Apple Watch review: Beautiful form, frustrating function

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I’m all-in on Apple products. At my house, I’ve got two Macs, an Apple TV, an iPad, two iPhones, and an Apple router. I’ve never owned an MP3 player that wasn’t an iPod, or a tablet that wasn’t an iPad. And now I’ve got an Apple Watch to converge my Apple universe right on my wrist.

I really do like my Apple Watch, even though it drives me crazy. It’s slow. The navigation can be confusing. I like wearing it, but I’m still unsure if I want to wear it every day, forever (or at least until there’s a new one). After a week and two weekends of nonstop use, it’s yet to change my game in any profound or major way.

Apple calls the Apple Watch its most personal product ever, and as such, people’s reactions to it and opinions about using it will be highly subjective. One person might be delighted by the gentle taps on the wrist every time she gets a text message, while another might find those same taps jarring, and rush to turn them off.

This review contains my subjective opinions on the Apple Watch, intending to serve as a reality check for anyone still on the fence. In a world of Macs, iPhones, and iPads–not to mention accessories, peripherals, apps and services for them–we have to prioritize our spending on technology, and $350 and up is a lot to ask. For a lot of people, I don’t think this first-gen Apple Watch needs to make the cut.

Fit and finish

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get one if you really want one, and I understand why you would. The Apple Watch is a beautiful object. It doesn’t dominate my entire arm like a larger-screened Android Wear watch or even a Pebble. At 10.5 millimeters thick, it protrudes from my wrist enough that I do bang it on doorways and walls occasionally, but it doesn’t seem clunky or unwiedly. (And I haven’t yet picked up a single scratch, although your mileage may vary, of course.)

I’m wearing the 38mm stainless steel Apple Watch with the Milanese Loop band. I love that the metal band is comfortable and infinitely adjustable, and it goes with everything, casual to dressy. The magnetic clasp snaps shut and stays put, so I’m never worried about it falling off or loosening in the slightest as I wear it. One day I had it on from 8 a.m. straight through until 1 a.m. (and the battery was still at 13 percent when I took it off). By 1 a.m. the band was starting to feel itchy, and I couldn’t wait to take it off, but usually it’s fine. The Apple Watch Sport is a little bit lighter: My configuration weighs 73 grams (40 for the case, and 33 for the band), while my colleague Leah Yamshon’s 38mm Apple Watch Sport with pink Sport Band weighs 67 grams (25 case, 42 band). But the Apple Watch doesn’t feel heavy or cumbersome.

I’ve ordered a Sport band to wear when running, but I’ve done lighter workouts on my stationary bike while wearing the Milanese Loop, and it was fine. Apple says the water resistance rating is IPX7 (not including leather bands). So you can wear it while exercising, in the rain, and when washing your hands, but submerging it isn’t recommended. IPX7 is technically rated as submergible in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. So if you drop it in the toilet accidentally, or jump in the shower without taking it off, it should be fine. Tim Cook says he showers with his–I’m too nervous to try that myself, plus I wouldn’t want soap gunking up my pretty Milanese Loop.

Battery life has been excellent. Using the Workout app hits the battery a little harder, so if you work out once (or more!) every day, you might just barely make it to bedtime with power left. But on days I don’t use Workout (I’m typically up around 7 a.m. and go to sleep around midnight), it’s rare for me to get below 20 percent charge remaining when it’s time to plug it in.

This definitely feels like a high-end product, which shouldn’t surprise Apple fans. But being pretty isn’t enough to justify paying hundreds for the Apple Watch and keeping it charged up and strapped to your wrist every single day. It’s got to be useful too.

What’s the point?

The Apple Watch isn’t designed to suck in your attention–you’re supposed to use it in small bursts, so you aren’t holding your arm up in the air interminably. For example, I used the Phone app to call for a pizza, tell someone I’d be late, and find out when the library opened, but I wouldn’t use it for a sit-and-chat call with a friend. It’s handy for checking the weather, periodically triaging incoming email (after you’ve skimmed a message, you can do a deep “force press” to flag it for followup or delete it), and looking over new notifications to decide if any of them are worth answering on your phone.

But most notifications do need to be dealt with on your phone. The Apple Watch has Handoff, so you can pick up on your iPhone and reply to the same email you just saw on your watch. (Just wake your phone and look for a Mail icon in the bottom-left corner. Swipe that up to open the same message you’re viewing on your watch.) You can reply to text messages directly on the watch, which is convenient as well as fun, but dealing with notifications for Facebook, Twitter, email, and most other apps happens back on your iPhone.

The Apple Watch did get me to rethink which notifications are important. I like being able to see the score of the Giants game from my wrist, but I don’t need to know when new podcast episodes are available in Instacast. You can tweak which notifications go to the watch in the Apple Watch app for iPhone, and of course you can adjust which notifications go to your iPhone in the Settings app. But be prepared to spend a lot of time fiddling with both in your first week with the Apple Watch. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I hope Apple overhauls the notifications system in iOS 9, because the Apple Watch just added another layer of complexity.

Things I love about it

I’ve found Apple Watch’s fitness features more motivational than using a Fitbit or a Jawbone UP2, since the progress goal is right on my wrist. I like how a workout isn’t counted as Exercise minutes if your heart rate isn’t high enough. But the prompts to stand up and get active aren’t as smart as I’d like: for example, I hate when the Watch asks me to stand during my bus commute, especially bcause my phone can tell when it’s in a vehicle. I’d also love for the Watch to factor in what’s on my calendar, too, perhaps prompting me to move for a few minutes right before I’m scheduled for a long meeting or call.

The Apple Watch excels as a remote control. The Remote app is great–I love being able to control my Apple TV without hunting for the actual remote. It’s got all the features of that remote, and I can navigate menus and select items without even looking at the watch. The Now Playing glance is terrific too, providing play/pause, forward/back, and volume control for whatever app my iPhone is using to play music.

I’m really looking forward to when HomeKit finally launches (maybe with iOS 8.4?), and I’m finally able to access lights and security cameras on the watch, and use Siri to set scenes. It’s a little frustrating Apple didn’t launch HomeKit before the watch, since they started teasing it nearly a year ago as part of iOS 8, and we’re at 8.3 now.

Tags: Apple Watch