How smart can a smartwatch really be? It is a tough question, but based on what we have seen so far that answer would be: not much. That is because smart watches try and be extensions or appendages to the smartphone and end up being only as smart as the phone with hardly any existence of their own. There have been attempts to make watches that don’t need to be tethered to a phone, and they have been futile at most.
The Apple Watch tries to be different. It is both an extension and an appendage, while still harbouring some standalone ambitions. It is also a smartband with some ability to give data on fitness and health. It is also a style statement and the most personal device Apple has ever made.
I have lived with the watch for well over a week and here is what I think. Have any questions? Tweet them out to me at @nandu79 and I will try and find the answer for you. Meanwhile, don’t forget to read our Q&A on the Apple Watch.
Rs 30,990 onwards
The Apple Watch has many variants priced Rs 30,990 onwards coming in two sizes depending on the watch face of 38mm and 42mm. My review unit is a 42mm Watch with a box price of Rs 60,990 thanks to the different build and leather strap. In a market like India this is clearly a luxury product and since it works only with an Apple iPhone the cost of ownership for those not on the iOS ecosystem is very high.
Part 1 – The Watch
The Watch is an extension of your personality and most of us are very choosy about the watch we buy. Watches can be expensive and still be popular because in many cultures it is the only piece of jewellery owned and flaunted by men. I don’t have a very expensive taste in watches but have loved them enough to buy cheap imitations and to cajole my sister in the US to gift me a second generation Pebble. But my watch has to be subtle and anything but loud, one reason why I have tested my smartwatches in a stealth mode — the orange straps were just too much for me.
Now that you know buying a watch is no easy purchase decision, you also know why Apple is offering so much choice and customisation. The Apple Watch with its metal body and leather straps is stylish out of the box, but you can also change its looks everyday if you want to. And one of the first things I realised was that the leather strap was not ideal for morning walks and hence the morning ritual was slipping on a sport strap for the sweaty walk.
The strap is easy to take out and it might be a good idea to invest in a few of these. I used the words invest because the cheapest of these straps are Rs 3,900 and the leather strap is Rs 11,900.
At the core of the Apple Watch is the ability to customise everything. Having used a Pebble Watch for well over a year, I know you do get a kick by being able to change watchfaces. The Apple Watch too gives you many options with watchfaces, adding complications — or additional information on these screens — that you can customise. There is everything here from a simple watchface, to digital and even a Mickey hand watch (one of which I incidentally owned as kid).
But what I really loved was the timelapses that show how a certain city looks at that point of time. Plus, there is a new concept called Time Shift that shows you what’s going to happen ahead in the day and this could be the weather, you calendar or even a reminder. Another neat feature in my books.
And while the watch face has touch, what really powers these features is the watch crown which lets you scroll through stuff and navigate easily. Apple says they added this feature so that people don’t end up covering the screen while trying to make changes. I can only nod in agreement. This should be a ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-it’ moment for other smartwatch makers.
And the last interesting feature is the ability to add your photos as watchfaces. You can stick to one picture or customise it to show a new one all the time. I will not be using it though, as I don’t like wearing my family on my sleeve, or wrist. But I am sure a lot people wouldn’t mind clicking selfies to show up on their watch. Such are the times we live in.
Verdict: The reason I loved wearing the Pebble was the fact that at the end of the day it was a good watch to wear. You might not have used any of the fancy stuff, but the watch made wearing the Pebble worthwhile. It is the same with the Apple Watch. If you didn’t use any of the smart features, the good watch capabilities justifies wearing it through the day.
Part 2 – Fitness
One of the core reasons for wearing a smartwatch or band is the need to keep an eye on your activity and its impact on your fitness. I have used quite a few fitness bands over the past couple of years, and being a diabetic am convinced that the data here can play a crucial role in keeping you motivated.
Fitness is a key feature in the Apple Watch too. The activity app on the watch has three key components: calorie count, exercise and standing. The latter is something no other tracker keeps an eye on and is an interesting additional data point to the entire quantified self movement. You can set your goals and strive to achieve them. If you are lagging the watch will prod you once in a while, asking you to stand for a bit or take a small walk. Personally, I did not get much of these alerts for I start my day with a 40-minute walk and am standing quite a lot while at work. The data was really in sync with the FitBit Charge HR data that I trust a lot.
The watch also keeps tab on heartbeat and logs it every few minutes.
Where the Apple Watch is ahead of the game is in its ability to give you the fitness app you are used to. Endomondo, Nike Fuel, RunKeeper, you name it and the App Store has it. So if you are used to some set of data and have an archive, you do not need to forgo that for the new device.
However, I am not convinced the form factor renders itself for use as a fitness tracker. Even if you switch the leather strap for the plastic one, the size is a bit awkward for an early morning job. The same awkwardness you would have sporting a Beirtlig during a sweaty morning run. On the other hand, the watch makes much more sense collecting data during the rest of the day than wearing a band that just does not gel with the rest of your attire. This is a trade off you have to make.
Verdict: The Apple Watch is a great fitness tracker. You might not buy something like this just for its calorie counting capabilities, but since all the data crunching happens on the side there is no reason to complain. With access to all popular apps, this is the most versatile of all fitness trackers at the moment.
