The Apple Watch requires an iPhone 5 or later running at least iOS 8.2. Apple iPad or iPod touch owners are left in the lurch here as Apple Watch set up and management depends on an Apple Watch app that’s iPhone exclusive.
Setting up the Apple Watch is a breeze, and only requires a few taps, a Bluetooth connection, and pairing via a swirling comos-style QR code and the iPhone’s camera. It takes about 10 minutes.
The Apple Watch will automatically install a set of core apps (Activity, Calendar, Mail, Maps, Messages, Passbook & Apple Pay, Phone, Photos, Reminders), and users then choose if they want all supported apps already on the iPhone (ESPN, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) installed, of if they would like to choose apps later. The Apple Watch also includes an onboard Music app, camera controls, an Apple TV remote, various watch apps and faces, Stocks app, activity tracker, Workout app, Phone app, and settings.
The Apple Watch must stay tethered to an iPhone for full use. Bluetooth gives it a range of about 30 feet, but the Apple Watch also supports Wi-Fi. It can’t connect to a network on its own, but it stays connected to an iPhone sans Bluetooth if both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network. This is especially useful for those that want to leave their iPhone charging while they work around the house, but there are limitations. The Apple Watch does not support the 5GHz Wi-Fi band, and secure corporate-style Wi-Fi will also throw it for a loop.
The Apple Watch app proves effective for managing the Apple Watch. From here, users can rearrange apps, tweak settings, set notifications, and find new apps. Things can get daunting, particularly with notifications, as we’ll describe later, but keeping most Apple Watch management confined to one app was the right move.
The Apple Watch has a complex and inconsistent scheme built around swipes, taps, presses, the watch crown, and the oblong button underneath it. Frankly, it’s frustrating.
The button has three functions. One press brings up Digital Touch, which is a glorified favorite contacts list. It can be used to call or send messages to set contacts, or send drawings or a heartbeat to other Apple Watch owners. Two quick presses brings up Apple Pay. A long press brings up the power and power reserve toggles. Quick access to Apple Pay is a great idea, but we found Digital Touch to be close to useless. Letting users set a favorite app for quick launch would be preferable.
The watch crown can be used to scroll in lieu of finger swipes, pressed as a sort of “home” button, or double pressed for quick access to the last used app … sometimes.
It bears repeating that the Apple Watch’s contextual user interface is confusing. For example, pressing the crown may bring you to the watch face, the apps page, center the apps page, or bring you from inside an interactive watch face back to the watch face home screen. A double press with either bring you back to the watch face, or if already in the watch face or another app, to the last used app.
The same is true of Force Touch. For example, it can be used to mark a message in the email app, start a new message in the Messages app, search in the Maps app, or nothing at all in the apps that don’t support it.
There is no simple consistency from app to app, and because of this, it’s impossible to know what an app actually does until you swipe, tap, and press your way through it. It’s frustrating, and it’s likely that the many users drawn to Apple products for their elegant simplicity will be turned off by this.
There is one other app shortcut from the watch face home screen. Swiping up from the bottom brings up what Apple calls Glances, or pertinent information from apps. Users can set those apps from the Apple Watch app on an iPhone, but by default they include quick settings, the music player, heart rate monitor, battery indicator, Activity app, calendar, weather, maps, and the World Clock app. A tap within Glances opens up the respective app.
Siri and Handoff
Of course, users can skip all that confusion and just use Siri to get from app to app or pull off simple commands, like setting alarms, turning on Airplane mode, or starting a workout. Siri also retains its signature sass, and will pull in Wikipedia information when it can. There’s no audio, however. Siri on the Apple Watch is text based.
Siri responds from a long press of the crown or the words “hey Siri.” It often takes too long to load, and we frequently found ourselves repeating commands. But it recognizes words and commands well when the timing is right. The caveat here is that you have to know exactly what to ask, and have an understanding of the Apple Watch’s capabilities.
Siri’s default answer for when it can’t do something on the Apple Watch is to turn to Handoff. This feature allows you to start a task on the Apple Watch and continue it on the iPhone. For example, the Apple Watch can’t compose emails. Ask Siri to do it, and it’ll turn things over to the iPhone, with an email message open and ready for dictation.
Handoff also works in certain apps, outside of Siri. If you’re in a mail message on the Apple Watch, for example, a mail icon will also appear on the lower left corner of the iPhone lock screen. Swiping up from it will take you into the mail app.
Like any smartwatch, notifications are key to the Apple Watch’s utility. Whereas Android Wear utilizes Google Now for the bulk of its notifications, the Apple Watch relies on apps and messages.
Notifications take the form of audible pings and physical taps. Rather than simply vibrate, the Taptic Engine, which Apple touts as “a way to give technology a more human touch,” delivers subtle taps and vibrations depending on the alert. Tap strength can be adjusted, and they feel pleasant and fitting for a high-end device.
It’s hard to associate the type of tap to notifications, but it’s easy to see the potential here for contextual alerts. For example, the Weather app could potentially deliver a sudden and hard tap if a thunder storm is approaching. As it stands, Apple Watch owners can deliver their heartbeats to other Apple Watch owners. Yes, it’s gimmicky, but there’s real potential there.
Notifications are accessible from the watch face via a swipe down from the top. They can pile up and be individually accessed, individually dismissed with a swipe, or all cleared through a tap and press. Once dismissed, a notification is gone for good. Any unseen notifications are indicated by a red dot that appears atop the center of the watch face.
