Smartwatches have been out for around a year, but Apple’s take on the topic is brand new. Can Apple take the crown from Google before the area really heats up?
Rumoured for such a long time, Apple’s take on the wristwatch is finally here, delivering a first-generation product with a heap of hype and a hope that it promises to be the gadget to take the smartwatch crown.
Three variants of the Apple Watch have been created in two distinct sizes, though all are technically the same with the exception of display size and casing material.
Display sizes differ due to customers preferring a smaller watch (38mm) or a larger one (42mm), with the sizes measured along the height. Each display supports a slightly different resolution, with 272×340 on the 38mm model (displaying 290 pixels per inch) and 312×390 on the 42mm Apple Watch (showing 302 pixels per inch).
Casing material varies based on model choice, too, with the Watch Sport made from aluminium with a plastic back and Ion-X hardened glass front, while the Watch and Watch Edition are made from stainless steel and gold respectively, with both featuring a ceramic back and sapphire crystal front glass.
But beyond these bits, the watches are all technically the same, with the Apple S1 processor inside, 8GB storage, support for 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, a speaker, microphone, ambient light sensor, heart rate sensor, motion sensors, and a Force Touch mechanism under the display with a vibrating mechanism Apple calls “Taptic”.
Two buttons are included on the watch, with the bottom button for showing friends, while the main button sits inside the digital crown, with this mechanism also supporting rotations, which will let you go up and down on screen, or zoom in and out.
Water-resistance is included in the watch, rated for IPX7 certification.
A charging cable is included with every Apple Watch, relying on a wireless inductive charging accessory that plugs into USB and magnetically snaps to the back of the Apple Watch.
Several bands are made for the Apple Watch, with these catering to silicone, leather, and metal.
If there’s one product that has perhaps been more hyped than any other this year, it’s the Apple Watch.
Rumoured for so long and now finally delivered, the Apple Watch is seen by many to be the first smartwatch, because it’s the first one made by Apple.
That’s a little like what happened with the digital music player and the smartphone, because while there were MP3 players that predated the iPod and smartphones that came before the iPhone, it wasn’t until Apple came along and truly cemented its products as idea leaders that people stood up and took notice.
The same might be true of the smartwatch category, an area Samsung, LG, Motorola, Sony, and Pebble have been in for a while, among others we’re sure we’ve missed, because now Apple is here to show the smartwatch is alive, well, and ready for use on people’s wrists.
Is this the smartwatch for all to admire?
Take it out of the box and depending on the version you’ve decided on, you’ll find a piece of black glass staring back at you, on a bed of metal of some sort.
Our review model was the stainless steel variant — the mid range $1000 option — and it arrives with a sleek polished silver look reminiscent of a silver Skagen stainless steel watch we normally wear.
That look is something we’ve yet to see out of an Android Wear watch, and while we quite liked the LG G Watch R and Motorola’s 360, Apple has some how managed to capture the look and feel of a proper fashionable watch, and it feels good, too.
The band is particularly interesting, the Milanese loop reminding us again of the metal band the regular watch relies on, though with an Apple twist on the clasp, relying on magnets to tighten it to your wrist. It’s easy to setup and quite comfortable, and while the watch isn’t the lightest we’ve felt, it’s very easy for your wrist to get used to the size.
Switch the watch on and you’ll be asked to connect it to a phone, and being an Apple product, you shouldn’t be surprised that there is one main requirement for the Apple Watch, and that’s owning an Apple phone, and a recent one at that.
If you’re an Android owner, you are unfortunately out of luck, as the Apple Watch will only work with a recent iPhone, compatible with the iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, 6, or 6 Plus, and needing iOS 8.2 or later.
If you have an iPhone 4 or 4S and want the Watch, it’s time to update. Conversely, if you own an iPhone 5C and haven’t updated to the latest operating system, it’s time to do that, too.
It’s not even something an iPad can fill, and if you think you’re fooling the Watch, you’re not. It’s an iPhone or nothing if you want to get the Watch to work in your life.
