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June 20, 2015 / Jett

Apple Watch Review

I hate wearing watches. Haven’t worn one since I was like 8 years old. Can’t stand the handcuff-like feeling that comes with wearing one. The ability to tell time has never been enough of a selling point to overcome that barrier. But could I make an exception for one made by my favourite tech company? One that has the potential to do way more than tell the time? If the Apple Watch can’t do it, I don’t know what will.

The watch comes in two different sizes and three different trim levels, though the guts are the same in all of them. I have the 38mm Apple Watch Sport, the cheapest of the bunch. I know the larger size is only 4mm bigger and I like the idea of having more screen real estate, but when I tried that one on at the store, it looked too big for my wrist. What sets this one apart from its more expensive brethren are its Ion-X glass, aluminum casing and composite backing. These components aren’t as expensive, but they certainly don’t look or feel cheap. I’ll have to wait and see if they hold up against daily wear and tear, but so far I’m impressed with its build quality.

You also get the sport band in two sizes. The small size barely fit me, but the larger one fit great. Swapping out the bands was a breeze thanks to a nifty button mechanism on the back of the watch that easily allows you to attach or detach a band without the need for additional tools. Going in, I had concerns that the sport band would look cheap, though the black one I have looks good along side of the metal finish of the watch. At some point, I’ll upgrade bands, but for now this will do.

Apple WatchSetting up the watch was a relatively painless process. As soon as you turn it on, it’ll walk you through the process of setting up the watch and syncing it with your iPhone. It goes without saying that you’ll need an iPhone to get pretty much anything out of this watch, so there’s that. Should you stray too far from your phone, which I think is about 40-50 feet, you’ll lose the ability to do just about anything except tell the time. If it’s not paired to a phone, the watch won’t do anything until it is.

I would be remiss to not state what happened within the first 24 hours of owning the watch. While on the subway, I decided to unpair it to see what would happen, to which the watch responded by bricking itself. This freak incident may never happen again to anyone else, and it did not happen to me the second time I tried to do it with my replacement watch. However, it is something that happened and something that even the Geniuses at the Apple Store couldn’t fix without shipping it away for repairs. It’s inexcusable for the watch to falter as badly as it did in this use case, though I can’t say with certainty that all Apple Watches will behave as poorly when disconnected. Thankfully, the watch was still under warranty and Apple got me back up and running in just over a week.

With the watch back on my wrist, it was time to get back to discovering what this thing can and can’t do. Besides the obvious touch screen support, there are a few other ways you can interact with the watch. Most notable is the digital crown, which can be pressed once to go back a screen, held to activate Siri, or rotated to scroll or open apps. Using the zoom to open an app is weird, as you have to know exactly where in screen the trigger zone is, or else you zoom in and open the wrong thing. I prefer to just touch the app to open it. Having the crown to scroll works much better. Since your finger takes up so much of the screen when you’re trying to read, having the crown to allow you to scroll with an unobstructed view of the screen is handy. Apple WatchBy default, the watch will display its watch face when you look at it. Most of the time, it turns on when you move the watch into viewing position. There are a few odd times though where the watch won’t know you’re looking at it and require a press of the touch screen or button to activate. I find that this only really happens if you move the watch really slowly or in an awkward motion, though it can be a minor annoyance when it happens.

Out of the box, there are only 10 different watch faces to choose from. Some are very simple and to the point, some are very customizable in what type of information it’ll display, while a handful of others have some sort of gimmick to them. Right now, I’m using the solar face, which shows on the timeline where the sun is rising and setting. You can turn the crown to see where solar noon is or when we’ll officially hit night time. Yes, it doesn’t actually do much to enrich my life, but the effect of watching the sun break the line for sunrise or sunset is neat. Apple must have plans  to expand this in the future, as I would certainly pay to customize this aspect of the watch further.

When you swipe down from the watch face, your latest notifications will appear. On my phone, I can’t stand notifications. I miss the beep or vibration most of the time, and when I do see them, they generally weren’t worth the effort of fishing my phone out of my pocket. On the watch, they make a lot more sense. With the haptic vibrations and a chime, I catch them all as they come in and only need to look at my wrist to see what’s up. Instead of being an annoyance, these give me quick bits of info in an easy to check format with options to react or leave alone. If it’s a text message, I can quickly reply straight from the notification. Or, if it’s just someone liking my photo on Instagram, I can simply move on with my life without feeling compelled to take action. For sports, this functionality is excellent, as I’ve customized my Sportsnet app to give me news I care about as soon as it happens. The sensation of getting the latest Raptors news or Blue Jays final score instantly on my watch without having to actively seek it is great.

Apple WatchSwiping up from the watch face, you’ll get the Glances view. Without having to open an app, you can quickly check the weather, control your music, view the most recent pictures on your Instagram feed and more. Having quick access to these functions is a huge plus. Like notifications, the best Glances functionality gives you just enough info and control to positively impact your life wothout getting sucked into the other frills that a phone provides. This, combined with notifications, are probably the best parts of the Apple Watch experience.

