Apple Watch review

20 May 2015

The long-awaited Apple Watch is here, and it’s the best smartwatch for every iPhone owner

Apple Watch review - three-quarter view
Price when reviewed: 
299inc VAT, Apple Watch Sport 38mmmore

Reviewing first-generation Apple products is one of the hardest things a journalist can do, and the Apple Watch is a perfect illustration of why. You look at the specs, and the price, and what it does, and you end up giving it a mediocre review, because on the face of it competing products offer more. Apple promptly sells millions of them, sets the agenda for the rest of the tech industry, and you end up looking like an idiot for missing what looks – with perfect hindsight – obvious. See also: The best smartwatches of 2015

Apple Watch review - on wrist

Just as the iPad wasn’t the first tablet, the Apple Watch isn’t the first smartwatch by a long way. And just like the iPad, I think it’s going to set the direction for everyone else, and sell millions of units. I looked at the 38mm “Space Grey” Apple Watch Sport, which is the cheapest version available yet still costs a premium price of £299. You can pay a lot more for an Apple Watch: choose the larger 42mm version of the Sport and you’ll pay £339. Go up a level to the steel Apple Watch, and it will cost you up to £949 depending on your strap. If you’re rich enough to even consider the Apple Watch Edition, you probably won’t care that it costs from £8,000 to £12,000.

Hardware and design

Whatever price you pay, you’re going to get mostly the same Watch. The only differences are the materials used for the case and the screen. The Sport uses anodised aluminium for the case, and scratch-resistant glass for the screen. The next models up swap to hardened stainless steel and sapphire crystal. And the Edition takes things up a notch to a unique-to-Apple 18-karat gold.

As with most of Apple’s products, the result of the company’s attention to detail and manufacturing prowess is a product that, even with the Sport, feels like it’s been put together with a lot of care. It’s the first smartwatch I’ve used that I’d wear not simply for its technology, but because it looks great. Putting it next to the Motorola Moto 360, for example, makes the Android Wear device look chunky and old-fashioned, despite there not being a huge amount of difference in thickness. Design is all about details, and whether you love them or loathe them, you have to acknowledge this is something Apple has mastered.

The Apple Watch has only two physical controls. The first – a plain button – simply brings up a list of your favourite contacts, allowing you to quickly call them or send them a text (there are several Watch-specific kinds of communication, which I’ll come back to shortly).

The other control is much more interesting, and ends up as the heart of how you work with the Apple Watch. The “Digital Crown” looks and feels like a normal crown used to wind up a mechanical watch or adjust the time. On the Apple Watch, you rotate it to scroll up and down lists of content on screen; press it take you back to the watch face or app homescreen; or press and hold it to invoke Siri.

The insight behind it is simple: on a small screen, if you have to use your finger to scroll through content, you obstruct the screen. Rather than using your finger to scroll (which is an option), you should use the Digital Crown instead.

If you’ve used a smartwatch before, this takes some getting used to. I had to spend a couple of days reminding myself not to scroll onscreen with my finger, but once I got used to the idea the Digital Crown was incredibly useful, allowing me to see and do more on the Watch.

Apple Watch review - three-quarter view

The screen itself is a high-quality AMOLED display, and perfectly readable in sunlight. Despite wearing glasses and being old enough that I need to squint occasionally when reading things, I found it perfectly comfortable. The resolution is 272 x 340 on the 38mm model, and 312 x 390 on the 42mm, which is to say perfectly sharp at normal viewing distances.

And, like the trackpad on the new MacBook and 13in MacBook Pro, the Apple Watch screen incorporates “Force Touch”. Tap on the screen to do one thing. Tap and press harder, and it appears as if you’re pressing through the screen – a weird feeling at first, but one that you very quickly get used to. This is used in apps to show additional options, such as dismissing all your alerts.

On the back of the Watch, you’ll find the sensors for checking your heart rate. Heart-rate checking is, in theory, continuous. In practice, in order to save power, the Watch only checks your heart rate every few minutes unless you’re explicitly exercising. I compared the Watch’s heart-rate claims by checking my pulse manually, and found they were accurate to within a handful of beats per minute.

Apple Watch review - rear

Setting up the Apple Watch is one of those experiences only Apple could create. There’s no fiddling with Bluetooth pairing. Once it starts up, the new Apple Watch shows an animation on its screen and you simply point your phone’s camera at it. It then pairs for you; you never have to do anything else.

Faces and Complications

Creating the user interface for a tiny screen you wear on your wrist will always be a major challenge. If you want to make something that works on a small screen, there’s no point in replicating what you have on a smartphone. If you do that, you’ll create something that delivers a poor experience.

At the heart of the Apple Watch, as the name suggests, is the watch face itself – and as you might expect, Apple’s design team has really done an excellent job. Every face is a thing of beauty. There are classic utility faces, modern-looking faces, and faces that are more abstract. There’s even a rendition of the classic Mickey Mouse face, complete with Mickey tapping his foot every second.

Most of the watch faces can be customised with what Apple calls Complications. On traditional watches, a complication is anything that “complicates” the watch face, including elements such as timers, dates and so on. On the Apple Watch, Complications are customisable, and you can choose which Complication to show in any of the available “slots” on the watch face.

Apple Watch review - strap separated from front

Although you can change Complications (along with some other features, such as the number of numbers shown on a rotary-dial-style face and the colour of elements such as the hands), you can’t create your own from scratch. At present, you’re limited to customising what Apple provides. Even developers are forbidden, at this point, from producing new watch faces.

I think there are good technical reasons for this. Looking at Apple’s faces, it’s apparent that one of the design goals is to maximise the amount of black on screen, and minimise the number of coloured pixels. Because the display is an AMOLED one, where black pixels draw no power, it’s safe to assume Apple’s black-led face designs are primarily there to avoid power drain.

Of course, if you’re coming from the free-for-all world of Android Wear, not being able to have a custom watch face that represents your personality will be frustrating, although the history of Apple (and in particular the iPhone) suggests Apple will ultimately allow more freedom to developers. However, I think this is a sensible trade-off. Battery life is something that’s clearly a very high priority for Apple, and also its customers.

Apple Watch review - next to Intel Basis Peak and Sony Smartwatch 3

Apple Watch apps

All apps are accessed through the homescreen, which is accessed by pressing the Digital Crown. The homescreen itself surprised me: I was expecting to have problems hitting the round icons for each app as you scroll around, but Apple has carefully optimised the touch targets so that, over a couple of weeks of use, I didn’t hit a single wrong button. On a 38mm screen, that’s pretty impressive.

The built-in apps on the Apple Watch are something of a mixed bag, and feel very much like “0.9” releases. Some, such as the Messages app, feel more complete, and have some nice Watch-specific features in them. Others, such as Mail, feel almost like Apple didn’t quite have enough time to work out what it wanted to do.

Most are fairly basic. Weather, for example, delivers pretty much the same information you get on an iPhone, but tailored to the smaller screen. They usually carry over customised information from the iPhone, too: for example, Weather will display forecasts for all the locations you have set up as favourites on your phone.