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Should You Buy the Apple Watch?

This is the question of the day: should you buy an Apple Watch?

And this is the answer: maybe. It certainly isn’t mandatory unless you belong to a very small subset of people (like, say, writers for Apple-centric publications, or iOS developers) who need one for testing purposes.

A better question is: “Would it be worth it to me to buy one?” Not one of the reviews in the fast growing crop of “my week with the Apple Watch” articles can definitively answer that question for you, because none of those reviewers are you — but if you read enough of them, you can start to get a sense of what your own answer to the question might be.

First, it’s obvious that if you don’t have the money to buy an Apple Watch, or don’t have an iPhone 5 or later, you shouldn’t buy one. Nor should you buy one if your interest in the device hasn’t been piqued by all the coverage and advertisements that have appeared lately.

For those of you who are left, here’s how the reviews I’ve read so far answer some of the underlying questions. First up…

How Does It Look? -- The answer to this is purely personal, and there are plenty of pictures around to help you decide the “is it pretty or ugly” questions for yourself, but the reviews can help flesh out those pictures.

Geoffrey Fowler in the Wall Street Journal notes that the Apple Watch is “a fine watch for both men and women — a standard previous smartwatches couldn’t meet,” but he does point out that the 42mm version “is still a bit thicker than I’d want, as tall as a stack of six quarters.” (Author’s note: my trusty old Timex Indiglo is just as thick.)

Lauren Goode at Re/code agrees with Fowler about its thickness, saying, “It’s also rather thick; multiple people have remarked upon this when they’ve seen it.”

However, Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times says that it “isn’t too big, it isn’t too heavy, and it is handsomely elegant without being flashy.”

As to whether the Apple Watch’s appearance is striking or unobtrusive, opinions vary.

Manjoo was surprised to find out that the Apple Watch doesn’t call attention to itself: “I used it in public in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Manhattan for a week, and only a handful of people asked what it was.” Joanna Stern in the Wall Street Journal echoes that impression: “It is unassuming until you start to tap at the screen and people take notice.”

Goode, however, had a different experience: “…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.”

How’s the User Interface? -- Almost every review that I read repeats that getting comfortable with the user interface requires some time, and that Apple’s timepiece isn’t completely intuitive out of the box.

Goode, for example, after detailing the various ways you can interact with the device, says, “After a couple days with Apple Watch, all of this starts to make sense.”

Others agree that a few days are needed to acclimatize to the Apple Watch. Manjoo recounts that it took him “three long, often confusing and frustrating days” before he could “fall for the Apple Watch,” but concludes, “once I fell, I fell hard.”

Writing at Bloomberg Business, Joshua Topolsky strikes a similar note, saying that he found the manner in which the watch handles notifications to be “a little maddening at first” until he “figured out that getting the watch to really work for you requires work.” Andrew Baig at USA Today also advises that you should “prepare for a learning curve”, and that it “may take you a couple of days to get reasonably comfortable using the watch.”

Is It a Good Timepiece? -- As far as accuracy is concerned, all the reviews that mentioned it noted that the watch, not surprisingly, was very accurate. For example, Topolsky says, “The timekeeping that Apple is using is so precise, it’s within 50 milliseconds of the global time standard known as Coordinated Universal Time.” He then goes on to describe an interesting byproduct of this accuracy: “Because every Apple Watch is perfectly in sync with the others, if you’re in a room full of Mickey Mouse faces, Mickey will tap his foot in perfect sync on every watch. It’s incredibly cool.”

This is not to say that, as a watch, the device is as convenient as dedicated wristwatches. In Daring Fireball, John Gruber provides a number of cases where the Apple Watch falls short. Because “Apple Watch’s screen remains off until you tap the screen (or one of the buttons) or it detects, via its accelerometer and gyroscope (and perhaps other sensors?) that you’ve moved your wrist into a ‘tell the time’ position” he found that some tasks he was accustomed to performing with a watch were more difficult, or even impossible, with the Apple Watch. For example:

I grind my coffee right before I brew it. I put a few scoops of coffee in my grinder, cap it, and press down with my right hand to engage the grinder. I then look at my left wrist to check that 20 or so seconds have expired. But with Apple Watch, the display keeps turning off every 6 seconds. There are ways around this — I could switch to the stopwatch, start it, and then start grinding my coffee. But my habit is not to even think about my watch or the time until after I’ve already started grinding the beans, at which point my right hand is already occupied pressing down on the lid to the grinder.

Writing for The Verge, Nilay Patel also complains about its responsiveness as a wristwatch: “I found that the screen lit up a couple of ticks too slowly: I’d raise my wrist, wait a beat, and then the screen would turn on.” Topolsky concurs: “The Apple Watch activates its screen only when it thinks you’re looking at it. Sometimes a subtle twist of your wrist will do, but sometimes it takes… more.”

What’s Up with the Battery? -- Battery life is one of the biggest differences between ordinary wristwatches and the Apple Watch: whereas mechanical wristwatches need to be wound, at most, only once a day (if they aren’t self-winding) and ordinary digital watches can run for months or years on battery power, the Apple Watch needs daily charging. That said, most reviewers confirmed Apple’s claim that the Apple Watch battery could last a full day or more on a single charge in most circumstances.

Patel, who is generally unimpressed with the Apple Watch’s performance, says, “After one particularly heavy day of use, I hit 10 percent battery at 7pm, triggering a wave of anxiety. But most days were actually fine. Apple had a big challenge getting a tiny computer like this to last a day, and it succeeded — even if that success seemingly comes at the expense of performance.”

