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Deep-dive review: The Apple Watch after a month of use

Deep-dive review: The Apple Watch after a month of use

After a month of constant use, our reviewer reports that he really likes it, but it's not for everyone.

Every once in a while, there comes a bit of tech that lets you do what you're already doing, but in simpler and more effective ways. After using the Apple Watch for a month, I've decided that the watch is that kind of product. If you're already in the Apple ecosystem, chances are that you'll want one.

The design of the watch is typical Apple minimalism: A simple square of stainless steel, aluminum, or gold measuring 1.65 x 1.41 x 0.41 in. for the 42mm versions and 1.52 x 1.31 x 0.41 in. for the 38mm version. Weight varies by model and materials, ranging from 2.43 oz. for the 42mm Edition to .88 oz for the 38mm Sport. All models feature a capacitive multitouch Retina display with Force Touch technology.

The 42mm models have a 1.5-in. display with a resolution of 312 x 390, a pixel density of 302 pixels per inch (ppi). The 38mm versions have a 1.32-in. display with a resolution of 272 x 340 and a pixel density of 290ppi. All models feature 8GB of internal storage, a reported 18 hours of battery life, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. There's also a built-in microphone and a mono speaker.

The entry-level model, called Sport, is made of aluminum and an Ion-X glass display and costs $349 / $399, respectively, for the 38mm and 42mm iterations. The mid-range model, called Watch, has a stainless steel body and a sapphire laminated display; it costs $549 / $599 for the 38mm and 42mm versions. (I purchased the 42mm stainless steel model with a black sports band.)

Finally, if you've got money to burn, the Edition model features a solid yellow or rose 18 karat gold body and a sapphire-laminated display; it costs about $10,000 or $12,000 for the 38mm / 42mm models.

All models have a crown and single button on the right side and a couple of machined holes for the microphone and speaker on the left. On the surface, black borders surrounding the display almost give the impression that the screen and the housing are seamlessly connected, but the slightly different shades of black break the illusion.

The Watch has a sensor that uses infrared, visible-light LEDs and photodiodes to monitor heart rate. Depending on the model, this sensor is covered by either zirconia (in the Watch and Edition model) or a composite back with hard-coated optical polymer lenses (in the Sport model). The heart rate monitor checks every 10 minutes, and when a workout is initiated via the Watch's Workout app, heart rate is checked every 10 seconds.

There are other hardware-based personalization options. Bands can be removed and swapped out very easily by pressing tiny buttons on the underside of the Watch; they can be purchased separately, ranging in price from $49 for differently colored rubber Sport bands to $450 for the stainless steel Link bracelet. In between, Apple offers classic buckles, as well as leather and metal bands with magnetic clasps. My favorites are the comfortable black Sports band and the good-looking stainless steel Link bracelet -- the latter features a clever button mechanism that lets you resize the bracelet to fit your wrist. There will likely be third-party straps available in future.

And just in case you're worried about it, the Watch is splash and water resistant (but not waterproof).

Force Touch and Digital Crown

The Watch features two hardware controls: a Digital Crown and Favorites button. The latter allows a quick way to start a phone call, text message or Digital Touch session. (Digital Touch lets you send sketches, a tap or even share your heartbeat with up to a dozen contacts.)

The Digital Crown is a scroll wheel that you use to select options when using the Watch's software. It also acts as a Home Button when pressed. Double-pressing the Digital Crown also switches between the last used app and the Clock app, and holding down the Crown activates Siri.

The multitouch Retina display is not only capable of touch and gestures, but it also senses when additional force is applied to the screen; Apple calls this Force Touch. Applying pressure in supported spots brings up additional options. Thus far, Force Touch is mostly used for invoking actions such as calling up app settings, dismissing all Notifications, pausing or ending workouts, selecting audio and video sources in Remote, and customizing Watch faces in the Clock app, to name a few examples.

Besides the Digital Crown and Force Touch, Siri can be used for voice commands like setting timers, checking weather, launching apps and dictating messages. Functionality that can't be accomplished on the Watch is handed off to the iPhone.

An iPhone is required

Let's be clear about this: The Apple Watch needs an iPhone 5 or later to work. Much of the Watch's functionality -- such as app data, GPS and Watch customization -- piggybacks on the iPhone. In fact, as of iOS 8.2, Apple began including the Apple Watch as an un-deletable system app for iPhones. (That said, there are a few features that can be used without the iPhone once the Watch has been set up -- like sending and receiving texts, using Siri for reminders and weather, paying for items with Apple Pay and tracking workouts.)

