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Apple Watch: Everything you need to know so far, and hands-on impressions

What does the Apple Watch feel like? Read our impressions, and catch up on all the details.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
10 min read

Between a week in Barcelona looking at tons of smartwatches and a week on vacation in Aruba walking past island boutiques filled with high-end fashion watches, I saw the Apple Watch. It was appropriate: Apple's smartwatch has aspirations that lie somewhere between geeky tech and runway fashion. Will this gamble succeed? Will people want one?

We didn't learn as much about the Apple Watch on March 9 as you might have thought. There are tons of features, lots of potential, but not much that screams "killer device," or explains why or how an average person would need it.

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Apple Watch keeps up with the times (pictures)

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The Apple Watch is beautifully constructed. We knew that. But its design, at heart, isn't eye-poppingly new. It's similar in spirit to Samsung's Gear watches. It doesn't have a round display like some Google Android Wear devices. It looks more like a piece of tech than a traditional watch; that's quite a contrast to the newly announced Huawei Watch, which goes all-in on a retro look and feel.

Apple's gambling on developers to make the Apple Watch great, with the promise of "thousands" of apps by the Watch's late April launch. This is a counterpoint to the original iPhone, which went a whole year with custom-built apps and no App Store. There are plenty of Apple-made apps that live on the Apple Watch, perhaps too many: Digital Touch for sketching pictogram-messages to friends, two fitness apps, a number of customizable watch faces, Maps, Apple Pay, and a friend dial (as I call it) to communicate with your closest buddies.

The Watch is also Apple's first all-new product since the iPad, which first hit almost exactly 5 years ago. Will the Watch have the same impact? It's a far bolder concept than the iPad, but also one that far fewer people might find themselves actually needing.

Here's what you need to know about it.

When you can buy it, and how much it costs

The Apple Watch will be available to preorder on April 10, and on sale April 24. It will initially be available in nine countries, including UK, Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany and France.

It starts at $349 (AU$499, £299), but climbs all the way up to $17,000 (AU$24,000, £13,500). How? Simple: the bands, plus the crazy-high price of an 18-karat gold model.

James Martin/CNET

The many versions

There are three tiers of Apple Watch, but they all feature the same curved design and rectangular display. Inside, they're all the same: features, storage and connectivity are identical. The differences are in materials and bands. Each of the three models is available in two different watch body sizes, 38mm and 42mm. You might call that "women's" and "men's," but that's arbitrary -- you can choose whichever size looks and feels best on your wrist.

James Martin/CNET

Apple Watch Sport comes with a fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) band, and has an aluminum-alloy body (silver or space gray), Ion X-strengthened glass and composite back. It costs $349 for 38mm, or $399 for 42mm sizes. In Australia, the pricing runs AU$499 and AU$579; £299 and £339 in the UK.

James Martin/CNET

Apple Watch (the mid-tier model) comes in stainless steel with a sapphire crystal and ceramic back. There are two colors (steel and space black steel), and a number of pre-packaged or separately-sold bands. It starts at $549 (38mm) or $599 (42mm). Depending on which one you pick, you could pay anywhere from $549 to $1100. In Australia, pricing starts at AU$799 and goes up to AU$1,629. The UK starts at £479 and runs up to £949.

James Martin/CNET

Apple Watch Edition has an 18-karat gold (rose gold or yellow gold) body with sapphire crystal and ceramic back and starts at $10,000, with options ranging all the way to $17,000. That's AU$14,000 to AU$24,000 and from £8,000 up to £13,500 over in the UK.

Confused yet? There are also a number of interchangeable bands to pick from: a Milanese loop of metal mesh with magnets, a leather band that auto-attaches, a segmented metal link band, a classic leather watch band, and a more plasticized sport band in bright colors.

They run the gamut, and you can bet there will be tons more from other manufacturers. They detach easily, too, for band-swapping. Band prices stretch from $60 all the way up to many hundreds of dollars, impacting the cost of the Apple Watch significantly. To say the least, there are quite a few design variations.

Uber on Apple Watch. James Martin/CNET

What does the Apple Watch do?

