8 Months With the Apple Watch

Apple Watch photo Since I was an early adopter and purchased one of the very first Apple Watches when they went on sale, I've had a number of people ask me what I thought of it. So here are my observations, both pro and con. This will not be an extensive review but rather an analysis of how I use it, which is probably fairly close to how many others use it as well.

First, I have not gone a single day without wearing it. That should tell you something—it has become a fixture of my daily checklist before I walk out the door along with my phone, keys, and wallet. And I haven't worn a watch of any sort since I was probably ten years-old.

It excels as a timepiece, as you might expect, but of course it's the other stuff that makes it a "smart" watch. So let's look at where it excels and where it falls short.

Fitness: I was also an early adopter of fitness trackers, first with a Jawbone Up and later the Fitbit Force. The Up was a terribly flawed product and I abandoned it after four of them completely failed (due to battery failures, sometimes after only a few weeks of use). I bought the Fitbit Force because it was supposedly going to integrate with the iPhone. Unfortunately, the wristband was poorly designed and it regularly came undone when taking off my jacket or shirt, and sometimes just came undone for no obvious reason at all. The user forums were filled with half-assed solutions, and I finally bought some rubber O-rings and used one wrapped around the band to keep the thing from falling off. Then, in another blow to the company, users began complaining of burns and skin irritation from the metal components. The product was rather quickly recalled. I gave up on both companies after those experiences and was looking forward to the Apple Watch to continue my fitness tracking.

And it is an excellent fitness tracker, detailing steps, distance, activity (exercise that raises heart rate), and heart rate monitored throughout the day. Every day I try to match both my distance and exercise goals, and I never fail to hit the standing goal unless I'm bedridden with an illness or driving long distances (and it's nice to be reminded to stand after a long period of inactivity). Just using the default settings is a good way to maintain and improve one's physical activity. I use the workout app less frequently (sigh), but it is useful when I do extended lunchtime walks or one of my rare runs. If you are an athlete, the Workout app has lots of options for a number of varied routines, including walking, cycling, elliptical, and stair stepping. And although the watch is waterproof, it is not advertised as such, so swimmers should look elsewhere.

Where the fitness tracking could use some work is in the accompanying iPhone app. Both Fitbit and Jawbone have not just phone-based apps linked to the device, but web apps as well. The Apple Watch Activity app is only available on the phone and although the design is clean and uncluttered it is not exactly robust. My suggestion to Apple would be to develop a web-based app to access the fitness data. Sure, other apps (like MapMyRun) can access the data from the watch, but an expanded Apple web app that allowed food and caloric input, better visibility via a web browser with larger and more customizable graphs, and sharing/gamification options would make it much more fun and useful. I much prefer the larger screen of my laptop than scrolling through charts on my phone.

But all-in-all, if you want to track your general activity (moving, exercise, and standing), the Apple Watch is an excellent solution. If all you want to do is track fitness, and you want a web-based app for analyzing and inputting other data like your meals and water intake, I would recommend one of the newer dedicated fitness trackers.

The Apple Watch does not track sleep, although there are third-party apps that you can use if you like. The only caveat is that the watch has to be charged daily (ideally while you are sleeping), although some people get by with charging it while they are getting ready in the morning. It only takes about an hour or so to completely charge it, so it is not difficult to use it to track sleep with a third-party app.

And while we're on the issue of charging, the battery rarely gets below 30% in a day for me (even a long day), so the best option is to charge it every night while you sleep and never worry about it running out of juice.

Messaging and Mail: This is by far the most useful feature for me. All text messages show up on my watch, where I can glance at them and quickly reply (or ignore) rather than fishing my phone out of my pocket. You can use pre-set replies or create your own ("See you soon, babycakes!") or use Siri. Siri, except for occasional hiccups, works very well on the watch, often better than on my iPhone. It may seem to be a minor thing, but you will soon come to appreciate being able to see a message on your wrist rather than digging out your phone every time it buzzes. And since I live in an urban area with a fairly substantial crime problem, I prefer not to pull out my phone when out and about.

I set the watch preferences so only email from VIPs in my address book show up on the watch. I rarely reply to emails on the device, but it is nice to know when an important email from my wife shows up, and occasionally I will use one of the canned replies until I can use my phone to tap out a full reply.

