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This is how I use my Apple Watch
By Ng Chong Seng - 25 Jun 2015

Apple Watch review

 

The Watch is here

I was on the train, and I felt a tap on my wrist. I looked down, and it was a message from my wife asking if I’d be home soon. According to SG NextBus, my bus was on time, so I used Siri to send her a reply saying that I’d in fact be early. Ignoring the curious glances from fellow commuters, I then went back to Overcast to resume the podcast I was listening to earlier.

Now if I remember correctly, that episode was the longest continuous interaction I’ve had with the Apple Watch that day. In fact, I don’t remember doing stuff on the Apple Watch much since getting it two months ago.

Does that sound like I don’t like the Apple Watch? On the contrary, I think it’s great.

 

Choices, and more choices

Before I go on to explain how I use the Apple Watch, let me recap on the Watch’s hardware. While the Pebble Time is Pebble’s third smartwatch and the Gear S Samsung’s sixth, the Apple Watch is Apple’s first. To cater to different tastes, Apple has come up with three collections: Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch, and Apple Watch Edition. In a nutshell, all three feature identical components under the hood and share the same software features; the main differences lie in the different materials used for the front and back covers and the watch case. Add size differences (38 or 42mm; measured vertically) and the type of band you’ve chosen in the collection that you want, the price of an Apple Watch can balloon from S$518 to S$25,500.

There’s really no point in arguing whether Apple is overcharging consumers with the 38mm 18-karat rose gold Edition Watch with a rose gray or bright red Modern Buckle. Apple clearly sees the Edition as a piece of jewelry or fashion accessory as much as it a smartwatch. And in the realm of high-end fashion wares, it’s all about perceived value. If you don’t think it’s worth that much, or if you simply can’t afford it, move on and see if you like the other collections. That was what I did.

Space gray aluminum Watch Sport with blue Leather Loop and Chronograph watch face.

For most of us salaried men and women, deliberating between the (regular) Watch and Watch Sport makes sense, however. The most often cited reason for going for the former is that it uses sapphire crystal to protect the watch face. Versus the glass cover on the Sport, sapphire is way more scratch resistant. If you’re the clumsy sort who often brushes your watch or arm against walls or railings, then you might deem the premium worth paying for.

For me, I got the Watch Sport, for reasons entirely personal. One, I wasn’t sure at the start if the Watch would be useful for me. So to minimize buyer’s remorse, I went for the most affordable model. It happens too that I’ve always preferred a dark color for my gadgets, so I had no hesitation settling for the model with space gray aluminum case and black Sport Band. I then cajoled myself to get a blue Leather Loop.

I reckon many people would have the same thought process as me, and with the Apple Watch going on sale here from tomorrow June 26, the most important question now is: After two months in, do I regret my choice?

For the most part, no. But I’ve a couple of observations that are common sense really, but which I didn’t think too much of when I got the space gray Watch Sport. One, versus the stainless steel Watch, it’s more difficult to find bands that look good on the gray Sport. And that’s primarily due to the color and texture mismatch between most of the bands’ shiny lugs and the matte gray watch case. For the Sport, I found that the best-looking bands are the Sport Band and Leather Loop due to their one-piece design and covered lugs.

Now, don’t be too fast to think that you won’t be changing bands. With tons of third-party bands on the horizon (okay, there are already plenty on Amazon, eBay, and Taobao) and the fact that Apple has made it so, so easy to swap bands, the urge will come sooner or later.

Phones can do without cases, but watches can't do without bands.

Also, polished stainless steel watches get scratched all the time, period. If you can’t live with that, buffing with a bit of metal polish will remove light scratches and give you back the mirror-like finish. But don’t ever try this on the aluminum case or the space black stainless steel case as you’d make matters worse.

Lastly, the Watch Sport is the lightest among the three collections. When paired with the Sport Band, it feels extremely comfortable on my wrist. During exercises, that’s pretty important. While I’ve heard of people returning the Watch Sport for the Watch because they regretted and now think the latter looks nicer, I’ve also heard of people going the other way because they couldn’t stand a heavy watch.

