Apple Watch (early) Review

I’ve known that I wanted an Apple Watch since long before Apple unveiled the Apple Watch last September. I actually owned an HTC One M8 last summer, and was eyeing some of the Android Wear options just hitting the market with much interest. I also owned a Pebble for a few months, so I have had some day-to-day on experience with a smart watch.

I knew that my lifestyle fit perfectly with the intended use case of a smart watch. Smart watches make my life better in many small, and some big ways. My Pebble experience was largely positive, but there were serious compromises that I had to deal with (too bulky, poor OS integration, etc.). The Apple Watch has been my first experience with a smart watch that’s truly integrated with my phone. The difference is massive!

In my 10 days with an Apple Watch, I have experienced many benefits and very few downsides. Much like the iPhone before it, I am shocked how quickly the Apple Watch has become an integral part of my life. I quickly came to rely on it for many tasks ranging from phone calls, to text messages, to task management, and more. I have switched my Twitter client so that I could have better Watch integration and reply to tweets on my Watch. I have paid for things in the real world with the Watch faster than I ever could with a card or even Apple Pay on the iPhone. And finally, I have found myself less inclined to idly pull out my phone to see if anything new has happened.

The Apple Watch has not freed me from being a slave to my phone. Nor has it overloaded me with notifications so I can’t get any peace. The Apple Watch has made interacting with my digital life a little easier. I don’t know if smart watches are going to take off and be as mainstream as smartphones, but I hope they do so that Apple (and other companies) are pushed to refine and enhance these devices for years. The Apple Watch is not perfect (more on that later), but it is a delightful first entry.

Contents

How I Use My Apple Watch

General


How I use my Apple Watch

“It’s nice, but what do you do with it?” This is by far the most common question I get from people. It’s a hard question to answer, and it does make me sympathize with Apple’s struggles in marketing the Watch. It’s not just a couple things that it does incredibly well and legitimize the $350+ expense. There are dozens of little things that add up to an overall experience that I find incredibly useful. Because of this, the Apple Watch is impossible to properly demo in 30 seconds, so I’m going to cover what I’m using my Watch for thus far. Feel free to use the table of contents above to navigate to just the topics you care about.

Text Messages

As I wrote before getting my Watch, my favorite thing to do on the Watch is reply to text messages. I know it’s not a “sexy” feature, but it works incredibly well for my lifestyle. Since getting my Watch, I have not missed a single message, and have replied to everything in a timely manner. This has been a struggle for me for the longest time, and the Apple Watch has fixed this problem.

When a message comes in, you get buzzed and a nice animated notification pops up on your Watch. You can simply lower your wrist to dismiss the notification, or you can reply to it straight away.

You have 3 options for replying: a list of pre-canned options, the horrifying animated emoji, or dictation. I have chosen to use dictation basically every time, and it’s worked great. You even have a couple options here, as you can choose to send Siri’s interpretation of what you said or simply send an audio note. The idea is that if Siri screws up what you’re trying to say, you can just send the audio and the person on the other end will hear your exact words. Siri’s speech-to-text has been great for me, and I’ve only had to adjust my wording a couple times. This is far and away my favorite way to send texts. It’s actually made me feel a little weird when I do send them from my phone now. That’s amazing, considering it’s flying in the face of over a decade of built up behavior.

OmniFocus

Another one of my most anticipated features of the Watch has turned out to be a hit as well. I absolutely love getting my OmniFocus tasks sent to my wrist! I’ve used OmniFocus more over the past week to keep me on track, and it’s working. As with any task management system, the less friction there is between you and the system, the more likely you are to use it. By removing the chance that I will miss a notification, OmniFocus on the Watch is already a winner. By making it easy to mark tasks complete or snooze them for later, it enhances an already great app ecosystem.

The one pain point I have here is that adding tasks to my todo list from the Watch is not easy at all. You can technically do it, but setting a due date is really tricky. It’s not that hard to add a task to your inbox, so if you do a lot of “capturing” in the field, this may work for you. Honestly, I found that using the built in Reminders functionality to be much easier to use than OmniFocus.

Activity Tracker

The Apple Watch tracks 3 different health metrics: they call them Move, Exercise, and Stand. The basic premise is that everyone should stand at some point at least 12 hours a day and they should have at least 30 minutes of enhanced activity (anything that gets your heart pumping). You then have to tell it how many extra calories you want to burn from activity each day.

This is opposed to other fitness trackers like Fitbit that have one metric you try to hit everyday. In order for Apple Watch to give you the “yay, you did it!” notification by the end of the day, you need to accomplish all 3 of these goals. I don’t really have a problem with this, but I could see how someone may be frustrated by the requirements. For example, you could run a 10k in the morning in an hour, and sit for the rest of the day, and you would not get any props from your Watch since you only met 2 of your three goals (30+ minutes of activity and calories burned).

