Picture the scene: a modishly lit restaurant. You sit surrounded by tables with couples face-deep in their smartphones, the eerie blue-grey glow lighting their faces more brightly than the restaurateur’s careful ambience.
You: Well, honestly, look at them all. They’re not even talking to each other. I mean what’s the point of going to dinner if all you do is bury your head like that. It’s a disgrace. Ooh, hold on, I think I’ve got a text. *dives for phone*
Tackling that is of course the first, primary job of any smartwatch, and Apple’s smartwatch tackles it with characteristic grace. But it’s only the first job. What the Apple Watch does is apply a little extra grace to almost every aspect of smartwatch design, and while every little thing it does makes an individually small impact, together they combine to make life just a little bit better.
Take them all together - and factor in the possibilities presented by the Watch’s powerful platform, and the fact it’s drop-dead gorgeous - and you have one of the most desirable gadgets of recent years.
Apple design, Apple pricing
The Apple Watch comes in two sizes. The case, measured vertically, is either 38mm or 42mm. Every single person who’s seen the 42mm model I’ve been testing immediately presumed it was the smaller one – this is not an oversized watch.
You begin to appreciate the classiness of Apple’s latest golden child the moment you remove it from the box. Just seeing it and trying it on your wrist challenges your presumptions – it’s much more attractive and premium than the photos suggest. It’s solid and reassuringly weighty with that trademark oblong-with-rounded-corners shape. Compare it to a regular analogue watch and it’s thick from front to back, but doesn’t feel over-sized in any direction. It’s also beautifully balanced, sitting firmly on the wrist and not bouncing around as you touch it.
The build quality is so much higher than with any rival smartwatch we've tested that it’s not even really a competition. And thanks to some extensive hands-on sessions I can confirm that’s true even if you’re looking at the “entry-level” Apple Watch Sport - although it was the more deluxe Apple Watch that I selected as a review sample.
The vast range of options available for the Watch is very uncharacteristic of Apple, but put the more fussy customisation choices to one side and there are three core models - the Apple Watch Sport with its aluminium case and glass face, the Apple Watch with its stainless steel and sapphire crystal combination, and the Apple Watch Edition, which has an 18-carat gold case. And starts (yes, starts) at US$10,000. And which one you go for can be based almost entirely on which you most like the look and feel of - inside they’re all identical.
But you may well find yourself making the decision based more on which you can afford, and even the cheapest looks expensive next to the best non-Apple smartwatches out there - US$350 is the entry point here, which is mighty steep compared to a US$180 Moto 360 or US$200 Pebble Steel. Step up to the stainless steel Apple Watch and you need to budget at least US$550. Add a lovely leather or meticulous metal strap and you can find yourself hitting the US$1000 mark before you know it.
You really don’t need to hit those heady heights, though. The most affordable strap, the sport band, is surprisingly comfortable – a soft and smooth elastomer that feels sumptuous and tactile.
Setting the Watch up is quick and easy. Almost all of the Watch’s features rely on a link to your iPhone, specifically an iPhone 5 or later.
You hold the Watch in front of your iPhone camera and launch the Watch app which arrived with iOS 8.2. The Watch displays information about which model it is and pairs with your iPhone. It then transfers contacts and other information to the Watch, which may take a few minutes, during which you can get the strap fitting just right.
Note, as you do so, the back of the Watch. There are four silver circles on a black circle. Two of these are the heart rate sensor and the other two the magnetic connectors for charging the Watch. As you’d expect from Apple, even the underside of the Watch is immaculately made.
What you can’t see is the Taptic Engine, but it’s there. It’s the physical feedback effect caused, since you ask, by a linear actuator. When it’s on your wrist it makes the Watch feel like it’s gently tapping you. Not the thumping vibration of the haptic effects of many phones but a deeply subtle feeling that is unmissable, intimate and pleasing. It’s used in lots of ways with distinctly different effects depending on whether it’s letting you know a text has arrived, or guiding you to turn right at the next junction. It’s one of the most appealing new tech elements on the Apple Watch and is nuanced and changeable whether it’s telling you there’s a new text message or somebody’s sending you their heartbeat.
The glanceable gadget
The Watch, let’s be clear, is designed not for the lengthy interactions we have with a computer or tablet, or the shorter connections we make with smartphones. No, the Watch is for glances of one to two seconds, to snag information about the latest email or message to arrive, see the most recent Facebook updates and so on.