The iPhone app lets you arrange application layouts; customize Notifications, Glances (more on these in a moment), and application-specific settings; run software updates and add your credit cards to Apple Pay.

Getting acquainted

Using the Watch involves a learning curve, although I managed to figure most things out by poking about the interface. The most important thing is to understand the difference between an App, Glance and Notification; after that, you need to learn how to distinguish between the different chirps, beeps, and physical feedback.

Glances are like a dashboard: A way to get at important app data, which is accessed from the Watch face by swiping up. Once in Glances view, swiping from side-to-side switches between various bits of information from different apps.

A Notification is an alert from an app that can be accessed by swiping down. Some Notifications can be acted upon right from the Watch. Email, for instance, lets you read, delete, mark as unread, or flag, though a reply must be done on the iPhone. Notifications for SMS or iMessages, however, can be replied to right from the Watch using either animated emojis or canned responses (which are edited on the iPhone), or via Siri dictation, with the option to send not only the transcribed text, but the audio file as well.

Apps can be accessed by tapping on the appropriate Glances or Notifications, or launched by pressing the Digital Crown. Built-in apps include standard communications software for Messaging, Email, Calendar and phone calls, both answering and receiving. There's also Music (you can add up to 2GB worth of songs on the Watch), Remote (for controlling an Apple TV or a Mac or PC with iTunes), Weather, Stocks, Alarm, Timer, Stopwatch and World Clock.

The Clock app features eight basic themes (called Faces), each with its own customization options. The Faces can be tweaked to display Complications -- avatars that give you additional tidbits of information, such as weather, Activity progress, sunset/sunrise times, moon phase, calendar events, and more.

The Watch does come with its own set of (sometimes unwritten) rules. For instance: Notifications and Glances are only accessible through the Clock app. Why? Because Notifications and Glances are called using your finger to swipe down or up, respectively, and doing so in any other app causes the onscreen elements to scroll. There are some inconsistencies as well -- for example, you'll see support for technologies like Force Touch in only some of the screens in some apps; other apps don't use it at all.

Becoming familiar with the Watch's feedback is key to using it effectively. Notifications and alerts use different chirps and sounds, but more than that, the Watch has built-in what Apple marketing calls the Taptic engine. This provides physical feedback in the form of taps on your wrist. The physical feedback worked so well for me that I muted sound almost immediately.

Working with the Watch

I was looking for the Watch to do two things: Be a fitness accessory/advisor and a notification system for important alerts. But what I didn't expect was that I would be using apps on it as much as I have.

The Watch fits into the existing Apple ecosystem, of course, including support for controlling and communicating with other Apple products; the day the Watch launched, there were already more than 3,500 apps in the App Store. As expected, third-party software quality varies from great to useless.

My advice for new users is to focus on familiarizing yourself with the Watch and then add third party apps and Glances, tweaking the parameters later. Over time, you'll figure out exactly which apps you want install, which apps should have a Glance and how to arrange the home screen to quickly get to the apps you use most frequently.

I find that the Watch works best for me when it's acting as a filter for important data; for that reason, it helps make me less stressed throughout the day. If your phone is constantly ringing with texts, emails, alerts and other distractions, you'll want to use the Watch to weed out and alert you to only the important data. More signal, less noise.

I've already written about my first couple of days with the Watch, but this is the type of product that grows on you with use. A month in, I'm using my iPhone for different reasons now. While extended text conversations still happen on the phone, 90% of my overall text conversations take place on the Watch, mostly because text transcription through Siri works really, really well.

The Watch is a great controller in the age of the Internet of Things. I use it to control my Avea lights and my thermostat, and I've used the Watch to frame and take pictures from the iPhone's camera about a dozen times.

I use the Remote app to control my Apple TV -- it's nice not to have to fumble for a misplaced remote, as the remote is already being worn on your wrist. I also use the Watch's Music app to control an iPhone plugged into my entertainment system, swiping through my music and selecting tracks with ease. I'm really looking forward to trying out HomeKit support, which will allow me to control my entire home (my locks, lights, garage door, pool, etc. are already wired with Insteon devices) from my wrist. (We're likely to hear more about HomeKit today at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).)

