REVIEW: Apple Watch Fun, But Not a Must-Have

(San Jose Mercury News/TNS) —
Troy Wolverton uses an Apple Watch to answer a phone call. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Troy Wolverton uses an Apple Watch to answer a phone call. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Troy Wolverton uses maps on an Apple Watch. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Troy Wolverton uses maps on an Apple Watch. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

After living with the Apple Watch for more than a week, I’m still not sold on it.

Previously, I’d only had a chance to use it for short periods, so it’s been fun to test out the new device for a longer span of time. And I’ve gotten a kick out of having people look at my wrist with envy or curiosity.

But I just haven’t found much use for it. It has some fun features, but nothing that I couldn’t live without.

Having said that, I’m betting that Apple Watch will grow more compelling and may even find its “killer app.” A souped-up version of Apple Pay that replaces not only your credit cards but your keys, boarding passes and transit tickets could be that app; if the watch could deliver that, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

In case you’ve somehow missed it, Apple Watch is the new smartwatch from Apple that the company began shipping last month and that costs anywhere from $350 to $17,000, depending on the model. Like other such gadgets, it tracks your movements, runs apps and, of course, tells the time. I got one the day it came out and have been wearing it ever since.

In some ways, the new gadget improves over time and with familiarity. Some of the things that bothered or annoyed me about it when I first strapped it on my wrist became less so the more I wore it.

I was initially concerned that it was going to be too thick and chunky for my wrist, for example. I hadn’t worn a watch in several years and the one I did wear was a thin, low-end Swiss Army watch. But after a day or two, it felt natural to be wearing a watch again. It easily fit under my cuff when I wore long-sleeved shirts and was barely noticeable on my wrist.

I also found the watch’s interface difficult to master at first, with features that you can only access by knowing in advance — or guessing — that you need to press hard on the screen or twist its cylindrical crown. But after a few days, I more or less got the hang of it and the watch became easier to use. You can probably come up to speed faster than I did by getting lessons at one of Apple’s stores.

On the plus side, I had fun trying out some of the watch’s apps. Using the watch’s Uber app, I hailed a car and was able to track its progress to my location. I was able to scan quickly through the latest headlines using the New York Times’s app. And I used the watch to buy some coffee without having to pull out my credit card, using Apple Pay.

Apple’s Maps app, which comes with the device, is particularly cool, because it uses vibrations to alert you when you need to change directions or proceed to the next step in your travels.

You can use the app whether you are driving or walking. Because each particular direction — left turn, right turn, straight — has its own unique vibration, you don’t have to look as frequently at a screen to know where to go.

Features like that make me think the watch could have a bright future.

So, too, does the fact that as I used the watch, I found myself relying somewhat less on my phone. Because my phone is typically in my pocket, which helps dampen its ringer and vibrations, I often don’t realize when someone (like my boss or my wife) has called or texted me. Thanks to the watch, I was more likely to get those and other alerts.

In other ways, though, the watch became less compelling the longer I had it. In part that’s because some of its standout features are more exciting in theory than they are in actual practice.

Take, for example, the watch’s ability to make and take phone calls: It turns out that carrying on a conversation via a wristwatch just isn’t that great an experience. That’s because the feature works like a speakerphone. It’s hard to hear a call when you’re outside. And wherever you are, if you can hear what’s being said, so can the people around you.

Even worse, you have to hold the watch up near your face and keep it there. I found it a lot easier and much more satisfying to just talk on my phone.

The watch’s ability to serve as a viewfinder for your phone has a similar shortcoming: It looks cool, but it’s not terribly practical. Unless you frequently take pictures with your phone attached to a tripod or propped up somewhere so you can find just the right selfie pose, you’re probably not going to use it.

The watch also suffers from some hard-to-avoid problems. The small screen size limits what you can or would want to do with any of the apps.

While you can scroll through your email inbox on the watch, you probably won’t want to; it can only display one or two messages at a time. It doesn’t have a full keyboard, so if you want to respond to text messages, you have to use a few canned responses or dictate something to Siri, which can be hit or miss. While you can call a car with the Uber watch app, you can’t use it to rate a driver. For these and other features, you end up having to go back to your phone, which often made me wonder why I didn’t just start there in the first place. And since the watch only works when near your phone, it can feel a bit redundant.

Apple says there are some 3,500 apps available for the watch, but that’s a tiny fraction of what’s on the market for the iPhone or iPad. Many of the apps I use most, such as my dog-walking app and the app I use to find out when the next train will come, aren’t yet available for Apple Watch. You’re likely to find similar problems. Likewise, as cool as Apple Pay is, few vendors accept it.

The number of retailers that take Apple Pay will improve over time, as will the number and breadth of apps available for Apple Watch. The capabilities of those apps will improve as developers figure out what people want to do with them and what works best on such a device.

It’s quite possible that Apple Watch or something like it will eventually have a “killer app.” Apple Pay hints at what that could be — the ability to use the device as a kind of universal “card” or authentication system, one that’s even more convenient than your phone.

But right now, it doesn’t have other features that make it a must-have device. So while the Apple Watch has been fun to wear, I don’t think I’ll miss it much when I take it off.


Troy Wolverton’s RATING: 7.0 (Out of 10)

What: Apple Watch smartwatch

Likes: Bright screen; solid, lightweight case; Maps app signals direction changes with vibrations; some apps offer fun features; alerts easier to view and retrieve than on phone.

Dislikes: Pricey; relatively few compatible apps; small screen limits capabilities; Siri voice dictation and control system inconsistent; headline features such as ability to make and take calls not practical.

Price: $300 to $17,000, depending on case and band material.

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