Six months after I coaxed a friend from New York to bring an Apple Watch with her when she visited India, I still find it hard to explain what it is to most people.
“It’s a fitness tracker, right?” they ask.
“No,” I say. “I mean, yes. It is. But it actually does a lot more.”
“You can read your email. And send text messages, and answer calls. And, um, call an Uber with it.”
“Cool. But can’t you just do all that with your phone?”
At this point, the conversation usually veers to “yes, but it’s on my wrist,” and usually ends with “wait, how much did you say it was again?”
The Apple Watch is tough to explain because it, well, lacks focus. Unlike a Fitbit that only tracks your fitness, for instance, the Apple Watch does a bit of everything. Want to reply to a WhatsApp message without touching your phone? Sure, the Apple Watch can do it. Want to track your workout? Piece of cake. Want to see your Instagram photos? Sure, they look crummy on that tiny screen, but hey, it’s possible.
The Apple Watch is essentially an entire computer complete with its own operating system and apps. It’s just like your phone, except that it sits on your wrist and doesn’t have a cellular connection. It gets this by pairing with your iPhone over bluetooth. The Apple Watch comes in three models – Sport, Watch and Edition – and dozens of (overpriced) interchangeable straps that you can check out on Apple’s website. There’s a bright, super-sharp screen that’s silky-smooth to touch, but the Watch also detects different levels of pressure on the screen. This means that tapping something produces a different result than pressing down hard on it. There’s also a Digital Crown on the side that lets you scroll through text and zoom in and out of pictures among other things.
The Watch, in CEO Tim Cook’s words, is the next chapter in Apple’s story. It’s a bold bet on the future, and the future, from Apple’s point of view, looks like this: the phone is no longer the hub of your digital life like it is right now. Instead, all that power lives right on your wrist, and you use your wrist to do everything from controlling the lights in your house and playing music on your wireless stereo, to hailing a cab and tracking your fitness. Your phone, well, you’ll use it to get things done like writing long emails, reading, watching videos, or playing games. Eventually, your phone might evolve into something else completely.
The trouble is that this future is still a ways off, while the Apple Watch is here already. And so, it struggles. Apps run slowly and are poor approximations of their iPhone versions in most cases; battery life doesn’t last more than a day; and the user interface could use a lot of work.
These things will no doubt be ironed out with time, but right now, the Apple Watch is available at an Apple authorised retailer near you for at least Rs. 30,900, and if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably got some tough decisions to make.
The Apple Watch tries to be many things at once but this is what it boils down to.
The Watch as a wristwatch
When the Apple Watch hit the shelves earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook called it “the most advanced timepiece ever created.” Well, he’s wrong. As a computer that you can wear on your wrist, the Apple Watch is decidedly cutting edge. Unfortunately, it’s lousy at the one thing that dumb wristwatches have excelled at for hundreds of years: telling time.
I’ll explain. On my 10-year-old Titan, all I need to do is glance down at the watch to find out if I’m late for a meeting (I usually am). But the screen of the Apple Watch is off by default (to make sure the battery doesn’t run out by lunchtime). To light it up, I need to bring up my arm up to my chest in a sweeping, deliberate motion to activate the sensor that will light up the display and tell me what time it is. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, try doing it when you’re commuting on the Delhi metro at rush hour without hitting someone’s back, arm, side, chest or nose.
Worse, the Watch is finicky about the exact movement of your arm. If your wrist doesn’t move by just the right amount, the display won’t light up at all, and your only option is to repeat the exercise or use your other hand to tap the Watch screen. The effect is jarring, like being yanked back to the 20th century.
Watch the review here
When you do manage the requisite callisthenics, however, seeing your Watch tell you the time is sheer delight. Depending on the watch face you choose, you’ll see flowers bloom gracefully, or a split-second time lapse of your favourite city (mine’s New York – but only because Apple doesn’t offer Pune as an option).
If you’re hyper-organised, you can also choose a face that will show your next calendar appointment, the weather, battery level, and your fitness levels among other things, all in one place. For everyday use, I find this face best, and heck, if I’m going to strap a smartwatch to my wrist, I want instant access to all this information without having to poke through menus. On weekends or when I’m on vacation, I usually switch to one of the dreamy faces with flowers or floating jellyfish. You can also set a photo from your iPhone as your watch face.
