Review: The absolutely optional Apple Watch and Watch OS 1.0

Enlarge / Partners in crime.
Andrew Cunningham

If you’re wondering whether to buy an Apple Watch, consider your computing life as a hierarchy of needs:

At the bottom sits your must have device—a computer, tablet, or phone—capable of independently accessing the Internet and storing useful quantities of data. And one step above that is Internet access itself. You need a device to use it, but your device can’t do much without it.

Every tier similarly builds upon the one below it. Next comes useful apps—browsers, productivity software, whatever you need to work and play—and these all extend your device’s functionality in basic, useful ways. Services for work (Dropbox, Office 365) and entertainment (Spotify, Netflix) follow. The line between software and services is increasingly blurry (especially if we’re talking about software-as-a-service) but most of them feel more optional. Everyone needs a browser. Not everyone needs Dropbox and Netflix and Facebook.

The Andrew Cunningham Tech Hierarchy of Needs. Note the Mickey Mouse watch face at the very, very top.
Aurich Lawson

Finally, we get to the top of most users’ needs—accessories. This encompasses anything that wouldn’t work (or would be drastically less capable) without everything toward the bottom of the pyramid: standalone cameras, iPods, printers, scanners, input devices, and—yes—watches.

Make no mistake, the Apple Watch is a thoroughly optional accessory. Even if you think you want it, wait if there’s a shadow of a doubt in your mind—if not for the inevitable hardware revision, then at least for the OS and the surrounding app ecosystem to firm up. A $ 349-or-more pricetag is still a lot of money to spend on a question mark.

But after spending a week with an Ars-purchased 42mm space gray model (and spending a substantial amount of time with Android Wear), I can tell you that unnecessary things can still be useful. If you buy or like using your Apple Watch, you’re not an idiot who is wasting both your money and your precious time on this earth.

So the Apple Watch isn’t something you need, but does it make things “quick” and “convenient,” as Apple’s own marketing suggests? As the heir apparent to the smartwatch throne, does it live up to its advance billing? And as a version 1.0 product, what still needs to be fixed—and how?

Table of Contents

The hardware, the bands, and the watch faces

One does not simply buy an Apple Watch. The decision to purchase a watch involves as many as five micro-decisions:

  • 38mm or 42mm bodies. The 38mm models are cheaper ($ 50 cheaper for the Sport or Apple Watch, $ 2,000 cheaper for the Editions) but have smaller 340×272 screens and smaller batteries. 42mm models have 390×312 screens.
  • Sport, Apple Watch, or Edition bodies. The Sport models are aluminum and start at $ 349 or $ 399; Apple Watches are stainless steel and start at $ 549 or $ 599; and Edition models are gold and start at $ 10,000 or $ 12,000. We’ll largely ignore the impractical and astronomically expensive Edition models in this review.
  • Color choices. Both the Sport and Apple Watch versions have silver or black finishes (“space gray” on the Sport is darker than on Apple’s other products and is effectively black), and the Editions come in regular gold or rose gold finishes.
  • Band type, (most of the time). Black models are more limited in their band selection; the space gray Sport only comes with a black Sport band, and the space black Apple Watch only comes with a black Stainless Steel Link Bracelet. This pushes its starting prices up to $ 1,049 and $ 1,099, $ 100 more than the standard stainless steel watches and Link Bracelets.
  • Band color, (most of the time). Again, black watches only come with black bands, and some band types don’t come in more than one color.

That’s a whole lot to keep straight, and your band options are actually more complicated than the list above suggests.

The Sport Band is always included with the purchase price and costs $ 49 as a standalone add-on; the Apple Watch Sport is only sold with a Sport Band, though others can be added separately. The Milanese Loop and Classic Buckle bands add $ 100 to the cost of the standard Apple Watch (or cost $ 149 as a stand-alone purchase). The Leather Loop band also adds $ 100 (or costs $ 149 separately) but only works with 42mm watch bodies; the daintier Modern Buckle band adds $ 200 (or costs $ 249 separately) and only works with 38mm bodies. Finally, the stainless steel Link Bracelet costs $ 400 with the watch (or $ 449 when purchased separately).

Got all that? Ultimately, you’d be well-advised to go to an Apple Store and try these watches on before buying any of them. When you’ve got this many choices to make and they affect the price of the watch this widely, it’s well worth seeing and feeling what you’re getting before dropping between $ 350 and $ 1,100 on your new wrist bauble.

Once the watch is on your wrist, the customization options continue. You can choose between 10 watch faces, and many of those faces include extra color or and/or image options.

What’s good?

The 42mm space gray Apple Watch Sport has a nice finish, the body is sturdy and high quality, and the band feels surprisingly good and buckles easily. This isn’t the rubbery, gross-feeling kind of band we’ve seen on some other smart watches. The screen is sharp and colorful, and a lot of the time the edges of the screen and the edges of the bezel blend together in an attractive way.