 

For the most part, a well-thought-through UI

The Apple Watch is a watch, and a watch is used for checking time. As a digital watch that syncs with the iPhone, I’ve no reason to doubt Apple’s claim that it’s an “incredibly accurate timepiece”. But being a digital timepiece also means that it can do some time-related things that mechanical timepieces can’t, like browsing your calendar and easy checking of sunrise and sunset times. The OLED screen looks great too, with blacks that blend in very well with the black bezels so that the frame doesn’t look comical. And the new San Francisco Compact system font contributes a lot to ensure legibility on a screen this small.

Unlike the Pebble smartwatch however, the Apple Watch doesn’t have an always-on display. Which means that even for the simplest of tasks like checking the time requires you to turn your wrist into a position that the Watch thinks you’re looking at it. (Talk about wasting time to check the time.) Even then, the screen turns off after about 6 seconds. I was irritated by this at first, though I came to realize that this aggressive behavior is to minimize battery drain as one moves his arm throughout the day and unintentionally wakes the display. If I know I need more time, instead of flicking my wrist, what I do these days to activate the display again is to tap on the screen or press a button. Such user-intended action makes the display stay on for about three times as long.

Speaking of watch faces, there are nine built-in ones on the Watch. Some show more details (complications) than the others, but overall, they’re all tastefully done. For what it’s worth, I, like many others, like the Utility face, which is a practical face that offers quite a bit of customization. I can add complications like a battery level indicator, a world clock, and see my upcoming appointment, etc. That’s the face I use at work. During weekends, I swap out the Leather Loop for the Sport Band, and switch the watch face to one that’s called Mickey Mouse. This face is simply a foot-tapping Mickey Mouse pointing to the hour and minute with his arms. I’ve also removed all complications in this face. Again, the reason for this choice is entirely personal: I want to be able to point to Mickey on the watch and tell my kids, “Hey guys, it’s 3pm. Look, Mickey says it’s time to go.”

Seriously, who doesn't like Mickey?

Several reviews have painted the Watch as being difficult to use, especially in the UI/controls aspect. I don’t find it so. In broad strokes, there are only three cardinal rules to remember:

  • Turning the (digital) crown lets you scroll through lists or zoom into things
  • Pressing the crown returns you (eventually) to the app home screen or watch face
  • Pressing the button below the crown brings you to a list of people you can connect with.

Most other controls are intuitive too, assuming you aren’t new to the iPhone. Like, how do you power off the Watch? Yes, there are two physical buttons on it, but you know, only one resembles the pill-shape power button on the iPhone. The method for taking a screen shot is discoverable too, because like the iPhone, it involves pressing two buttons - and the Watch only has two buttons. How do you get to pending notifications? You guessed it - swipe down from the top when you’re in a watch face.

Of course, not all iPhone controls can be replicated on the Watch; but when you make intelligent guesses, chances are you won’t be far off. Need to increase the volume? There are no volume buttons on the watch, but there’s only one button that turns, so try that. Need to return to the previous app? On the iPhone, you double-click the home button to display recently used apps - why not try double-clicking the digital crown?

Yes, some controls aren’t that discoverable. Like how do you force quit an app? The answer: click and hold the side button in the rogue app, and when the power off screen appears, click and hold the same button again.

The digital crown and the button below it are the only two physical control buttons on the Apple Watch.

Then there’s Force Touch, a feature that senses if you’re pressing harder on the display. If you’re trying to do something and have resorted to different button combos to no avail, try a hard-press on the display. For example, how do you clear all notifications when you’re in Notification Center? Try force-touching it. How do you select a different watch face when you’re in the Clock app? Try force-touching it. How do you compose a new message in the Messages app? Try force-touching it. Simply put, when in doubt, just force-touch the display.

The Taptic Engine is another feature frequently seen in an Apple Watch review, usually when talking about notifications and Force Touch. In a nutshell, this is the component that gives you a tap (i.e., haptic feedback) on your wrist when a notification comes in or when you successfully activate a force touch. The vibration is unobtrusive, which is one way of saying that it’s on the gentle side. Since I mute my iPhone and Watch all the time, there were a few occasions where I missed a notification because I didn’t feel the tap. As such, these days, I’ve this habit of looking at my Watch, not to look at the time, but to see if there’s this red dot on the watch face, which tells me that I’ve a missed alert.

Try force-touching everything to discover more functions. Here's what you've when force-touching in a message.

