• Apple Watch hands-on review

  • Apple Watch hands-on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Apple Watch hands on review

  • Look, it's a viewfinder for your phone's camera

  • Nice activity-tracking graphics

  • Apple Watch

  • Apple Watch

  • Apple Watch hands on review

The Apple Watch is coming.

Its launch date is official (24 April), its pricing is known (from £300) and we have a much better idea of exactly what it can do.

What we don't yet know is whether Apple can convince the world it needs one. Is the ability to share your heartbeat a killer feature? Will the marginal convenience gains of being able to pay with the tap of a watch rather than dig out a wallet win you over? Are your phone's notifications delivered direct to your wrist all you want from your wearable? Or will you simply buy one because it looks a bit swish?

It's almost decision time.

We spent a few precious minutes going through the Watch's functionality to help you understand what it's like to use. We're impressed - it can do a huge variety of stuff, and the way it does it all is very cool - but given the starting price, it needs to be.

Design and build

Apple Watch hands on review

Apple Watch hands on review

Apple Watch hands on review

There are three main varieties of Apple Watch: Apple Watch Sport (made from aluminium and Ion-X Glass, with a fluoroelastomer strap), Apple Watch Collection (stainless steel and sapphire crystal glass) and Apple Watch Edition (18-karat gold, with sapphire).

Each variety is available with a 38mm or 42mm case, and each can have its strap easily swapped for an alternative thanks to a neat quick-release mechanism. Is that an entirely new Apple Watch accessories industry we hear rolling round the hill?

From the front the Apple Watch looks like a small wrist-worn iPhone 6. It has the familiar rounded corners, the black screen border and the curved edges to the screen, while the case body is similarly rounded and tactile. On its right-hand side are a pair of buttons - the Digital Crown and a function button - and on its back are a pair of lenses lit by green LEDs which read your heart rate.

Put it on and it sits slightly proud from your wrist, but it feels as comfortable as any watch. Apple has been careful to keep it from looking bulky (it’s not as obtrusive as, say, the LG G Watch R or Moto 360) and even the larger version didn’t look out of place on a dainty female wrist. In fact, all versions look daintier in real life than in the promo images, and the 38mm models are particularly teeny.

Build quality is everything you’d expect from a high-end watch manufacturer. The details are perfectly etched, the materials feel great (cold and glossy in the Watch collection’s stainless steel, light and dusty in the Sport’s aluminium) and the straps are of a quality that would befit a £200+ watch. Both the front and rear are protected by high-quality glass - sapphire crystal on the Apple Watch collection and solid gold Edition models, and ‘Ion-X’ toughened glass on the Sport.

Buttons depress with a reassuring click, while the tiny Digital Crown strikes an impressive balance of smallness and accessibility. We’re going to use the phrase ‘knob feel’ here, so brace yourself: the Apple Watch’s knob feel is light, with very little resistance and no click. It’s a great piece of design, allowing you to move things on screen without covering them with your clumsy great prodfingers. It turns easily but accurately, so you can quickly navigate menus and land on your intended target. 

The Watch is water-resistent - but only up to a point. Apple says that it is rated to the IPX7 standard and that it is "splash and water resistant but not waterproof". It continues that you can "wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended." It's also worth noting that, as you'd expect, the leather bands aren't water resistant at all.

Screen

Apple Watch hands on review

Apple Watch hands on review

The screen is bright and crisp, and looked at from the kind of glancing angles you’d expect to look at a watch screen from – edge-on while riding a bike or balancing in a crowded train – words and pictures remained nicely readable. Pixels are visible if you go looking for them, but resolution is on par with that of the best Android Wear devices.

While some of the watch faces look fantastic - and with 2 million possible combinations out of the box, you should find one you like - this watch will never be able to ape posh fashion watches in the same way as the Moto 360. Well, not circular posh fashion watches, anyway.

Taptic feedback

Apple Watch hands on review

Apple Watch hands on review

Rather than chirp at you, the Watch lets you know things are happening in phone-land by issuing nudges via its 'Taptic Engine'. Now, this could be easily written off as a cleverly marketed buzzer, but there's more to it than that.

