Apple Watch apps, the first wave: The good, the bad and the slightly weird
Apps are crucial to the success of the new Apple Watch. Here are some quick impressions of the initial batch of apps we've played with so far.
Scott SteinEditor 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.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
The Apple Watch won't be available to the public until April 24 (preorders start Friday, April 10), but there are are already a good handful of apps for it. During my review period, I've accumulated 50 apps on my Apple Watch: some pre-loaded, others downloaded via the App Store to my iPhone and cross-installed. According to Apple, there are already around 90 or so apps available worldwide, with more coming very soon.
So how do they work, and are they any good?
The answer right now: it's a pretty mixed bag.
Apple's own preinstalled apps, to no real surprise, look and feel the best. And a few other third-party apps have impressed, too. But some apps just seem to be on the Watch for the sake of it, with little to justify their presence on the wrist so far.
Watch this: Apple Watch: Extremely ambitious, far from perfect
The good: Apple apps; apps that allow good integration with Glances
Passbook, Maps, Activity, Workouts, Apple's iPod-like Music app, Weather, a stopwatch, Calendar, Alarms, World Clock, a timer, Stocks, Phone and a Remote app that works with the Apple TV or other Apple devices such as Macs. These are the pre-installed apps on Apple Watch.
Passbook is one of the dark-horse surprises: the ability to store boarding passes, Starbucks cards or other QR codes in an easy bundle makes on-the-fly watch payments and transactions pretty easy in areas that don't have Apple Pay.
Music works well as a remote for the iPhone and converts into a place to sync and store playlists for stand-alone music playback, like an iPod. But switching between your phone and on-watch collections isn't intuitive: you have to force-touch (press down hard) on the display, select Source and pick which one you want to listen to. To listen to music on the watch, you also need Bluetooth headphones to be paired, which you have to do in Settings.
Friends, the "contact wheel" for reaching out to people, has a clever design that works by spinning the Digital Crown on the side to pick someone to call or send messages to.
Twitter is my favorite third-party app, because it's bite-sized and perfect for a small screen...and no other smartwatch has had a true, dedicated Twitter app before. Android Wear didn't handle Twitter well -- or I used the wrong apps. You can read tweets and reply, favorite or retweet. It's not rocket science, and the app's layout isn't pretty or efficient, but I use it all the time.
MLB.com also has a pretty good app that offers game scores and basic play-by-play stats. It's just enough to loosely follow a game without taking out your phone, and if there's an NFL app like this by September, I'll be a happy New York Jets fan.
Evernote has a functional, if homely-looking, app; recent notes can be read and you can create new ones using dictation on the fly. Apps that can be used to browse or create content can be done on Apple Watch, but I prefer them to be read-only apps.
Uber's app is minimal and useful: you can call a car immediately and watch on a map as it arrives. But I'd still love to be able to pick from different Uber cars on the watch, or see what my estimated fare would be.
TripAdvisor is currently the next best thing to Yelp. It shows nearby restaurants and places to go. TripAdvisor's database is pretty extensive, and I've already used it to casually make some local discoveries in New Jersey and Long Island. The menus and lists are basic but they work.
Not so great: Laggy third-party apps; apps that only dish headlines...and games
So far, most of the third-party apps on the Apple Watch suffer some pretty noticeable load-time lag. Loading one can take anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds. These apps work like extensions of the iPhone, and feel like they're pulling lots of remote data versus really "living" on the Apple Watch...and it's not a great experience right off the bat. That's because these third-party apps don't live natively on the Apple Watch itself, they cross-install from the iPhone. Apple's own collection of apps run more independently from the iPhone, and feel more fluid.
Also, while there are some big-name news apps already on the Apple Watch (The New York Times, CNN, Flipboard), these apps mostly give headlines and a one-sentence story summary, after which they invite you to open your iPhone to read the rest (Apple's Handoff puts the link in the bottom corner of your iPhone's lock screen, for semi-seamless device switching). But why can't you read all the text on the watch? Text loads easily. I want the option to browse a whole story if I want -- especially if I'm a subscriber.
There are also a few games on the Apple Watch already (Trivia Crack and Rules!) but they feel like duds. Rules! is a great iPhone puzzle game with fast memory challenges, but the watch version is pared-down, slow and unchallenging. It's free with the iOS version and cross-loads, so I can't really complain much, but I am. Trivia Crack's a little more fun, and offers simple multiple-choice quizzes that work fine on the small screen...but you have to set up games on the iPhone first, and play in bite-sized chunks when it's your turn.
The weird: Things that frustrate
Apple's Remote app could have been a perfect Apple TV companion. It's a fine enough way to play, pause and swipe-control from your wrist, and works like the old, bare-bones Remote app on the iPhone. But it can't turn on the Apple TV on its own, you need...the actual remote. It's a little counterintuitive.
Apple's Mail app also has an oddity: email can be read or discarded, but not responded to. I can dictate text messages, tweets and notes, so why not an email?
Force Touch also presents an odd challenge for the first wave of apps: do you use it, or not? If a sub-menu opens up pressing down on the screen, will the average person even be able to figure out that they should do that? I didn't, because force-sensitive touch displays aren't something I'm used to dealing with. I started pressing down harder in apps just to see what would happen, and ended up with a grab bag of results ranging from helpful menus to nothing at all.
I also miss pinch-to-zoom, which you can't do on the Apple Watch. Yes, Apple specifically created the crown to zoom without your fingers obscuring the small screen. Most apps don't need zoom, but a few do. But some apps use the crown to scroll, even though you can also swipe to scroll on the watch face. That's a problem; sometimes I forget what the Digital Crown does from app to app.
The road forward
Many third-party apps also use some pretty plain templates, reminiscent of the early days of the iPhone App Store. They didn't bother me then as much as they bother me now. Maybe it's because Apple's apps are exceptionally pretty, on average. App makers will have to play catch-up fast, or suffer being the ugly stepchild on the Watch.
Many more apps will be arriving before the Apple Watch goes on sale: over 1,000 Watch apps have been submitted for Apple's approval so far. The arrival of those, plus app updates on these early arrivals discussed above, could change the Apple Watch software landscape pretty quickly. Like the iPhone and iPad, the ultimate success or failure of the Watch will likely be determined by the breadth -- and the usefulness -- of its app library. It's bound to get a lot better soon, but for now it's good to remember that Apple Watch apps have a ways to go before they're as seamless and useful as their iPhone counterparts.