The next big thing from Apple turns out to be very small, very comfortable and a very smart way of making an iPhone way cooler to use.
AU Editor’s Note: It’s one year to the day since we reviewed the Apple Watch — how much has changed? We thought it would be good to take a look back at what we though the Apple Watch was like when it launched in Australia. — Cam
Reviewer’s Note: While there are three different models of Apple Watch — Sport, Watch and Edition — this review shall focus on the $1479 42mm Apple Watch with the stainless steel Link Bracelet.
What Is It?
- Display: 1.5-inch 312×390 (302ppi) display, Sapphire Crystal face (Watch/Watch Edition) / Ion-X Hardened Glass face (Watch Sport)
- Dimensions: 42mm high x 35.9mm wide x 10.5mm deep, 50 grams (42mm case), 75 grams (band as tested)
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0 LE, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, NFC
- Storage: 8GB internal, no external
- Water Resistant: IPX7 (Withstands 30 minutes of immersion at 1 metre)
- Processor: Apple S1 SoC
It’s a wrist computer. See also: Apple’s first wearable piece of tech.
The Apple Watch comes in two different sizes: a tiny 38mm model with a 1.32-inch screen and a 42mm model with a 1.5-inch screen. Because it’s a fashion accessory as well as a gadget, it has to look good 100 per cent of the time on the wearer’s wrist, so different sizes for different tastes were a must. Both sizes of Watch do exactly the same thing, it’s just one has less screen real-estate than the other. Think of it like the iPhone 6 versus the iPhone 6 Plus.
It also comes in three different lines: the standard Apple Watch, the cheaper Apple Watch Sport and the Watch Edition for rich lunatics. The cheapest Watch Sport starts at $499 for the 38mm and goes up to $579 for the 42mm model. There are 10 different models available for that one. The Apple Watch, meanwhile, starts at $799 and goes up to $1629 depending on the band and case size you choose. There are 20 models there. Finally, the Watch Edition — forged from a gold alloy and featuring some beautiful bands — starts at $14,000 and goes up to $24,000. You’ve got 8 ritzy models to choose from. All told there are 38 different models of Apple Watch, starting from $499 and ranging up to $24,000.
The above is probably the purest definition of the Apple Watch we could come up with, but the reality is a bit different. Yes, the Watch is a wearable, and it’s the first from the world’s wealthiest tech giant, but it’s not the first wearable ever. In fact, that honour belongs to the first 17th Century pocket watch to feature a minute hand. Since then we’ve had everything from pocket watches, Android watches, Tizen watches, weird and wonderful Kickstarter wearables and a whole mess of other ill-conceived products.
So with that in mind and our feet firmly placed on the ground, let’s ask the question again: what is the Apple Watch?
Nothing too groundbreaking. Don’t think that it doesn’t make it interesting, though.
Because Apple uses a lot of inspiring language to talk about its products (some people call it a “reality distortion field“), they’re written about in a similar way. That’s why the Moto 360, the LG G Watch R and other Android-powered wearables haven’t been treated with the same reverence as the Apple Watch.
I’m here to tell you that what this product is, is a wearable, and in the review you’re about to read, it’s going to be treated as such. Not as something that can cure cancer or save the human race, but as a wrist computer that makes owning an iPhone a lot cooler and a lot more fun than it already is.
Let’s get going.
There’s no denying it: Apple has created another gorgeous piece of hardware with the Watch. Perhaps its best looking gadget ever. Beauty is calculated by the sum of the parts and how they all work together in harmony. Based on that metric, the Apple Watch is a gorgeous gadget.
Case and Band
The case on the 42mm Apple Watch is made from a hardened, stainless steel alloy, and topped with a piece of Sapphire Crystal glass. On the side there are two buttons — the only two interruptions to the square case’s design. The lower button which sits flush with the case is a shortcut to your friends list, and the one above it is what Apple is calling the Digital Crown. It’s a scroll wheel and a button dressed up to look like a traditional watch crown.
On the bottom of the gadget is a circular disc built into the case that acts as a magnetic charging hub for your bundled MagSafe-style charging cord and the optical heart rate monitor alongside it.