Apple Watch also offers a cool feature called Time Travel, which lets you spin the Digital Crown forward to see upcoming calendar events, projected weather, estimated battery life, and other time-sensitive things hours ahead (spin it backwards to see how your day has been).
When you finally set the Watch down to charge at night, it shows the time and date in a large, green font. Apple calls this the Nightstand Mode, although I think a real bedside clock would stay on the whole night and not just light up when touched, like you need to do with the Apple Watch.
Despite its many flaws as a wristwatch, wearing an Apple Watch for a few months actually managed to break my habit of pulling my phone out of my pocket to see what time it was. I now (automatically) bring my wrist towards me to tell time. And if I’m not wearing the Watch, I feel a strange pang.
The Watch as a fitness tracker
Can you use the Apple Watch to monitor your fitness? That depends on how hardcore you are. If you’re an athlete, the Apple Watch won’t really suffice as a fitness band, no matter how many muscular bodies Apple shows off in Watch ads. That’s because it doesn’t really do the pro-level stuff – measuring your blood-oxygen levels and keeping track of your heart rate through the day – that most serious athletes need. You can’t even take it swimming, because it’s not water-proof, although it is water-resistant (splashes are OK).
If you’re an amateur fitness buff, or even if you don’t exercise at all, however, the Apple Watch is one of the best trackers you can buy right now. You can use Apple’s built-in Workout app to manually monitor a range of workouts, including indoor and outdoor running, cycling, and rowing, and the Watch will show you your stats – calories, distance, time, and more, depending on the type of workout --- in real time on your wrist. It will also show your heart-rate, thanks to a monitor on its back that hugs your wrist at all times.
That heart-rate monitor, by the way, is frightfully accurate. Last month, I had a chance to put the Apple Watch head-to-head with a medical-grade cardiac monitor in a hospital where I was admitted for dengue (right before they ripped it off my wrist and stuck it full of needles). The heart-rate reading on the Watch was always within a beat or two of the cardiac monitor.
Apple’s Workout app does tend to skew towards cardio-based workouts, which means that if you’re into strength training or yoga, it’s next to useless. Thankfully, third-party apps fill in these gaps nicely. Runtastic Pro, which I’ve been using to keep track of my runs for the last few years, for instance, has a really nice Apple Watch app that lets you track everything from Zumba to Crossfit sessions. If you’re a cyclist, I recommend Strava’s Apple Watch app, which gives you tons of granular data about your cycling sessions compared to Apple’s barebones Workout app.
But even if you don’t get regular exercise, Apple Watch’s passive tracking is a great way to ensure that you at least hit some minimal activity goals each day. Apple’s visual metaphor to represent your daily activity is three concentric circles: the outer circle represents your daily calorie-burning goal; the middle ring is the number of active minutes you get everyday, and it accounts for all activity done at the pace of a brisk walk or above; and the innermost ring is your stand goal, which you meet if you stand for at least one minute in 12 different hours in a single day.
As you come closer to meeting these goals, each ring gradually fills up. It’s a terrific way to keep track of your progress at a single glance, and is perfect for that extra boost of motivation (“if I walk up those three flights of stairs instead of taking the lift, I can fill up my calories ring and my exercise ring!”). If you’re feeling slothful, Apple Watch helpfully prods you from time to time by telling you to stand up and move around (depending on the situation you’re in, this can either be inspiring or irritating. I’ve had the Watch telling me to stand up and take a walk an hour into a movie and I just want to tell it to shut up for a while).
Meet fitness goals regularly and the Watch will award you shiny shields, which you can spin around with your finger to see your name inscribed on the back. It’s a nice touch that gamifies the fitness experience but it feels woefully inadequate compare to the robust social leaderboards that almost every other fitness app offers. I’d love to challenge my friends to races and workouts each month, for instance, and I can’t but help thinking that we’ll see these features coming in future software updates to the Watch.
All your fitness data is automatically synced to your iPhone, where you can drill down into your daily progress over weeks, months and years.
