Apple's first wearable offers the best smartwatch experience, but third-party apps need a speed boost.
The Apple Watch is the first product category to launch under the tenure of Apple CEO Tim Cook and the company’s newest since 2010 when it introduced the iPad.
The smartwatch unveiling comes after years of speculation, rumors and even a few hints from Tim Cook. Expectations are high, and rightfully so; Apple AAPL has made a name for itself by releasing products that have not only transformed entire industries, but changed users’ lives.
The iPhone ushered in the modern-day smartphone era with its multi-touch interface. The iPod transformed the way we listen to music by creating a device the size of a matchbox that could store thousands of songs. Now, the company has launched the Apple Watch and only time will tell what impact—if any— it’s going to have on consumers and the industry.
Before its official launch, no one outside of Apple really had a thorough understanding of what exactly the smartwatch could and couldn’t do.
Then last Friday, some 227 days after the Apple Watch made its first public appearance, UPS knocked on my door and asked me to sign for a package. Inside was the 42mm Space Grey Apple Watch Sport edition, the least expensive of three different models. Despite my order status initially showing an estimated ship date for end of May, it somehow arrived on launch day.
Inside the box I found the watch, a charging cable that magnetically attaches to the back of the gadget and a power adapter. The watch’s battery showed it had a charge of 50 percent, giving me the opportunity to try it out right away.
The setup for the gadget was simple: I only had to launch the Apple Watch app on my iPhone, then line a bar code found on the bottom of the smartwatch with a yellow box found on my iPhone screen. A few seconds later, after entering my iCloud account information, my Apple Watch was up and running. Although connecting an iCloud account isn’t required, it does give you the ability to exchange information with other Watch owners and use Apple Pay.
The first few alerts pushed to my watch left me a bit perplexed. My iPhone screen was no longer lighting up as each message arrived, nor was there any sort of audible alert coming from my phone. It wasn’t until I unlocked my screen that notifications begin to pop up and I realized that instead of the iPhone and Apple Watch competing for your attention, alerts are only sent to the device you’re using at the time.
In other words, if your iPhone is locked notifications go straight to your Apple Watch and when your iPhone is in use alerts show up on your mobile device. This small detail goes a long way in providing a pleasant user experience and one I wish Google’s Android Wear or Pebble would adopt.
Later in the day I began installing applications on the watch: First was a weather app called Dark Sky, followed by Starbucks and Deliveries, an app that tracks packages around the world. I picked these apps because I use them regularly on my iPhone and each one offers the coveted Glance integration. The feature offers at-a-glance data summaries (hence the name) provided by select apps for the smartwatch. You can access them by swiping up on the watch face to find information ranging from weather to stocks. Lost and in need of assistance? Simply place one finger on the smartwatch and push up to find your current location calendar or forecast.
Although the watch’s apps are an amazing added feature they were far from perfect; third-party applications were unpredictably slow and I was often forced to wait for them (or Glances) to load during my first week with the product. Sometimes an app would launch in seconds ready for use, while other times I was left waiting upwards of a minute. Apple’s own native applications (such as Mail, Stocks, or Weather) always launched almost instantly.
In short, third-party apps have a long way to go before living up to their potential, although developers can’t be blamed for any current shortfalls. Apple has yet to allow developers the ability to create smartwatch-specific apps. The gadget’s current ones are treated like the same version of what is found on the iPhone and relies on bits and pieces of information being sent from a smartphone to the watch. This need to push and pull information between the two devices led to many of the delays I experienced.
The wrist-worn gadget also allows users to not only to read messages on the small screen, but provides the ability to actually compose and reply to messages using your voice with predefined text templates. I rarely participated in long conversations on the smartwatch because typing on the iPhone felt faster than using dictation, but the ability to read a notification and send a quick reply—either dictated by voice or one of the predefined responses—came in handy on more than one occasion. Buyers beware, composing messages in public via voice commands elicits a feeling of self-consciousness, as you automatically assume everyone is staring at you, which is why I shied away from voice dictation in public.
Fears over the watch’s less-than-stellar battery are overblown. Apple claims consumers can expect only 18 hours of mixed usage on a single charge, but I’ve yet to see the battery dip below 30 percent after a 20-hour day full of tasks that included flight updates, navigation, weather forecasts, emails, Twitter, and music playback via my iPhone. Would it be nice to have a battery that doesn’t need to be recharged every night? Of course, but right now it’s just not possible.
What I enjoyed the most about using the watch is that it’s not simply a dumb screen with pixels that light up each time an alert pops up. Even with the slow response times found in some apps, I was still able to proactively check my email, monitor shipments and view my upcoming trip details in real time on the smartwatch because it automatically synched with my iPhone.
Competing platforms Pebble and Android Wear offer similar features, but where the Apple Watch excels is its ability to synch with iOS. The integration between Android Wear and Android devices often felt like a one-way street of communication, always relying on notifications. The same can be said about Pebble, which lacks the ability to synch with both Android and iOS.
Overall, the Apple Watch is a step in the right direction for smartwatches as a whole. Its tight integration with iOS, the ability to triage messages and emails from my wrist combined with the Apple’s broad support makes it an appealing device. It’s a great product although there’s more work that needs to be done to improve the app experience.