Apple Watch review:

Apple Watch one year in: My (kinda sorta) everyday companion

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.

View full gallery
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, and WatchOS 2 will add even more features.)

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.

View full gallery
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. Over time, I've stopped using it (also, there aren't that many people I know that have Apple Watches).

View full gallery
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).

View full gallery
CNET

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. Yes, there are thousands of them. But, these are all going to get updated very soon. In the fall, a new WatchOS 2 software update will allow full-featured apps that can live natively on the watch. Until then, know that current third-party apps mostly feel like a letdown.

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.

View full gallery
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.

No third-party apps work when the watch is disconnected from your iPhone...yet. But they will this fall.

img4274.jpg
View full gallery
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.

View full gallery
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 lived on your iPhone starting in iOS 8.2.

From there, the watch starts scanning your phone, absorbing settings, contacts and any apps that might already be Apple Watch-ready, installing mini-apps down into the watch much like Google's Android Wear. The process took me about 15 minutes the first time via an iPhone 6 Plus, but I have tons of apps.

The Apple Watch app on the phone has a lot of settings. Notification settings. Individual app settings. App layouts. Glances. Sounds and Haptics. Apple Pay. Health. Privacy. It almost feels like setting up a second iPhone. You don't need to tweak these settings much, but it could get awfully confusing for a newcomer. For instance: there's "Prominent Haptic," a way of increasing notification feedback beyond the standard taps. Would you ever know to tap that on your own? (As mentioned above, it helps, and has become my preferred mode.)

View full gallery
Apple's Activity app is colorful and clean. CNET

Fitness

The Apple Watch doesn't work any fitness miracles that the rest of the wearable world hasn't already invented, and it doesn't ship with any new magical sensors that change the game. But the Apple-made integrated fitness apps, Activity and Workout, are far and away the best fitness apps on any existing smartwatch that isn't a dedicated "fitness watch" (Samsung Gear, Android Wear, Pebble, and the like).

A clever three-ring method of tracking daily activity, which simultaneously measures and rewards daily calorie burn, active exercise, and standing up, feels like a fusion of rewards and metrics seen on the Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up, Fitbit and others. The triple-reward system is smart because it pats you on the back three times, or offers three different carrots on a stick to pursue.

View full gallery
CNET

Caloric burn is basically like a daily step counter, and ends up looking at casual on-the-go movement. The standing-up ring (the blue one) rewards you for a minute spent standing every hour, and reminds you to stand if you've been sitting a while. Many fitness bands work this type of feature into their framework. The blue ring seems too easy to achieve: even on sedentary days I somehow end up "standing" for 12 hours. The active exercise (green) ring is harder to achieve. I had to walk briskly, and move faster than my daily walking pace. Most days, I haven't hit the goal. Active exercise can be earned via other exercises, like biking or stair climbing, via the Workouts app. When necessary, it folds in heart rate.

img4317.jpg
View full gallery
I made my stand goal! Scott Stein/CNET

A separate Activity app lives on the iPhone, and shows daily progress, charts, and more. On the watch, you just get your daily progress, in ring and hourly chart form. There are little achievement badges you can earn, too, like little medals, similar to what Fitbit, Nike and some others offer. There aren't any socially competitive elements in Apple's Activity app; instead, it's a solitary experience.

View full gallery
Heart rate is measured during workouts, and every few minutes otherwise. CNET

There's a heart rate monitor on the Apple Watch (on the rear of the device, facing your skin), using what looks like a similar type of LED-based optical technology that other bands and watches use, but larger. Is it significantly different? Apple's pings heart rate every 10 minutes or so, or engages in continuous tracking during active workouts using the Workouts app. It doesn't track heart rate nonstop 24 hours a day like the Microsoft Band, the Basis Peak and the Fitbit Charge HR. I found the heart rate varied so far -- compared with the Fitbit Charge HR, results fluctuated greatly between the two.

The Apple Watch allows you to pair a Bluetooth heart rate monitor accessory, like a chest strap, for more accurate heart rate readings. But even without that, the wrist-based tracking works better than most optical heart rate readers for casual use.

Apple's 1.0.1 software update released on May 19 added fixes for the watch's stand measurement, along with improvements to calculating distance and pace during outdoor walking and running workouts and calculating calorie consumption during indoor cycling and rowing workouts.

View full gallery
CNET

It's hard to know what exactly to do with heart rate data. I only look at my heart rate every once in a while, and it's hard to tell what's "good" or "bad." The watch isn't perpetually tracking heart rate unless you're in a workout, but it lets you know the last heart-rate measurement, which was usually done just minutes ago and usually does the trick for knowing resting heart rate.