This brevity of contact is part of the design and what may seem like a limitation is actually one of the device’s best features – especially in that out-at-dinner situation when you don’t want to alienate your fellow diners with a full-on phone interaction. But do remember that constantly looking at your watch can be taken the wrong way as well...
So you’ve set it up and are on your way. Now’s the time to let the quality of the screen sink in. It’s a Retina Display and it’s crisp, colourful and bright. Whether you’re reading a text message or navigating round the galaxy of apps on the home screen, it’s sharp and readable, even in outdoor light.
That galaxy can be made up of a dizzying collection of tiny shortcut icons. Too small to tap? Don’t pinch-to zoom as you would on the iPhone, just turn the watch winder, called the Digital Crown, to zoom in and out.
The Digital Crown is another Apple original and is a subtle tool. You can use it to scroll through lists, such as your contacts, and as you pick up speed the Crown registers this and flicks from going name by name to showing the letter of the alphabet you’ve scrolled to, like a Rolodex.
There’s one other button, a side button below the Crown, which has just one function: to take you to a circle of contacts, 12 favourites chosen by you, so you can quickly call or message them.
While I’m on the subject of the Watch interface, there’s another neat innovation. The display is pressure-sensitive. No, not like an old-school resistive touchscreen - this is a capacitive screen like the iPhone’s, but it additionally has tiny electrodes around the display that can register how hard you tap. This is what Apple calls Force Touch. A firm press on the screen makes extra menu options appear. I’d say it’s like the right button on a computer mouse and it makes using the Apple Watch a much richer, deeper, more context-sensitive experience. Imagine the versatility this kind of screen could add to an iPhone…
1. Digital Crown: Takes the place of the crown on a dumbwatch. Is used to scroll through lists in some circumstances and zoom in and out in others. Pushing it in acts as the Home button on an iPhone does.
2. Contacts Button: Brings up your 12 favourite contacts for speedy interaction.
3. Multi-touch: The usual pinch-to-zoom, tap to interact control system on every modern smartphone.
4. Force Touch: Pressure-sensitivity on the screen. Push harder for the smartwatch equivalent of a right mouse button click.
Putting a brave/bright/Disney face on it
You can now download apps from the dedicated Watch app store and rearrange the little circles as you wish, either on the Watch home screen or the iPhone companion app.
This is also the time to choose which notifications you want to receive. And, oh yes, choose a watch face. There are ten of these but some have so many variations available that it feels as though you have thousands to choose from. Match the colour of the second hand to the t-shirt you’re wearing today. Goof around with the view of the Earth watch face and notice that it’s facing the exact part of the planet you’re on directly at you. Or just pick Mickey Mouse and have done with it. Some faces let you show extra details such as the weather, battery charge level and more. These are meticulously designed faces and look great.
You can choose to set the time the Watch displays a little fast, if that’s your thing. This is a setting done on the companion app on the iPhone. It’s clever, because it doesn’t affect alarms and the like – they’ll still sound when the real time hits, not the wonderland time you live in.
That most smartwatches rely on a backlit screen is an issue for battery life, so they tend to have displays that dim when you’re not looking at them. That’s all very well but it means that they generally need to be woken in order for you to read the time.
Many smartwatches require a button press to make the time visible, or a raise-your-wrist gesture (LG's G Watch R is a notable always-on exception). The latter is also the case here, but what makes the Apple Watch stand out is how reliably a gentle wrist raise wakes the screen. Other watches have failed in this pursuit, either responding unreliably or needing a wild twist-and-lift arm wave that looks more like you’re having an electric shock or pulling off a heinous impromptu dance move. Here it’s practically perfect, and that makes using it far more natural.
Takes some getting used to
The Watch is straightforward to use, though it takes time to feel entirely natural.
For instance, pressing the Digital Crown takes you to the home screen of apps, where you can launch the one you want. When you’re done with that one, though, the temptation is to press the side button to get back to the home screen again, but this doesn’t work, that’s just for your circle of contacts (plus a long press to turn the Watch off). It takes time to get used to the fact that to exit you need to press the Crown again. This makes sense, because it’s like the Home button on the iPhone, even down to the way a long press invokes Siri, but still.
When you raise your wrist and the screen blinks on, a red dot at the top of the screen means you’ve got a notification waiting. Swipe down on the screen and you’ll see a topline summary of the notification. Tap to see more or swipe left to dismiss.
If you raise your wrist as the notification arrives, you go straight to the full version. At the bottom when you’ve scrolled through the email, say, you can choose to dismiss or delete. Or swipe down to dismiss it from here.
