Apple isn't among companies that venture into new product categories every year. With an incredibly small portfolio of products, the company makes an astounding amount of money. Naturally, ever since its launch in the US a few months ago, we'd been waiting to get our hands on the Apple Watch.
The good-old watch stands alongside digital cameras and landline phones as one of the many products rendered obsolete by the smartphone. Apple Watch is a product that challenges traditional watches and a wide range of smartwatches from Pebble, Fitbit and the many watches running Android Wear. We used the Apple Watch for 10 days to find out if it's up for the challenge.
The first thing you will notice when you wear an Apple Watch is how polished it feels. Apple's hardware engineering is top class and everything about the Apple Watch reflects attention to detail. The glass at the edges of the screen curves downwards into the metal casing that houses the digital crown and another button.
Another nice touch is how the watch band almost melds into the metal casing. We used the variant with 42mm silver casing and a white sport band. The clasp snaps in place easily and fits securely. We wouldn't recommend the white band unless you're sure you can keep it clean. In our 10 days of use, the band got dirty and didn't look as new as when we'd first received the watch. The black band is perhaps the only one that won't get dirty, so be sure to keep that in mind before buying. Apple Watch Sport is the base variant and the bands for it are the same but for a difference in colour. Check Apple's website for details on the various watch case and band options.
The base of the watch has the heart rate sensor, which is a must-have for fitness enthusiasts. Wherever we went wearing Apple Watch, people noticed it immediately and told us that it looks good. This is a good marker for its looks.
The only downside is that the watch feels a little bulky. Initially we felt a weight on our wrists and weren't very comfortable wearing it. This is coming from someone who doesn't wear a watch. If you wear one regularly, this may not bother you at all. But at no point during the 10 days did we forget that the Apple Watch was on our wrist. This is one of the trade-offs of using a first generation product. The iPhone and iPad were slimmed down drastically in subsequent years and we expect the Apple Watch to get similar treatment.
Apple also has different take on smartwatch software. Using the digital crown for scrolling is a great idea that feels natural on the Apple Watch. By default it shows you the watch first and you can swipe downwards from the top of the screen to check notifications or swipe upwards from the bottom to check Glances.
Glances are like iOS' Notification Centre widgets where apps show you some information and tapping once opens the app and reveals more information. This is where you check the weather and control music playback. Once you discover these two features, you will have no trouble using them. We'd still like a way to dismiss all notifications from an app like the feature on iOS.
Sometimes we had too many chat notifications and had to clear them out individually, which was a bit of a chore. If you clear a notification on the Apple Watch, it goes away from the iPhone as well. Similarly if you clear it from the iPhone, then the notification goes away on the Apple Watch. If you are wearing the Apple Watch then your alerts are silenced on the iPhone, which is another example of seamless integration between the two devices. The Apple Watch significantly reduced the time we spent checking our iPhone.
Tapping the digital crown once takes you to the apps screen where all apps are arranged in a neat hexagon that spreads outwards as you install more apps. You just see app icons (and not their names) and it sometimes becomes difficult to find the app you need. However you can customise the layout to keep your favourite apps near the centre. You can rotate the digital crown to zoom in or out in this view.
Tapping and holding the digital crown opens Siri. It works just as it does on the iPhone, so it needs no further introduction. Tapping the second button leads you to a list of your favourite contacts. You can call or message them quickly from this view.
We do have some issues with the way software works. It has a feature called Force Touch which opens more options if you tap the screen firmly. This is a bit of an easter egg and will take most people some time to discover. Most apps will have to display this feature prominently and it is hard to tell whether an app uses it or not. For example, we didn't know that customising the watch face is possible until we accidentally managed a Force Touch. It's only a matter of time until you get used to it and it worked perfectly for us with apps that support the feature.
Apps and ecosystem
The Apple Watch is not going to be of much use if you don't have an iPhone. At the moment you need to pair it to your iPhone via Bluetooth for it to show you notifications and to install apps. Apps cannot run natively on the Apple Watch just yet, but that will change soon, when watchOS 2 ships later this year. This means that the Apple Watch cannot yet be the first Apple product you own. If you don't own an iPhone, you wouldn't want to buy the Apple Watch.
This is currently a major limitation with the app ecosystem. All Apple Watch apps are merely companion apps for their iOS counterparts. This can be a problem in quite a few situations. For instance, your iPhone runs out of charge and a few minutes later you plug it in to turn it on. In the meantime if you try to run apps on the Apple Watch, many of them will ask you to open the app on the iPhone first. Then you're resigned to waiting until the iPhone is switched on again. This is an issue only with third-party apps. Pre-loaded apps such as Stopwatch, Timer, Activity, etc. will continue to work.
It makes no sense to have a keyboard show up on the Apple Watch and occupy a big chunk of precious real estate on screen. Thus, all messaging apps have a few quick reply options such as, "Thanks", "See you soon", etc, apart from voice recognition. Siri has progressed a lot in the past few years and it had no trouble recognising our English even though we have a thick Indian accent. At times it would hear us say "Jim" when we wanted to say "gym", but that is the kind of error we can excuse. The best part is you can always send messages as audio if it doesn't accurately type what you said.
The stock Messages app and Slack work very well on the Apple Watch, but WeChat - who loaned us an Apple Watch for review - does a few things slightly better. The stock app and Slack show you messages in the conversation followed by a Reply button. You tap that and you see quick reply templates, plus two buttons - one for emoji and another for Siri. WeChat shows you these two buttons and you just have to scroll down to see quick reply templates. The less you have to tap on the Apple Watch, the better the messaging experience, and the WeChat app stands out over the other two in that respect.