Gruber agrees: “After more than a week of daily use, Apple Watch has more than alleviated any concerns I had about getting through a day on a single charge.” And Ben Bajarin, in Techpinions, is even more emphatic in this regard: “From my experience with battery life, Apple appears to have undersold it. The Apple Watch easily lasted a day, even a long day of heavy use.”

The magnetic charger, however, does have its drawbacks, according to some reviewers. Goode complains that it is “too easy to accidentally disconnect the watch from the [charging] cable,” and Baig recounts a charging problem he encountered one morning, when his watch remained uncharged: “I’m guessing the watch might not have been properly aligned the night before with the proprietary magnetic charging cable.”

How Good Is the Fitness Tracking? -- Fitness tracking is one feature set that Apple particularly emphasizes, going so far as to name one of its Apple Watch lines “Sport.”

Topolsky found that “[s]etup for the health features was completely painless, and I immediately started seeing the results of being made so aware of my activity levels,” and he thinks that “Apple’s beautiful and frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction.” Goode feels much the same: “If you get an Apple Watch, you likely won’t need a Fitbit, too.”

Stern, on the other hand, is less impressed: “Apple has proved on its first shot here that it can collect accurate data, but it’s having a harder time giving genuine suggestions for improving your fitness and health. Apps from Fitbit, Jawbone or Polar provide better insights.”

Manjoo’s impression falls somewhere in the middle: “There’s nothing revolutionary about it; I’ve tried lots of activity trackers in the past, and the watch doesn’t do much more than the cheapest ones. But as part of a device that you’ll wear for other reasons, having a general-purpose health app is pretty handy.”

Will I Buy One? -- Yes, I will, but I belong to one of those small subsets of people I mentioned at the top of this article: writers for Apple-centric publications. For me, the purchase is almost mandatory (and also a tax deduction).

But I think I would buy one even if I weren’t one of those pixel-stained wretches. For example, although I’m anything but a fitness buff (calisthenics for me usually involve little beyond bending over to pick up my Apple TV remote), since I got my iPhone 6 Plus I find that I’ve been paying more attention to how far I walk each day and how many flights of stairs I climb. I expect the Apple Watch will only improve my fitness consciousness.

I’m also eager to use the Apple Watch’s iPhone camera remote feature, its on-wrist telephony functions, and the various complications I can add to the watch face (weather reports on my wrist are particularly beguiling, even though I live in Santa Monica, California, where the weather is remarkable for its consistency).

Whether you should buy one is something only you can decide. But there’s no rush: the Apple Watch will be around for some time to come, and, over time, it’s sure to improve in many ways. If you are at all indecisive, I suggest you wait. And watch.


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Comments about Should You Buy the Apple Watch?
(Comments are closed.)

Laine  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-04-13 09:37
My bargain basement Timex digital has more of a learning curve than I want in a watch.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-13 11:31
I feel your pain. 😦
Brian Thomas  2015-04-14 16:01
Thanks, Michael, for the intriguing overview of how the Apple watch has been received in the tech-review community. I was surprised that Apple didn’t even try to convince us that it came with a game-changing, world-changing app like the electronic spreadsheet or desktop publishing. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winner who is arguably America’s greatest economic and political commentator tries to predict on his blog how devices like the Apple Watch will change the world as we know it. I’ll link to the article after summarizing it.

Although Krugman begins with the unremarkable premise that wearables aren’t to tell you about things; they’re to tell things about you, he reaches a quite compelling conclusion:

“Consider the Varian rule, which says that you can forecast the future by looking at what the rich have today — that is, that what affluent people will want in the future is, in general, something like what only the truly rich can afford right now. Well, one thing that’s very clear if you spend any time around the rich — and one of the very few things that I, who by and large never worry about money, sometimes envy — is that rich people don’t wait in line. They have minions who ensure that there’s a car waiting at the curb, that the maitre-d escorts them straight to their table, that there’s a staff member to hand them their keys and their bags are already in the room.

“And it’s fairly obvious how smart wristbands could replicate some of that for the merely affluent. Your reservation app provides the restaurant with the data it needs to recognize your wristband, and maybe causes your table to flash up on your watch, so you don’t mill around at the entrance, you just walk in and sit down (which already happens in Disney World.) You walk straight into the concert or movie you’ve bought tickets for, no need even to have your phone scanned.”

… I think wearables will become pervasive very soon, but not so that people can look at their wrists and learn something. Instead, they’ll be there so the ubiquitous surveillance net can see them, and give them stuff.”

Excerpted from, “Apple and the self-surveillance state” by Paul Krugman
Josh Centers  2015-04-14 16:20
I read Krugman's take, and quite frankly, it's ignorant. Tracking-wise, the Apple Watch can't do anything the iPhone can't do. The iPhone tracks literally every move you make, via cell tower triangulation, GPS, and the motion coprocessors. Even if and when Apple eventually crams the iPhone's functionality into a watch, it will be the same sort of tracking, just in a different form.

Google Glass was a much bigger threat to overall privacy than the Apple Watch, but I think society has shown that it will not accept face-mounted wearables. At least, not yet.

Brian Thomas  2015-04-14 17:18
Josh, You are missing the point. It isn't iPhone vs. Apple Watch, it's about what people will pay for in a consumer society. It's about imagining how the people in line will react when they see the tech-enabled ushered in, "seemingly" ahead of them, although they have been "waiting" in line electronically.

I might like to imagine that those waiting in line the old fashioned way will riot like crazed luddites. Realistically, I think they'll line up to buy the new devices-- be they wearable or pocketable.

Krugman's point isn't that the technology behind wearables is that different (other than the skin sensors), but that their social function will be different .