Personally, I’d have preferred a similar gesture to deal both with topline summaries and the full notification version and several times found myself swiping the wrong way.
Similarly, the Digital Crown sometimes seems inconsistent – rolling it one way moves up a list but when customising watch faces it occasionally seems to move counter-intuitively. But these are small elements in a successful operating system.
As well as the home screen and the Friends circle, the other place you’ll find yourself on the Watch is the Glances screen. Apps can choose whether they have Glances capabilities, and you can choose if you want to see them or not.
Swipe up on the watch face and you’re in Glances, with each chosen app boasting a screen to itself. This is where you can check your Watch’s battery (there’s no permanent onscreen indicator), see what the weather’s doing, or even how your favourite stocks and shares are performing (no, me neither). There’s a Glances screen to invoke silent or inflight modes, one to show your fitness accomplishments today, and one for which music track you’re playing.
Glances is unfailingly useful, and for many people will be most of their main contact with the Watch.
Voice control taken siriously
Siri, the voice control feature on the iPhone, is a front-and-centre feature of the Watch. A long press on the Digital Crown launches it, though you can also rouse her by saying “Hey Siri” as you raise the Watch to turn on the screen. When she’s awake, simply ask your question. Coloured sound waves play across the base of the screen and when Siri’s thinking, a white dot runs back and forth until it answers. Assuming you have a good data connection on your iPhone - 4G ideally - it works as well as on the bigger screen, and answers many of the same questions, including local search queries (which can be answered with directions in Maps). Siri is also used to dictate messages - great for transcription, apart from being a bit iffy with names (no, Siri, Seb is not Sam).
And then there's the party trick. When a call comes in, the caller ID, if it’s available, will appear. You can tap the green button to accept the call on the Watch, red to end it or swipe up to transfer the call to the iPhone or send a message to reject the call. Once you get over how incredibly brilliant this is, you realise the sci-fi dreams of the 1930s weren't all that sensible. Using the Watch as a wrist-based phone is okay, but not suited to long calls or any private conversation as the Watch’s speaker is pretty loud. Call quality isn’t quite as strong as on the iPhone, and the physicality of holding your wrist up in front of your mouth and ear can get tiring more quickly than you’d think. Dick Tracy must have had good shoulder stamina.
Finding your way
Using the Apple Watch to navigate is one of the best parts of the new gadget. Launch the app, Force Touch the screen and choose Search. Speak your destination, British Museum, say, and Apple Maps finds it for you, showing the address, map location and in this case opening hours and phone number.
It also says how long it’ll take to walk or drive there. Tap walking and the screen shows the map with the route marked out. Tap Start and you’ll see your first direction. All well and good, but the genius touch comes when you start walking.
As you approach a junction, the Watch taps you in its appealing way, so you can steal a glimpse at it to see which way to turn next. No need to have your phone in front of you (especially useful late at night in an unfamiliar city).
In fact, you don't even need to look at the Watch either as there are distinct taps for left and right. You can saunter along like you own the place.
A message to you
When a text message arrives, you have a choice of response options. If the incoming text says something like “Do you fancy dinner tonight or tomorrow?” the Apple software is clever enough to understand it’s a question. It offers three suggested responses. In this case it would be “Dinner tonight”, “Tomorrow” or “Don't know”. If one of those replies suits, press it and it flies off without so much as a confirmation.
Need a different answer? Tap the microphone button and speak it. Siri is generally great at understanding what you’re saying, though often lamentably incorrect when it comes to names (see above). If it’s got it right, send it as text, if it’s not quite right you can opt to send it as a voice file instead. That can be pretty handy.
If your Friends circle of contacts screen includes people with an Apple Watch, it will know and offer you an extra way to message them. A finger icon sits on the screen, looking slightly vulgar, I’d say, but tap it and the screen blanks.
Now you can tap the display so circles appear in patterns, vanishing like smoke rings as the message sends. This is good for getting people’s attention. Then you can draw on the screen – a wine glass perhaps to show your friend you’re thirsty. Note that the temptation to draw downstairs body parts can be hard to resist... definite similarities with Snapchat here.
There are animated emoticons to choose from, which vary from the fun and cute to the slightly scary. Force Touch on an emoji and it turns a different colour. You can also send a huge range of more conventional faces and so on, navigating through the extensive list with the speedy Digital Crown.
