When you consider activities that contribute the most to battery drain on your smartphone (or any computing device, really), there are certain activities that rise to the top. These include:
- Playing a highish-end game (anything 3d, or intense 2d… think Vain Glory, or Asphalt 8)
- Using GPS, the cellular radio(s) for talking or largish network traffic
- Powering the screen for extended lengths of time (e.g., doing email for HOURS)
If you expect to do any of these things with your Apple Watch, or have the fundamental expectation that you should be able to do any of these things on your Apple Watch in the future, cancel your order. Order an armband for your phone, strap your phone to your wrist, and be eternally happy. It is clear that Apple focused on a handful of really important concepts when they created the Apple Watch. Time and battery life being chief among them.
The Apple Watch is aptly named. It is not an iPhone on your wrist. It is not an iPod on your wrist. It is a watch… first and foremost. When the Apple Watch eventually runs out of power and it resorts to powering down all major functionality, one function remains until it dies: showing the time. Why? Because it is a watch, and that is what watches do.
And yet the Apple Watch is all of these things. It can do calls and messages. It can do music. It can do “apps”. It has more out-of-the-box functionality upon initial launch than any other Apple product to come before it. And perhaps because of this, Apple pundits have been head-faked into wanting the Apple Watch to be what they expect it to be, while completely missing the essence of what it already is… an extension of not only your iPhone, but an augmenter of what it is to be human in the connected age.
Let’s get down to business.
The Watch Itself
The fit, finish, and feel are superb. Apple has taken all of its mastery of materials and craftsmanship and distilled them down to this. Any other ‘smart’ watch feels cheap in comparison. But yet for all its beauty and refinement, the watch body is not the star of the show from a physical feel standpoint. The real star(s) here are the bands. If there were a trojan horse argument to be made about the Watch, it’s in the selling of these bands. And boy are they going to sell a lot of them. It’s clear that an equal (if not greater) amount of time and thought went into crafting the Apple Watch bands as the body itself. The Sport Band is a revelation. I have numerous watches in my collection, and the Apple Watch Sport Band is by far the most comfortable. After that, the milanese loop is a close 2nd. Then come the rest… all with equally smart features, comfort, and self-adjustability. If Apple is going to disrupt anything in the Watch market, it is doing so starting with these bands. Even if the Watch fails, the bands have already succeeded, and Apple should be applauded for these.
The screen is good. Really good. It’s OLED, and it will get washed out in the bright sun, but only when its directly reflecting into your eyes. Otherwise its quite readable. I found myself putting the screen on the brightest setting, but I do that with nearly all my screens, watches or not. The feel of each of the buttons are good, and the haptic feedback that accompanies the digital crown can sometimes fool your mind into thinking that you are physically reaching the end of a scrolling point, which is quite trippy. Navigating the watch is initially confusing. Read the watch tips that come with the device. Then read them again 24 hours later. You’ll get it, but it boils down to this:
- “Home” is the watch face
- Swipe down for notifications
- Swipe up for glances (tidbits of info, that can link to their respective apps)
- Press the crown for watch “apps”
- Press the button next to the crown to access your friends list (think, ‘important contacts’ for your Watch)
- Double press the contacts button to initiate Apple Pay
- Press in and hold the digital crown to initiate Siri (she won’t beep, but you’ll feel a couple taps… after which you can start talking)
Beyond this, you’ll eventually learn all the nuances of Watch navigation. You can keep pressing the crown in to eventually get back home, or double-press to switch to your last opened app. Hard-press the watch face to access secondary features, akin to a ‘right click’. Because there is no indication of when a force-press is available (and rightfully so, I think), you’ll find yourself force-pressing everything until you learn where it is applicable. Give yourself 2 or 3 days to get acclimated. Oh, and then there are the settings. Use the Watch app on your iPhone liberally. Take an afternoon and go through every single one. Learn what they do. You’ll thank yourself later.
The watch has a speaker, a mic, and the wonderful Taptic Engine, the latter of which is responsible for the gentle taps you’ll feel on your wrist. Clanky vibrations these are not. Nice, silent taps. Like a friend letting you know something happened… gently. I kept the Watch’s sound on, but I turned the volume of them way down. I find this setting helps reinforce the haptics, and I find the (now) gentle sounds pleasant. Dictation is remarkably accurate (probably due to the proximity of the Watch’s mic to your mouth, in conjunction with an improved Siri/dictation back-end Apple has recently released), but you’ll also be frustrated if and when you have no signal for your phone nor any wifi – the Achilles heel of the digitally connected age. The speaker is loud enough to carry on a conversation when you are in Dick Tracy mode, but you’ll have to hold the watch closer to your head to hear and be heard… like Dick Tracy.