One day I’m sure we’ll look back at this first Apple Watch model and giggle about how chunky it looks, but today it feels like a solid design. It’s pleasantly curved all around. It’s distinctive enough to be recognizable but not strange enough to be distracting, and it doesn’t have oddities like the Moto 360’s “flat tire” or the LG G Watch R’s pseudo-analog, vestigial second ticks or the original LG G Watch’s “developer prototype that somehow made it to market” vibe.

The bands are, as advertised, much easier to swap out than standard 22mm watch bands. Press the small button on the back of the watch and then slide the band out (don’t try to pull it out, you’ll just break something). Once the bands are locked in place, they aren’t going anywhere.

Of the watch faces Apple offers, my favorites tend to be utilitarian. I spent most of my time with the “modular” face, which I configured to show the date, my upcoming calendar appointments, the current temperature, my fitness activity, and battery percentage. Stopwatch, timer, alarm, stocks, moon phase, sunrise/sunset, and world clock complications can be subbed in for any of those items.

What’s bad?

While Apple’s pricing might not turn heads in the luxury watch world, these gadgets are priced steeply compared to iPhones, iPads, or even Macs, given the more limited functionality you get. And as hard as Apple pushes the swappability of the bands and the way those bands can alter your watch’s look, adding more bands quickly inflates the price of the watch. Price depends on your perspective, I guess.

If, as I do, you think that the black watch bodies look better than the silver ones, you may be limiting your band selection. The Sport, Classic Buckle, Leather Loop, and Modern Buckle options look fine with any color, but the silver Milanese Loop and the silver Link Bracelet bands clash with the black-bodied watches in unpleasant ways.

All of the bands aside from the overly-casual Sport band add a substantial amount to the watch’s price. Hopefully third-party bands can step in and create some more options that look good with any watch body and don’t cost almost half as much as the watch itself.

The Apple Watch’s AMOLED screen looks nice as a rule, and the typefaces and images Apple uses throughout Watch OS are easy to read. Unfortunately, like many of the other smartwatches we’ve seen, bright, direct sunlight is unkind. The watch is rarely unusable, but it can get washed out if you’re outdoors in the mid-afternoon.

The watch faces that are here are usually either useful, nice-looking, or both (Mickey Mouse aside). But here’s hoping that third parties will be allowed to make new watch faces (or feed new complications to the existing watch faces) soon. Failing that, we would at least like to see more options from Apple—10 isn’t enough, especially since near-infinite customizability is part of the sales pitch for the product.

The Apple Watch app

This app, installed by default on all compatible iPhones running iOS 8.2 or newer, is your gateway to the Apple Watch. We’ve covered the initial pairing process and some of the basic features here, so I won’t retread that ground except to say that pairing was painless on an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 5, each running iOS 8.3.

You can control a handful of options from the Settings app on the watch itself, and if you’re pairing Bluetooth accessories like headphones or external fitness sensors, you’ll have to do it directly from the watch. Otherwise, everything from software updates to app installation to notification settings is handled through the app.

What’s good?

A unified place to control everything about the watch, from the app layout to the apps themselves, is great. And since the watch app is so similar to the iOS Settings app, it at least has the benefit of being familiar.

We’ll talk about this more in a bit, but the controls for notifications and other settings aren’t bad. If you want your watch to go into Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb mode when you enable them on your phone, you can do that. If you want to get notifications from e-mail accounts on your phone but not on your watch, or if you only want them from certain e-mail accounts, you can do that. The whole approach is generally preferable to the Android Wear system, which passes every phone notification straight to your watch unless you blacklist all notifications from certain apps.

What’s bad?

The Apple Watch app is to the Apple Watch as iTunes once was to the iPhone—fiddly software you need to push through in order to configure and enjoy your gadget.

Frequently, I would launch the app only to watch my phone sit at a black screen for multiple seconds. Sometimes the app would show up eventually after this, but other times it would just crash to the home screen. Maybe it was waiting on communication from the watch? But it certainly doesn’t say so. Anecdotally, some users have blamed the app for a spike in iPhone battery usage, though that experience isn’t universal.

And while the fact that this is a near-clone of the iOS Settings app makes it familiar, the iOS Settings app isn’t an amazing template to copy. Between the lack of a search function (System Preferences in OS X has it, what’s the holdup?) and the sometimes nonsensical organization of items (why is Handoff for phone calls handled in the FaceTime settings and not the Phone settings?) and the menu items for every single app installed on your phone, Settings has become a jumbled maze. The Apple Watch app does nothing to improve upon it aside from adding an attractive light-on-dark night theme.

The Digital Crown

Enlarge / The Digital Crown and the side button.
Andrew Cunningham

Aside from the touchscreen, the Digital Crown is the way you’ll interact with the Apple Watch most of the time. Turning the Crown can either scroll up and down through lists, as in the Mail or Messages apps, or it can zoom in and out of the current view, as on the app screen and in the Maps app.

The Crown’s button is the closest thing the watch has to the iPhone’s Home button, though it isn’t quite the same. From the watch face or from within an app, tap the button once to go to the App screen. When you’re looking at a Glance or your notifications, tap it once to return to the watch face. Double tap the button to hop back and forth between the watch face and whatever app you were using the most recently. And long-press the button to open Siri (which can also be opened by saying “Hey Siri” when the watch face is on).