Then, for that special moment, why not send your heartbeat? The heart rate monitor counts your pulse and sends an animated image of a beating heart, augmented by a physical pulse emitted by the Taptic Engine. You have to rest two fingers on the screen and initially it’s hard to get this just right, but it’s worth persevering. Receiving a heartbeat is touching and intimate - really, it's a messaging experience unlike any you'll have had before - so you could really freak out people you don't know very well by using it on them.
Pick and choose the tastiest notifications
You don’t want every piece of email sent to your Watch, or do you? You can specify which notifications make it from iPhone to Watch. Select email accounts, including VIP contacts. There are also in-depth settings for other Apple apps such as Maps, Passbook, Activity and so on. Third-party apps are less detailed, only allowing you to mirror the way alerts come in on your iPhone or turning off alerts.
When a text or other notification arrives, your wrist feels that gentle Taptic Engine tap. Raise your wrist and the notification opens then and there, so you can scroll down it, dismiss it or delete it for instance. If it’s a long message you can swipe it back down to dismiss it but if you scroll to the end you get extra options. If you’re half way through, though, there’s not instant-out gesture apart from touching the Digital Crown to go back to the home screen.
Also, if you want to retrieve earlier notifications, indicated by a red dot at the top of the display, you swipe down on the screen to reveal a topline summary. Swipe left to dismiss this. The two ways of dealing with messages are different and can be confusing at once, but on the whole, notifications work very well on the Watch.
Choose wisely: if every single possible notification taps you, you may feel overwhelmed.
Is a day enough?
The Apple Watch’s battery life has been the subject of much discussion in the run-up to launch. Apple said it would last a day, many presumed it would be worse than that, and many others proclaimed a day to simply not be long enough.
The truth? Apple was speaking it. The Watch does genuinely last a day. Only once in the almost two weeks of testing has the battery level sunk to anything approaching 10%. If it had dropped faster I’d have had reason to turn on the Power Reserve setting, which turns off everything except the timekeeping, but I didn’t have to resort to that.
But is a day enough? That’s a separate question, and the answer really comes down to personal opinion. I know many people who take their watch off at night and plonk it on a bedside table, and with the Apple Watch you’ll do exactly the same thing, only the plonking will be on to the rather delightful MagSafe charger. But on the other hand, it does mean you’ll need to remember another charger when you’re going away for a night or more. And it also precludes sleep tracking, unless you want to charge your Watch during the day so you can wear it in bed instead - which would clearly be utter madness.
While on the subject of battery it’s worth mentioning that I’ve found my iPhone 6 using its juice a little more rapidly since I connected the Watch. It’s far from massive - a few percent each day - but that constant connection is clearly a small drain.
As a fitness watch?
Every wrist-worn wearable has had to decide whether it’s primarily smart- or fitness-focused, with a device that manages to do both effectively never quite realised. And it isn’t by the Apple Watch, either. This is first and foremost a smartwatch, and if it’s a really serious or specific training tracker that you’re after, you’re going to need to get something more specialised.
But that’s not to say the Apple Watch doesn’t have a lot to offer on the fitness front.
It’s not waterproof, which means it won’t track swims like a Garmin Vivoactive will (although Apple’s Tim Cook does say he showers wearing his, the big flirt). And unlike the Basis Peak you do have to tell the Watch which sport you’re doing for it to start tracking.
But Apple has made the whole process of activity tracking really rather engaging. The Activity app shows three concentric circles – red for move, green for exercise and blue for standing. Every step you take goes towards the red circle that snakes around until you reach your calorie goal, and then satisfyingly continues over itself after you’ve got there. That Force Touch interaction is used here to quickly change your goal (hint: the idea is to increase it).
The middle, green exercise ring counts how often you’ve hit what it calls brisk activity, in practice a determined walk or sweatier. And the inner, blue ring is to encourage you to stand up every hour. To satisfy this regularly imploring demand, you merely have to stand up and walk around for one minute every hour. The nudge comes at 50 minutes past each hour.
This is a good thing, of course, but as a side note I’d mention that this reminder, like other kinds of alarms, persists even if you switch the Watch to Flight mode. Please remember this as you sit down at the theatre so you’re not surrounded by tutting audience members when it goes off at 8.50pm. Invoking silent mode solves this. I learned the hard way (sorry again, row H).
Anyway, back to the exercise ring. When you want to notify the Watch what you’re up to you actually launch a whole different app, the Workout app, but the results are recorded in the green exercise ring.