Apple's Workout app is pretty bare-bones: pick your activity, your target (distance, calorie goal, time, or open-ended) and hit Start. It uses the phone's GPS for distance tracking, and according to Apple, that GPS-based distance tracking calibrates pedometer accuracy and fitness tracking on the device over time. Once calibrated, its step-counting became pretty spot-on compared to other trackers.

The data -- including heart rate pings -- all go into Apple's Health app, which for now seems like how the Activity and Workout apps interact with other third-party fitness apps. On the watch, nothing else ties in directly yet. In the fall, third-party apps will finally be able to tap directly into accelerometer and heart rate sensors on the watch, which could result in an explosion of stand-alone fitness apps. Currently, third-party apps need your iPhone to be on and nearby to work, and function more like on-wrist readouts (Strava, RunKeeper and others).

Still, you need your phone with you to engage in GPS tracking: that could be a deal killer for serious runners who can buy watches and bands with GPS built in.

View full gallery
Music playback: works like a remote, or plays stored playlists. CNET

The return of the iPod: Music playback

Like Android Wear watches or the Samsung Gear watches, Apple Watch can store music: up to 2GB in the form of synced playlists. It's an iPod, after all -- sort of. The watch can also act as a music remote for your phone's stored music, but syncing a playlist via the iPhone's Apple Watch app pulls that music onto the watch fairly easily. You don't need iTunes or a Mac, and while it would be nice to also drag albums, playlists are easy to create on the fly. (So far, music storage and playback only works within iTunes, not with third-party apps like Spotify.)

You do, however, need to pair a set of Bluetooth headphones to enjoy this music: there's no headphone jack. You could also set up Bluetooth speakers, or even use AirPlay.

When I played music, I found some occasional hiccups that interrupted playback. Music quality sounded fine, except for when it didn't. There was occasional music interruption: pops and hiccups, like the Bluetooth connection wasn't perfect. It happened enough times that I found myself wanting to go back to my iPhone, which was in my pocket. (To be clear, every Bluetooth headphone and speaker we've used occasionally hiccups regardless of its source, but it seemed to happen more often in my first few days with the Apple Watch than I'd prefer.) I tried using several headphones to play back a music playlist of about 100 songs that I synced at night. (Apple Watch requires you to plug in the charger while syncing playlists.)

With the new Apple Music, you can't play radio stations directly or access Apple Music subscribed playlists, but any music you've added to your collection can be browsed via the Watch's iPod-like app menu. Also, when listening to radio stations on your phone, you can use the watch to "heart" whatever's playing (a heart appears, and you can tap it).

View full gallery
You can store more than one credit card on the Apple Watch. CNET

Apple Pay

Yes, you can pay for things using Apple Pay on the Apple Watch, but it works differently than on the iPhone. You set your card up separately, then double-click on the side button to bring up your virtual card. Apple Pay works whenever the watch is on your wrist, even when the iPhone's not around. It's fun to pay for things with it, but I don't know how often I'll be away from my iPhone with just a smartwatch on, and Apple Pay still isn't accepted in enough places to be a universal method of payment. But its ease of use, and ability to open doors at hotels as well via NFC -- near-field communication, the technology that makes Apple Pay work -- gives it a lot of future potential.

Close
Apple Pay on Apple Watch: How it works
Drag

What the watch does away from your phone

The Apple Watch has a few tricks up its sleeve when your iPhone isn't nearby. First of all, the Apple Watch has built-in Wi-Fi. If your iPhone's on the same Wi-Fi network but out of Bluetooth range, it'll stil stay seamlessly connected. But, if your phone isn't around (or, is even off), the watch can still send iMessages, use Siri, search Apple Maps, and send audio messages, and it can receive text and audio messages send over iMessage.

The Apple Watch can also double as a stand-alone music player, storing one playlist at a time from your phone and playing back to a pair of Bluetooth headphones or speakers. It can track fitness on its own (including heart rate), and it can make payments via Apple Pay, acting as a handy wrist-worn wallet (you have to enable Apple Pay from your iPhone, first).

In the fall, the Apple Watch will be able to do a lot more on its own. Third-party apps will finally be able to work without an iPhone being paired: expect games, fitness apps, and a lot more. The Apple Watch is still largely an iPhone accessory, but that could change down the road.