What’s good?

The Digital Crown is satisfying to press and to turn. It provides just the right amount of resistance while you’re turning it, and the button feels nice and clicky while being completely silent. And, like the iPhone’s Home button, it’s the best anchor that new users have. Press it enough times, and you’ll always end up back at the watch face.

What’s bad?

Comparing the Digital Crown to the Home button is a good way to demonstrate how much more complicated it is to interact with the Apple Watch than it is to interact with the iPhone.

Press the iPhone’s Home button once, and it only does one thing: it takes you home. If you press it while you’re already looking at the home screen, it doesn’t do anything, because you’re already home. That’s the way it’s been since the original iPhone and iPhone OS 1.0. Apple has steadily layered new stuff on top of the Home button (double press for multitasking, long press for Siri, double tap for Reachability, rest your finger on it for Touch ID), but when you’re teaching new users about an iPhone, that single press is the first, most important interaction they will understand.

Pressing the Crown on the Apple Watch does different things in different contexts. Sometimes it takes you to the watch face (probably the closest thing the watch has to a home screen), but sometimes it takes you to the honeycomb of apps. If you don’t understand how all the gestures work, you’ll have more trouble getting around. Double tapping the Crown takes you right from your app back to the watch face, but if you don’t know that, it will actually take you three single taps to get from your app back to the watch: once to zoom to the app screen, once to select the watch app on the app screen, and once to dive back into the watch app.

Before I discovered the double tap feature, I was just frustrated by how many times I had to press the button to get where I wanted to go.

If you’re well-versed in iOS and know your way around the home button, it’s not too difficult to apply that knowledge to the Apple Watch, but more casual users have a list of things they need to memorize before their interactions with the watch become second nature.

The side button and communication features

Apple calls the second and more obvious of the Watch’s buttons the “side button,” though it could be described as the Friends button, since that’s mostly what it does.

Press the side button at any time, and the watch brings up a circular menu of contacts you can navigate through with touch or by using the Digital Crown. Select any of those people, and then tap the middle of the menu. You can call or text anyone from this screen, and you can standard Unicode emoji or the watch’s 3D animated emoji to anyone (they go out as regular old animated GIFs). If your contact has an Apple Watch, you’ll be able to send them drawings, patterns of taps, and heartbeats.

The Friends screen must be populated manually through the Apple Watch app. It doesn’t pick up on recent contacts or rearrange contacts automatically; you pick the contacts, you put them where you want them on the wheel, and if you want to add different contacts you need to make room for them first. There’s room for up to 12 friends on the wheel, which should cover most of the people you need to be able to contact directly from your wrist. Others can be called or texted using Siri instead.

What’s good?

Unlike the Crown, pressing the side button once only does one thing: it takes you to and from the Friends screen. Pretty easy to understand. Pressing it twice lets you use Apple Pay, something we’ll talk about later.

As a heavy emoji user I am a fan of the 3D versions even though the UI for shuffling through them is one of the jankiest, laggiest places in the OS. Text dictation is good and iOS 8’s ability to send audio snippets instead of text is included here, and the Apple Watch app lets you customize a pre-set list of quick canned replies you can send if you’re in a rush.

The Inspector Gadget-like ability to place and receive phone calls from your wrist (it uses the exact same Handoff technology as the iPad an Mac) is handy in situations where you can’t use your hands. You don’t have to hold the watch right to your face if you don’t want to look like a Bond villain—the person on the other end can still hear you when the watch is at arm’s length, though it’s not as loud.

What’s bad?

Based on a few of the live demos I’ve given, the impulse to treat this as the “home” button is strong, mostly because it’s the only visible button on the device. It might be nice to let users pick their own activity to assign to the Friends button, depending on what they use the most frequently, but don’t hold your breath on that one.

While phone calling mostly works fine, it’s susceptible to the same problems as Handoff on the iPad and Mac: call quality is noticeably degraded, and there’s often lag between the time you place a call on the watch and the time your iPhone makes the call (and also the time between when your phone gets a call and when your watch will let you pick it up).

As for the watch-specific communication features, remember PictoChat? It was a built-in app included with every Nintendo DS that would let people create an ad-hoc chat room and send messages and pictures to each other. And remember how you used it maybe twice, until the novelty wore off and you didn’t use it anymore?

That’s how the Apple Watch-specific drawing and tapping heartbeat-sending features feel to me: not really a new and more intimate way to converse, but a novelty that wears off in short order. I traded a few messages with erstwhile Ars Apple Editor Jacqui Cheng and Will Smith from Tested (the latter was captured on video here), and after that I stopped doing it. Maybe it would be different if the watch were more ubiquitous? I certainly send more of the 3D emoji, since you don’t need a watch to receive them. But for now I find it skippable.

