Wednesday saw the first round of reviews for Apple's first major new product in five years: the Apple Watch. Technology writers for the Verge, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a few of other media organizations have spent the last week testing the new device (Vox's got lost in the mail, we think), and it turns out there's a lot of consensus on the Apple Watch.
Most found the device more useful than they expected. But the watch didn't get the awed reactions you often see greeting a new Apple product. Instead, reviewers complained the watch was slow, complex, and occasionally a bit creepy — and that its third-party apps were sort of useless. Many found the experience of having a watch that buzzed with every email and like on Instagram overwhelming.
And yet, pretty much everyone could see how the Apple Watch is going to be awesome — even if it isn't awesome quite yet.
1) The Apple Watch is surprisingly complex to use
Apple is famous for its simple and elegant user interfaces, but there was almost universal agreement that the Apple Watch has a steep learning curve. "The Watch is not suited for tech novices," wrote Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times.
The user interface on the Apple Watch has several novel elements. There's a crown wheel on the side of the watch that works something like the scroll wheel on an old-fashioned iPod. The watch also has a new type of gesture called a "force touch" that can call up some watch functions. And it can communicate with the user via subtle vibrations, with different vibration patterns representing different types of notifications — such as a new text message or email.
With one exception, reviewers said it took them several days to figure out these new rules. And even then, some found the experience overwhelming. The Apple Watch has "too many features that are too hard to find," according to the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern. CNet's Scott Stein agreed that the Apple Watch has "so many features that I felt a little lost at times."
One recurrent complaint is that, as Bloomberg's Josh Topolsky puts it, "the notification scheme is a little maddening at first. Apple sends a push notification every time you get a corporate e-mail, personal e-mail, direct message on Twitter, message on Facebook, and for interactions in countless other services." He eventually got the situation under control by disabling notifications for some services and creating a VIP list of email addresses worthy of immediate notifications.
2) The Apple Watch works for a full day on a single charge
Apple says its watch will run for 18 hours in a charge, and most reviewers found that to be roughly correct. The watch will generally run for a full day with moderate use, but it'll be close to drained by the time you go to bed. "The battery lives up to its all-day billing, but sometimes just barely," the Wall Street Journal's Gregory Fowler wrote. Users will definitely need to charge the battery at night.
Unsurprisingly, battery life depended a lot on what users did with it. The watch's fitness tracking app seems to be a power hog, and relying on the watch for turn-by-turn directions can also drain the battery. If heavy use does drain the battery prematurely, you can activate a power-saving mode where all functions are disabled except telling you what time it is.
3) The watch is stylish — at least for a gadget
Apple products have always been among the most stylish in the technology industry, but with the Watch Apple the company is competing in a whole new league. Will the watch succeed as a luxury item? Reviewers were skeptical.
Nilay Patel of the Verge (Vox Media's technology site) asked Julia Rubin of Racked (Vox Media's fashion site) to weigh in on the watch. "This is not luxury," she said. "It feels very much like two separate objects that were not designed in tandem. It feels like you have a computer sitting atop a band, which is not the point of a watch."
With that said, most reviewers agree that the Apple Watch is the most attractive smartwatch yet devised. "I’ve worn my fair share of smartwatches and none are as good-looking as Apple Watch," wrote Recode's Lauren Goode. The Wall Street Journal's Stern wrote that "even when the watch face is off, the black sapphire-crystal screen looks elegant."
4) The watch functions as a solid fitness tracker
The Apple Watch comes with two basic apps. "Activity" prods you to be more active throughout the day, while Workout is — well, you get the idea.
This is a crowded market; not only do other smartwatches have fitness features, but there are a ton of dedicated devices like the Fitbit that help people keep track of their personal fitness. While the watch isn't a game changer, reviewers generally found the watch to be a reasonable replacement for these other products. "If you get an Apple Watch, you likely won’t need a Fitbit, too," Goode wrote.
However, there are some notable rough edges. One "feature" nags the user to move around more after an hour of sitting, which reviewers found more annoying than helpful. And while the device does a good job of tracking certain types of workouts — especially those that get the user's heart rate up — it's not as good at tracking others, like yoga.
5) The personal communication apps are pointless and creepy
Probably the strangest feature Apple touted at the watch's unveiling was a suite of apps that allow users to send one another personal messages. These can take three forms: small sketches, brief animations, and recordings of the user's heartbeat.
Reviewers found these communication methods to be exactly as pointless as they sound. Topolsky found the heartbeat feature "weirdly intimate," and described the animations as "neutered, animated GIFs from the late '90s internet."
Multiple reviewers mentioned that friends or family found animations like the one at right creepy. And they found the watch's screen too small to draw sketches that were interesting.
6) Third-party apps are useless
Apple has been beating the bushes to convince companies like Twitter and Uber to build apps for the Apple Watch. Dozens of them have done so. Unfortunately, those third-party apps are "mostly useless right now," as the New York Times's Manjoo put it.
Part of the problem is inevitable growing pains. Developers at these companies have only had a few months to build these apps, so some of them are bound to be crude and lack important functionality.
However, there may also be deeper problem. "Loading an app requires the Watch to pull a tremendous amount of data from the phone, and there’s nothing fast about it," the Verge's Patel wrote. "The Uber app takes so long to figure out where you are that you’re better off walking home before someone notices you staring at your $700 Watch and makes a move."
7) The watch is slow
Indeed, Patel found the watch slow to use across the board. "There's virtually nothing I can’t do faster or better with access to a laptop or a phone except perhaps check the time," Patel wrote.
Fowler also had a speed-related complaint: "The maps app, surely the answer to wandering pedestrians’ dreams, is so slow it makes me want to pull out my paper Rand McNally."
8) Reviewers found the Apple Watch surprisingly useful
The most important question about the Apple Watch is whether it's actually useful. A lot of people wonder why they'd ever want a tiny computer strapped to their wrists. And on this front, reviewers were consistently positive.
"It took three days — three long, often confusing and frustrating days — for me to fall for the Apple Watch," Manjoo wrote. "But once I fell, I fell hard."
While critics fear that smartwatches will worsen the scourge of people ignoring their real-world companions in favor of the digital world, Manjoo found that the watch did just the opposite. It allowed him to quickly and discreetly get important messages: "My wife told me that I seemed to be getting lost in my phone less than in the past. She found that a blessing."
Different reviewers found different features useful. Some were enthusiastic about the watch's Apple Pay capabilities. Others were delighted by the ability to stream music directly from the watch to Bluetooth headphones, allowing runners to leave their iPhones at home.
Not all reviewers were ready to buy one, however. "The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use," Bloomberg's Topolsky wrote. "But it’s not essential. Not yet."
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