In some cases, such as outdoor cycle, outdoor run and outdoor walk, the Watch knows to use the iPhone’s GPS to get extra accuracy for your exercise. You can still do these activities without carrying your iPhone with you but the Watch will base its conclusions on your movements, saving the data to collate it with your phone when the two are reunited.
With the iPhone around, not only does the GPS mean it very precisely measures your movement, it also takes the combined data to tweak the accuracy of the motion sensor. Movement sensor fitness apps often calculate your stride length, for instance, just from your height. The Watch compares the motion with the distance you’re actually covering to offer greater accuracy.
Android has many fitness and activity apps and some are just as accurate, with lots of features and effective monitoring. These are good. Apple’s take is different but scores highly because of the consistency of design in the Workout and Activity apps, mixing the data cohesively together.
And the gamifying effect of the rings encourages you to use it more. I have several times annoyed myself when I’ve been cycling for 20 minutes and haven’t been claiming the credit for it.
Every Monday the Watch reviews your previous week and gently encourages you to up your game in the next seven days. I’ve changed my calories goal twice already (upwards, I mean).
Apps: a babbling brook that will soon be a raging river
There are lots of other apps already available for the Watch in its dedicated app store, but the new gold rush will begin on 24th April. For now, though, there’s an excellent app from Citymapper, the app that guides you around cities such as London, New York and Tokyo. On the iPhone (and Android phones) the extra screen real estate makes it easy to tap in details of where you want to go. On the Watch there’s a much simpler interface, allowing you to find your way to the nearest bus stop, Tube station and so on as well as to the places you’ve specified as home and work.
The British Airways app is at first minimal, simply saying you have no upcoming flights, but when there’s one booked in the next seven days, extra features appear. Save your boarding pass in the Watch’s Passbook app and you can sail through airport security and onto the plane with it. I have tried this and it was mostly very successful, although some of the scanners weren’t quite big enough to fit a watch as well as a wrist. This means taking it off and, since the Watch locks as soon as you do this, it becomes a bit of a faff. Various airlines have promised that handheld scanners are coming.
Transport apps such as Hailo and Uber have also worked out Watch apps that are simple to use on the small screen. It’s exceptionally simple to call a cab with Hailo – the app knows where you are so with one button you’ve summoned a vehicle. A force touch cancels it if you’ve made a mistake.
The key to these third-party apps is simplicity. This ties with the importance of brief interactions with the Watch, especially for Glances. Even so, that doesn’t mean the apps have to be brainless.
Apple’s own apps include a remote control for the iPhone’s camera. There’s no snapper on the Watch itself – it would add weight and cost and besides it couldn’t really compete with the camera the phone already has (and who wants to take wristies anyway?). So instead you can use the Watch to take a shot from a distance. You can even tap the screen to lock the focus point, for instance. This is a powerful app, though obviously suits a specific set of circumstances.
More widely useful is playing music through your Watch into Bluetooth headphones. This can be streamed from your iPhone or you can transfer up to 2GB of music so your gym workout can have sound even when the phone is left in the locker, say.
There’s more to the Watch than I’ve mentioned here – Apple Pay is a big one, the contactless payment system which is expected this year in the UK but for now is USA-only. When this arrives, the Watch will be more versatile still, and add a layer of convenience that no other wearable yet can.
It will be interesting to see whether app developers use the NFC that makes Apple Pay possible for other situations. We haven't had the opportunity to test the SPG: Starwood Hotels and Resorts hotel door-unlocking app, and we await an Oyster-compatible public transport app with bated breath.
Apple Watch - The Verdict
It’s hard to pin down a specific thing that makes the Apple Watch special, but having worn one for almost two weeks now, it’s become an important, valuable part of my everyday life.
In some ways it’s the ultimate gadget. A device that no-one needs but that oozes desirability, that doesn't change any aspect of life in a substantial way but makes a number of subtle improvements that you wouldn't want to give up.
You can’t say it’s greater than the sum of its parts because we don’t know what all of the parts are. Some derided the iPhone at its launch. Almost no-one saw the point of the iPad when that was announced. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those have both been rather successful since. That’s because Apple had built not just desirable devices, but also powerful platforms full of opportunities for the world’s app developers.
The Watch is and will be a similar story. It’s a very cool gadget - more desirable and more luxurious than the smartwatches that have gone before it, but also a platform that will be supported and stretched by more app developers than the likes of Pebble or Android Wear can realistically attract.
The right now of the Apple Watch is pretty great. But the future of Apple Watch is really amazing.