Initial Impressions on Apple Watch

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I was strolling through a local high-end shopping mall today and the Apple reseller there had the Apple Watch on display and in stock. Surprisingly it wasn't jam-packed with people vying to experience it first-hand.

 

Hardware

Placed in the middle of the store was the display case above, which looks like a standard wooden table you'd find at any Apple Store. The first thing that caught my attention from the watches lined neatly within the case were how intricate and seamless the hardware looked. Not a bare crevice that shouldn't be there was in sight. Yes, even in the Apple Watch Sport. It's outrageous how these watches are meant to be produced at a scale of millions and millions of units.

The next thing I noticed is that they're smaller than I thought they'd be. The promo photos on Apple's site show overblown close-ups and barely any wrist shots for context.

At first glance, you won't find any substantial size differences between the 38mm and 42mm models. I figure that if you saw someone with an Apple Watch in public, it'd take at least 5 seconds to figure out its size. With that said, the 42mm isn't likely to look like a gigantic, gadget-like watch at all.

The screen is gorgeous. Don't look too close or you'll notice the pixels, but from a normal distance it's your standard Retina display. What's really amazing are the blacks that look like they bleed into the bezel, making the Watch all the more seamless. Seeing the animated watch faces was especially amazing. There's something about watching a jellyfish glide gently around your watch face, like it's in a mini-aquarium, that's so futuristic. Witnessing this was a personal "you had me at scrolling" moment.

The Watch has only two buttons: the Digital Crown, that also functions as a dial for scrolling and zooming, and an unnamed side button used to activate communications functions. The side button is identical to a lock button on an iPhone, which isn't particularly remarkable. But the Digital Crown is. The scrolling is fluid when in the process of turning the Crown, but probably solid enough to not register accidental rotations. Honestly, this is probably the most difficult thing to describe about the Watch... I guess it feels well-lubricated. I'll leave it at that.

I couldn't determine much about the bands since they were sealed behind the glass of the case, but I can tell you that none of them looked bad at all. The Milanese Loop was especially ridiculous, in the best way — the sheer intricacy in how the minuscule metal links are interwoven is striking (Sidenote: I'm not sure if they're metal links — maybe they're wires — but that's what it looks like). I guess at this point, it's a matter of how the bands would feel on the wrist...

 

Software

From some of the Apple Watch reviews I've read, particularly The Verge's (which I've admittedly not read in full), software is supposedly slow. I didn't try any third party apps, but the built-in ones worked okay most of the time. Sometimes it would drop frames and not respond to gestures the first time around. But surprisingly I was okay with that, because I can't imagine the frequency at which it lags causing interference with the flow of interacting with the device in an everyday scenario. The flaws will probably be annoying at worst. (Disclaimer: I use an iPhone 5c that stutters on occasion, which runs iOS 8.3 on an A6 chip, so that's my benchmark.)

I didn't try a lot of built-in apps either, since all the display models are set in Chinese. However, I played a lot with the watch faces and communication screen (the one that's activated by the side button). The watch faces are gorgeous. I thought I'd gravitate towards the analogue faces (Sidenote: Fun fact, I set my Mac's clock to analogue to save space on my tiny menu bar), but digital faces in the standard xx:xx format fit perfectly. Perhaps it's because they make the Watch stay true to form.

Playing with the faces also let me test out Force Touch. It works as advertised, but it isn't magic. It's just an extra function. (Sidenote: I may have heard somewhere that the haptic feedback created by the "Taptic Engine" responds to Force Touches, but I couldn't test that on my wrist. Maybe it is magic, but I don't know...)

Customising the watch faces wasn't obvious. What you do is swipe between the highlighted sections of the watch face you're customising, and use the Crown to scroll through different options for that section (officially named a "complication" e.g. moon phase, calendar events, fitness info). It's actually easy once you get past the brief learning curve.