Considering it’s made from stainless steel, and that the silver link band I’ve been testing it with is heavier than the case it’s attached to, the whole thing doesn’t feel much bigger than a traditional watch. It has been designed as such so that the clasp doesn’t raise your wrist off a desk when you’re working, nor does the band jut out too far from your skin. It’s so sleek and comfortable to wear that you almost forget it’s there. Out of the Motorola Moto 360, LG G Watch R, LG G Watch Urbane, Samsung Galaxy Gear and the current Samsung Gear S, the Apple Watch beats them all for outright comfort.
When I first got the Apple Watch to review last week, I was a little concerned about its durability, but after some research I’ve found it to be tougher than first thought.
Surprisingly, the Apple Watch is “waterproof”. I use the scare quotes because of its IPX7 rating, which means it’s fine for 30 minutes underwater at a depth of 1 metre. It’s fine to splash it while washing your hands, get caught in the rain with it or even take a shower with it. But testing from reviewers braver than me have found you probably shouldn’t go swimming with the thing.
To be honest, I don’t know what the benefit to swimming with it could be. There aren’t any real applications for it down there from a software or a hardware perspective.
The “X” in the IPX7 rating means that the Watch doesn’t have a shock- or dust-proof rating. That doesn’t mean it’s a fragile bit of kit though. The Watch’s screen is sapphire glass. The only thing harder is diamonds. On top of that, that stainless steel case is designed to be thick and strong.
Even the cheaper Watch Sport model is tough: it has hardened Ion-X screen glass similar to Gorilla Glass 4, which early-testing has shown to be incredibly scratch-resistant.
So it’s tough and doesn’t hate the water. Think of it like your cat: while you probably shouldn’t get it wet, it won’t be the end of the world if it falls in the pool or lands in a bath.
The way the internal hardware works is also pretty fascinating. On every smartwatch I’ve used before this one, the vibration engine was pointed at the wrist so your arm would jolt whenever you had a notification. On the Apple Watch, the vibration engines (yes, plural) feel like they’re pointing outwards. That means you get a pleasant little prompt that something has happened on your wrist that might need your attention rather than an aggressive one.
It’s the difference between someone annoyingly poking you in the wrist and someone gently drumming their fingers along your arm. One is unpleasant, the other is really a nice touch. The Apple Watch is clearly the latter.
Besides feeling nice on your arm, the band I’m testing is a gorgeous piece of microscopic metal work. The way each link clips in and out is extraordinary, and renders watchmakers in shopping centres obsolete. Every Apple Watch also allows you to change the band you have as well, meaning if you get tired of yours you can upgrade.
(For a price, of course.)
Faces And Complications
Apple includes 11 default faces for the Watch, ranging from the traditional right through to the fun, touching on the weird and scientific along the way.
I won’t mention all of them, but I will touch on my favourites. There’s of course the Mickey face which is always fun, then there’s the Solar face which shows the transit of the Sun and the Moon’s current phase during the evening. Finally, there’s the Astronomy face, which shows you where you are on a Google Earth-style globe view and locks your position as the Sun transits around the planet and the darkness creeps. One tap takes you to the Moon, and another drops you into a beautiful Orrery view which I’m very taken with.
Those three faces aren’t exactly customisable, but the other 9 that are allow you to change everything from the colour of the second hand through to the complications, or widgets, on the default watch face. There are three widget positions on most faces: a top-left and top-right widget and a centre-bottom widget. Right now I’ve got one set to the battery indicator, my Activity indicator and my next calendar event.
You can create new faces based on the 11 templates, each with their own new widgets and colours, but the basic structure stays the same.
It would be great to see apps get their own buttons or widgets on the default watch faces, and even a watch face studio where people can download their own user-generated faces for Watch.
The whole thing is controlled by this nifty new input called the Digital Crown. With a button nestled underneath the crown and a scroll mechanism built-in, the Digital Crown teams up with the touchscreen to do all sorts of things on your Watch. It’s like a soft key with multiple inputs and applications tethered to a real piece of hardware.
When the screen is off, clicking the crown wakes the screen. Click it again and it acts as your home button, taking you into your app home screen. Click it again and it takes you back into the watch. It’s also a select key every now and then when on-screen soft keys aren’t available.
From anywhere on the Watch, a quick double-tap of the Digital Crown takes you back to your watch face.
