The Apple Watch - One Year In
by David Nason, May 2016
In Spring 2015, Apple released the Apple Watch, Apple's big foray into wearable tech. Poised to breathe new life into that market, it was rumoured for what seemed like years. I felt like I'd never get this new product that could be another ground-breaker from the Cupertino company. I could hardly wait to get my hands on one, and in May 2015 I finally did. So has it met my high hopes and expectations? One year on, what do I make of the product?
Except for a few years here and there, I've been a watch wearer for most of my life. I of course had those awesome Casio digital watches as a kid, and graduated to nicer analogue watches as I got older. In latter years, as my eyesight got worse, I picked up a braille watch, which was pretty nice looking for its price and did the job in terms of telling time. So I am coming from the standpoint of someone who does like to wear a watch, though am very far from being a collector or an aficionado.
My anticipation for the Watch was no doubt as much or more a function of my love for technology and admiration for Apple products as it was for a love of watches. I wanted in on the ground floor, to be part of the buzz and honestly was just curious to see what they would do. My curiosity, or maybe just impatience, was so great that I ordered one on launch day through the UK store. I wasn't going to hang around six months for an Irish release! The Apple Watch Sport looked nice, but I decided to go for the 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch model with a classic leather band, just the look and feel that I like.
Physically I am pretty happy with the Apple Watch. Could it be a bit thinner, sure, but I've no real issue with its size. In an ideal world I'd like if it could be round rather than square, but that may not be realistic so I've made my peace with that. I haven't gone out an bought dozens of extra bands, but there certainly is plenty of choice out there to meet every taste. I have a sports band in midnight blue, plus my leather band, which is the one I wear 90% of the time. All in all I'd say they've done a pretty good job on the fashion side of things.
In terms of it's functionality, it's hard to say in one sense whether it has met my expectations, because I really wasn't sure what to expect from it. I certainly had high hopes though. The truth is that I do like my Apple Watch, and wear it every day, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that I've been blown away by it's usefulness.
First and foremost it tells the time, as all good watches should, and it does this well. There are a number of different watch faces to choose from, depending on your taste. Personally I use the simple watch face. It is the one face that I can actually see well enough to read the time visually without needing VoiceOver (more on VoiceOver later). In addition I quite like the simplistic style of this watch face, it's a nice look.
The watch's other main function for me is notifications. It might not sound like much to some, but it really can be very convenient to have notifications going to the wrist rather than just the phone. Now if I'm typing away on my computer at work, rather than my phone buzzing and me having to fish it out of my pocket to see what it is and whether it's something important, my watch buzzes instead and I simply flick my wrist and take a quick VoiceOver assisted glance. If it's something that doesn't require action, such as a news headline, I simply read it and dismiss it. If it's a message that requires a fairly simple response, that is easily handled on the watch. Otherwise I can still take my phone out and deal with it when it's convenient to do so. I can leave my phone down on the kitchen table and not worry about missing notifications. I can even answer a phone call on the watch if the phone is charging in the other room. Is any of this critical, no, but it's handy to have.
One of the big features of the watch which Apple made a big song and dance about at launch was health tracking. For me this hasn't been a particularly big deal, but maybe that says as much about me as it does about the watch. I do go for walks and track my steps, and sometimes use the workout app while using an exercise bike. I keep the activity complication on my watch face too and make a vague effort to fill those circles, but I'm not a fitness fanatic, so am not as invested as I'm sure some other people are in this feature of the Apple Watch. A native sleep tracking feature would be a nice addition in this area I feel.
Where the Apple Watch struggles most is in the area of apps. There are plenty of apps and iPhone companion apps available, but I have found few that are actually really useful to me. It seems to be taking some time for developers to find the best ways to take advantage of the new platform, and perhaps they need clearer messaging from Apple themselves. Apps it must be said though, are not helped by the hardware at this point. They take so long to load in many cases that it is quicker to take out the iPhone and find the app buried in some folder than it is to wait for the watch app to load. A quicker processor must be near the top of the wish list for the second generation Apple Watch.
Where it is strongest is in dealing with the little things. Controlling media, such as music that's playing from the iPhone to bluetooth speakers, can be a delight. Complications on the watch face, like the current weather, are small but very convenient ways to see or access information quickly and easily, just what the Apple Watch should be all about. Need to set a timer to take the dinner out of the oven? No better way than to tap the timer complication, or better yet get Siri to do it without even having to touch the watch. Apple Pay too I'm lead to believe is magical with the watch, but unfortunately it hasn't reached Irish shores as yet so I can't speak to it here.
Navigating the user interface will be in many ways familiar to any iOS user. However there is no doubt it could do with some tweaking. I see where they were going with the digital crown. It acts a bit like the home button on the iPhone, taking you in and out of the app screen, and can be used to summon Siri. In terms of turning the crown for scrolling and zooming though, I rarely use it at all. It does bring something to the look of the watch as well arguably. The other button, which brings up a list of contacts, is something I have almost literally never used. Allowing the user to assign it's use instead may be no bad thing. Those are minor points though. What I really hate in the realm of the UI is the home screen of apps, a weird looking cluster of little coloured circles that are a pain to rearrange and to navigate. Give me a little grid over this every day of the week.
For blind and low vision users I have arguably saved the best for last. This is a first generation product and so I wasn't sure what to expect, but Apple included VoiceOver from launch and the implementation is excellent. As mentioned above, iPhone and iPad users will find VoiceOver on the watch very familiar. You can explore the screen by touch, swipe left and right, double-tap to select and use force touch, the watch's equivalent to 3D touch, all very similar to VoiceOver on iOS. Options like digital crown navigation, which in some sense replicates the item chooser on iOS, show that Apple put a lot of thought into accessibility on the watch.. They have also included features like zoom and bold text for low vision users, and features for users with hearing difficulties. If I was to nitpick, I might ask them to create an easier method to adjust the volume of VoiceOver, perhaps involving turning the digital crown, an input method I so readily dismissed in a previous paragraph!
So have I been bowled over by the Apple Watch so far, no, but that isn't to say I regret buying it. It's more a luxury product than a necessity at this point, but I do like it and wear it every day. The reality is that it's a first generation product that looks good and performs some functions well, but needs some tweaks and perhaps a clearer direction. I have no doubt these improvements will come and that the Apple Watch has a chance of being a very successful product into the future.