Using the communication tools was also easy. You tap on a hand icon and you're sent to a pitch-black screen that displays visual responses to Digital Touches, quick drawings, and an intimate heartbeat thing. Sadly it wasn't as awesome as I thought it'd be, leaving me with a "That's it?" feeling... but I'm positive it has to do with the fact that I wasn't sending anything to anyone anyway on the display unit. In other words, I'm sure it'll be awesome. As long as you know someone else with an Apple Watch. That's not creeped out by heartbeats...

 

Retail Experience

The display units were attached to a lesser-known new Apple device: a white box with a screen that displayed information about the Watch. I guess it's meant to function like the iPads stuck to the tables at Apple Stores. At first I thought that's what it was: a white plastic container encasing an iPad, but the bezel of it was flush with the screen. Funnily enough, I think it's a nice minimal design that could be foreshadowing future Apple Store designs. Quite frankly, I don't like the use of iPads in this way — seems like Apple's trying to sell you a second device.

It's got a Retina display (or some display with high PPI) and the touch screen is almost completely unresponsive, at least in the one I was using. Anyway, I didn't use it much since I couldn't read the information in Chinese. It's also powered by a Lightning cable. Huh.

Disclaimer: Let me re-emphasise that I went to an Apple reseller, not an Apple Store. This might totally be exclusive to the reseller. But again, it uses Lightning, which is probably illegal for someone else to do besides Apple.

 

While there's a front-and-center display case, there's also a hands-on area in the corner of the store. A lady (in the background of the photo above) was chatting with an employee. A tray sat below them with a Watch and a couple of bands on top. I asked the employee what I had to do to book an appointment to get a hands-on session, assuming it was based on appointments. Well, it was, but I was pretty much next in line, which leads me to...

 

Hands-on

Another employee strapped a 38mm Space Grey Apple Watch Sport (these model names are insane) onto my left wrist. I quickly realised that another thing Apple's promo photos greatly exaggerate is the thickness of the Watch — it's basically like a regular watch (for immediate reference, I was wearing a standard Swatch watch and it felt similar in thickness). Another thing is that the convex bottom of the Watch doesn't feel bulbous, it feels flat.

The fluorastemer (which probably isn't even a word) band is not your standard rubber-plastic band — it feels premium. So premium that yes, it justifies the Edition models with the fluorastemer bands.

The hands-on unit was not a working unit. It navigated on its own and was completely unresponsive to input. But then I felt a nudge that made me genuinely feel like someone touched me... well, that someone touched the Watch. That's what the haptic feedback feels like: not an actual touch from someone's finger, but like someone nudged your watch with their finger. It's very different from a video game controller or smartphone vibration, which suddenly feels so archaic and intrusive in comparison. Haptic feedback is the future, guys.

Verdict

As a regular user and fan of watches, I'm aware of the their prestige and classiness, as well as the super simple, age-old, can't-get-wrong function, in the nature of the product. I'm optimistic that Apple has fulfilled in fitting their product into those descriptions. Of course, it will take actual, real life use to test if the advertised applications feel right and just work (especially considering the poor reviews regarding software). But I think it's at least fair to say that this is probably one of Apple's best first-gen products to date. I don't know if there's a product in the history of Apple that has been given such a simple, straightforward forward identity. A lot of folks say that it's exactly the opposite. But here's what I think...

Having seen, played with, and tried on an Apple Watch, I feel that it is these fundamental things:

  • A fashionable;
  • Time-telling wristband;
  • With many complications (watch faces);
  • And a ton of extended complications (apps);
  • With the side convenience of sending and receiving data;
  • As well as sending demanding computing processes (none of which the user should be aware of), to your iPhone.

But first and foremost, it should embody those first two points: a fashionable, time-telling wristband — a watch. That's what Apple's main competition is good at. I think in the Apple Watch, Apple made a very robust, functional, yet delicately stylish device — I don't think any of the next four points take away from the Apple Watch its ability to do its most basic job: to be a watch. This automatically gives it the chance it needs to compete against the rest of the centuries-old watch industry, and possibly absolutely dominate it.