Tag Archives: Apple Watch

A Month with the apple watch

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

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.

Phone Companion

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.

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Let’s Try This One More (Pebble) Time

The optional watch face mimics the Apple Watch, which I didn't realise until I was using it.
Authentically scuffed Pebble Time: model’s own.

Depending on who you believe, the wearables revolution is underway, has not yet started, or has already failed. While I don’t wholly agree with any of those viewpoints, the fact that I’m now on my second smartwatch does suggest that I don’t agree with the last.

Those who follow this blog and are aware of my devotion to the Cult of Mac may be surprised to learn that my new toy isn’t an Apple Watch. Those who follow this blog in slightly closer detail might be able to guess what it is: a Pebble Time. Several years ago, in one of my early Kickstarter forays, I stumped up for a first-generation Pebble smartwatch, which adorned my wrist for all of a month or two.

Its short lifespan wasn’t down to the fact that it was a bad product. Beyond being a first-generation device (part of my reason for eschewing the Apple option this time) with somewhat dodgy Bluetooth wireless and limited functionality, its only major flaw was that it was uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Unfortunately, that’s also why it was in my pocket instead of on my wrist during a fateful bus journey, and the fact that it fell out of the pocket somewhere was entirely my fault, not the watch’s.

But enough of my ongoing habit of losing things (which seems to come in waves – whenever I lose one thing, I known that at least two more will vanish in the short-term future), what of the Pebble Time? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s much more comfortable to wear, with a slightly curved back to the watch body and a much improved rubber strap. While I’ve had to take it off for comfort reasons a few times, this has been the result of sweating due to exertion, not general day-to-day use.

So score one for the Pebble Time there. In addition, the straps now include easy-release clips that, while not as clever as the Apple Watch’s high-end version, allow access to a full range of standard-gauge watch straps.

In fact, the Pebble Time is a solid version 2.0 in a lot of ways. A colour e-ink screen replaces its monochrome predecessor, the Bluetooth connection seems much more solid, the vibration function is hard to miss, and the build quality overall seems much better, with buttons that avoid feeling too spongy despite being plastic. My gunmetal grey version has picked up a few scratches after a month or two of use, but stumping up a little more money for the Pebble Time Steel could gain you an even more polished experience.

In use, the Pebble Time is easy to figure out. Hit the single button on the left of the watch to navigate backwards to the home (watchface) screen. Hit the centre right button to dive into and select menu options and the buttons above and below it to navigate up and down through lists. Changing settings, accessing apps, changing watchfaces, etc. are trivial tasks. To actually install apps or watchfaces, you’ll need the companion smartphone app, but once installed, they can connect to the phone via a Bluetooth connection for extra processing power. Pebble’s own app store, accessible via the smartphone app, makes installing new apps easy, but finding the app you want can be tricky, as the browsing experience feels a little haphazard.

As with any smartwatch, the Pebble Time is reliant on its connection to a smartphone. Lacking that, it can tell you the time and offer access to any standalone apps that you’ve installed, and not much more. A connected smartphone offers instant access to weather, music, and more advanced apps. For example, I’ve installed the Tripadvisor app, which can point me towards nearby restaurants or attractions, should I so desire. It’s limited, but the interface is responsive and fun to use.

In fact, fun is a good description of the Pebble Time overall. The Pebble team seem to have put a lot of thought into making their device as easy to use and enjoyable to own as possible. For example, there’s no need to install an app to use the Pebble Time as an external display for Runkeeper’s smartphone app—it happens automatically. This good user experience is further helped by the Pebble Time’s battery life, which will stretch out to five days. Changing your watchface to one that displays the battery level will help you keep an eye on that, but it’s far ahead of the Apple or Android watches in this regard at least.

Some commentators have raised concerns that transferring notification from the phone to the wrist just makes us even more tied to that “always on” mentality. The reality has proven very different: an initial flood of notifications trained me to turn off any that weren’t vital. Moreover, even though vibrations on your wrist make notifications hard to miss, it’s it’s far quicker and easier to dismiss those notifications by glancing at summaries of them on a watchface than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse to see what they are. Yes, notifications probably aren’t wholly a good thing, but if you’re going to opt in, this is the way to go.

I haven’t tested the limits of what I can do with the Pebble Time yet, having only installed a couple of apps and watchfaces. Though far less powerful than the Apple Watch or its Android competitors, the Pebble Time offers plenty of variety in terms of what it can already do. Everything that I have experienced with it so far has made me pretty happy with my purchase. The cluttered app store is the only minor fly in the ointment, whereas everything else is pleasingly smooth.

