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A Week on the Wrist: The Apple Watch Review

The Apple Watch is the best smartwatch you can buy, assuming that you have an iPhone. Or that you want a smartwatch.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Of the half-dozen smartwatches I’ve tested in recent years, I’ve had the best experience with Apple Watch. If you’re an iPhone power user and you’re intrigued by the promises of wearable technology, you’ll like it, too.

But that doesn’t mean Apple Watch is for everyone.

Not everyone has an iPhone 5 or later, which is required for the watch to work. Not everyone wants her wrist pulsing with notifications, finds animated emojis thrilling or needs to control an Apple TV with her wrist. Smartwatches can sometimes feel like a solution in search of a problem.

I’ve been wearing Apple Watch for more than a week now — the midrange, stainless-steel version, which starts at $549. This is more expensive than the aluminum Apple Watch Sport, which starts at $349, and much less expensive than the gold Apple Watch Edition, which can cost as much as $17,000.

I’ve liked having access to iMessages, email and photos on my wrist. I didn’t resent the reminders to get up and move around after I’ve been sitting for too long. I even got used to accepting or rejecting phone calls from my wrist.

I’ve also exercised several times since Apple loaned me the smartwatch, and have found it to be a capable health-and-fitness tracker. (BRB — it just reminded me to stand up again.)

If you’re considering an Apple Watch, this review has everything you need to know.



Apple Watch is haute-tech

Apple Watch strives for high fashion, but it still looks like a techie watch. Even if you can easily swap out the basic, smooth plastic band for a more elegant one — the $149 leather band, the $149 Milanese loop or the $449 link bracelet — the face looks kind of like a miniature iPhone.

With that said, I’ve worn my fair share of smartwatches and none are as good-looking as Apple Watch. My “next-best” design award goes to the round-faced Moto 360, but its display isn’t as rich-looking.

The edges of the Apple Watch are gently rounded, and the Retina display pours into a barely-there edge like a tiny black infinity pool. In terms of size, the 42-millimeter Apple Watch feels just big enough. I like a bigger watch, and the 38-millimeter model didn’t feel like enough Apple Watch for me. It’s also rather thick; multiple people have remarked upon this when they’ve seen it.

 Apple Watch is sleek-looking but thicker than expected.
Apple Watch is sleek-looking but thicker than expected.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

To that point, lots of people noticed it on my wrist. “Is that the Apple Watch?” a fellow passenger bellowed on a plane. Another person waited until I emerged from a restroom to pounce and ask if that was the watch.

I’m fairly certain this has more to do the fact that it was an unreleased Apple product spotted out in the wild, rather than pure aesthetic appreciation.

I like the watch’s “Digital Crown,” which is like the winder on a mechanical watch and acts as a zoom-and-scroll mechanism for Apple Watch. But I haven’t used it as much as I thought I would. I find I’m using the Watch’s touchscreen more, as smudgy as it may get.

Apple Watch is as easy to navigate as an iPhone

Remember the first time you used an iPhone? That’s what Apple Watch is like.

After you first set up your Apple Watch and pair it with your iPhone using Bluetooth, you’ll think, “What the heck is going on, where do I swipe to see things, how do I get rid of this notification that just popped up?” And so on.

With some other smartwatches, that feeling never fully evaporates. With Apple Watch, it does.

The main face is the watch face. There are currently ten faces you can choose from, and you can customize each one to show things like date, weather, activity levels and battery life. Apple is calling these tiny info displays “complications,” a nod to mechanical watches.

Pressing on the Digital Crown will bring you to a multicolored cluster of tiny app icons, which you can move around or tap on with your finger. (Yes, it’s easy to miss the app icon you mean to tap — they’re so darn small.)

Swiping down from the watch face shows you recent notifications — just like on iPhone. Swiping up from the bottom of the watch face shows you “Glances” of information from key apps.

 Pressing on the Digital Crown brings you to this constellation of tiny app icons on the watch.
Pressing on the Digital Crown brings you to this constellation of tiny app icons on the watch.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

“Force Touch” is a new feature with Apple Watch: If you press down firmly on the touchscreen Watch display, it will perform certain functions. If you want to clear all notifications, for example, you can use Force Touch. If you’re playing iTunes and you want to switch from songs available on iPhone to songs stored locally on the watch, you use Force Touch.

After a couple days with Apple Watch, all of this starts to make sense.

Third-party apps are still works in progress

Apple Watch is running on an operating system called Watch OS. Developers who make iOS apps have to optimize their apps for Watch OS if they want them to work on Apple Watch.