Force Touch

The Force Touch action effectively adds a third button to the Apple Watch without taking up the space that would be required by a third button. Press down firmly on the display, and if the screen you’re looking at has extra stuff in a Force Touch menu you’ll feel a small haptic buzz as the menu appears. If not, the screen will contract and then spring back into place, a modification of the rubber band effect that tells you that you’ve reached the top or bottom of a list or window in OS X or iOS.

Remember, a Force Touch isn’t the same as a long press, something which took me a while to get used to. You need to press down with some force to make the watch respond rather than just holding your finger down like you might on an iPhone or iPad.

What’s good?

Once you’re comfortable with the distinction between a long press and a Force Touch, the action feels natural. There’s always that hint of hesitation with a long press, the extra beat the device waits to make sure you’re intentionally performing a long press instead of just letting your finger rest on the screen a second too long. A Force Touch is easier for the device to recognize, and so it responds to your input more quickly.

Given its presence here and in the trackpads of the new MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro, I won’t be surprised if the next-gen iPhones and iPads we get later this year include Force Touch as well.

What’s bad?

Having Force Touch saves space on both the Apple Watch hardware and on the Apple Watch’s screen. The downside is that it’s never obvious whether or not a particular screen has some Force Touch settings available. Some views have them, some views don’t, and the only way to track the difference is to try Force Touching and remember whether you get a response or not.

This is one of the areas where the watch’s lack of an Android Wear-style first-time tutorial on the watch itself is a problem. Apple offers setup sessions in its store, sends welcome e-mails with plenty of videos to you when you pair your Apple Watch, and provides a 200-plus Apple Watch user guide on its site and in the iBooks store, but those are all external resources. The Force Touch is still a new gesture, and if users don’t familiarize themselves with it they’ll miss out on a good-sized chunk of functionality.

Notifications and the “Taptic Engine”

You now know how to interact with the watch; Apple’s “Taptic Engine” is what lets the watch interact with you. You get a light buzz when you get a notification, of course, but the engine also vibrates when you successfully perform a Force Touch or use Apple Pay.

Since the screen doesn’t illuminate when you get a notification and there’s no dedicated notification light or always-on display, the Taptic Engine is the watch’s primary way of getting your attention. It’s mostly notifications, but the Maps app demonstrates other possibilities. While you’re walking with turn by turn navigation enabled, for instance, your watch will buzz 12 times in quick succession when you’re supposed to turn right, or it will buzz you with “three pairs of two taps” to turn left. Like so many other things about the Apple Watch it’s not necessarily intuitive but once you understand it can be a useful shorthand.

The Taptic Engine primarily exists to ping you when notifications show up, and the way you configure those notifications will be key to your experience. Well-configured notifications are the difference between a helpful watch and an annoying one.

When you get buzzed by a notification and lift the watch to your face, you’ll see the icon of the app that generated the notification (say, Mail or Messages), and a short description (the sender or subject). Keep looking for a moment, and the watch will pull up a more detailed preview (the contents of the text message or the first few lines of the e-mail). Swipe down on that notification to dismiss it. Tap the app icon to jump to the watch version of the app that generated the notification if one is available, and swipe down to see buttons listing other options (you can reply to texts, for instance, or delete e-mails); if there’s no version of the watch app available, then you’ll be able to see and dismiss the notification but not interact with it in any other way.

If you’re actively using your phone, the notifications won’t be passed through to the watch, since it assumes you already saw them on the phone. This is true even when you’ve got notifications going to your watch that you’ve configured not to appear on your phone.

Swipe down from the top of the watch face to access the watch’s version of the Notification Center, a list of all notifications you haven’t interacted with yet. When you have unread notifications sitting up there, there’s a small red dot at the top of the watch’s screen. Notifications can be dismissed one at a time by swiping from right to left and tapping the “clear” button, or you can Force Touch the notification center to clear everything at once. This is something I hope makes it to iOS soon.

What’s good?

The iPhone has never used the haptic feedback that Android and Windows Phones have, but Apple has nevertheless implemented it well here. The Apple Watch’s vibrations are still immediately identifiable but less harsh than they are in some Android Wear watches, and when Apple describes the feeling as a “tap” rather than a vibration or buzz it’s mostly correct.

The notification controls themselves are good, and they improve on Android Wear’s system in a few key ways. Most importantly for me, the Mail app notifications are very flexible—where Android Wear will mirror what happens on your phone exactly unless you mute the entire app, I liked how I could configure notifications on both the watch and the phone independently and on a per-account basis. I turned off all e-mail notifications on my iPhone years ago, but I want those notifications on my wrist most of the time so I can manage all the junk mail that makes it into my work inbox and see important messages as soon as I get them.

Otherwise apps default to the “mirror iPhone” setting, where whatever notifications you get on your phone you also get on your watch. This was fine with me, though I quickly muted my Tweetbot notifications. Notification-heavy apps without a corresponding watch app tend to be the most annoying, since you can’t interact with those notifications aside from dismissing them.

What’s bad?

Tuning the amount and type of notifications you get on the watch is key to its general day-to-day usefulness. Too many, and the watch is buzzes so often that it becomes white noise. At one point I started to miss stand reminders because I was getting buzzed every time I got an e-mail or a Tweet, and I started ignoring them so I could actually focus on what I was doing.