When I first saw the Apple Watch demonstrated at its press conference, I thought it would be the physical representation the the iPod’s click wheel. A digital wheel mechanism where each turn would feel like actuate a sort of click, almost the same as moving the dial on a safe, only miniaturised. I was stunned when I put it on and found no resistance at all. The Digital Crown’s scroll is infinite and it simply glides, making it crazy easy to scroll up and down your lists.
The only problem with the crown is that it’s Apple’s “natural scrolling” making an obnoxious reappearance. It just won’t die, and I can’t figure out how to turn it off just yet.
Underneath the Digital Crown is your friends button shortcut. It takes you from any app straight to a field where your best buddies are. You load new ones in via the iOS app, but they’re auto-populated from the iPhone dialler’s Favourites function when you set up your Watch.
You shortcut to interactions like Messaging and Phone from each of these friend’s faces, and if they have a Watch connected to the phone you have the number for, you can send them a Digital Touch sketch or hold two fingers on the face to send your pulse. It’s meant to be a cute way to get in touch with someone, and it feels like a grown-up version of what that obnoxious Yo app was meant to be.
Speaker and Microphone
Part of the Apple Watch’s appeal is that you can do simple phone functions from your wrist. You can take calls and activate Siri without getting your phone out of your pocket.
It’s a great little function, but the speaker isn’t as loud as it could be. Taking calls in loud, crowded environments is almost impossible on the Watch, forcing you to pause the conversation, pull out your phone and hand-off the call in order to keep talking.
The microphone, on the other hand, is always crystal clear. People I was chatting to never knew if they were being spoken to through the Watch or through the iPhone.
The Apple Watch interface is a new piece of software imaginatively called Watch OS.
Watch OS centres around the face and the home screen, navigated between by the aforementioned Digital Crown. The face gives you access to the time (duh), but also to a Notifications pane, accessed by swiping down from the top, and a Glances section, accessed from swiping up from the bottom.
Notifications are pushed to your watch just like they are with Android Wear and Tizen, and allow you to respond either with your voice, or with a smart selection of pre-written messages based on the context of what you were sent. We’ll come back to these in a second.
Glances is a cool little thing that’s a lot like Google Now cards for your Watch. Swipe up from the bottom and you get a card for everything from Now Playing on your selected music app, Calendar appointments, Weather in your favourite locations, Battery information, your heart rate at that given moment and your Activity summary. It’s neat.
You don’t have to wait to get set up to be impressed by the Apple Watch OS, however. From the second you put it on, the Apple Watch is doing freaking cool stuff.
Rather than pair with your iPhone using the traditional method of selecting a new Bluetooth device from your iPhone, the built-in Apple Watch app (which everyone has now) makes you scan a 21st Century QR code in the form of a buzzing nebula cloud on the Watch screen. Seconds later, the two are paired. It’s the best way I’ve ever seen to pair a new gadget. From there, the whole set-up process takes about 5-15 minutes depending on how many apps you have.
Tech support note: for what it’s worth, you should probably turn your iMessage on and off on your iPhone to make sure you can receive animated emoji on your Watch. It’s something Apple did for me in the set-up and something I’ve advised other to do since.
The Watch comes with pre-installed first-party apps that let you use the wristable like a very basic iPhone. You get a cut-down Messages app, the phone app with speaker functionality, a svelte Mail client, Calendar, Activity monitor and Maps app to name a few.
Other notable features include a built-in Remote app for your Apple gadgets on the same network as you, a Camera shutter remote for your iPhone, Music app and a Photos app. There are also a whole bunch of watch-centric apps you’d expect on something you strap to your wrist. You can then install new apps from the Featured tab inside your Apple Watch iPhone app.
The Watch app experience is a little different to installing apps on a Tizen or Android Wear device. Instead of buying and installing apps specifically for the watch, you install an iPhone app first which has a secondary Watch app component.
Say you download Instagram, for example. Once you’ve Got it, the App Store downloads with it a stealthy little companion app for your Watch, which sits inside the Apple Watch settings pane on your iPhone. It’s your choice whether you activate that Instagram component on your Watch, but activating it simply places the shortcut icon on the Watch OS home screen ready for use.
This can be kind of weird for apps specifically designed for Apple Watch, seeing as how their parent app has to live on your iPhone. I downloaded an IFTTT client for the Watch which supports one-button actions. It downloaded it to the phone which lets me set recipes from the IFTTT store and send them to the companion app on the Watch. I’m probably not going to use the iPhone app ever again, but still the icon sits there on my home screen gathering digital dust.
