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Published November 20, 2020

A skeptic's review of Apple Watch

I’ve been a fan and user of Apple products for most of my life. My first was a 4th generation iPod (now called the iPod classic) that I purchased in 2004 with money saved from my first job. To this day, I feel an instant sense of happiness when I imagine the blocky interface set in the Chicago typeface and the tactile sound of the click wheel.

I became an evangelist of Apple’s products, reveling in how precisely they delivered on their users’ needs while balancing design and engineering. In the sixteen years that have gone by since I first purchased that iPod, I’ve owned and used nearly all of Apple’s products, with one notable exception, the Apple Watch.

It first arrived on the scene with much fanfare in the same venue that hosted Steve Jobs’ introduction of the original Macintosh. I was skeptical. I saw it as a status symbol — as yet another way to receive annoying notifications — as yet another thing to charge. I refused to believe the seasoned Apple fans when they said that it’s a great product.

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When I bought my first iPod, I frequently got into flame wars about how Apple products were better than the rest and how everyone else didn’t know what they were talking about. In those exchanges, others used to lob specs at me, stating how Macs are slower or have smaller hard drives. I used to argue that what makes Apple products so great is that they aren’t merely a collection of specs, but instead, cohesive products that provide an experience found nowhere else. Apple products are better because of how they work and how they fit into their users’ lives.

By the release of the Apple Watch, I had shed my diehard Apple fanboy attitude. I started feeling the harmful effects of always-on connectivity enabled by my iPhone. So, the idea of an internet-connected device strapped to my wrist at all times seemed like a step in the wrong direction.

I would later find out that I was wrong.

I watched the years go by and most technology reviewers loved each generation of Apple Watch. Even Hodinkee, which rarely talks about anything but handmade mechanical watches had little to say aside from praise, even going as far as interviewing Jony Ive himself.

The Apple Watch Series 6 on the wrist

This year, my wife bought me an Apple Watch. I refused it at first but decided to give it a try for a few days to see what all of the fuss was about.

It’s a 40mm with a blue aluminum case and deep navy sport loop. If I had the choice, I would have stuck to monochrome options like silver, white or black, but I welcome the colorful influence my wife has on me.

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The first thing I noticed is how good it feels and looks while feeling light on the wrist.

The combination of the rounded back and the soft, yet sturdy strap have made for a comfortable wearing experience. I’ve had mine on nearly 24 hours a day for the last two months. This is also in no small part due to the ability to quickly charge it up during a shower or when I’m eating breakfast.

The sport loop is an elegant improvement on the velcro bands I’ve used on G-SHOCK and Timex watches.

Apple Watch isn’t a smartwatch

It’s hard to put the Apple Watch into a product category. Industry analysts call it a wearable or smartwatch, but that doesn’t seem fair considering the competition.

When Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007, he described it as an iPod, phone, and an Internet communicator, but no one would describe it with those words today. The paradigm shift in computing brought on by the iPhone is possible because of portability, high-resolution touch screens, sensors, and apps connected to web services in the cloud. The iPhone took every attribute that made the personal computer great and turned it up a notch. So, calling it a smartphone is selling it short.

The Apple Watch is made from a different set of ingredients. It sits at the intersection of watchmaking, design, technology, and lifestyle.

As a wristwatch

Does the Apple Watch fit in among the usual suspects in the watch world? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

That point is principally proven by the dizzying number of combinations of case size, material, finish, and watch bands. Furthermore, Apple uses watch making terms like complications and faces. Faces like California, Chronograph, Count up, and GMT pay homage to classic watch archetypes.

The digital crown takes a familiar feature of wristwatches and turns it into an integral part of the interface.

For something to be considered a true watch, you must be able to see the time from nearly any angle and position. One of my largest initial reservations with the Apple Watch was that it would only show the time when it’s lifted up.

That completely changed with the always-on display introduced in the Series 5. When you tilt the watch away, the face transitions into a low-power version. Then, when you look at it again, it transitions back.

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Standard face to the left, low-power to the right

Furthermore, the delightfully rounded display feels so close to the surface of the glass that at times I feel like the pixels are floating on the surface. Clever tricks like the shrinking app icons in the App View further reinforce that illusion. Unlike the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, the screen is designed to blend in with the rest of the watch, with the edges rarely noticeable.

The interplay between physical and virtual is unmatched by any other device. For example, the haptics that simulates clicks of the digital crown or guide breathing in the Breathe app, make for the perfect blend of tactility and intuitiveness.

The Apple Watch lifestyle

The most important question still remains. What exactly is this device for? I’ve already said that it functions superbly as a watch, but if that’s the only thing it does, then the cost and need to charge it regularly makes for a raw deal.

I’ve been using nearly all of the built-in lifestyle features and find them to be top-notch.

Running

I’ve been a long time runner. A few years ago, I ran my last marathon. In the twenty weeks leading up the race, I ran between forty and sixty miles a week on average and had a respecible result on race day. Since then, I’ve held myself to an irrational expectation for workouts. If I’m unable to fit in a longer run, I don’t run. Over time, habits changed, and I’m exercising a small fraction of what I used to.

The gamified Fitness app with its ring-closing goals has helped double my time spent exercising, whether that is a short jog around the block, jump rope, yoga, or free weights.

The Strava app on iPhone works decently. I prefer the built-in Workout app since I can easily set pace alerts and time or distance goals. Though, if I were seriously training, I would still use my dedicated Garmin GPS watch since I can set up detailed workouts for fartleks, intervals, or even just pre-programming warm-up and cool-down sessions.

Sleep tracking

Sleep tracking has been an unexpectedly useful feature. I’m not new to sleep tracking, having used a Wakemate, one of the first hardware sleep tracking devices, and many of the iPhone’s earlier sleep tracking apps. I since abandoned those methods because of the inconveniences involved and since I never was able to take any action based on detailed sleep cycle analysis.

The Apple Watch Sleep app is quite simple. It tracks hours slept, shows times when in lighter sleep, and offers alarms. After having a child a few months back, getting more sleep has been a struggle for me. After putting my kid to sleep, I often end up awake and reading a book or writing. After seeing the weekly averages, I’ve made a more conscious effort to sleep.

As a phone replacement

The most powerful use case for the Apple Watch has been using it as a phone replacement.

I’ll have to admit that I’ve been addicted to my phone at times. I’ve seen the research floating around stating that simply having a smartphone around reduces brainpower. Anecdotally, I can agree with that conclusion.

To combat it, I’ve made changes to my habits, deleted apps, and moved my phone charger to a less convenient location. However, there are a few things I find to be productive and enjoyable uses of my phone like podcasts and audiobooks. I used to find myself getting distracted in the middle of a podcast or audiobook to look something up and then 30 minutes later realizing I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. With Apple Watch, that no longer happens.

The Castro and Audible apps on the watch give me just enough interface to listen without my phone nearby. All the while, the watch lacks any real way to get distracted by the endless stream of content emanating from the internet.

Also, I tend to plan out my day in the morning and use my calendar app reminders as a guide throughout the day. With the Apple Watch, I can receive those notifications without the risk of getting distracted by something else.

Looking forward to the future

I’m happy to say that the Apple Watch is a fantastic device. Now, even after writing all of this in praise of it, I’m still not sure which category it fits. Perhaps, that’s not important.

It’s useful, delightful, and respects a long history of watchmaking and computing. It truly works like a tool in a way unlike other computing devices I use. Above all, this generation, with the always-on display, great battery life, and myriad health sensors, feels like what the team at Apple must have envisioned when they designed the first one.

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I’m looking forward to many more years with my Apple Watch and the pure joy and utility it will bring me.


Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.

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