A month and a half or so ago I had not worn a watch since somewhere during high school. Then my brother got himself an Apple Watch Sport and I eventually used his old Pebble for a few weeks, throwing myself firmly back in the (smart)watch fold. Mostly justified by an unexpected consulting source of income my dad eventually bought an Apple Watch Sport for himself, along with he and my brother buying leather bands for their watches. When they decided they preferred the sport bands they traded their leather bands for, plus a small amount extra, a Sport for my mom (ostensibly as a research leave gift). When they went to the Apple Store to do this I went along to try a Sport on myself (I had, too, done this the first day anyone could do so in an Apple Store). Not a week later I, also largely justified by an unexpected consulting project I had, bought an Apple Watch Sport as well. Within a matter of weeks all four of us now have Apple Watches. That was a couple weeks ago. I feel that I should discuss some of my initial impressions and observations now that I have this device on my wrist all day every day, so you can read those after the break.
The unboxing experience is one to be quite nice, and I got the feeling that even the Sport watch’s hard plastic case that it rested in within the cardboard packaging is meant as something to keep and use as a carrying case for the watch, if ever you felt like carrying it somewhere not on your wrist. The pairing process, where you center the watch displaying a cloud formation on screen in the iPhone’s camera, is very slick, and I wonder if we’ll eventually see pop up for other sorts of pairing between Apple devices in the future as well. The other thing about the first-use experience that I found quite nice was that, assuming you let it install all available watch apps you happen to have on your phone, you end up with a goodly assortment of 3rd party functionality on the watch before you even interact with it yourself. Just look at what my watch’s home screen looked like after set up for a taste of what this can be like (yes, I only took this screenshot after organizing apps into areas based on use case, type of app, and such, and all the screenshots and images in this post are about a month old now).
The watch truly is Apple’s most personal and intimate device. I recognized this within the first day of having it on my wrist. Originally I thought that I may say something the day I got it on Facebook, but instead this very post is the first time I’m directly saying anywhere online that I own such a device. This comes after two back-to-back family reunions that represented the first time the vast majority of people beyond immediate family (notably aside from my grandfather, who also has an Apple Watch, so I tapped him on the wrist using Digital Touch shortly after setting my watch up) learned that I had such a device. It just somehow didn’t feel right to say anything brief or immediate about it.
Why would this be? Well, for starters the sheer number of model and band configurations is evidence of how much of a personal feel the watch tends to have. In fact, unlike all of Apple’s other products, with the watch you make decisions about what it looks like rather than about the hardware specifications. The Sport and Edition watches are internally identical. But the customization extends deep into watchOS as well. The watch face is the root view on the watch, because, well, it is foremost a watch. You have a number of faces to choose from, and many more complications to add bitesize information to the face you choose (all of which will expand this fall with watchOS 2). It is also possible to add multiple configurations of the same watch face. Plus, you can set up watch faces for specific situations beyond what you may call your “default” watch face. For example, here is my default watch face (shown as a photo of my watch on my wrist as a whole):
And here is one I use whenever I’m exercising (taking walks, any sort of sports with family, etc.) that prominently displays my activity stats as well as makes the outdoor temp and activity rings a bit larger:
But the intimacy of this device goes to a level that only its wearer can ever notice. Apple’s Taptic engine, their haptic feedback hardware, taps you on the wrist whenever a notification comes in. I find there is no need for audible alert sounds on the watch because of this. You have little need for your phone to make noise in your pocket, too, except there is no clean way to completely turn that off (we all know that silent mode isn’t silent, plus you’d want things like keyboard clicks to still make noise), so it still will. This was one of the things that intrigued me about the watch, that it could enable both more direct notifications and have those go completely unnoticed by bystanders until, and if, they catch you glancing at your wrist. Further, notifications don’t light up (either) screen when the watch is on you, so you can recognize the tap but see what it was much later on, and not have notifications be the same potential battery drain throughout the day.
One of the touted key features of the Apple Watch is as a communications device. In my, in this regard somewhat limited, experience the watch works to relay phone calls about as well as the iPad and Mac do, being that they all use the same Continuity functionality. It works for short conversations but I wouldn’t do a conference call from my wrist (I would do that from my Mac, though, if it were convenient). Besides, the nature of the device means that you’re talking on speakerphone, so the calls aren’t exactly private. But, even with my phone in my pocket (more on that later) I have found myself waiting for my watch to relay the call just so I know if I should hang up without answering (nearly all phone calls that come in as actual phone numbers versus names from my contacts these days) or pick up on one device or another.
The iMessage/SMS functionality of the watch may be its most practical communication feature. I say this because you read, rather than listen to, most of these messages. I’ve found the contextual suggested replies quite handy, but so to is the Siri-based dictation/audio message capability to create your own more specific responses. As with all such features, the Force Touch to compose a new message took some getting used to, but does make it easy to send new messages without getting in the way. The GIF images that can be sent are cute, but not entirely something I find myself wanting to use regularly. At least they’re compatible with the entire range of potential recipient devices.
Digital Touch represents the remaining built-in communication feature of the watch. This, unlike the other two, is solely accessible from the dedicated Friends button. I’m sure this is partly because Digital Touch is currently exclusive to the watch. While I find the ability to send someone my heartbeat interesting, I fail to see many situations where that’d be handy. On the other hand, it will become very useful in a few situations to be able to remotely tap someone on the wrist to get their attention from across a packed room. The drawing capability is mostly something for which I see fairly little use for, short of being a “fun” (while slower) way to get messages across that’d be just fine as normal iMessages. It can be amusing, and good for brief simple messages, but practicality drops off after that. But, perhaps as individual groups of people or watch users as a whole we’ll eventually form a shorthand that uses this drawing capability to get more complex messages across.