I wish that the activity tracker app was smarter about setting goals for you instead of setting the same goal everyday. RunKeeper has a fantastic app called Breeze that sets goals for you based on how much activity you tend to get each day of the week. This dynamic system feels more personalized, and is more realistic to how we actually work. By increasing your goal just a few percentage points over the same day last week, Breeze encourages you to get better at a healthy pace with no input from you. You get the exercise, and Breeze will tell you how much you need to improve. It’s smart, and feels very much like “the Apple way” of doing things.

Just be weary that like all other wrist-mounted fitness trackers, you won’t get credit for all your steps when you’re pushing something. So shopping trips, walks with a stroller, and mowing the lawn will not count for as much exercise as they should. There’s not a great way around this, so just be warned.

Workouts

I am working on a separate article devoted just to the Workout app, but I’ll just say that this is by far the best workout companion I have ever owned (and I’ve owned a lot of wearables). More to come.

Twitter

Much like Messages, I find getting important Twitter notifications on my wrist to be very convenient. I have to mention for this that Twitterrific is the best Twitter app for the Watch. It’s very focused on your mentions and daily stats, which I like. The official Twitter app is actually pretty good as well. It lets you do most of the same things and also includes a full timeline view if you want that (spoiler, browsing Twitter on a one inch screen ins terrible).

Calendar

If you live in your calendar, then you’re going to like the Apple Watch’s implementation. The app itself is fine, and shows you you’re upcoming events, but I really love the other integrations of the app. First, the glance for the calendar is very easy to use, and looks rather stunning. Second, if you’re using a watch face that has complications, then you can add your next calendar event to your watch face. This is a fantastic way to see your next event without doing a damn thing.

Additionally, notifications have drive times built into events, so if you have a location set for an event that you need to travel to, your Watch will notify you right before you need to leave based on current traffic.

This is all very nice, and like all things that the Watch does well, it’s very fast and painless.

Friends

I was very high on this feature at first, but I haven’t used it as much after the first few days. By pressing the long button on the side of the watch, you get a circle of up to 12 people. You can initiate a text message, phone call, or “digital touch” with any of these people. It works well enough, but I have found that I’m typically using the Watch as a responder device, and not something to make first contact in an interaction.

That said, this is actually one of the fastest apps on the Watch. It instantly launches and is very quick. I’m going to try to use this more and see if it will find a way into my workflow.

Remote and Music Controls

The Remote app is quite good, and better than the iPhone app at controlling an Apple TV. The app is very simple, and lets me easily swipe around the interface, There is no perceptible lag when giving instructions.

I also really love that this app (just like the Workout app) breaks the system rules a little bit. By default, the Watch will quit an app after you don’t look at your Watch for about a minute and kicks you back to the watch face. This could prove frustrating as you would have to relaunch the Remote app every time you wanted to pause the movie you’re watching, but Remote doesn’t quit until you tell it to quit. So if you’re watching a 2 hour movie, the Remote app will be ready to go each time you raise your wrist. This is a fine example of Apple really understanding how people are going to use the Watch, and making exceptions to the general rules.

There is also a glance dedicated to music controls, and I use it all the time. My number one use case is in the car, while driving. The lag here is more noticeable, but it gets the job done.

Apple Pay & Passbook

Why, oh why did Apple make double-tapping the Friends button bring up Apple Pay and not Passbook?

Apple Pay with the Watch is a delight. If Apple Pay on the iPhone is 50% faster than using a credit card, then Apple Pay on the Watch is another 50% faster than the phone. It’s obscenely easy to do, and is one of the things on the Watch that really makes me feel like I’m living in the future.

What feels less like the future is when I want to use my Passbook items. I only have 2 cards in my Passbook, Target Cartwheel and Starbucks, but I use them quite regularly. Passbook is its own app on the Apple Watch, which means that I have to manually launch it to use those cards. I hate opening apps and the couple extra steps needed compared to Apple Pay is frustrating. I might be an outlier, since I don’t think most people use Passbook as much as I do, but it’s painful to see how easy it would have been for Apple to make Passbook a first class citizen on the Watch, but chose not to.

Phone Calls

Like many young people1, I don’t make a lot of phone calls. I much prefer to communicate via the many text platforms out there, but I do end up making calls sometimes. As I expected, making phone calls from the Watch has been a dream. I’m usually working on something, and it has been very nice to be able to continue my work while taking a call.

