Apple Watch: It’s not about the functionality

There is a lot to like about the Apple Watch. You don’t need to buy one. Not yet. That’s not the point.

Nobody needs an Apple Watch. This product is not about need. It is not about making you more productive. An Apple Watch won’t boost your efficiency any more than a $100 Swatch watch will.

It isn’t a business tool. Strictly speaking New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department shouldn’t allow business owners to depreciate an Apple Watch to reduce their tax bill[1].

Fashion statement

Apple understands this inessential dynamic perfectly. That’s why the technology company has geared up to sell the Watch as a fashion accessory[2]. The Apple Watch is a personal statement, maybe even a status symbol.

You may not need an Apple Watch. You might want one.

Let’s not get too puritanical about this. Watches have long been more than mere timepieces. It’s no accident they are sold in jewellery shops, not in business equipment suppliers.

Watch makers, the posh, old-fashioned Swiss kind, advertise in prestigious titles like The Economist. They use snob value and emotional pulls to get the well-heeled to part with $10,000 or more for something that is functionally no better than a $100 Swatch. Both tell the time with enough accuracy and reliability.

Target audience

If you’re reading this expecting technical specifications, nerdy talk about speeds and the like, you are not in the Apple Watch target market.

Likewise, it’s not for if you worry about application ecosystems. Although there is a thriving one.

You should avoid going near an Apple Watch if you’re wondering how it will hook into your enterprise computing systems. Even though there’s a good chance it will do that.

The Apple Watch is cool. It is fun. It is nice to have.

It is useful. But that’s not why anyone will buy it. On the other hand, it may be what they feel they have to tell their spouse or accountant.

Health and fitness

There is a potential serious reason buying an Apple Watch: It does a great job of monitoring your health and motivates you to exercise more. This was enough to convince my wife that I wasn’t just playing with a fancy, indulgent toy.

Heath apps are important, although you can do the same with a fitness gadget costing one-tenth of the cost.

The key to understanding the Apple Watch is that, despite the name, it isn’t a watch, it is a wrist computer.

Computers once filled cathedral-like spaces. When I first met an ICL 1900 in the 1970s, it filled a large room and needed air-conditioning.

Modern computers have now shrunk to the point where a powerful device can sit in a package that’s about 10 mm deep and 42 mm by 35 mm.

The Apple Watch has a Retina display, a microphone, speaker, sensors and a gyroscope. There are moving parts on the back to send you touch messages. Apple calls this Haptic Touch.

Magic

The microphone and speakers allow you to control the wrist computer using your voice. This doesn’t always work well for me thanks to my mixed up accent, but when it does work it feels like magic.

That last word is important. For someone who grew up before computers were everywhere, the Apple Watch feels like magic.

When the ICL 1900 was moved into the Technical College where I first learned about computers, a wall had to be removed and contractors with cranes had to hoist a ton or more of hardware into the building. Now I can have more power on my wrist. That’s magical.

What’s even more magical is that this is the first generation Apple Watch. If the development of earlier Apple products is anything to go by, the hardware will get better and better with each generation.

Moreover, this magic technology is accessible. While the Apple Watch isn’t cheap, the review model on my wrist costs around NZ$ 1000. That’s theoretically within reach of most of us. Anyone who wants one can get one.

iPhone integration

You must have an iPhone to use the Apple Watch. The only official way to control the device is from an iPhone. Even if you didn’t need to control it that way, the Watch apps are so tightly integrated with phone apps they wouldn’t make sense without an iPhone.

Where the Apple Watch scores: Elegant timepiece

The Apple Watch makes a great timepiece. It looks good and feels good. I’ve seen and used other wrist devices, this is the nicest.

Telling the time the old fashioned way, by glancing at the wrist, isn’t a ground-breaking application by any stretch. Yet it is the thing I do most with the Apple watch. It does this well and with elegance.

Until I had the Apple Watch I used an old-school wristwatch. This often works better for me than using my phone, which I don’t always have in my pocket when I’m at home.

The Apple Watch comes with a variety of watch faces. My favourite is Utility: a classic analogue watch face with a moving second hand and a date window, all done in pixels.

Where the Apple Watch scores: Fitness

After three weeks with an Apple Watch I’m learning where it fits into my life.

For me, fitness tracking is the key feature. The Activity app pulls data from an accelerometer and the heart rate sensor to measure how much exercise you get.

The data is displayed in three coloured rings which progress clockwise throughout the day. It both indicated progress and shows how much more exercise you need to do to hit target. You also get nags to stand up once an hour.

Of course none of this is unique to Apple Watch, there are fitness apps for devices costing one-tenth the price.

I’ve tried them, but didn’t stick with them. Activity on the Apple Watch stands a better chance of having a long term effect on my health and exercise. I’ve been using it to weave exercise into my daily routine in new ways.

