A Week with the Apple Watch

December 30, 2015


I recently obtained an Apple Watch Sport, a product that I never though I would buy. Its 300 dollars for what I thought was little usefulness and not very beautiful hardware (like I believe the Moto 360 to be). Previously I had played with an Apple Watch at the Apple Store and I wasn't really impressed. It felt really laggy, but that was when Watch OS didn't allow extensions to run directly on the watch itself. I am going to breakdown my (short-term) experiences with the Apple Watch and all of the fun that comes with it. There are a ton of well written reviews out there so I will focus specifically on things that I noticed or cared about.

The Hardware

The model that I received was 38 mm Space Grey Apple Watch Sport with the black rubbery watch band. Its quite understated and I am able to wear it to work (business casual) and the gym without changing the band. The way the strap works it kinda digs into my skin a little if I make the watch as tight as I would normally wear a watch which can get a little irritating. You can swap out watch bands if you'd like but I have not done so yet. The buttons take some getting used to but they click nicely and the scroll wheel feels sturdy and premium. The entire package is well made and I am quite impressed.

The Software

There's a lot to go into here so I'll split this into a few sections.

Navigation

There are two buttons and a touch screen to use for navigation. Theres the "Crown" which you can scroll to move around or traverse lists. You can click the crown to switch to the watch face (the home screen) or the app drawer. You can also scroll and move around everything by touch using a finger which seems to be what I do subconsciously. There is a button that is effectively the power button. If you long press it you get options to turn off the device, lock it, or put it in power reserve. This is also how you force close a running app. While an app is open you can long press the button to get the power menu, then release and re-press the button to close the app. There is also a way to take a screenshot, which I keep doing by accident, by holding the power button down and clicking the crown. To confuse things a bit you can also "3D Touch" the screen to expose more options. It is like a hidden hamburger menu, hiding options that may or may not exist which is a bit unintuitive for sure.

I will note that I think gestures should be added to the watch in someway. It is a bit cumbersome to have to swipe between glances with my other hand instead of just flicking the wrist or something to that effect. You also can't use the crown to scroll horizontally through horizontal-only lists which seems like an oversight. Lastly, entering a passcode by pressing a number pad with tiny buttons is super annoying and I can almost never get the combo right the first time. I think something like a drawn patter (like draw a set pattern) could work well as an alternative if it could ever be secure or accurate enough.

Watch Faces

While most of the watch faces are quite nice (my favorite is the modular face) there aren't as many options as you may hope for on a smart watch. You cannot create or add third party faces which leaves you only with Apple's selection. You can however change a lot of options for each face by changing colors and the information showing. The information plug-ins (called "Complications") is probably the most clever and useful part of WatchOS. It allows natively swapping out watch components that you have installed and unlike watch faces, third party apps can supply these. So while watch face selections may be limited, it is endless what they can show. For instance, the modular watch face shows the calendar and temperature by default, but I switched it so now I get the temperature and the sunrise instead. As an app developer this makes me excited, I can think of so many plug-ins I want to make.

Glances

Glances are quick peeks at information without having to directly find and open apps from the springboard thingy. I find it pretty useful for checking things like my exercise data and battery status, or changing the track playing on my phone. Especially while driving, changing the song on my wrist is super useful. Some third party apps (like Storm) have useful glances that are consistently updated, while others (like ESPN) show information that would be useful if it was actually up to date. All in all I like the feature and I think it compares a bit to Google's Cards you can can swipe through on the watch.

Apps

So WatchOS has a pretty complicated app drawer or springboard. Its a pod of all icons of all the apps you have and you zoom around it to open apps. Its not very fast but I guess its not that big a deal because I pretty much only use the watch face, Glances, and notifications anyways. Anyhow, you can get all the apps you'd expect like twitter and Instagram and such. They aren't as slow as I thought they would be and you can get limited functionality out of them. Lists don't refresh when you reach the end so the functionality is very limited on most apps. The most useful are the apps you'd expect, like maps (only Apple Maps is any good at the moment, Google Maps only gives you directions to or from your home or office and they are not step by step.), clock related things (stopwatch, timer, etc), and calendar or to-do list apps (anything scheduling related or list related like Wunderlist). You can use the camera app to trigger a delayed photo on the paired iPhone which is cool but ultimately not that useful. Overall standalone apps are not the best part of the watch.