We’re not exactly Haptic Feedback Review Monthly, but there is a difference between nuanced haptics and a flat buzz – Valve’s Steam Controller, for example, uses it to fool your hands into thinking you’re holding something with a different shape – and we think it’s an area that will become increasingly important as wearable tech becomes more popular.

The Taptic Engine haptics in the Apple Watch have just that sort of nuanced feel: you get the sense of a carefully directed and modulated vibration, which means different buzzes can convey different information. More on that in a moment.

Interface

Now back to those buttons. The way you interact with the Watch is both familiar and unlike any other device you’ll have used. Sometimes you pull the screen around with your finger and tap an icon or on-screen button (just as you would with a smartphone), sometimes you scroll through lists and options or zoom in and out using the Digital Crown and sometimes you press the screen a smidge harder. 

That’s right - the Watch’s screen is pressure-sensitive, and pushing with meaning opens up new options just as a right mouse button click would.

One of the most-used functions on the Watch will be Glances, accessed by pulling up from the bottom of the screen. This gives you quick access to single screen, Google Now-style contextually useful cards full of data from apps such as Calendar, Activity, Weather and Passbook (for tickets).

In use, even with the beta software we were trying, the Watch is amazingly slick. Menus glide (we saw a little menu stutter when certain apps first loaded, but nothing significant) and transitions are near-instant.

The sheer variety of control methods is initially confusing - you’ll end up going back to the main menu or turning off the screen a few times - but after a few minutes it’s simple to navigate even complex menus. Other smart watches such as the Pebble are simpler, but it’s hard to see how Apple would make so much functionality navigable if it was too. Talking of which…

Functionality

Look, it's a viewfinder for your phone's camera

Nice activity-tracking graphics

Out of the box the Watch will include apps for your email, messaging, calendar, photos weather, Maps and more, all of which will let you do exactly what you’d expect. Anything that shows up as a notification on your iPhone will be visible and actionable from your Watch, too: it's like having an iPhone on your wrist.

More interesting are the Music app, which remotely controls your iPhone’s music or plays it back from 2GB of built-in storage, and the Remote Camera app which turns the tiny screen into a viewfinder.

More interesting still are the Watch’s fitness-tracking capabilities. The heart-rate monitor and built-in sensors allow it to map your activity and feed it into the Activity app, which allows you to set calorie targets and will nudge you if you are inactive for what it considers to be too long. The included Workout app lets you choose from a variety of common routines and goals; if you tell it you want to go for a 5km jog, it'll leap into action, timing you as you go and giving real-time feedback on your progress. The apps present information in a simple way, and the heart-rate sensor takes readings impressively quickly.

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Communication

As with Android Wear, the Apple Watch gives you access to voice control, too. You can use Siri to conduct searches (“what time will I get this blasted hands-on finished?”), set reminders or dictate messages, and you can choose to send messages either as the recorded audio clip or translated into text. 

In fact, there are numerous novel ways to message with the Apple Watch. Sure, you can pop over an emoticon or an animated hand-wave, but the Digital Touch app takes interaction to a new level: you can send a sketch you’ve made on your watch face, a selection of taps or even a rendering of your heart beat.

We felt Digital Touch in action and it’s not as frivolous as it sounds: you may not have thought you want to know what your my heartbeat feels like, but if it’s your child sending a message when you’re at work, or a friend dropping you a picture from a foreign country, you might think differently. The Taptic engine does a good job of conveying touches, feeling like a subtle, buzzing prod to the wrist; it’s a more personal, emotionally resonant method of interaction than you’ll find on other devices, and a novel use of the Watch’s form factor.

We did’t get to see the Apple Watch taking or making a phone call via its built-in speakerphone, and we also missed out on trying Apple Pay as it’s only available in the USA for now. Still, the UK version has the hardware to enable this contactless payment solution - that’s NFC, plus the ’Secure Element’ chip that locks away card details - so we hope it’ll be available later this year. Certainly, it’s one piece of functionality that marks the Apple Watch apart from its competitors, and could turn out to be the killer feature given the extra convenience it allows. No more awkward wallet fumbling ever again!

