Apple will soon debut an updated Apple Watch with a thinner body and larger screen, if rumors are correct. By far, Apple’s smartwatch has been the category’s biggest seller, though perhaps not as big a hit as Wall Street had originally hoped when the watch premiered in 2015.
Every year when Apple unveils an updated watch, reporters, and analysts who have tried it for a week or two publish their reviews. Those reviews are valuable, but they fail to answer the critical question: Are smartwatches useful in daily life over the long term?
For the past year, I’ve worn an Apple Watch Series 3, while occasionally also using Fitbit’s Versa and Ionic, and the Samsung Gear Sport. And while I’ve found compelling benefits, there remain some limitations with all of them, too.
But the bottom line: Smartwatches are increasingly useful and should become even more so over the next few years.
Less is more
One way I tested the Apple Watch was fairly simple. For a week, I alternated between wearing my watch and not wearing it. In a paper notebook, I tried to jot down each time I looked at my phone screen or peeked at my watch. That drove me a little crazy, so I also noted each day the amount of time the iPhone recorded as “usage” in its battery settings section. On days when I wore my watch, I used my phone an average of 4 hours and 57 minutes, versus 5 hours and 21 minutes when I went without. It’s a modest difference, but one that could grow over time as watches become more useful.
Apple originally pitched its smartwatch as freeing users from having to check their iPhone screens as often. With growing concerns about phone addiction, social isolation, and excessive social networking, that benefit is more valid today than ever.
One reason I used my phone less was fairly obvious. When a notification appears on my watch, I usually do nothing immediately except read it. But when my phone buzzes with a notification, I pick it up and check not only the app that triggered the buzz, but whatever other random apps have the dreaded red circle badge indicating that there are unread messages or notices. And like everyone else, I’m also prone to get sucked into checking my Facebook feed, email, and other apps once I already have the phone in hand.
A healthy life
The Apple Watch and its rivals track a variety of biometric data, including heart rates, sleep cycles, and exercise activity. Some people say such tracking even helped to save their lives. For me, collecting biometric data lets me see whether I’m leading a healthier life. I use an app called HeartWatch to see how exercise and medication affect my health between doctor’s appointments. Exercise tracking apps like Strava and Runkeeper work great on smartwatches, which means I don’t have to awkwardly pull out my phone while on a bike ride.
There are also apps like Round that remind me to take medications. I find that I’m more likely to take my pills after getting a notification on the watch than on my phone, which I don’t usually carry around the house with me in the early morning or after dinner.
One caveat: With battery life of about two days, the Apple Watch Series 3 is imperfect for sleep tracking. Fitbit’s watches, which have a battery life of five or more days on a single charge, do a better job and have a great built in app for sleep analysis. Apple Watch, in contrast, doesn’t include a sleep app. The free Sleep++, from developer Cross Forward Consulting, is basic and you have to go to the trouble of clicking it to tell it when you go to sleep and wake up. AutoSleep, a rival app from Tantsissa, is better but costs $3.
Another early touted benefit of smartwatches was the so-called gamification of fitness. By tracking data about exercise activity, the devices and apps can let users know how they are doing in ways that resemble video games. You set a record for calories burned in that last swim, the Apple Watch sometimes tells me. You have a streak of five days exercising for at least 30 minutes, keep it going one more day, it will prompt another time. The current software on the watch even awards digital “achievement badges” for personal bests or for winning weird mini-contests it sometimes offers, like burning a certain number of calories in a single month or reaching the daily stand up goal for many days in a row.
The triggers and tracking and badges seemed cute and motivating at first. But after a while, the buzz wore off and I barely notice them now. Keeping a streak alive seem less important than spending a little more time with my kids or meeting an important deadline at work.
Watches have long been one of the only pieces of jewelry most men would wear and can add pizzaz to a woman’s ensemble, as well. Apple has taken the lead in helping make smartwatches into a fashion statement. The key is the easy mechanism that lets you change the bands on your Apple Watch in a few seconds with the press of a couple of buttons. Other smartwatches—and most regular watches—force you to use more fiddly, spring-loaded levers, or even use a mini-screw driver (though Fitbit’s newest high-end fitness tracking band, the Charge 3, appears to have a very Apple-like band mechanism).
Apple has also frequently refreshed its band offerings with new colors, new materials, and new designs. Samsung and Fitbit are doing well in the band variety department lately, too. And there’s also a thriving third-party market for bands. I definitely appreciate being able to dress up my watch with a fancy orange leather Hermes band that my wife gave me for a present one year. And I have no fear of jumping in the pool with a rubber-like fluoroelastomer sport band. One knock on Apple is that it doesn’t allow third-party watch faces. Samsung and Fitbit users, on the other hand, can choose from hundreds of different faces from other developers. Apple users can use any photo as a watch face, though, providing one more option for personalizing the device.
Contracting and expanding
I’ve already mentioned several apps that I love using on my Apple (AAPL) Watch, and the huge ecosystem of apps is one of its big strength. Apple has far more watch apps available than Fitbit (FIT) and Samsung. But all is not well with the watch app ecosystem. Some highly desirable apps like Spotify, aren’t available. Apple has made programming information available for outside developers, but Spotify, which has an app for Samsung’s watch, hasn’t yet released anything (perhaps due to competitive friction with Apple Music). And some Apple Watch apps from major companies like Slack and Instagram have been discontinued.
Part of that ebb and flow is the natural process of developers figuring out what kinds of apps people actually do and don’t want to use on their wrists versus on phones. And with bigger watch screens and faster processors expected over the next few years, not to mention the spread of cellular-capable watches that don’t need a nearby phone to reach the Internet, I’d bet on growth for all of the smartwatch ecosystems.