On the other hand, too few notifications, and the watch’s usefulness diminishes. At its best the watch should save you the (relative) trouble of digging your phone out a few times a day, but if you’re not feeding it notifications then it can’t really do its job.

You’ll spend several days tuning this balance to get it the way you like it. Once you do, the watch becomes a helpful tool. It just takes a lot of fiddling with the settings to get it there.


Swipe up from the bottom of the watch face and you’ll find Glances, small one-page bits of information pulled from richer watch and phone apps. They function sort of like Notification Center widgets in iOS—they’ll show you the information you’re most likely to want, and if you need to do more than you can tap and open the full app. Swipe left and right through your Glances to view different ones.

You can configure which Glances are visible and in what order they appear in the Apple Watch app. Third-party watch apps that offer Glances automatically show up in the Apple Watch app but won’t be added to your list of Glances until you enable them.

What’s good?

Good Glances do what they say they will. You’ll run into useless or overstuffed Glances just as you’ll run into useless or overstuffed watch apps, but the idea is sound. Apple’s first-party glances—quick settings, media playback controls, weather, battery, fitness, calendar, heart rate, maps, world clock, and stocks—all provide a decent amount of information given the tiny screen.

What’s bad?

Glances that rely on information from your phone aren’t being refreshed continuously. This goes for first-party Glances like Weather or Maps or third-party Glances you’ve pulled in from elsewhere. This means that when you pull up your Glances there’s usually a couple seconds of loading time built-in. The point of Glances is that they’re supposed to be fast, but this built-in delay always makes interactions take longer than they feel like they should.

Second, you can only get to your Glances by swiping up from the bottom of the watch face. The same motion performed in any other app won’t pull them up. This is annoying if you’re, say, using the Workout app to run, but you want to change the music you’re streaming from the watch. There’s a handy, Control Center-esque media control Glance that can do this for you, but it takes too long to go from the Workouts app to the watch face and then to the glance and then back to the Workout app, especially if you’re actively running. The Notification Center can only be accessed from the watch face, too, but that doesn’t feel as limiting as this does.

We’d prefer Glances to function more like iOS’ Control Center does. Make it accessible from anywhere (and make it faster) and it will live up to its full potential.

Heart rate sensor

Enlarge / The watch’s green LEDs are either measuring my heart rate or shooting radioactive lasers into my wrist, it’s hard to tell.
Andrew Cunningham

The back of the Apple Watch is mostly taken up by its heart rate sensor, which as this Apple support document outlines is made up of two green and infrared LEDs and two photodiode sensors. Blood absorbs green light, and the more blood your heart is pumping, the more green light will be absorbed.

When you request a heart rate measurement, the green lights flash “hundreds of times per second” and the rate is calculated based on that. When the watch passively measures your heartrate, which happens once every 10 minutes, it attempts to use the infrared lights instead, but it will use the green lights if it can’t get a good reading.

What’s good?

The heart rate sensor appears to be accurate, at least for more casual exercisers and athletes. Consumer Reports’ early testing confirms that “there were no significant differences” between the watch’s reported heart rate and that of its “highest-rated heart rate monitor” (one of Polar’s chest-mounted Bluetooth models).

Additionally, these sensors enable a security feature of the watch—if you set a passcode (which you should), you can set it so that the watch only asks for it the first time you put it on. Keep the watch on, and you’ll never be prompted for a passcode until you take it off again. It’s a handy compromise between security and convenience.

What’s bad?

Apple’s support document points out several circumstances in which the heart rate sensors may not work as described. If it’s cold out, if you’re performing “irregular movements, like tennis or boxing” instead of more regular movements like walking or running, or if you have wrist tattoos or other scars, it may throw off the accuracy of the sensor.

Fitness features and working out without a phone

I’ve never owned a Jawbone or Fitbit or FuelBand or any other dedicated fitness tracker, but I know that the Apple Watch provides only a subset of what some of those bands can do. There is, for example, no sleep tracking here, and I wouldn’t expect anything like that for as long as the watch only lasts a day on a charge. But the things that the watch can do—step tracking, calorie tracking, some limited activity tracking, heart rate monitoring, and standing reminders—are new to me, and they’re going to introduce a lot of casual exercisers and non-exercisers to the concept of fitness tracking.

The Activity app on the Apple Watch and the iPhone (which, unlike the main Apple Watch app, appears only once you’ve paired a watch to your phone) provides basic fitness goals for you to try and hit every day. By default, you should burn 400 calories, fit in 30 minutes of light activity (walking, generally), and stand for at least a minute per hour for 12 of 24 hours.

The basic Workout app on the watch includes a handful of activities—indoor and outdoor walking, running, and cycling, and settings for elliptical, rowing, and stair stepper machines. You can set duration, calorie, or distance-based goals for most of these, and while the watch will use your paired iPhone’s GPS and (if available) M7 or M8 motion processors to get more accurate data, it’s not bad at estimating distance and pace even when you don’t take your phone with you.