The Watch faces are well thought-out, and most are customizable. Get to know them, and enjoy the nuanced details they exhibit. The astronomy face is particularly smart, and you can find yourself getting lost in the sun’s position, the earth’s rotation, the moon’s waxing and waning, or even our position in the solar system. Fascinatingly smart stuff.
Apple’s built-in apps are useful, and work well. The timer, stopwatch, and Siri abilities are all great. Pro-tip: if you have trouble launching apps from the tiny app screen, just use Siri instead, ala “Launch XYZ”. Much easier in a pinch. Also, when utilizing the rather good Maps integration, a consecutive tap-tap-tap-tap-tap on your wrist means turn right, while the more measured tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap means turn left. You’ll get used to it.
Apple Pay on the Apple Watch is confusing at first. There is a setting to ‘mirror your iPhone’ for payments, but then you still have to add your credit cards to the Watch separately using (get this) your iPhone. It makes complete sense from a technical security standpoint… but not to grandma. This needs to be cleaned up a little. Otherwise, it’s quite a magical thing to listen to a podcast while you ride your bike (tracking your heart rate, speed and distance) to Starbucks, buy a DoubleShot on Ice, call mom, reply to a few texts, and then send a penis drawing to your best friend – all without taking out your phone. Not even once. I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel like a part of it is on my wrist.
Go out to dinner with your friends. What do you notice? Well, if you have the shit quality of friends that I have, inevitably at some point in the evening someone will pull out their smartphone because they got a text, or email, etc. It doesn’t matter what it is… something buzzed, and they must attend to the buzzing. They attend to it, and because their attention is already diverted, they start attending to other things on their phone as well. Maybe they check their email… perhaps a quick Twitter scan. And thus we have the precise moment when the cancer takes hold. Others in the group are reminded that they too may have had a buzz in their pocket, perhaps it’s time to check it. And just like that, everybody is buried in their phones. The fear of missing out digitally, spreading like a disease while they ironically miss out on what brought us all together to begin with. Make no mistake, technology is the master that has enslaved us all.
So how can (yet another) connected device make this… better?
Notice I called my friends ‘shitty’ for doing this. But is it really their fault? Well yes… but not entirely. You can’t reasonably expect people to ignore the realities of modern life. People have kids. People have jobs. Life is important, and it stops for absolutely nothing. So the reality is you simply cannot expect everyone to ignore their phone if it buzzes, dings, or rings. The problem with the phone is that there is a physical and cerebral investment in attending to it. Unless it is (rudely?) in front of you on the table, you probably have your phone squirreled away in a pocket or purse. Tending to it requires that you adjust your body to take it out, turn it on, (potentially) unlock it, and then read, discern, and finally handle whatever it is that began this chain of events. During that process, your mind can (and will) become distracted and placed on a different train of thought. You are now in the machine. To get back to what you were doing would now require a conscious decision to do so, and a near equal amount of effort to reverse this chain reaction. It sounds dramatic, I know. Just put down your fucking phone, right? But why so often do we find ourselves in this exact position… over and over again?
It is in this reoccurring scenario that we find benefit #1 of the Apple Watch. When tuned properly (see my tips at the end), the Apple Watch is the bouncer at the club. Only the prettiest and most important get past him. The rest are turned away… forced to come back another time. When the watch taps you (notice, I said tap, not buzz obnoxiously), nobody notices it but you. The screen doesn’t turn on. It won’t make any noise if you don’t want it to. It just taps, and that’s it. If you decide that you can afford a simple glance at your wrist, the Watch will turn on, showing you a brief notification of exactly what just happened, and who or what may be involved. If you stare at it a half second longer, the notification gives you more details… the first few lines of text, or perhaps the subject of the interruption. At this point, you decide what you want to do. You can simply turn your wrist away, and the notification is shelved for later (a friendly red dot as the only reminder that it is still waiting for you). But tap it, and you can read the entirety of the notification. From there, it’s one more tap to dismiss, reply, etc. Quickly replying is a breeze. Apple Watch predicts a few canned responses that may be appropriate to the question at hand (and you can even set your own custom phrases you often use), or you can dictate a custom reply right there utilizing the Watch’s built-in mic. The Watch cannot handle anything more complicated than that, by design. It allows you to handle what’s going on, without being so involved as to wreck your train of thought, or completely distract you from your loved ones.
When you are spending time with your family and close friends, this ability to filter, discern, turn away, or quickly address is invaluable. If time is money and relationships value, the Apple Watch will pay for itself in a few days. It’s really good a this. It may very well save your marriage.
