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Review: Apple Watch

Posted in Apple by commorancy on December 3, 2015

apple-watch-aluminum-goldYou might have noticed that I like to write review and tip articles for Apple’s product line. Recently, I’ve picked up an Apple Watch Sport. It’s time for a rundown. Let’s explore.

Watch Functionality

It’s called the Apple Watch for a reason, because it is first and foremost a watch. You’re probably wondering just how good a watch it really is? Let’s just put it this way, the old square iPod that could be used as a watch has better watch faces than the Apple Watch. There are effectively 5 different faces. Two ‘analog’ style faces, one huge number version, a mickey mouse watch and a smaller digital face (that is used in multiple different versions).

Because the faces are so limited and there are so few of them, I’m quite disappointed in what’s here. Instead of providing a large number of faces, what Apple focuses on is customizability of a few faces. So, even though you can customize limited aspects of the watch faces, there’s only so much Apple actually lets you do. This is a little disappointing.

For example, if you want a custom background, you can do that so long as you can live with a digital watch version. This can’t be done with an ‘analog’ dial display. This is unfortunate. Though, there’s still time for Apple to add this in an update.

On the upside, when you flip your wrist up to look at your watch, the face automatically turns on. No need to press buttons.

Watch Face Sizes

There are two sizes available from Apple. There is the 38mm and the 42mm sizes (so far). To be perfectly fair, there’s very little difference between these two sizes as far as utility goes. So, don’t expect miracles from buying the bigger size. Both screens are small and having a slightly larger screen here really doesn’t help much at all. I’m sure Apple may offer more sizes in the future, but for now these are two sizes offered.

What I will say about the sizes is that they work well for a watch face, but for using for anything other than a watch is mostly uncomfortable. Though, using the Apple Watch for any period of time makes you appreciate just how big your iPhone’s display is even if you’re using the iPhone 5.

Remote Control

This is primarily where the Apple Watch shines brightest… being a remote control for your iPhone. That is, playing music, as a speakerphone, answering simple text messages or even just asking Siri basic questions. Not having to pull your phone out of your pocket for simple and basic activities is nice enough. But, is this one feature really worth the price so far? Let’s continue to explore.

Watch Band

The one cool thing that Apple has rethought is the watch band. Instead of being a standard belt type closure, the band has been reinvented. I know a lot of people don’t really like the sport band, but I actually like it for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is that a standard band is like a belt… which means that the band has that little tail that sticks out and catches on things and is generally frustrating.

Apple’s sport band rethinks this. Now the clasp pops onto a peg that sticks up easily, which makes putting it on one-handed a snap (literally) and then the end of the band tucks into and inside of the band leaving no little flap to hang out and catch on things. I know this piece is a little hard to describe, but once you try it out, you’ll understand why the line of this band is hard to beat. Changing watch bands is pretty much a snap. You press the release button and slide out the band. Then slide in the new one. Repeat the process on the other side. It’s far simpler than trying to depress those tiny little pins from most watch bands.

Again, does this make the Apple Watch worth the money? Let’s keep going.

Applications

As I talked about above, the Apple Watch is primarily a remote controller for the iPhone… and applications are no exception. What that means is to use am application on the watch, it must also have a corresponding iPhone version before a watch version can be loaded. Additionally, the app has to support a watch interface version before you can even use it on the Apple Watch. This also means that there are limited applications that currently even support the Apple Watch. The few that are there range from clumsy to elegant with most falling towards the clumsy side.

Mail

Yes, you can receive notifications of email on your watch. Unfortunately, there is really no HTML rendering piece for the phone. So, many emails that arrive won’t allow for proper viewing on the watch interface. So, don’t expect miracles in this department.

Fitness

If you are fitbit user, you might find the fitness pieces of the Apple Watch useful in that it can keep up with your fitness goals through the built in wrist monitor. So, pop it on and away you go. You just have to fill in all of your details into the fitness app to get started.

News

Here’s where the watch shines once again. If you’re interested in keeping up with the latest news events, there are a number of iPhone apps that support the Apple Watch. This means you can keep up with the latest trending news through alerts on the watch. This is another bright spot for the watch.

It also has a stopwatch, timers and alarms. You can easily set the alarms through Siri.

Siri and Haptic Feedback

This is one of the better features here. I always hated Siri’s voices. They’re unnatural and annoying. So, when the watch remains silent of voice in lieu of haptic feedback after a Siri query, that made me smile. I love this feature. I’d rather the watch (or any device) respond with haptic feedback over using a voice to talk back.

Sounds

There are limited sounds. However, the Apple Watch combines haptic feedback (shaking) to let you know when it’s done something. In combination with haptic feedback, the phone plays a small chime. Like expensive analog watches, some come with small chimes and bells. The Apple Watch mimics that sound whenever notifications are made. So, it makes the Apple Watch feel like an expensive Tourbillion or some other very expensive watch when it chimes after an alert or when an alarm goes off. It’s not some cloying and silly frog or other digital sound effect.  In combination with the haptic feedback, the chime feels and sounds real when on the wrist. It’s as though there’s a little bell inside of the unit. It’s an uncanny sensation. Apple definitely got this right. Though, I would also like a little more customizability in the sounds for alerts, but I’m guessing we’ll see that in WatchOS 3 or 4 or sometime later down the road.

The Crown

Think of the crown’s use on this as a scroll wheel on the mouse. Effectively, that’s how it’s used on the watch interface. You can scroll through email messages, through lists, through settings, etc. Because the touch screen can be clumsy because of its size, the crown’s scrolling feature makes up for that clumsiness making the device a bit more elegant to use. Unfortunately, even with WatchOS 2.0, the crown is not utilized nearly enough. There are a lot of settings areas and other locations that are perfect candidates for using the crown to scroll. Unfortunately, you’ll find that you’ll still be flicking through lists with your finger on the touch surface.