The Apple Watch is a new product category for Apple, but not for the tech world. It's a smartwatch, much like other high-end smartwatches that are in the market from Samsung, Google and others. Apple's dabbled in wearable tech before with the older iPod Nano and its wristbands, but Apple Watch is a completely new software platform: it's made to run its own apps, connect with iPhones, and be its own fashion product.

If you're not familiar with smartwatches, here's the basic rundown: it stays connected with your phone so as to get information, receive notifications like texts and emails, and to patch through and make and receive phone calls its speaker and microphone. It's a fitness tracker with heart-rate measurements. It plays music like an iPod (to wireless Bluetooth headphones or speakers), makes payments via Apple Pay, and could even be a remote for connected smart-home appliances.

Apple's three-ring fitness app tracks multiple goals at once. James Martin/CNET

The Apple Watch has a small, bright color touch display plus a scroll-wheel digital crown and button on the side for extra features. You can touch and swipe to interact, or speak to its microphone.

In some ways, the Apple Watch's notifications, voice-activated controls, and swipe-to-glance features feel like a combination of what Google's Android Wear and Samsung's Gear smartwatches have strived for.

A software development kit released last year has allowed app-makers to work on launch apps for Apple Watch, a new approach compared to most Apple products. The original iPhone didn't even have third-party apps its entire first year.

The Apple Watch has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it can connect to your phone or your Wi-Fi network. It can also piggyback onto your iPhone's Wi-Fi or GPS.

And yes, you need an iPhone: you'll need an iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, 6 or 6 Plus. Sadly, earlier iPhones are excluded. So are other phone platforms like Android. This is an iPhone-owner's product, much like Samsung's Gear watches run only on certain Samsung phones, or Android Wear watches require Android phones.

Apps can be scrolled through in a giant grid. James Martin/CNET

What it feels like to use one

Good -- and comfortable. While the Apple Watch may seem a lot like other square-screened smartwatches, its fit and finish are extremely refined. The watch isn't surprising in design, but it's elegantly made. Yes, it's a bit chunky, but it doesn't feel as thick as you'd think from the photos. I tried on all three models in a variety of bands. They all had a great wrist feel.

The Apple Watch doesn't have a round display like some Android Wear watches, but its build quality seemed even better than the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R; of course, we expect nothing less, given the Apple Watch's premium price. It shares some similar design elements to recent smartwatches like the Asus ZenWatch and Samsung Gear S. Even if the watch body itself doesn't always seem striking, the Apple Watch does seem to morph depending on its accessories. The bands in particular feel well thought out, if expensive.

The screen on the 42mm model is about the size of a Pebble Steel, and felt more discreet than some larger Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches. The smaller 38mm watch felt too small for me, but it looked pretty good on smaller wrists showing it off.

James Martin/CNET

You interact via tapping, swiping, and using the two side buttons: one's a sleek small button, the other's the Digital Crown, which is a button plus a scrolling wheel. Tapping activates the display, while swiping up brings Glances, which are like mini-apps showing everything from weather to stock info to where your Uber car is. Like Google's Android Wear cards, these can be tapped to launch the full app. Click on an Instagram photo, and you get a mini Instagram app.

Apple Pay works, but doesn't use Touch ID. James Martin/CNET

Double clicking the smaller second button brings up Apple Pay, which works like the version on the iPhone minus the TouchID sensor. Sometimes it was hard to figure out whether to click the crown or bottom button, or whether to swipe or tap. But the interface in the demo room generally ran smooth. But it often felt busy: there are a lot of taps, swipes, turns and twists involved in the Apple Watch. Nested apps and glanceable apps could confuse newcomers.

James Martin/CNET

Apple's selection of smart watch faces do seem more versatile on Apple Watch than some Android Wear equivalents. Samsung's Gear watches have offered customization, too, but Apple's offerings look more diverse and attractive. And if the at-a-glance details can be tailored just right, they'll help the watch do more with less fiddling.

What makes it unique

The Apple Watch throws a lot of features into the mix, many of which appear on other smartwatches. But there are a handful of distinctions that set it apart.

Apple's watch is the one of the first mainstream wearables to support mobile payments: Apple Pay will be enabled via NFC, meaning you can swipe to pay at stores, and possibly pay for things online, too -- and open doors at hotels, among other things.

