Apple Watch: Awesome but not Perfect

I've now had my Apple Watch for two weeks. I've provided early experience reports via social media and promised that I would provide a more complete review here when I'd had a little more time with it. Has Apple designed an awesome new platform? Yes. Is it perfect? No.  

The out-of-the-box experience was the best I've experienced with any product, including previous Apple products. It was obvious what to do and doing it was straightforward and, in fact, thoroughly enjoyable. First use was similarly intuitive and the product has imbedded itself into my personal ecosystem completely. I pointed out in a prior blog post here that while I tried using my iPhone and also a Nike Fuelband previously, I went back to wearing a watch because I need what I called ambient time visualization. Probably 90% of the time, I just need to be able to glance at my wrist to get a sense of where I am in an hour. I therefore don't want to have to take my phone out of my pocket nor press a button on the Fuelband to quickly and often unobtrusively get a sense of what time it is. Given that use case, an analogue view is therefore preferable to a digital one too. So, Apple Watch close to perfectly satisfied that use case. I can glance at my watch and get an analogue sense of what time it is. I say close to perfectly because having the display turned on all the time would perfectly satisfy my needs but I understand that's impractical at the present time given the need to minimize battery drain. 

Let's explore the gesture used to activate the device a little more. While the act of moving your wrist in front of you in order to look at the watch is a natural one for a society that still has many people wearing watches, the action itself also carries with it some social etiquette baggage. That same action is also often construed to be indicative of someone being bored, in a rush, and/or uninterested. By adding non-time related functions to the watch, such as notifications, Apple has increased the number of times people typically check their watch. I've had friends and colleagues mention that they find people who are checking their Apple Watches a lot really rude and even more rude than if they were checking their phones. I've purposely minimized the number of apps that I've configured to send me notifications so that I don't get into this situation. However, I suspect that this is going to be another category of annoyance. Having said that, it is important to note that unlike when people are on their phones, virtually everything you can do on the watch is very time limited so often it is literally just a glance. 

A few of you who have used a Smartwatch like the Pebble or Samsung Gear may be wondering why I'm speaking as if Apple established the category. Let me clarify. While Apple was rumored to be working on an iWatch for a few years, these other companies took first mover advantage and did a respectable job of putting out early versions of the technology. However, very few people bought those and they were typically the tech enthusiasts. Apple's introduction into the category with the Apple Watch effectively moves Smartwatches into the mainstream not only with widespread use by the general population but also in terms of providing an ecosystem for apps from all the major players. 

As I mentioned, Apple Watch is awesome in many ways but also not perfect. Let me briefly summarize what I think is great and what I think needs work. 

I think Apple, no surprise, got the design spot on including the nuance of the aesthetics required to make it a piece of jewelry with the many choices of bodies and bands. I chose the one shown above after asking my friends on social media and a couple of friends in person to help select the right one for me. I think they were absolutely right and I love the choice. And, of course, I can buy extra bands and I may well do that in the future. Its interesting too to hear friends and colleagues describing their choice of watch body and band say that they think they chose the perfect one for them. 

There were early worries that the battery would be insufficient to power the Apple Watch for a full day. My battery has never come close to running out in a day and most days I have half to three quarters of a battery charge remaining even after fairly heavy use. Of course, Apple achieved this by not only focusing on including a great battery in the device but also controlling battery use by apps. Because the display is OLED, only pixels that are lit up use battery power. A black background doesn't use any battery power. Now that Apple has demonstrated that battery capacity isn't a problem, I wish they they would make the duration of glances longer or configurable. The duration of a glance for the time app is perfect but is too short in my experience when reading some notifications. I do appreciate that Apple restricted app developers in their use of the lit up pixels and provided the time app faces themselves so as to have optimal battery life. 

The Siri integration in Apple Watch is well done and quite appropriate given the form factor. However, it does sometimes feel strange to be talking to your watch but then also somewhat futuristic. However, my recommendation to Apple to future improve Siri and voice more generally on the watch has to do with staying in audio mode for both Siri and the user. Right now if you want to send a text using the watch, you can quite beautifully simply say for example "Hey Siri, text my daughter." However, then Siri replies not using audio, as she does on the iPhone, but via the watch display prompting the user to dictate what to text. And, after that, the user is prompted again only on the watch display whether the user wants to send the text via audio or text and then there is still a step requiring the user to tap "send". There are ways to optimize this flow by changing the settings for messages so that it only sends texts and you can say "Hey Siri, tell my daughter that..." and then say "Hey Siri, send". That keeps the dialogue in audio form on the user's side but it would be perfect if the entire dialogue were to be conducted with audio on both sides. I'm sure that's coming. 

It is interesting and quite useful to hold telephone conversations using the watch. In this case, the speaker on the watch is used for the people you're speaking with and the microphone for what you're saying. The people I've spoken to in this way say that the audio quality on their end is surprisingly good. You can also use your voice to start and stop music and to launch many apps.

The apps on the watch are first generation and the non-Apple ones were developed without the designers and developers having access to the actual hardware and without first hand knowledge of and experience with an Apple Watch. I absolutely love the Activities app and find that it is more motivating than any of the fitness trackers I've used. I customized the time app face that I use so that I see the time, the date, the temperature, my next meeting, and a small visualization of the Activities app. The latter is brilliantly designed with circles, one for the number of calories you've used, another the minutes you've exercised, and the third the number of hours in the day that you stood up for at least one minute. I quick glance at the bottom right of my time app screen shows me how complete my activity has been thus far in the day. If it's half way through the day and the circles show as half complete, I'm tracking well. If I'm less than that, I know I've got to up my game and if it is more than that, I'm exceeding my plan for the day. 

Some apps look promising but not yet useful enough. The Uber app allows you to tap to call a car but you can't provide the address you're going to, something I find extremely useful with the iPhone app. A voice interface and audio interface would be a great improvement. The maps app is good especially because you can ask for directions verbally. The taptic feedback is wonderful too. However, where this app fails is in the base Apple Maps functionality. When I didn't follow the directions exactly, the app wasn't able to reset it's directions based on where I now was but instead it continued to issue the audio instruction to get back to the recommended route, something that the Hertz NeverLost system used to do years ago (I called it the ForeverLost system as a result). Similarly, the Air Canada app is very useful in displaying in a glance my flight information but right now I have to tell the app on the phone what flight I'm taking when that app should have that information directly from the rest of the airline's systems. In a similar way, my bank app is there but too limited to be useful yet. In contrast, the Yelp app is quite complete as is the Evernote app. The New York Times, Happier, Slack, Weather, and Calendar apps are also quite useful. I haven't found the app navigation menu to be particularly useful. I find that glance versions of apps are very helpful but only so when you limit the number of glances because you have to navigate them serially. 

In sum, the Apple Watch has already become a core part of my personal ecosystem and regular workflow. I also find that I now infrequently pull out my phone, preferring instead to interact with my watch. This device will establish this category and I'm very much looking forward to getting apps designed and developed by people who have the device and have had personal experience using it. I also look forward to the enhancements Apple will make to the operating system and base apps as well over the months to come. Hats off to Jony Ive and the rest of Apple for having designed and built another winning device that will become core to our experience in interacting with technology.