My wife, Johanna, tells me Activity has had a big effect on me. It makes me more inclined to get small extra bursts of exercise to move those bars around the circle. I like it because the goals it sets are not that difficult to reach.

If the Apple Watch means I live longer and stay healthier, it is well worth the price.

Other great stuff

When the Watch sends you a notification, you get a tap on the wrist. For this to work, the strap has be on tight. It feels just like a tap and that’s nothing like the feeling you get when an iPhone vibrates. There’s not necessarily a noise, that depends on the nature of the notification.

Where the Apple Watch earns a pass mark: Weather

There are few parts of New Zealand where the weather isn’t, let’s say, variable. Having up to date weather forecasts on your wrist is handy. I glance at the watch before leaving the house to see if I need to carry a jumper, a jacket or an umbrella.

The Weather app could be better. It pulls forecasts from the Weather Channel in the USA, this is not the best source of New Zealand weather information.

I’ve been caught out a few times, particular when the forecast says dry and it starts to rain. Both the New Zealand Herald and Radio New Zealand offer more reliable forecasts.

The weather display can be over fussy at times and hard to read — especially if outdoors in bright light. The user interface isn’t great either.

Where the Apple Watch earns a pass mark: Battery life and wireless charging

My Swatch goes for almost a year between batteries. The Apple Watch goes for a day. In fact, I’m a light user, so most of the time I can squeeze two days out of a single charge.

That’s not great, but it isn’t bad. I’ve never had the Watch run out of juice before my day is up. I usually wear it for 16 hours, there have been days where it has been in use for 20 hours. Not once did I need to reserve mode.

The Watch comes with a wireless recharger. You sit the watch on the small metal plate and feel a magnetic pull when it’s in position. It charges in a couple of hours, but I tend to leave it overnight.

Ideally a wrist computer would run for days on a single charge. That’s not going to happen in the near future, battery technology is advancing, but not at the same pace as digital technology.

Where the Apple Watch disappoints

Overseas reviewers are positive about Apple Pay. It doesn’t work in New Zealand. This is a disappointment as not carrying cash or cards would make life easier.

I always thought wearable computers would be a perfect match for voice recognition. That still holds, but I struggle with Siri on the Apple Watch. There are two problems.

First, I feel self-conscious holding my watch up and speaking into it in public. It’s embarrassing. This applies in spades when receiving incoming voice calls because everyone nearby can hear both ends of the conversation.

My second struggle with Siri is that is doesn’t work well for me. I have a clear enough voice but an accent that sits somewhere between New Zealand and South East England. Siri just doesn’t understand me enough to be useful. In almost every case I can get what I want faster by typing.

Steep learning curve

Unlike most other devices, it takes time to adjust to an Apple Watch. It took me a week of adjustment. Some of that was me, some of that the watch.

For some reason it had difficulty syncing at first. Then, once the watch seemed to be successfully paired with my iPhone, there were parts of it that were not. For the next three days my iPhone Activity app wasn’t picking up the data collected by the watch.

Most other apps and functions appeared to sync. The phone would burst into action if there was an incoming phone call or if a text message arrived. But Activity data didn’t make it.

There was another weird sync problem. If I paired my iPhone to the Watch, I couldn’t use the phone’s Bluetooth for anything else. I like to relax and listen to music stored on my phone through a Bluetooth speaker, for three days I couldn’t do that.

This isn’t how the Watch and iPhone should work together. I unpaired, then rebooted both. On the second try, I managed to fix whatever was stopping the speaker connection, but the Activity data still didn’t sync. A third reboot did the trick.

This was not a good start.

Conclusion

All-in-all you don’t get a lot of must-have functionality for your money with the Apple Watch. It doesn’t make me more productive, I suspect that was never a design goal.

The fitness features are better than any I’ve seen elsewhere. After three weeks I’m already seeing minor improvements thanks to the watch — that makes it worthwhile.

If your life revolves around an iPhone, you want to monitor your fitness and you like the sound of an Apple Watch, then I recommend you buy one. Otherwise, it may be wiser to sit out the first generation and wait to see what comes next.


  1. Although it’s London to a brick that some Apple Watch owners will try to claim a deduction.  ↩
  2. During my Apple Watch demo, I was shown a box full of Watch bodies and colourful straps. Apple calls them bands.  ↩

4 thoughts on “Apple Watch: It’s not about the functionality

  1. I had a similar experience wit my WeLoop Tommy watch. It’s not as cool, but it was delivered for under NZ$100 and still has plenty of cool features. I don’t know if my next phone will be iOS or Android, so I’m not ready to trap myself into a technology unlike a friend of mine who has a VW Golf with an iPhone 4 socket! He has to replace the car!

  2. Great quote from Phil Schiller about the vision for the watch: ‘The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad …The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook.’

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