There is more to the Apple Watch than meets the eye. It’s not just a pretty piece of jewellery, but it is in fact a powerful statement of intent about Apple’s hardware and software ecosystem long into the future.
To be really honest, when the wearables era began I was unimpressed at first. For a long time, players like Sony, for example, had pioneered smartwatches that would sync via Bluetooth with your smartphone to give you text messages and maybe even directions. These sometimes worked, but were a bit gimmicky.
Things started to evolve with devices like the Fitbit and the Nike FuelBand, which suddenly interested a whole load of health-conscious people.
Then Pebble came along and upped the design stakes with an object of desire that was interactive and functional. The smartwatch era began.
I’ve only really ever looked at the Samsung smartwatches at industry events like Mobile World Congress. I recently tried an LG smartwatch using Google’s Android Wear and, while I was impressed with some of the apps, particularly Strava for fitness, I found its user interface confusing and the device drew heavily on my phone’s battery in terms of Bluetooth.
When Apple finally decided to enter the smartwatch game players like Samsung and LG and Motorola were already onto their second or third generation smartwatch devices.
You got the sense that rather than rushing, Apple was taking its time (no pun intended) to get the device it wanted just right.
So last year when the Apple Watch arrived I, like most people, was charmed but at the same time slightly skeptical.
What I am used to about Apple is not only its impressive design and attention to detail but the simplicity of its supply chain. It makes two or three types of notebook, it makes two sizes of smartphone, a number of sizes of Mac desktops and so on. The whole thing is pretty regimented and simple.
But when the Apple Watch was first unveiled there were two sizes, 38mm and 42mm, and there were three distinct collections – Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch and Apple Watch Edition. There were numerous alloys of gold, silver, grey, anodized aluminum and so on. And there were multiple types of straps, buckles, clasps, bracelets.
Prices ranged from €429 right up to over €13,000 if you went for the most expensive model.
What was Apple taking on?
Apple blended its own technology and design expertise with those of experienced jewellers, horologists and fashion designers. Terms like Complications – an actual term used by watchmakers – are a nod to the traditions of watchmaking.
While Ireland missed out on the first generation of watchOS, by the time the devices went on sale here watchOS 2 had arrived, along with new Rose Gold and Black Stainless Steel materials as well as a new line-up of straps and a specially designed Watch from Hermes with its own etching and Watch face.
When I got to test out the device I’m using – the Apple Watch 42mm Stainless Steel with Stone Leather Loop (Medium) – my first reaction wasn’t really about how pretty it looked, I was impressed with the attention-to-detail in terms of the software underneath the bonnet, so to speak.
Apple Watch: look and feel
Depending on your taste there are countless confections of the Apple Watch, from Sport versions using a fluoroelastomer material or versions using classic leather watch buckles to even Hermes-designed straps that loop twice around your wrist.
The version I have comes with a light grey Leather Loop design by Apple that wraps around your wrist and snaps into place magnetically. I also have a fluoroelastomer strap that closes in a pin-and-tuck arrangement and which magically feels light and as if you have nothing on your wrist, which is perfect for exercise.
The first real impression you get about the Watch is the clarity of its screen/watch face. Unlike previous smartwatches I tried in the past which had a kind of an LCD quality, the Apple Watch is pure glass.
The device is controlled primarily by touch but also by a Crown (another nod to watch design) that allows you to cycle through your apps, zoom in and out and move forwards and back in time through events like calendar and more using Time Travel.
Below the Crown is a button that is primarily about your contacts. Once you press the button you can arrange your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and causes into circles that you can cycle through using the Crown. This is actually quite disarming and charming because you can then activate a call, send a message or even a drawing to a friend or loved one without having to touch your smartphone.
In fact that is the point of the whole thing – people get their information at a glance or can trigger actions without rooting into pockets or bags or distracting themselves or others. The effect is subtle, but it grows on you.
At the back of the device is a cluster of sensors that look like fish eyes. These are actually quite sophisticated sensors that can measure your heartbeat, pulse, and assess your movements, how many calories you may have burned, how long you have stood or walked or more.
The watch has built-in haptic sensors that can subtly alert you to messages or even allow people to send each other actual versions of their heartbeat or Morse code messages. I’m not joking. This is useful (poker anyone?), fascinating, romantic and a wee bit strange. In a year or so this kind of haptic touch communication might well be commonplace.
What impressed me the most when I got to unbox the Apple Watch was the depth of software. It’s a bit like an onion, I keep discovering new layers and that’s part of the fascination. While Android Wear was functional, it was also pretty one dimensional, relying on the apps to do the heavy lifting.
The key to the Apple Watch is the functional design of its operating system – this is a whole new form factor after all – and the presence of Siri, Apple’s voice-based AI assistant.
On the one hand (no pun!) it is designed to allow you to do a host of things from your wrist without delving into your smartphone such as responding to text messages, dictating text messages, responding to Facebook and Twitter messages and more.
On the other hand (see what I did there), Apple has pushed all kinds of functionality into the structure of watchOS 2. In some ways it feels as familiar as your iPhone or iPod, but there is a learning curve to using the Crown, the Taptic engine, heart sensors or just finding the settings that suit you like sound and brightness.