Most apps we used on the Apple Watch didn't feel very useful. The only game we enjoyed playing on the device was Lifeline, a text-based science fiction game, in which all you have to do is scroll using the digital crown and tap one of two choices from time to time. For podcasts, we liked the way Overcast works on the Apple Watch with a minimalist view of the currently playing podcast and what's coming next. Other than those, we found ourselves sticking to pre-installed apps such as Timer, Activity, and Workouts. This might change once support for native apps is released with watchOS 2.
As a fitness device
The Activity app on the Apple Watch is excellent for those who lead an inactive lifestyle. If, like us, you have a job that requires you to sit in front of a computer for hours, then this app will ensure that you take regular breaks. The way it works is it has three circles - red for movement, green for exercise, and blue for standing. Your daily goal is to fill these three circles. The more you move and exercise, the quicker the red and green circles fill up. To fill the blue circle, you have to stand at least once every hour for a minute, for up to 12 hours a day (depending on the goal you set for yourself). This app serves as an excellent motivator for you to get the activity you need. While we generally lead a very healthy lifestyle, we do have a tendency to be glued to our seat for a few hours at a stretch in office. The Activity app managed to change that.
The Workouts app lets you log your exercise and is for fitness enthusiasts. You have to manually start logging your runs or exercises using this app. This works well you want to time your runs, but we feel that most people will forget to start logging their workouts. We almost always started exercising before realising that we forgot to start logging it using this app. It lets you set a time or distance goal and alerts you once you've hit the target and during intervals such as the halfway point and every kilometre you run.
However there is always a trade-off with a smartwatch of this size. The Apple Watch's screen wakes only for 6 seconds and there's no way to prolong this. This affected us while we were at the gym. We were trying to hold a plank for two minutes and fired up the timer on the Apple Watch. Six seconds later, the screen went blank and we were left guessing how much longer we had to push ourselves. It's a lot easier to hold a plank if you can see the timer winding down and the Apple Watch just doesn't allow you to do that. This is a compromise to prolong battery life and we don't see this changing much in future generations of the Apple Watch, unless there's a major breakthrough in battery technology.
Here's what a typical hour at work was like with the Apple Watch. We feel a soft buzz on our wrist a few minutes past 9 am. Two friends are having a hilarious conversation on a busy chat group. We dismiss the notification. Our laptop has booted up and we begin working. Around 10 minutes later, a friend texts us, asking if we'd be meeting them over the weekend. We use Siri to send a quick reply and continue working. Sharp at 9.50 am, the device on our wrist tells us that we should stand up and move around for a minute. We do that and drink a few sips of water before returning to the desk. In all this time, we didn't check our iPhone even once thanks to Apple Watch.
This just goes to show that as a companion device for the iPhone, the Apple Watch performs its job very well. It has a wonderful feature that wakes the screen when you raise your wrist. This worked reliably for us most of the time and the moment we'd feel the watch vibrate, we'd raise our wrist to see a notification pop up. If it's a mail or message that needed to be ignored, we'd quickly put the hand down and continue working. This saves a lot of time throughout the day when compared to checking your phone at every buzz. This feature doesn't always work reliably though. Sometimes we had to raise our wrists twice to wake the screen. Perhaps upcoming software updates can fix this.
However, the pitfalls of a first generation product are all too evident with the Apple Watch. When you open apps, you are often greeted with a spinner animation for a few seconds until the app loads. When you raise your wrist to check notifications, Apple cleverly hides the lag by showing the app icon first for just over a second before revealing the notification. We expect these performance kinks to be ironed out in future generations of the product. We don't think that these minor lags are a dealbreaker for an otherwise solid product.
That brings us to the big question mark over every device connected to the Internet - battery life. Typically we managed to squeeze between four and five hours of usage and a standby time of around a day and a half. Charging the watch takes around two hours, which is acceptable, but at the same time found it tiresome to charge yet another device almost every day. Ideally we'd like it if the Apple Watch would last at least two days on a single charge. If you go by established patterns with Apple products, future generations of Apple Watch will have roughly the same battery life in a far thinner and lighter shell.
Quite a few people have told us that they don't wear watches anymore and that they don't need Apple Watch. A good many have balked at its price. The Apple Watch hasn't been launched in India yet, but based on the US base price of $349 (roughly Rs. 23,200) we can expect it to be priced at around the Rs. 30,000 mark in India with other variants costing a lot more.
The price is high especially if you pick one of the more expensive variants, but then it is a mistake to think of those Apple Watch variants as technology products. They're luxury products for those who can afford them. For most people, the base variant with the sport band will work just fine.
If you have an iPhone and if you want a smartwatch, then you'd want to buy an Apple Watch. Android Wear watches don't support iOS and products such as the Pebble Time and Fitbit Surge have limited interactivity with iPhones due to Apple's software restrictions. The Apple Watch feels very polished for a first generation device and its trade-offs (battery life, lags) are minor and shouldn't stop you from buying the device.
We don't disagree with criticism of Apple Watch's price tag but we need to ask ourselves if we only buy things we absolutely need. Almost everyone who has bought an iPhone will tell you that they could have settled for other phones priced a lot less. But they didn't because they wanted the iPhone for certain features it offers. Similarly, Apple Watch is not yet a product that iPhone users need, but it is the best smartwatch they can get.