(Originally written on 9 May)
The Apple Watch is out. People have it. It’s shipping. You’ve probably heard about it. It’s a marvel of engineering, and has that typical Apple lust factor. I’m currently on the fence as to whether I want to purchase one (and which one), for a variety of reasons: skepticism of its abilities as a pure watch, the ‘generation one’ factor, my current iPhone, and offline use. Despite those concerns, I really want one. But which one, why, and is it even worth it?
First, let me get this out of the way: many people have asked “Why do you need an Apple Watch?” It is a valid, yet shallow question. The cynic might respond “Well, why do you need anything other than food, water, and shelter”, but I’ll give you a direct answer. Think of Apple Watch more as you would an advanced digital watch. They do more than tell time—they offer the date, day of the week, timer functionality with a lap counter, and some offer even more such as a small calculator or other such things. The Apple Watch is an extension of that idea, rethought for our world of constant notifications, pings, connectivity, and increased data/information consumption. In that light, the Apple Watch (and by extension, the Pebble and Android Wear) make much more sense. Just as digital watches from the 80’s improved, so too will this new generation of smart watches.
My Experience with Watches
When Apple first announced the Apple Watch, they marketed it as doing three key things: a timepiece, a fitness tracker, and a new/better means for communication. My first concern about the Apple Watch deals with its namesake: timekeeping. I have worn a watch for just about as long as I can remember. My first one was a Mickey Mouse one, and I remember running though a number of cheap Timex models in elementary school. I recall having a cheap Swatch for most of middle school, and being given a Bulova watch as a present from my dad for my 16th birthday in high school (definitely the greatest birthday present I’ve received from my parents). I wore it every day up until I lost it on an aircraft carrier in the summer of 2014, and after an agonizing few months without wearing one, I purchased the exact same model the following December. Suffice to say, I’m used to having and wearing a watch, thus the Apple Watch is naturally alluring as an intriguing update to the centuries-old watch to the 21st century for the masses.
All of the watches that I’ve had have been analog, which I appreciate for its ability to offer both fuzzy time at a quick glance (e.g. upon seeing where the minute hand is pointing, determining roughly how many minutes past/until the hour it is) or precision (e.g. timing to the second how long it takes to get from my room to my girlfriend’s room or how many seconds until I’m late for an ROTC activity). Thankfully, the Apple Watch is accommodating in that it offers a very wide variety of customizable faces that are styled as both digital and analog.
Issues with the Apple Watch
The biggest fault of the Apple Watch is a compromise necessitated by its design: it can’t always show the time. As John Gruber of Daring Fireball and some horologists have noted, this makes Apple Watch is inferior to even a watch from Dollar Tree: due to not constantly displaying the time. Though Apple Watch does wake up upon a raise of the wrist, this works less than 100% of the time (probably above 96%, but still not every time). This is due to the display not being constantly on in order to save battery life; a necessary concession, but a critical flaw. Even if the raise-your-wrist feature doesn’t turn the display on, a simple tap will do the trick; however that tap must necessarily come from the other hand. Depending on what the other hand is doing/holding, that may not be possible, and what a simple action of an innocent glance becomes a source of frustration. Additionally, the raise-your-wrist only keeps the display on for about 6 seconds; if I just want to time something for even just ten seconds, it now becomes a two-handed affair. This is one qualm that I know will become more apparent and frustrating over time.
My second issue with the watch is the sheer fact that it is a generation one product. I generally try to avoid getting generation one products, but this device is tempting my resolve. Bugs always get sorted out, battery life gets better, it gets smaller, etc. in the later revisions. But there are two key reasons why I would go against my better judgement and become an ‘early adopter’ of the Apple Watch. The first is that I still use an iPhone 5, which is the oldest supported iPhone that the Apple Watch is compatible with. It is possible that the next generation could only work with later iPhones, putting me in a tough spot of needing to upgrade my phone as well. The second reason is that a year from now, give or take, I will almost assuredly be stationed on a Navy ship somewhere out on deployment—and there aren’t any cell towers or Wi-Fi on ships (which isn’t fun, let me tell you). Using an Apple Watch in that environment would be counter-intuitive because I would get the drawbacks of the Apple Watch as a timekeeping device without its advantages in connectivity. Essentially, save for port visits and dry-dock periods, my time with the watch is a one-year trial. Is that limitation enough to preclude buying and using one now? I don’t know, and I don’t have a way of truly knowing until next year.
With all of that said, why buy one? Three reasons stand out to me: discreet notifications, Apple Pay, and fitness capabilities.
What separates the Apple Watch from other smart watches is the Taptic Engine. Rather than playing a notification sound, the watch can tap you on the wrist to alert you—and only you—that you’ve received something important. This is great in classroom settings, meetings, and church where phones shouldn’t be checked. I’ve seen where other smartwatches light up when a notification is received, and that defeats the point of discretion. I recall walking in an eating hall once and seeing a fellow Vandy student’s Android Wear smartwatch light up with a text message that contained sensitive information from his Dad. With Apple Watch, that doesn’t happen.
