Apple Watch review: A beautiful, bold watch, with complications

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Apple Watch 38mm Stainless Steel Case (Black Sport Band)

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The Apple Watch is a beautifully constructed, compact smartwatch. It's feature-packed, with solid fitness software, hundreds of apps, and the ability to send and receive calls via an iPhone.

The Bad Battery barely lasts a day and recharge time is slow; most models and configurations cost more than they should; requires an iPhone 5 or later to work; interface can be confusing; sometimes slow to communicate with a paired iPhone.

The Bottom Line The Apple Watch is the most ambitious, well-constructed smartwatch ever seen, but first-gen shortfalls make it feel more like a fashionable toy than a necessary tool.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Battery Life 5.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Software 8.0
  • Features 8.0

Editors' note (June 8, 2015): Apple has announced some significant planned software upgrades to the Apple Watch at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. We'll be updating this review soon with early impressions on how these planned changes affect the landscape.

Four years ago, I wore an iPod Nano on my wrist and I loved it. I liked the novelty of it, the way it played music on my wrist, and could go with me anywhere. At the time, I wished the strapped-on music player, with its watch faces and little assortment of apps, could do more. And I dreamed of a day it might connect to my phone.

Well, here we are. The Apple Watch is a brand-new Apple product, the first from-the-ground-up product line since the iPad and since Tim Cook took the helm. This watch is, in a way, a new type of wrist-worn super-iPod. It's also a symbiotic iPhone companion. And, it's a fitness device.

It also embarks onto a churning sea of smartwatch launches -- many manufacturers have set sail with ambitious wearables; very few are bona fide successes. Most people aren't even sure they need one. Can the Apple Watch succeed where others have foundered?

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The Apple Watch comes in three different models, two different sizes, and six different finishes, with a range of swappable bands and prices ranging from $349, £299 or AU$499 all the way up to $17,000, £13,500 or AU$24,000. It's designed to be Apple's most personal product: fashion as much as it is tech. Apple's products have been fashionable for years, but now Apple wants these watches to transcend into jewelry.

Smartwatches may one day be the future of phones, or a seamless extension of both them and your home, or any number of connected devices. Right now, they function as phone accessories. And that's where the Apple Watch lands. Apple designed the watch to help us look at our phones less. I'd call it more of a smaller screen in Apple's spectrum of differently sized screens. I used it instead of my phone, sometimes. Then, I'd go back to my phone. Has it changed my behavior? It's too early to tell yet, but it might.

I've been using the Apple Watch for a week. I've worn it on my wrist every day, doing everything possible that I could think of. I've tracked walks and measured my heart rate, paid for lunch, listened to albums while exploring parks without my phone, chatted with family, kept up on email, looked for Uber cars, kept up on news, navigated on long car trips for Passover, controlled my Apple TV with it and followed baseball games while I was supposed to be watching my 2-year-old.

The watch is beautiful and promising -- the most ambitious wearable that exists. But in an attempt to do everything in the first generation, the Apple Watch still leaves plenty to be desired. Short battery life compared with other watches and higher prices are the biggest flags for now. But Apple is just setting sail, and it has a long journey ahead.

Editors' note: the first Apple Watch software update was released on May 19 to address common user complaints about sluggish third-party app performance and less-than-accurate activity-tracking; the update also added support for seven new languages and new emoji characters. To download it, navigate to your iPhone's Apple Watch app, select General, and then Software Update; click here for more detailed instructions.

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What it does, what it is

Much like most other smartwatches, the Apple Watch isn't a standalone device -- it's a phone accessory. Android Wear, Samsung Gear, Pebble and others work the same way. But here, you must own an iPhone 5 or later to use the Watch. A few Apple Watch functions work away from the phone, but the watch primarily works alongside the phone as an extension, a second screen and basically another part of your iOS experience. It's a symbiote.

Communication, fitness, information, time: these are the core Apple Watch functions, but the Watch is incredibly ambitious, packed with many, many features and apps. In scope, it reminds me of Samsung's ambitious Gear smartwatches, but more fully realized.