That said, not all apps have complementary Glances functionality. In other cases, apps do have it, though it’s not good or doesn’t give you what you’re looking for. For example, the Twitter Glances view only shows the top trend at that moment. I’d much rather see the most recent tweet from my friends. Being able to Shazam a song from Glances seems especially useful, except for the fact that it won’t tell you what song it is until you open the app on your phone.

One of the new methods of interaction is Force Touch. By pressing hard on the screen, you trigger a different function versus what would have happened by simply tapping. Having more control is nice on paper, though it’s never clear when you can actually use it. Pressing hard on the wath face will pull up a menu to choose a new one, but the watch would never teach you that. At this point, the only way you’d ever know if an app supported it was by pressing hard on every single screen. Ideally, the watch communicates this to the user in some form so that important functions aren’t completely missed.

Apple WatchAs a tool for communication, the watch allows users to take calls and send texts. With the on-board speaker and microphone, you can totally do the futuristic phone conversation through the watch thing. It works as advertised, though you’re probably going to get stared at by confused onlookers. When you receive a text, you can reply via canned responses or text through voice. The voice recognition generally does a good job of interpreting your words, though it has no idea where to put the punctuation. In a few cases, this may cause your message to be misunderstood. On top of that, there are weird cases at times where it asks you whether you want to send your message as voice text or a text-based message. I’m not sure why this happens, but it’s annoying when it does.

Should also note that while you can answer calls or texts from anyone, sending the initial message or making the call is limited to whoever is on your watch-specific friends list, which has a maximum of 12 people. By default, your phone will add the favourites from your phone list and from there add any extras. I understand the reasons for this limitation and in practice, it doesn’t really hurt the overall experience.

By far the oddest way of reaching out are the things you can do with someone else who has an Apple Watch. One of my friends has one, so I’ve been able to test this out. Should you feel so inclined, you can send a doodle drawn by your finger. The lack of real estate on the phone makes it virtually impossible to draw anything meaningful. By tapping on the screen, you can send those same taps to a friend. I guess if you come up with some sort of Morse-like code beforehand, this could be…something. Strangest of all is the watch’s ability to send your heartbeat to another person. Just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should, and I struggle to come up with a worthwhile reason to do this.

Apple WatchGetting used to all of the different ways one can interact with the watch took a few days. This isn’t as immediately intuitive as the iPhone or iPod were back in their day, though most of it becomes second nature in time. In particular, jumping between app view and watch view takes some work, as does accessing Glances from app view. When you leave the watch alone while it’s on app view, it takes some time before it switches back to watch view, meaning that the next time you look at the watch, it’ll probably show you a swath of app icons instead of the time. If you want to set it back to the watch view, it’s best to press the crown twice from the app view to do that.

As for Glances, there’s no immediate way to access them from the app screen. Instead, you must get back to the watch view first before swiping up. With Glances being such an integral part of the experience, I think it should be easily accessible from any screen. Overall, the user experience is a bit clunky right now, though most of it will be easy to work around with practice.

Going into this, the potential saving grace for the Apple Watch to me was its app functionality. Once developers expand the catalogue with enough worthwhile apps, this could transform into something really special. Knowing that Apple is going to sell a boatload of these watches and that developers are already in deep with iOS apps, this outcome seems inevitable. While there are certainly some hits in the library, the platform is clearly in its infancy. Furthermore, there are aspects of the experience that are cause for long-term concern.

Apple WatchSo far, my best experience with the watch has come from my time playing basketball. On weekends, I go to an outdoor court and shoot hoops while blasting music from my phone. With the watch, I could track my actions with the Workout app so that I could immediately see my heart rate, workout duration and calorie burn on the fly. On top of that, if a song came up that I didn’t like, I could simply change the track on my watch without having to travel across the court to noodle with my phone.

While on the subject of getting physical, the Activities app is another favourite of mine. Making heavy use of its sensors, the app keeps tabs on your daily calorie burn, standing time and exercise time. You can set goals for yourself to aim for that are cleanly tracked on a circular interface. The app even has achievements that it doles out should you hit them. It also integrates with the Workout app so that your workouts are accounted for in your Activity log on the phone.

As much as I like it, I know that other apps provide more. Fitbit’s software tracks sleep. Many others allow you to track the food you eat, which this doesn’t. For me, as a casual exerciser, this is fine, though I can see how some would demand more from it.

Apple’s suite of first party apps are generally good, though the third party lineup leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the apps I’ve tried are alright and make great use of Notifications and Glances. Others are useless. Most of them though, are slow to load. This is a byproduct of Apple not allowing developers to install apps directly to the watch. From what I’ve read, the ability to do that should come later, but right now, third party apps really suffer because of this. Due to how disappointingly slow they can be, I haven’t found many that have won me over.

All things considered, will I continue to wear this watch? In spite of its flaws, yes. The things it does with Notifications, Glances and exercise stuff are great additions to my everyday life. It’s also a nicely built watch with a slick finish. Do you need one? Probably not, especially with its high-to-extremely-steep price point. This watch will get better in the future with firmware updates and newer releases, though only the hardest of hardcore Apple fans really need one of these today.

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