Apple Watch: You’ll want one, but you don’t need one

A version of this happens dozens of times throughout the day-for messages, emails, activity achievements, tweets, etc.


Wait — isn’t the promise of the Apple Watch to help me stay in the moment, undisturbed by the mesmerizing void of my iPhone?

Let’s back up. The Apple Watch is an epic product release. It’s the company’s first new product category since the iPad and the first new product since Steve Jobs died. It was created almost entirely under the guidance of Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, and it’s the first device from Apple that was designed-hardware and software-by Jony Ive. Apple has sunk money into new retail experiences and positioned the device, which starts at $349 and climbs above $10,000, as both the latest must-have gadget and a bona fide luxury item. To say it’s a major moment for Apple would be an understatement.

No one is questioning Apple’s ability to mint money with its gadgets and services (see: $178 billion in the company’s cash reserves), but the ambitions of the watch speak to Apple’s broader ambitions. With a possible entry into the auto market on the horizon, Apple’s success at getting into-and winning-a whole new category is a big deal.

Apple faces two huge challenges with the watch. It has to make a beautiful gadget that hews to the company’s history of groundbreaking design and technology. And because it’s a brand-new product category, the company has to make a case for the very existence of not just its watch, but any watch. It has to persuade people they need technology on their wrists.

As to looks, the watch’s hardware is beautiful in a surgical way. The little cube of metal and glass is very much an Apple product: clean, sleek, remarkably solid. But as a piece of jewelry, it’s similar to other digital and smartwatches. The design doesn’t compete with Rolex or Breitling for sheer style, but the more I wore the inconspicuous thing, the more I liked it on my wrist.

It’s loaded with cutting- edge technology. The tiny Retina display has a new form of pressure sensitivity Apple calls Force Touch, which responds to not only where but how hard you touch the screen. The watch notifies you with extremely nuanced vibrations via its Taptic Engine, which can produce strikingly realistic sensations, almost like a bell tapping on your wrist. Perhaps most important, the watch’s “digital crown” helps you navigate long menus, set options, and zoom in and out of maps and photos.

The speedy software and motion tracking is controlled by the company’s new S1 processor, which packs multiple components on a single chip. I have no doubt the Apple Watch is the most advanced piece of wearable technology available today.

The Apple Watch does function as a watch, with literally millions of different dial combinations. Its timekeeping is so precise, it’s within 50 milliseconds of the global Coordinated Universal Time. Apple has had some fun with this: 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.

Apple allows you customize the watch face, with not only Mickey and other designs but widgets it’s calling Complications. These items dotting the edges of the display can tell the temperature, signal your next calendar appointment, show the phases of the moon, and so on, offering information that elevates the device beyond a simple timepiece.

Still, it is a timepiece, and one problem makes it somewhat inferior to a conventional wristwatch: It activates its screen only when it thinks you’re looking at it. Sometimes a subtle twist of your wrist will do, but I often had to swing my wrist in an exaggerated upward motion to bring the display to life. Even so, sometimes the screen doesn’t turn on. Sometimes you tap it and nothing happens. For all Apple’s touting of its remarkable time-telling device, I found it lacking for this reason alone.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to wrap your head around is the way the watch extends-and often replicates-your phone’s functions. You can receive and send text messages, for instance, but doing so on the small screen with your hand cocked in the appropriate position isn’t ideal if you’re working on something longer than a one-line reply.

And although it connects deeply with the phone, the watch has a completely new way of doing things. Because navigation is split between swipes of your finger, scrolling with the crown, and taps of varying pressure, it takes a while to get oriented.

The notification scheme is a little maddening at first. Apple sends a push notification every time you get a corporate email, personal email, direct message on Twitter, message on Facebook, and interactions in countless other services. Each notification pings the watch with a sound, vibration or both (which can be muted). This quickly gets overwhelming. I found myself turning off notifications from entire apps, which seems to defeat the watch’s purpose. Mercifully, Apple included a way to clear all those notifications: Just Force Touch on the list.

Getting the watch to work for you requires work. I pruned a list of VIP contacts in my mail app to make email notifications more tolerable; I killed several app notifications that were consistently interruptive; and I streamlined my applications to the truly vital.

In many ways, the watch functions much like a small iPhone. Though there are new ways of getting to your apps and interacting with them, much of the phone’s model interface has carried over. So often you end up not only having to take action but deciding where to take action. Still, I found some balance between the two devices. Checking text messages and emails by quickly glancing at the watch saved time and was helpful when I was deeply engaged in an important activity.

Within Apple’s new suite of functions, I found both hits and misses.

On the plus side is Apple’s new Activity app, which presents three basic sets of achievements to hit every day and makes hitting them almost frictionless. One metric watches how many calories you burn; a second is for exercise that elevates your heart rate; and a third is a notification for standing, to ensure you get up at least once an hour.

Setting these up was painless, and I immediately started seeing the results of being made so aware of my activity levels. I have no idea if this will have any lasting impact on my health, but Apple’s frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction.

There are rough spots. Apple hopes to reinvent how we communicate with friends and family by adding three new methods of messaging. The first allows you to essentially “sample” your heartbeat and send it off, but the novelty wears off quickly. The second, Sketch, allows you to draw or tap some symbols and send them to another Apple Watch user, but you don’t have much space you have to work with.

The third new message concept is 3D, animated emojis. That sounds great until you realize the emojis are really more like neutered, animated GIFs from the late ’90s Internet. We already have emojis, and Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope, GroupMe, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, and on and on. There’s something forced and inauthentic about Apple in this space.

I’m split on one feature Apple includes on the watch: Glances act like little cards hiding underneath your watch that give you a glimpse of information from first- and third-party apps. Twitter will display the latest tweet in your timeline, there’s a controller for your music app, or you can see a detailed description of your next calendar appointment. In theory, these screens should be wildly useful for quick access to information. In practice, the watch must pull information from the phone, leaving you with a spinning wheel that indicates data loading, rather than a quick hit of info.

The watch is not life-changing. It is, however, excellent. It is more seamless and simple than any of its counterparts in the marketplace. It is, without question, the best smartwatch in the world.

So Apple has succeeded in its first big task with its watch. It made something that lives up to the company’s reputation as an innovator and raised the bar for a whole new class of devices.

Its second task-making me feel I need this on my wrist every day-is not quite there yet. It’s still another screen, another distraction, another way to disconnect, as much as it is the opposite. The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.