Complications

As you can see, this is a lot of stuff. Did I have fun using the watch? Yes, mostly, but there are so many features that I felt a little lost at times. There are so many ways to interact: swiping, touching, pressing harder into the display, a button and a clickable digital crown-wheel. Plus, there's Siri. Do I swipe, or click, or force touch or speak? Sometimes I didn't know where an app menu was. Or, I'd find getting back to an app I just had open would require an annoying series of crown clicks, swiping through apps, then opening the app again.

img4243.jpg
View full gallery
What reinstalling on Apple Watch looks like. Scott Stein/CNET

I also lost notifications a few times, before I realized that the watch won't show things if the iPhone display is on. Then I kept losing notifications, and unpaired the watch, which basically means you're deleting all information and starting over. The Apple Watch has so many ways to do things and so many places to go that I wonder if it's gotten too crowded and confusing. Even though Apple wants you to interact with the Apple Watch for 5 to 10 seconds at a time, I sometimes found myself having to take longer than that just to find and open apps.

The nested interfaces can get complicated. The settings are complicated. Even trying on and picking a watch by appointment is complicated. Was this by design?

The extra bits on Apple's watch faces are called "complications," after an old watch industry term. My grandfather and great uncle were watchmakers, and my mom explained to me how older mechanical watches were often full of these complications: extras and hidden features that showed the quality of the watch. Maybe the Apple Watch is proudly complicated. All I know is, if I'm having difficulty figuring some things out, how would my mom feel?

I got a lot more adjusted to the Apple Watch since then, but the elements of the watch interface -- its buttons, its force-sensitive screen, and its microphone -- still feel like they could work in simpler, more intuitive ways.

View full gallery
Charging happens via a proprietary magnetic cable. CNET

Battery life

How good -- or bad -- is the Apple Watch's battery life? Apple rates the battery on the 38mm model at 18 hours, using a mixed-use test devised by the company to suggest an average day's behavior. I used the 42mm model, which Apple says should fare better than the smaller version. I still have to charge every night.

At first, the watch didn't make it past a full day. Now, I tend to have anywhere from 20-40 percent of battery life left when I go to sleep. I wake up around 7 a.m., and go to bed after midnight. I browse apps and use the watch continually. I keep the screen brightness at the lowest level, which is still very visible in most light. I don't deactivate heart rate tracking.

Some people might find a daily watch recharge perfectly acceptable, since we already charge our phones every day. I don't: having one more gadget to plug in gets annoying fast, and I've worn watches that have made it to two days, or more. It's a nice feeling.

View full gallery
CNET

If I want to use it as a clock at night, I have to lean over to my bedside table and tap on it. I can't use it to ping a silent alarm to wake up, or use it for sleep tracking. Or even to get subtle notifications: some people like on-call doctors or emergency workers who might want the Apple Watch as an around-the-clock pager should keep that in mind. Or maybe I could wear my watch at night, but I'd need to charge it again the next morning.

If you're streaming music, the Apple Watch battery runs down a lot faster: it lasts 6.5 hours or so. For continuous workouts, again, 6.5 hours. It's enough for a good workout session, but not enough for an all-day hike.

A "power reserve" mode turns off all functions except the time and date in case you're out and nearly out of batteries and just need a basic watch. That's all it does: and when you exit this mode, the whole watch restarts. I wish there were more in-between modes, or ways to try to get super-minimal interaction while heading toward at least two days of battery life. That didn't happen this time.

The Apple Watch charges with a proprietary cable that comes in the box -- a magnetic disc that pops onto the back of the watch easily and uses inductive charging, much like the Moto 360 and many smartphones. This tech isn't compatible, however: I tried using the Moto 360 charge dock and a few Qi contactless charge accessories and couldn't get them to work. Apple's charger includes a very long cable, but remembering to bring one more charger when traveling is a hassle.

Which one to buy?

The Apple Watch comes in three basic price tiers: Apple Watch Sport starting at $299, Apple Watch starting at $549 and Apple Watch Edition starting at $10,000. All the watches have the same internal specs and functions, but the material designs are different. Sport is aluminum with strengthened Ion-X glass; Apple Watch is stainless steel with sapphire and a ceramic back; and Edition is 18-karat gold.

View full gallery
James Martin/CNET

There are different sizes, different finishes, and many different bands: Apple's selling 38 different versions, and you can always swap other bands, too. Depending on which band you pick, you'll end up paying quite a bit. The Apple Watch with its costly steel-link band costs a ridiculous $1,000, over triple the most expensive Android Wear watch. Even with the basic Apple-made fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) band, the steel watch is one of the priciest smartwatches on the market.

