Today is launch day for the Apple Watch. In some ways, that’s more of a ceremonial rite than a statement of practical reality. With Apple’s online-only ordering, you can’t just barge into an Apple Store and plunk down your money, though you apparently might be able to find one at a handful of boutique shops. Many of the folks who pre-ordered won’t get their timepieces until May or June.
Still, some lucky people are receiving their pre-ordered watches today. And I’ve already had a little bit of wrist time with the Apple Watch myself. To be specific, I’ve been trying a 42mm stainless-steel model with a fancy chain-link “Milanese loop” band that Apple loaned to me. (I also got a rubbery green sport band that is a cinch to swap in, thanks to Apple’s push-button band-release system.)
I should underline the “little bit of time” part of that previous paragraph: It’s been less than 48 hours. That’s way too little time to form a final verdict on a major tech product–especially one as new and ambitious as this one. The New York Times‘ Farhad Manjoo said it took him “three long, often confusing and frustrating days” before he figured out the watch and became smitten with it; by that timetable, I’m less than halfway in.
Consider what follows to be a status report rather than a review. But I’ve learned quite a bit already that I didn’t get from attending both of Apple’s media events and getting brief hands-on demos at them.
At first, I was skeptical about Apple’s launch strategy for the watch, which involved offering dozens of variations, at every price point from $349 to you-can’t-buy-one–all of which do exactly the same thing. It certainly didn’t seem like a move in the Apple tradition of launching a solitary computer or phone or tablet that gave the world precisely what Apple thought it needed.
Having spent more than a day with the 42mm steel Apple Watch, plus some additional hands-on time with other models and a variety of straps, I get it. As a piece of fashion-minded hardware, everything about the watch already seems to be in place. (Okay, one exception; It’s chunkier than you’d want it to be if the electronics and battery inside didn’t matter.) Even tiny little details such as the way the bands fasten to the watch and secure themselves on your wrist show style and ingenuity. The range of case materials, colors, and band styles makes the watch customizable in a way that few pieces of personal technology have ever been.
The near-infinite variety of Apple Watch options feels like a warning shot against the bow of the entire industry. You can imagine other technology companies, from Google to Pebble, coming up with smartwatch software that rivals what Apple is doing. And maybe some experienced manufacturer of timepieces will produce smartphone hardware that rivals Apple’s for design panache. But it’s tough to imagine any one company doing both, and doing it in so many versions.
Even though Apple isn’t declaring that any specific Apple Watch model is aimed at men or at women, it seems likely that many gents will opt for the 42mm size I tried, and many ladies will prefer the daintier 38mm variant.
Even the larger 42mm is not, by smartwatch standards, a biiiiig watch–at least in comparison to monsters such as Samsung’s Gear S. At 42mm by 35.9mm by 10.5mm, it’s a smidge larger than the Pebble Steel, and doesn’t look ridiculous on my wrist.
In a canny move I didn’t really appreciate until now, Apple made the bezel of the watch black and gave the software an interface that’s mostly white and bright colors on a black background. That makes the line between screen and bezel nearly seamless, which allows Apple to get away with very little display border. End result: It feels like a surprisingly large screen given the size of the watch.
A very small, very high-resolution display presents opportunities for app developers that smartphones and tablets do not. Every pixel matters, and nobody’s going to try to build a watch app with gazillions of features, opening up the possibility to focus on artistry as much as functionality.
In some ways, the most impressive app I’ve seen so far is the Mickey Mouse watch face: Mickey looks like he was drawn with pen and ink, and I haven’t yet tired of studying the changes in his pose as he genially keeps time.
Apple isn’t exactly a company that typically goes out of its way to let its customers tweak its products’ interfaces. But most of the 10 watch faces that the Apple Watch offers let you play with colors, design elements, and the items that watch nuts calls “complications”–basically, any information beyond the time of day. (Apple Watch complications include the date, your next calendar appointment, a summary of your fitness, and other items.) It’s slick and fun, and I really hope that Apple allows third-party developers to create complications that plug into its watch faces.
I’ve been using Apple Pay on my iPhone nearly every day since it launched in October When it works as advertised–almost always, in my experience–it’s faster than cards or cash. It’s even simpler on the watch. You don’t need to pull anything out of your pocket, and the required gesture–pressing the side button twice to put the watch into Apple Pay mode, then holding it to the payment terminal–is easier to pull off without thinking about it than using the iPhone’s Touch ID sensor. You can even trigger Apple Pay mode while you’re waiting in line to check out.
