with the various features, dumping every watch app I owned onto the device to see what they could do, and trying to figure out how to use things like Glances effectively.
After I had nailed down the basics of the device, I strapped it to my wrist and started going about my daily life, only checking it if I needed some quick information or when it made a sound. As time went on, I found myself paring down the number of apps that I kept installed.
After checking each and every third-party watch app that I could use from my iPhone on the Apple Watch, I started deleting them one-by-one to clear up some of the clutter on the home screen. The blob of icons that the watch uses as a home screen has always seemed like a bad idea to me. It’s always seemed like a good way to lose what you were looking for. Indeed, as expected, I frequently lost track of apps that I didn’t use often.
One factor that didn’t help things was the fact that some of the built-in apps have very similar icons. Take, for example, the four functions that are present in the iPhone’s Clock app: the world clock, alarms, stopwatch, and timer. These are all hidden behind just one icon on iOS, but on the Apple Watch they’re spread out across four different apps. It’s understandable why Apple would keep these bite-sized functions separated, but because they all use orange icons with similar (and usually nonsensical) glyphs, it was difficult to track down the one I wanted on my first tap.
Once I’d stuck a few apps that I used frequently near the Clock icon in the center of the home screen, I generally overcame that issue. Sure, I still couldn’t find the Stopwatch app on my first try, and I wasn’t quite sure where I’d misplaced the Phone app, but at least I could find a few apps regularly.
So the home screen wasn’t a great experience, although I did find that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be as long as my favorite apps were visible most of the time.
The Clock app presents a wide array of faces to choose from, each with the ability to customize a number of complications to show important information at a glance. I settled on a mostly-stock version of the Modular design, which I set to show my weather, battery, activity, and the current date. In the center of the face I put my upcoming calendar events. I set the color to white and never changed another thing, only occasionally trying out a different design only to return to my original selection after a few minutes.
The watch face itself is quite useful, though I discovered that I routinely twisted my wrist in such a way that the watch automatically turned itself on, then my hand brushed across a complication to launch an app. Later, when I intentionally woke the watch, I’d be confused as to how I got wherever I found myself.
There are options to mitigate this type of behavior. You can disable the auto-wake function that turns the screen on when you rotate your wrist a certain way, or you can set the watch to always wake up to the time rather than your last app. I tried both of these with little success.
Disabling auto-wake made it harder to quickly check the time, while setting the watch to automatically return to the clock face on wakeup often led to me looking up from the watch for a moment, then going back to it and finding I’d lost my place. Neither solution was ideal.
Eventually I settled on the behavior that was causing me problems and resolved to be careful so that I didn’t accidentally open any more apps. I continued doing so for the rest of the week anyway.
After the first few days, I realized that I had a lot of active Glances I wasn’t using. I dug around through the Watch app on my iPhone and started removing a few. I didn’t have any music on my watch, and controlling my phone’s music in the car was much easier from the phone’s lock screen than from the watch, so I removed the Now Playing screen. I considered how often I had used each Glance and how useful each one could be just like that and removed those I didn’t need.
By the end of the week, I had only two Glances left: the default settings and the Heartbeat screen. If I wanted to access my Activity rings, I could tap the complication on my watch face and be in the app faster than I could swipe up to activate my Glances and then swipe around until I found the correct one. The app itself could provide more complete information than the glance, as well. This was also the case for Weather.
In fact, the only reason I kept the Heartbeat Glance around was because there wasn’t another way to get that information on the watch. If there had been a Heartbeat app, I’d have removed that Glance, too. To be honest, the Settings Glance could also have been removed if that were possible, if not for the “Ping iPhone” function, which I thankfully didn’t need to use to locate my phone. Logically it wouldn’t make much sense to be able to remove that Glance, since Glances can only been modified from the iPhone, so if you lost your phone you’d have to find it first in order to restore that screen and the Ping iPhone button.
In fact, I found the fact that Glances can only be added and removed from the companion iPhone app a bit off-putting. I would have liked the ability to manage them directly on the watch.
On the subject of the interface, there’s actually a lot to like here. Sure, it’s flat and mostly boring, but there are some nice little touches. Animations on incoming notifications look great, and the “springy” feel that buttons have makes them much nicer to tap than a static roundrect. The home screen takes on the same “springy” feel when you touch an icon.
There are also some things that I found less enjoyable about the interface. You can only access Glances and Notification Center from the watch face, which, on one hand, makes sense since other apps might need to use those gestures to scroll. On the other hand, it feels inconsistent with iOS and makes getting to notifications and Glances a chore.
