Disruptive technology doesn't come along often, and is often initially dismissed because it's easy to ignore something you've lived an entire life without. But every once in a while a bit of tech comes along that makes it easier to do what you're already doing.
This is the Apple Watch.
I wasn't always sold on the concept. Aside from issues related to appearance/style, functionality, personalization, fitness tracking, and useful interaction methods, my big concern was this: What real-world problem would an Apple watch solve? Knowing the obstacles was one thing; solving those problems was something else entirely. I was skeptical.
The engineers at Apple not only understood those issues but figured out solutions. By the time Apple execs finished unveiling their vision for the modern watch last September, I was ready to give the technology a shot. As someone who's built a career around tech, I couldn't remember the last time a watch of any type inspired an emotional reaction.
Much of my excitement stemmed from the new technologies, especially the Digital Crown and Force Touch, both of which work wonderfully in the real world.
With the Digital Crown, Apple engineers turned a feature already present in watches into a scroll wheel for selecting options and quickly sliding through list views. It's used to access apps, very much like an iPhone's Home Button, when pressed. Double-pressing it switches between the last-used app and the Clock app; holding the Crown down activates Siri; and when you use it to scroll to the end of a list, it even becomes harder to turn. (That last feature shows the obsessive level of detail that's characteristic of Apple.)
Handing off scrolling and button-like functionality to the crown is so obvious -- in retrospect -- that it's amazing no one came up with the idea beforehand. This is typical Apple.
With Force Touch, the Apple Watch's Retina display can respond not only to touch and gestures, but can sense when additional force is applied to the screen. That extra pressure brings up additional options in supported apps: It can call up app settings, dismiss notifications, pause or end workouts, select audio and video sources in Remote, and customize Watch faces. The cleverness of Force Touch is that these actions would otherwise need their own onscreen icons, using up precious space in a device with limited screen real-estate.
Force Touch works so well in the real world that the technology has started spreading to other Apple products, like the latest MacBooks and MacBook Pro laptops. It's only a matter of time before iPads and iPhones get this, too.
Uniting and adding to these new technologies is a tried-and-true method that underpins the success of the Watch: Siri. On the Watch, Siri is used for all sorts of voice commands, like setting timers, checking weather, launching apps -- as well as for dictating messages. The Apple Watch relies on Siri for functions that would normally require a keyboard; without Siri, the Watch would fail.
These three technologies allow the Watch to stand above competitors' offerings. Physically, though, the Watch has the distinction of actually looking like a Watch -- and a nice watch at that. It's not embarrassing to wear, regardless of the occasion. Watch Bands can be removed and swapped out easily and the number of Watch/band combos continues to rise.
Apple Watch makes technology as fashionable as possible, more so than any previous attempts in the category from anyone else. But, while it (debatably) looks great -- especially for a wearable computer -- the key to usability (and success) is software: the Watch operating system, apps and ecosystem.
Fitness and notifications
When I got my Apple Watch in April, I was looking for it to do two things: be a fitness accessory/advisor and a notification system for important alerts. However, I underestimated the importance of apps. There are well over 4,000 now available, with more coming. Currently, apps have flaws -- many are still slow to load, and the display will often turn off before they load fully -- but that should improve significantly with native app support, which is coming this fall with the Watch OS 2.0 update. That update promises faster app launches and developer access to features not available to them now, including the accelerometer and the heart rate monitor. There will also be support for non-Apple Complications, and Night Stand mode (which works wonderfully with my favorite stand from Nomad).
In 2007, when the first iPhone was released, I wrote about a digital future where data is at your fingertips. That future is now; We're living the mobile dream, with devices like the iPhone designed with portability and instant access to all sorts of information. That also means a world in which our devices never shut up. In practical use, this is one of the areas the Watch truly shines: filtering digital noise.
The Watch is clearly the type of product that grows on you. I'm still using my iPhone; the Watch hasn't made it obsolete, especially because it relies on the phone for so much backend work. But when I pull the iPhone out, it's for different reasons now. I can quickly respond to texts, control music, check my calendar for upcoming events, track packages, check on the order status of Apple Store purchases, and get directions via the Watch without getting sucked into other apps -- which happens when I pick up the iPhone.
This is a big deal for me. The iPhone, with all it can do, is a gigantic time-suck, and it's easy to fall into the trap. The Watch is designed for short bursts of interactions, without the distractions inherent to a device that does just about everything.
Fitness tracking is still a huge deal for me, but as someone who uses the Watch to track running, basketball, and especially weight lifting, I'm not very impressed. While the Watch has excellent heart rate monitoring sensors, they only work well if you're using it to track an activity in which your arms wave about. In those cases, the Watch is spot on.
Weightlifters need not apply
Tracking activities like lifting weights or pushups is another matter, and here is where the Watch falls on its proverbial face. If you're an active weight-lifter and are in the market for a fitness tracker, this isn't it. When lifting weights, the heart monitoring is the worst feature of the Watch. It's supposed to monitor your heart rate every 10 minutes in normal mode, and every 10 seconds during a workout. But when Apple released the 1.0.1 update, it changed that behavior so that if the Watch senses movement in normal mode, it skips the heart rate reading. This is absurd. The opposite should occur: if the Watch senses sustained, increased movement, the correct response is to instantly check pulse rate to gauge exertion levels. (The inaccurate readings while lifting weights is a known issue and is supposed to be resolved with a future software update, but who knows when.)
What isn't disappointing, though, is that the Watch is more water proof than I thought. I've used the Watch in showers, hot tubs, and while swimming. I didn't dive beyond 15 feet, but I wore it while playing basketball in a pool, and I was in the water for hours. Do I recommend getting it wet? Not really, and neither does Apple. But you can. (The Watch is rated to survive 30 minutes at one meter's depth.)
Improvements are coming
The technology in the Apple Watch will, of course, improve with each successive software update (and each new generation of the Watch itself). Even so, the Watch already marks the first time technology as fashion has sold in large numbers. When I wrote my first iPhone review, I said that breakthrough products like this really leave an imprint in time, in which we can literally see the pivot point: before and after. Even though I'm disappointed in tracking an activity like lifting weights, the Watch is that kind of product.
The more people purchase and use the Watch, the more attention the device will get from third-party developers and service providers. There will come a point when the number of wearers will be hard to ignore forcing businesses and third parties to support the services those wearers expect, especially something like Apple Pay.
But is that today?
So, should you get one?
I'm in an interesting position regarding whether I recommend the Watch. At this point, you likely know whether or not you want a Watch. Apple has already sold more of them in a few weeks than all of the competition sold in years, and I'm clearly a fan (as are other Watch owners I know). But it's still too soon to know whether the functions and fashion it offers -- or will offer in future iterations -- will be enough to lure the hoards of new users that follow early adopters.
Two years ago I figured if an Apple Watch were ever released, it would be because Apple leaders were confident of its impact. I said then that I'd have to see it to believe it.
Well, I've seen it, I've used it, and I'm a believer: Despite the first-generation problems, you can have my Watch after you pry it from my cold, dead wrist.
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