It’s hard to put into words, but I feel like taking calls on the Apple Watch is more seamless than using a phone. When I take a call on my iPhone, I either hold it up to my ear (which isn’t great with a giant 6 plus) or out it on speakerphone and place my phone somewhere safe. Both of these processes involve taking the phone out of my pocket and being aware of where the phone is for the duration of the call. No big deal, you say, but it’s simpler on the Apple Watch. Once I take the call, I stop thinking about where my device is and just talk.

Reminders

Oddly, there is no Reminders app on the Watch, but you can create and clear reminders from the device. If a reminder is due, the Watch buzzes and lets you snooze, dismiss, or mark it as complete. Meanwhile, Siri is the only interface for adding reminders.

It’s weird that the company that thought it was important enough to include a full email app on the Watch thought that having a Reminders app was going just a little too far. I have to wonder if this was just a cost of getting the Watch out to market on time. I have suspected that Apple is getting this thing out into the world by the skin of their teeth, so I would not be surprised if that’s the case. Whatever the reason Reminders is limited in Watch OS 1.0, I hope this is something they add to the next update.

ALRIGHT, LIGHTNING ROUND

Weather

I use the Weather glance all the time throughout the day. Since this is a native Watch app, it loads faster than other weather apps and gets me the current temperature fast. Once again, this is faster than I can see the temp on my phone, so this is a win for the Watch.

Dark Sky Forecast

Almost more important than the temperature is the rain forecast. Dark Sky is my weather app of choice on the iPhone, and it’s Watch app is good at alerting me to upcoming precipitation as well as giving me a good visual representation of what weather I can expect in the coming hours.

The glance is more useful than the proper app, as the app is very slow to load.

Day One

This is an app that I wish I could love more. Day One seems well built, but the limitations of the Watch hold it back from being as useful as I would like. The main problem I have is that you simply cannot dictate anything longer than a sentence or two before the screen turns off and disables dictation. The Apple Watch usually turns the screen off after 6 seconds of no touch events. So yes, it will turn off even if you’re in the middle of dictating your diary entry.

It’s a frustrating limitation, and something obvious that Apple should address in a future update.

Deliveries

If you’re an average human being the first world, you probably order a good number of things online and obsessively track your packages (especially the good ones). Getting delivery updates on my wrist has been great with Deliveries.

My only hold up is that the app seems to be slow to refresh. Notifications come in just as quickly as they do on the phone, but the app is inconsistent when manually refreshing from the Watch.

Due

This is the type of app that shines on the Apple Watch. Much like OmniFocus, Due simply buzzes my wrist to tell me that something needs to be done. I have Due set up to buzz me every minute until I act on an alert, so this gets quite annoying quickly. That’s by my design, though. Only things that absolutely must be done at certain times get added to Due. In this way, notification overload is a feature.

ESPN Scores

I followed along to game 6 of the Bulls/Bucks series with the ESPN glance and it worked quite well. There is a slight delay between opening the glance and actually seeing the score, but it wasn’t too painful.

This is an app that will send you a billion notifications if you let it, so be careful in what you say are your favorite teams and what alerts you want to get from them.

Shazam

I’m an obsessive music listener so I usually know what I’m listening to, but for those times when I don’t know, Shazam is a great tool, and is very good on the Watch. My only hang up is that it can be slow to launch. There have been a couple times where I missed something because the app was too slow to launch. Once it’s running, it works great.

There was some debate about whether Shazam used you phone’s or Watch’s microphone to listen. Some people have said you need to bring your phone out of your pocket to hear what’s playing but that is false. I tested this by placing my phone on the other end of the house and playing a song from my computer at a low volume. My phone couldn’t hear anything, but Shazam was instantly able to identify the song I was playing.


Learn to Love Siri

The best tip I can give any new Apple Watch owner is to fully embrace Siri. Hey Siri is enabled whenever the screen is on, so you can say “Hey Siri, open Overcast” and Overcast will launch. As expected, Siri is smart enough to understand multiple forms of the same request. You can say “launch Overcast” or “open Overcast” or simply say “Overcast” and it will launch the app.

You can also ask Siri the same sorts of questions you ask it on your iOS devices. You don’t always get an answer on the Watch and it asks you to use Handoff to see the answer on your phone. This tends to happen when you get an elaborate WolframAlpha answer that just can’t be well-displayed on the Watch’s small screen.

One important tip for using Hey Siri is that you don’t have to wait for the Siri interface to come up to ask your question. Just say “Hey Siri, when do the Bulls play next?” as one statement and the interface will catch up. It appears the microphone is always on, so it hears everything you say, even if the interface needs a second to catch up.