When we apply all of this to the original dinner scenario, the Apple Watch becomes the Terminator sent from the future to prevent your shitty friends from pulling out their phones to begin with. Helping keep us connected to not only our immediate surroundings, but to those far away as well… Efficiently.
Yet, is there a danger that instead of staring at our phones, we instead stare at our watches? Well yeah… but not really. Remember, the watch is first and foremost a watch. It’s limited in its capacity by design. You can get lost in the Watch for the briefest of periods, but you quickly run out of runway. It’s not a phone replacement, and thank the multiverse for that. If it isn’t already apparent, the Watch’s focus is now coming into view. Keeping us communicating with both near and far. Being present without mental barriers or choosing one over another, while at the same time giving us choice. And speaking of communication…
The Apple Watch also includes the ability to communicate in ways that have never existed in a mainstream product. Namely, taps, heartbeats, and (as I alluded to earlier) little drawings. It’s easy to trivialize this as kitschy, gimmicky, or just a series of penis drawings, but it’s much more than that. The fact that I can send my wife a couple taps to let her know “it’s time to go”, is priceless. It’s the modern day equivalent of the codeword, and I love it. Physical and visual communication without even having to be in the same room, or pull out your very obvious phone. Very cool… and this will be the runaway feature of the Apple Watch once it hits critical mass. The biggest problem for a 1.0 release? – The limited circle of friends that you’ll have to choose to be on your Watch contacts ring (the contacts button accesses this ring, which is how you initiate taps, drawings, or sending your heartbeat, and it’s limited to 12 friends currently). You may roll your eyes now, but it will be the most used feature of the Apple Watch… I guarantee it.
The Apple Watch tracks your heart rate, steps, how often you stand up, and a few other metrics. Generally speaking, it’s very accurate. It does all of this throughout the day (the heart rate measurement is more spread out, taking a reading every 10-20 minutes or so). When you start a workout, it starts tracking your heart rate in realtime, and augments its movement tracking with the GPS in your phone (for outdoor activities, such as running, walking, or cycling). As a fitness device, this is among the best I’ve used. In all of my tests, it accurately tracked my walking steps, heart rate, cycling distance and speed (in conjunction with my phone on the cycling metrics), and even my caloric expenditure. If there were anything lacking, it’s in the companion fitness app on the iPhone. It breaks down your recent workouts, but it doesn’t give me enough details over time. I’d like to know what my heart rate and cycling speed were plotted out along my ride time, for example. It doesn’t do that yet. Luckily, 3rd party apps do (Strava, e.g. – though their latest update which includes an Apple Watch “app” is absolute shit, and needs work), but I want to see it built-in.
Having your heart rate at the ready is something I never thought would be all that useful, but I find myself checking it periodically throughout the day, and I am gaining insight into my own health and habits as a result.
The Apple Watch will also remind you to move periodically (if you allow it to), and will show you summaries of your physical movement and fitness goal progress at settable intervals. It does a good job (again, after tuning) of bringing your overall fitness activity into focus, and I have no doubt that those who invest in the metrics can and will get healthier. All good things.
Despite all the fitness tracking it does do, inevitably the #1 complaint for the Apple Watch (from a fitness standpoint) will be that it does not have a built-in GPS (and hence relies on your iPhone for GPS tracking). I think this came down to a very practical decision on Apple’s part. If the Watch had built-in GPS, and you turned on GPS tracking for an hour or two, it would likely affect the battery life enough to cause battery anxiety with the Watch, which nobody would want. I think the efficiency of the Watch internals will improve in the next version or two, and GPS will likely be included when they can afford it from a battery perspective. Speaking of which…
In the week I’ve had the watch, I’ve used it daily for approximately 14 hours a day. I reply to nearly all text messages from it (30 – 40 or so, per day). I send multiple taps, heartbeats, and drawings from it. I usually add in a 2 hour bike ride in the late evening (for which I use the ‘outdoor cycling’ fitness tracking). In short, I don’t hold back using this thing, but I don’t stare at the screen for hours at a time either. I’m busy, I’m on the go, and I dick around with it like any tech person would. My battery life has never gone below 30%. Hop in the fighter jet and land on the carrier, because as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to battery life, Mission Accomplished, Apple.
