The Apple Watch is an extraordinarily small and personal
device. It is designed to participate in nearly every moment of your
day, but almost never directly interact with anyone else. It knows when
you’re wearing it. You can talk to it. You can poke it — and it can poke
Every so often, the Apple Watch thinks about your heartbeat.
But the Apple Watch is also an enormous device. It’s the first
entirely new Apple product in five years, and the first Apple product
developed after the death of Steve Jobs. It’s full of new hardware, new
software, and entirely new ideas about how the worlds of fashion and
technology should intersect.
It’s also the first smartwatch that might legitimately become a
mainstream product, even as competitors flood the market. Apple has the
marketing prowess, the retail store network, and the sheer
determination to actually make this thing happen.
It just has to answer one question: would you actually use the Apple Watch instead of your phone?
Good Morning Beautiful
Hardware and Software
Let’s just get this out of the way: the 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.
Wearing a smartwatch like the Apple Watch is a far deeper commitment
than carrying a smartphone in your pocket; you are literally putting the
technology on your body and allowing it to touch and measure you while
you display it to the rest of the world. Committing to technology that’s
a little slow to respond to you is dicey at best, especially when it’s
supposed to step in for your phone. If the Watch is slow, I’m going to
pull out my phone. But if I keep pulling out my phone, I’ll never use
the Watch. So I have resolved to wait it out.
I’m putting my phone in my pocket and this Watch on my wrist, and we’re taking this trip together.
These mornings have been full of self-reflection, moody
contemplation as I gather my screens of all sizes and website hosting pack them in a
bag, work alerts flashing across an array of devices that are all less
important than my phone. I love my phone. Everyone loves their phone.
The only real question a smartwatch like the Apple Watch needs to answer
is “why would I use this instead of my phone?” The answers so far
haven’t been apparent; the Watch seems like it can do a little bit of
everything instead of one thing really well. So I’m putting my phone in
my pocket and this Watch on my wrist, and we’re taking this trip
We are going to need more coffee.
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.
It’s also surprisingly heavy. I noticed when I was wearing it,
and everyone who held it commented on the weight. That might simply be a
function of how unfamiliar watches have become; my stainless steel
Apple Watch with leather loop band weighs 2.9 ounces, which is more than
my plastic Nixon’s 1.7 ounces or the 1.8-ounce Moto 360, but much less
than my 5-ounce Baume and Mercier. All in all, the Apple Watch isn’t
light enough to fade away, but it’s also not so heavy that it’s a
On the right side of the Watch you’ll find the Digital Crown
scroll wheel and a dedicated button (the official name is just “side
button”) that opens your favorites list with one tap and activates Apple
Pay with two taps. This side button is extraordinarily confusing — it
looks and feels so much like an iPhone sleep / wake button that I still
hit it to turn the screen on and off, even though I know I’m doing the
On the back of the Watch, there’s a slight dome that holds the
optical heart rate sensor and the inductive charging system. You’ll also
find a pair of buttons that release the watchbands. They’re flush with
the case but relatively easy to depress, and the bands slide right out.
You can make the Watch work in basically any orientation you’d like by
flipping the screen with a setting in the iPhone app — a boon for the
left-handed. It’s a fairly simple system, so expect to see tons of
third-party Watch bands; Apple says it has no problem with that.
Apple Pay is my favorite feature on the Watch.
Apple gave me three bands to play with: the leather loop, the
Milanese loop, and the white sport band. I mostly stuck with the leather
loop, which feels more like plastic than leather but which I found
super comfortable because it was so easy to readjust throughout the day.
The white sport band basically felt like any other plastic band I’ve
worn. I felt ridiculous wearing the Milanese Loop, so I didn’t.
The face of the Watch curves up off the sides, leaving a
noticeable air gap above the display underneath. But besides that small
complaint, the display is simply terrific. It carries the same Retina
branding as the iPhone display and it delivers, with imperceptible
pixels and inky blacks that allow the screen to blend right into the
curved sides of the glass. It’s easily the best smartwatch display on
the market, and it would be unassailable if not for the air gap. It’s
light-years beyond everything else.
The back of the Watch is arguably more beautiful than the front.
On Your Wrist
Once you actually start living with the Watch, it quickly
becomes clear that there are three main ways to actually use the thing:
the watch face, the app launcher, and the communications app.