Voice calls: Phone calls come through clear and without distortion. This is great when driving or walking.

Weather: I have the weather set as one of the watch complications, so it is always visible. WatchOS 2 introduced "time travel," which means you can use the digital crown to fast-forward through your day to see how the weather will change. This is incredibly useful and I use it every morning and before I leave my office (and I'm never caught without an umbrella). Third-party weather apps like Dark Sky can send notifications from the phone to the watch and alert you that it's going to rain in the next ten minutes, which is quite cool (although see my comments about the reliability of third-party apps below).

Apple Pay: Though it is far from universally implemented, the watch is great paying for things like a cup of coffee by simply pressing a button twice and waving it over a point-of-sale scanner. I even buy things from vending machines with the watch, which is great because I rarely have coins or paper currency in my pockets.

Maps: If you use Apple's Maps app on your phone for navigation, the watch can tap you on the wrist when it's time for you to make a turn. The pattern of taps allows you to easily discern left from right turns. It's definitely a bonus when navigating in a car, but it's also terrific when you're on foot because it saves you from needing to hold your phone out for eagle-eyed muggers to see.

Music: You can load the watch with music and listen via bluetooth headphones, but I rarely do. However, you can use the watch as a remote for playing the music on your phone, which I do frequently. It's another instance in which you don't have to pull out your phone (and it's especially useful when riding public transportation).

TV Remote: Have a Apple TV? The watch can serve as a remote when your kids have stashed the damn thing somewhere out of sight.

Calendar Alerts and Alarms: You can set alerts and alarms on the watch (via Siri) or just have them pop up on the watch after you set them on your desktop or iOS device. This is an extremely useful feature, and again, keeps you from digging out your phone with every buzz or ring. I also use the watch to set alarms when cooking or before going to bed at night.

Caveats: That barely scratches the surface of what the Apple Watch can do, but it covers how I use it the majority of the time and illustrates why it has become an essential part of my life. The one major caveat concerns third-party apps, which are great in potential but often fail when put to the test. Some, like the previously mentioned Dark Sky weather app, work fine and load fairly quickly. But most apps (even after WatchOS 2) still take an inordinate amount of time to load and the screen sometimes goes black before the app loads, rendering them utterly useless. So much so that I rarely use third-party apps at all. Many have improved over time, so this is likely to be fixed in future iterations of the OS and in newer watch models. But for now, it's a lot of squandered potential and is one of Apple's rare unacceptable missteps.

Also, keep in mind that this is a first-generation product so there are occasional hiccups. Once in a while the watch face fails to come on when I lift my wrist, requiring a tap on the surface with a finger or a weird-looking gesture of lowering and raising my arm multiple times until it reacts. Once the watch lost its pairing with my phone and I had to reset it completely and re-pair it (which took around 15 minutes). But after close to nine months it works very well, with only minor glitches.

Conclusion: I love this product. In many ways it has made my life easier and eliminated minor frictions that, in the long run, add up to substantial time savings—particularly in avoiding having to take my phone out of my pocket. It's nice to stash my phone away until I need it, and it keeps me from pulling the damned thing out just to check and see if I have missed anything. That may seem trivial, but trust me, it isn't. I do an enormous amount of messaging directly from my wrist now and am pleased with how easy it is to stay in touch via Siri, emojis, or canned replies. Every day I try to hit my activity goals and progressively increase them, and although the watch is not as fully-featured as many devices dedicated to fitness tracking, it serves my purposes fine.

For me, the Apple Watch has become an important part of my day-to-day life. As someone who formerly avoided watches, it's actually nice to know what time it is (yeah, duh). But is the Apple Watch a must-have for most people? Not at all. Many people can get by without any kind of watch, relying on their phone as an alternative, and don't care about spending all of their time messaging and checking and playing on their phones. We see those people everywhere we go, walking around lost in those little black rectangles of metal and glass.

But me? Well, I'm a gadget lover, an Apple cultist going back to the late 80s, and an early adopter. I also like to have time away from my phone and promised myself to not be one of "those" people who spend their lives staring at their damn smartphones and missing the world around them. So despite some flaws in this first iteration, I suspect I will be wearing an Apple Watch for a long time, and I look forward to future iterations and improvements.

I welcome comments and questions below as long as they're not of the "Apple sux idiot go Android" variety.