Notifications

Notifications are pretty much what you'd expect: The watch gives sound or vibrate (depending on your settings) and you look to see what came in. You can do things like mark emails read or reply to text messages. But of course you have to reply with your mouth (unless you just want canned replies) which makes you have to fight dictation over and over again until you get the correct response typed out. Its a really good solution for when you're driving or running but pointless if you have the time to actually just use your phone and reply. Phone calls are cool, you can answer a call on the watch and hold the entire conversation using the watch. Of course theres no headphones so its useful for things like driving and not as useful when you're in an office or something.

I'll also note the notifications sync pretty well. You can dismiss notifications that show up on the watch and removes them from view on the phone (but still leaves badges).It doesn't seem to work the other way around though. If you look at an email on you phone it usually remains in the notification center on the watch until I clear it. It would be nice for that to sync on its own, especially when notifications like Instagram likes pile up and must be dismissed one by one on the watch for them to go away.

Fitness Tracking

The fitness tracking may be the most attractive part of the watch for me because I wear a watch daily and I don't like the idea of wearing a seperate watch and fitness tracker. It does a good job of reminding me to stand up every hour while I'm working behind a computer at work. It also tracks exercise time and active calories burned. So it tracks your movement and uses that calculate calories. It seems pretty accurate. Living the office life makes my data rather depressing but that's to be expected. I played 45 minutes of pick-up basketball one day with it on and it saw that I was exercising and logged it correctly. The results after playing basketball were pretty realistic too so I a content. I wouldn't use the data to rule your life and decisions but it definitely works to give you a ballpark of how active you are day to day. One nuance is that you can't change your calorie goal on the paired iPhone and the option is not exposed blatantly in the watch app. To change it you must do the force press (or 3D touch or whatever they call it now) while in the fitness app on the watch. Thats more of a navigation issue than a fitness one though I put it here because it has been the only problem I have had so far with regards to fitness.

NFC

You can use Apple Pay on the watch to pay for things like you would with the phone. As long as the watch is unlocked (if its on your wrist it usually is) then you just have to hold it up to a reader and the payment goes through. It works as advertised. In the future it would be cool to expand the use of NFC on the watch to include things like transportation passes or hotel room keys. There is a lot of potential for NFC on the watch if Apple opens it up a bit.

Settings and Pairing

Pairing the watch with an iPhone is painless, except for your iPhone battery which it will slaughter. Usually the watch needs to pair and update on first use and both of those pass a lot of data over BlueTooth (which has a decently low throughput). From the Watch app for iPhone you can change most of the settings for the Watch itself. You can add apps to the watch and choose which third party Glances and Complications you want available on the watch. You can customize the app drawer layout, notification settings, privacy settings, etc. Its all pretty straightforward.

Development

With WatchOS 2 apps are now native to the watch. I immediately started working on a watch counterpart for my app, HackWinds. I saw this as an opportunity to make an app that works like an iOS Today Widget would (I mean thats pretty much what glances are anyway) and only show data that updates throughout the data and would be useful information at a moments glance. It is still not finished yet but what I have seen so far is that deploying and debugging on the watch hardware works as expected but it is slooowwwww. Every time you want to test the app it is a few minutes wait, and sometimes it just fails and you have to try again. The simulator is deceiving for anything but prototyping the layout and logic because the watch acts very different. For example, which my app works every time with no issues on the simulator, it has never worked on the real watch. There is also a lack of documentation around the watch especially for things like if the watch should fetch data from the network itself or not. This leads to a disappointing development experience but the payoff will be cool once there is more support (assuming the documentation base and the development community grows).

TL;DR

Things that positively stand out:

  • Complications
  • Glances
  • Fitness Tracking (I'm not being nit-picky about accuracy here)
  • Answering phone calls or text by talking (Useful for driving)
  • Being able to change the music track playing from the watch

Things that negatively stand out:

  • Can't create your own watch faces
  • Too many navigation options
  • Notifications received on your phone are not removed from the watch (but vice-versa works)
  • Needs more development documentation and example application designs for different use cases

Overall Conclusion

I enjoy using the Apple Watch more than I thought I would, though I am not sure I would pay full price for one if I had to spend money on it.



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  • Copyright 2013, Matthew Iannucci
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  • Updated January 2015