The Apple Watch puts the iPhone in its proper place — your pocket.
I’ve got a utilitarian view of the year’s most-hyped piece of bling. Sapphire crystal and $ 10,000 gold alloy aren’t what make the Apple Watch the first smartwatch worth buying.
What’s valuable is your time. The Apple Watch is a computer built to spend it better. And if you can tolerate single-day battery life, half-baked apps and inevitable obsolescence, you can now wear the future on your wrist.
Smartphones gave us the wondrous ability to take the Internet anywhere. But they’re not always productive. In fact, they’ve become like cigarettes, leaving us itching for the latest affirmation from Instagram or Twitter. I found I spend 4.3 hours each day looking at my phone — good grief, even on vacation.
So the company that invented the iPhone has a solution: Buy another gadget! That irony didn’t escape me a week ago when I began wearing an Apple Watch, on loan before they become available on April 24. Do I really need another connected screen blinking, beeping and buzzing all day?
I’ve found the Apple Watch isn’t a replacement for the iPhone, but it’s the right screen for many important things. I only look at it in blips, for rarely more than five seconds. It shows me the weather with one finger swipe. It gets physical, gently tapping my wrist when something important needs my attention and lighting up when I lift my arm to look. It nudges when I’ve been sitting too long.
This description may either strike you as helpful or oppressive. It has made me more present. I’m less likely to absent-mindedly reach for my phone, or feel compelled to leave it on the table during supper.
With the Apple Watch, smartwatches finally make sense. The measure of their success shouldn’t be how well they suck you in, but how efficiently they help you get things done. Living on your arm is part of that efficiency — as a convenient display, but also a way to measure your heart rate or pay at a cash register. This is a big idea about how we use technology, the kind of idea we expect from Apple.
Which isn’t to say that this first Apple Watch will appeal to all iPhone owners, or even a significant fraction of them. Shrinking a computer onto a wrist required many compromises. The Apple Watch turns some of these into opportunities for smart ideas. Others still need refinement — and a reason for many to wait for an Apple Watch 2.
One big challenge Apple conquered is making its wrist computer small and stylish enough to wear without a nerdy pocket protector. My colleague Joanna Stern and I agree the Apple Watch is a fine watch for both men and women — a standard previous smartwatches couldn’t meet. Yet the $ 1,000 (US) steel 42mm version I tested is still a bit thicker than I’d want, as tall as a stack of six quarters. And you can’t soap it up in a shower, though a little rain won’t hurt it.
The battery lives up it its all-day billing, but sometimes just barely. It’s often nearly drained at bedtime, especially if I’ve used the watch for exercise. There’s a power-reserve mode that can make it last a few hours longer, but then it only shows the time.
The Apple Watch’s screen does an adequate job outdoors, but less so in the direct sun. Most of the Apple Watch’s screens feature white text on a black background, which helps some.
The Apple Watch doesn’t have cellular connection, so you’ll need a companion iPhone nearby for many of its functions to work. Sometimes, though, that arrangement is painfully slow: The maps app, surely the answer to wandering pedestrians’ dreams, is so slow it makes me want to pull out my paper Rand McNally.
The watch does work (a little) away from the phone. When you’re around a known Wi-Fi network, the watch can tap directly into it. When the iPhone’s at home, you can still use Apple Watch to track your heart rate and progress during a run or use it for Apple Pay.
Perhaps the biggest limitation for a wrist computer is us humans. Most of us, save a few yogis, aren’t comfortable holding our arms up for very long. It’s here that Apple applies its design expertise for its boldest idea: Minimizing the time you spend touching the Apple Watch.
This emphasis on quick interactions requires you to learn a new sign language. Alerts and information appear only when you need them, and then disappear on their own — no need to dismiss them. Instead of pinching to zoom, there’s a digital crown to turn. And there’s two ways to tap on the screen, regular and “force touch,” which shows more options. In return, there are new sensations, such as a mechanism that gently taps your wrist. It’s far more discreet than the rattle of a vibrating phone.
You can grok all of this in an hour or two, but you’ll definitely want someone to show it to you. Once I learned the basics, I found a surprising number of things I could do faster or better on my wrist than by pulling out my phone:
— Making sure I don’t miss that email from mom, or another VIP.
— Dictating a text message.
— Communicating an emotion, either through a set of cheesy animated icons — I’m talking jazz hands in mime gloves — or tapping with two fingers to literally share a simulation of your heartbeat. Maybe we’ll get to blow a kiss in Version 2.
— Buying something: Tap twice on the watch’s side button to activate Apple Pay.
— Checking on the weather or news through “glances,” available by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
— Asking virtual assistant Siri a question.
— Controlling music, and sometimes even video, on my phone, Bluetooth headset or Apple TV.
— Taking a photo: A wrist app gives a live view of your iPhone’s high-quality rear camera — so you can set the phone up for a better selfie.
— Answering a call: Talking to your wrist might look funny, but it’s a remarkably good speakerphone, and you can switch over to your iPhone mid-call if you’d like.
It’s worth noting that doing much of this around other people calls for new rules of etiquette, or at least new tolerance. When is it OK to speak to your watch? (People thought I was talking to them when I was actually trying to dictate.) Is it appropriate to peek at a wrist alert during a meeting with your boss? What about on a date?
The Apple Watch’s design diligence also includes things it doesn’t attempt to do. The Apple Watch has no Web browser, no keyboard and no way to reply to emails, though you can flag and delete them.
Yet the Apple Watch isn’t quite the gatekeeper to my digital life that I wanted. Take app alerts — there’s a fine line between being in the know and having your wrist jiggle all day. It never got horrible for me, because Apple lets you assign VIP status to individual contacts and specify which apps can trigger alerts. But setting up all of this is a tedious — and unfortunately ongoing — chore.
It’s here that I missed some of the intelligence of Google (and its services, all absent) on the Apple Watch. Google’s Android Wear still floods your wrist with annoying alerts and trails the Apple Watch OS in design. But Apple should find out what Gmail knows, and suggest contacts who might be alert-worthy based on how much I’ve connected with them before.
The big reason many people — even many Apple fans — will skip the Apple Watch is that it’s too new. There isn’t yet a world of apps and services beyond Apple’s own, with independent developers’ sparks of genius showing us all the things a smartwatch can be.
In fact, apps have been the biggest disappointment of my Apple Watch experience. Apple says more than 1,000 Watch apps have been submitted, but only about three dozen have been available to test.
Aside from some apps that deliver fresh news headlines, including the Journal’s, as well as ones from the New York Times, CNN and Flipboard, not enough felt useful. Apps — which download to the watch automatically if you’ve installed them on your iPhone — are relegated to a secondary launch screen that’s attractive but harder to use, a cluster of tiny circles that you have to zoom in on and fish out, like some weird game.
Still, in these early sketches of an experience, I can already imagine so much more. I’d like for the Apple Watch to be my train ticket and my office key, for starters.
For now, the Apple Watch is for pioneers. I won’t pay the $ 1,000 it would cost for the model I tested, only to see a significant improvement roll in before too long. But I plan to pay $ 400 for the 42mm Sport version once it’s on sale. That’s worth paying for a front-row seat for what’s next in tech. Wall Street Journal