7.8 OVERALL RATING
The Apple Watch comes in three different models, two different sizes, and six different finishes, with a range of swappable bands and prices ranging from $349, £299 or AU$499 all the way up to $17,000, £13,500 or AU$24,000. It’s designed to be Apple’s most personal product: fashion as much as it is tech. Apple’s products have been fashionable for years, but now Apple wants these watches to transcend into jewelry.
Smartwatches may one day be the future of phones, or a seamless extension of both them and your home, or any number of connected devices. Right now, they function as phone accessories. And that’s where the Apple Watch lands. Apple designed the watch to help us look at our phones less. I’d call it more of a smaller screen in Apple’s spectrum of differently sized screens. I used it instead of my phone, sometimes. Then, I’d go back to my phone. Has it changed my behavior? It’s too early to tell yet, but it might.
I’ve been using the Apple Watch for a week. I’ve worn it on my wrist every day, doing everything possible that I could think of. I’ve tracked walks and measured my heart rate, paid for lunch, listened to albums while exploring parks without my phone, chatted with family, kept up on email, looked for Uber cars, kept up on news, navigated on long car trips for Passover, controlled my Apple TV with it and followed baseball games while I was supposed to be watching my 2-year-old.
The watch is beautiful and promising — the most ambitious wearable that exists. But in an attempt to do everything in the first generation, the Apple Watch still leaves plenty to be desired. Short battery life compared with other watches and higher prices are the biggest flags for now. But Apple is just setting sail, and it has a long journey ahead.
What it does, what it is
Much like most other smartwatches, the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone device — it’s a phone accessory. Android Wear, Samsung Gear, Pebble and others work the same way. But here, you must own an iPhone 5 or later to use the Watch. A few Apple Watch functions work away from the phone, but the watch primarily works alongside the phone as an extension, a second screen and basically another part of your iOS experience. It’s a symbiote.
Communication, fitness, information, time: these are the core Apple Watch functions, but the Watch is incredibly ambitious, packed with many, many features and apps. In scope, it reminds me of Samsung’s ambitious Gear smartwatches, but more fully realized.
Apple Watch receives messages from friends, send texts and lets you dictate messages, make speakerphone calls, ping people with animated emoji, give love taps long-distance or send your heartbeat as a sort of long-distance hug. It tracks your steps, logs runs and monitors your heart rate. And yes, you can use Apple Watch to listen to music via wireless Bluetooth headphones. You can play songs like an iPod, get notifications and run apps like a mini iPhone and make payments with Apple Pay. And it has a totally new force-sensitive display that’s never been seen before.
And yes, it tells the time.
But, once again, this watch needs your iPhone to do most of these things. And it either needs to be in Bluetooth range (30 or so feet), or it can connect over Wi-Fi in a home or office to extend that range further.
Look at the Apple Watch from a distance, and it might appear unremarkable in its rectangular simplicity compared with bolder, circular Android Wear watches. It’s clearly a revamped sort of iPod Nano. But get closer, and you can see the seamless, excellent construction.
I reviewed the stainless-steel Apple Watch, with a steel link band — a $1,000 configuration. I also wore it with two different Sport Bands, one white and one blue.
The Apple Watch feels a bit chunky compared to Apple’s stable of super-slim gadgets, but it doesn’t look big on the wrist. The larger 42mm version has length, width and thickness similar to the Pebble Steel, one of the smaller smartwatches available. The 38mm version is even smaller. The 42mm version I reviewed felt great on my wrist and didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
The many-nested worlds of the Apple Watch interface
The old iPod Nano had a grid of apps to swipe through, like an iPhone. Samsung’s Gear watches use a similar approach. Google’s Android Wear uses a blank slate at first, pushing notification cards while hiding its apps behind a scrolling menu.
The Apple Watch has its main watch faces, but also two levels of apps: Glances, which are a lot like the quick-glance app summaries in iOS 8’s pull-down “Today” menu (or the occasional cards that appear in Android Wear), and full-fledged apps. You swipe up for Glances, down for on-watch notifications like texts or Twitter/Facebook alerts and click the Digital Crown button in to get to that “home screen” grid of glowing circular apps you’ve seen in all the ads.
Watch faces: Things of beauty
Apple has spent a lot of time making its collection of watch faces great, and the effort shows: these are a beautiful bunch. The old iPod Nano had fun watch faces, but many of Apple’s are actually clever and useful: a chronometer becomes a customizable stopwatch; a solar cycle face shows actual sunset and sunrise times, presenting changing arcs depending on the season; a jaw-dropping planetary face shows the Earth and Moon, but properly lit to reflect day, night, and lunar cycles. You can see all the planets in their current alignment, or spin the crown and see their positions change by date. There’s also Mickey Mouse.