The Apple Watch is finally here... sort of. It went on sale April 24, but constrained inventory means that you can't actually pick one up on a whim at an Apple Store, and there's a month long wait if you order one online. Apple has supposedly sold a million via pre-order on their website, and that would dwarf sales of competing Android Wear models. The Sport Watch starts at $350 with a very comfortable and hypoallergenic fluoroelastomer band that's available in 5 colors. Then there's the stainless steel "Watch" that starts at $550 (price varies by band) and the $10,000 and up Watch Edition with an 18k gold casing. We look at the Sport model in this review. Apple is the only company that's considered women by offering a slightly smaller 38mm model in addition to the 42mm model. We look at the 38mm model, and as a woman I have to say it's the first smartwatch that doesn't look gargantuan on my wrist.
On paper, the Apple Watch doesn't sound much different from the many Android Wear watches on the market; save for the addition of a speaker, WiFi (currently only the LG G Watch Urbane and Sony Smartwatch 3 have WiFi) and the ability to make and receive phone calls. Apple's digital timepiece requires an iPhone 5 or newer, and the watch and phone sync data for news, messages and email back and forth over Bluetooth. If both are on the same WiFi network, they can use WiFi to communicate, which vastly extends range compared to Bluetooth. Some of Samsung's Gear Tizen OS watches can use WiFi and the Samsung Gear S, like the Apple Watch can send and receive phone calls. Unlike the Gear S, the Apple Watch doesn't have a cellular radio and SIM card; rather it works as a Bluetooth speakerphone and mic for your phone (the upside is that your Apple Watch doesn't need a data plan).
I say that Android Wear and Apple Watch seem very similar "on paper", because in actual use there's quite a difference. As you'd expect from Apple, they've taken an existing technology and made it more usable and fun. That doesn't mean the watch doesn't have a learning curve, particularly if you've never used a smartwatch before. Thankfully, Apple's Watch app on the iPhone includes several good videos to get you started with the watch, and the learning process is mostly fun. Like Tizen OS watches, the Apple Watch does more than Android Wear, from calls (even Skype!) to a photo viewer to fitness features previously found only on a higher end dedicated fitness band. Does that mean it's perfect and everyone need an Apple Watch pronto? Not so much. But it's the most promising smartwatch platform we've seen, and it's particularly promising thanks to the 3,000 apps available at launch.
Digital Crown, Contacts Button and Navigating the Watch
The watch has a "digital crown" that you can use to scroll through on-screen items without blocking your view (you can use the touch screen too if desired). It also handles zooming in the Photos and Maps app. Press the crown to go home to the watch screen. Press it twice in quick succession to go back to the last app used. You can set the watch to default to the time screen or to the last app used when you wake it up with a "look at my watch" flick of the wrist or by pressing the crown.
There's a dedicated contact button that brings up a screen pre-populated with your favorites from your phone. You can use it to pick a contact and send them a text, animated emoji, voice message over iMessage or call them. Yes, you can send them your heartbeat or a finger drawing too, but much as Apple hyped this, I suspect the novelty will wear off quickly.
As with other touch screen watches, you'll navigate with swipes and by using your finger to scroll through messages and "Glances" (bits of info that you select like weather, stocks, remaining power, physical activity monitor, calendar and 3rd party info like CNN if you've enabled it). To access Glances, swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Swipe down or press the digital crown to leave Glances. When a new piece of info comes in, the watch will "ding" with the iPhone default iMessage sound and vibrate. You'll see a little red dot near the top of the screen too. When the watch is locked, you'll see a blue lock and you'll see a blue crescent moon when it's in DND (Do Not Disturb) mode. When it's out of range from your phone you'll see a phone icon with a line through it.
Though the watch has a speaker, it won't play music through that speaker. You can sync a playlist up to 1 gig in size from your phone to watch, but to listen to that music via watch you'll need to pair it with a Bluetooth headset or speaker. The watch does use the speaker for notifications and alarms. Yes, you can use it as an alarm clock, and we have to wonder why Android Wear watches still don't have speakers (Samsung's Tizen OS Gear watches do have a speaker). You can also store up to 75 megs of favorite photos from your Photos library on your watch.
Above: the Apple Watch Edition with a leather band.
Esthetics and the Competition
Watch collectors won't faun over the Apple Watch's looks. Even the crazy expensive Watch Edition shares the same design and internals as the "lowly" Sport Watch. I'd call the design unobtrusive and decent, but I'd describe the LG G Watch Urbane as stylin', at least if you're in the market for a man's watch. The Asus ZenWatch looks like a slightly bigger Apple Watch, and folks on the street stopped me for the two months before the Apple Watch release to ask if it was an Apple Watch. In other words, the ZenWatch is pretty decent looking too, and has a nice band of rose gold (not real gold) lining the sides. The $199 ZenWatch has bigger bezels and an easy to operate but not very supple or comfortable leather band. Apple's watchbands are uniformly supple and comfortable, though they're expensive ($50 for a Sport band and $150 or more for the metal and leather bands). Their bands are more comfortable than any of the many smartwatches reviewed, though with some smartwatches you can buy and use more expensive and potentially more comfortable traditional watchbands.
