When I was something less than ten, my father brought home a Commodore Business Machines Time Master. It had glowing red numbers that only appeared when you pressed a button. It was billed as a “five function” watch, which is stretching things a bit. On one screen it showed Hour and minutes, press the button again for month and day, then again for seconds. The watch face was actually a magnifying lens – the internal LED was smaller. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
That should give you an idea of how seriously to take me when I say the Apple Watch is the finest piece of consumer electronic gadgetry I’ve ever owned.
I used to wear a watch, all through school and then when I started running. I liked having information on my wrist – the more, the better. My personal gold standard was the Timex Ironman, a sports watch I could program with my eyes closed. Timers, alarms, stopwatches – essential features in a wrist-strapped computer. Then Garmin developed their GPS watch, finally displacing my Timex. I was able to run unmeasured courses and later see that on my computer. Of course, it was the size of a small Buick – not much good for everyday use. The pocket computer that was the iPhone seemed to obviate the wristwatch altogether. All I had to do was pull it out of my pocket and check the time. And the weather. And the scores. People were pretty much doing that everywhere. And so I came full circle – wouldn’t it be more convenient to see that information on my wrist?
I used a Pebble watch for the past 21 months. It connects to the iPhone using Bluetooth, and shows snippets of new e-mail, text messages, who’s calling, in addition to the time. There are hundreds of free watch faces available for the Pebble, which can be installed and swapped in seconds. I loved being able to quickly glance and see if an incoming message or call was one I needed to pay immediate attention to. It’s not because I was too lazy to pull out my phone – it’s because I thought it was rude to keep doing that.
I’ve had an Apple Watch for almost a week now. 42mm Space Gray Aluminum Case with Black Sport Band. First impression: it’s heavier than I expected. The finish is incredibly refined, pleasing to touch. It wants a snug fit, to seat the sensors against the skin (the device currently tracks heart rate, with more health monitoring features promised.) Although tighter that I’m used to, it feels like it belongs on my wrist – no sharp edges dig in. (Especially thrilling – the bands can be easily removed and changed. I’ve NEVER understood how to manipulate those damn spring-loaded pins when plastic watch bands inevitably break. Seriously – I’ve purchased new watches to avoid that shit.)
David Pogue, tech columnist for the huddled masses, wrote a decent piece about why the Apple Watch falls short. You should read it – Pogue makes good points. (https://www.yahoo.com/tech/a-humble-proposition-how-to-fix-the-apple-watch-129185196924.html) His big problem is that the Apple Watch is arguably the company’s first product to be more complicated than competitors’. I wouldn’t describe the Apple Watch as complicated, but I’m a gadget freak; I’d say it has a bit of a learning curve (take from that what you will. Yeah, it’s complicated.)
After unboxing my watch, I spent a few hours exploring the ins and outs. I looked at every setting for every app (by default, every program on your iPhone with a corresponding watch app is installed.) I played with all of the buttons. I sent messages. I received messages. I made phone calls. Yeah – like Dick Tracy, I made phone calls from my wrist. (Pogue wonders why anybody would do that instead of just taking out their phone. I wondered too until I was making dinner, both hands were messy, and I got a call.) Sure, the learning curve is steeper than an iPhone. I’d also say the Apple Watch is more satisfying to use.
Instead of the vibration alerts we’ve known since the earliest digital pagers, the Apple Watch simply taps your wrist. This is disconcerting at first (will I even recognize the signal?) then welcome. The sound reinforcement is intimate, and quiet, unlike the blaring smartphone tones we’re all sick of. The watch faces are beautiful and flexible – most can be customized with weather, personal appointment views, etc. My favorite is the “blue marble” globe, with a dot to indicate my place on the earth. As the world turns, the sunlight on the picture depicts reality. A touch shifts the camera focus to the moon, displaying its current phase. Another touch shows the entire solar system, with each planet in its current location. This is more than just information on my wrist – it’s cosmic perspective. (And if astronomy isn’t your bag, it’s easy to switch to Mickey Mouse, tapping his foot to the beat of the second. Or any number of other faces.)
My big problem with the Pebble watch was that it periodically lost contact with my phone, and I’d miss messages. At least once each day, sometimes more. Now, Pebble has newer models, including one Pogue raved about. But the only reason I bought a Pebble to begin with is that I wasn’t sure Apple would ever develop a watch. If you have an Apple environment, the Apple Watch just makes sense. So far, it hasn’t missed delivering a message in five days. (Caveat: the Digital Touch feature, which allows Apple Watch users to send finger scribbles and heartbeats to one another, didn’t work at first when I tried it with Susan, who’s been sporting hers since July. A quick Internet search revealed this is a common issue – I deleted all text message threads between us from both of our phones, turned off iMessage on both phones, then turned it back on.)
The exercise features are well thought out. You tell the watch your gender, height, and weight. You agree to let it remind you to stand and get exercise throughout the day. If you start a workout, you set parameters in the workout app and let it track your heart rate and GPS coordinates (if you’re outside.) As you progress, you earn medals and the software revises your goals. I expect these features will become fuller and more seamless in future iterations of the watch software.
Because input is limited (there is no keyboard on the watch), voice input is used for many functions. So far, I’ve experienced about 95% accuracy with my dictation, much better than I’ve had with my iPhone.
Coolest features so far: being able to control my household lights (Philips Hue LEDs) directly from the watch, and using the watch as a TV remote. The watch also serves as a remote viewfinder for the iPhone’s camera, which allows looking behind furniture – neat, but not killer.
Bottom line: Yes, it’s an expensive watch. Yes, there’s a learning curve. Yes, you should charge it every night (I use about 40% of the battery each day, which includes 90 minutes of exercise tracking.) But it does everything you want it to, with more on the way. Above all else, it’s a genuine pleasure to wear. The Apple Watch is everything I dreamed of as a young boy, and more; how many things in life live up to that?
ADDENDUM 1 (9/20/15): The GPS function of the Apple Watch is dependent on the iPhone, which immediately makes it a poor alternative to Garmin, if you’re looking for a dedicated sports tracker. Out of the box, Garmin knows where you run, how fast and how far. It takes some “training” for the Apple watch to gradually figure out your actual distance, which makes little sense to me. I ran an outdoor course this morning, well known to me as a 5K loop. The watch thought I’d run 7K, seemingly based on the number of steps I took. One might expect the phone’s GPS to immediately correct the distance based on what I’d actually traveled (I was holding the phone in my hand, so it should have had a clear view of the sky.) I understand why the Apple Watch overestimates my distance on treadmill runs; Garmin doesn’t comprehend those without a foot pod. Still, how hard would it be to offer a “distance correction” button, which would allow me to enter the actual distance following a workout? This is a programming oversight – developers assume a standard stride length, which isn’t correct in my case.