 

Fitness, and the gamification of it

Apple is also touting the Watch as a revolutionary health and fitness device. Armed with a heart rate sensor and an accelerometer, it’s able to measure your heart rate during workouts and the ways you move. But since it doesn’t have built-in GPS, it relies on your iPhone to get accurate distance and speed information. (Read this on how to improve the Watch’s accuracy when you are walking or running without a GPS.) At the end of the day, all these stats aggregate in the Health app on your iPhone.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the Watch’s sensors because I don’t have the equipment to test them, but their numbers do seem close enough to what I’ve been getting on my Fitbit Charge HR and Withings scale. Does that mean the stats are accurate? Maybe, but it could also mean that the Watch is as inaccurate as these other fitness trackers. For what it’s worth, this MIT Technology Review article is saying that in a group test of not-so-accurate wearables, the Microsoft Band’s heart rate monitor has the closest results compared to a Polar chest strap.

What lies beneath? Sensors, mostly.

But there’s one thing I can say for sure, and that is all the stats in the world don’t matter if you don’t act on them. Apple has clearly put a lot of thought into devising ways to motivate Watch users to stay healthy, either through some gaming elements or pure nagging. For example, you can collect achievements for completing certain fitness tasks, and which you can see in the Activity app on your iPhone. If you’re the type that must collect every weapon in a game, this may motivate you to exercise more to unlock all the fitness badges. And for those who need a bit of guidance, the Workout app shows progress updates and a summary after each workout.

The Watch also constantly reminds you to move, exercise, and stand more. The three activity rings, each forming a full circle if you meet the respective goal, and which you can add as a watch face complication, are ingenious, as there are plenty of stories on the Internet about how people are now more active because they just can’t stand an incomplete circle. That’s totally the wrong reason to stay active, but whatever works, right?

The red outer ring tracks calories burned, the green middle ring tracks exercise, and the blue innermost ring tracks standing.

For me, I don’t really use these health and fitness features. For one, I’m not a fitness enthusiast or pro athlete. Also, after a health scare not so long ago, I’ve already gotten into the habit of staying active and eating and sleeping well long before I got the Watch; so in a way, I don’t need extra motivation. If anything, a weighing scale is more effective in telling me that I’ve been slacking.

And before I forget, the Apple Watch is rated at IPX7, which means it’s able to withstand immersion in water up to 1m for up to 30 minutes. Rain droplets or water from washing of hands or dishes shouldn’t negatively affect the Watch; some has even taken it for a swim with no ill effects. Me? I don’t wear my Watch (or any watch, for that matter) when doing the dishes or in showers, because why risk it?

Rings, rings, rings! Check your progress and trends over longer periods of time with the Activity app on the iPhone. As you can see, I'm so not into collecting badges.

 

Of Glances and apps

As I’ve mentioned at the start of this review, being a smartwatch means that the Apple Watch can do things that traditional watches just can’t. Check sunrise/sunset on a traditional watch? Maybe. Run apps? Now we’re talking.

The Apple Watch comes with no less than 20 built-in apps, so it packs a lot of functionality right out of the box. And since late April, there are already over 3,500 Watch apps on the App Store, a number that easily eclipses other smartwatches’ app stores.

Left: The iPhone's Apple Watch app's Featured section is the best place to discover Watch apps. Right: iPhone apps that offer a Watch app will have a round app icon with the words 'Offers Apple Watch App' below the main app icon.

A frequent complaint from early Apple Watch users is that the watch is slow. Let me be clear about this: The OS isn’t slow; in fact, the animations are fast and fluid. It’s some third-party apps that are slow. And that’s mainly due to current third-party Watch apps being only extensions of the apps that are on the iPhone. In layman’s terms, while the interface is on the watch, the heavy lifting is done by the parent app on the phone. The complexity of the task, the amount of data the phone has to pass over to the Watch, along with connection or network issues (especially when location data is involved) all contribute to the slowness. Take for example the SG NextBus app that I use a lot on my iPhone. When I’m in a rush, I prefer to use its iPhone Notification Center widget, because even though I’ve to pull out the phone, I still get a result faster than using its Watch app.

Glances, which are non-interactive views of an app meant to serve up important info or controls quickly, and which you get to by swiping up from the bottom of the display when you’re at the watch face, can be great if developers don’t complicate things. Like some third-party Watch apps, some third-party Glances also suffer from the forever-loading syndrome. As such, I almost never use them. The last time I used one was probably a month back, and it was to toggle the Do Not Disturb mode in Apple’s own Settings Glance.

