Six Months with the Apple Watch

Last year, my cousin gave me an Apple Watch (Sport, Space Grey, 42mm) as a belated wedding gift. I’ve worn it for about 6 months now and… I like it. I’m not a watch person, and yet the Apple Watch has comfortably found a place on my wrist (and in my life).

Below are some thoughts based on my experiences with the Watch. I thought the best way to capture my feelings about the various aspects of the Watch is to use emoji.

(NB: For the TL;DR version, scroll down to the Bottom Line)


Basics

Hardware – 😄

Apple Watch looks and feels nice. After the initial strangeness of having something over my naked wrist, wearing it has become completely normal.

The anodised aluminium case is very durable. There’s not a single scratch, although there is a small chip from the time I bumped my wrist into the door frame a few days into owning the watch. Oops. If I look really closely, I can see a couple of hairline scratches on the Ion-X glass surface. Perhaps this is where the sapphire screen of the non-Sport versions has an upper hand.

I love that the bands are customisable. In addition to the black sport band, I also have the blue leather loop for more formal occasions and an orange sport band for when I want something more colourful. I feel good when I am wearing the Watch.

Watch faces

Interestingly, the different Watch sizes (42mm and 38mm) are compatible with each others’ bands. My wife has a 38mm Watch and I’ve used her white sport band a couple of times. It’s a little narrower but it’s impossible to tell the difference unless you’re looking at it closely. Unfortunately, she’s not able to wear my 42mm bands since they are just wide enough so that the edges of the lugs stick out from the body.

The battery life is very impressive. Unless I’m using the Watch for multiple Workout sessions or long stretches of turn-by-turn Maps directions, I easily get two days’ use out of it.

Software – 😐

Apple Watch is clearly a first-generation product. A theme that I keep coming back to is that the Watch is slow. Launching apps typically takes several seconds, if they open at all. Navigation is solid (but not smooth like on the iPhone), with some stutters here and there. The Watch will occasionally freeze or crash.

User interface – 🙂

In my experience, the user interface is not too complex once you get the hang of it. From the Watch screen, you swipe down to see missed notifications and swipe up for Glances. Glances are discrete ‘cards’ that you navigate by swiping left and right. Some Glances display information (e.g., Activity, Battery, Calendar), while others are immediately actionable (e.g., playback control in Now Playing, toggle Airplane Mode in Settings). I’ve found Now Playing especially to be quite useful.

Where things go awry is when you press the digital crown to go to the app (home?) screen. The app screen feels overwrought. The mass of tiny circles is confusing and difficult to manage. Fortunately it is customisable, and I’ve arranged it so that I can make geographical sense of where things are (h/t to Casey Liss):

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The reality is I hardly ever go to this screen—mostly to launch the Workouts app, and occasionally for a third party app (see below). It feels like Apple just ported the iOS paradigm of app tiles onto the Watch, and the lack of fit really shows.


Tentpole features

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the Watch, he outlined three “tentpole” features:

  • Timekeeping
  • Communication
  • Health and fitness

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I think the Watch does a decent-to-great job on each of these.

Telling time – 😊

As someone who didn’t wear watches before, having the time on my wrist is obviously great. Do I care if the Watch keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard, as per Apple marketing? Not really.

The Watch screen is normally off to preserve battery life, and typically I tilt my wrist slightly to turn it on. Occasionally the sensor doesn’t register and I have to overtly raise my wrist or tap the watch to turn the screen on. This is annoying when I have to do it in the middle of a conversation, or when I’m holding a bag of groceries in my left hand.

I love the customisation of the Watch face, which allows me to match it with what I’m doing or what I feel like on a particular day.

  • When I’m going to university, I tend to use the Modular face to see what classes I have coming up and where they are. I can also change the colour to match what I’m wearing.
  • For work, I usually go with the Utility face. Both the Modular and Utility faces display my activity, the weather/temperature and sunset time as complications.
  • For weekends or when I’m just chilling out, I use either the Motion (Jellyfish) or Time Lapse (Hong Kong) face.

Faces

When I’m feeling a little pretentious I’ll use the Simple face with minimal detail. It’s not very practical but looks nice with the all-black setup.

Communications – 🙂

Apple Watch has been a useful, but not indispensable, addition to my life in this regard:

  • Notifications – Receiving messages on my wrist is fast and almost frictionless. For me, most of the time this is a first-world luxury. The Watch gives me haptic feedback that feels like gentle taps. The feedback is really nifty. It varies depending on the type of notification—iMessage, Whatsapp message, Reminder, phone call, etc. I love that my phone now remains inert; no vibrations, no screen lighting up.
  • Digital Touch – This is a feature that allows me to send taps, drawings and my heartbeat to other Apple Watch wearers. My wife and I do this from time to time. It’s cute and can be delightful, but neither of us do it on a regular basis.
  • Phone calls – The Watch is great for making or receiving calls in a pinch, like at home when the phone is sitting somewhere else. This is a cool and underrated feature.
  • Messaging – It is convenient when I do it, which is not very often. I don’t ever think of using Apple’s creepy default emoji.

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Health and fitness – 😄

This is one area in which the Watch really delivers. The Workout app is great. It tracks all the activities that I need: outdoor running/walking, indoor/outdoor cycling, rower and elliptical. During the workout session, the Watch provides a series of metrics that you can swipe through. For me the key metric is heart rate, which it apparently tracks quite well.