Each Apple watch has a different weight based on its materials: the Sport model weighs the least. The 42mm vs 38mm size difference refers to the height of the watch. The "38mm" watch is 33.3 mm wide, the "42mm" one 35.9mm. They have the same thickness.

Close
Apple Watch: How to swap bands
Drag

The step-up steel and gold models have potentially more damage-resistant sapphire crystals, but it's hard to judge right now whether the Ion-X strengthened glass on the Sport model will perform. From what I've seen, Sport, Steel and Edition models mainly differ on material design, not function.

That gold watch is not for you. Pick the entry-level aluminum or the stainless-steel version, and don't spend up for a super-expensive band unless you have money to burn. I'd probably buy the most affordable model I could. Apple's bands are well crafted, but they're priced steeply. I'd wait and see what third-party bands pop up that could cost far less: in the meantime, even though I've worn the fancy steel link band, I prefer the feel and fit of the rubber Sport bands.

View full gallery
CNET

Apple Watch 2.0: what to expect in the fall

Apple has a ton planned for the Apple Watch later this year: so much, in fact, that it feels a little like a second product launch. Apple WatchOS 2 will introduce a host of new features, including getting bits of at-a-glance info from third-party apps (like tweets, or Facebook updates) on watchfaces, scrollable at-a-glance day planning, and smarter Siri. It'll also open up the door to majorly improved third-party apps. It's a long list.

What it amounts to is that the Apple Watch could get a lot better this fall. The Apple Watch may finally get the killer apps that until now have been hard to come by. I'll rereview the Apple Watch when those new features arrive. Until then, know that if you already own an Apple Watch, it's bound to get better. If you're on the fence, you might want to wait. (And at that point, you might want to wait again; don't be surprised to see second-generation Apple Watch hardware in 2016.)

The future vs. the present

You don't need an Apple Watch. In many ways, it's a toy: an amazing little do-it-all, a clever invention, a possibly time-saving companion, a wrist-worn assistant. It's also mostly a phone accessory for now.

In the months and years to come, that may change: with Apple's assortment of iPads, Macs, Apple TV and who knows what else to come, the watch could end up being a remote and accessory to many things. Maybe it'll be the key to unlock a world of smart appliances, cars, and connected places. In that type of world, a smartwatch could end up feeling utterly essential.

View full gallery
CNET

The Apple Watch is one of my favorite smartwatches, but it needs better battery life, too. Making it through a single day isn't enough: I want it to last through another day, and another. The Pebble became my favorite smartwatch because its multiday battery made it feel more like a regular watch.

If you're curious where Apple is going next and have $350-$400 to spend, the entry-level Apple Watch might be fun to explore. Otherwise I'd wait and see how the apps shape up in the fall, and how much the new Apple Watch features improve things. There's a lot of time left to decide.

How to update your Apple Watch OS

The first update for Apple Watch is available; here's what you need to do.

How accurate is the Apple Watch's step counter?

CNET's Dan Graziano tested the step and distance accuracy of the Apple Watch. See how it stacks up against the competition.

Apple Watch design wins patent on look and feel

The patent -- which ensures that the design for the Apple Watch cannot be copied by a competitor -- was filed in August of last year, just weeks ahead of its unveiling.

Apple Watch 'not designed for the long haul,' says iFixit

The Apple Watch received a score of 5 out of 10 for repairability, due to the impossibility of removing just about any component inside.

Apple Watch has tattoo trouble, Apple confirms

Got a tattoo on your wrist? You could find it difficult to get an Apple Watch to track your heart rate. It's all about the way the ink blocks light from built-in sensors.

Editors' Top PicksSee All

  • Pebble Time Steel

    Starting at: $169.99
    3.5 stars

    Pebble's new smartwatch lasts up to 10 days on a charge, and its all-steel design is solid...

  • Fitbit Blaze

    Starting at: $154.99
    3.5 stars

    Fitbit's first crack at an everyday fitness smartwatch is mostly a success

  • Garmin Forerunner 235

    Starting at: $309.99
    4 stars

    The Forerunner 235 tracks pace and distance, provides easy-to-read smartphone alerts and...

  • Fitbit Alta

    Starting at: $105.00
    3.5 stars

    The Fitbit Alta is a stylish fitness tracker with swappable bands, basic phone notifications...

 

Discuss: Apple Watch 38mm Stainless Steel Case (Saddle...

Conversation powered by Livefyre