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May 13, 2015

A One Night Stand With The Apple Watch

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I came to my first date with the Apple Watch with low expectations.
My previous relationships with wearables ended up badly. They thought me that smartwatches are fun at first, when everything is still new and exciting, but they turn out to be extremely annoying after a while, with their high maintenance, less-then-a-day battery, and their repeating, counter-productive notifications.

Will the Apple Watch be different? I didn’t think so. But that was before I knew it…

I spent the night (well, it was more like two days, but let’s stick with the title…) with the watch, and these are my thoughts so far. Not a complete review of course, but still some (hopefully) interesting insights.

 

A platform, not a gadget

Make no mistake, the Apple Watch is much more than a gadget. It’s a platform, and a pretty big one too.
It’s amazing how much functionality Apple managed to squeeze into the first release of this tiny device. It’s mainly a good thing but it also has a down side: the Apple Watch is complicated to operate. It’s very different than iOS and will take you longer to explore and get used to.

The WatchOS includes a homescreen, watch face, notification center, glances area, touch, pinch, force touch, scroll, context menus, digital crown, and apps, tons of apps already, using all of the above. Impressive.

But first thing first, let’s start with the design.

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Hardware – General Look & Feel:

There are many over-detailed reviews out there so I will be brief; The Apple Watch feels great, the material is of high quality and it’s surprisingly noticeable. It feels perfectly on the hand, better than any other smartwatch I have tried so far. 

If, like me, you thought that it’s a bit thick – then don’t worry about it. It doesn’t look or feel that thick on your wrist because of how it’s designed. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the design:

 

Hardware – Buttons

I already mentioned there are many ways to operate the Apple Watch. Beyond the touch and force touch functionality there are also 2 buttons on the right – the digital crown and the quick contacts button (also known as “the other guy”). Those two buttons can get a bit tricky as it’s not always easy to tell which one to use when you want to go back to the homescreen or make a selection. I admit that one date is not enough to really know someone or something, but I also think that Apple always says a product should be self explanatory and the Apple Watch is not 100% there.

There is a lot of excitement around the digital crown – I am not excited about it at all. It feels like a step backward in technology rather than forward. It’s true that the crown is well made, but having a home button on the right means you need to use 2 fingers to click it (one for the button, one to support the watch from moving). It’s kind of annoying. I would prefer to have a home button in the bottom of the device like Samsung did with the Samsung Gear.

2 fingers, 2 hands, this is becoming too demanding!

Yes, I know, I pay attention to small things, I cannot help it. When I’m on a date I check everything, from top to bottom. The first defects you find can either disappear over time or grow to become real pains. Never underestimate a defect…

Think about it for a second: to operate a smartphone you only need one hand (to hold the phone), and one finger (to operate the touchscreen). A smartwatch is supposed to be easier to operate and more accessible than a phone, but to operate the Apple Watch you need your 2 hands (no need to explain why), and at least 2 fingers that keeps changing their positions (moving from the touchscreen to the side buttons and back to the screen).

Is that a usability problem? I think it is. Keeping your left arm in a position that will prevent the watch from turning off the screen can become annoying after a few seconds, and the same goes for using your two hands to operate the thing for long. Smartwatches are not meant to be used for long. 2-3 seconds per session and that’s it.

Read also: The incomplete guide to smartphone operating systems

Software – Notifications:

Before I get into the functionality – a word about notifications: like with new relationships they are fun and exciting at first, but then they don’t stop, they never stop, they never go away, they keep on buzzing and bugging you all day long; emails, facebook, twitter, more emails, meeting reminders, text messages, news, more emails, when you have too many of them, they end up being a disturbance more than a productivity aid.

If you are spending most of your working hours in an office – you get to deal with those notifications anyway (on your computer, tablet and smartphone). In such conditions you need to ask yourself what added value will a smartwatch provide. However, if you are spending enough time on the move, or in a non-ideal conditions to hold your phone next to you – a smartwatch can truly improve your response time.

 

The Apple Watch surprised me big time with the whole notifications experience.
Apple managed to somehow turn this painful part into a delightful, even relaxing, fun experience:

  1. Sound – the Apple Watch produces short & gentle sounds, they are almost addictive. They are not annoying at all, even if you get tons of messages one after the other.
  2. Taptic Engine – guys, this is like a freaking spa. The sounds on one hand, and this unusual haptic feedback that is very different than any vibrate effect I ever felt.
    I’m not sure what it is or how it works (does it use electric shocks?), but when a friend of mine sent me his heartbeat tones it was a creepy yet joyful intimate moment…
  3. Animation – the notifications start with an image and then change to present text. This perfectly tuned animated sequence provides the most out of your 2 seconds glimpse at the watch. Perfect sequence.
  4. Informative – in many smartwatches the notification includes a limited number of characters. The Apple Watch is not limited and each notification can hold the full text in a very clear and easy to read design. It makes notifications more useful.
  5. Actionable – the watch notifications are far more actionable than most smartwatches I tried so far, and that means you can do a lot more straight from your wrist, without opening your iPhone: talk back, dictate text, use templates, open more details, etc. A very good start.  

