/ Apple

Apple Watch review (or, The Wanker's Tale)

General use

As someone who hasn’t used a watch in at least a decade, it’s hard to ignore a nagging feeling of “what’s this for?”–despite the fact that a watch, in and of itself, is a pretty established device for a lot of people. So at least one of the answers is: “For telling the time.” And I imagine that some day soon, I will actually manage to check the time on my wrist without first reaching halfway to my phone accidentally. There’s the issue of the watch screen having to wake up when you raise it, of course: there’s usually slightly more of a delay than you’d like. In a pleasant twist though, colder weather gives the watch a lot more time while you pull your sleeve back.

As a serial forgetter-to-go-to-meetings, having my next appointment on my wrist is pretty great… even if most appointment names are far longer than fits.

10:00am FW: FW: FW: Meet…

Quick access to timers is handy when cooking. Being able to glance down to see if your notification is actually important when you’ve stopped at the lights is handy.1 I imagine the navigation stuff will be awesome next time I’m travelling, allowing me to look just slightly less like a tourist.

In the end, the watch is at its best when you’re doing something–cooking, walking, running, etc. If you’re at home with your shiny new purchase, wanting to do something cool with it… you’ll find yourself bored by it. This may actually result in you going for a run or a walk just to try it out, which is probably a good thing.

Spinny dial person thing

There’s a second button on the watch, and when you click it it shows you a ring of your favourite people. I can imagine times when this would be genuinely useful… but I’m not sure I can imagine enough of them to warrant having a whole button for it. The set of times where you need to initiate a new conversation but don’t want to use your actual phone seems minimal. That said, if you’ll permit me some sentimentality, having a button you can press to immediately bring up a picture of your partner can be quite nice.

I get the impression that this whole thing is mostly designed for Apple’s whole watchy-touchy-sketchy-beaty thing. I do not anticipate getting to try this out any time soon.

This is one of the places where you come across Apple’s hideous new animated emoji. I do not understand what the hell they were trying to achieve with these. Normal emoji are a) pretty good already and b) don’t give you nightmares. The thin lines on the faces don’t look great on the watch face itself, let alone when they get sent to non-watch people.

Luckily, after a page of freaky smileys, a page of over-the-top heart animations, and a page of mime hands, you can get to actual emoji, with your phone’s recently used list shown first.

Running

First things first: I have always run with my phone, and don’t have a problem with it. This seems to mark me out from the people complaining about the watch’s lack of GPS, and whoever buys the awful pocket-less shorts that you find in running stores.2

Given that, I was pretty hopeful that the watch would do a decent job as a running watch, but for now, it’s only a qualified success. And my requirements are not demanding; my previous watch was a Garmin Forerunner 210, which is a fine watch, but not one of the quality you’d get if you spent Apple Watch money on something from Garmin or TomTom.

Here’s what I want from a running watch:

  1. Live stats on my wrist, including heart rate
  2. Starting and stopping the run from the watch
  3. Recording of run info, including mapping the run and heart rate by time

The built-in Workouts app can handle items 1 and 2 just fine. The display is decent, once you work out that tapping the speed will toggle the number to show pace instead. But it falls down at 3; the recorded information is pretty basic and has none of the time-based charts that I’ve become addicted to.

So at this point, you look around to other activity apps. These are effectively satellites for their iPhone apps, and so they manage everything you’re used to them doing on the phone. What they can’t do as yet–due to the limitations of the watch’s API–is show you your heart rate as you run.

After a brief review of the operations of Runkeeper and Strava’s mobile apps, I can say:

  • Strava’s app isn’t quite ready for prime-time yet. It loads up with a ‘bike’ icon, even if your default activity is run, I managed to start a run on the watch that wasn’t being recorded on the phone, and even when I started on the phone later, it lost sync with distance travelled.
  • Runkeeper behaves pretty well, though the design is a little worse (I prefer Strava’s tap-to-pause to wasting 1/3 of the space on a pause button… though I’d prefer using force-touch to avoid accidental pauses).