This is similar to the way Android Wear works. The apps running on Apple Watch are either very distilled versions of the same apps on iPhone, or they’re remote controls for the full app that’s running on the phone.

My colleague Bonnie Cha has also been testing Apple Watch for the past week, and she has a full report on Watch OS and how third-party apps work, which I recommend reading.

 A photo of my niece stored locally on Apple Watch. The watch has eight gigabytes of storage.
A photo of my niece stored locally on Apple Watch. The watch has eight gigabytes of storage.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

I’ve been using a combination of Apple-made apps and third-party apps on Apple Watch. As Bonnie says, third-party apps are still very much works in progress, but the native apps worked well between iPhone and Watch.

I’ve controlled iTunes from my watch while I’m in the car, and I’ve synced two different photo albums to the watch, which I browse through often. I’ve used Apple Maps for turn-by-turn directions, and like the way the watch buzzes on my wrist ahead of an upcoming turn. Although the Maps app did at one point think I was on a road that was on the other side of a creek. Oh, Apple Maps.

Your friends are gonna love-hate these emojis

One of the key promises of all smartwatches, not just Apple Watch, is the ability to receive alerts on your wrist when things are happening on your smartphone. For some people this may sound hellish, but busy people love this stuff.

The Apple Watch uses “Taptic Engine” technology, so the kind of vibration you feel actually varies depending on the alert. When I received a new email in Outlook on iOS, or a text message from a food delivery service, I would also get a nudge on the watch, along with a short snippet of text.

 You can reply to iMessages on the watch using voice dictation, emojis or shortcut answers.
You can reply to iMessages on the watch using voice dictation, emojis or shortcut answers.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

You can read entire emails on the watch, but that’s often a lot of text for a small face. Out of the many (many!) notifications I’ve been getting on my wrist, I’ve liked seeing and responding to iMessages the most. I have a love-hate relationship with iMessage: I love that it works across multiple devices, but hate that I’m now even more tethered to it.

You can also send animated emojis and scribbles in iMessages from your Watch. These range from an M&M-like smiley face to a sparkling heart to a ghostly white glove giving the thumbs-up. Some people really liked these when I sent them. Re/code co-executive editor Kara Swisher pronounced them “creepy.”

 Totally adorable or completely irritating emoji? You decide.
Totally adorable or completely irritating emoji? You decide.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Apple Watch, phone home

Apple Watch has a built-in microphone and speaker, so you can make and receive phone calls. But it doesn’t have a cellular radio (some other smartwatches do), so your iPhone has to be in range in order to make phone calls. The call is actually happening on the iPhone, which patches it through to the watch via Bluetooth.

Both my boss, Walt Mossberg, and my mother told me that call quality was very good, and that they couldn’t even tell I was calling from a smartwatch. The volume on the watch doesn’t go up very high, though, so calls sounded best when I was wearing Bluetooth headphones.

 Siri on Apple Watch can control native apps, but isn’t so sharp on specific questions.
Siri on Apple Watch can control native apps, but isn’t so sharp on specific questions.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Siri, why are you sending me to iPhone again?

Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant, works on Apple Watch, provided that your iPhone is in range. But she’s much better at controlling native apps than she is at providing real answers.

For example, you can direct Siri to call up a contact, give directions, send a text message or play a song through iTunes on the smartwatch. But asking Siri specific questions on the watch often leads you right back to the iPhone.

Hey Siri, what time is the national championship on? Siri: Use Handoff to search the Web for [insert question] on your iPhone.

Hey Siri, how much rain has fallen in California this year? Use Handoff to search the Web for [insert question] on your iPhone.

Hey Siri, what do you think of Apple Watch? I think, therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.



Apple Watch as a “Fitbit killer”

Health-and-fitness features may be the greatest irony of wearable tech: All of the sedentary time at our computer screens is forcing us to rely on technology to tell us to move.

For me, this watch’s health-and-fitness capabilities are a deciding factor in whether I will buy one. We’ll be running a column about this topic next week; check back on Re/code for that.

But to summarize: Apple Watch tracks your steps throughout the day, records dedicated workout sessions (both indoors and outdoors, though you need iPhone with you for GPS), and gives you a continuous heart-rate reading through the wrist. It also pings you throughout the day when you’ve been sitting too long. Then it shares all of your information to a new Apple app called Activity and, ultimately, to Apple’s HealthKit.

 Apparently I was not so calm a minute earlier.
Apparently I was not so calm a minute earlier.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

This has a lot of people asking: Is Apple Watch a Fitbit-killer?

If you get an Apple Watch, you likely won’t need a Fitbit, too. But Fitbit works with multiple devices and operating systems, which Apple Watch does not.