Yes, the Apple Watch has specific operating requirements, and it’s partly because of the way the two devices will talk, as well as the operating system update including the Apple Watch app whether you like it or not.
iPhone owners will likely know this too well, and have probably thrown the otherwise useless app into a folder knowing all too well that they can’t get rid of it.
If you have an Apple Watch, though, you’ll find a use for the app, and possibly several at that.
For one, it’s there for settings.
Want to change how the watch responds when you raise your arm, the brightness level, if it has a passcode on it, how strong the vibrating haptics are, what wrist you wear it on, if you should have 24 hour time on, or if the watchface you’re looking at deserves a monogram? You can do it all from the app, and then some.
That extra some comes from the Watch App store which is integrated in the “featured” section of the app below.
Think of this as a side section of the Apple App store, highlighting apps that include support for the Apple Watch. It could be a game, or a news app, or something fitness friendly, and you might even already own it.
Apps like Tripview include support already, as does Flipboard, Twitter, Instagram, Shazam, Uber, Evernote, RunKeeper, and Yelp, and more will eventually come out, showcasing that the Apple Watch platform could be a solid choice for apps.
You can also control the app layout from the settings menu of the app, which helps you to move the app icons in a way that’s familiar, allowing you to customise the design of an Apple screen, something we’re not used to. More on that later.
For now, let’s talk about how you use the watch, because this is vitally important.
Fortunately, it’s all easy enough, with Apple’s typical take on simplicity being key to how it all functions.
For starters, there’s the clock.
At the clock, you’ll find you can swipe down for notifications, which you can easily swipe away if need be.
If you swipe up at the clock, you’ll find what appears to be your favourite widgets, with mini apps that can be swiped left and right to show you battery life, upcoming events, music being played, and more.
You can also hold down on the screen at the clock to go into customisation mode, which is essentially a “force touch” like what Apple uses on its new Force Trackpads of late.
We’ll touch more upon the customisation of the clocks later, but there are ten faces to start with, ranging from analogue to digital, with some unique features such as solar position tracking as a way of telling the time, a modern sundial perhaps.
And at any time you want to go back to the home screen, there’s a button on the side in the little crown ring called the digital crown. Press that once and you’ll be taken to the clock. Press it again, and it’s to the app menu screen.
The app menu screen is about the closest the Apple Watch gets to being a phone, offering lots of little shortcuts that you can pick from using the touchscreen. These are the apps from your phone, and they’re basically side-apps from apps already found on your phone.
You might have Evernote on your iPhone already, and now you have a Watch app for letting you check out your Evernote documents, or even make new ones simply by talking at the phone and letting Siri do the translation.
Instagram is another, and this will let you browse your Instagram feed or check out the activity on who like what that you post.
Local app Tripview is another, making it easy for you to check local bus and train times without getting your phone out. We wish Android Wear supported this, we really do.
Another local app is Procreate, and this one offers a more wrist-friendly controller for when you decide to paint or draw using the iPhone’s pocket Procreate app. With it, you can quickly change whether you’re using a pencil or brush, and change colour swatches quickly on your wrist, helping you to be a little creative more efficiently.
Getting around the apps, you’ll find the touchscreen is very useful, with the typical smooth and fast interaction you’ve come to expect from an iPhone provided on the tiny Apple Watch display, but there’s more you can do than pick a paint brush, take notes, and check your bus times.
We’ve already mentioned the digital crown on the side, and that’s a nod to the traditional watch, with its little dial that normally lets you dial in the correct time by pushing the minute and hour hands around the clock.
A smartwatch has no clock hands, however, so on this watch, you use the crown to dial in up or down, or zoom in and out, allowing you to go up and down in apps — such as making the numbers go up and down when you’re setting calorie counters or timers — while zooming in and out allows you to handle maps, photos, and even view the app menu from further back.
Other apps do different things, and Apple has tried to integrate its features the best way it can, with much of that messaging and mail and phone call functionality you already rely on being deeply connected with the watch, and Siri doing that whole voice-to-text translating we mentioned before.
