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A Month With the Apple Watch: Does It Pass the Test of Time?

The Apple Watch is a very good product with a chance to be great as new and better apps get written.

Quin Paek for Re/code

While there have been many reviews of the Apple Watch since it officially emerged in April, few of them have tackled the question of how a user might feel about the highly touted device after wearing it every day for an extended period. So I decided to wear one for about a month and see how I felt about it after the initial novelty wore off.

I started wearing my loaner unit from Apple four weeks ago, and I’m still wearing it as I type this. The only time it has been off my wrist for more than a few minutes was when I charged it overnight. It’s been much more of a constant digital companion than my iPhone, iPad or computers.

I’ve worn the Apple Watch while traveling by plane and train, while lazily watching TV or working out, while in business meetings, and while reading on my back porch. I’ve worn it to restaurants and doctors’ appointments, gas stations and grocery stores, and while staying in four different hotels in cities on both coasts.

In other words, I tried hard to treat it as a normal part of my life, rather than as a shiny new gadget. Some people remarked upon it, especially cashiers or airport employees for whom I was the first person to pay or check in with the watch while they were on duty. But mostly I was able to just quietly get used to the watch.

I was going through security at an airport on my second day of wearing the watch, and a TSA agent urged me to keep trying to scan my boarding code with it — something I hadn’t yet figured out how to do — because he wanted to see it work.

Thumbs-up or down?

So, after a month, is it thumbs-up, or thumbs-down? I like the Apple Watch. It’s a gorgeous piece of hardware with a clever and simple user interface and some fine built-in functions. It already has more than 4,000 third party apps. I will probably buy one.

But it’s a fledgling product whose optimal utility lies mostly ahead of it as new watch software is developed. I got the strong feeling that third-party app developers taking their first swing at the thing simply hadn’t yet figured out how best to write software for it — especially since Apple, for now, is requiring that watch apps basically be adjuncts of iPhone apps.

But that will change, and Apple’s own core apps are already rich examples of what the watch can do.

It reminds me of the first iPhone a month after its debut. That phone had slow data, was tied to a wireless carrier that constantly dropped phone calls, and — most importantly — it had no app store yet. But I got enough value from it that I’ve never regretted buying the first model.

Sure, my test model — stainless-steel with a leather band — sells for $699. But I much preferred it to my trusty $99 Seiko, which just told the time and never knew when Daylight Savings Time began or ended, let alone when my co-workers or friends were texting me.

Where’s the killer app?

Some commentators have complained that the Apple Watch lacks a “killer app” — the one thing that would make it irresistible to consumers. But I disagree. I think any new device like this becomes attractive when it looks good, works well, and does multiple useful things of different value to different users.

For me, the three big winners among the watch’s functions were fitness, texting and paying for things and checking in at airports. All can be done on the phone, or indeed without digital devices at all. But I found that the Apple Watch made each easier and, in the case of fitness, more effective.

 The fitness app on the Apple Watch
The fitness app on the Apple Watch
Quin Paek for Re/code

If it were more widespread, I’d add a fourth: Checking in at hotels. While testing the watch, I was able to try it during a faux check-in at a W hotel in Washington, D.C. As I walked in, my room number appeared on the watch, and I was able to breeze by the front desk, go right to the room and use the watch as a key.

The built-in fitness app, which uses the metaphor of closing three colored rings each day as you make progress toward goals like movement and standing up, gets in your face. For someone like me, who’s not as fit as I should be, that makes me actually do more.

I liked other apps, like Uber, ESPN, MLB and various news feeds. But most of the third-party apps I tried offered just a small taste of what the corresponding iPhone app can do, or just served as a sort of remote control for a phone app. For instance, you can’t actually buy anything with the Amazon app for the watch, or make a reservation using OpenTable on the watch. With the former, you can only add to a wish list; with the latter, you can only get reminders and directions.

The most frustrating function of the watch for me was email. Unless you shut it off, the watch will alert you to new emails, but it won’t let you respond.

It will only get better

As it does with its other products, especially new ones, I expect Apple to issue an updated operating system with more features and fixes for any known bugs sooner rather than later. I’m hoping that things like the email issue will be addressed. And there will be further OS updates over time.

Beyond that, Apple has said it plans to issue a software developer’s kit that will allow third-party apps to be written directly for the watch, instead of as slices of iPhone apps. That’s how Apple’s own core watch apps, like fitness and texting, are written. And it should make for much more interesting software. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that released at the company’s big developer conference next month.

Biggest pleasant surprises

For me, there were two pleasant surprises in my month-long test. First was the comfort and beauty of the watch itself. It isn’t bulky, heavy or noticeable after awhile. And the deep-black screen makes icons and text pop.

 The deep black of the Apple Watch screen makes the icons pop.
The deep black of the Apple Watch screen makes the icons pop.
Quin Paek for Re/code

Even more surprising, however, was how good Siri and dictation are on the watch. I found Siri to be far more reliable on the watch than on the phone. And dictation — which is crucial on a device with a screen too small for a keyboard — was nearly flawless for me. I was easily able to accurately dictate not only the body of texts, but the names of the people I wanted to text, which spared a lot of scrolling.

My only complaint was that, in the rare cases where you make an error in dictation, the watch doesn’t provide voice editing for fixing them.

Apple says it has heard similar reports, but can’t explain the difference between these functions on the watch and on the phone.

Biggest unpleasant surprises

To do most things, the watch has to connect to an iPhone. It mostly does this via Bluetooth. But when the devices are separated by more than around 30 feet, it switches to a known Wi-Fi network to which both are connected. This failed on me about half a dozen times in my average-sized East Coast suburban house. Apple speculates that this flaw was due to the fact that I have two linked Wi-Fi networks in the house.

Latency was another issue. In some cases, it took way too long for data to load from the phone to the watch. For instance, this frequently happened in the Maps app and in news apps. In other cases, data loaded quickly.

Sleeves — yes, sleeves — bugged me. Apple’s photos of the watch tend to show photos of people with exposed wrists. But, in the Northeast in April, you still tend to wear fleeces and sweaters that have tight cuffs and have to be pulled back. That’s not such a big deal when all you’re doing is telling the time, but it’s awkward when trying to read or send a text.

Finally, there’s charging. I was on the road a lot during my test month, and found toting yet another charger and cord to be a pain, especially in hotel rooms with limited outlets. Battery life was good for me — on most days lasting about the 18 hours, or a bit longer, that Apple claims. But if you’re buying an Apple Watch, you’ll charge it daily, and have to stuff the USB charger cable in your bag along with the other chargers already there.

One more thing

My wise and wonderful wife asked me to include this one, and she’s right: This watch — and all smartwatches — presents a new temptation to become distracted while driving. When the watch alerts you to a message, it’s highly tempting to just glance at it by raising your arm. It’s even more tempting, in my experience, than it is to pick up a phone, or press an icon or button on one. And the police aren’t as likely to notice.

So if you buy any smartwatch, be prepared to be more careful on the road.

But as long as you do that, I can recommend the Apple Watch as a very good product — with a chance to be great.

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