Like every other smartwatch with a vibrant, illuminated color screen–Apple used OLED technology–the Apple Watch must obsess over power usage to get you through the day on a single charge. It therefore keeps its screen off when you’re not using it. When its sensors notice you’ve turned it up toward your eyes in an orientation that suggests you’re ready to do something, the display turns on.
Except in my experience, it sometimes didn’t. Flicking my wrist exuberantly sometimes did the trick. In other instances, I couldn’t get it to shake out of its slumber except by pressing the digital crown or touching the screen. Then again, maybe I move my wrist funny: Over at Mashable, my friend Lance Ulanoff reports that this feature worked “flawlessly” for him.
Even when the watch does wake up on its own, there’s always been a half-beat during which I’m looking at the screen but it hasn’t yet turned on. It’s as if the software wants to make absolutely sure I’m trying to use the watch before doing anything. I’m hoping Apple can make it more responsive through future operating-system updates.
Much of the experience is as fluid and responsive as the iPhone and iPad at their best–like when I sweep your fingertip around on the screen full of app icons or rotate the digital crown to zoom in on a photo. But there are also moments when I sit and stare at the watch waiting for something to happen. Especially when it’s doing something involving using my phone as a middleman to snag information from the Net, such as identifying my location and rendering it in Maps. Given that this is a device designed to be used in snippets of a few seconds, any delay seems all that much longer.
I have found the Apple Watch to be quirky in the way that first-generation products running wildly ambitious software almost always are. At one point, I was parked outside a McDonald’s and the watch correctly plotted my location on a map…and yet Siri still alternated between telling me that there were no nearby McDonald’s and that it couldn’t tell where I was. Another time, the watch seized up until I did a hard reset. Judging from Apple history, I would expect this situation to improve markedly after an operating-system update or two in the coming months.
I should have come to the Apple Watch with a thorough understanding of Apple’s force touch technology–after all, it’s also incorporated into the new MacBook that I reviewed. I found that I had to relearn it, though. Despite knowing that the idea is that you press the screen a bit more forcefully than usual to accomplish something–such as being able to choose and customize watch faces–I tended to do a long press rather than a hard one. The Apple Watch sometimes interpreted that as a force touch, but not always.
It’s important to get the knack of doing a force touch, because–like a right-click of a PC’s mouse–the maneuver sometimes reveals important functions you might not otherwise discover. In the Maps app, for instance, you force touch to get to the search feature.
Instead of vibrating furiously like other smartwatches, the Apple Watch uses Apple’s “taptic” technology to do something that feels like a genteel nudge. It’s far classier and less distracting, but especially at first, I found that I didn’t always notice it. Apple seems to acknowledge this possibility with an option called “Prominent Haptic” that might as well have been labeled “Furious Vibration.”
The iPhone and iPad don’t have hard-wired back buttons. The Apple Watch does: Pressing the digital crown always takes you back one step. Whenever I felt a little lost in the interface–which, especially during the first few hours, was often–pressing the crown got me back on track.
On the iPhone and iPad, the touch screen is the primary means of input, and the physical home button is secondary. That led me, instinctively, to want to swipe around the Apple Watch screen a lot. Which you can do if you want. But really, the majority of the watch’s functionality can be triggered with the digital crown and side button. They work wonderfully well, and it’s easier to see what you’re doing on a tiny screen when your fingers aren’t in the way.
Maybe this should have been obvious all along, but it didn’t dawn on me until I was out and about with an Apple Watch on my wrist. If you’re standing on the subway holding a briefcase or backpack–a scenario I find myself in regularly–using the Apple Watch to do anything beyond glancing at the time and incoming notifications is going to be tricky. Other than that, though, it should be especially useful as a walking-around computing device–that’s when I find other smartwatches most valuable.
When you get a notification on the Apple Watch, it alerts you with a taptic tap, but doesn’t automatically turn on the screen. At first, I found that odd. Then I realized that it’s actually a really smart approach: Instead of feeling obligated to check every single incoming notification the moment it arrived, I could comfortably wait until I was ready to peruse them. (It also let me wear the watch to a movie without feeling like I had a tiny spotlight on my wrist.)