Any app that delivers notifications to your iPhone can do the same on the Apple Watch, whether the app has an Apple Watch version or not. For example, the podcasting app Stitcher is not available on the Apple Watch, but as long as it is installed on your iPhone with notifications enabled, it will alert you to new episodes of This American Life.
This is a potential recipe for madness induced by a constantly dinging and taping smartwatch. On top of that, notifications often interrupt whatever you’re doing on the watch, butting in over other apps. Thankfully, you can manage notifications through the Apple Watch app on the iPhone. Apple allows for some specific control over the core app notifications: Activity, Calendar, Mail, Maps, Messages, Passbook & Apple Pay, Phone, Photos, and Reminders. For all other apps, you can either “mirror iPhone alerts” or turn them off. If you’d like more granular control over those particular notifications, you must dive into the standard iPhone Settings and deal with it app by app.
We found this to be burdensome. The Apple Watch easily becomes cluttered with too many apps sending useless information. Do we really need ESPN to deliver baseball scores? Do we really need Cupcake Dungeon bugging us to buy more power ups? Even the Activity app, which provides a salient benefit, gets bothersome with its steady harping and progress updates.
And despite this, we want more control. Email alerts are important to many users, but busy inboxes mean constantly dinging Apple Watches. There is no way to prioritize messages from certain senders. Yes, we want the Apple Watch to notify when a message from a boss or colleague arrives, but not some spam newsletter.
Thankfully, the Settings Glance enables quick access to turn off all notifications (Do Not Disturb), or simply silence them, at which point you still will feel a haptic tap when they arrive. Adding to it all is the redundant Prominent Haptic option, which adds a harsher tap as a means of indicating the arrival of a notification, which itself includes a tap.
Messages and Phone Calls
The Apple Watch gets messaging right. It can send and receive texts and iMessages so long as it’s paired with an iPhone. Since there is no keyboard, messages have to be dictated, which again, is impressively accurate. Instead of text, you can opt to send an audio file. Users can also select from a series of preset phrases (Ok, Thanks, Can I call you later?, etc.), animated emojis, and standard emojis. You can’t send images or video files, and you can’t send out a group message, though you can reply to one sent your way. The Apple Watch can receive audio messages, images, and video clips with audio
In testing, these limits hardly hampered our day-to-day use. Messaging on the Apple Watch is just right – perfect for quick conversations.
With its on-board speaker and microphone, the Apple Watch is also capable of making and answering calls. Once again, it must be paired to an iPhone first. The voice quality is limited by the small speakers and microphone (Bluetooth headsets will pair with the Apple Watch but can’t be used for calls), but it’s good enough for conversation. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s an entirely goofy, if novel, experience. Apple Watch owners probably won’t be making many calls outside the iPhone after trying it on the Apple Watch once or twice.
There are more than 3,500 apps for the Apple Watch as of this writing. Most of these apps are junk and serve no useful purpose. The Apple Watch either requires too many compromises, or app developers don’t yet know how to build a decent watch app.
The ESPN app for example delivers scores from your favorite teams and a handful of headlines that when pressed deliver short blurbs that often just repeat the headline info. The Twitter app brings a scaled-back view of a timeline five tweets at a time, top 10 trending topics, as well as the ability to tweet text, emojis, and location, in addition to reply, favorite, and retweet. Since the Apple Watch has no web browser, most tweets are reduced to dumb blocks of text.
There are a few standouts. Uber is simple and near perfect. It sends a ride to your location with a tap, and that’s it. OneNote and Evernote provide quick access to notes and allow users to create new ones. Wunderlist takes that a step further with editable to-do lists.
Perhaps more app devs will figure things out once they spend more time with the Apple Watch, though we’re not hopeful. Android Wear is more than a year old, and it still has the same app issue.
It’s a different story with the core apps. They really show the potential of the device. Navigation is great. It provides turn-by-turn directions, tapping each time a turn approaches. This is invaluable for navigating while biking, or perhaps for helping those with disabilities get around the city. Even while driving, we found it helped reduce the distraction of constantly glancing at the phone.
The Activity and Workout apps are also superb. Activity tracks calories burned, steps taken, time spent exercising, and time spent standing. Workout goes a step further, tracking and measuring progress for various types of cardio.
Both these apps work when the Apple Watch is not paired to an iPhone, as do the alarms, timers, and stopwatch. Users can also load music onto the Apple Watch, which can hold up to 2GB of songs. Depending on the bit rate and song length, that’s upwards of 500 songs at the absolute max.
The process for syncing songs to your Apple Watch is cumbersome, and the songs won’t play over the on-board speaker. Hearing them requires a Bluetooth headset paired with the watch.
While that’s not entirely convenient, the combined exercise and music apps make the Apple Watch a great fitness tracker that as feature-rich as anything on the market. In regards to steps logged and heart rates taken, we can’t confirm its accuracy, but can say the measurements jive with Google Maps distance data and the various heart rate monitors at a local gym.
Other core apps include a world clock, stock tracker, iPhone camera control, iTunes and Apple TV remote, and Apple Passbook & Apple Pay. The Apple Watch has NFC, so Apple Pay works effortlessly, provided the establishment accepts Apple Pay and your cards support it. All it takes is a double press of the oblong button, then a press of the Apple Watch face to the Apple Pay reader.
The Apple Watch has 10 different watch faces as of this writing. Apple hasn’t opened this up the third-party devs yet, so you’re stuck with what Apple provides. Fortunately, there are some great options, including an animated Mickey Mouse, interactive astronomy face, and an excellent “Modular” face that teems with information like calendar appointments, the weather, and battery level.