I’ve worn an Apple Watch now for almost three months. My brother-in-law Cyril gave me a stainless steel 42mm Watch as a thoughtful, generous gift. He felt that if I worked on it, I should have one — even as a memento.
For context, from August 2013 to June 2014 I was a system hardware manager on the Apple Watch program. The team I was on focused on the electricals of the product. Even though I’m no longer with Apple, I won’t discuss details of the development other than to say that I deeply admired my immediate management, loved the camaraderie and talent of my team, and found satisfaction working on the brand new technologies needed to develop the Watch. I was not involved at all with its software or user interface development.
I like wearing watches, but I’ve never had an expensive watch because I can’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on a timepiece. My daily wearer is a $30 knockoff Omega Seamaster that I bought at a Shenzhen market; I just like the way it looks. When the Apple Watch finally came out last April, I didn’t get one. Too expensive for a gadget that seemed like a luxury toy.
After using one for three months, my initial thought hasn’t changed.
Rectangular watch form factors don’t excite me, but I’ve come around to accepting the Apple Watch’s shape. It clearly shows itself as a gadget, with its rectangular slab of dark glass. Cyril chose the more expensive Watch style, and with it comes materials like polished stainless steel, sapphire, and zirconia. The fit and finish is superb, and the materials make it easily more classy and higher quality than any other smartwatch. Given the enormous amount of engineering and trouble that went into the back crystal design — with its four sapphire windows for the heart rate sensor — I’m amused at how little I ever see it or pay attention to it. The crown is smooth, if a little too slippery. Another mild annoyance is the inductive charging puck — the magnetic force between the Watch and puck is too weak in my opinion (likely the stainless steel model is heavier than the aluminum one, and it must be difficult to tune the magnets for the different weights). The puck rotates around too easily, and the weak connection doesn’t inspire confidence. The charging itself works like a charm. The much hyped taptic engine is sadly neglected by the software.
The Watch came with a high design leather loop band, but was too long to fit on my small wrists. I bought a more traditional 3rd party leather band instead.
The Software User Experience
So what, exactly, is the Apple Watch supposed to do? Based on the exhausting website about the Watch, it can apparently do a dizzying amount of things. But after three months of use, for me it only really does two things: tell time, and provide notifications. I haven’t even bothered with the fitness or Workout app, mostly because it’d feel incredibly weird to work out with a seven hundred dollar fancy watch with a nice leather band. Give me a Garmin any day. Maybe because I don’t use the Workouts app or the Maps app, I can go two days in between charging the battery.
Since getting the Watch, I spent a lot of time traveling. Two trips to Kentucky, a trip to China, and a trip to India. I loved the modular watch face where I could show four timezones. Very practical and useful to me.
Notifications? Sure, it was sometimes convenient to glance down and see an email or message that came in, or an ESPN score update. But way too often the screen wouldn’t light up when I flicked my wrist, leading me to exaggerate wrist actions or to reach over and push the crown to wake it up. And I found the Apple Watch experience quite subpar with long sleeves. But much easier than pulling out my phone? Hundreds of dollars more convenient? Absolutely not.
Here are other observations of the software and user experience as a whole:
- For as much hype the taptic engine received, it’s surprisingly under utilized and neglected. Even with strong mode enabled, I see little nuance in the alerts I receive. I wanted the ability to set taptic-only silent alarms, but the software strangely has no option for taptic-only alarms. Only way to do it is to set an alarm then mute the Watch. Huh?
- Little to no coherency in how to interact with screens. Sometimes spinning the crown scrolls up and down. Sometimes it advances the software forward and backward in time. Sometimes pushing the screen down (the Force Touch feature) reveals new actions, sometimes it does nothing. There’s no indication either way. Sometimes I swipe up and down to reveal new screens, sometimes I swipe left and right. The entire user interface is confusing.
- No built in calculator app. While traveling, it would have been useful for quick currency conversions. Sure, there’s a currency conversion app but it’s too clumsy & slow to use. So even though it’s 2015, Apple apparently didn’t learn from the iconic Casio calculator watch.
- I tried the Maps app once. One feature is that the taptic engine will alert you for an upcoming turn. But same alert is used for both right and left turns. Why? Why not use unique alerts, like two taps for a left turn, three taps for a right turn?
- I used my Watch once to pay for something. It’s awkward and I get a lot of strange looks. Not a lot of places I go to even support NFC payments, and if they do, its awkward to use a Watch with the payment terminals. The Wallet app is still confusing for gift cards and loyalty cards.
- Where are the apps? Nearly a year after launch, the app ecosystem is dreadful. I tried using the Starbucks app, but it took 10+ minutes to load. Almost every third party app suffers from slow loading times — an experience that is broken for a gadget that is all about quick interactions. Five of my colleagues have been wearing an Apple Watch for more than six months. I asked all of them what third party apps they use that I must be missing out on. The answer was none. Now, United Airlines and American Airlines deserve credit for their Apple Watch apps. They actually supported complications (small features on the watch face itself), and did provide timely information quite easily while traveling. Being able to glance down to check the time while striding off an airplane and seeing my next gate was cool. See photo above.
So what am I left with? A superbly engineered piece of hardware crippled by a confusing user interface and poorly executed software features. A luxury gadget toy that is hyped as being able to do all these amazing things but only actually a couple of things really well. What is this thing really supposed to be? A watch? A companion device to my phone? A fashion object? A health device?
I can’t think of any other $700 gadget I own that does so little of consequence and actual, unique utility. Even at the cheaper price point of the aluminum Sport model, it seems much too expensive of a toy.
I’ll conclude with this final, fitting experience with the Apple Watch. Yesterday, I tried using it in nightstand mode at my bedside, with an alarm set for the morning. The alarm volume was too soft to wake me, but it did set me into an odd dreaming state. In my dream, I could hear these chimes but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. I ripped off my watch, threw my phone in a closet. I paced around an imaginary house, closing door after door while the chimes refused to go away. Ten minutes later, I realized with a grimace that it was the actual Watch on my nightstand, and woke up for real.
Turns out the Apple Watch is a pretty terrible alarm clock too.