The question is whether Apple Watch is trying to do too much. If it were simpler, it wouldn't require the complex control mechanisms Apple's devised for it. We still don't know what the smartwatch's defining purpose is; it may be the Swiss army knife approach Apple's taking now, or it could be a more stripped-down approach akin to Pebble's. We'll only find out when we're actually living with it.

And there’s an App Store…

Demoed at the Apple Watch keynote but not in real life were the first spoils of the new Apple Watch App Store, available on iPhone in iOS 8.2. These were created using Apple’s WatchKit development tools, and they’re the tip of an iceberg of potential functionality.

Uber’s app lets you quickly pinpoint and call a local cab driver, while Shazam’s lets you quickly identify a song and pull up its lyrics direct to your wrist (essential on a night out). 

SPG hotels’ app furnishes you with your check-in data when you’re outside your hotel, and uses the Watch’s NFC capability to act as your door key, too. 

We also saw a demo from Alarm where a garage door was opened remotely from a Watch. Now this one illustrated the ‘hey that’s cool but couldn’t my phone do it?’ reaction that some experienced when playing with the Watch. Some things need to be on the wrist and some do not. We think Apple’s just about identified enough unique capabilities to make the Watch’s existence worthwhile, but the onus is on the developer community to make it essential. Still, if someone doesn’t port Draw Something to this screen, the world will be a poorer place.

Battery life

Apple Watch

The officially quoted figure for the Watch's battery life is 18 hours of 'normal use' - but no-one really knows what that means. Hopefully you won't need to charge it before a day is out on most occasions; certainly, if you do, that's a big lose for the Apple Watch.

According to 9to5Mac's sources, it'll likely only be rated for about 2.5 to 4 hours of active 'screen on' use, although it should allow for 2-3 days of standby use if you don't fuss with the screen too often. On the other hand, if you're using graphics-heavy apps or playing around with the screen regularly, you might end up needing the charger before your day is through. Sounds like it'll be cutting it close.

When can you strap in?

Apple Watch

All varieties of Apple Watch will be available to pre-order on April 10 2015, and they'll go on sale on April 24. Prices range from £300 for the 38mm Sport edition to £13,500 for the solid rose gold Watch Edition. 

Apple will open three international store-within-a-store locations on April 10: Selfridges in London; Galeries Lafayette in Paris and Isetan in Tokyo. Customers will be able to try on all three models and pre-order one before they go on sale.

Apple retail staff will be on hand and customers can pre-book 15 minute appointments, or 30 minutes if they want the solid rose gold edition. All three stores will open at 10.30am local time.

Given the pricing, the Sport is the model that's likely to sell. If money's less of an object, the sweet spot is definitely the heftier-feeling stainless steel Watch Collection, which can be nabbed for from £560 with a supple leather strap.

Although these prices are high compared to most smartwatches, they’re far from crazy for watches. The trouble is, if Apple’s update cycle makes the first generation of Apple Watches obsolete by this time next year, those prices will sting. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple handles that little hurdle.

For full pricing info, head to our Apple Watch pricing info guide.

What we don't know yet

Right now it's not clear exactly what the Watch will be capable of it it becomes disconnected from your iPhone. It can connect via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and some apps will be powerless without such a connection. But could it operate as a fitness tracker sans iPhone? That could be useful - and we'll find out when we get a Watch in to test.

Verdict

Apple Watch hands on review

Is the Apple Watch a revolutionary piece of hardware? Yes and no.

No, because it’s not a completely different kind of smartwatch, but as with all things Apple, the hardware – even if it’s nicer than anyone else’s – is only half the story.

As with the iPhone, the Apple Watch has a hulking great advantage in the apps department, something that was obvious from its unveling: where Google tends to talk about the amazing potential of Android Wear, Apple talks about big brands that are already signed up and making apps for its platform – apps to find your car, let you into your hotel room, control your smart heating or track and share your exercise.

In addition, the fact that Apple’s put so much thought into what functionality only a wearable device could usefully provide - sharing pictures and taps instantly, or mobile payments straight from the wrist, for example - gives Apple an advantage when it comes to usefulness and emotional resonance.

For these reasons, the Apple Watch may well be the device that brings the smartwatch to the masses and gets the wearable revolution revolving. Stay tuned for a full review.