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Apple Watch: first impressions

Technical Explorer

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Everyone’s eyes were on Cupertino yesterday as Apple held their annual product launch event. While most people were surprised at the new iPhone specs, the real star of the show was Apple’s new Apple Watch product line. Combining classic watch aesthetics with a whole heap of sensors and gluing it all together with a completely redesigned UI, the Apple Watch is key to Apple’s first foray into the crazy world of wearable technology.

If I had to describe the Apple Watch in a word, I would probably use “convenient”. It provides quick and easy access to all the notifications on my phone. It lets me control my music playback. It lets me answer phone calls, respond to text messages and a suite of other phone-related activities. It tracks a dozen different health metrics without having to wear a bunch of different wearables. Rumors suggest that it even tells time.

Apple Watch has a strong health focus

The sensors on the back and inside the Apple Watch measure barometric pressure (altitude), movement, location, heart rate, and more

The sensors on the back and inside the Apple Watch measure barometric pressure (altitude), movement, location, heart rate, and more

Specifically with regards to health tracking, Apple seems to have given special care to making it easy. They don’t mess around with points or steps or kilojoules or anything like that. For their exercise tracker, they give you three circles. Fill the circle, and you’ve met a minimum recommended exercise level. A lot of people who might want to increase their activity level, but might feel intimidated by something like a Jawbone UP, will doubtlessly appreciate the simplicity.

But, it doesn’t stop there. For those actively working out, you can use a different app to set a goal for, as an example, running. You can set a time goal or a distance goal, and the app will keep track of your progress for you using GPS and the built-in accelerometer. It can even tell you how far you have climbed, as it includes a barometer as well.

All this data, along with data from a number of other sensors – the heart-rate monitor on the back is a big one, of course – can be fed directly into the Health App on your iPhone where it can be parceled out to other apps as needed.

Of course, on the face, none of this is particularly new. Other devices track exercise, and eventually their companion apps will be updated to use HealthKit. But, by using a specialty device, you’re missing the other half of the Apple Watch formula. Besides tracking health, it also gives access to your phone even in situations where pulling it out would be inconvenient. It is like a Nike Fuel Band combined with a Pebble, with a generous helping of Apple’s typical design philosophy. Even by wearing multiple devices, you’re not getting the same functionality.

More expensive than a cheap Casio

The Apple Watch does not compete on price

The Apple Watch does not compete on price

I would be remiss though if I did not touch on some of the problems I see with it. The one that’s likely to be the biggest sticking point for a lot of people is the price. They are starting at $350 for the base model, and presumably a lot more for the 24-karat gold “Edition” model. To be fair, in the realm of watches, $350 is by no means the most you can pay. However, it is a lot more than most people are willing to spend. Even the Pebble Steel at $150 got some vocal complaints. It remains to be seen whether the functionality in the Apple Watch will be enough to overcome the hefty price tag. I suppose that if anyone can do it, it will be the people who sell a phone that is $200 – $400, even with a contract.

The other problem is that the means of interaction with the Apple Watch is perhaps less intuitive than you might hope. They have included a crown (read: dial) on the side which functions a lot like a mouse wheel on your desktop. It scrolls or zooms as required. But, you also have to touch the face of the watch for hitting buttons or swiping around. I haven’t had any hands on time with the device, but it seems like this would take some getting used to.

There are also questionable UI choices. For example, the home screen is the watch face, as you might expect. You click in the crown to get to the app menu. But, now you’re faced with a cloud of tiny icons, a far cry from the familiar home screen of an iPhone. And, now, you must swipe around by touching the screen to navigate, as the crown doesn’t do anything here.

There are also some questionable additions. For example, from the clock, you can swipe off to bring up the moon and see the current phase. Fine. But now, you can zoom out, and bring up the solar system and see where each planet is at this moment. Less useful, I think. Or, there is an app that will let you doodle on the watch with your finger and it will be synchronized with someone near by. You know, someone that you could just talk to.

My final objection is that it lacks a camera, so we still cannot be Dick Tracy. How long will it take?!

Will I buy one? (Probably, yes)

It probably goes without saying that I will end up buying one when they come out next year. But, it’s not merely due to my poor impulse control. I genuinely believe that the Apple Watch will fit into my life in a useful way. Everything about the phone interaction is appealing to me, and I definitely could make use of the fitness tracking.

So, I suppose I’ll see you in line when the time comes!

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