Apple Watch First Impressions

Posted on May 31, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in iOS with 0 Comments

Apple Watch First Impressions

Apple Watch delivers the quality we expect from the world’s biggest consumer electronics company but is weighted down by confusing new user interfaces and an overly-expensive price tag. Apple seems to understand this, and is burying new users in an avalanche of much-needed help. But I find my original assessment to be both fair and accurate: Apple watch is non-essential.

It is, of course, beautiful. Even the low-end Apple Sport model I purchased—which cost $400 before taxes because I opted for the larger body size in order to accommodate my gorilla-like wrists—practically oozes quality despite using components that are pedestrian only when compared to more expensive Apple Watch versions.

Which is to say, the body is made of “space gray” aluminum, as with iPhones. The screen on this version is glass, not sapphire. And the band? Apple describes it as fluoroelastomer, which I had to look up: it’s rubber. But it’s a nice rubber, a flexible rubber, and I find myself letting my fingers run over its pleasant-feeling edges and surface. When it comes to hardware, Apple just gets it.

side-view

But as with Mac OS X and iOS, it is the software interface that I find most frustrating. Because of its tiny screen, most of the multi-touch gestures we’ve come to understand—pinch to zoom, for example, or even just basic scrolling—don’t really work so well here. So Apple has had to deviate from its playbook and invent a new interface for this new (to it) device type.

More to the point, Apple has done something Steve Jobs would have never allowed. It has added hardware buttons, including a “digital crown” that is both a push button and a scroll wheel, and a secondary button. So there are three main interaction points—screen, crown and secondary button—and to make things even more complicated, each is overloaded. For the buttons, that means you can press, double-press, and long-press. For the screen, that means you can tap and firmly press (“force touch”), plus swipe in from the top and bottom of the screen to activate “complications” (yes, they really call it that; it’s a watch term) and “glances,” respectively.

And that’s before you get to the insane new Apple Watch UI—a series of app bubbles floating in space—and the navigational model, which relies on the aforementioned hardware interactions. It’s a lot to learn, remember, and master, and almost none of it is obvious. I’ve railed in the past about what I call the “accidental UIs” of Windows 8, which required you to stumble around the system and bump into new features by mistake. Apple Watch is just as bad. Maybe worse.

So bad, in fact, that I took advantage of Apple’s offer for a 30-minute personal setup session. I opted for the online version—which I couldn’t schedule until the day after my watch arrived; I guess those guys are really busy teaching new customers the basics—but in-person sessions are available at retail Apple Stores too.

And, no joke: I needed the training. Though I was able to set up pairing and syncing Apple Watch with my iPhone 6 Plus all on my own—Joseph from Apple was quite impressed by this, as it’s one of the harder things for new customers—there were many things I literally couldn’t figure out on my own, thanks to the complexity of both the Watch itself and the Apple Watch app you must use on the iPhone.

pairing

The dumbest thing I couldn’t figure out was how to change the watch face and I was bedeviled by the next “CUP” appearing in the lower-right corner of the default watch face. Turns out you have to force-touch the screen to select from—and then laboriously configure—the available watch faces. And that CUP text? That stands for Cupertino, of course, since we all want to know the weather in Apple’s home town. (Worse: that Cupertino reference is tied to the World Clock app on the iPhone. Since I had long ago removed Cupertino from that app, I’m curious why it still showed up on the Watch. Boo.)

watch-setup

The other major thing that wasn’t obvious, by the way, was fitness tracking. I went for a 45 minute walk Saturday morning, and carted around two huge phones (a Lumia 1520 for listening Audible, and the iPhone 6 Plus, because Apple Watch presumably needs it nearby) and two fitness bands, my Microsoft Band and the Apple Watch. The watch did track my steps, as it turns out, but I didn’t know that there is a Fitness app on the watch that will let me explicitly track this exercise. So I’ll try that out today.

Point being, the personal setup session isn’t just a nicety, it’s a requirement, even for someone like me who doesn’t like to read manuals. You can’t just use an Apple Watch, folks, you need to be trained to use. Really.

joseph

Joseph, by the way, was great, and the training covered exactly what I needed, except for the first item: pairing and syncing, set up watch faces, understand complications, glances and notifications, and how to manage them, activity tracking and an overview of the relevant apps, how to use Siri, and setting up Apple Pay. Again, not just useful but necessary.

The Apple Watch packaging is insane, especially for the Sports versions: it comes in a huge, thick and heavy box that contains multiple internal packages, each of which has to be unfolded from plastic protection wrap so its contents can be exploded out onto the table.

box-open

The box includes a lot of stuff. The watch, of course, which in my case came with the M/L black strap already attached. An inexplicably big sleeve with a small strap in it. (I could use an XXL strap, frankly.) And a crazy-long charging cable that needs to be plugged into power: when I tried to power it from a laptop, it didn’t work.

box

Pairing was a bit confusing but I got through it right before I almost gave up on the automated process to move forward to some manual syncing routine. I don’t actually use a lot of Apple’s apps, and the stuff it syncs by default—everything—adds to the sense of being in over your head. So after Saturday’s training session, I took the time to remove as many apps as I could from the watch. Many were reading apps like New York Times, which I would never want on my wrist. But most Apple apps can’t be removed, which I find irritating.

app

More irritating, some of the apps I would want—Google Maps most notably—are not (yet?) available on the watch. I assume that will change, and if you’re into this kind of thing there are of course some nifty choices. For example, baseball fans can get updates about their favorite teams using the MLB At Bat app.

There are two things I’m most interested in here. One is the aforementioned fitness capabilities, which I find a bit confusing. You can set a daily calorie burn goal, for example, but not a steps goal, and finding your steps walked in a multi-step (yes, I went there) process. I bet that changes over time, given how different this is from other fitness solutions.

The second is Microsoft’s apps. I’ve made sure to keep them on the watch—OneDrive, OneNote and PowerPoint, so far—and will begin looking at them more closely this week. First impressions? Nothing vital, but I appreciate the irony of being able to access these three crucial apps on an Apple Watch but not on Microsoft’s own Band.

The Apple Watch’s reliance on iPhone is problematic, I think—all the fitness bands I’ve used so far, and I’ve used a lot of them—are standalone devices. Joseph told me that while I should be sure to bring an iPhone along for the first two or three exercises, I won’t need to do so after that as the watch will have learned my walking gait and workout habits and can provide good estimates after that. I’m not sure that’s the level of accuracy I’m looking for, but I’ll find out.

sync

Overall, Apple Watch is exactly what I thought it would be: Expensive, unnecessary, and complex, but of obvious high-quality. And while some of the core issues with this device can only be fixed with hardware updates—GPS capabilities, for example, would help a lot—some of them can be improved with software, and will be. In that way, Apple Watch is actually a lot like Microsoft Band, when you think about it. Just prettier and a lot more expensive.

But I can’t recommend Apple Watch to readers. It’s just too expensive and unnecessary, and too artificially tied to iPhone. (Microsoft Band, for example, works well with iPhone and Android as well as Windows Phone.) And I won’t be reviewing this device further, though I’ll keep it updated, examine and write about the Microsoft apps, and compare the exercise/workout experience to that of Microsoft Band.

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