The Apple Watch take about an hour to charge on its ceramic dock and the charge easily lasts a working day. To extend battery life reduce the number of apps sending notifications, particularly WhatsApp. If you are travelling, you will need to carry the charging dock. There is no other way to power up this watch. Thankfully, there is a power reserve mode where the watch only shows the time. In this mode the watch can give up to 12 hours after going below 30 per cent.
Part 3 – Calling and texting
Yes, you can use the Apple Watch to take or make a call. Again, this is not something new. There are smartwatches with built in SIMs that are made to do this so that everyone in the room starts looking at you. They still look at you, even with the Apple Watch. However, Cupertino has made this a bit less awkward by improving the speaker as well as the mic. This means you don’t need to hold your arm like a phone to get closer to the watch. But use this only with a Bluetooth headphone, unless you have conversations you want everyone to hear.
Taking a call is easy, and within the Bluetooth range you can see the call coming on your phone. However, even saved numbers don’t have caller ID when they are mirrored on the watch. So make sure you remember the number of your boss, or you might end up in a soup, especially if the conversation is going to be on speaker. But in case you have to do this, let me tell you that the call quality is good. I did make a take a handful of calls like this and it seems the callers had no idea I was not on the phone.
Still, this is impossible to do in a noisy setting as both sides won’t be able to hear a thing. If you are one of those with a nice cosy cabin, which you probably will be if you can buy an Apple Watch, then this is the better option than taking the call on your phone.
To make a call, Apple has developed an app called friends on the watch. This app is like two circles populated by those who you might need to call from the watch. You have to just click on the icons for each name to initiate a call, to send a text or digital touch. Frankly, I could not think of more than half a dozen names I could add to the list of people I would want to call from a watch.
The Apple Watch is not just about calling. It can do text as well, and in wonderful new ways. Of course, any new SMS or WhatsApp message can pop up on the watch face too — if you have given it access. But you don’t need to type out a reply and there’s not even an option to, which is good. So when you get a message, you use stock options like ‘Will call back’ to reply. For those who want to say more, they can just say it. Yes, there is a voice reply option which lets you say a reply that is converted to text with great accuracy despite our thick Indian accents. The cool thing here is the option to send the reply as a voice message too — just be sure the person who you are sending this to is equipped to receive it.
There is one more, really new, way to communicate using the watch and that is called digital touch. It works only between two people with Apple Watches and is primarily a way to send doodles from one watch face to the other. You can also press two fingers on the watch face and transfer your heartbeat to another person. How romantic. Sadly, my wife is unlikely to own an Apple Watch and I don’t see the need for this feature.
Calling and texting on the Apple Watch is the best on any smartwatch that have ventured into this territory. But I am still unconvinced that this is a feature most of the Apple Watch users will use frequently. It is more a convenience and, of course, something to show off if that sort of thing gives you a high.
Part 4 – Apps & Siri
All the smartwatches I have used before have had a bunch of apps you could download to the device. Apple, on the other hand, has a full ecosystem that you can tap into — that is about 17,000 apps on last count. But you won’t really need these apps, because almost all the apps on your phone also appear on the watch when they push a notification.
Still, even Indian companies are pushing Watch apps and I particularly like the HDFC and NDTV apps that have figured out the stuff that you might need it on your wrist. Then there are apps like Keynote that can be controlled using the watch negating the use for a remote. I found a couple of camera apps too on the store. As far as games go, you have to be really bored to start playing stuff on this screen.
Then there is Siri. I had to activate Hey Siri to get the watch to respond to my queries. It works quite well when there is not much ambient noise. Otherwise it hears you wrong or does not hear you at all. However, in a car, this is a good feature to start a call or to open an app. More than often it is the phone that wakes up to Hey Siri and not the watch.
Then there is the Health app that tries to make sense of data from the watch and other vitals offline. I was particularly impressed by the heart rate data which is logged almost every minute helping me recollect when there was a spike and what caused it.
Apple has once again got the app ecosystem right before launching a product. It is just a matter of time before you see really innovative apps changing the way users interact with the watch.
Part 5 – Should you buy
Before I tell you my verdict there are a few things you should consider.
1. This watch works only with an iPhone, so if you don’t own one don’t think of this. Yes, go ahead if you are ready for a full ecosystem change with a capital cost of at least Rs 85,000.
2. You will need to charge the watch everyday and there is no shortcut for this. Using power reserve you might be able to stretch it to about 30 hours. But an additional charger will be a good investment.
3. This is an expensive device. The sports version at the bottom costs close to Rs 31,000. So it is not for everyone. Don’t aspire if you can’t afford.
4. The watch is yoked to your phone for its smartness. So it will use up about 20 per cent of the phone’s battery during the course of the day. I now have to charge the iPhone 6s Plus at around 7 pm everyday while without the watch I could extend the juice till I went to sleep.
So, the Apple Watch is in my books the best smartwatch out there and maybe the only complete watch-first app ecosystem. It is a great invest for people who are already devoted to the Apple world, as it improves your productivity, fitness and, of course, subservience to tech giant.
It is also a great pick for people who are fascinated by watches and want to add another, digital dial to their collection. This is certainly not one for the masses and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple launches a no frills version in the near future. Till then the Apple Watch will stay the pinnacle of personalised tech luxury.