Watching the Apple Watch

Go on, admit it. You want to at least play with them for a while.
All these can be yours, for a (to be determined) price.

I’ve been an Apple user long enough that the company’s regular keynote events are a recognisable form of entertainment. Unusually, I didn’t watch this week’s well-publicised event until the day after it happened. (Possibly a good thing given the problems that the live streaming coverage faced.) By that time I’d already read enough of the media reaction to know exactly what I’d be seeing. Spoilers aren’t really the point with an event like this.

The first part of the event, to be fair, had already been well spoiled by leaks. Enough prototype parts and schematics had trickled out from Apple’s supply chain that only a few details remained to be filled in about the new iPhones. The 6 and 6 Plus looked much as expected and neatly relegated last year’s 5s and 5c to the minor places in Apple’s product lineup. A one-year-old free (on contract) iPhone is a better trick than a two-year-old free offering, but the 6 and 6 Plus are now the stars. The former seems the better bet, though the 6 Plus has its own appeal if you can handle its unwieldy dimensions—in its case, battery life and an improved screen are bigger draws than the optical image stabilisation of its slightly protruding camera.

Next up after the phones was something only hinted at in pre-show leaks: Apple Pay. A solution to the hassle of everyday credit card payments, it positions Apple well in the race to made commercial life more convenient. It’s the biggest leveraging to date of Apple’s credit-card enabled iTunes customers, bringing together a lot of pieces (iBeacon, Passbook) that Apple has been putting into place for some time now. However, given that it’s only usable with NFC-enabled devices (both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as this article’s titular device) and is only to be deployed in the U.S. for the moment, its reach will initially be limited. Over the long term though, it could well be the most important announcement of the entire show.

Last up was the fabled “One More Thing,” returning to a very warm welcome from the crowd. This was, of course, the Apple Watch, likewise rumoured in the media but barely even glimpsed in advance of the show itself. It seems that Apple’s secrecy can still hold when they really need it to.

A handful of smartwatches have already hit the market. I owned one briefly, in the form of the Pebble, but most of them are now running Google’s Android in one form or another, and yet more are on the way. If the Apple Watch is going to be a success, Apple’s going to have to repeat a trick it’s already pulled with the iPod, iPhone and iPad: to enter an existing but nascent market and turn it upside down. So has it done so?

Well no, not yet, if only for the reason that the Apple Watch won’t be released until early next year and many important facts about it remain uncertain, but at least one watch industry watcher has been impressed by the unveiling, not just its implications for the smartwatch industry but for watches in general.

Whereas its competitors seem to have focused primarily on providing an adjunct to their Android phones, Apple is coming from the other direction. The Apple Watch is tethered to the iPhone (or possibly the iPad too?) true, but it’s as much a fashion accessory as it is a computing accessory. The fact that Apple paid attention to what people might actually want to put on their wrist can be seen in the simplest fact about the Apple Watch: it comes in two sizes, small and large. Just like non-smart watches do.

Physically, it’s arguably more attractive than any of the other smartwatches already out there. More importantly to potential buyers, it’s massively customisable, more so than any other Apple product before it. Between size, colour and strap type, as long as you fancy having an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’ll be able to make it look exactly the way you want it to. Moreover, Apple has gone to great lengths to design its straps so that you can fit and adjust them yourself, rather than heading to a jeweller to have it done for you, as is the case with several of the Android smartwatches.

As for the software, it certainly looks the part, with Apple once again tailoring an operating system to suit the device. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, but given that any touching finger would obscure a significant portion of the screen, it also has a “digital crown,” refashioning the traditional watch crown into a multifunction control wheel with an integrated home button. Another button devoted to bringing up a “favourite contacts” screen is a reminder that the Apple Watch, above all else, is meant to leverage the power of its linked iOS device, faster and with greater ease than ever, and preferably without needing to take it out of your pocket or bag.

As for whether I plan to get one or not, that depends. Depends on the battery life of the final device and the price of the various options. Depends on whether or not the eventual software manages to live up to the promises of the keynote speech. For, whatever else it may be good at, Apple is very good at selling its devices as objects of desire. I’ll be looking out for reasons not to break open the piggy bank come early 2015. It’s up to Apple to match its own hype.

Until then, I have iOS 8 (coming next week) and OS X Yosemite (coming a little later) to refresh my own devices, making them seem like new again. There’s a new U2 album as well, offered as an awkward freebie at the end of the keynote, but that can’t really compete as an attraction. After all, what we get for free, we never really appreciate as we should.