Fitness is emphasised on the watch, too, with built-in heart-rate tracking with walking and running tracking, and a conversation happening with the phone’s GPS when it’s nearby, meaning you can do a run and track where you’re going.
You can even decide to load music and photos onto the watch and go for a walk or run without the phone, using Bluetooth headphones with the watch and running with that. It’ll be lighter, easier, but you’ll miss out on GPS tracking, though if you prefer to run unhindered, you’ll probably be fine with this.
And for those of you who don’t get up very often — us included — the Apple Watch includes a basic fitness tracking app that kicks in pretty much the moment you switch the Watch on, telling you to stand up at least once an hour while you’re awake, and tracking a goal of losing a small amount of calories daily through walking.
For some of us, it’s just the right kick in the pants that we need. The rest of you who are already using apps to track fitness, you’re beyond us, and there’s a good chance an app you’re using is supported by the Apple Watch anyway, so look in the Watch App store, and go for your life.
We do need to note that some of the apps you can find just don’t appear to work work, and we’ve had a few games crash out or take too long to load that we gave up, pressing the home button and going back to the menu again.
We’re not sure why we’d ever play a game on a screen that small, mind you — perhaps to say that we have — but not every app is working, highlighting the first-generation-ness Apple’s Watch is stuck under.
There’s also one other button worth noting, and that’s the friends button to the side of the digital crown.
Press that, and your favourite friends will pop up in a small circle, allowing you to use either the digital crown or the touchscreen to pick them, call them, message them, or do rather fun specific Apple Watch things to them.
If you call them, you can speak directly to the watch, turning the Apple Watch into a sort of wrist-bound speakerphone, similar to what Samsung’s Gear watches did, though you can get a little self-conscious when it happens, because speaking at your watch it still a little weird in broad daylight.
Messaging is easier, and involves pre-configured messages, animated emoji, or allowing Siri to translate your voice, provided you’re in a place that’s not too loud. If you are, you can send the audio file, but the text is easier to deal with since they can just read it off a screen.
But if a friend has an Apple Watch, you can send them a different message altogether.
You can tap the screen to wake them up, activating the Apple Taptic engine and allowing you to poke or nudge your friend. You can also draw on the screen, though your space is limited, so make it simple, and it’ll playback on their device.
Finally, you can send them your heartbeat, simply by holding two fingers to the screen and motioning to feel your pulse, which will not only let you feel your own pulse, your own heartbeat, with an animated heart, but also send this wirelessly to your friend.
That’s about the most intimate connection you can make with the Apple Watch, and while it’s a gimmick — a particularly creepy gimmick if you keep sending it to your boss (sorry Val) — it’s a neat gimmick altogether, because it shows one of the strange yet cute things partners could do to show their love/lust for each other in the middle of the day when they’re nowhere near each other.
We’re pretty sure we’re sending the wrong message to our boss, but he’s the only one with an Apple Watch we can talk to in this way.
That being said, if you have one, and your partner has one, it’s an interesting out-of-the-box way of saying “I love you”.
The heart beat message is just one part of the formula that makes the Apple Watch more interesting than just another smartwatch, helping to showcase the device as an interesting collaboration of ideas, and culminating in a gadget that isn’t “just another smartwatch”, but rather “a sign of the possibilities that the wristwatch could turn into”.
And it’s one that shows some promise, with Apple taking its design expertise into the world of watchbands and straps, resulting in some of the most comfortable and well designed bands we’ve ever felt.
This is one area where Apple feels like it’s leading the other smartwatches, and while it’s not the standard watchband sizing you can buy from any locksmith or chemist, the bands are very well designed, between the magnetic Milanese loop to the leather bands lined with magnets to the new take on a classic strap that is — again — handled with magnets.
You can even replace the bands easily, pressing a small clip at the back of the watch and releasing the band, sliding it out and replacing it with another band. Easy.
And the screen is excellent, which we keep staring at.