Another one of the touted key features, and one that I’ve grown to like quite a lot about the watch, is its health and fitness tracker functions. Primarily this manifests itself in the 3 concentric rings to show daily progress: Move, Exercise, and Stand. You can display these on the watch face (notice that I’ve done that), but they also show up in a Glance, and in a dedicated app on your phone.
Movement is defined by a goal for how many active calories to burn in a day. As part of the weekly activity summaries the watch will gradually suggest increases to this goal. Exercise is set at a globally-recommended 30 minutes per day. What exactly the watch counts as exercise is determined by it learning your habits and tracking your heart rate. I’ve tended to get more exercise credit for the same activities than my dad does, for example, because our watches have learned something about what our activity patterns are the more we wear them. It is worth noting that when using the Workout app you get exercise credit no matter what. Both the Move and Exercise metrics also get jumpstarted by you telling the watch your general activity level in the initial Activity set up. Stand is set at getting up and moving around a bit for 1 minute out of an hour 12 hours out of the day. This is using the watch’s sensors, evidently not your phone as well, because you can cheat it fairly easily if you’re on a long car trip or flight.
Aside from the activity rings being accessible from a Glance you can also quickly check your heart rate this way. I’ve found this useful when being curious about my heart rate, but in general the watch checks on its own every so often. All of the health information the watch collects gets pushed into the Health app on your phone for safekeeping, viewing, and sharing with other health apps (someday healthcare institutions may finally also work with this to both ingest data from Health and push data to Health, but that isn’t happening any time soon). I’ve found that though the watch will communicate with the phone over WiFi if the two are out of Bluetooth range, pushing of health data seems to only occur over Bluetooth. This is probably due to privacy concerns, which is fine, but is something to be aware of, because it means that your phone won’t always have the most up to date information from your watch.
The watch does generally change your habits regarding your phone. Back in October, when Continuity first debuted, I thought that my phone would become more like a router, in that everything that was phone-specific was accessible from my Mac and iPad as well, so why would my phone be at my side all day. That didn’t quite happen, but now with a watch it slowly is. I don’t mind leaving my phone on a table in one room, even charging (I do think my phone’s battery has taken a small toll since getting a watch), for most of the time I’m home when my watch will receive all such notifications, accept phone calls, and for most other purposes my iPad or Mac can handle dealing with more complex notifications and longer calls, messages, etc. The phone no longer is the primary mobile device I interact with that is always with me, but rather has ceded that role to the watch that is always on me (except overnight), and taken up the position of that box on the table over there (or in my pocket or shoulder bag when I’m out of the house) that serves up the content for my watch, and passes information between it and the internet. In the past I’d mainly carried my phone in my pocket all day to get decent step tracking, but the watch does that, so my phone doesn’t need to be pocketed quite as much.
There are a handful of small habits I’ve gotten in to with my watch, and how I use it, that may be worth noting here, especially for fellow Apple Watch owners:
- Apple advertises holding your palm over the watch to silence incoming calls. This is really just sending the watch back to the watch face. Hence it is a much faster, and less taxing on the digital crown, way to return from any app or feature back to the watch face.
- The Mail app on the watch will be more useful in watchOS 2 when you can reply to messages, but for now I’ve found the best way to use it is to set it to look at all Unread mail, and mark things as Flagged to easily get back to them on one of my other devices. That way you’re mostly trashing or flagging email as a triage technique, and don’t still have the email visible on your watch at all. But it really only works best if you’re using Apple’s Mail app on all your other devices as well.
- Though you can rearrange apps on the watch, it is much easier to do so with the Watch app on the phone. Also, you must remember that most settings for the watch reside in this app and are not on the watch at all.
- Given the display technology, the more colorful watch faces take up more energy, but you can also disable activate on wrist raise to help conserve battery power if you’d still like to see a butterfly each time you check the time.
- Handoff for Siri is effectively straight to the phone, but every other app uses the basic Handoff feature. This means you can not only continue reading an email on your phone, but could instead hand it off to your Mac should that be even more convenient of a destination.
Lots of basic functionality is built into the apps on the watch, but I found myself looking for things like a calculator app that had a watch version, much the same way we all did for our iPads, because that is one thing Apple doesn’t provide that could be useful. I’ve also found some 3rd party weather apps are better on the watch than what Apple provides, both as apps and glances. I have yet to delete any apps from my watch, mostly because they don’t hinder my access to what I need at any given moment and I enjoy seeing all those icons if I scroll out on the home screen, but we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks. After all, all 3rd-party apps stand to get much better right after watchOS 2 is released, so maybe I’ll do some trimming as desired after that point, but more likely they’ll all just get even more useful when they can actually run on the watch natively rather than take a round trip to the phone for processing.
With that, I’ll just finish by saying that I’m really enjoying my Apple Watch, and find it useful in numerous ways. Still, being such an intimate device I recognize that certainly as first generation hardware running watchOS 1 it won’t be for everyone. If you’re at all interested, I do encourage you to go try one on at your nearest Apple Store. For those that own one yourselves, feel free to expand on what I’ve said here in comments of your own. Simply put, I encourage watch-centric discussion in the comments below.