A Year With The Apple Watch

It is part of Apple's mythology that they don't do things until they believe the technology is ready. After wearing an Apple Watch daily it's fair to say this is a marketing lies. This is not to say it's a product with no value but it's clearly at best a polished proof of concept not something worthy of final release.

The biggest issue I have with the Apple Watch is that there is so much it does that it does badly which should never have made the cut. This is either because the features are simply not ready or because they're fundamentally a bad idea. Much of this post will describe the things that aren't ready. But it's also worth noting the things that are just terrible ideas that should have been dropped and the effort applied elsewhere.

You can use the Apple Watch to take and make phone calls. You just shouldn't. It's awkward ergonomically, the sound quality is mediocre and best and it's not great for an already borderline battery life. It's the kind of thing Apple would have you believe they'd proudly not do because it's wrong. Yet here it is, because apparently some people expect to talk to their wrists. To the 5 people who like this feature I say: there is something deeply wrong with you and I hope this feature is dropped in the next version.

You can also respond to text messages on the watch but unless all your conversations are things you can use one of a small set of canned responses to you're going to have to rely on Siri voice recognition. Which means you're going to have a bad time. It's not useful and the effort could have been better spent elsewhere. Sending people badly sketched diagrams on a tiny screen or tacky large animated emoticons are also not a productive use of engineer time for a v1 product in need of a lot of work.

And then there are the just flat out fuckwitted features. I don't know who decided sending someone your heartbeat was a good idea. It seems like the kind of thing you come up with when you're trying to work out how to demo hardware features and you're completely off your face drunk. I've only had one person send me their heartbeat. It's incredibly fucking creepy, I don't want anyone to ever do it again.

Much has been written about Apple Watch performance. It's bad. It's always been bad and the promises that watchOS 2.0 would improve things were largely untrue. First party apps are generally ok if never brilliant... until they aren't. Long pauses are not uncommon. For a device designed for short, quick interactions this is highly corrosive of utility. And where the first party apps mostly work fast enough third party apps, even if there were any that provide worthwhile functionality (there aren't) are just too slow to be worth using.

The Apple Watch has three primary controls (excluding things like the motion sensors):

  • The touch screen
  • The scroll wheel (No market droids I'm not calling it a digital crown)
  • The completely useless button.

The touch screen is generally decent. It's not always obvious when force touch is available and it's not always as easy to use as I'd like. But it's probably one of the best elements of the watch all up.

The scroll wheel is not hugely useful. In most cases scrolling on the touch screen is more effective. The "time travel" feature on the watch face is mostly a gimmick, it takes too long to get new information in most instances for it to be something you use frequently. The main place it's useful to me is in adjusting the length of exercise in the Workout app.

The scroll wheel is also a button used for navigation. This has different actions for single click, double click, and long click. It's a primary element of the watch navigation, more on this shortly.

The final control is a button that is permanently assigned to open a Friends dialog where you can select people to call or text. As I've already mentioned you don't want to do these things from the watch. So one of the few controls (admittedly the least functional, but still) is locked to doing something completely useless. And positioned so you occasionally bump it and interrupt what you're actually doing.

Navigating the UI of the Apple Watch is best described as a clusterfuck. Here is my understanding, which is probably wrong:

  • There's a clock face. This is selectable but unless you're an analog face barbarian essentially there's only the modular face if you want anything but the time when you glance at the watch. You get here by a single click of the scroll wheel from the apps screen
  • The apps screen is a hexagonal grid of round app icons. You get here by a single click of the scroll wheel from the clock face or from an app.
  • There are apps. You get into these by selecting from the apps screen or in some cases by selecting the complication from the clock face. You can double click the scroll wheel to switch between your two most recent apps. The clock face counts as an app for this purpose.
  • There are notifications. Swipe down on the clock face to get these. Also come up when you receive one for a brief period under rules I'm not entirely clear on.
  • There are glances. Swipe up on the clock face to get these. These are interfaces to do various things like control media and check your heartrate. Apps can add these. You can swipe left and right between them. The leftmost controls things like aeroplane mode, do not disturb, pinging your iPhone to locate it and such.
  • There's the Friends window which as previously mentioned is bad and everyone involved with it should feel bad. You get to this via the useless button.

So where are the problems:

  • Getting around involves too much navigation. There's just too many steps to get between apps.
  • In a number of cases where you go when you navigate depends on where you've been. Double clicking in an app make take you to another app. Or it may take you to the clock face. Which is it? You just have to remember.
  • If you have two apps you want to switch between a lot the clock face becomes expensive. When exercising I use the Workout and Activity apps, double clicking between them to see how much exercise I've done and how much is left to meet my goals. If I then go to the clock face I have to reopen both these apps to get back to being able to switch easily between them. It's tedious so I avoid the clock face.
  • Glances are only available from the clock face. If you're switching between apps as above this means glances have a much larger cost to use and are effectively useless. It's generally quicker to get out your phone.
  • More than a couple of glances are unmanageable due to navigation time and trying to remember where they're positioned relative to each other.
  • Notifications also can't be checked anywhere by the clock face so they have similar issues to glances (although they do open over apps in some cases)
  • If you accidentally double click to switch apps slightly too slowly then it's interpreted as two single clicks... and you're back on the clock face. Which is just tedious.

The Apple Watch 2 needs to completely rethink navigation. They could start by making better use of the currently useless button, allowing users to control what it does. Glances and notifications would be more useful if they could be accessed everywhere. These are not easy issues to solve but this is theoretically what Apple is meant to be good at.

Although third party apps are mostly a waste of the developer's time the first party apps are generally functional (random performance issues notwithstanding). Unfortunately they're really not very functional.

Take for instance the Workout app. You can specify type of workout (I have no idea if this has any actual effect other than recording stats in a different bucket) and how long you plan to exercise by active kilojoules, time, distance or be open ended. It works well enough but there's so much low hanging fruit which has been overlooked. In particular:

  • A mode that automatically sizes your exercise to meet your daily goals. Calculating this manually means checking the activity app first every time. Doing this automatically would be really easy and very convenient.
  • The counters in the app go up only, there's no mode to count down to your target. Having to calculate this or guess off the progress ring isn't in keeping with a device you glance at.

In terms of the hardware design the interchangeable bands are OK but having started with the Milanese loop I moved to the "fluoroelastomer" band as being more exercise friendly and have just stuck with that. It works and I've never given a damn about fashion. The design of the watch itself reminds me of the early iPhones, not designs I tend to think positively about. But that's subjective and I don't really notice most of the time.

In summary this is a device defined by it's flaws. There's some useful stuff in there but nothing so compelling I feel obliged to write about it. I get utility but it's the issues with the device that really stick with you. If it disappeared tomorrow I'd get a fitness tracker and go back to checking notifications on my phone. This compares to my phone the disappearance of which would probably cause fatal withdrawal symptoms in relatively short order. This is my blog, I'm not obliged to be fair. I'll point out the useful things (and I do get enough utility to continue to wear it) on the Apple Watch when serious effort is made to address the stuff that should never have shipped.

Colin Scott

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