As good as Siri is most of the time, she’s not as reliable as I would like. Hey Siri is the biggest offender, as I get it to work about 50% of the time. I know I’m enunciating very well, but it doesn’t seem to understand me sometimes. I’ve taken to holding down on the digital crown to activate Siri, which works 100% of the time.

I’m also not in love with the fact that the screen will turn off if you dictate for too long. If I try to dictate a couple sentences for a Day One entry, the screen turns off and I lose everything I’ve dictated. I also don’t like that you can’t dictate to add onto some text you’ve already written or even edit any mistakes. It’s an all-or-nothing affair, and it’s a frequent frustration. You just have to nail the dictation the first time. This has caused apps like Day One to be a less useful app on my Watch, even though they seem like a perfect fit.

Notification Overload

I have not experienced “notification overload” in my time with the Apple Watch. I also had not changed any notifications settings in preparation for my new wrist companion. The simple reason for this is that for the most part, I only have notifications turned on for apps and events that are time sensitive. Text messages, alarms, reminders, calendar events, sports scores, Dark Sky rain alerts, and VIP emails are things that I want to know about right away. By already having my notifications paired down to a reasonable level already, I think my Apple Watch experience has been great.

Now, if you have tons of notifications turned on, then you may have a different experience. If you get a notification for all emails, your Watch is going to drive you crazy (why do people do this? How do they live???). If you get trending topics notifications from Twitter, this will bug you. God help you if you have a free-to-play game that begs you to come back and play every hour, this is going to be a maddening experience.

Within the Apple Watch companion app on your iPhone, you can control what notifications are sent you your Watch. The options are pretty good for a V1 product, but they definitely have room to grow. By default, your iPhone will send all notifications to your Watch. If that’ve overload for you and you only want some notifications on your Watch, you can manually select which apps get the privilege of sending their alerts to the Watch.

You get a little more control over Apple’s own apps in this regard. For example, the Calendar app can notify you of:

  • Upcoming events
  • Invitations
  • Invitee responses
  • Shared calendar alerts

You can pick and choose which of those alerts you actually want to get on your Watch.

This is nice, but there are some apps where more fine-grained control would be appreciated. In Messages, for example, your options are just to receive alerts or not. This is useful most of the time, but it can get frustrating when you’re in a group message thread that’s updating all the time. If you are involved in one of these, then your wrist is going to be buzzing non-stop. You can go into your phone and enable “do not disturb” for a particular conversation, but this is more fiddly than I would like.

I would love a VIP system like Apple has already implemented in Mail to filter alerts for just the people/conversations I want to get in a timely manner.

Battery Life

There’s not much to say here. I have been using the Apple Watch for over a week and have never run out of battery. The lowest I ever got the battery was 16%, and that was on a day where I woke up at 3AM and was awake until midnight. That’s 21 hours of use with plenty of juice left. Because the battery life has been so good, I haven’t even used the power reserve mode on the device.

To clarify, this is based on regular usage, not me trying to make the Apple Watch look good. I was in “new gadget mode” and “review mode” at the same time, both of which can be really tough on batteries. Needless to say, I’m quite impressed with battery life on the Watch.

Now my iPhone’s battery life has been another story. Coincidentally, I have owned both an iPhone 6 and 6 plus in my week of testing, so I do have more data on this than I was expecting.

Before the Watch, my iPhone 6 was getting me through just about every day without dying. Post-Watch, it wasn’t making it through the day. 12 hours into most days, my phone’s battery was slipping below 20%. Normally, it would be around 50% at that point in the day. This is a pretty drastic difference, and was more than I was expecting.

The iPhone 6 plus performs more admirably, as I has been quite excellent so far. I commented on Thursday that I’d gone 9 hours and my phone was at 78%. The next day, I made it 13 hours and was still at 43%.

The bottom line is that your iPhone’s battery will probably suffer compared to what you’re used to right now. For me it’s not enough of a detriment that I would discourage you from getting an Apple Watch, but you will see a difference.

Watch Faces

There are 10 watch faces, and most of them are nice. I’m currently using Chronograph, but I’m a big fan of Utility as well. Maybe it’s silly to have a digital watch with an analog face, but this is how I have trained myself to read time at a glance after years of having a traditional watch.

What makes the watch faces really great are “complications.” Complications reside at the corners of the face2 and show specific information. Here’s what you can show:

  • Current date
  • Upcoming calendar events
  • Moon phase
  • Sunrise/sunset
  • Current weather
  • Stocks
  • Activity stats
  • Next alarm
  • Current timer
  • Stopwatch
  • Watch battery
  • World clock

That’s a pretty extensive list, and I find most of these to be useful. Each watch face allows for a different number of complications (some don’t allow any, though). What’s nice about these complications is that they not only show you information, but they double as app launchers. The weather complication shows me the current temperature, but I can tap it to launch the Weather app and see more details. This is my favorite way to launch apps on the Apple Watch.