The most interesting observation from my workouts so far is that the heart-rate readings I’m getting from the Apple Watch during indoor cycling are very close to the readings I’ve gotten from a chest monitor. I haven’t yet seen the kind of wildly-erratic readings that I’ve experienced with other health watches that measure heart rate through the wrist.

I like Apple Watch’s regular reminders to get up and move. It does this even when your watch is offline, as mine was during a recent six-hour flight.

I also like that Apple Watch lets you record a variety of activities, from running to cycling to the stair-stepper. But I don’t like that everything outside of that list is categorized as just “Other.” Yoga is very different from, say, weight lifting. Yet here, they’re just “Other.”

Excuse me while I pay with my watch

I’ve used Apple Pay on the Watch twice in the past week, and it was pretty cool.

Apple has even created a shortcut to Apple Pay: Pressing the Watch’s side button twice brings up your Apple Pay credit card on the Watch. Then you tap the Watch to the NFC-equipped terminal you’re paying at, and your payment is processed. (See here for a full list of places that accept Apple Pay.)

 Apple Pay is a good example of how a smartwatch could be used for fast and easy authentication.
Apple Pay is a good example of how a smartwatch could be used for fast and easy authentication.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

“I don’t know if this is going to work,” I said to the cashier the first time I tried paying with Watch.

“Oh, it works,” she said, waving me off. “I’ve seen it done here before.”

Of course. I was at Whole Foods. In Palo Alto. (It worked.)

You can also use Passbook on Apple Watch, though my one attempt was clumsy: After readying my Virgin America boarding pass, I found I couldn’t fit my wrist under the scanner at the airport boarding gate. I ended up holding up the line while I dug around for another copy of my boarding pass.

In that case, I was just that obnoxious person trying to be fancy with her new watch.

For security reasons, you can also set up a security passcode on your watch, so it locks up every time it is removed from your wrist.

My iPhone died before my Apple Watch did

The Apple Watch’s battery life is not nearly as long-lasting as some other wearable devices, but it’s better than I expected.

Apple has promised that the battery will last 18 hours per charge with normal use. It hasn’t yet died on me during the day, or even late at night. My iPhone actually conked out before the Watch did; this happened to Bonnie, too.

One day this past week, I woke up at 5:15 am, exercised for an hour using the Watch, ran Maps during my commute, made phones calls and received notifications throughout the whole day, and by 11:00 pm the Watch was just hitting its Power Reserve point.

 My iPhone died before my Apple Watch did. But recharging the watch takes a long time.
My iPhone died before my Apple Watch did. But recharging the watch takes a long time.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Apple has used a combination of techniques to try to stretch battery life. One is the black screen. Another is a lack of manual control over brightness: Your watch display is either at 50 percent, where I kept it, or 100 percent. There’s an ambient light sensor that dynamically adjusts the brightness of the display to your environment. And finally, the iPhone is still handling most of the app load.

When your watch does die, recharging takes a long time — around two and a half hours to get the watch to 100 percent.

I also don’t love the design of the inductive charging cable. It’s too easy to accidentally disconnect the watch from the cable. I would rather have an inductive charging cradle like the one that comes with Moto 360.

And if you’re lucky enough to have a laptop, an older iPad, a newer iPhone and Apple Watch, that’s four different chargers to carry around with you when you travel.

Will Apple Watch change your life?

Some people have already decided they’re getting Apple Watch on the day it comes out. Because they love Apple. Because they like new things and being the first to buy them. Because there has been so much hype around this product.

Others may want it because it offers a fluidity that other smartwatches don’t — if you’re already tied to Apple software like iMessage, iTunes, Siri and Health. Watch is the seemingly inevitable extension.

But Apple Watch is not a cure-all, and it’s likely not a timepiece you will pass down to your grandkids. It is a well-designed piece of technology that will go through a series of software updates, until one day, years from now, when the lithium ion battery can no longer hold much of a charge and it won’t seem as valuable to you.

 What can you do with the watch when it’s not paired with iPhone? Very little.
What can you do with the watch when it’s not paired with iPhone? Very little.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

So what is Apple Watch?

From a technology standpoint, it is an extension of the iPhone. And just like the smartphone, it starts to change your habits over time.

It’s swiping through pictures of family on your wrist, seeing your heart rate spike when you’re watching an exciting game and getting a glimpse of a message when you’re rushing between classes or meetings. It’s trying really, really hard not to look at your wrist when you’re in the middle of a meeting. In our new world of too-many-devices, it somehow becomes the second thing you reach for when you roll out of bed.

Smartwatches are still unproven, but Apple has made a pretty strong case for them.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.