Another thing the Watch does well is the gamification of health. It tracks daily Move (pre-determined calorie/KJ target), Exercise (30 min above a certain heart and movement rate) and Stand (at least one minute per hour, for 12 hours) goals. The Watch rewards you with badges for completing various achievements—e.g., Perfect Week (complete all three rings every day for a week) and Perfect Month (reach the Move goal every day for one month). Both my wife and I suckers for this kind of stuff. We have done post-work strolls around the block to reach the Move target and even gratuitous jumping jacks to get that last minute of Exercise. Yes, the Watch is controlling us.

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The Watch has had a subtle yet meaningful impact on my health and fitness. It nudges me to move more. It encourages me to pump my legs just a bit harder during workouts. It facilitates a more intentional and healthier lifestyle—right now I’m keeping a spreadsheet to record my weight/diet/exercise, and the Activity companion app on the phone is a valuable reference source.


Other notable features

Maps – 😊/😓

Maps has been hit and miss. I will typically enter in the destination and start the navigation on my phone, which activates it on the Watch. Siri is unreliable transcribing exact addresses, so when I do use her I will just say the suburb name (normally going home from somewhere).

Most of the time the turn-by-turn directions are fine, although every now and then it lags just enough that I will miss a turn. I’m right on the edge of being able to trust Maps, but it keeps giving me little reasons not to.

When the Watch is having a good day, bringing up walking directions and a map of the surrounding area on my wrist feels wonderful.

Siri – 😄/😡

The story is the same here. When Siri works (I’d say a bare majority of the time), it’s really cool. Some of the stuff that I use her for include:

  • References (“define soporific”, “who is Andy Murray’s brother?”)
  • Reminders (“remind me to water the orchid at 6pm”)
  • Timers (“set timer for 3 minutes”)
  • Music (“play 1989 album”, “shuffle the chill playlist”)

However, Siri fails enough that it is frustrating and prevents me from developing a habit of using her.

Apple Pay – 😍

Apple Pay is awesome. When you would normally tap the payment terminal with a credit card, you can double click the side button and present your Watch instead. Using it feels like I’m truly in the future. Plus, unlike most Watch features this one is highly reliable!

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Apple Pay has been really useful for my wife. She can go on a run and pick up groceries on the way home, or duck out of work to get something from the supermarket next door—all without having to grab her bag or wallet.

Luckily we have an American Express card that supports Apple Pay. The Australian banks have refused to play ball, preferring to develop their own mobile solutions. I hope they will capitulate soon, after losing customers and losing transactions due to their intransigence.

I think the future potential for the Watch to interface with the physical world is huge. Whether it’s via NFC, QR code or something else, the Watch can be instrumental in convenient and low-friction interactions at airports, concerts, sporting events, theme parks, hotels, and more.

Third party apps – 😐

I have hardly installed any third party apps—the app screen is cluttered as it is, and the user experience is plain bad. Apps are only likely to load when I tap on them. When I do tap on an app, it will always take several seconds or more to load. Taking out my phone and doing whatever it is that I wanted to do on the Watch is probably the better option most of the time.

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Third party apps that I keep on the Watch:

  • Instapaper – For when I want to listen to saved articles while driving
  • Overcast – For when I want to change podcast episodes while driving
  • Tripview – Getting the time for the next available train between pre-determined places
  • 2Do – A more powerful kind of Reminder, I have it mostly just to receive notifications
  • LIFX – Turn the smart bulb in my bedroom on and off. Feels gimmicky rather than useful. Before bed I will take my Watch off and put it on charge… and then I want to switch off the light.

Bottom line

Here’s how I would summarise what the Watch does for me.

Things I do a lot + feels natural (short interactions):

  • Proactive – quick look at Watch face for the time or a complication (e.g., temperature, activity, next appointment)
  • Reactive – quick look at a notification after the Watch taps me

Things I do sometimes + feels natural (overt interactions):

  • Swiping down to see missed notification(s)
  • Swiping up and side-to-side to look at Glances (mostly Battery, Now Playing and Activity rings)
  • Going to the app screen and launching the Workout app
  • Activating Apple Pay
  • Sending a Digital Touch
  • Changing my Watch face

Things I do infrequently + still feels like extra work:

  • Using Siri to do anything
  • Sending messages

Things I forget that I can do, but am pleasantly surprised when I realise I can do them:

  • Using the stopwatch directly on the Chronograph face (rather than launching the separate app)
  • Making and receiving phone calls
  • Taking a photo on the phone with Remote
  • Pinging the phone when I can’t find it
  • Looking at the position of the planets on the Astronomy face

Things I pretty much never do:

  • Going to and navigating the app screen for a non-Workout reason

The Apple Watch is useful, delightful, frustrating, flawed. Currently I am only getting out of the Watch only a subset of what it is capable of (which, to be fair, is still quite a lot more than a traditional watch).

Part of it is technical. The Watch needs to be faster, more responsive, less buggy, all that good stuff. That’s (relatively) easy to fix. Part of it is more fundamental. The app screen paradigm is very awkward. I haven’t found any other compelling use cases yet, which is disappointing compared to the robust iOS app ecosystem.

Despite these limitations, I think the Watch is a compelling product with a bright future. To paraphrase Jony Ive, this is just the beginning of the era of personal wearable technology.