While Apple’s preinstalled watch faces are good, I disagree with the notion that Apple should not allow custom watch faces in the near future. This thing is crying out for more personal faces, and I think Apple should open them up to developers at WWDC this June. I understand that Apple wants to maintain their brand and they don’t want ugly faces on their beautiful new Watch. I also get that they don’t want people killing their battery life with bright watch faces and then complaining that their Watch has poor battery life. I understand those concerns, but Apple controls the App Store and can set restrictions on what faces are okayed for sale.

I would also like to see third party apps get access to complications. It would be amazing if I could see my next task from OmniFocus on my watch face. Or maybe the next train arrival time based on my location or the pollen level for the day. I would love for Apple to add one that shows me my iPhone’s battery. There are so many things that could be done, and I have to imagine this is coming soon.

Build Quality

I got the 42mm Sport model with a white band. I find it very comfortable to wear, and is very light compared to other watches I have worn. Some people have been down on the aluminum model’s visual appeal, but I like it. I am a fan of lighter colored watches (my previous watch had a cream face with a silver body), so this works for me. Yes, the stainless steel model is fancier, but I’m totally comfortable wearing this model as my day-to-day watch.

As far as the screen goes, I have seen people with opinions all over the map. Some have complained about the pixel density and how they put a cheap screen in here. I think that’s crazy, and did some research to see how the Apple Watch’s display measures up to it’s competitors. Here’s what I found:

The Apple Watch has the highest resolution screen of any smart watch on the market. Not only that, it’s very close to the retina resolution of the current iPhone 6, which has 326 pixels/inch. Blacks are inky dark, and colors pop. My only complaint is that the screen is a little hard to see on extremely sunny days. It’s definitely useable, but when the sun’s beating down, my iPhone is easier to see than my Watch.

Impressions and Questions from other people

“Is that the Apple Watch?! What does it do?”

My time with the Apple Watch makes it pretty clear that there is a lot of interest out there about this thing. People definitely know it’s a thing, but they don’t really know why they would want one. Despite their efforts, Apple definitely hasn’t nailed the marketing on this thing.

“Is that the small one?”

Everyone thinks I got the small one! Maybe I have big wrists…

“It makes calls!”

The thing that has gotten the biggest response is when I use Siri to make a phone call.

“How much did that cost?”

Most people are surprised that my model cost $400. I’ve had people think it was $200 and some who thought they were all $1,000+. It speaks to how many price points there are for the Watch, and again how hard it has been for Apple to market this thing.

“That looks really cool!”

I have not had a single person say the Watch looks dorky. I know I just got the base model, but people still love its look.

“Wait, did you just do that?”

I’ve gotten that response to both replying to a text message with voice and also for paying at Panera with Apple Pay.

Conclusion

What more can I say about the Apple Watch? Honestly, despite running past the 5,000 word mark in this article, there’s a lot more that I could dive into. This is a brand new product, and I’m still discovering new things about it all the time. I’m only 10 days into my Apple Watch experience, and things will surely change over time. I have hopes for what Apple and developers will do, but I don’t know what’s coming down the line.

I wrote this review as a way to solve the “what does the Apple Watch do?” question that has been posed to me so many times over the past 10 days. It’s so hard to explain in just a few seconds why this may or may not enhance your life. And by the dollars-to-value metric, the Apple Watch is probably a bad buy right now.

I don’t think it’s a bad product by any means; far from it. I hope you can tell from my review that I love my Apple Watch and I don’t want to go back to a world without it. It absolutely makes my life a little better and easier in many specific ways. It was worth the $400 for me, but that’s far from an impulse purchase for most people. If you read this review and saw some use cases you find appealing and you have $400 to spend on a luxury like this, then I think you should go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

However, if you are still on the fence, don’t feel like you need to rush out and order one today. Almost all of my current problems with the Apple Watch will be fixed by software and hardware releases down the road. We expect to see an SDK for apps to run natively on the Watch either this summer or fall, and we’ll almost certainly see a new version of the hardware with faster internals within the next year or two. Apple is betting big on this thing, so expect them to work tirelessly to make you want one.


If you want to read more Apple Watch coverage, WatchAware and iMore are knocking it out of the park right now. You can of course also get more right here on BirchTree; I’m sure I’ll have more to say.


  1. Can I still say that if I turn 30 this November? 
  2. Or all over on the Modular face.