Apple is insistent that one of the main functions of the Watch
is simply to be a great watch, so when you raise your wrist, you’ll see
the time by default, just like a regular watch. The lone exception out
of the box is the workout app, which Apple says is “sticky” so people can check their exercise stats quickly at the gym.
In the first of many moments where the Watch felt underpowered,
I found that the screen lit up a couple of ticks too slowly: I’d raise
my wrist, wait a beat, and then the screen would turn on. This sounds
like a minor quibble, but in the context of a watch you’re glancing at
dozens of times a day, it’s quickly distracting. Other smartwatches like
the Pebble and the LG G Watch R simply leave their screens on all the
time; having a screen that constantly flips on and off is definitely
behind the curve.
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
If the Apple Watch had no other functionality except for what you can do from the watch face, it would still be competitive.
The Watch app is literally the most central experience on the
Watch — you can rearrange every app icon on the homescreen except the
Watch icon, which is always in the middle. What’s fascinating and
somewhat confusing is that so many of the Watch’s core abilities are
only in the Watch app, so interface ideas you learn there don’t work
For example, the Watch app is the only place to access
notifications after they appear. Notifications are the most important
part of any smartwatch experience, but on the Apple Watch you can only
swipe down to see your notifications when you’re on the watch face. Once
you click the Digital Crown and open the app launcher, the notification
drawer goes away entirely and swiping down does nothing. Same with
Glances, which are essentially single-screen status updates from various
apps you access by swiping up from the Watch app. They’re a major piece
of the Watch experience, but they disappear everywhere else in the
operating system. These are radically different interface patterns than
iOS, where you can access the notification center and control center
from virtually everywhere, and it makes navigating the Watch interface
more confusing until you get it.
The Law of Wearable Success
In order to be successful, any given piece of wearable
technology has to be useful the entire time it’s on your body.
Prescription glasses sit on your face, but improve your vision all the
time, so they’re successful. Sunglasses sit on your face and make you
look cooler all the time, so they’re successful. Google Glass sits on
your face, but mostly does nothing, so it’s a failure. It’s a simple
Understanding that the Watch app is an entire primary
experience unto itself is the key to understanding what happens when you
press either of the buttons on the side of the Watch — they launch the
other two main Watch experiences. Pressing the side button takes you to a
totally unique contacts screen, which is where you send the ephemeral
Digital Touch messages. Clicking the Digital Crown on the watch face
opens the honeycomb app launcher, which is where you can open the
various other apps on the Watch.
All of this sounds complex, but you’re not really supposed to
use it all at once — the aim is for the Watch to shine in 10- 15-second
burst throughout the day, not in extended usage sessions. And that was
borne out every morning, because I didn’t have any reason to wear the
Watch until I left the house.
I was half-hoping to put on the Watch in the morning and use it
instead of my phone, but that didn’t happen. I grab my phone first
thing in the morning and use it nonstop to prepare for the day: I
organize my calendar, catch up on The Verge, check Twitter, and bang out
replies on Slack and email. None of this is even possible to do on the
Watch. Apple spent tons of effort and millions of dollars promoting the
iPad as a business and creation platform instead of just a consumption
machine, but there’s no fighting the tiny display and limited input
options of the Watch — this thing is all about quickly glancing at
information, not really doing anything with it.
It becomes far more valuable once you’re on the move.
Walk It Off
Notifications, Music, Apple Pay
It turns out that I’ve gotten really good at using my phone
with one hand while I walk to the train. I’m domains really good at looking at
notifications come in on my phone screen and dismissing them with my
thumb, or pressing the volume buttons to turn up the music, or even
sending a quick text message with one thumb. I can even do some of that
without looking very carefully at what I’m doing, since there’s muscle
But 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. If you’re
like me and you refuse to use both backpack straps so you can be a One
Strap Cool Guy, this means your bag will sometimes fall off your
shoulder while you screw with your smartwatch, and you will be a No
Straps Smartwatch Guy Murdered By NYC Traffic.
Please do not die this way.
The Watch made it a lot easier to keep my phone in my pocket on the walk to the train.
Of course, you can’t one-hand any smartwatch; that’s
just blogging part of the deal. But no other smartwatch has this much going on —
the Apple Watch literally has buttons and knobs — and no other
smartwatch has so many lightly concealed designs on one day becoming a
platform as powerful as your phone. If the existential question for the
Apple Watch is “why would I use this instead of my phone?” then the
answer almost always has to involve “because it’s more convenient.”