Granted, we prefer a circular smartwatch to a square one, and this stems from that skeuomorphism we’re all reliant on with a clock generally being circular and not rectangular. That being said, a square or rectangle is typically a monitor and not a circle, so it makes a lot of sense here, and Apple has executed that with a lot of style, while also making the screen lovely and vibrant with excellent viewing angles, almost a sign of the future for the company.
One final area we feel the need to touch on is the haptics which is excellent and surprisingly strong.
Again, this isn’t the same style of vibrating haptic engine we’re used to, which normally shakes a motor to simulate a button push, usually on a phone or tablet. This is similar, but not the same.
Instead, the Apple Watch feels more like it’s tapping your wrist, and you can control just how much tapping it’s doing, with three levels.
The watch can also ding at you, emitting a sound to tell you something has happened, but the wrist haptic is even stronger, and feels like your watch is actually trying to get your attention, making it more likely you’ll turn and see what the fuss is about, rather than just ignore another notification sound on your phone.
Overall, there’s a lot of good with the Apple Watch, and for a first-generation product, it’s surprisingly polished. We shouldn’t be overly surprised, mind you: it’s Apple, and Apple generally nails it the first or second time, and the Apple Watch is close.
That being said, some things might just stop you, with three specific catches that we could see: customisation, battery life, and price.
Catch one: customisation
Apple has had an interesting history when it comes to dealing with customisation.
When it comes to your Mac, you can customise until your heart is content: change the wallpaper, add a screensaver, throw extra widgets… hey, if you really want to, go for your life and install Rainmeter for a full-on interactive desktop of the future.
It’s a computer, though, so we’re not terribly surprised that you can do what you want, and when it comes to the phones and tablets running iOS, you’ll find you have limitations.
You can change the wallpaper and lock screen image, and there’s finally support for different keyboards, but generally, iOS stays the way Apple wants, and you’ll keep your phone and tablet having well sorted grids of squircle icons because that’s the way it works.
And that’s been one of the biggest reasons this review doesn’t prefer an iPhone to an Android: the lack of customisation that has been left to the user.
Some people like to change the homescreen, to make it more minimalist, more custom, with different styles and shapes and looks, and iOS just doesn’t cater to that, offering a more vanilla grid system that only lets you throw things into folders, but not really change the design.
Apple Watch is kind of like that.
You’re given ten watch faces to work with, and you can customise aspects of them, such as the colour, the marks on the face, and the sort of useful information it shows in different places, but there are no extra faces, at least not yet.
We checked with Apple, and while you can download apps until your heart is content, and you can arrange and rearrange these on the menu, you’re still only let with ten watch faces, with no more to download from the Watch App store.
That’s one of those surprising facts, especially when you consider apps are available — paid apps, no less — but yet no paid or free watch faces. It’s surprising partly because of how much money you think would be able to be made from this feature, and it’s one thing Google’s Android Wear has over Apple Watch at this time.
In fact, one of our favourite Apple Watch faces is the Mickey face from Disney, but seriously, we’d be happy to fork over money for a face with another favourite character, such as Mike Wazowski from Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc,” or Stitch from “Lilo and Stitch”.
Currently, you can’t do that, and according to Apple, there is no SDK out to let developers make this happen.
We’re sure this will happen eventually, but right now, customisation is limited to those ten faces and the replaceable bands, though these can be found for more than the typical cost of an app.
Catch two: battery life
One of the biggest problems with any smart device is battery life. In fact, ignore the whole smart device thing, and apply it to modern electronics, with the more technology thrown into a gadget, the worse battery life you getting out of it.
You want a nice screen, an accelerometer, high-speed mobile connectivity, and small size?
Something’s gotta give, and that something will likely be the battery life.
Every smartwatch seems to succumb to this problem, the burden of lasting as long as a conventional watch, or long enough to not need a charge every day or two, and the Apple Watch is no different.
