10 Days with the Apple Watch: or, What Ya Gonna Do When the Novelty Has Gone?

Apple watch blackFor ten days, I’ve been wearing a black Apple Watch Sport. If you’re interested in this device, you’ve certainly read a dozen or more reviews already. I won’t try to offer a full review of the watch; if you want to read such an article, you might want to read what David Pogue wrote for Yahoo! Tech.

Instead of reviewing the device, I want to share my personal, subjective thoughts on this device. I’ll start off by saying that my feelings skew toward the negative. You may not agree (especially if you already own an Apple Watch), but I think anyone’s opinion of this device depends a lot on context.

My Context

I’m a freelance writer, and I work at home. I have a 28-second commute to my office on the first floor (British English for “upstairs”) of the barn I live in in rural England. Everything I need for my job is within reach, or, at most, one floor away from me. While I have a landline, my iPhone is my main communication tool; its number is the one I give out to people who need to call me.

I’m also, as you probably know if you read these pages often, an Apple user. I write about Apple products, and most of my computing hardware is Apple-made. (With the exception, of course, of things like printers, scanners, hard drives, etc.) So I’m locked into the Apple ecosystem as much as anyone can be.

Oh, and one more thing; this one is important: I haven’t worn a watch in more than a decade.

My Expectations

I didn’t get the Apple Watch with the first wave of deliveries. Even though I ordered it six minutes after it went on sale, I missed that April 25 delivery window, and only got mine two weeks later. So I had plenty of time to read what others had written about the device, and to develop expectations of what the watch could do for me.

I had planned that the Apple Watch would serve me in three areas:

  1. Timekeeping
  2. Notifications
  3. Fitness tracking

I’ll discuss each of these, but, first, a general overview of the Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch in Use

I’ve always been interested in gadgets, so my first impressions of the Apple Watch were positive: it’s a compact computer that you can wear on your wrist. Sure, it’s a satellite device, dependent on the iPhone, but it is an amazing accomplishment. For someone who grew up reading the classics of science fiction, from the 1930s to the 1970s, this device is nearly magical.

However, the magic wears off pretty quickly.

Say what you like; I think the Apple Watch is not a very attractive device. It looks like what I would expect a computer strapped to a wrist to look like. I don’t find it particularly fashionable, but because it is an Apple product, many people are gushing about how attractive it is. Its rectangular body is utilitarian, nearly brutalist. The form is defined by the function.

We’re used to mostly round watches; that form is defined by the function of a clock face. Rectangular watches are not uncommon – heck, I had a knock-off Cartier tank watch back when I was in my twenties – but the first though, when looking at the Apple Watch, is that it is a device, not a watch.

The Apple Watch is also quite thick, and quite heavy. While it’s only 30g – just over 1 ounce – plus 40g for the band, it’s noticeable. When I tried on the Apple Watch at an Apple Store, just after it went on sale, I also tried on the stainless steel model, which weighs another 20g. The difference between the two was surprising, and I opted for the aluminium model because of that. But even the Apple Watch Sport feels heavy. (To be fair, some people wear watches that are easily as heavy as the Apple Watch, if not much more so.)

I don’t find it particularly comfortable to wear, but part of this may be because I haven’t worn a watch in so long. With the Sport band – which, I have to say, is the most comfortable plastic I’ve ever encountered – I find I have two choices. I can either wear it at the last hole of the large-sized band (this alone suggests that Apple needs to rethink its sizing), and the watch is a bit loose; as I move my arm, the watch moves to the outside of my wrist. When I raise my arm, the watch is a bit too far to the outside of my wrist, and I generally want to center it to see its face.

If I wear it at the second hole, it’s snug; but just a tad too much. I found that wearing it like that all day irritated my wrist a bit. I rinse off the back of the band after working out (my workouts are walks, either indoors on a treadmill, or outdoors), but it feels too tight.

I was tempted to buy a different band, one that offers a bit more flexibility in its fit. The leather loop might do that; it’s longer, first of all, fitting the largest wrists. But it’s also £129, more than a third of the cost of the watch (£339). I’m not prepared to pay that much for a watchband.

My work involves typing, and the Apple Watch doesn’t get in my way when I’m working at my desk; however, when I type on my laptop, I have to push it up my arm a bit. But I have to credit Apple with the nifty way you slip the end of the band through the hole in the other side, so the tip doesn’t stick out getting snagged on things during the day.