Apple Watch receives messages from friends, send texts and lets you dictate messages, make speakerphone calls, ping people with animated emoji, give love taps long-distance or send your heartbeat as a sort of long-distance hug. It tracks your steps, logs runs and monitors your heart rate. And yes, you can use Apple Watch to listen to music via wireless Bluetooth headphones. You can play songs like an iPod, get notifications and run apps like a mini iPhone and make payments with Apple Pay. And it has a totally new force-sensitive display that's never been seen before.

And yes, it tells the time.

But, once again, this watch needs your iPhone to do most of these things. And it either needs to be in Bluetooth range (30 or so feet), or it can connect over Wi-Fi in a home or office to extend that range further.

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Design

Apple wants you to think of the Apple Watch as fine jewelry. Maybe that's a stretch, but in terms of craftsmanship, there isn't a more elegantly made piece of wearable tech.

Look at the Apple Watch from a distance, and it might appear unremarkable in its rectangular simplicity compared with bolder, circular Android Wear watches. It's clearly a revamped sort of iPod Nano. But get closer, and you can see the seamless, excellent construction.

I reviewed the stainless-steel Apple Watch, with a steel link band -- a $1,000 configuration. I also wore it with two different Sport Bands, one white and one blue.

The Apple Watch feels a bit chunky compared to Apple's stable of super-slim gadgets, but it doesn't look big on the wrist. The larger 42mm version has length, width and thickness similar to the Pebble Steel, one of the smaller smartwatches available. The 38mm version is even smaller. The 42mm version I reviewed felt great on my wrist and didn't feel uncomfortable at all.

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Apple Watch next to the Moto 360, the Pebble Steel and the 2011 iPod Nano with wristband. CNET

Apple Watch's curved-rectangle form will polarize: some will find it looks great, others will see it like some sort of space-age iPod. Others will be annoyed it's not circular, or isn't thinner. Some won't like the curved glass (or sapphire crystal) that covers the edges and makes it seem like scratch magnet. Mine hasn't scuffed yet, but I'm trying the higher-end steel-and-sapphire version, not the aluminum-and-glass Sport.

The Digital Crown, Apple's specialized way of interfacing with the watch, sits off to the side, looking just like the part of the watch that used to wind older watches. But in this case, the crown is a mini scroll wheel. You can click it or turn it, and it moves smoothly and beautifully. A second button below brings up favorite contacts, or triggers Apple Pay with a double-click.

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Most navigating happens by swiping and tapping the display, but that crown can be used for some navigation in some apps, or as a pinch-to-zoom replacement. I kept forgetting to use it at first, except to press it to get back to app menu (that grid of apps which I'll get to in a bit). Over time, I got used to it, but I still tended to use my finger for swipes instead.

Under the hood

All Apple Watches have a new S1 processor made by Apple, that "Taptic" haptic engine and a force-sensitive and very bright OLED display, which is differently sized on the 38mm and 42mm models. The watch has its own accelerometer, gyrometer and heart-rate monitor, but no onboard GPS. It uses Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz Wi-Fi to connect to your phone or your home network. There's a built-in speaker and microphone, but no headphone jack.

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The many-nested worlds of the Apple Watch interface

The old iPod Nano had a grid of apps to swipe through, like an iPhone. Samsung's Gear watches use a similar approach. Google's Android Wear uses a blank slate at first, pushing notification cards while hiding its apps behind a scrolling menu.

The Apple Watch has its main watch faces, but also two levels of apps: Glances, which are a lot like the quick-glance app summaries in iOS 8's pull-down "Today" menu (or the occasional cards that appear in Android Wear), and full-fledged apps. You swipe up for Glances, down for on-watch notifications like texts or Twitter/Facebook alerts and click the Digital Crown button in to get to that "home screen" grid of glowing circular apps you've seen in all the ads.

Let's start from the top.