The “Apps”, room for improvement… and a potentially serious hardware problem
I keep “apps” in quotes because (at least for now) 3rd party apps on the Apple Watch are not true apps. They are restricted extensions of apps for the iPhone. The fact that these Watch apps are called “apps” at all is a point of contention for me. It sends the wrong signal. I expect apps to be fast. These are anything but. Apple’s apps are fast, but they are truly native apps for the most part. 3rd party apps are not, and are entirely driven by their iPhone counterpart. They rely on your phone to power them, even for basic user interface interactions. And not unlike controlling the Mars rovers from Earth, there is always going to be some lag. Just how great this lag factors into the particular Watch app’s usability depends on the smartness, ambition, and restraint of the developer. For the few that get it right, the apps can be very useful, and fairly responsive… even quick at times. For the ones that get it wrong… well, I hope you like loading circles, because you’ll see a lot of them. And this is where we hit our first major bump in the road.
For the most part, Apple Watch 3rd party apps fall into the latter category of laggy suck. Developers simply haven’t figured out what the Watch is, or what makes it special. I think that some developers were likely anticipating the Watch being the 2nd coming of the great app gold rush, and they didn’t want to miss out. That thinking is a mistake. Apps should be small augmentations of their iPhone counterparts. A 2nd screen to make the original app more accessible, or somehow better. Yet many try to shove the entire app onto the Watch (Instagram), or in some cases, the Watch counterpart simply doesn’t work at all (Strava). But there are a few gems that get it right (Uber… Overcast). For this reason, don’t allow the Watch to install anything and everything. Resist the urge and be selective.
As far as that potentially serious hardware problem… that lies in the Taptic Engine. The Taptic Engine is the thing that taps on your wrist. It is the heart of the Apple Watch’s interaction with you, and is the most critical organ of the Watch’s internals. It can also be overloaded and induced into an ear-piercing distorted screech. If a fellow Watch user decides to send you some taps in a very rapid fashion, the Taptic Engine on your watch simply won’t be able to keep up. This manifests itself in a distorted, and audibly screechy (albeit very brief) sound, and you’ll feel like your watch is breaking. It isn’t good. Apple needs to limit the taps-per-second that the Taptic Engine can try to reproduce… a rev-limiter, if you will. Let’s hope this comes in a future update before teenagers all over the world are murdering the ears (and red-lining the Taptic Engines) of their friends and family.
Conclusions and Tips
If you are looking for a way to wrangle your life in a positive direction, want to spend more time gazing into your wife’s eyes, or simply don’t want to be a shitty friend… Consider the Apple Watch.
If you want to do email on a 1-inch screen, find your way home without your phone, or want to watch Netflix on your wrist… Move on.
As for me, avoiding the throngs of distraction presented by my vampiric succubus time-sink of an iPhone is worth the price of admission alone. I’m more present, and yet it doesn’t cost me anything from a reachability standpoint. Never again will I be that shitty friend who buries their head into their phone, instead replaced by a quick-glancing, fast swiping, tap, swipe and BOOM back at the gazpacho dip kind of friend. I think we can all agree it’s an improvement.
And did I mention how damn comfortable the Sport Band is? It’s not rubber… its some kind of buttery velvet space material sent from the heavens. I’ve never worn a more comfortable band, and I’ve never been more comfortable with a tech product before. Apple has done what heretofore has been inconceivable for me… a tech device that saves me from my tech devices. I’m sold.
Tips for setting up your Apple Watch:
- Don’t install any apps or glances at first… slowly add apps, and then glances as you learn how to use the watch, and you figure out what is important to you. Less is more. Trust me. Add apps and glances one at a time, and try them out before you commit to leaving them installed. Most apps are utter shit, as developers don’t know what the watch is yet… but luckily you do!
- Similarly, pare down your notifications. By now you should have already limited what apps push notifications to your phone, but if you haven’t, start there. Then be even more discerning for what you allow to ping your watch. Then get rid of more stuff. I don’t even have email pinging my watch, for example. It’s just not that important to me. Only allow the important stuff. The rest can wait for when your wife isn’t talking to you about her day.
- Take your time in choosing and customizing your watch face. Resist the urge to create the ‘everything’ face where it has calendar events, the moon phase, and the battery life indicator, etc. When you glance at your watch several times a day, you don’t want to be reminded of how busy your life is. Let go if you can. Simplify. Jellyfish. You’ll thank me later.
- Change your watch face often. Have a weekend one. Have a Monday one. Have a Disneyland one (that part is easy). You’ll find yourself using your watch differently for different occasions. This is a good thing.
- Turn off the ‘stand up’ reminders, but keep the fitness progress summaries. The ‘stand up’ reminders are annoying, and they aren’t too smart yet. I agree they are healthy, and useful, but its one more hourly reminder I don’t need just yet.
- Learn the navigational tips and shortcuts. Apple documented them in the booklet that came with your Watch. Learn, young padawan.