That’s sometimes true of the Apple Watch, and sometimes not.
ut when it’s more convenient, it’s far more convenient.
I usually spend most of my commute to work with my phone in my
hand — listening to music and checking messages as I walk to the train,
and reading saved articles on the subway. The Watch made it a lot easier
to keep my phone in my pocket on the walk to the train — I saw
notifications coming in on my wrist, and I could control the music apps
on my iPhone from the Now Playing Glance on the Watch. The Watch also
started tracking my steps and logging my movement into the Activity app,
for a pleasant morning jolt of gamified living. So far, so good. But
there’s more work to be done here.
Notifications on the Apple Watch work pretty much just like
notifications on any other smartwatch: you feel a buzz, you look at your
wrist, and it shows you some information. Apple’s big trick with the
Watch is dramatically improved buzzing with what it calls the “Taptic
Engine.” It’s a haptic feedback system that feels wildly different from
the fuzzy, cumbersome vibrations of other devices. Apple’s Taptics are
more like the Watch tapping your wrist. The taps can come in different
patterns and strengths; Apple says the Taptic Engine plays a vibration
waveform related to the audio waveform of associated notification sound.
Imagine a set of stereo speakers, but the right channel is insistently
poking you along with the music.
If anything, Apple has been underselling the Taptic Engine, and
I sort of understand why — you have to feel it to get just how
different and powerful of an idea it is. But it’s also pretty clear that
taptics on the Watch are only the first half of a brilliant idea. There
are a ton of missing pieces that need to get filled in before the
Taptic Engine lives up to its potential.
It’s also pretty clear that taptics on the Watch are only the first half of a brilliant idea.
First, the Taptic notifications are fairly weak and fairly
short — if the audio alert is a beep, you’ll get one insistent poke and
that’s it. They’re easy to miss. To counter this, Apple’s built a
setting called “prominent haptics,” which basically revs the engine at
full speed like a more traditional vibration to get your attention
before playing (visit) the far more subtle Taptic notification. It’s the haptic
equivalent of having an assistant blow a reggaeton horn before
discreetly handing you a note in a meeting.
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 vps hosting 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.
I’ll just be super blunt about the music app on the Apple
Watch: it’s not as good as wearing an old iPod nano on your wrist.
Remember when turning sixth-generation iPods into watches was a thing?
That nano did a great job of displaying a lot of music information on a
tiny screen, and the Apple Watch does not. Song and album titles get cut
off in lists and on the Now Playing Screen, album art isn’t as big,
there’s no ability to sync podcasts, and on and on. It does a fine job
of controlling an iPhone, but as a dedicated music player it leaves a
lot to be desired.
Glances also feel like they have enormous untapped potential. A
Glance is just a status screen for an app on your phone, much like the
app widgets on the Today screen of an iPhone. You swipe up from the
bottom of the watch face to access Glances, and then swipe horizontally
through the Glances you have installed. Apple says Glances are “real
time,” but they’re not — opening a Glance kicks off an update cycle,
which usually means it’s pulling data from your phone. The updates don’t
take long — unless the Watch is trying to grab your location, which
always takes forever — but the delay means you can’t just bang through
Glances to see everything that’s going on. The Twitter Glance is set to
display top trends, but by the time it loads I could have pulled out my
phone. Transit is set to show me the nearest mass transit options, but
it takes so long to find domain names my location I… could have just pulled out my
phone. This is a theme.
All of this will presumably get solved, of course — third
parties just have to build in support for the Watch and figure out how
to best use these features. But that will take time, and the Watch needs
to sell in numbers that will justify that investment for the long tail
of apps. And there’s a real chance the solution is just a faster
processor that uses less power in next year’s Watch. Moore’s Law tends
to solve a lot of problems like that.
But when all those pieces fall into place, it’s incredible.
Apple Pay is my favorite part of the entire Watch, a little blast from
the future. Paying for coffee at The Café Grind in Manhattan involved
nothing more than double-clicking the communications button on the Watch
and holding my wrist over the terminal; it beeped and the payment
processed instantly. Paying with the Watch is even faster than paying
with an iPhone, since it doesn’t have to read your fingerprint: it’s
ready to go anytime after you put it on your wrist and unlock your phone
with your fingerprint. I love using Apple Pay with my phone, but it’s
even better with the Watch, some mild contortions to line it up with
payment terminals aside. Apple Pay remains a shining example of what
Apple is able to do when it has complete control over hardware,
software, and services.