Worse than that is the lack of app support for Watch right now from big third-party developers. I know this review comes less than a week after the product’s official release date, but they’ve all had software development kit access for months. Why is it taking so long for big players to release apps that let their customers interact with a highly-anticipated new product?
We mentioned Notifications earlier. This is one of the features hamstrung by the lack of app support. When a new event happens on your iPhone, it figures out your iPhone screen is off and immediately pushes it to your wrist. It’s worth noting for a second that it doesn’t buzz you twice for most Notifications like Android Wear does, which is nice. From there your Watch checks that you’ve got an app you can action the specific Notification with, and gives you a few options.
Say you get a text message or iMessage, it lets you respond with those pre-selected messages or with Siri Dictation. That’s all well and good, and a real time-saver when it comes to responding quickly to messages and even answering phone calls. That tiny speaker really makes you feel like Dick Tracey.
What’s annoying is when the app you have on your phone doesn’t offer any bespoke interaction for the Watch. For the most part, I’m looking at Twitter and Facebook. These two massive social networks that connect everyone don’t have support for the Apple Watch at launch, when they’ve had months to work on it? Come on.
Facebook’s standalone Messenger app gives you one Notification at a time, and doesn’t give you the ability to expand a stack of messages if you get more than one before clearing it. Either way, you’ll need to get your iPhone out anyway to respond to the message, because Apple and Facebook clearly aren’t getting along. File that under “how hard can it be?”.
Apple’s personal assistant plays a starring role on the Apple Watch as the one who takes all your voice notes. It can’t talk to you this time around like it does on the iPhone, but it gives you nice clear feedback on a new, simplified dictation screen that should be ported over to iOS.
You activate Siri by long-pressing the Digital Crown, or by saying “Hey Siri” while the screen is active.
It’s worth cutting straight to the chase on this one and saying that Siri has the same problems on Watch as it does on iOS: it doesn’t understand what you’re saying or when to stop listening in loud, noisy rooms; it always has to have a connection to the internet to work; and basic language functions still aren’t embedded on the device.
One fix worth noting, however, is the dramatic improvement of Apple’s dictation service for the Australian accent. Like it or not but we have a crazy, weird accent that really stuns computers. Siri dictation was crap just 12 months ago. It’s insane how far it has come since then.
You still need to annunciate clearly which kind of kills the whole natural language UI-thing dead considering you’ll sound more robotic than the thing you’re talking to, but we make do.
This is where Apple hopes to set itself apart from the competition. Everyone has a fitness band out on the market: Apple’s job is to make it smarter than the rest.
It hopes to do that in two ways: first with the daily Activity tracker, then with the Workout app.
Activity is a persistent app that follows you around all day.
It’s broken into three sections: Move, which calculates your calorie burn per day based on your recent movement; Exercise, which tracks movement above your usual activity level and monitors heart rate, and Stand which tries to stop you from being sedentary for an extended period. It makes you stand one minute in every 12 hours of the day.
When you set up your Watch, you’re asked to give it your age, height and weight, provided they aren’t already in your Health app on iOS. From there, it asks how much you move a day, and asks you to set a goal based on how much you think you can move. Because I’m a sedentary desk jockey who’s a little tired of lugging around the extra tyre around my waist (Campbell Simpson and I joke that I’m centre-weighted like a good camera), I set my activity to “Low” but my calorie burn goal to above the pre-prescribed limit. I wanted to it to push me just that little bit to get off my arse.
Then something curious happened: it didn’t harass me about working out. Normally when I’m testing a fitness gadget, I’m driven spare by an unintelligent buzzing every 45 minutes reminding me to go for a run, walk or move around. Samsung’s S-Health is a prime culprit of this unintelligent fitshaming. It’s unintelligent and just means that the gadget shouts at you whenever it feels like you’re being your old flabby self.
The Apple Watch just sort of lets you be, and reminds you in the middle of the day if you haven’t been moving enough to achieve your goal. It prompts you if it thinks you’ve been sitting down too long, but it only makes you stand up rather than go for a whole walk. It’s a piece of tech that treats you like a grown-up.
