- Well built
- Great display
- Navigation and messaging prove useful
- Confusing and inconsistent UI
- Few decent apps
- Notifications can cause madness, managing them burdensome
Quick TakeThe Apple Watch sports a great design and display, but what little utility it does provide is not enough to justify its price tag. Ultimately, the Apple Watch is a pricey iPhone accessory that has a few neat tricks, and plenty of potential to frustrate.
Apple wants to define the smartwatch. Just as it defined the tablet and smartphone, Apple wants consumers to look at the Apple Watch and say “that’s what every wearable should be.”
It follows a predictable pattern. Apple is not the first to market here. Google’s Android Wear is pushing a year old, and Samsung, Pebble, and half a dozen others have been in this market for longer than that. But like BlackBerry and the smartphone in 2007, Google thinks it has the smartwatch just about figured out.
As we stated in our Android Wear review:
Google has a clear vision of what it wants Android Wear to offer: concise and useful information for the user, pushed out to the user, when the user needs to see it, all available at a glance.
Google thinks this will save time, keep heads out of smartphones, and keep us all engaged in the real world. It will alleviate the smartphone distraction, while still keeping us connected.
The problem for Google is that Android Wear is not quite there yet. The user interface is too awkward, Google Now alerts are too unreliable, the apps are too gimmicky, and the devices require too many compromises, particularly in regards to battery and display.
That leaves a large opening for the Apple Watch. Surely Apple can build a smartwatch with better battery than what the Android Wear delivers. Surely Apple can come up with an intuitive smartwatch OS. Surely Apple can inspire app developers to build must-have apps; the kind that take full advantage of the form factor and improve users’ lives.
Surely, Apple will give us a reason to own a smartwatch. Right?
Build and Design
There are three styles of Apple Watch, each available in two different sizes according to the watch face height, 42mm and 38mm. We reviewed the larger Apple Watch Sport, which has an anodized aluminum case (available in either silver or a slightly darker space gray) and Ion-X glass. The more expensive Apple Watch has a shinier stainless steel build (available in black or stainless steel) and a presumably tougher Sapphire crystal display. Finally, the high-end Apple Watch Edition comes in either yellow or rose 18-karat gold, also with Sapphire crystal.
All Apple Watches feature the same crown, or scroll wheel, just above an oblong button. Small speakers and a mic hole occupy the opposite edge. The display dominates the front, while a dark magnetic circle rests on the underside, between two strap release buttons. Within the circle are two round charging receptacles and two round LED lights, used for measuring heart rate.
The straps are secure but easily removed, and any Apple strap fits to any same-sized Apple Watch. The rubberized Sport bands are the cheapest, starting at $49, with prices ranging up to $449 for the stainless steel Link Bracelet.
Let’s set aside the fact that $49 is way too much for a glorified rubber band (to say nothing of the $449 option). The Sport strap is soft, comfortable, and fits well through a pin-and-tuck closure. It’s loose enough as to not agitate your wrist during a run, but secure enough to keep from flying off.
The Apple Watch Sport ships with three straps of varying lengths. The others only ship with the two standard straps.
When worn, the Apple Watch rests comfortably on the wrist, and has a bulbous design thanks to its rounded edges. The 42mm Sport we reviewed weighs 30 grams (about .07 pounds), with the other models ranging from 25g to 69g. It measures 42 x 35.9 x 10.5 millimeters (H x W x D), or about 1.65 x 1.4 x .41 inches, while the smaller unit measures 38.6 x 33.3 x 10.5 mm (1.5 x 1.3 x .41 inches).
It’s water and splash resistant, but not waterproof. Practically speaking, that means that you can wash your hands while wearing the Apple Watch, or head out in the rain. Don’t go swimming with it, though, or submerge it.
It’s no less “geeky” than any other smartwatch on the market, despite Apple’s attempt to market it as jewelry, at least on the high end. In fact, if not for the crown, it would be hard to distinguish the Apple Watch from any Android Wear device.
That said, the Apple Watch does not betray Apple’s reputation as a maker of quality devices. It’s very well-constructed, with the scroll wheel especially impressing with its tight control. It’s also proven durable during our review. Despite a numerous runs, a few drops, and a nick or two against a desk and cubical wall, the Apple Watch Sport still looks like new.
The Apple Watch ships with a round magnetic charger that connects to the typical Apple wall adapter via USB. It’s an elegant charging solution, but the magnet does not hold as well as it should unless the Apple Watch rests flat on the charger. Too often it slipped off the charger during our time with it.
The 42mm Apple Watch has an OLED display, with a 390 x 312 resolution (the 38mm has 340 x 272 pixels), and it looks great. This may be the first Apple product with an OLED display, and it will leave iPhone and iPad owners wondering why their larger devices don’t have the same screen technology.
The Ion-X glass is reflective, but overhead glare only presents a moderate issue thanks to the brightness, stark contrast, and vibrant colors; all of which are hallmarks of OLED technology. The Apple Watch also has an ambient light sensor, making it all the better for fighting the sun. Fingerprints and smudges will accumulate, but we easily wiped the screen clean with just the cuff from a long-sleeve shirt.
The Apple Watch’s touch sensitivity and accuracy aren’t nearly as impressive as the display. The Apple Watch has what Apple is branding as Force Touch, which enables the Apple Watch to distinguish a tap from a press. While a tap might open up an app, a press will open up the settings or other options within that app. It takes some practice to get just right (it’s a tap and press, not a hard tap), but it proves accurate.
Too bad the taps and swipes don’t follow suit. The Apple Watch is often slow to register swipes, and taps misplaced. This is especially evident when setting or inputting the four-digit PIN lock code. Be prepared to mess this up by accidentally pressing the number above or below your selection. But it also happens when selecting apps from the app grid.
Part of this is due to the small display, where accuracy is tough to judge. But you can’t help but think it’s also a calibration problem that hopefully will be addressed with a future update.
The display stays off by default, only lighting up when touched, when the crown or side button are pressed, or when you raise your wrist for a glance. At least that’s how it is supposed to work. A tap or button press work near 100% of the time, but raising a wrist requires too much motion for it to register regularly. In fact, the range required is downright uncomfortable. The display can also be manually turned off by covering with the palm of a hand.
Apple claims that the Apple Watch has up to an all-day battery life up to 18 hours with mixed use, though “actual results will vary.”
When we first fired up the Apple Watch, ours varied to the tune of about 6 hours, as we explored the device and tested the various apps. Once we got into a routine with it, the Apple Watch lasted the full work day and well into the evening. In this regard, the Apple Watch is right in line with the Android Wear devices, in that it needs charging every day.
The Apple Watch does have a Power Reserve mode that disables all but the time, and that will extend the life of the Apple Watch up to 72 hours. Our Apple Watch charged slowly, taking about three hours to charge completely, and two hours to hit about 80%.