Features: Timekeeping

Apple watch faceI said above that there were three features that interested me in the Apple Watch. Let me discuss each of them.

The Apple Watch keeps time. It does so well. There is a choice of watch faces, and I’ve found one that works for me. The only complaint I have about the Apple Watch’s timekeeping features is the discrete apps that you need to use for different ways of keeping time. There is a Watch app, an Alarm app, a Stopwatch app, a Timer app, and a World Clock app. That’s five apps on the home screen of the watch (which you cannot remove if you don’t use them). I think it would have been possible to have, say, two or three apps instead of all five. Given how small the display is, whittling down the number of apps would be a plus. (And allowing people to remove apps they don’t use, like that annoying Stocks app.)

Features: Notifications

The second feature that interests me in the Apple Watch is notifications. The idea of getting a tap when I get a text message or phone call (the latter gives you a series of taps, more like a buzz) is interesting. If I were out in the street, on my way to work, I might even find it useful. But given my context, that of a freelancer working at home, it’s a gadget.

Sure, I can now go downstairs to make a cup of tea without taking my iPhone, certain that I won’t miss any phone calls. (Though I have tried taking a call through the watch, and it’s not ideal.) But it’s not that onerous a task for me to pick up my iPhone and slip it in my pocket.

Apple watch notificationsIt’s easy to turn on too many notifications, and have your watch tap you all day long. I don’t do this. The only notifications I get are phone calls, text messages, and VIP email messages from my partner and my son. I also get calendar notifications, and the occasional reminder. I do get a few other notifications, such as from Twitter and a couple of games I play, but since I have them set to set to silent on my iPhone, they don’t tap me. I don’t need to get them on my watch, but, for now, I’ve left them on.

One of the problems with notifications is that you can’t do much with them. Sure, you can reply to a text message with a canned response, or dictate a message. But, as I said above, taking a phone call on the watch is not ideal; it’s hard to hear, especially if you’re outdoors.

An aside: it’s very hard to see anything on the Apple Watch’s display if you’re outdoors in the sun. When it’s cloudy, I can see more or less, but if the sun is out, I have to shield the display with may hand to see anything more than the time.

Feature: Fitness Tracking

This is actually the feature I was most looking forward to. As a practitioner of a sedentary profession, I need motivation to exercise. I’m carrying around a bit of extra weight that I’d like to lose, and I’ve had a Fitbit One for several years, counting my steps, and using its data to try and meet a daily activity goal.

Resting caloriesThe Apple Watch is fairly accurate at counting steps, and, if you calibrate it outdoors, it counts distance quite accurately, in conjunction with your iPhone’s GPS. However, it is fatally flawed in several areas. Its calculation of resting calories is comically exaggerated, and many people have reported that the active calorie calculation doesn’t jibe with devices they use, such as treadmills and exercise bikes, that are generally reliable. (At the time of this writing – lunchtime – the Apple Watch tells me I have walked 559 steps, but only burned 9 active calories. While I haven’t walked much yet, the calorie count should be much higher.)

Also, the heart rate sensor doesn’t work well . Many users have reported problems with the heart rate sensor, which began after the first update to the watch’s software. (Mine started right out of the box, and worsened after that update; Apple is replacing mine.)

But the worst problem with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker is the way it calculates active minutes. If you’re trying to get that silly little green circle to complete, you may find that the type of workout you do doesn’t count. And, because of this, you resort to a hack – using the Workout app to start an Other workout – to essentially override the Apple Watch’s algorithm so it counts your activity as exercise.

The stand measurement is interesting. Since I do sit a lot, I like the idea of having something remind me to stand. But I’ve found that when I stand and move around a bit, the Apple Watch doesn’t always record me as having stood for that hour. It seems that the watch detects altitude, and, if you’re sitting at a desk typing, then stand up, your wrist is about the same height in both situations. So, you can cheat, and raise your arms a bit to get the stand ring to move ahead one notch.