For those who prefer round, there's the Moto 360 that garnered a lot of attention at launch since it was one of the first round Android Wear smartwatches and it didn't look like a cheesy Casio (earlier smartwatches weren't good looking).
Three Models, Same Tech Inside
The Sport model has an aluminum casing and Ion-X glass. Aluminum is softer than stainless steel and it's also lighter. Thus it's potentially more vulnerable to scratches but it's lighter on your wrist. Ion-X glass is used in some sports watches and it's not easy to scratch... but this is a watch and they tend to get banged around, so I'd expect some scratches on the glass over the years. In over 10 years of reviewing phones I've never scratched or damaged one, but I have a knack for banging my wrist and watch into door jambs, faucets and gearshifts. I haven't put a scratch on our Sport model in a week, but only time will tell. The anodized aluminum surface is more durable than the iPhone's, and in it's favor that finish won't show micro-scratches as much as polished stainless steel.
The Apple Watch (not Sport or Edition) is the middle child and it has a stainless steel casing rather than aluminum, and a sapphire crystal rather than Ion-X glass. It's obviously going to be the more durable option and it will scratch less easily (particularly the glass), but it costs $200 more than the Sport. Since this is a tech product and a generation 1 product at that, I'd opt for the Sport model and hold onto my cash to see what the next generation is like. In other words, this is more like a smartphone than a watch, and you just might want the next generation model based on new features and capabilities. And that new model will probably be out before you scratch your first gen Apple Watch to cosmetic oblivion. In stainless steel's favor (at least for the bright silver version) is that it's easily polished by a jeweler, should the patina get too heavy.
Above: the Watch (stainless steel) with Milanese band.
The Apple Watch Edition starts at $10,000 and extends to $17,000 depending on the band. This is not a Rolex or a Cartier, and it's unlikely it will hold its value, let alone appreciate as those traditional timepieces do. But for those who have the cash and want the 18k gold casing... well, it's there for you.
All Apple Watch models (Sport, Watch and Edition) have the same dimensions and tech inside (of course the 38mm and 42mm variants have different dimensions). Buying a more expensive model doesn't get you a smarter watch or one with more storage. All have the same lovely mini-"Retina" color touch screen. As with traditional timepieces, you're spending more money to get higher end casings and glass. Watchbands are interchangeable between models, so you could put a $150 Milanese metal mesh band on a Sport Watch. You do need to buy the right size band: 38mm or 42mm to match your watch size. All models are water resistant and have survived dish washing, the rain and reaching into the swimming pool to retrieve a dropped item. Obviously the sport bands and metal band are safe in the water but the leather bands require more caution.
What it Does
Those of you who've tried the 2014 Pebble Watch, Android Wear or a Samsung Gear smartwatch will be somewhat familiar with the basics. The watch tells time, even if it's not wirelessly communicating with your phone. Most everything else requires a wireless connection, and Bluetooth is the primary connection mode between your iPhone and watch. Right now, the Apple Watch's WiFi sets it apart from most smartwatches: if the phone and watch are out of Bluetooth range but are connected to the same WiFi network, they can still communicate. This sounds like a small geeky detail, but it's huge. My house and our office space are large. With my personal Asus ZenWatch and Nexus 6, I'm often wandering out of Bluetooth range (I leave the phone on my desk to charge and walk to the other side of the house). Boom! No more messages, notifications or other handy info on my watch. The weather and stocks info get stale. This gets old fast. With the Apple Watch, I'm free to wander away from my phone, and isn't that part of the point of having a smartwatch? To be less tethered to my phone. Bluetooth range is surprisingly good with Apple Watch, and I've gone 45 feet and more without losing connection. That allows me to leave my phone in my gym locker and use the exercise machines while still getting messages, info updates and health data transmitted. Sadly my gym lacks WiFi, but my home and office have it. How does Apple Watch know my WiFi passwords and trusted WiFi networks? It syncs them from the iPhone.
The Apple Watch can pipe message notifications, be it email (including Gmail from the Gmail app), iMessages or social networks from your iPhone to the watch. You can read snippets of the message on the watch and if it's an email or text/iMessage you can dictate a reply using the watch. You can also send new messages to contacts or call them using the watch's speaker and mic (this works surprisingly well).
The watch lacks a GPS, but it uses your phone's GPS (as do Android Wear watches) to get your location. You can bring up a tiny map on screen if you ask Siri "Where am I", and you can request directions. The GPS also works with the fitness tracker when you're hiking, running or biking so it can track distance covered. And yes, Siri is built into the watch, though you won't hear her voice over the speaker. Instead she'll respond with text on-screen. Android Wear watches stress using voice to interact with the watch (it's really too small for a keyboard), but with the Apple Watch, it's just one of several ways to interact. I actually prefer not having to talk to the watch at all times--it simply looks weird and rude when you're with friends or in a crowd. That doesn't mean you can do everything without saying a word, for example there's no way to ask for directions without using your voice... unless you have an address on screen; then you can select the address and request directions using the touch screen.
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