The watch will dump all of this information into the Health app, where other applications (with your permission) can view and use it.

More advanced fitness buffs who aren’t satisfied with Apple’s built-in sensors can pair external sensors like Bluetooth heart rate monitors to the watch, so if you already have a sensor you like you can still tie it into Apple’s system.

What’s good?

When people noticed I was wearing an Apple Watch and asked me what I liked about it, the first things I always brought up were the fitness features.

Even when I adjusted them upward a bit, the daily activity goals were never difficult for me to hit on normal days (nor should they be for anyone who isn’t a potato). What the watch and the fitness goals did was make me more aware of when and how much it was moving, and it encouraged me to hit those goals more consistently instead of accidentally having days where I just sat on my butt, or where I couldn’t remember what activity I’d done on a given day. It will come in especially handy during business trips or vacations, times when my fitness routine usually goes out the window.

The fitness apps keep a timeline of your activity, and I found it entertaining to look at the charts and see how they changed based on what I was doing.

Enlarge / Just a typical Monday.
Andrew Cunningham

Finally, while Apple’s Fitness and Workout apps are limited compared to apps like RunKeeper, it’s clear that iOS 8’s HealthKit framework was made with the Apple Watch at or near its center. The watch won’t help you plan a fitness regimen, but RunKeeper can look at the data the watch dumps into the Health app and use that. Plug in the nutrition tracking app of your choice, and suddenly the watch’s calorie counting becomes more useful. Jawbone’s Up app can use the Apple Watch instead of a Jawbone fitness tracker. As long as you can find HealthKit-compatible apps that do what you want, you can build on the Apple Watch’s capabilities pretty easily.

What’s bad?

By the same token, the Apple Watch sort of needs HealthKit-enabled external apps to do useful things with the data it produces. The Fitness and Workout apps include no social features, no way to plan workouts, and no interval training. They won’t map a route for you.

Most of my fitness-related gripes aren’t directly related to the watch itself, but to the way that first- and third-party fitness and music apps work in WatchOS, which is what we’ll talk about next.

First-party apps

Most of Apple’s foundational iOS apps have been ported to WatchOS in little bite-sized versions: Calendar, Mail, Maps, Messages, Music, Passbook, Phone, Photos, Reminders, Stocks, and Weather are all here. The Workout app I already mentioned is new to the watch, and the Clock app’s various functions (stopwatch, timer, alarm, world clock) have been broken out into their own separate apps. There’s a version of the Remote app you can use with iTunes libraries and Apple TVs, too.

The few options these apps support are all manageable through the Apple Watch app. The richest is Mail, which lets you choose which inbox(es) you want the watch to display and how much of each e-mail you want to see in preview. Messages is up there too—you can control whether dictated messages go out as text or audio bites, and you can populate the watch’s list of canned responses from here. Most of the other apps are just displaying whatever data is on your phone. 

What’s good?

The best of the Apple Watch apps revolve around lists of items you can manipulate quickly. Maybe you’re replying to a text message or deleting, reading, or flagging some e-mails. This is the kind of stuff that the watch handles surprisingly well, though beware all the scrolling you’ll have to do to read long messages.

Most of the watch apps are similarly simple, and focused overwhelmingly on viewing content rather than creating it. Messages is one of the few that will actually allow you to create new things—you can’t reply to e-mails or create new calendar appointments, you can just look at existing ones. That’s the right balance to strike for small, wrist-mounted apps.

If you want to do more than the apps will let you, there are two options. First, you can use Siri, which is capable of setting appointments and reminders on the watch just as easily as it does on the phone. Second, you can use Handoff, one of the Continuity features Apple introduced with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite.

Handoff can shoot stuff to your iPhone, which you’re guaranteed to have nearby, but since it’s using the exact same Wi-Fi and Bluetooth features as other Apple devices, you can open things up on your Mac or iPad too. It’s one of the few circumstances where the watch can interact directly with devices other than your phone. 

These first-party apps are the only ones that will let you do anything when the watch is disconnected from your phone. The Photos app can cache up to 75MB of photos from an album of your choice, the Music app can sync any iTunes/Music playlist up to 1GB in size, and you can still read and delete e-mail and view calendar appointments that have already been downloaded. MacWorld has a decent summary of the limited number of things you can do without an iPhone.

What’s bad?

As with Glances, the biggest pitfall here is the watch’s inconsistent performance. Apps take a moment to load, and some (like Maps and the phone app) take more time to show content too. Others, like Mail, Messages, and Calendar, are zippy once you’ve opened them up. Hopefully software updates can smooth out some of these consistency issues. 

None of Apple’s first-party apps can be deleted or hidden from the app screen, and there’s no such thing as “app folders” in Watch OS so you can’t tuck them away in some obscure place as you can in iOS. If you don’t want to use or see a particular app, your best recourse is to put it toward the outer edge of your cloud of app icons.