The Workout app sits on your home screen and features a whole mess of different workouts designed to accurately track your movement and calorie burn. Walking, running, cycling, rowing and stair stepping are all counted, while an “Other” function allows you to track things like your heart rate and movement during weights activities and personal training courses.
When it’s in Workout mode, the Watch juices its own tracking gear up to keep count of everything you’re doing: accuracy is key here.
Because the Apple Watch is measuring your stride, it’s able to more accurately figure out your calorie burn. I noticed that my Elliptical trainer was overcounting my calorie burn, while my Watch differed by about 10 per cent. The Watch has more tracking gear in it than the Elliptical, making it more trustworthy.
The Watch also supports outdoor workouts, too.
Apple does specify that you take your iPhone out with you on the first few runs and walks you do outdoors so that the Watch can learn from its GPS chip where it is. From there, the on-board accelerometer can more accurately track your steps and figure out your exact calorie burn, all without taking your phone out of the house.
The only thing you miss out on by leaving your phone at home is not getting a mapped route of your run, which isn’t the worst thing in the world when you really think about it.
Apple tells us that the Watch gives users “all-day battery”. That’s a new trick tech vendors are siding with to get away with quoting an exact time on the tin while assuring users they won’t run out of battery before the day is done. The reality of the situation according to Apple’s disclaimers is a little more complicated.
Here’s what Apple considers normal usage, and how it got that 18-hour figure:
“Testing conducted by Apple in March 2015 using preproduction Apple Watch models and software, paired with an iPhone using preproduction software. All-day battery life is based on 18 hours with the following use: 90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of app use, and a 30-minute workout with music playback from Apple Watch via Bluetooth, over the course of 18 hours. Battery life varies by use, configuration and many other factors; actual results will vary.
So how long can it last doing other stuff?
So how can we be sure that the Apple Watch’s battery won’t die mid-workout? Because Cupertino have been obsessively testing it that way.
You’ll get seven hours of battery life during a workout. Here’s how it was tested:
Testing conducted by Apple in March 2015 using preproduction Apple Watch models and software, paired with an iPhone using preproduction software, with a workout session active and the heart rate sensor on. Battery life varies by use, configuration and many other factors; actual results will vary.
Suffice it to say you won’t be working out for 7 hours straight unless you’re Ronda Rousey-level fit, so else what are lazy couch potatoes like you and I going to do with it?
Here’s the real battery sucker: transmitting audio back and forth through the Watch to your iPhone. It activates the microphone, the speaker and the Bluetooth radio constantly, which gives it a time from 100 per cent full to totally empty in just three hours.
Standard Audio Playback gets you up to 6.5 hours of battery life.
What if you just want to use your smartwatch just as a watch? Well, in that case you’ll get up to 48 hours of life out of it.
Interestingly, when the battery life gets too low, it slips into a sort of coma called Power Reserve.
You’ll be able to see just the time for up to 72 hours. That time was calculated based on checking the time for four seconds every hour. Interesting for all you watch battery hypermilers.
Once your watch runs out of battery, you want to get it back on your wrist as soon as possible.
Apple says you’ll be able to do it within 90 minutes from empty to 80 per cent charge. 100 per cent charge will take 2.5 hours.
The Real Battery Life
I say all that to say this: it’s pretty on the money.
All the scaremongering about the Watch only lasting four hours on its own battery life was for nothing: the Watch lasts all day. I’ve been using it for 15 hours a day since I got it and I haven’t needed to take it off to charge it yet, nor do I need to carry my charger in my bag with me just in case.
What’s interesting is what you can do as a user to make sure your battery stays charged. For example, on the first few days I had the Watch I had the brightness set to 100 per cent. I do love a bright screen, but turning it down to its lowest setting revealed something interesting: the screen was still bright enough to see outdoors, but it gave me 25 per cent more battery by the time the day was done.
I also turned the Watch’s wrist detection mode off so it wasn’t activating the screen whenever my wrist came to a sudden stop and got back even more battery life. All this battery life scrimpage was done without once activating the aggressive Power Reserve mode, too. I imagine if I did so I’d get even longer out of the Watch.
Everyone’s experience at hypermiling their battery will be different, but you can bet your arse that I’ll be experimenting with it this week.
