Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell

Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell

Today, I strapped a $15,000 watch to my wrist—one with an Apple computer inside. I played with it a bit, and tried to imagine integrating it into my life. But by the time Apple (oh so courteously!) booted me out of the showroom, I couldn't make up my mind.

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I'm not talking about whether or not I'd buy a $15,000 watch. Of course I won't. (I write for a living, you know?) And don't get me wrong, I'd be happy to settle for the $350 version—even migrate from my trusty Android device to an iPhone—if Apple could prove that this device would make my life easier. But in a demo outside today's Apple event, I realized that there's just no way Apple could possibly prove that to me. Or to you, I bet.

The only way to tell would be to live with it. Let me tell you about my experience with the device, and maybe you'll understand what I'm talking about.

Design

Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell

It's big, but not enormous. Weighty, but in a reassuring way. If you like the way that it looks—and I do—it looks quite nice. The screen is about as crisp and pretty as I could hope for in a device this small. And the digital crown—that dial on the right side—feels really great. You just twist it to effortlessly glide through long lists of emails, or to zoom from a huge gallery of photos down to individual pictures.

The buttons also feel excellent: both the crown and the long button beneath it click into the watch with precision.

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User Interface

Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell
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What I don't quite get about the Apple Watch—at least not yet—is why I also have to use a tiny touchscreen to get anything done.

Basic operation is simple enough: press in the crown or flip your wrist up into a "I'm looking at my watch!" gesture to wake the watch up (because the screen sadly doesn't stay on) and go to the clock. It not only tells time, but also displays up to four customizable "complications" in the four corners of the screen. Date, temperature, your watch's current battery life... useful little things, and hopefully more on the way.

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Press the bottom button to open the friends menu, where you can quickly call or message people right from your wrist.

Pressing the crown once more brings you to the app screen, where you can pick an app to use:

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But if you want to actually find and select one of those apps, you'll need to swipe around and tap the one you want on the screen itself. That's a little easier said than done: I stabbed the wrong icon more than once and wound up inside an app I didn't want. You can zoom in with the digital crown, but it's a little awkward to keep switching off between the buttons and the screen taps. It made me wonder why I couldn't just use the excellent digital crown to zoom through apps and select them. But perhaps I'd get used to Apple's scheme after a while.

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Worse was Force Touch. "Force Touch uses tiny electrodes around the flexible Retina display to distinguish between a light tap and a deep press, and trigger instant access to a range of contextually specific controls," reads an Apple description, which roughly translates as "When you press down hard on the screen, sometimes you can activate hidden controls." Like changing up your watchface (see above). But sometimes when I tried to tap, it thought I was trying to Force Touch—and it wasn't always clear which one I needed to do to perform any given action. Again, maybe I'd get the hang of it after a while.

At least with lists of items, you have your choice of controls: You can swipe through your music, for instance, or use the dial to scroll.

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Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell

Glances

Apple's answer to Google Now. If you swipe up on the screen, you can access a whole variety of incoming information that might assist you with your day: the weather, upcoming calendar items, etc. There were a bunch of dummy Glances on the Apple Watch I was wearing, examples of what it might be like, but it's impossible to tell how useful they'd be without trying them for weeks or more... to see whether they'd be there when I need them to help me get stuff done.

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Apple Pay

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I have to admit, if Apple Pay gets anywhere close to universal adoption, I will love the heck out of this feature. Just double-tap the bottom button and up pops your credit card. Move the watch near the terminal and poof, you're all paid without fishing for a wallet or a phone. But I couldn't actually try it at the Apple event.

Siri and Phone Calls

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Siri legitimately impressed me on the watch. When I got an incoming message in our demo, I was able to reply without pulling out a phone, using a canned message (which is an option) or tapping at an impossibly tiny keyboard on the watch itself. I was able to dictate a message with Siri, who clearly understood me even in a noisy demo room. She patiently waited for me to finish, adding additional words only when I spoke.

Would I be willing to do that in public? Hard to say without trying. Same as it's hard to say if I'd be willing to make phone calls from my wrist. It definitely looks a bit ridiculous right now.

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Illustration for article titled Apple Watch Hands-On: Only Time Will Tell

And Much More...

There are certainly more facets to the Apple Watch than I was able to try during my brief hands-on with the device, and precious few I was able to seriously judge. Like photos, for instance—Apple's preloaded ones looked great on the watch, but would I need to load them into internal memory? Would I need to crop them to the screen's aspect ratio for them to look right? Would the fitness app really remind me to get up and exercise, and would it be convincing?

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Battery life is still a giant question mark, too. Even though Apple spells out how much battery life you can expect in certain scenarios, will the 18-hours-or-less of useful battery life dissuade me from doing some of the things it can do?

I can't wait to find out, because the Apple Watch feels powerful. It feels like it could take smartwatches further than the notification-centric devices they are now. Personally, I'm not going to pay money to check my wrist just so I don't have to check my phone.

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If I can get things done quicker and more easily from my wrist, if it can save me time, I'd definitely consider shelling out. But it'll take weeks, if not months, of testing to find out if Apple Watch is really worth all that money.

DISCUSSION

I have five questions about the Apple Watch, after watching the live streaming of the event. Your article, and many other articles I've read, highlights some of the issues, but I feel there are more issues.

  1. Is it durable? You realize that half of Apple's presentation on its watch was about how it was meticulously constructed with special alloys for each version. If you Google what's wrong with the pebble, or any other wearable tech, the biggest issue is that it breaks down after six months to a year. This is wearable tech's biggest problem.
  2. What's the warranty like? Most wearable tech will have a six month to 1 year limited warranty. Given that the biggest issue is that they break down starting at the six month point, you better have a pretty good return policy. I once worked as a technical support for Nike's Nike+ Connect sports bracelet, and watch the combination of an overly generous return policy plus how easily wear and tear broke down its pseudo-smart watch to a point where they just abandoned the project after maybe a 1 ½ years into the project's life-cycle.
  3. Can I wear the watch when I sleep? This goes into the 18 hour cycle that I think will turn most people off from wearing it non-stop. Pebble already is touting that it has a 10 day battery life between charges. But even that may not satisfy most people. Watches are designed to be worn whenever and have a very long battery life, like a couple of months at the very least. Some of the most popular electronic watches I've seen are those that charge up as you move. I'm surprised Apple didn't try to make that an option. I also wonder if the magnetic charging mechanism will also run into problems.
  4. How well will the apps run? What about wifi? The second biggest issue that many wearable techs have is that it's hard to upload or download information from computer to device. Either how you have to do so is complicated or that it's just better off plugging the item into the computer instead of tapping it against it or pray that its Bluetooth capability will work.
  5. Why would I want an Apple Watch when my iPhone 6 does everything I want from it, and more? That's the biggest question. For the cost of even the most economical models, I can get a iPhone 6 that does all that the Watch would do, but even better. I wonder if Apple will run into a problem that the iPhone 6s (and future generations of iPhones) are so good at what it does that its watch counterparts has a harder time selling in its 2nd and 3rd generations? And especially at the very high end, I'm not sure the novelty of a high end 18K gold Apple Watch will persuade those to choose it over a Rolex, or another luxury Swiss watchmaker, or even a special edition iPhone.

For Apple's watches to work, it has to sell when it addresses these and other unforeseen issues in its second and third generation of the watch. Like the iPhone, it wasn't until the iPhone 3 or 4 when it became the kind of trendy item that really hasn't diminished. I'm not sure the Watch will have similar success, but if any company can duplicate its success, Apple can.