Apple is wading into uncertain territory with its smartwatch, which is an entirely new product category for the company and one that doesn’t seem immediately necessary for most people to buy. Though the same could be said of pretty much any tech gadget, the Apple Watch’s high price point—some models cost as much as an entry-level car—has many people asking: Why do I need one?
Well, you don’t, according to early reviews from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and other mainstream outlets. But that doesn’t mean you won’t want one. Apple opens up preorders for Apple Watch on Friday, so these advance looks at the watch from major publications are designed to show everyone why the Watch is worth buying. And for some, it might not be. But these early reviews indicate that the Apple Watch is a beautiful, useful device, even if it’s not a necessity.
“The watch is not life-changing,” Bloomberg’s Joshua Topolsky writes. “It is, however, excellent. Apple will sell millions of these devices, and many people will love and obsess over them.”
“Apple Watch strives for high fashion, but it still looks like a techie watch,” says Re/code’s Lauren Goode. “Even if you can easily swap out the basic, smooth plastic band for a more elegant one—the $149 leather band, the $149 Milanese loop or the $449 link bracelet—the face looks kind of like a miniature iPhone. With that said, I’ve worn my fair share of smartwatches and none are as good-looking as Apple Watch.”
Other reviewers noted that the Watch is thicker than expected, but the display is gorgeous and easily beats out other smartwatches on the market.
The user interface
The Apple Watch user interface doesn’t mimic the iPhone. The new experience requires a mix of Digital Crown, Force Touch, and swiping to see notifications and glances, which presents a learning curve, says The Verge’s Nilay Patel: “These are radically different interface patterns than iOS, where you can access the notification center and control center from virtually everywhere, and it makes navigating the Watch interface more confusing until you get it.”
Yahoo’s David Pogue agrees: “The truth is, navigation is a big Watch weakness. There aren’t any visual clues that more options are waiting if you force-press, or that anything will happen when you turn the knob. You eventually learn, but only by trial and error. And every time you force-press or turn the knob and nothing happens, you feel like a dolt.”
The fitness features
Some of us are most excited to see how Apple Watch stacks up to other wearables in the fitness-tracking department. Re/code’s Lauren Goode says it’s even better than expected: “The most interesting observation from my workouts so far is that the heart-rate readings I’m getting from the Apple Watch during indoor cycling are very close to the readings I’ve gotten from a chest monitor. I haven’t yet seen the kind of wildly-erratic readings that I’ve experienced with other health watches that measure heart rate through the wrist.”
Few reviewers actually put the Watch through its fitness paces, so we still have a ton of questions about using the Watch as a fitness tracker that we’ll answer when we buy our own on April 24.
The taptic engine
The Watch is designed to be discreet, so you can digest nuggets of information without having to whip out your phone to check notifications. That’s why Apple designed the taptic engine, which enables the Watch to lightly tap you when notifications come in. This feature is the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo’s favorite part: “The Apple Watch’s most ingenious feature is its ‘taptic engine,’ which alerts you to different digital notifications by silently tapping out one of several distinct patterns on your wrist. As you learn the taps over time, you will begin to register some of them almost subconsciously.”
Ben Bajarin of Techpinions offers a useful example of how the taptic engine’s notifications can work in unexpected ways: “When walking down the street to a meeting in San Francisco, I used the Watch to guide me there. The Apple Watch has a different taptic pattern for going left and for going right. This way, I didn’t need to lift my wrist to look at the display to know which way to go. The implications of these different types of notifications based on feel are unexplored territory.”
Apple Watch relies on your iPhone to do the heavy lifting, which Bloomberg’s Topolsky found problematic at times: “One of the crucial pain points I experienced was this constant, subtle battle with myself over whether to engage a notification on my watch or handle it on my phone.”
But the Watch can also function minimally on its own if it finds wireless connectivity, says Yahoo’s Pogue: “Here’s a surprising feature that Apple hasn’t said anything about previously: When the Watch is in a known WiFi hot spot, the watch can perform the most essential online functions even when your phone is completely dead, turned off, or absent. It can query Siri, for example, send and receive texts, and send/receive drawings and tap patterns to other Watch owners. That’s impressive.”
Relying on the iPhone to grab information means that sometimes, the Watch is slow, says The Verge’s Patel: “Sometimes pulling location information and data from your iPhone over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi takes a long time. Sometimes apps take forever to load, and sometimes third-party apps never really load at all. Sometimes it’s just unresponsive for a few seconds while it thinks and then it comes back. Apple tells me that upcoming software updates will address these performance issues, but for right now, they’re there, and they’re what I’ve been thinking about every morning as I get ready for work.”
That was a common theme in the early Apple Watch reviews. The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern also said the watch’s dependence on iPhone can be a killer: “The Apple Watch doesn’t have cellular connection, so you’ll need a companion iPhone nearby for many of its functions to work. Sometimes, though, that arrangement is painfully slow: The maps app, surely the answer to wandering pedestrians’ dreams, is so slow it makes me want to pull out my paper Rand McNally.”
The one thing that could have killed Apple Watch if Apple didn’t get it right was the watch’s battery life. But the watch does indeed last all day, says Stern: “The battery lives up it its all-day billing, but sometimes just barely. It’s often nearly drained at bedtime, especially if I’ve used the watch for exercise. There’s a power-reserve mode that can make it last a few hours longer, but then it only shows the time.”
USA Today’s Ed Baig ran out of battery, but maybe due to user error: “Add Apple Watch to the list of devices you best charge nightly. Still, Apple’s claim of 18 hours between charges seems accurate based on my pretty heavy daily usage. I only ran out of battery once, on my first full day of testing. I’m guessing the watch might not have been properly aligned the night before with the proprietary magnetic charging cable because I’ve had plenty of daily juice since.”
How it stacks up to other smartwatches
The reviews answered some of our other questions, like how seamlessly Apple Pay would work (answer: more seamlessly than on the iPhone) and how the watch’s screen would look in glaring sunlight (answer: crystal clear). We also wanted to know how Apple Watch compares to its Android Wear rivals, which were first out of the gate. The answer:
“Of the half-dozen smartwatches I’ve tested in recent years, I’ve had the best experience with Apple Watch,” said Re/code’s Lauren Goode. “If you’re an iPhone power user and you’re intrigued by the promises of wearable technology, you’ll like it, too.”
We'll have our own review of Apple Watch very soon, so stay tuned.