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Watch faces: Things of beauty

Apple has spent a lot of time making its collection of watch faces great, and the effort shows: these are a beautiful bunch. The old iPod Nano had fun watch faces, but many of Apple's are actually clever and useful: a chronometer becomes a customizable stopwatch; a solar cycle face shows actual sunset and sunrise times, presenting changing arcs depending on the season; a jaw-dropping planetary face shows the Earth and Moon, but properly lit to reflect day, night, and lunar cycles. You can see all the planets in their current alignment, or spin the crown and see their positions change by date. There's also Mickey Mouse.

The watch faces are customizable, to a point: numbers can be added, colors changed and many "complications" (a watch industry term for extra information on a watch) altered. You can see battery life, calendar appointments, daily fitness and more at a glance. Tap, and those zones open the full app.

It's a great idea for a launchpad, but Apple's clock collection won't currently allow third-party extensions or watch faces to join in the fun. That will probably change down the road, but for now it limits the possibilities. It's also odd how many of the 10 watch faces opt for round analog designs even though the watch is rectangular. I would have preferred more digital-style options like those on the Pebble Steel.

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Notifications pop up as they do on the iPhone, and can be managed individually. CNET

Glances and notifications, taps and pings: How you get information

There are a lot of ways to look at little bits of info surfaced by the Apple Watch. Notifications pop onto the screen as on most smartwatches. You can swipe down and look at them all, if you want, or delete them. There are also Glances, permanent little slides of mini-info that basically work like Widgets on iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite. Swipe up, and you can swipe back and forth through little interactive tiles. Most apps work with Glances, but not all. Battery life, weather, music control, basic airplane mode and find-your-watch pings, quick news headlines -- you get the picture.

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What a Glance looks like on the Apple Watch. CNET

As I wore the watch on the first day, I felt a rippling buzz and a metallic ping: one of my credit card payments showed up as a message. Apple's "Taptic Engine" and a built-in speaker convey both a range of advanced taps and vibrations, plus sounds. Unlike the buzz in a phone or most wearables, these haptics feel sharper: a single tap, or a ripple of them, or thumps.

Sometimes the feelings are too subtle: I don't know if I felt them or imagined them. My wrists might be numbed from too many smart devices. I set my alerts to "prominent" and got sharper nudges on my wrist.

Notifications do feel distinct from each other thanks to those haptics, but associating the feelings and sounds with what they are takes getting used to. The range of feelings the Apple Watch can pull off is greater than other smartwatches, and the accompanying sounds also help give the nudges extra dimension (you can silence those sounds, too, but I kept them on).

One great thing about the Apple Watch's notifications is that you can individually manage them, like on the iPhone. You can also set them differently than the iPhone, depending on what you need. I haven't even begun to dig deep into customizing mine, but Apple offers a lot of ways to tweak your settings.

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Siri works hands-free, or by holding down the Digital Crown. CNET

Siri on your wrist

It turns out that Siri, a feature I barely use on my phone, is noticeably useful on Apple Watch. Like Google Now on Android Wear, it's a catch-all way to speak and do things in ways that can cut through the menus and swipes. Opening apps, sending messages, getting directions or finding out the core temperature of the Earth to settle a debate with your 6-year-old while on a drive. You can reach Siri by pressing and holding the crown button, or by raising your wrist and saying, "Hey, Siri." Voice recognition was excellent, surprisingly quick and more useful than you'd expect. (Apple's first software update for the Watch includes improvements to Siri's functionality.)

I didn't even use Siri for the first few days, but then I realized how useful it was. Just like on the iPhone, it can also bring up things like movie times and sports schedules with graphics and tables, too. The small display can sometimes induce squinting, though.

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My wife had mixed feelings on emoji. CNET

Communicating: Talk, text, emote

Apple has offered a strange spectrum of ways to communicate: a clever friend wheel, which pops up when you click the flat button on the Apple Watch's side, stores favorites. You can dial up someone, literally, and then text, call via speakerphone or headphones, and send a variety of "digital touch" messages if that person also has an Apple Watch.