Third-party apps

To install third-party apps to your watch, you must first install that third party’s app on your phone. Watch apps can only come contained within standard iOS apps, at least for now, and chances are you’ve already downloaded some Apple Watch apps to your phone without even realizing it.

The Apple Watch app will offer to sync all of your watch apps as part of the pairing process, and there’s a setting you can use to automatically send all new watch apps to your watch. Otherwise, apps appear in a long list at the bottom of the Apple Watch app, and each one has a switch you’ve got to toggle before it will install.

What’s good?

The quality of these early apps is a bit scattershot, but developers are here, and you get the feeling that you can count on Apple Watch apps from major players. Android Wear, almost a year after its launch, doesn’t give you the same feeling.

Good apps do what Apple’s first-party apps do: give you digestible but useful bits of information and then Handoff to your phone or Mac for anything more in-depth. I quite like the New York Times app, which gives you headlines summaries for big stories and lets you pass them to other devices to read more. TripCase, an app offered to help us keep our corporate travel straight, is also good, offering up flight and hotel confirmation numbers in a quick and convenient way. The Yelp app shows you a few common searches—restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and “Hot & New”—and finds you some nearby locations depending on which button you tap.

Bad apps just sort of shrug at you. The Chipotle app some of you noticed in my earlier hands-on is just a big, um, “Burrito Button” that places an order for your favorite burrito at a nearby location. So far the good apps from major developers I’ve seen have outnumbered the bad—the limitations placed upon developers by Apple will probably be more limiting in the long run.

What’s bad?

The big downside to third-party apps is that Apple isn’t letting developers do all the things that the first-party apps can do. My biggest gripe is that third-party apps can do virtually nothing when the phone and the watch aren’t paired, which makes it harder for me to use the Apple Watch as the standalone running companion I want it to be.

The Apple Watch was never designed to run without an iPhone. You need an iPhone to even set the thing up. That said, I wish third parties could do more.

For example, the RunKeeper watch app will let you choose a workout on your phone and then track it on your watch. This is handy if you want to do something like interval training, a type of activity RunKeeper supports but the first-party Workouts app doesn’t. I know from using the Workouts app without a paired phone that the distance and pace tracking will work, but the RunKeeper app doesn’t work at all if the paired iPhone is out of range.

I also want to be able to add downloaded media from Spotify or PocketCasts to the watch so I can play it back the same way I can with the first-party Music app. Setting aside the fact that neither Spotify nor PocketCasts offer an Apple Watch app as of this writing, it doesn’t look like third parties can use any of the watch’s internal storage to cache content, at least not with WatchKit as it currently stands.

I’m not asking for the world. All I want is for third-party applications to be able to do the same things that first-party applications can when the phone is out of range.


If you need anything more complex than taps, button presses, or swipes, the Apple Watch’s best input device is Siri. You can activate it either by raising the watch to your face and saying “Hey Siri” when the screen lights up, or you can long-press the Digital Crown the same way you’d long-press the Home button on an iPhone.

Ask Siri what it can do on the watch, and it will return this list: Set alarms, set reminders, tell you the date or time, set a timer, send a message, create a calendar appointment, call someone, check the weather, ask for locations using Maps, play music, ask questions about movies and showtimes, ask basic factual questions, check sports scores, check stocks, launch apps, turn on airplane mode, and search the Internet for images.

If you ask Siri something that it’s completely confused by, it prompts you to use Handoff to pass the question to your phone, which can search the Internet for it.

What’s good?

If there’s a perfect speech-to-text translator out there, we haven’t used it, but Siri does a good job of understanding what you say. It’s not as good as Google Now for general inquiries, but for basic things (“what time is it in London,” “how many pints in a quart”), it’s quick enough to return useful responses.

What’s bad?

If you rely on Siri’s voice prompts when you use the feature on your iDevices, it’s not present here—Siri on the Apple Watch is a mute.

The biggest problems I ran into, once again, revolved around responsiveness and consistency. Usually, the “Hey Siri” prompt would bring up Siri, it would listen to what I asked, and then go retrieve a response about as quickly as it would on the phone. Sometimes, “Hey Siri” just wouldn’t work, and trying to press the Digital Crown didn’t do anything either. In those cases, waiting for the screen to go dark and then trying again would usually do the trick.

While dictating messages, annoyingly, Siri doesn’t automatically stop listening to you while you’re done talking. You have to tap the little “done” button in the upper-right corner when you’re done speaking, at which point the watch will ask if you want to send it as text or audio and then confirm with you before sending it off. It’s not clear why Siri works like it usually does when invoked from the watch face but needs an extra button tap when you’re using it to send messages.

Apple Pay

Up until now Apple Pay has strictly been limited to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the two iPhones that include the NFC hardware necessary to enable the feature. If you own an older iPhone, Apple Watch is your way to get into the contactless payment system.

You set up Apple Pay in the Apple Watch app, not on the watch itself. That app walks you through using your phone’s camera to import your card, confirming with your bank, and doing the exact same Apple Pay setup process you’re familiar with if you’ve ever done it on your iPhone.

