I’m one of those terrible people who opt for Mac instead of Windows, iPhone instead of Android. I have an excuse—I’ve been using Apple devices since the Mac Plus, back in the 1980s—and I’ll argue the advantages, but I know the costs too. As much as Apple devices tend to be reliable and enjoyable to use, they’re not cheap. So if I’m going to add to my collection, I don’t do it without a lot of thought.
I’ve been eyeing the Apple Watch for years now. Partly because I like having new shiny technology to play with, and partly because of my mini-ecosystem of Apple devices that it can interact with. However, the earlier versions suffered the limitations of new technology in such a small form factor, and I had cheaper options available to me. It was only with the release of the Apple Watch Series 4 a while ago that I decided the time had come. I broke open my piggy bank and availed myself of some new wrist decoration.
My resulting purchase is the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4 with a Space Grey Aluminium Case and a black Sports Loop wristband. The Series 4 represents a step up in screen quality and device speed over previous iterations, but the basic functions are essentially the same: it’s a combination of fitness tracker, mobile phone adjunct, and, well, watch.
All of these things my previous smartwatch, the late, lamented Pebble Time, also did to some degree, and its colour e-ink screen provided allowed around five days of battery life, at the cost of much slower responsiveness. However, Fitbit’s buyout of Pebble has finally led to support being cut off. Given that the Pebble Time no longer works with my favoured fitness app, Runkeeper, moving to the new platform was an idea whose time had come.
Initial impressions of the Apple Watch were as favourable as they usually are for Apple Products. Out of the box, it paired with my phone and set about downloading watch apps to match those on my phone. The build quality is good too—a month in, and there are no signs of any scratches or damage, which is something that the plastic-bodied Pebble couldn’t boast for as long. Battery life testing revealed that it wouldn’t match the Pebble, but I get two days out of it without struggling, which feels pretty solid.
As for what it’s like in use, the responsiveness that Apple’s custom silicon provides means that simply raising your wrist (it asks during the setup procedure which hand you wear your watch on) brings it to life. Tapping the screen will do the same, and both of these actions will also wake Siri (of which more later). You can pick and choose among a wide range of watch faces, most of which are customisable in terms of look and utility. I opted for the Infographic watch face, which makes a scattering of commonly used apps and functions available through on-face “complications.”
Fitness tracking has become a major feature of the Apple Watch because that’s what people wanted. Not only does it use Apple’s three-ring system to track calories burned, exercise duration, and hourly activity, but it also regularly reminds you to keep up a constant level of activity. I can see how these reminders (which can be turned off through the companion watch app) might become annoying, but as someone who has a tendency towards laziness, especially in the winter months, it’s a useful goad to avoid couch potato status.
Whereas the Pebble Time offered only a step tracker, the Apple Watch adds GPS and heart rate tracking. (There’s even an ECG function, though that hasn’t been enabled in the software yet and may not be outside the U.S.) Both GPS and heart rate tracking work well and consistently, and the battery life is good enough to use it as a sleep tracker one day out of two. One minor issue is that the glass back of the watch irritates the skin on my wrist a little—so it’s best not too wear it too tight or too consistently.
The Apple Watch also integrates well with whatever fitness apps you might be using. Not only can I activate Runkeeper within the watch, but it will also pay attention to what you’re doing at any given moment and ask you if you want to track your activity if you’ve been walking or running for ten minutes or more. As a GPS tracker, it’s great, but in Ireland the LTE version isn’t available yet, as no mobile providers support them. Which brings us to the next subject—the watch’s relationship with your phone.
One of the reasons that I got the Pebble, and later the Pebble Time, in the first place was to reduce my habit of spending time looking at my phone and its notifications. That effort was … questionably successful, because while you could read the notifications on your wrist, you couldn’t respond to them. The Apple Watch actually allows that, within limits.
One of the big surprises with the Apple Watch for me is how well Siri works. Simply raise your wrist and talk and it’ll respond. This makes simple actions like setting a timer or a reminder much quicker. You can even use Siri to dictate responses to messages, which again works much better than I expected. Certainly more quickly than the other Watch-specific option of drawing each letter out on the screen. The Apple Watch does provide canned responses to messages too, which are even quicker, if more limited (and easy to accidentally send).
The Apple Watch does a fine job of having some basic phone functions handed off to it. It’s not going to cure your Twitter addiction—thankfully for both you and its battery life, Twitter doesn’t work at all with the watch, beyond delivering notifications. However, if you’re looking for a way to reduce the number of times you take your phone from your pocket or bag, this could help a lot.
The Computer on Your Wrist
As for its most basic function, the Apple Watch is a fine watch. It’s not much to ask, and the WatchOS doesn’t get in the way of that simplest of jobs. In fact, WatchOS is largely solid across the board, with some odd quirks that are the result of the device’s history. The field of icons that used to be how the Apple Watch’s apps were navigated is still there, just a press of the Digital Crown away, and it’s still hard to find the app that you’re looking for in the field.
For the most part though, WatchOS does a good job of easing you into using the Apple Watch, teaching you the basics of the interface in your first few minutes of use, then leaving you to play, as is standard with Apple devices. It’s not the free-standing computer on your wrist that you might want it to be, at least not in the LTE-lacking version, but it’s as close as you can get right now, and if you can forget that your phone is somewhere nearby, there’s little difference. I’ve even indulged in a few Dick Tracy moments of phone calls made through the Apple Watch, though the otherwise solid built-in speakers struggle to overcome traffic and crowd noise. My main regret is that my much-loved AirPods suffered a washing machine-related incident from which they’ve never recovered, as they seem very much designed to work with the Apple Watch.
In short and in summary, if you’ve just skipped to the end to find out, I’m pretty happy with my Apple Watch. It wasn’t cheap, but that’s why I have a piggy bank in the first place—and it’s a lot cheaper than replacing any of my existing Apple devices. A month in and I’m comfortable with having it on my wrist, with the fabric Sport Loop keeping it sat snugly there. I haven’t even played with many of the apps and functions yet, and every few days I find another advantage or two to it. Thus far I’ve had few regrets buying Apple products, and while the Apple Watch might seem like it might be the most frivolous of those purchases yet, it sees as much use in everyday life as any of them.