The Apple Watch May Solve the Usual Smart-Watch Annoyances

Apple’s first smart watch seems like the best of its kind so far, but the user experience is still a little unclear.

Wearable devices could transform the way we communicate and interact with technology.

Today I finally got to try on a smart watch that fits my wrist, looks good, and purports to be full-featured yet not overly annoying.

Apple iWatch
Show off: CEO Tim Cook unveiled the Apple Watch on Tuesday.

While other smart watches I’ve tried and spied have been mostly clunky, finicky, ugly, and, frankly, not all that smart (see “So Far Smart Watches Are Pretty Dumb”), Apple’s just-announced Apple Watch looks stylish, thoughtfully designed, extremely customizable, and full of great technology that is cleverly implemented. In other words, it appears to be awesome.

But it only “appears” to be awesome, as I was not able to try out a fully functional one. Apple did not make them available to journalists in its demo pen after announcing the product—along with two extremely slim, updated iPhones—on Tuesday morning near its headquarters in Cupertino, California. And Apple has not said when it will be available, specifically, other than early in 2015.

I was able to get a feel for it, though, as demo devices running a noninteractive loop of some of the functions the Apple Watch will have when it is released were available to try on. A demo staffer, meanwhile, showed me features of an Apple Watch on her own wrist that I was not allowed to touch (that one, too, did not look fully functional).

Apple is offering the Apple Watch in three different finishes: a sport-geared one with an anodized aluminum body, a more “classic” one in shiny stainless steel, and a fashion-geared one with an 18-karat-gold body. The most inexpensive model will cost $349, which is pricey but not insane for a useful, everyday gadget (and definitely not very expensive for a nice watch), and all of them will require an iPhone to be functional.

The Apple Watch will come in two sizes (38 millimeters and 42 millimeters), which is great news for anyone like me who doesn’t have a meaty wrist. On my arm, the smaller one felt a bit heavier than I’d like, and looked pretty thick, but it wasn’t uncomfortable and definitely fit better than other smart watches I’ve tried on. It has a crisp, bright display protected by sapphire, which is harder than glass and so should be less prone to scratches and breakage (see “Sapphire Screen Would Test Apple’s Manufacturing and Design Skills”).

Apple has clearly put a lot of thought into the ways users should (and shouldn’t) interact with wearable tech. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, and as the demo staffer used her finger to navigate, the apps on the screen moved fluidly. The display is also force-sensitive, which means it can tell the difference between a tap and a press, which enables a broader number of controls. There’s also voice control for doing things like tweeting and sending messages.

Apple iWatch
Friendly faces: The crown on the side of the Apple Watch can be used to scroll through a list of contacts.

Even cleverer: a turn of the dial on the left side zooms in and out of maps and a moves between different pictures of contacts—a somewhat obvious-seeming way to navigate such a small display without totally obstructing it (and one that’s been around for quite a while).

A big annoyance of mine with other smart watches is their obtrusive alerts, but Apple has clearly thought about that, as it is trying to incorporate a new kind of haptic feedback that is less annoying than your standard wrist-based buzz. The demo watch I wore gave me a sense of this with a notification that felt like a slight tap. This will be used for, among other things, letting you know when to turn if you’re getting directions via the watch, making it possible to navigate without looking at your wrist or phone.

Beyond challenging other smart watch makers, the Apple Watch is a huge threat to activity-tracker makers like Fitbit and Jawbone. It has several sensors on its backside including what two demo staffers confirmed to me is a photoplethysmogram, or PPG, sensor, which tracks changes in blood flow by shining a light on your skin and measuring how it scatters off your blood vessels (see “Using Your Ear to Track Your Heart”). You may have seen this type of measurement in a hospital in the form of a device that grasps your fingertip, and it can be used to accurately derive a host of biological signals like heart rate, temperature, and respiration rate. On the Apple Watch, it works in concert with an accelerometer and also takes advantage of the GPS and Wi-Fi on the iPhone to measure activities and calories burned.

This kind of sensor gives the Apple Watch the potential for much more accurate tracking than many devices already on the market, and that data will presumably be available to third-party health and fitness apps; the data collected will feed back to the iPhone and into the new Health app included in the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. A new operating system, IOS 8, will be included on the new iPhones (which are coming out on September 19) and will be available to existing iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad users on September 17.

Apparent awesomeness notwithstanding, there are many unknowns about the Apple Watch that temper my excitement. The screen on the device is extremely bright, and adjustable, but it’s not clear how it will perform in bright sunlight or, really, any kind of light other than the darkened demo room with strategic lighting.

The watch is also water-resistant and has a battery that’s meant to last through a day of use, according to one of Apple’s product demo staffers, but full details of its robustness and battery life haven’t been released.

And then there’s no way to tell how accurate its heartbeat sensing will be. The wrist is a sensible location for a wearable device, but it’s a tricky body part to use for accurately gauging body signals because there’s a lot of noise to filter out from motions that aren’t really related to our overall activity.

There’s the possibility that the Apple Watch really just does too much. It can be used to answer phone calls, and a walkie-talkie feature lets you communicate with other Apple Watch users (I’m skeptical this will become much more than a fun gimmick). A developer kit will let outside developers build apps for it. Apple even announced a new payment feature on Tuesday, Apple Pay, that brings contactless payment to the iPhone via the use of near-field communication, and the Apple Watch will be able to do this, too.

Ultimately, of course, it will be up to users to decide how good the Apple Watch is, and how it’s used—nobody will force you to enable all kinds of notifications, pick up incoming calls, or buy a pack of gum from your wrist. And, like the rest of you, I’ll reserve my final judgment for an unknown date in the not-too-distant future when I actually get to try it out. 

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