In our tests, though, we found two models of battery life, with one for the person who treats the Watch as if it’s brand new, shiny, and always supposed to be used, while the other model is for people who treats the Watch like, you know, a watch.
That first model will be everyone who buys the watch for the first few days.
Here are the thoughts of an Apple Watch buyer for at least the first 24 hours:
ZOMG! I have an Apple Watch! This is the future on my wrist! LOLOLOLOL! Look at that screen! And the build! I just want to poke and prod and touch and hold this thing for the rest of my life. I’m totally going to explore all the apps, and download games, and use this all the time! It’s just so awesome! ZOMG!
The next day, you might actually get to use the Watch for more than just exploring and poking and prodding. You’ll use the apps when and where you want to, not just because you spent between $500 and $25,000 on the watch and you need to get your money’s worth.
You’ll check bus times with Trip View, you’ll open Instagram on the bus and read your activity feed, you can read the message the partner sent you about getting something for dinner and then browse the groceries at Woollies via the watch itself. When you get off the bus to buy something, you can quickly check your bank balance by loading the app for your bank.
And when it’s all over and the partner calls to check on you buying dinner which you’ve just done, you don’t need to pull the phone out of your pocket and can simply answer it by speaking into the minute speakerphone on your wrist. When you’re done, you’ll check the time, and wonder how you got by doing all of this without a smartwatch in your life, previously checking your phone, which is still in your pocket doing all of the heavy lifting.
This is a watch that provides that experience: an out-of-pocket smartphone experience with just enough of the phone uses you need without fumbling for the wide smartphone in a cotton-lined pocket or inside a handbag.
In that scenario, you’ll want to charge the Apple Watch nightly, with a test of regular and frequent use of the Apple Watch yielding a day, with a charge every time you go to bed.
Then there’s the second model, and this is what we became shortly after our “ZOMG” moment.
Yes, some people will treat the Apple Watch for what it is: a watch.
You’ll check the time when you need to, and when someone sends your phone a message, you’ll check it on your Apple Watch, reading it, and possibly sending back a simple message in return, but deciding not to use Siri to translate your voice and using your phone instead. On-screen keyboards are faster and more reliable, you think to yourself, and you’d be right.
You might check the watch a few more times throughout the day, but you always take phone calls on your phone because speaking into your wrist makes you look a bit like an idiot, and no one wants to listen to your conversation in public, regardless of how Dick Tracy-esque you fancy yourself. Plus, when Samsung’s watch did it, you criticised it back then, so why conform now?
And so you use your watch as a watch, and you occasionally deal with notifications and what not, and the occasional app checking, but it’s a watch that notifies you of important things, not just the importance of the time.
In that scenario, you’ll find a full day of life on the Watch is easy to deal with, and depending on how light your usage is, depending on how watch-like your experience is, you might even get two days, switching the power saving mode halfway through the second day. That was us, and by midday the second day, we had a little under 30% left, allowing us to go into power saving and keep the phone going until we found a charger.
Overall, a maximum of two days isn’t bad with the Apple Watch, especially since most smartwatches struggle to offer more than a day. In comparison, this is a fine result against the LG G Watch R, which we can keep going for two days until it needs to be charged, with a similar effort found on the Sony SmartWatch 3.
But where most people will deal with the issue of battery life will be those coming from the idea that a watch should last days, weeks, months, and years before a battery needs to be replaced.
That’s typical with a conventional watch, mechanical or digital, and comes from there being no smarts, no wireless connectivity talking to a phone or computer, no operating system, no full colour display, no multimedia playback, and no vibration engine. These parts are all bigger and hard to throw into a small and slim-line watch without the battery suffering, which some might call a day or two of life max.
That being said, Apple’s one to two days is acceptable, especially given what else is out there right now, what it competes against, because this isn’t supposed to compete against the long-lasting battery life of your Skagen or Rolex or Casio or Timex.
This is different. It’s a smartwatch, not just a watch.
Catch three: price
Price is the final hurdle for the Apple Watch, and it is perhaps the biggest one to come to grips with.