What’s curious about the new wearable is not what it does to its own battery, though, it’s about what it does to the battery of your iPhone. I rarely run Bluetooth on my iPhone, simply because of battery concerns. Leaving it on and connected all the time depletes the phone faster than ever before, which means you’re more likely to have to charge your iPhone before the Apple Watch to make sure everything keeps on ticking.
You’re likely to get 10-12 hours out of something like an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus, but like we said in the review at the time, if you’re going straight from work to a social engagement without charging, expect to stop showing off your fancy new gadgets by the end of the first course.
This is the Tesla of smartwatches. It’s sleek, it’s comfortable, it’s insanely intelligent and I love it. I’m really surprised by how much I like it.
I’m not a watch wearer, and haven’t really seen the point behind smartwatches before. They just felt like wrist-based remotes for your phone, but you can tell the Watch has the potential to be so much more than that.
The battery is surprisingly excellent, the software is very usable on that small screen and the hardware is pristine. You’ll want to carry around a little cloth with you to make sure it’s never injured or dirty.
Taking calls on it makes you feel like a dork, as does dictating messages to it but over time you get used to it, and you can get addicted to the simplicity of firing back a response without touching the massive phablet in your pocket.
I know it’s nit-picky, and something we’ll have to wait a year for, but it’s kind of annoying the Watch isn’t round. The Moto 360 drew audible gasps when people realised it went all the way round rather than be just another boxy wrist computer.
The Apple Watch doesn’t make you look dorky thanks to the fact that it’s smaller and sleeker than the competition, but the square design will still turn some people off.
There are a few problems inside, too. Both the Activity and Workout apps are missing a few things.
First of all, there’s no sleep tracking to speak of on the Watch, because night-time is when you’re supposed to take it off and charge it on your nightstand. Considering that $200-$300 fitness bands from the likes of Jawbone and Fitbit already include sleep tracking, it’s pretty poor that a $500-$1000 ships without said feature. Sure you can buy more gadgets to track how you toss and turn in the night, but that’s hardly the point, is it?
Secondly, there just aren’t enough activities available for the Watch to track in the Workout app. My fitness regime centres around an elliptical machine, a rowing machine, a treadmill and a series of weights. While most of those are tracked, I counted the number of machines, exercises and classes in my gym that the Watch wouldn’t track, and that number is just a bit too high.
The sensors are incredibly accurate, and it gives you an “Other” mode in the workout app to track your heart rate and count what you get up to as exercise time, but it’d be awesome if it had a broader set of modes.
Should You Buy It?
The reason it took Apple so long to get into the wearables game was its relentless perfectionism. It built itself a nice amount of hype while getting the product ready, and now that it’s here it was certainly worth the wait for iOS users keen to get their wrists on one.
Apple has tried so hard to make something that isn’t just another wrist-based remote for your phone. In a fantastic interview piece for WIRED which everyone should read, Apple designers reveal that the purpose of the Watch isn’t to get you to use your iPhone more. It’s meant to get you to use it less.
If you frame the Watch experience over the amount of times you pull your phone out of your pocket everyday, everything becomes a lot more interesting. You’re out in the world paying attention to more things as they happen rather than checking your phone for a call; a Facebook like; a Tweet, that you don’t know is coming. That’s what makes it great. Sure, it’s what Android and Samsung users have had for a while, but it’s the little things that make the Apple Watch a slight step up above the cross-platform competition.
So, should you buy it? That’s a good question. The answer will depend entirely on how you use your phone, and how involved you are with Apple’s existing ecosystem.
If you’re already using apps on your phone like Mail, Calendar, Messages, Music, Camera, Health Clock and Photos, the Apple Watch is a slam dunk.
If you’re using third-party stand-ins like the excellent Sunrise to replace Calendar, Inbox to replace Mail, Spotify to supplement Music and Google Maps to replace Apple Maps, you’re going to find yourself swimming against the Apple Watch current.
It rewards you for colouring inside Apple’s lines right now, simply because app developers haven’t caught up with the new hardware. They will eventually, but right now it feels very new, and slightly hamstrung.
It’s the best-looking, most comfortable and most intuitive smartwatch I’ve ever used, and even if you do decide to jump in before everything’s 100 per cent ready, you’ll still get a great experience out of it. We just wish there were things that were better now, rather than having to wait longer for them.