Let’s start with the Watch faces. You can have classic simple Watch faces, chronographic Watch faces and you can have solar-based watch faces that allow you to see where you are either in the world as the sun traverses the sky or just the passage of night into day. You can have a pretty playful Mickey Mouse Watch face. You can use a single photo from you smartphone’s photo app or you can cycle through your entire photo album or favourites each time you raise your wrist to tell the time. Watch OS2 also comes with a new Timelapse Watch face that shows timelapse videos over 24 hours – in night and day – of cities like Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York, London and Mack Lake.
The most important thing to remember is the Apple Watch has to be paired with your iPhone and the software in the Watch app on your iPhone also has a bit of a learning curve. If you want to download new apps you do so through the prism of the Watch app on your iPhone. For example I downloaded apps like TripAdvisor, Twitter, Strava, Google Maps and Facebook through my iPhone and, voilà, they appeared within the constellation of apps on the Apple Watch.
This leads us on to what are called Complications. These are pieces of information that are delivered to the Watch’s face such as upcoming events or meetings or flight times.
Glances are versions of your favourite apps where the most important and relevant information you need at a glance is brought to the fore. Again, this can include information such as flight departure times, trending tweets, sports scores and more. You simply access this feature by swiping up and then swiping from left to right and vice versa through your favourite apps.
In fact, what Apple did from the get-go was make Watch OS available as a development kit to software and app designers, so we are really only scratching the surface of what’s possible.
The key to the Apple Watch is communication and within an hour of wearing the device I was responding with just a tap to text messages and emails and dictating messages and emails through Siri.
I actually found I was using Siri a lot more than I did on the iPhone to bring up information like sports scores and weather information or finding a contact. You get the sense that this is the situation Siri was born for. I actually tried dictating messages to Siri in a busy airport and the accuracy was perfect.
Another cute feature is the ability to draw and send sketches to other Apple Watch owners.
Fans of the iconic 1960s TV show Get Smart or the 1980s cartoon Inspector Gadget will love the ability to make voice and FaceTime calls over cellular and Wi-Fi. When calls come in on your iPhone you can answer them directly from your wrist with reasonable audio quality.
It goes without saying that the Apple Watch is a beautiful piece of hardware and it is amazing how Apple has managed to come up with a range of devices that vary so much in value but are still fundamentally built on the same chassis and software.
Built-in gyroscopes allow the Watch to switch on and show the time as you raise your wrist and the Watch immediately goes back to sleep when you lower your wrist, or so you think.
All the while the device is recording your movements – how much time you are standing, sitting, how much exercise you are taking and more.
It goes without saying that the device is very light and, depending on the kind of strap you use, feels like it’s not even there.
The arrival of the Apple Watch in Ireland predated the arrival of the new Apple iPhone 6s and the only iPhone I had available to test the device was an iPhone 5. Suffice to say the iPhone 5 updated to the latest iOS 9 release worked perfectly with the new Apple Watch. The only limitations I experienced were with the battery on the ageing iPhone 5, which was struggling before it was paired with the Watch.
Set up of the Apple Watch is pretty new. The software is already preinstalled with iOS 9 and pairing the two devices involves holding your camera over a unique visualisation on the Watch’s face and magically the two devices are paired and encrypted. This is called Activation Lock and prevents another person from wiping or activating the Apple Watch if it is lost or stolen.
Another nifty feature is the charger, a completely new design from Apple. Shaped like a doctor’s stethoscope the circular end just attaches magnetically to the back of the watch. When this happens the Watch is automatically switched to a really convenient nightstand mode and works as your new alarm clock where you just hit the side button to turn off the alarm and turn the crown to give you more Snooze time.
The verdict: 4.5/5
It is a testament to the team behind the Apple Watch how quickly it grows on you – not only because it is attractive but because it winds itself (another watch pun!) intricately into your life.
This is primarily from a health and fitness perspective – the Watch records your standing, exercise and general activity – and, in fact, challenges you to do better. You tell it how much exercise you want to take each day, how many calories you hope to lose and you add in essential information like weight and height and it does the rest. If you’ve been at the desk or driving too long, it recommends you get up and walk around for a minute.
The ability to transform the look and feel of the device is also fun. Tiny little buttons on the back of the device release the magnetically-held straps and you can transform its appearance through a new Watch face or strap. When I am working or cycling I opt for the fluoroelastomer strap and the Chronograph Watch face. But when I am getting suited and booted for a meeting or a night out, I’ll switch to the elegant Leather Loop and change the Watch Face to something more easy on the eye like the Motion Watch faces that show flowers opening or sea creatures unraveling.
The sheer connectivity between the Watch and the iPhone is ingenious, for example, you can use the Watch to remotely control Apple Music, which is a pretty impressive party trick.
All in all, my concerns about the breadth and diversity of materials in the Apple Watch were unfounded. Apple knows exactly what it is doing here and it is a plan very well executed as geek becomes chic and vice versa.
The only rub is the price.
Even for the most basic Sports version at €429, the price is quite hefty. Believe it or no,t there are people in the world who might not think twice about splurging over €13,000 on a pure Gold version.
As a new form factor, Apple has excelled beyond the competition – creating something stylish, classic but at its core a testament to the California tech giant’s rule of closing the loop on software and hardware.
In Ireland, there is a saying when people put on new things: “have the health to wear it”.
With the Apple Watch, it will damn well make sure you have the health to wear it.
All photographs by Luke Maxwell