3 Weeks with the Apple Watch

I like Apple products, but I’m hardly addicted to the brand, having favoured Android for many years and only really having purchased an iPad from the Cupertino giant in recent memory. Last month however, I got to play with an Apple Watch for three weeks as part of a trial within our Innovation team.

As I blogged previously, Apple are venturing into a market which isn’t mature enough to disrupt yet, as their iPhone did in 2007. Back then, mobiles were nothing new but the iPhone certainly was, enough to truly shake the manufacturing giants from the trees. Yet in the clamour to assert authority in the new market for wearables, it’s arguable that the Apple Watch had broken cover too soon.

The watch is smaller than I expected, with a comfortable, durable strap that fits nicely although not easy to put on. I couldn’t manage it one handed like my Sekonda, and as you pass the first strap through the hole in the second, it had a tendency to pull at the hair on my arms which was constantly irritating each morning. And I’m not that hairy…

When the watch is on your wrist, you enter your passcode and that’s it for the day. You’ll only be prompted again if you use the Watch when it’s removed, such as when it’s on charge. Set up via my iPhone 5 was relatively easy. You start with the app on the phone and after pairing, it gives you access to various settings on the watch plus stores the data it collects. The pairing process has a nice, typical Apple touch, where you use the phone’s camera to line up an animation running on the Watch to complete the connection. After that, the two talk continually.

The first thing you notice is the notifications. These come as vibrations before the screen lights up to tell you whether you’ve had a text, email or other type of notification. Speaking to a Swiss developer recently, he said that the Watch notifications are a gift because little additional programming is needed – the phone app pushes it to the Watch and it gets displayed like normal notifications. And it’s genuinely useful; instead of that repetitive routine of opening a phone to see a new message, they are merely pushed to your wrist.

A picture and some screenshots from my time with the Apple Watch.

A couple of times when receiving text messages I chose one or two of the standard responses, things like “OK” or “On my way”. There is a microphone feature but when I tried it, in a noisy environment admittedly, it didn’t hear what I was saying. But that’s not it’s main aim; you just need a brief view of the incoming dialogue and that’s it. That and the issue of looking like Michael Knight briefing KITT from his wristwatch in Knight Rider. No thanks.

The watch has given us a clever new user interface gesture, called a “glance”, when the Watch knows when you’re looking at it. This was very reliable and only occasionally, perhaps when moving your arm slowly, would the Watch fail to realise you were observing it. However, the balance, while configurable, is perhaps too sensitive. Several times when beginning my daily commute in the darkness at 6am, the screen would light up when changing gear with my left hand. Not a major problem but it did keep grabbing my attention when I didn’t need it.

The Watch also vibrates when you have an incoming call. I liked the push haptics, where when holding your finger on the screen you get a short bump-like feedback to indicate when the screen is pressed. This feels just like depressing a button – fun in itself – but enables additional options or context menus on the device.

Of course, the Apple Watch wouldn’t be a true wearable if it didn’t have some form of activity monitoring, and here the Watch does well. You set yourself exercise, standing and movement (or energy burned) targets for each day, and the Watch measures these from your physcial movement and pulse rates. If, like me, you’ve not used anything like this before, the monitoring is quite a novelty and genuinely useful. It does generate more notifications – such as reminders to stand if you’ve not moved for an hour – and uses some relatively casual language (by Apple standards at least) to keep motivating you towards your goal.

Activity is recorded daily and historically accessed via a calendar.

In addition to this, you can set off a workout for when you’re about to start exercising more vigorously. These workouts are timed and stored separately to the daily activity, although the data is added up. All this information is then available via the separate Activity app on the iPhone that preserves a history of your activity and workouts, accessed via a calendar.

Workouts can be created in addition to your daily tracked activity. This was taken after a short 5-a-side football match.

I didn’t explore the other menus too deeply. You have a kind of home screen, with the time, date, weather/location and notifications. You can then head off to a larger map menu but I used this little; the Watch is an extension of the iPhone, not a self-contained device in its own right, unlike say the competitive Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, so you treat it as such. Battery life during the working week was about 36 hours from a full charge, while it was able to charge relatively quickly from its small, magnetised dock. My iPhone’s battery life was noticeably shorter thanks to the communication between the devices.

Wearable technology is likely to be another big feature of CES 2016 this year, which gets underway in Las Vegas this week, and it is growing quickly. For the record, I really liked the Apple Watch. The notifications worked for me and I liked using it. The real question is whether I’d buy one, and here I’m on the fence. I just don’t know if I like enough to reach into my own wallet. Perhaps that says it all, in that I haven’t invested in one, although a colleague speculated that Apple would really start shifting units and making money if they bundled the Watch with the latest iPhone. It does make sense, but perhaps like the Watch itself, such a package needs to arrive sooner rather than later.

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