I use the Workout app all of the time and Activity for monitoring my daily fitness goals. When I first started using it, I found that the Watch wasn't calculating the distance I walked properly; however, that was remedied by a calibration process (set the Workout app to Outdoor Walk and Outdoor Run, and walk/run for 20 minutes while carrying the iPhone).

Apple Watch tracks steps taken and while it has built-in Workout and Activity apps, I'm also using third-party apps to guide me through exercises, like the one aptly called Six Pack, which walks you through ab routines. The app even uses the iPhone as a speaker to announce workouts, rest periods and the rep count, while the Watch itself displays animated examples of the exercise you're about to perform, as well as keeping track of reps.

Another app I use all the time: MacID, an app for the iPhone and Watch with a companion app on the Mac. Using Bluetooth, the Mac app will activate a screen lock when the paired phone is out of range. When you return, instead of entering your password on the Mac to log back in, you launch the MacID app on the Watch and touch the Watch screen, and the Mac unlocks for you.

I love using the Watch in the kitchen. There are numerous kitchen/recipe apps that walk you through cooking recipes while also giving you countdowns to the next time you have to flip that steak on the grill. And using Siri, you can do things such as set timers when your hands are full.

Also, Apple Pay makes it so easy to trigger a payment (by pressing the Favorites button on the side of the Watch twice) that I've been applauded by excited store employees after completing my transaction.

One of the last features I'll mention: Maps and the Watch's ability to give directions. When you ask for directions using the Watch, the iPhone stays silent. Instead of audible alerts from the phone, the Watch taps your wrist when it's time to make a turn. If you have to turn left, the Watch taps six times (feeling like a heart beat on your wrist), it taps 12 times for a right turn. (If sounds are enabled, the Watch also plays two distinct tones, one for turning left and one for right.) It's actually very cool; you can be guided to a destination without audible feedback, giving the impression that you always know exactly where you are, even when you don't.

Nothing's perfect

Over the past month, I accumulated a pretty extensive list of complaints, including interface oddities and weird behaviors. Then on May 19th, Apple released the 1.0.1 update and most -- but not all -- of the major problems went away. For example, apps and Glances load faster than before, but still, sometimes the display will turn itself off before they're finished loading. That is annoying.

There's also no native way to track sleep. The Watch should be able to detect that level of inactivity automatically.

The iPhone tracks elevation and coordinates automatically, and it would be nice if we could see the results of that data factored into workout results, the same way third-party apps like Run Keeper do. After all, the iPhone is collecting that data anyway.

One major area that needs to be fixed involves heart rate monitoring. As of version 1.01, heart rate checks are accurate when performing workouts that involve running, jumping or exercises in which your arms are waving about. I tested Watch's readings to other fitness monitors like the Microsoft Band as well as comparing results with professional workout equipment. In all of those cases, heart rate monitoring was spot on.

However, a workout involving pushups -- or the motion one makes when lifting weights --doesn't always trigger a proper reading. It seems the lack of arm movement has a lot to do with this; this has been confirmed by Apple support reps. The readings aren't just off, but really off: after a set of weights, my heart is usually beating at 120-140 beats per minute, and the Watch would report results in the 70 bpm range.

With the recent 1.01 update, the device's behavior changed: Now, if the Watch senses arm movement and it's not in Workout mode, it skips the attempt to get your heart rate. I found this disappointing: I would much rather that the Watch should automatically check for increased heart rate when it detects movement -- that would give a more accurate reading of the day's activities and calories burned.

Interestingly, there was one aspect of the Watch I didn't expect, and that involved the negative social implications inherent to checking for a Notification, especially when someone is speaking to you. It feels ruder than with the Microsoft Band, which is easier to discreetly check because you can keep the Band display on the inside of your wrist.

Bottom line

I consider the Watch a breakthrough product -- but that doesn't mean it's for everyone. It's a relatively expensive accessory for the iPhone rather than a necessity, and as a fitness tracker, there are alternatives that are much cheaper yet do the same things -- some even offer features the Watch doesn't include, like live UV sensor and proper water-proofing.

Overall, the Watch is well-designed, well-executed, fits perfectly into the Apple digital lifestyle, and offers access to an entire ecosystem of apps, hardware accessories, and media that Apple has spent over a decade building up. Over all, after a month of use, I'm very positive on the Apple Watch, but the folks at Apple have a much larger audience to convince. Time will tell if the combination of functions and fashion will be enough to lure even more users than the rush of early adopters.

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Tags Appleconsumer electronicsApple watchWearables

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