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Thinking Out of the Box

Do I really need a smartwatch? Part 2 – Apple Watch

Tobias Gölzer
January 31st, 2016

So there it is – the Apple Watch. One year after the Pebble review, the long awaited gadget has arrived on my desk. Some months later, I finally get to test it. As it can be seen by the time passed by, my anticipation is limited – the information I got  from the internet and the multiple reviews have rather only been moderately inspiring. Charge every day? Change the wristband only for some hundred Euros? Only limited app support so far? All these facts do not really strengthen the wish to buy an Apple Watch for my private use.

If one reads reviews on the internet, the conclusions reach from „How could I ever live without this? “ to „A total waste of money!“. I think that no Apple product so far has had such a polarizing effect. Honestly, the Apple fan boy and the somewhat  more realistic interface designer in me are also fighting a tough fight right now.

As a basis for the upcoming experiences and conclusions it should be mentioned that I tried not to use Google or other resources while using the Apple Watch – after all, the watch is supposed to be as intuitive as possible.

Furthermore, I refrained from general information about price, battery etc. There is enough information about that on the web and I just want to talk about my personal experiences.

Pure Appearance

20151009-P1060965

So in front of me lies an Apple Watch Sport, 42mm, with the black sports wristband. The first impression: a shrunken iPhone 3. I can’t really welcome the design decision to go back to more rounded forms regarding the current iPhone series, so this is not really my kind of design. A colleague described the look as “looking like old candy”, so as somehow obsolete. Worn, it looks a little better, the dark clock with dark bracelet looks plain and unremarkable. Like on almost any smartwatch, the housing could be slightly narrower, but in this case, the dimensions are in an absolutely acceptable range.

Summarized: It’s okay. No wow-factor, but also not a shocker.

Initial setup – how do I start this thing?

I get the watch from Thomas, who has tested it for some time, with almost empty battery and his settings still active.

At first, I want to take a look at the display – but that appears just completely black. Tapping on the watch, turning or pressing the Digital Crown… no response. In the end, a press on the side button shows me: The watch has put itself in power reserve to save battery, which means that only the charge icon and time are displayed – and even that only if I press the mentioned button.

First impression therefore: I have a watch that does not show me the current time.

So I place the watch on the magnetic charging station and load it. Two hours later, the battery is full and the setup can start – if I manage to get the Apple Watch out of the power reserve. Many tries show me: In order to get the Apple Watch out of the power reserve mode, you have to restart it. To me an absolutely incomprehensible procedure, as I know power save mode in notebooks and other technical equipment as a mode that only leaves the minimum necessary functions of the device activated in order to save battery and also save time when shutting down or booting.

But well, let’s restart the watch. After I pressed the side button like 20 seconds and nothing has happened, I press it again briefly – and the time indicator of the power reserve appears. Honestly, I’m already a little annoyed. But well, the first step is always the hardest, and I am not even starting with a new, unused product.

My next attempt to push the Digital Crown and side button at the same time is crowned with a little bit more success. After about 15 seconds I see the Apple logo on my new gadget. Until the watch is finally booted/ready for use and shows me a watch face, another 100 seconds pass by in which I have to wait to finally be able to get started with the setup.

First step: Reset. It is relatively easily to find the corresponding menu item, I confirm the reset twice and wait for another reboot. This time the procedure takes even longer because the watch is obviously busy with the reset.

Second step: pairing. Using the iPhone app I start pairing, which works with a pretty nice animation on the Apple Watch. The whole process takes only a few seconds and works very smoothly – very nice! After I set up both Apple IDs (why is this problem still not solved?) I have to work my way through various settings on the iPhone, while the object of desire lies relatively useless beside me. After completing all the basic settings it is time to wait again – the Apple Watch needs to synchronize for a few minutes. Small, nice additional detail: The iPhone shows the watch with the original live-display content displayed during the sync process. I like such details. A few long minutes later the watch finally reports its readiness with a “bing”.

MY watch

Next: adapting of the Apple Watch to my needs. First goal: Changing the watch face. I really like round watches, so I’d like to have a simple, round appearance with only few details. The standard watch face is clearly much too cluttered for my needs.

IMG_2448

But how do you change the watch face on an Apple Watch? Neither on the watch itself nor on the phone am I able to find any option to change the appearance of the most commonly used screens. After a few minutes I give up on it and actually try asking Google. There I learn that the solution lies in Force Touch, meaning that I have to tap strongly on the screen. Wow, you really have to get this idea. The adaptation of the watch face using the Digital Crown is unusual, but somehow fun, and after a few moments at least the home screen looks as I had imagined it.

IMG_2449

Through trial and error I find the shortcuts (check my pulse really quick), try out some apps and work my way through all the settings. Several times I get completely lost navigating with touch, side button and Crown, because especially the navigation using the Digital Crown behaves completely different than expected. But more on that later.

