This is a complex device to tackle. You’ve almost certainly heard of it, you probably know roughly what it does, and if you’re reading this already, you surely want to know more. But this device isn’t just a next-generation iPhone or Mac, it’s a whole new kind of device, with a new interaction model, available in many, many different models, and with a new operating system. It’s different from almost everything that has come before it, and as usual, it’s easy to miss the nuances.
The five word review:
Convenient, complex, beautiful, capable, potential.
Moving the information that matters most to a more convenient place is nothing new—a heads-up speedometer display in a car, steering wheel controls, and a quick dial at the top of a camera are all good examples. Putting critical information or buttons front and center, even if there’s another way to do it, can lead to quicker, safer, and more convenient interactions. After all, we had computers before smartphones, but they weren’t as convenient, and phones are often now the device of choice. We had the Walkman and the Discman before the iPod, but they weren’t as convenient, and they disappeared.
Never again will a message be lost on a phone vibrating unnoticed in a pocket or a bag.
It’s also a more personal device than your phone. While you might pass an iPhone to your child, an Apple Watch is unlikely to leave your own wrist. On a more obvious note, even if your iPhone is in your pocket or your bag, there’s no more than a sleeve between your eyes and an Apple Watch on your wrist. It’s more glanceable.
Before you can have your watch, you must choose your watch body’s metal. Choose between aluminum (Apple Watch Sport), steel (Apple Watch), or gold (Apple Watch Edition). I found steel too heavy and Edition to be not marketed to my income level.
Here’s the Apple Watch (i.e. steel) with the Milanese Loop band, showing the Utility face.
Sport is a good choice if you want to limit the outlay, actually use it while exercising, or prefer a matte finish. Many bands are available too, though the fluoroelastomer sports bands feel great and are a great starting point. Even though this is a first generation device, I would be surprised if the form factor changed within the first couple of years, so additional bands could have a slightly longer lifespan.
All the faces available at launch, with a little tweaking.
When you have your watch, you’ll need to set it up with your iPhone, sync any watch apps that your existing iPhone apps offer, and then get down to exploring the new interface. The screen supports touch, but not multitouch. It does support a harder “force touch”, something like a right-click, which opens up customisation options for the watch face and secondary options elsewhere. Indeed, you’re likely to want to spend a bit of time setting up the watch face just as you like it, and we’ll return to this in a moment.
Press the button to communicate with a friend.
In terms of hardware buttons, there’s a digital crown which can be pushed to switch between the home screen and the watch face, held in to access Siri, or spun to scroll. Below that (or above if you’ve flipped the watch to your other wrist) there’s a button that calls up your friends list so you can contact them in one of several ways. Swiping up lets you access glances, which provide contextually relevant quick looks at pages provided by in-built and third-party apps, while swiping down shows notifications as your iPhone does.
World Clock is one of the one-page glances you can reach by swiping down.
Compared to Google Wear, there’s a lot more going on. You may also find that you need to tweak just which notifications hit your wrist as well as your phone, so be ready for a little adjustment as you get used to not just the new interface, but the new thing on your wrist.
I love, love, love these jellyfish.
The watch itself, to me, is very pretty indeed. The interface is clean, and while the screen itself is a rectangle, not a more traditional circle, the case and the edgeless screen soften its edges. Primarily, though, it’s a timepiece, and if it’s to replace an existing watch that doesn’t, in fact, need charged nightly, then it’s got to present itself well.
The many different included faces can be customised in many ways. Some watch faces allow you to set the amount of detail they include (every minute mark, or hide even the hour marks) as well as the colors used. Most intriguing of all are the complications, added information within a watch face that can show a second time zone, the weather, moon phase, or your next appointment. These complications are also tappable, so a mini fitness icon can be tapped to visit the app for more information.
Customizing the “Color” face complications, which are all small.
Critically, different watch faces offer complications in different sizes, meaning that different faces offer very different information densities. The Utility face is my pick for now, partly because it offers a one-line medium-sized complication at the bottom which can show both the temperature and weather forecast. (The Mickey face does too, but it’s not to my taste.)
My chosen Utility face with weather and a forecast at the bottom, and a red notification dot at the top.