When you set up a new device–especially in a still-nascent category such as smartwatches– you generally begin by adding stuff to it, such as apps. The Apple Watch is different. Because it’s so tightly tied to your iPhone, it automatically mirrors much of what you’ve set up there, including installed apps and notification preferences. Which is why, between Apple’s own watch apps and my iPhone apps with watch versions, my Apple Watch had more than 40 apps on it before I proactively took measures to install anything.
The more detritus that’s on your Apple Watch, the harder it is to find the items you do want–especially since neither apps nor glances are labeled. I found that the more I winnowed down what was on the watch, the more I liked it.
Some stuff you do on the Apple Watch, you can do without touching it–such as calling on Siri, dictating into some apps, and making and receiving phone calls. When I was surrounded by silence, or something close to it, these features worked reasonably well. But background noise–be it my car’s engine or people in my coworking space chattering nearby–sometimes made using these features either impossible or impractical. Siri tended not to respond to my “Hey, Siri!” command in noisy environments, for instance, and the maximum volume for phone calls wasn’t enough to overcome the roar of the crowd.
Watching third-party developers figure out how to make their apps compelling in Apple Watch form is going to be a blast. There’s no guarantee, however, that their approach to shrinking down their functionality is going to be the same one you’d choose.
The Twitter app, for instance, lets you view your timeline and trending tweets, but doesn’t seem to include any way to view a list of replies to your tweets. Maybe Twitter thinks that offering iOS notifications takes care of that. I’d prefer to leave Twitter notifications off and peruse feedback on my tweets at my leisure. (Twitterific’s Apple Watch app comes far closer to my way of thinking.)
Another example: The Instapaper app is essentially a remote control that you can use to make your iPhone read articles out loud in a robotic text-to-speech voice. I have no interest in doing that. But I’d love to be able to skim articles I’ve saved right on the watch’s screen.
The watch’s easy-on, easy-off band-attaching system–you push a little button on the back of the watch, then slide the band on or off–makes the idea of dressing this timepiece up with a variety straps or bracelets for different occasions irresistible. Apple is encouraging that idea by selling bands separately. But with the exception of its $50 sport bands, all of the ones it’s offering are $150 or more. Nice though they are, collecting them would be a rich person’s hobby.
With conventional watches, it’s possible to buy attractive leather bands for as little as 15 or 20 bucks. I’m hoping that some of the companies in that business, such as Hadley Roma, are drawing up plans to offer Apple Watch bands even as we speak.
As a long-suffering southpaw, one of the happiest moments of the first Apple Watch event back in September was when I learned that Apple had given the watch a mode designed for left-handed people–one that let you wear it on your right hand with the digital crown and side button rotated around to the left-hand edge of the case for easy access.
Having worn the Apple Watch that way, I’m happy to report that it mostly works fine, and that it doesn’t matter that the side button is up top and the digital crown is below. There is one minor exception, though: When I pressed the side button twice, it didn’t always put the watch into Apple Pay. Eventually, I figured out that I was angling my thumb in from above to avoid brushing the digital crown–and that when I did so, the watch had trouble registering my double-press. When I taught myself to reach in from below, it worked every time.
Glancing repeatedly at your watch in the presence of others has never been considered a particularly endearing trait. (Just ask George H.W. Bush.) If the Apple Watch is a blockbuster, will that change? Maybe: As past gadgets such as cell phones became pervasive, our sense of good and bad manners adjusted to accommodate them. But all I know for sure right now is that I went out for ramen with my wife last night and didn’t feel comfortable being too fixated on my Apple Watch–even though she’s a Pebble Steel owner and would presumably have understood.
As my colleague Ross Rubin has written, there’s no one obvious reason why someone would want the Apple Watch–or at least not one which Apple has articulated. Instead, it feels like Apple, third-party developers, and consumers are going to figure out where this device goes as a team. That makes it distinctly different from the original versions of the iPhone and iPad, both of which exuded clarity of vision from day one.
I’m sure that the people whose Apple Watches are arriving even as we speak are going to have fun with them. But within the next few months, Apple is going to swat the biggest bugs, and the third-party app situation should improve dramatically. (Most of the apps launching alongside the watch were written by developers who didn’t actually have the watch.) Which means that the Apple Watch is only going to get better–and the longer you wait, the more fully baked it’s going to get.
Related: See the history of Apple in under 3 minutes