The Apple Watch has been called out by other reviewers for not having a built-in GPS to map outdoor runs. It uses the GPS in your iPhone to achieve this, which means you always need to take your iPhone with you when you go running. But seriously, who doesn’t take their phone out running?
If you’re an amateur fitness enthusiast like I am, the Apple Watch is a great fitness band – but it’s also much more expensive than most other dedicated fitness trackers out there, and if fitness is the only thing you’re interested in, I’d recommend looking at cheaper alternatives like the Fitbit Surge and the Fitbit Charge HR.
The Watch as a communicator
Just because you can make and receive calls on the Apple Watch doesn’t mean you should, OK? You look like a complete idiot doing it. And – Dick Tracy probably forgot to mention this – holding your arm up and speaking into your wrist for more than 30 seconds is literally a pain.
But I’m nitpicking. I rarely answer calls on my Watch, but being able to glance at my wrist to see who’s calling is amazing. I don’t even have to pull my phone out of my pocket. It’s hard to explain how freeing this feels till you actually experience it.
You can also use the Watch to send and receive iMessages and regular text messages. To reply to a message, you can choose from a list of automatically-generated responses – yes, the Watch parses the text of the incoming message and tries to frame appropriate responses with varying levels of success – or simply dictate a reply. Voice recognition on the Watch is fast and surprisingly accurate, although since it’s the only way to input text into the device, it damn well should be.
Did I mention these weird animated emoji that you can reply with as well? Look at this guy.
I don’t know which manager at Apple approved this stuff, but I hope they’re working on something else right now.
The Apple Watch also gets all email from your iPhone. At first I was skeptical – who wants to deal with email on a screen that small? – but thanks to the Digital Crown, which allows you to scroll through large amounts of text rather easily, powering through your inbox is actually a breeze on the Watch. You can also reply to email using your voice, or delete messages. But I haven’t found a way to forward an email to someone, which seems like a glaring omission from what is otherwise a fairly robust experience.
At its Watch keynote, Apple made a big deal about using the Watch to send doodles, taps, and heartbeats – yes, heartbeats – to your friends who also own Apple Watches. “This is going to revolutionise the way we communicate,” gushed Tim Cook.
I’m here to tell you that these features are a gimmick, because a) they’re only usable if you know someone else with an Apple Watch and guess how many people that is b) that 2-inch screen is way too small for any serious doodling c) sending your heartbeat to someone, even if they’re a special someone, is creepy, and gets old really quickly.
I wouldn’t use the Apple Watch for any serious emailing, texting or calling – and really, it’s not meant for those scenarios – but as a quick-response machine, it’s a beast on your wrist.
The Watch as a notifications window for your wrist
I hate push notifications. On my phone, I disable every single one of them because I can’t stand the constant beeping and booping. On the wrist, it’s a different story. Getting some alerts delivered right to the Watch where I can see them at a glance and act upon them with a single tap is dead useful.
I use Watch notifications for breaking news alerts, instant messaging, and email from a few important people like my boss and my wife, in addition to phone calls and texts. It’s amazing how little I need to look at my phone with all these turned on -- and since it’s on my wrist, I never miss a thing.
To alert you about new notifications, the Apple Watch uses something called a Taptic engine, which means that it doesn’t really vibrate with each notification but “taps” your wrist instead. It’s a subtle, delightful sensation that’s inaudible to everyone except you, and it’s one of those tiny things that puts the Watch in a class of its own.
Wait and Watch
That’s a lot of things for a block of metal that’s less than 2-inches in size and sits on your wrist to do. And I haven’t even talked about some other features like Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition-based assistant, who is a joy to talk to on the Watch, or Apple Pay, which isn’t available in India yet but lets you use the Watch to pay for things in supported countries. But that’s kind of the point with the Apple Watch. The list of things it can do is too long and will only get longer with time.
Which brings us to the million dollar question: should you buy it?
I’d say hold off for now. The Apple Watch is already six-months old at this point, which means that if Apple sticks to its cycle of updating its products every year, we should have a new one around March or April.
Even though its bursting with potential, the Apple Watch is a first-generation product with too many rough edges to justify the frankly insane pricing and will have trouble appealing to anyone besides diehard Apple fans or gadget hounds
Hold off for now. There’s a lot coming in the years ahead.