The Apple Watch uses haptic feedback via what it brands a "taptic engine" that feels like more advanced and subtle vibration. It also has a force-sensitive display: press harder, and it will do different things. This could mean more advanced types of notification buttons, or control input. Apple's newest MacBooks use this same combination of "force touch" and haptics to simulate clicking, and it's astonishingly effective.

Apple also added a different type of input on the side: that little Digital Crown, mentioned above. It's a home button and scroll wheel in one: it aims to replace pinch-to-zoom in apps and help make scroll functions easier to pull off.

A Digital Touch doodle. James Martin/CNET

Using a direct-communication app called Digital Touch, you can scribble little emoji, send vibration-enhanced love taps, or send audio messages like a walkie-talkie. High-school classrooms, look out. That, and a clever pop-up "friend dial" that helps send messages to your loved ones, could help make this watch more communication-focused than others.

The friend dial is a clever touch. James Martin/CNET

The Apple Watch also runs its own ecosystem of apps, which could help set it apart from competitors. It's tied completely to iOS and the iPhone. These are installed through an Apple Watch app on the iPhone -- an app that's built into every compatible iPhone as of the iOS 8.2 update, which went live on March 9.

A magnetically-attachable charging cable uses induction to charge. It's similar tech to what the Moto 360 uses, but with magnets: it's easier to use in a pinch, but means carrying an extra proprietary cable. (It terminates with a standard USB plug.)

The rings measure calorie burn, standing, and exercise. James Martin/CNET

What it does for fitness

Like most fitness smartwatches, the Apple Watch tracks movement, estimates calories burn, and monitors heart rate. Apple has two fitness-related watch apps. One tracks everyday activity across three metrics: estimated caloric burn, moderate exercise, and time spent standing, filling up three colored rings as each daily goal is met. Another app tracks dedicated workouts, activities like cycling or hiking, with timed sessions and heart-rate measurement during those activities. Each app syncs back to a hub app on the iPhone, and to Apple Health.

The heart rate monitor's on the back. James Martin/CNET

The Apple Watch measures heart rate using a combination of infrared and LED technology. We don't know how its accuracy compares to other optical heart-rate monitors on wearables, but we'll find out soon enough. It tracks heart rate during workouts, but also automatically measures heart rate every 10 minutes. The Apple Watch uses the iPhone for GPS and barometer-based elevation readings, but doesn't have its own onboard GPS.

The Apple Watch works with other fitness apps -- it's Nike Plus-supported, and there are bound to be more apps by the time it launches.

James Martin/CNET

Is it water-resistant? Yes, it's rated IPX7, meaning it can be worn during sweaty workouts and in the rain, but isn't meant to be used while showering or swimming.

Apple estimates 6 and a half hours of battery life during dedicated workout tracking. There aren't any more sensors on this watch than any other high-end fitness bands and watches, but it remains to be seen whether Apple's software and engineering can provide a better overall experience, or clearer fitness coaching.

The Watch's inductive charger. No word on battery life yet. James Martin/CNET

Battery life

A full charge will give you roughly 18 hours of use, based on Apple's calculation of what everyday use means: "all-day" battery life, but you'll need to charge it overnight. It'll track heart rate during a workout for about 6 hours, or last through about 6 hours of music playback via Bluetooth. What this actually translates to in real-life use won't be clear until we get to review one, but this is at the low end of the smartwatch battery-life spectrum -- and arguably the biggest potential for the Watch's Achilles' heel.

Apple has indicated that these battery ratings were formulated while using beta software, and that they apply to the smaller 38mm model. The 42mm model supposedly offers slightly better battery life, but it's unclear how significant that is (or not).

Final thoughts (for now)

There are plenty of big, unanswered questions. Can the interface work without being confusing? Will the battery life (a disappointing-sounding 18 hours according to Apple's early tests) be a deal-killer? Will apps transform the watch? Will it be as easy and fun to use as Apple wants it to be? Does it make the iPhone better? Does it stand on its own as a worthwhile gadget?

What the Apple Watch really is, and what it can be, won't be determined until I get to wear one for more than 5 minutes. Whether the Apple Watch's polish, hardware-software integration, and stable of apps can overcome its price and possible battery-life disappointments, remains to be seen.

The Apple Watch remains Apple's greatest mystery product. On paper, it's the most ambitious smartwatch. Can it live up to those ambitions? We'll know soon.