Apple Pay hearkens back to some of the limitations of my iPhone 5: it doesn’t support the hardware for Apple Pay. But I do know that it is growing and spreading quite quickly, and I would love to be able to use it at the stores that I frequent. It would be especially handy in situations when you would want to pay for something without having a wallet, such as during exercise.
The number one reason why I would want an Apple Watch because of its fitness tracking capabilities. The Watch serves as a pedometer and keeps track of your daily activity and displays it for you. It also reminds you every hour to stay up and stretch—and when I can go for hours sitting in a chair at work, this would be extremely beneficial. It keeps track of the data over time as well. Given that I need to work out for ROTC (and don’t like to), having a visual record of how active I’ve been would serve as great motivation for me to work out. In addition to this, the Apple Watch can store music for playback during running (via bluetooth headphones). This has recently become a very important feature to me, as I accidentally washed my iPod nano about a week ago.
These three factors, combined with the ever-growing number of watch applications, means that there is an infinite number of possibilities for the wrist, and I want to play a part in that growth.
If So, Which?
With all of that said, it isn’t as though buying the Apple Watch renders my current Bulova watch dead. Additionally, if I so choose, I’ll be able to purchase a true military-grade [analog] watch that will serve that environment much better if necessary, and switch back to my Apple Watch once I’m on shore. If I was to go through with the purchase, there is still the question of which size and model to buy. There are two sizes available: 38mm and 42mm, with a $50 price difference between the two in the Sport and ‘Standard’ models. (For obvious reasons, I’m not considering the gold Edition models.) The only differences between the two are the materials: the Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum body and an ‘Ion-X enhanced glass’ screen, while the standard model has a sapphire display. Most bands can be purchased separately, and are compatible with both models (the only exception being the space grey link band, which comes only with the space grey watch).
I think many people look at the differences between the two models and say “Well all other things being equal, it seems like a no-brainer to get the Sport model!” But I ask you to kindly hold your horses. More than any other piece of equipment, a watch takes a heavy amount of damage. It knocks into metal and wood, all the time. It encounters rain, mud, and sweat. It is taken off, and put back on hundreds and thousands of times, and sometimes it gets dropped during that process. While it may seem like a raw deal from a computer/geek perspective to have two models differ in price but have the same specs, it makes more sense to me to pay for durability here, even when the upcharge is $200. Like I said, I’ve had a lot of watches, and scratches, dirt, and gunk show up easily. C|Net has some great tests that they run that show the durability of both models of the watch, specifically the display. Their tests on the standard Apple Watch simply show what science and chemistry already knows, and that’s that sapphire is the second-hardest material known to man, running behind first-place champ diamond. The fact that it’ll be able to take a pounding is a good thing to me.
Regarding sizing, the watch I usually wear is quite small for a men’s watch and is very similar to a bracelet. For this reason, I’ll likely go with the smaller 38mm version and save my $50 (and likely apply it toward getting an extra Sport band). The question of which band to order it with is a trickier question to answer. If price was no issue, I would go for the link bracelet in a heartbeat. Nearly all of the watches I’ve ever worn have had link bands, and I love the heftier weight and ease of the clasp. But given that Apple’s link bracelet is $450 (not including the price of the watch itself!), that’s not quite an option at my current pay grade. My second choice is the modern buckle. It is the smallest band Apple offers overall, and is considered the most ‘feminine’. Despite that, the clasp looks professional and gender-neutral, is leather (which would be a nice departure from my usual) and allows for easy one-handed operation, unlike the traditional men’s leather watch band in my experience. It too, however is quite expensive at $249 (separately; each of the bands is $50 cheaper when ordered with the standard Apple Watch). Additionally, it is only available on the 38mm, which would not bode well if I decided I wanted the 42mm size instead (or it turns out my wrist is too large). The last option, available in both sizes, is the Milanese loop. It is like a fabric of steel coils, and is infinitely adjustable. The fact that it is metal and cheaper than the buckle makes that my top choice. Certainly buying the 38mm size will mean that I will still have the option of buying the modern buckle separately at a later time.
A quick side note: the ability for customers to be able to easily switch out their bands is pure marketing genius on Apple’s part, and opening it up to third parties is even smarter (and good for their coffers). Soon, I think we will be seeing many designers enter the band-making space that previously haven’t thought much about watches and wearable technology, and that will lead to great innovation and creativity in the space. Who knows, maybe in a year’s time, I will be able to get a cheaper link bracelet than the one Apple is offering.
There is one other thing that could stop me from getting an Apple Watch: a Fitbit. It’s a bit too much to fit in this article, but it is a consideration. No other smart watches are really a consideration for me.
Who knows, maybe it will be that I won’t like my Apple Watch. If that is the case, it will make a great gift to someone, or be relatively easy to sell due to high demand. If I do love it, I can be sure in the knowledge that should I purchase the standard model, it will be durable and last me quite a while, even if it will eventually run out of batteries and be outdated, like all other technologies. Certainly the capabilities it has are numerous and awesome (and increasing), and I look forward to trying them out and seeing how I can integrate them to my life. I can already think of one: dictating a message to Siri while on my bike. The best way to know is to have one myself and try it out.