Three Apple Watch features that will make you think differently about smartwatches

Phillip Michaels
11 September, 2014
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Apple Watch, smartwatch, thoughts, macworld australiaI’m not a watch guy. It’s not a fashion statement – I’ve just never enjoyed having anything on my wrists, be it jewelry, watch bands and especially police restraints. There was a time back in the ’90s when I gave pocket watches a try, but that was a lamentable artifice. And with the advent of smartphones, whenever I want to know the time, there’s already a device in my pocket that will let me know how late I’m running.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I am not the target demographic for the newly unveiled Apple Watch. So why did I find the device that Apple described at a special press event on Wednesday so compelling?

I think it’s because after spending just a little bit of time handling the Apple Watch in the aftermath of Apple’s two-hour event, I saw just how much attention the company has paid to every last detail of this high-end gadget.

I mean just look at this thing.

As sharp as those images look on a website, the physical watch is even more impressive in person. The stainless steel case makes the Apple Watch feel like a substantive device, not a snazzy digital toy, and that sapphire crystal screen feels like it could take a licking. I was actually more impressed with the models from the Watch Sport collection, which replace that stainless steel case with an anodised aluminium one; it felt light on my wrist, like it wouldn’t get in the way during a run or a ride on the stationary bike. You know, if I were into that sort of thing.

As appealing as the Apple Watch looks, its appearance alone doesn’t explain why this gadget impresses where other smartwatches have left me cold. Three things stand out from my limited time with the Apple Watch.

apple watch trio

It’s got really clever controls

You’ll do some onscreen tapping and swiping with the Apple Watch. Swipes, in particular, will be a handy way to get summaries of things like your location, the weather and your calendar. (Apple calls these slimmed-down snippets of apps ‘Glances’.) But the screen of a wristwatch doesn’t really lend itself to the sort of touch controls you’d use with a smartphone or tablet. To that end, Apple turned to the crown, which on traditional watches can set the time and wind the watch. In the Apple Watch version, the Digital Crown becomes an all-purpose controller. You turn it to scroll through information on one screen, or zoom in on a photo in another. The Crown also gives you a way back to the Home screen; just press it like you would the Home button on an iPhone.

The Digital Crown is one of two buttons you’ll find on the Apple Watch. The other is simply called the button, an Apple representative told me, and pressing it takes you a Contacts-like listing of friends. From there, you’ll be able to send them messages, whether it’s scribbling out a little sketch or placing a phone call via your connected iPhone. That button will also be the way you use your Apple Watch to take advantage of Apple Pay; double-click the button and hold up your watch to a payment reader, and you can pay for things without having to reach for your wallet.

apple watch digital crown

The Digital Crown (top) and the button just below it give you ways to navigate through your Apple Watch without having to rely on gestures that make no sense on such a small screen. Photo: Philip Michaels.

 

I like that Apple acknowledges there are only so many onscreen controls that make sense for a device the size of an Apple Watch. Even better, the Digital Crown seems like an easy-to-master, contextually aware control that will take a lot of the pain out of navigating a wrist-worn device. And good news, southpaws: Fast Company’s Harry McCracken tweets that there will be a version that flips around the controls and interface for lefties.

Lefties

 

The Apple Watch talks to you with a tap

I listened with a mixture of excitement and dread as Apple vice president Kevin Lynch talked about the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine, which uses a physical tap to alert you to notifications. It’s exciting because Apple’s really put a lot of thought into how to use this feedback. When your watch is giving you directions, for example, different kinds of taps will tell you whether to turn right or left. That’s really cool.

So why the dread? Well, who wants their watch to be poking them all the time?

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. While wearing an Apple Watch Wednesday, I got to feel the taptic feedback in action. And it’s a pretty gentle prod – certainly nothing that’s going to make you jump out of your skin, the first time someone tries to message you.

Using touch as a mechanism for feedback is a great feature. I can put my iPhone in silent mode, but if I leave it lying on a table, you’re still going to hear it buzz when an email or text message arrives. But if I silence the Apple Watch’s audio alerts – and the watch will beep and ding if you want – the only person who’s going to know I’ve gotten a notification from my watch is me.

Fitness is front and centre

apple watch activityThe Apple Watch is going to pack in a lot of apps when it arrives next year, even more if third-party app makers take advantage of Apple’s WatchKit to whip up watch-sized versions of their own offerings. So I think it’s significant that Apple called out two apps that will come standard on its watch – Activity and Workout. The former app encourages you to do less sitting around by graphing your daily activity to show how often you move, exercise and stand. The latter gives you the opportunity to take detailed measurements of your workouts, charting your progress toward goals you set.

In a broad sense, the Apple Watch is doing what a lot of other activity trackers already offer. But from what I saw in the demo area, Apple is tackling this particular task with a level of attention that rival wearables really don’t provide. A woman exercising on a treadmill in Apple’s demo area showed me how she used the Workout app on her watch to set goals for her exercise session. As she started running, the watch went to sleep, monitoring her workout in the background; when she raised her arm to check on her progress, the watch sprung to life, showing her how much progress she was making toward her workout goal. Throw in integration with your favorite iOS device, and monitoring your activities becomes a lot easier than it would be with a separate wearable.

Questions remain

As nice as these features are, Apple is still going to have to come up with answers to some pressing questions by the time Apple Watch ships in early 2015. For starters, we still don’t know what the battery life on the watch is. Apple reps weren’t providing a number on Wednesday, but this needs to be something that stays powered from the time you put it on in the morning until you take it off at night. (The charging method – a magnetised charger that attaches itself to the back of the watch – does seem pretty slick, to be fair.) As sturdy as the Apple Watch feels in a demo area, I’d like to know how it holds up in the field, particularly when there’s rain in the forecast. (Apple says its watches are water-resistant, meaning sweat and raindrops are going to be OK, but unanticipated dunks in water are likely not.) And the Digital Touch features Apple demoed Wednesday, where you can reach out to other Apple Watch wearers – presumably loved ones and not total strangers – with a gentle tap or even by sending them your heartbeat seem like they’re aimed at users less curmudgeonly than me.

Telling people they’ve got to shell out at least US$349 for a watch is a big ask, particularly when they also have to pony up for an iPhone to pair it with. (The Apple Watch will work with the iPhone 5 and later, so if you’ve already got compatible hardware at least that’s a cost you’ve already borne.) Before I saw the Apple Watch in action, I would have said that’s almost too steep a price to pay. Having now strapped one to my wrist and seen how the controls work, though, I think it’s a pretty compelling device that could become even more so as more information about the watch comes to light. And that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t wear watches.

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