VodkaPundit

The State of the Smartwatch

APPLE WATCH

When my Apple Watch arrived last month, I figured a week of use would be enough experience to write a review -— but like the Apple Watch, both more and less were required.

This is a young device in an immature product category, so I’d like to review the Watch as succinctly as possible, and then we can get to the more important business of discussing smartwatches generally. It’s a fascinating category, because of what it can and cannot —- or maybe that should be “should and should not” —- do.

The Apple Watch itself might just be the finest piece of consumer industrial engineering Cupertino has produced, which is saying something. To appreciate how well made it is, you have to remove the band and fondle the body of the thing. The reveals between the stainless steel and the sapphire display are virtually seamless, and an honest-to-God pleasure to touch. The “cheap” plastic watch straps feel anything but cheap, and the Milanese Loop bracelet (seen above) is shocking in that anything so pleasing to touch and so practical to use also happens to be the second-least expensive band Apple makes. The link bracelet isn’t to my taste because I find the clasp to be a little too fussy -— although it’s certainly finely made and attractive.

In short, Apple Watch is about as nice a watch as you’ll find in the $500-$1,000 price range, even if all it did was tell the time.

But of course this is a smartwatch and needs to be reviewed as one and that’s where we see more complications (pun totally intended).

FOUR FACES

The smartwatch functions are all quite smart, and due to get smarter with the release of watchOS 2 this fall. Currently, all third-party apps must run on a paired iPhone, with the Watch merely serving as the display. But that’s the big change coming with the new OS, as third-party apps will get the same privileges as Apple’s own apps.

The built-in Activity app -— no lie —- has me a little fitter and much more energetic after only a month of use. It tells me to stand, I stand. It tells me to move around, I move around. I tell it I’m working out, it tracks my heart rate and calorie burn. The Workout app only covers running/rowing/walking-type exercises for now, so if you’re weight training then the measurements won’t be as accurate. But I’m less worried about counting calories than I am in combatting middle-age softness, and this Watch prods me into doing what needs to be done, and gives out little rewards for accomplishing the daily & weekly goals I set. Third-party apps fill in the gaps, but Activity and Workout cover most needs.

As a Siri front end, the Watch lets me spend a lot less time with my face stuck in my iPhone. The same is true for texting, dealing with reminders and calendar events, and other daily routines. All of these notifications are completely customizable, so the Watch only bugs you with the things you tell it are important enough to bug you with -— the rest of the time, just use it as a wristwatch. If something isn’t important enough for your watch to notify you, then there’s nothing important enough to make you whip out your phone. It’s weird, but adding an additional screen to your life allows you to spend less time looking at screens.

The watch faces are seemingly infinitely customizable, and you can set up a number of them to keep on hand — er, on wrist. During the workday the Modular face is best for me, as I have it set up to show the time, date, weather, next appointment, Activity measurements, and battery percentage. When the workday is over I switch to the Chronometer face so that the Timer and Stopwatch functions are front and center -— great for when I’m grilling dinner, which is most summer nights. At the end of the day, there’s the Simple watch face which I have pared down to nothing but the clock hands and the date. Very soothing, especially in that shade of blue I like to go with (seen above), getting a visual reminder that you’re done for the day. The Astronomy face is as close to breathtaking as it’s possible to get on such a small screen, letting you dart around the solar system and travel virtually through time, just using little taps on the face and twists of the crown.

There are more faces to choose from, from the artsy to the whimsical to the practical -— although they could be made easier to arrange in the order you want. Choosing a face is simple enough. You Force Touch the screen, then flick left or right to your desired face. But there’s no way to re-order the faces you have lined up, without deleting one and re-adding it to the end of the line — more of that needless fussiness showing up again. I’ve figured an easy OS fix for that, if Sir Jony Ive is willing to take suggestions from a mere blogger. (Call me, Jony.)

The Watch’s great strength is also its great weakness: The tiny screen. This is true of any smartwatch, for reasons we’ll get into in the second half of this review -— but because of it, Apple really had to nail the Watch’s iPhone front end. Unfortunately the iPhone’s Watch app, from which you set up your Watch and operate some of its deeper functions, has a few weak spots. The App Layout function is just too fussy and not at all easy to use. You won’t need it often, but you might come to dread it when you do. Setting up your Glances and Notifications can be a little off-putting at first, since there are so many of them. Fortunately, you should only have to set up each one only one time.

In other ways, however, the Watch is actually less demanding than a smartphone. When you want to set a reminder, press and hold the digital crown for a second or two, until the Watch gently taps your wrist to let you know Siri is listening. Say, “Remind me to check the steaks in three minutes,” or whatever, and after a moment the “Taptic” motor will tap you again to let you know it understood you. The total time you spent actually doing something was the two seconds it took to press the crown. Turn-by-turn navigation is even niftier. Pull up directions on your Watch or iPhone, and the Watch automatically takes over from there. Start driving and it will give you a “tap-tap-tap-tap” when it’s time to turn right, and a “tap-tap-PAUSE-tap-tap” when it’s time to turn left. No more staring at phones or listening to loud voices talking over your road trip music to get to where you’re going.