Neither app’s info screens are as nice as the built-in one, to my mind. And the Workouts app has a few advantages it gets by being made by Apple:

  • It can be a native app to the watch
  • It can override the usual “return to watch face” setting during a workout

Luckily, there’s a reasonable compromise you can achieve now: start an activity on your watch with Workouts, then start Strava or Runkeeper on your phone. It covers almost everything I needed… except getting heart rate info into Strava.3

Update 2015-05-25: It turns out that Trails will extract heart rates from HealthKit as you record, so with this + the Watch’s activity app, you can get heart rates into a GPX file. Hooray!

The other thing to note, of course, is that you’re relying on phone GPS, and I’ve noticed that my friends’ running watches often out-perform my iPhone in terms of accuracy. But you may find that the occasional unexpected run halfway over a river is worth not having to wait for your GPS to kick in while you stand around in the freezing cold like a chump.

Other health stuff

The watch wants you to satisfy movement, standing and calorie goals every day. I assume this is similar to other fitness trackers, so I won’t bother going into it, except to say that I found myself doing jumping jacks while cooking one night in a desperate attempt to fill up my calorie ring. This seems like both a good thing and a bad thing.

Battery

This has been pretty decent. I’m used to my first few days with a gizmo being slightly depressing as the battery drains very quickly… until I realise that’s only happening because I’m using it every minute of every day. Here, this wasn’t as much of an issue; I have yet to come within 20% of no battery. This may in part be because… it’s a watch, and you just don’t need to use it that much.

I expected the biggest hit to come from running, but it handles that okay so far: after a 10k run (and a drive before that), the watch battery had dropped by 15%.

Third party apps

These apps run as 'extensions’ to apps on your phone, and need to ping back to the phone via Bluetooth to get all their content. As such, they’re a little slow to load. Perhaps more importantly, given the watch has only been out for a week, developers have had bugger-all chance to test them properly. As such, I expect a big up-tick in quality in the next month or so.

In the meantime: Hours is good, Overcast is decent (though I would actually like show notes visible on the watch), and 1Password’s OTP support is really nice (though tapping in PINs is a pain on the watch–an Android-like sketch-across-the-numbers would be better). Foursquare’s quick shortcut to nearby venues is pretty handy, too.

I look forward to all the messaging apps coming to the watch: the interface for these is a no-brainer, unlike other software, and you can say a lot with a carefully chosen emoji. Other software is going to take time–unless there’s room for some serious optimisation of the current system, I don’t expect them to become really awesome until developers are allowed to make native apps for the watch.

And, of course, when developers are allowed to get heart rate information.

The future

I’m looking forward to this. If native apps, and a few obvious tweaks come to the watch in the next year, it would be welcome. Unlike the original iPhone, I feel like it’s starting off with enough power to last a few OS revisions at least–though this may just be the blind optimism of a man who wants desperately not to regret jumping on a first generation tech device.

My wish-list so far:

  • Third-party face complications.
  • Making a protocol for messaging apps to register themselves, so you could use the contact wheel to link to one friend on WhatsApp, another on Facebook, etc. This is almost certainly never going to happen, though.
  • The weather complication allows you to show today’s high and low instead of the current temperature. I know what the temperature is now! I’m IN now. This applies to the emphasis in the glance, too, where the important stuff is in tiny grey letters and the obvious stuff is giant.
  • A line chart for the future weather instead of a radial list of numbers. I get that you like round things on the watch, Apple, but it’s just stupid when you’re comparing quantities over time. Actually, maybe we should just get someone else to make a decent weather app at this point.
  • Scrolling through time in the world clock app, so you can quickly check out a future time. Yes, I know I can just do the math, but I’m lazy. Screw you.

That’ll do for now. Let’s see what happens with this thing.


  1. And hopefully, not illegal! 

  2. Even if you don’t want to carry your phone, what about your keys? Your wallet? What’s the harm in having pockets anyway? These shorts confuse me deeply. 

  3. Technically, if you do things the way I describe, then all your heart rate info is sitting in Health for the taking… Third parties could potentially look out for heart rate stuff that corresponds with your activities and stitch that into their data. -I don’t know if anyone will bother though; they might just be holding out for the API.-