Additionally, I found the Force Touch gesture to be somewhat troublesome. One issue is that it’s not easily discoverable. You just have to try it out and see if anything happens. If something doesn’t happen on one screen, you still have to try it on the next screen in the same app just to see. It might also do different things on different screens, which can make it hard to find the function you’re looking for.
Another issue with Force Touch is how bizarre it feels to have to actually apply force to a touchscreen. When the iPhone first debuted, Apple made a big deal of the fact that it used a capacitive touchscreen, meaning you could activate it just by lightly tapping your finger to the glass, as opposed to older resistive screens that required you to push down (many iPhone users these days are too young to even remember these types of screens). Force Touch seems like a bit of a step back in interface design.
Wth rumors that Force Touch will soon be coming to the iPhone, I’m concerned that these problems will only be amplified on that device, with each screen element potentially doing something different (or nothing at all) when pressure is applied, with no visual indicator whatsoever informing you of that option.
As I spent more and more time with the watch, I found that notifications were my favorite feature. I let my watch mirror all notifications on my phone and never changed that setting. My phone stayed silent in my pocket until I needed it, and I was able to quickly interact with incoming emails, breaking news bulletins, and more right from my wrist.
Incoming calls were a different story, though. More than once I was caught off-guard by a cacophony of ringtones. I use a custom tone on my phone, but since my Mac can’t use custom ringtones, I set it to use one of the built-in sounds. The watch, on the other hand, doesn’t even allow you to change the sound effect for incoming notifications, text messages, or calls.
So, on several occasions, I found myself sitting in front of my Mac with my phone next to me and my watch on my wrist, all loudly playing entirely different sounds and, in the case of my phone and watch, vibrating.
[tweet https://twitter.com/MikeBeas/status/635943257701261313 align=’center’]
Unfortunately, since the watch lacks a proper keyboard, I could do little more than dismiss incoming notifications in many cases. New Tweetbot mentions that warranted a reply, for example, had to be handled from my phone, which basically negated the convenience of the watch.
After playing around with all of the third-party apps that I had installed, I started deleting them just as I had with the Glances. Eventually, I removed all but two: the app I was testing (which was legitimately useful and better than Apple’s stock alternative in many ways) and HipChat, which 9to5Mac uses for our work chat. In fact, I could have removed HipChat as well, since I never actually used it.
The built-in apps were a little more appealing in some cases. I consulted the Weather app several times a day to see if I should expect another thunderstorm later in the day. I checked the Stocks app once or twice after the bottom fell out at the beginning of this week.
However, if given the option, I would gladly have deleted many of the stock applications. I had no use for the Music app because I wasn’t interested in pushing music from my phone to my watch when I could just as easily listen to it through my phone. I didn’t care about viewing photos on a tiny screen on my wrist when the phone in my pocket had a 4.7-inch screen. A camera remote? Basically useless to me.
Even Siri seemed to have trouble accomplishing basic tasks without having to redirect me to my iPhone.
I wish Apple had taken some of the time they spent building a remote for the iPhone’s camera and dedicated a little bit of that to making a version of Reminders for the watch. I would have used that more often than the camera remote. A calculator might have been nice, too.
I paid attention to the Activity app (and complication) very rarely. I found it very difficult to care what had been logged in that app after I discovered that the watch actually had no idea what I was doing most of the time.
Calories burned always came out laughably low, exercise registered when I wasn’t doing anything at all, but failed to actually pick up on real exercise I did, and stand notifications continued pinging me even after I had spent several minutes standing and walking around just ten minutes beforehand.
Overall I found the activity tracking features unreliable and a bit annoying.
After spending a week with the Apple Watch, it’s safe to say that I remain unconvinced that it’s a product I’d care to use.
While I absolutely loved the convenience of having notifications, SMS and iMessages, and my upcoming calendar events available so easily, I found that 90% of the core features weren’t something I had any particular interest in using, especially not at $350 or more.
From annoyances like finding that I’d accidentally opened an app to the need to apply force to the screen to trigger some key features, the Apple Watch doesn’t seem as well thought out in many areas as it should.
If there was a much cheaper model of the Apple Watch that included only incoming notifications, the “Ping iPhone” function, and the clock face, I could possibly be persuaded to pick one up. As it stands now, however, the past week has only solidified my existing opinions on the Apple Watch and smartwatches in general.