Nice.

Battery life is fine; I’ve never ended a day with less than 20% remaining, and usually much more.

Apple CEO Tim Cook says he wears his in the shower. Other reviewers have submerged or gone swimming in theirs. Call me chicken, but I take mine off before showering — although I do leave it on without worry when doing dishes or looking for runaway dogs in the rain.

That’s a wrap on Apple’s Watch, which brings us to the state of smartwatches as a product category, and what you should and shouldn’t expect.

On more than one thread here I’ve seen people write things like, “I like the idea of a smartwatch, but I’m not going to buy one until it can replace my smartphone.” If that’s the only thing holding you back from buying an Android Wear or Apple Watch -— then just go ahead and make the plunge already because a smartwatch won’t ever replace a smartphone.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

The thing is, smartwatches will eventually replace your phone’s calling and texting functions. I’m already able to use my Watch to text (via dictation) and to make calls, provided of course my phone is within Bluetooth or WiFi range. Over a few product generations, improvements in battery and antenna technology will almost certainly eliminate the need for a phone at all.

What a watch can’t do, and this comes back to that tiny screen, is replace the touchscreen computer that slips inside your pants pocket. The screen on your smartphone is small enough to be portable, but still large enough to be useful in myriad ways which a watch, even the smartest of watches, could never be. A watch can cue you in to important news developments or make it easier to pay for a new book, but it’s a lousy way to shop Amazon’s fiction section or read a lengthy tech review.

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but you would never, ever want to attempt typing on a watch. Anything you can’t do with a few taps, a turn of the crown, or via dictation you shouldn’t be trying to do on a watch at all.

Apple has worked hard to enlarge the Watch’s workspace with the digital crown, the Taptic motor, and the pressure-sensitive Force Touch — three innovations you won’t (yet) find on any other smartwatch. But the fact remains that only so much can be done to overcome the limits inherent to such a tiny device.

Let’s go a bit deeper on this issue, because it cuts to the heart of many complains about smartwatches — both fair and unfair.

For professional video editors, a laptop can augment the massive screen wired to their desktop workstations, but it can’t replace it. It’s nice to be able to do quick edits or make quick decisions in the field, but the nitty-gritty of Hollywood movie editing requires a great big monitor with as many pixels as you can afford. Heavy duty editing also requires custom video controls you can’t put on a laptop.

It’s the same with watches and phones. Since the advent of iPhone and the widespread adaptation of Android, messaging and telephony are the easiest jobs your phone handles. Passing off those jobs to a smaller and even more present device is a no-brainer, especially when that presence is as unobtrusive as a wristwatch.

What I mean by that is, a smartwatch should look and wear like a watch: Small and light enough to go unnoticed when you don’t need it, but still functional when you do. Apple has succeeded brilliantly on that score. The only times I’ve noticed anyone noticing my Watch is when I use it to do something un-watchlike, such as paying for lunch or showing the usher my virtual movie ticket without having to juggle the popcorn and soda around. The rest of the time, it’s just a watch like any other.

All the Android watches I’ve seen thus far are too big and clunky to go unnoticed, but that situation will change quickly.

A watch is always on you, but it should only be your focus for very brief periods. You shouldn’t expect it to occupy your face like a phone does, but you should expect it to reduce the amount of time a phone occupies your face.

But should you buy one?

As things stand now, the addressable market for smartwatches isn’t nearly as big as the potential market. For Apple fans, that market is limited to owners of the iPhone 5 or newer, with $350 or more to spend and the desire to be the first kid on the block with the shiny new thing. Android phone owners can get cheaper watches, but they have to be willing to strap massive and usually ugly objects to their wrists. Users of both operating systems have to put up with certain fussy details —- some of which will get better with time, but others which are inherent to a watch’s small size.

Apple has the hardware nailed down, but Jony Ive & Co. need to rethink a few of things on the software side, mostly on the Watch’s iPhone app frontend. Android Wear OEMs have a lot of work to do on the software side and even more on the hardware, but given the nature of Android OEM competition, we’re probably talking only a year or two.

If you’re at all thinking about a smartwatch, there are really only two questions you need to consider aside from price and style:

• Do you want a wrist-worn device to augment your smartphone and simplify your life?

• Are you willing to live with Apple’s first-generation software limits or with Android’s clunky hardware?

Wait another year, and you’ll get something better. Wait two years and you’ll get something better still. Wait long enough and, if Bill Quick is right, the entire smartwatch category will be obviated by augmented-reality contact lenses. Bill’s vision (heh) will almost certainly pan out in the long run, but I’m glad to be an early adopter. Because what Apple Watch does do well, it does very well indeed —- all in an stylish and absurdly well-made package.

So if you’re the early adopter type, go ahead and adopt away. But less …exuberant… customers should probably wait a generation or two, when the smartwatch category will be a little less fussy and a lot more mature.