As near-native Watch apps are set to arrive in the fall thanks to WatchOS 2, and as developers get better with coding Watch apps, it’s reasonable to assume that this speed issue would be resolved in the near future.

Glances, like this Settings Glance, are meant to serve up important info or controls quickly so that you don't need to go into the full app.

The round-trip communication between the Watch and the iPhone is the main reason why apps can sometimes be slow to load. And it's worse if the parent app also needs to pull data from the Internet.

 

The 500-to-23,000-dollars question

It doesn’t really matter what’s the production cost of the Apple Watch. What matters is your perceived value of the watch, because that determines if you’re willing to pay for it.

I certainly won’t buy any of the Edition models. As a nerd obsessed with specs and practicality, even though I think it looks nice, I also feel that it’s overpriced for what it can do. However, for those who can comfortably afford it, which means price concern is out of the window, their yardstick for determining value will no doubt be very different from most of us.

Do I recommend the regular Watch and Watch Sport? Yes. Because from watch/band design and UI to apps and the various features, I think Apple has done a terrific job. The Apple Watch is a first-gen product that feels like a third-gen product.

Sure, there are things on the Apple Watch that I don’t really care for, such as the fitness features and the new communication methods, the latter of which include sending sketches, taps, animated emojis, and even heart beats to other Watch users. The handful of friends that I know have an Apple Watch is one reason for my limited use of these new communication features; the other is the novelty has simply worn off.

I’m not even going to try to convince you that the Apple Watch is better than Android Wear, because neither is cross platform. If you use an Android phone, get an Android Wear smartwatch. If you use an iPhone, the Apple Watch is your best bet.

You can arrange app home screen layout, configure notifications, and more using the Apple Watch app on the iPhone.

Versus the Pebble that can be used on an iPhone, my preference is still the Apple Watch, and that’s after having owned the original Pebble and the Pebble Steel. For one, while the Pebble can be used to receive notifications, because it’s just another app on the phone, it will never be as integrated with the OS. Also, most of my favorite iPhone apps already have a Watch app, something that I struggled to find on the Pebble app store (Microsoft OneNote, I’m looking at you). And the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the constant disconnections between the Pebble and my iPhone. In fact, with the Pebble, most of the vibrations I felt on my wrist were disconnection/re-connection alerts. With the Apple Watch, I’ve yet to drop a single connection. Perhaps the Pebble Time will fare better - but twice bitten, thrice shy.

At the same time, I’m not going to deny the things that the Pebble does better than the Apple Watch, like its always-on screen and a battery life that’s measured in days. It’s just that I value the tradeoffs worth it.

Speaking of the Apple Watch’s battery life, Apple rates it at 18 hours based on their own tests, which involved a variety of tasks like a number of time checks and notifications, a prolonged app use, and a workout with music playback. The way I use it - mainly receiving notifications (painstakingly configured through the Apple Watch app on the iPhone to minimize unnecessary alerts), using Siri to make phone calls and send messages a couple of times a day, checking bus timings and news headlines - the Watch typically lasts me a day and a half. I rarely need to engage the battery-saving Power Reserve mode. Having the 42mm Watch also helps, as it has a larger battery than the 38mm.

Regardless, I still charge my Watch every night. And I don’t find it inconvenient since I’m also charging my iPhone at the same time. Actually, charging the iPhone is more of a hassle because as I don’t use a dock, the process requires both hands (one hand holds the phone, one hand inserts the Lightning cable). With the Watch, the round inductive charger simply snaps to the back of the watch thanks to magnets.

And that, is how I use my Apple Watch (Sport).

A smartwatch is always a want, never a need. Here's a quick size comparison between a 43mm (case diameter) Seiko SRP311K "Monster" and a 42mm (case height) Apple Watch Sport.

8.5
  • Design 8.5
  • User-Friendliness 8
  • Features 8.5
  • Performance 7.5
  • Value 8
The Good
The best smartwatch for the iPhone
Tons of apps already, and native ones are coming soon
Comfortable to wear; lots of bands to choose from
Built-in heart rate monitor
Good build quality
The Bad
No built-in GPS
Be prepared for slow-loading apps until native apps arrive
Battery life isn't great
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