Those digital touches feel mostly like flirting: quick sketches in glowing light, taps the other person can feel, or sending your heartbeat via thumping haptic vibrations by holding two fingers down. I tested these with a willing Apple employee on the other side, and my wife kept wondering why I was getting smiley faces and throbbing heartbeats in the middle of the day. They might be cute for new couples who like buying Apple products together.

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Sending a little triceratops doodle. CNET

Apple Watch's calling and speakerphone elements are like what Samsung's Gear watches have offered: the watch connects with your phone remotely. Apple's microphone is excellent: people I called had no problem hearing me and didn't even know I wasn't on my phone, even with the watch down at chest level. But I found that I had to lift the watch up to my face, mainly so I could hear them. It wasn't always easy: the speaker's volume is on the low end and a little tinny. You can use Bluetooth headphones, but oddly, you can't use the Apple Watch as a remote to place calls while your phone is in your pocket and your wired headphones are on.

Sending messages via the Apple Watch can be accomplished by dictating texts, much like sending a message via Google's Android Wear, or by sending actual recorded audio messages (as you can do on iPhones with iOS 8). Both come in handy, and audio messages help when transcriptions fail. There are no onscreen keyboards, but Apple supplies canned responses you can pick and customize, like "be home soon."

Apple's own set of animated emoji are weird and cute: massive smiley faces that melt into hearts, tears, tongues or any in-between combination. (My wife called them "fun but creepy!") Or, you can pick hearts or hand gestures. No omelettes, airplanes, silverware or pets yet, alas: a full emoji assortment seems called for. (The first software update for the Apple Watch adds support for hundreds of new Emojis).

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Apps

The iPhone and iPad have, collectively, one of the most amazing app collections ever created. Games, productivity, entertainment; it's fantastic. On the Apple Watch, for now, you'd better curb your expectations: many of the current apps feel like shaved-down "lite" versions of the larger apps, at best. But for a smartwatch, this is already a very promising assortment of software.

Of course, the original iPhone never had apps right out of the gate. The Apple Watch's early apps feel like those apps from the first days of the iPhone: simple menus, basic functions, common interfaces. Most apps aim for bare-bones utility. Apple has suggested that Watch apps aim for no more than 5-10 seconds of interactivity at a time. That shows in the design of many apps. Of the 33 or so I've seen so far, the ones I've liked the most have been Twitter, Evernote, The New York Times, CNN and TripAdvisor. But none of apps feels as elegant as Apple's own onboard software.

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Twitter on Apple Watch: it works. CNET

Currently, all third-party Apple apps work by cross-loading an extension onto the watch while an app also lives on the iPhone, a bit like Google's Android Wear apps. As a result, these apps work more like remote phone apps -- they tend to load slowly and seem to stream data into the watch. (Apple's says its first software update for the Watch will improve the performance of third-party apps.)

No third-party apps work when the watch is disconnected from your iPhone...yet. Down the road, Apple is planning for native third-party apps that will even work offline, but that capability isn't here yet. When will it get here? That's not really known yet.

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Maps has turn-by-turn navigation. Scott Stein/CNET

Built-in Apple apps, on the other hand, work far more smoothly. Maps allows for quick navigation and turn-by-turn directions that work well in tandem with the iPhone while paired to my car's Bluetooth audio: when driving, my wrist tapped and pinged to indicate left and right turns in advance of exit announcements, and quick glances always showed me the next turn, plus how far away it was. When walking, however, GPS on my phone didn't always place me correctly. I liked Apple's fitness apps, the nicely designed stopwatch and timer apps and Passbook, which usefully shows QR codes at a tap and brightens the display for easier reading.

Uber is one of the more ambitious apps, showing an available car and map and offering one-button calling, but the iPhone app offers a better view of other cars in the area and ride estimates.

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The Apple Watch app has nearly as many settings as the iPhone. CNET

The Apple Watch app on your phone

I've worn dozens of smartwatches, so the Apple Watch didn't seem surprising on my wrist. But its pairing and setup process is unique: you use your phone camera to aim at the watch and begin pairing within the Apple Watch app that already lives on your iPhone in iOS 8.2.

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