Taptic Engine

Notifications are the center of a smartwatch, but they can easily turn into a destructive thing if not done properly. The notifications on the Apple Watch are so much better than in any other wearable device and this is a big deal.

Read also: 5 tips to make your Apple Watch battery last longer

Software – Homescreen:

My biggest complaint (so far) with the Apple Watch has to do with one of the most important functions of the watch (after the notifications of course) – the honeycomb-style homescreen.

Simply put: I hate it.

It’s crowded, the icons are too small and too close to each other, it is unorganized so once you have enough apps loaded into your watch you cannot really find anything, there is no way to search for an app nor to create sections or pages for apps based on categories, and the worst part is that in order to open an app you need to use both the touch screen and the digital crown.

If there is one thing I would change completely with the Apple Watch – the homescreen is the one.

What were the design considerations for the homescreen? My assumption is that the watch was designed primarily to react to incoming notifications, a task driven device, and therefore the main playground is not the homescreen at all (but instead – the watch face and the notification center). I think Apple doesn’t want you to open apps too often, it will just drain your battery and provide a limited functionality of the original iOS app, so why should you do it?

Does it make sense? Yes, maybe… but can it be used as an excuse for the current homescreen design? I don’t think so.

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Stability, performance & battery:

Enough said about the usability side, let’s talk a little bit about other areas:

  1. Stability –  Magnificent.
    I’m sure there are and there will be bugs, but when I compare the Apple Watch to the first few Android Wear devices I played with – it’s incomparable; Android Wear crashed 7-8 times a day, apps didn’t open, bugs happened all the time – this is not the case with the Apple Watch and in fact, even though I’m known as a “bugs-magnet” (this is my team’s way of telling me I suck as a user) – I didn’t encounter a single issue so far.
  2. Performance – Generally OK.
    Two areas still need improvements: the scrolling experience (which can be a bit sluggish at times), and the loading time for heavy apps like maps or photos.
  3. Battery Life – Beyond my expectations.
    After reviewing Apple’s warnings and disclaimers about the battery usage I was sure the watch will last less than a day. I tested it for 2 days (without exercising though) and managed to keep it running until a late night hour. You know how it is with first dates – you stay up late…

Read also: Apple is now the biggest wearables player

Miscellaneous

There are some nice surprises when using the Apple Watch. For example, just when I got an hour to sit in my office without having to move from one meeting room to another – I got this message: “time to stand!”. How lovely. No, seriously, someone out there really cares about me. This is what I call digital intimacy.

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There are, of course, some disappointments as well. WhatsApp for Apple Watch is an outrage, useless. Microsoft’s Outlook app doesn’t separate the email title from the body, and the standard email app can’t deal with half of the formats used in emails (tables, attachments, rich text).

Those are the cases where you must go back to your smartphone to complete an operation you started on your watch. Those are the cases where you feel stupid for even thinking a watch can replace a smartphone, and where all smartwatches (including Apple’s) simply fall short.

 

Summary

The Apple Watch is a champion, but it doesn’t reinvent the smartwatch category. It’s the best smartwatch to date, but with the current competition, being the “best” doesn’t mean it’s “perfect”. 

Everything works better on the Apple Watch (except for the homescreen which I really don’t like), but the big limitations of smartwatches remain: limited functionality, small screen, battery life, dependency on the smartphone OS, limited sports-related capabilities.

The big advantage of the Apple Watch right now is that everyone wants to be part of it, the platform is solid and with the right creativity we will soon see better apps providing stronger productivity. I thought it will happen at launch, but it takes longer. Once those apps are part of the ecosystem the Apple Watch will be even more attractive.

Meanwhile, what should you do?

  • If you are an Apple fan – well, you probably already own an Apple Watch…
  • If you just love technology, get yourself the sport version and experience the next big thing in tech
  • If you are not sure about smartwatches yet – wait for the second version of the watch: it will be lighter, the battery will last longer and by then there will be plenty of cool apps and new use cases.
  • If you are still skeptical about smartwatches, take your time. The evolution will eventually convince you to get onboard. but there is absolutely no need to rush into things

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And as for me? I had a great time with the Apple Watch. I’m sure we’ll keep running into each other, especially given that we will be working together, but for now there isn’t going to be a second date.
I’m going to keep playing hard to get. Will keep using my Microsoft Band for my sport activities, try out different wearables for my research, and keep a close eye on the progress of the Watch platform.



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