Customisation you can deal with, and the battery life is more or less on par with the other competitors, but the price is something different altogether.
With a starting price of $499 and a maximum of $24,000 possible, Apple’s Watch is not a cheap product, not by a long shot.
We’ll break this down so it makes sense, because there’s a lot of confusion over what is being offered, and that’s because with the exception of the sizes — 38mm and 42mm — every Apple Watch is technically the same.
They all have the same Apple S1 processor inside, the same sapphire crystal screen protection, a similar Retina display underneath with 272×340 on the 38mm (290ppi) and 312×390 on the 42mm (302ppi), the same heart-rate tracking with the same ceramic back, the same support for 802.11b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth, the same speaker and microphone, the same two buttons with the Digital Crown, and the same support for bands in each of the respective sizes.
Beyond the differences in size, where things change is at the material choices.
Do you want it in aluminium, stainless steel, or gold?
Each of those options carries a different price, with the bands for each of those options being reflected with larger pricing.
For instance, you could get the $579 42mm aluminium with a basic white silicone sport band, but decide later on that the metal Milanese loop used on our review model suits an evening event better, and spend the $229 for that. Likewise, you could grab a $24,000 18-Carat yellow gold model with a red leather modern buckle and decide the $79 silicone band is also worth having.
If you choose aluminium, you’ll find a plastic back with Ion-X hardened glass, but if you go for stainless steel or gold, the back is made of ceramic while the front gets sapphire crystal. Choices, choices.
So you have lots of options, and in comparison to other high quality watches, the pricing isn’t terrible.
But then again, this isn’t a Rolex, or an Omega, or a Mont Blanc. This is an Apple Watch, and its battery life isn’t as long lasting, plus it’s a first-generation product.
And against other smartwatches, even the budget model — the $499-579 aluminium version — is pretty expensive.
In comparison, the LG G Watch R, which is aluminium and circular, fetches a price tag closer to the $350 mark.
Granted, the bands made for the LG G Watch R — and every other Android Wear watch — aren’t quite as special as the straps used in the Apple Watch, which feel premium, rely on magnets, and generally complete the package as opposed to feeling useful, but that’s still a lot to pay for when the average person is eyeing a new watch.
Apple’s take on the smartwatch was always going to be totally different from the crowd, and it sure is one device worth taking a look at, especially if you’ve been eyeing the ads and stories on the subject.
But do we think it’s worth it?
Honestly, we’re not sure. Even at the $500-600 mark, the inexpensive option is still quite pricey, and a lot to pay for a gadget that is basically an accessory for a phone you’re probably going to use more often.
Then there’s the issue of the Apple Watch being a first-generation product, and this area will only improve, with a next-gen model likely to boast better battery life and more features.
That’s always the issue with first-gen products, mind you, and that’s a gamble you take with every tech purchase you grab, but we can’t help but feel like the Apple Watch will see that more aggressively, with customers feeling the pinch more so due to that high price of entry.
Android owners don’t really get a say in the matter, though, and if you’re using a Samsung, an HTC, or a Sony, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Oppo, or really anything that doesn’t greet you with an Apple logo on the back, you can’t even try it out, so don’t bother. This is strictly an Apple-only affair, and owner phone owners need not bother, not unless you’re happy to buy a new phone with the Watch.
But at least Apple owners now have a watch to call their own, they just need to work out whether it’s the sort of thing they would wear and use all the time, and while we can tell you if it’s good or not — it is, up to a point — that Apple demo session will really clinch the deal for you.
If you’re currently a watch-wearer and you own an iPhone, we’d eye the Apple Watch if only to see whether this makes sense for you. If you like the feeling, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you want to be notified on your wrist when a message comes in? Do you want control of your music? Do you like the idea of communicating using your arm and leaving the phone aside?
And do you mind spending a small fortune for this privilege?
If the answers are yes to most of these, chances are you’ll be good for the first-generation Apple Watch. If not, however, wait around, because this is just the beginning, and smartwatch makers are just getting warmed up.