The Touch Screen

One of the things Apple included is that not only is it a touch screen, it is pressure sensitive. So, the harder you press, you can get into different modes or activate features. While this pressure sensitive nature is a cool addition to the watch, it is also well underutilized. In fact, the only real place where it’s used is in customizing the watch faces.

The Charger

Here’s easily the most clumsy piece included with the watch. Not only is the somewhat concave disk shaped charger goofy, the magnet is not nearly strong enough. What that means is that the watch falls away from the charger by simple movement of the watch on the table. It’s frustrating and clumsy all at the same time. I don’t really understand why the magnet isn’t a whole lot stronger. However, having purchased the more expensive Apple flying saucer charger, the magnet on this unit is much much stronger. In fact, it’s the strength that should have been included on the included clumsy disc charger.

Storing Music

Yes, you can store a single playlist on the Apple Watch itself. How exactly you play that music back without the phone, I’m not entirely sure. I’m assuming you can pair a bluetooth headset and listen that way or maybe it plays out of the tiny speaker on the watch. Whatever way it happens, the watch itself has no ports, so it must playback wireless. It seems that the watch may have about 8GB of memory storage. This is the same as the base model of the previous square iPod that could also be used as a watch.

Screen Type

The screen is an AMOLED display. What that means is inky blacks and vibrant whites. You don’t get that annoying bright grey cast you get with backlit units. It also means that it is not backlit. This enhances the watch look and feel and reduces battery life to only those pixels that happen to be lit.

Battery Life

On the 42mm version, I have been pleasantly surprised that when I get home, it’s still no less than 50%. Most times, it’s still in the 80% area. However, this is still a mostly brand new watch. So, I need to set it up with a few charge cycles to get how the battery will really last. As for battery replacement, it doesn’t appear user replaceable. So, I’m guessing you’ll need to make an appointment with Apple’s Genius bar and have them replace it.

Home Screen

The home screen for the watch is, you guessed it, a watch face. Everything else pretty much revolves around this screen. You pull down from the top for notifications. You pull up from the bottom to bring up running apps (music remote control, battery life, fitness, etc… by swiping left or right).

App Screen

While I understand the purpose behind this horrid mess of round icons screen, it’s ugly and hard to get to the things you need. This is the screen with small circle icons arranged into a geometric shape. When you drag it around, the edge circles shrink. While I understand the utility of this on the tiny watch screen, it’s hard to navigate the icons because they have no labels. So, unless you happen to know what the icon is, you’re lost. There are times where icons can be similar to one another which can make it confusing to find the app you want. I personally find this screen a little ugly and tiresome. But, for what it is, I don’t know how to offer Apple a better solution than this. So, it is what is.

Apple Pay

If you have an iPhone 5 that doesn’t support Apple Pay, here’s a way to get this feature without replacing your phone. You can load up your cards on to the Apple Watch and then use the watch to pay with Apple Pay by putting it into Apple Pay mode and touching the watch to the payment terminal. Admittedly, I’ve used it a few times (even at the Apple store). It’s handy and prevents the need to pull out your credit card from your wallet. It works with both credit cards and combo credit/debit cards.

Wrist Detection

This piece goes hand-in-hand with Apple Pay. By electing to put your cards onto the device to use with Apple Pay, you automatically enable certain security mechanisms. One of them being wrist detection and passwords. This means that as long as you’re wearing the watch, you don’t have to enter your password. As soon as you take the watch off and put it back on, you’ll be prompted to enter the password again. The thinking is that if someone rips it off of your wrist and steals it, they can’t get into it because it’s automatically passworded as soon as it’s removed. This is a good feature, but at the same time it also offers some unnecessary annoyances in other parts of the operating system.

Overall

The Apple Watch is a somewhat interesting device, but it is pricey. It starts at $349 and goes up from there. The 38mm version is $349 and the 42mm version is $399 for the sport series. The prices only go up from here. For a watch, I guess this an okay price for the sport model. When you get into the pricier versions, the difference is just in the materials.

For the sport version, you only get some kind of tempered glass over the touch surface. If you move up to the $549-$599 price point, you get sapphire. Though apparently the sapphire saps some of the brightness from the screen. So, you’ll want to be prepared for that.

Apple also shot themselves in the foot by doing away with skeuomorphism in iOS. In fact, for the watch faces, the flat colors are just too boring. If there’s justification for using skeuomorphism, watch hands are the place to do it. The flat watch hand colors are, well, drab and boring. I’d rather have a watch face that looks like a watch face with roman numerals and hands that look like metal. Instead, we get flat pointy hands that don’t look real at all. The double whammy here is that there are so few watch faces from which to choose, it’s really a less than ideal situation for the Apple Watch. In fact, there were better looking watch faces on the older square iPod that also doubled as a watch.

If you’re looking for a watch that doubles as an interface to your iPhone, the Apple Watch might be worth the money. But, don’t be disappointed at how sparse the app landscape is right now. There’s really not a ton of apps available. But, don’t go into this purchase thinking it will be the perfect app companion to your iPhone. It won’t and isn’t. It is still too new for that.

The one and only reason to consider the purchase of an Apple Watch is for the watch functionality. Though, you should use it and play with it before you make the decision to buy. There are plenty of watches on the market and having the Apple Watch may not be the smartest of choices if the watch is the most important aspect. Also, the limited faces of the watch means it’s not as flexible as one would hope. It is a small computer after all. So, it should be able to mimic the look of any watch face. Unfortunately, Apple has intentionally limited this functionality to date. Until this piece is fully realized, owning this as a watch may not be the best of choices. Though, the sport watch band is comfortable and easily one of the best innovations here.

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