IMG 2935The most annoying thing about the exercise ring – the one that records active minutes, “movement that equals or exceeds a brisk walk” – is that is is simply wrong. Last night, I walked outside for twenty minutes at a brisk pace; the exercise ring recorded six minutes of activity. If I walk on my treadmill without recording the activity specifically as an “Other” workout, it will record from three to five minutes per half hour. Yet both of these activities take place at a consistent pace. Either all or none of their time should count as exercise, and, as I mention in this article, there is no threshold for the exercise ring, whereas different people are capable of different levels of activity. If the Apple Watch is a fitness tracker only for fit people, then it’s failed.

I’ve always liked walking, and I’ve always been a brisk walker. When I lived in cities – New York, Paris, York – I walked a lot. Much of this walking would get clocked as steps, but much of it should also count as active minutes. With the Fitbit, it was; walking in York, to and from the center of town, always counted as such. With the Apple Watch, it would not be. Suggesting that people who walk a lot are not active is simply wrong. Only counting “exercise” – that is, dedicated workouts, as activity, is wrong.

All these problems defeat the purpose of a fitness tracker. It should track your activity silently, with no need for you to intervene. You should only have to record a workout if you really want to track (or map) your activity during that period, or if recording your heart rate is important to you. I shouldn’t have to turn on a workout just to get the Exercise ring to move; it should react to my activity, helping me understand whether or not my daily movement is active enough. As a fitness tracker, the Apple Watch is simply too finicky.

Finally, like any fitness tracker, you need to wear the Apple Watch all day long. I’ve been wearing a Fitbit One for years, and I never notice it, because it clips to my belt. But the Apple Watch annoys me at times, so I take it off; that doesn’t make for very reliable fitness tracking.

One More Thing: Controlling Music Playback

There’s one other small feature I had expected to use on the Apple Watch, and that’s the ability to control music playback from either an iPhone, or from the watch itself. I have Bluetooth headphones that I use when walking, and the idea of not needing to take out my iPhone to control music – when I want to skip tracks, or find something else to listen to – seemed like a nice feature.

In theory. In practice, it’s not very usable, and I quickly found myself taking my phone out anyway. The controls are well-designed to skip tracks, to play and pause, and to change the volume (you can use the digital crown for the latter). But the lag is annoying, and the amount of information you see on the display is limited.

Music control1

If you tap the song name, you then get taken to a display where you see album artwork, plus upcoming songs; as you can see below, the display cuts off the currently playing track.

Music control2

Other screens let you clumsily access music, by artist, album, genre, etc.

Music control4  Music control3

All in all, this seems like Apple tried to squeeze too much into the Watch’s small display.

The Remote app is useful for controlling music from an iTunes library, or an Apple TV. But, to get to it, you have to tap too many times; it’s actually quicker and easier to do so on an iPhone (or with a hardware remote, for the Apple TV).

What’s Next?

I used a line from Joy Division’s song Novelty in the title of this article because, for me, the novelty of the Apple Watch has worn off already. It’s a fascinating device, and it offers interesting features, but it’s not for everyone. Since its fitness tracking feature is fatally flawed, I probably won’t continue using it for that; as such, I won’t wear it all day long. I’ll probably wear it when I go out, like I would a regular watch, but I already think that it won’t have a place on my wrist all day.

If the Apple Watch were half as thick, and half as heavy, and the band fit just exactly right, I’d be more likely to want to wear it all day. But it’s not: it’s bulky, it’s not really comfortable, and it doesn’t offer many useful features. For me.

I still want to use a fitness tracker. I like the Fitbit One; it’s unobtrusive, and its daily step goal is no more or less useful than the Apple Watch’s three rings. I’d like something better, though, something that doesn’t simply count steps. Also, Fitbit’s refusal to integrate their devices’ data with Apple’s HealthKit makes it a less than ideal long-term solution. I’ve tried several wrist-worn fitness trackers and none of them are very accurate, so the only options are the Fitbit One and Withings’ Pulse (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), but it has a lot of negative reviews. Also, I don’t care for Withings iOS app, but I do have a scale and blood pressure monitor from them. (And Withings’ devices sync their data with HealthKit.)

As I said at the beginning of this article, context is important. If you are used to wearing a watch, you will probably react differently. For me, the upside of wearing the Apple Watch all day doesn’t compensate for the annoyance factor of wearing it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch; I don’t even dislike it. I think the bar should be quite high when deciding whether to spend what a device like this costs, and agreeing to wear a new electronic device. The Apple Watch’s features just aren’t compelling enough to get me to want to wear a wrist computer all day long.