Remember, since no Apple Pay data syncs from device to device, even if you already have Apple Pay setup on your iPhone 6 you’ll need to set it up again to use it on the Apple Watch. If you set it up on an iPhone 5, 5C, or 5S, no credit card data is stored on your phone at all, since it doesn’t have the NFC hardware to enable its use or the security hardware to protect it.

To use Apple Pay, double press the side button and point the watch’s screen at the NFC payment terminal. If you hear a sound and feel a vibration, congratulations! You just bought something!

What’s good?

Apple Pay is making inroads. It’s already pretty well established, and some major players who initially opposed the system are beginning to climb on board. That’s true of both credit card companies like Discover and retailers like Best Buy, and you can bet that other CurrentC backers will follow Best Buy soon enough.

What’s bad?

The only downsides here are nitpicky—Apple Pay is popular as mobile payment systems go but not ubiquitous, and depending on the location of the contactless payment terminal it might briefly be uncomfortable to contort your wrist so that the watch and the terminal can talk to one another.

Battery life

Apple says the watch has been designed to last up to 18 hours in mixed usage—this number applies to both the 38mm and 42mm models, though the larger battery in the 42mm model might help it last longer.

That figure is an average that assumes you’re doing a lot of different things but leaving the watch idle most of the time. This support page provides figures for individual activities, the most strenuous of which is using the watch to make phone calls—not a surprise, since Handoff needs Wi-Fi to be active and you’ll be using the mic and the speaker constantly.

What’s good?

I never had a problem with the Apple Watch’s battery life, and of all the complaints and comments I’ve seen about the Apple Watch since people started getting them, battery life surprisingly hasn’t been one of them. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but anecdotally both 38mm and 42mm watch owners I’ve spoken to have had no trouble making it to the end of the day on one charge.

What’s bad?

For many of you, the fact that the Apple Watch can last for an entire day isn’t a good thing. Dedicated fitness bands and Pebble watches can last for several days on a charge, and no matter how conservative you are with the Apple Watch’s battery charging it every night is going to be a fact of life for you.

Even if you don’t mind charging it every night and you live entirely within the confines of Apple’s hardware ecosystem, the watch adds yet another charger to your life. The magnetic charging pad, while elegant in its own right, joins Lightning, MagSafe 2, and USB Type-C on Apple’s list of connectors. One day, maybe, this list will stop growing and start shrinking, but it’s not today.

Finally, some of the watch’s battery-saving behavior can be frustrating. The worst problem is that the screen turns off quickly after you stop looking at it (or after it thinks you’re no longer looking at it), and there’s no way to shorten that interval between when the screen lights up and when it times out. I also miss the always-on ambient display mode from (most) Android Wear watches, which displays the time (and, depending on your watch face, some other items) all the time and not just when you’re looking directly at the watch.

Conclusions: Watch this space

Andrew Cunningham

If I were spending $ 400 of my own money instead of my employer’s money, I would stand by my earlier assessment: don’t buy the Apple Watch, not yet. At a bare minimum, wait until the operating system and the app ecosystem have some time to mature, something that they should both do rapidly if past Apple products are any indication. Ideally, hold off until second-generation hardware hits, both because it will bring improvements that software updates can’t and because it will tell us more about what we can expect the watch’s support lifecycle to be.

If you disagree—and Apple’s sold-out watch inventories say that many of you do—the good news is that the watch does enough useful things that you can probably justify your purchase. I still find “notifications on your wrist” to be a poor reason for any device to exist, but the fitness features, the general quality of the first-party apps, and the potential of the third-party apps are all real positives.

The biggest shortcoming for buyers today, aside from the general 1.0-ness of the hardware and software, is that the watch is more complicated than it looks. It takes a non-trivial amount of effort to learn how to balance the watch’s potential usefulness with its potential irritation.

The Apple Watch sits right at the tippy-top of that hierarchy of needs pyramid. Of all of Apple’s products, it offers the fewest features for the price. It is not without value, but before you buy it, make sure that absolutely every one of those other needs lower on the pyramid has already been met.

The good

  • Lots and lots of body and band options
  • First-party apps offer a good compromise between simplicity and functionality.
  • The watches and all their bands share an attractive, sturdy design.
  • Screen looks great anywhere except under bright, direct sunlight.
  • Fitness features are basic but very well-implemented.
  • Third-party developers are here, and support should generally be good.
  • Apple Pay works well and is becoming more widespread.
  • Somewhat better, more granular notification handling than Android Wear.
  • Battery has no problem lasting a full day.

The bad

  • Watch OS is tricky to learn and the Apple Watch app can be flaky.
  • Several actions, including pulling up Glances, opening apps, or scrolling through emoji, are consistently slow.
  • Drawing, tapping, and heartbeat-sending features are gimmicky.
  • Pricing is reasonable by luxury watch standards but high by consumer electronics standards.
  • Limited functionality when unpaired from your phone.
  • Third-party apps can’t do all the things Apple’s apps can do.
  • Another charger to carry around.

The ugly

  • No matter how many gadgets you buy, one day you will die.

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