The Modular face offers a single multi-line complication in the center of the screen, which can show quite a bit of detail, but almost all other complications are quite small, offering at most the time of your next appointment, the current temperature, time of sunset, or so on. There’s also no way to change the position or size of a digital time readout, so if you’re a fan of the digital aesthetic, you’re out of luck for now.
Modular is for information junkies, but you can’t make the time any larger.
At present, it’s not possible for third-parties to design watch faces (or complications, which would be interesting). It’s also a real shame that the utterly beautiful Motion face supports just a single, date-only complication, and I hope the ability to further customize the existing faces shows up in a future update. While the existing faces should provide enough to keep most people happy, you may find that you’re not 100% happy with what you can create today.
The watch does a lot. Some of its tricks are unique, like measuring your heartbeat, or tapping your wrist (or your friends’). Others, like notifications, duplicate your iPhone’s features. Some features currently limited to the watch (animated emoji, animating drawn messages) could potentially cross back over to the iPhone in a future release.
Two screens from a navigation session—and it taps your wrist too.
Given Apple’s recent efforts on HealthKit and ResearchKit, it’s terrific to see fitness as a key focus on the watch too. Three concentric rings in different colors close throughout the day as you stand, move, and exercise more energetically. Even if you’re not into gym workouts, this is a gentle prod (or tap on the wrist) in the right direction. It’ll track you passively, or you can specifically start up the Workout app to record specific events, tie into the Health app, and earn awards.
I walked, and received my first award.
Communication is also a key focus, and there’s a hardware button dedicated to bringing up a list of your contacts. From there, you can send the aforementioned animated emoji, a drawing, a pattern of taps, your heartbeat (likely to loved ones), or a text message via Siri. While the emoji can be received on an iPhone, for now at least the animated drawn message and taps can only be sent from an Apple Watch to friends with an Apple Watch, and because it’s early days, I haven’t tested this yet. You can also just call people via the built-in mic and speaker.
Worth noting is that many advanced functions on the watch—and all third-party content so far—require a tethered iPhone to be nearby. It’s also possible to ping your iPhone from your watch if you don’t know just where it is. While the watch won’t stop working when away from its iPhone, it won’t have GPS, or access to the internet, or the music on your iPhone, or the ability to make calls. It will tell the time, track your heart rate, and not much more. But that’s OK.
The most exciting thing about the Apple Watch is that this is just version 1. Third-party applications are currently very limited in what they can do, and do all their processing on the iPhone. There’s no way to make custom watch faces, complications, or apps that can exist without an iPhone. These choices are largely to do with battery life, which is heavily affected by the number of lit pixels on the screen. Even some of the more graphically intensive watch faces previously announced have been culled so that a day’s moderate usage can be guaranteed, and you can bet that more capable third-party apps would reduce that further.
Only a few third-party apps on my Watch so far.
What I’m really excited about is what’s going to be possible in the next year or so. Being able to check into a hotel room with my Watch? Very cool, and possible today at some hotels. Paying with my Watch? Space-age. Adding something to a to-do list with my voice is something I can do on my phone, but now I don’t need to reach into my pocket. Grocery shopping apps are great until you need both hands, and now they’re both free.
While you won’t use most apps on your watch for very long, the fact that they’re on your wrist means you can access them more easily. Developers haven’t been able to really see how people use the Apple Watch yet, nor have they been able to see themselves how their apps could work on their own wrists. With the public release, that will change quickly. I’d expect a great many of the iPhone apps you use today to bring quick access to their key features to the watch soon.
So should you get one? In essence, it’s just like any other gadget. You might not need it, but you’ll enjoy it. It’s not as fast as your phone (though it will get faster) and the screen isn’t as large either, so it’s not exactly an essential purchase. But if you’re someone who often misses their notifications, or if you need to notify someone in a meeting without interrupting them, or if you want to prod yourself to be more active, or if you simply want a watch with several extra features, then this is a terrific device for you.
Apple Watch on left, iPod nano 6th generation on right.
For me? I’ve always worn watches, and my previous watch was a 6th Generation iPod nano. With 20 watch faces, radio, photos, and music, its main (and often irritating) failing was the need to press a button to wake it up and display the time. My bar for a replacement may have been set pretty low, but the Apple Watch has well and truly exceeded it. I’m sure I’ll find new ways to integrate it into my life over time, but now? Very cool. I just need a red strap, and a way to make my own watch faces.
Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.