At the adjustments of the settings, Apple has made a good compromise. The most important settings can be edited directly on the watch, for everything else the Apple Watch iPhone app is used. Despite separate devices (iPhone and Apple Watch), all changes are implicitly saved and immediately active. After a few minutes of trying I note that most standard settings fit my requirements and I am ready to start the real life test.

Every day usage

What time is it?

Smart or not, it’s still a watch. And when I look at my watch, I would like to see the time. To save battery, Apple has developed the functionality that the time is only shown when certain patterns of movement are happening. So only the lifting of the hand and turning the wrist towards you will activate the display (most of the times).

Unfortunately, this technology is less reliable than expected, so every now and then one looks down on a plain, black screen. Especially while working at the computer, when the hands are located on keyboard and mouse, notifications and the time are only visible after a slightly silly shaking of the wrist. If you are asked for the time it is nearly impossible to show someone the watch with the watch face activated. In conclusion, the Apple Watch is already showing difficulties in the discipline that makes it a watch – the pure displaying of time.

What’s up?

What makes a watch an interesting smartwatch? Quite simply: Being aware of notifications and communicating via my phone without having to pull my phone out of my pocket.

The communication between iPhone and Apple Watch works without any problems. Data is communicated quickly and without errors, and especially when using the in house apps I don’t experience any difficulties or problems. Actually, it works exactly the way you would expect from Apple, the master of synchronization.

Regarding notifications, there are – at least based on my expectations – some problems. Whenever my phone receives a message the Apple Watch vibrates/knocks on my wrist. So far so good, but the problem is, that I get no visual feedback about the source and/or content of the notification before having to do the already mentioned, slightly silly gesture to activate the display. Unfortunately, the presence of the watch also makes all notifications on the iPhone display disappear and furthermore, the sound remains disabled even if it is turned on in the iPhone settings.

So if I sit at the PC, in my car or at a table I sometimes have both the phone and the watch in my field of view but no way of seeing the incoming message or, through the ringtone on my phone, at least recognize what kind notification it is. So I still have to grab the phone, especially if more than one message arrives simultaneously.

IMG_2452

This instantly leads to another problem – the handling of multiple information within a single application. Here the Apple Watch reports only: “2 new messages”. If I want to know from whom these messages are and what content they include I have to confirm the notification, swipe the message center into the picture and then finally read the individual message (in a shortened form) or even sometimes – in a very limited context – react to them. In the time needed to do this I could have also brought my phone out of my pocket, read the message and responded to it.

I hope that this behavior can be adjusted somewhere in the settings of the Apple Watch or the iPhone, but I have not found a way in my time of testing.

Crown and button

The interaction is reduced to three input methods – actually I would say 3.5 input methods: Touch, Digital Crown and side button. I would call Force Touch a half input method, as you have to more or less guess whether it is possible right now. I really like the idea of using the Digital Crown to zoom and scroll, even if the interaction is often a little bit notchy, because the interface elements “snap”, but there is no haptic feedback at the Crown. Pressing the Digital Crown leads back to the main screen – which seems to be, depending on the previous navigation, a watch face or the app menu. Unfortunately, this navigation is not reliable because, for example, with active favorites view (which is always and everywhere accessible by the side button) the Digital Crown does not lead to the current watch face, but onto the screen that was active before pressing the side button. So if you came from an app, this interaction suddenly leads back into another app. It really took me a while before I realized this inconsistency.

The side button is more consistent. No matter in which app or in whatever part of WatchOS I am it always opens the favorites view. A long press leads to the selection of “Shutdown” or “Power Reserve”.

Technically touch seems to bring no problems with it, everything reacts quickly and reliably. Only screens with very small “Back” elements are a little problematic. Here I often find myself trying to use the Digital Crown as a back button, and then being annoyed by the result.

Visibility

The Apple Watch is relatively quickly recognized as what it is everywhere. The reactions are usually very curious and surprisingly positive – “It’s cool, right?!”  is the most commonly asked question, I think. My counterparts are mostly very disappointed when I, the former Apple fan boy, talks a little disappointedly about the gadget.

The bottom line

I had hoped for more. Not only that no third-party application really provides more functionality than data representation. No, I hoped for a better and more use-case based functionality of the Apple WatchOS and its own apps. Thomas sent me a good example of that I am talking about right now.

Fail

This screen says something like: “Restart? All Settings will be reset.” Possible answers: “Delete” and “Abort”. Did nobody review this? Furthermore, a watch that makes me run into problems when I want to know the time is not a practical concept to me. Some long-time Apple fans will now say: “Something like this would not have happened under Steve” – and I have to say: “Yes, I think so, too!”

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