Apple Watch Review, Is It Hot Hardware?

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Software: Notifications, Glances, and User Experience

Apple Watch doesn't run iOS -- it's a fundamentally different software experience, even for those who are intimately familiar with the systems on iPad and iPhone. Most of that is due to the small screen, limited input options, a small battery, and the desire to steer people back to their phones if you need to do anything elaborate. For example, with the Evernote app on Watch, you can peek at your most recent notes, but if you need to create a new notebook or make sweeping changes, you'll still need to get your iPhone. In practice, I didn't feel as if this approach was too limiting. The watch's tiny size would make it frustrating to use if you tried to operate it as if it were a full-fledged iPhone.

Setup and user interface

So, let's talk about setup. Pairing a Watch with an iPhone is simple. A graphic shows up on the Watch, and you point your iPhone's camera at it. Boom, done. Setting things up is partly done on the Watch, and partly done within the Apple Watch app that first appeared in iOS 8.3. The watch face can be customized to some degree, but you can't go and bake your own face as you can with Android Wear. The default face, which places your upcoming appointment in the middle, time at the top, and a trio of various icons at the bottom, was my favorite. I customized the color a bit, but I loved having a wealth of information right there on the face. While critics (myself included) have slammed Apple for its resistance to let users customize things, I didn't feel as if I would've done anything much differently on the face.

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Your interactions with Watch will almost certainly begin on the face. From there, a small red dot will sit at the top if any notifications await you, and pulling down will show them. You can scroll with your finger or the Digital Crown, and while you can swipe each away individually, a long press on the screen will allow you to clear them all. Importantly, any notification you clear on your Watch will instantly be cleared on your iPhone so that you don't have to do it twice. It's a great touch on the software front.

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Swiping up from the watch face will bring up your "Glances" panel, which can be tailored from within the Apple Watch app on your iPhone. Items like weather, your upcoming trips (TripIt), boarding passes on Passbook, and shortcuts to TuneIn radio stations can be stashed here. These are great for catching up on vital information at a glance, but remember that these do not refresh in the background (again, a battery-saving tactic). That means that each Glance has to refresh using data pulled over from your iPhone when you flip over to it, presenting a few seconds of lag for each. It's pretty annoying, frankly. Most everything about the Apple Watch is instant, save for Glances -- all of the things that should be instant, it's a feature with "glance" in the word. We understand that refreshing these in the background would drain battery and consume additional smartphone data, but we'd love to option to force a background refresh nonetheless.

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The watch is pretty intelligent when it comes to lighting up. It senses movement and intelligently turns on when it believes that your eyes are peering at it. If that doesn't work, you can double-tap the display to turn it on at any time. For what it's worth, I never had an issue with the screen not turning on at the appropriate time. Depressing the Digital Crown pulls up a spiderweb of apps, which you can customize as well. It's a useful layout, and a very effective way of showcasing apps on a tiny display.

App quality

I expect the Apple Watch's success will largely depend on app makers. If devs figure out smart ways to take advantage of a new platform, it'll justify the purchase. If not, people will just retreat to their phones. The Apple Watch hasn't been out long, but many app makers have already updated their iOS apps to support Watch. Evernote's Watch app beautifully renders your most recent notes; Mail enables you to thumb through entire messages, flag for follow-up, and mark as unread; various airline apps allow you to see upcoming flight times and place boarding passes right on your wrist; Weather Underground and Dark Sky both do a wonderful job of showcasing just the vital information about your surroundings; Twitter provides a rather limited look at your timeline or a more sensible view of trending topics.

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As for Apple's first-party apps? Activity is a great way to monitor your steps and calorie burn throughout the day, with various achievements helping you to stay motivated. The built-in Workout app is also quite good, but is limited to pure cardio exercises like running or walking. There's an "Other" workout that attempts to calculate calorie burn by monitoring heart rate, but it doesn't take weights or resistance into account. (To Apple's credit, no fitness band on the market can calculate interval training or non-standard workouts with accuracy.)

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Passbook translates beautifully to Watch, and Apple Pay is even more convenient on Watch than iPhone. Timer and World Clock are great additions, too, but we found it fairly surprising that Apple didn't include a Calculator app. It'd be the perfect excuse to say that you have the world's most advanced calculator watch -- thankfully, a few third-party apps have already filled that void, harkening back to the original Casio that made the notion famous.

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The Calendar app is what Apple Watch was built for. Using the Digital Crown to scroll through upcoming events works flawlessly, and it is apps like these that feel more suited for Watch than even iPhone. Anything that works best with a glance performs well on Apple Watch.

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Interestingly enough, Siri finally feels at home with the Watch. I never use Siri on my iPhone for one simple reason: the iPhone is a computer, and it's powerful enough to give me access to the Web, my calendar, etc. with no friction. In many cases, using Siri takes longer on the iPhone to accomplish something than if I'd just dove in myself. On the Watch, Siri makes everything faster. Just uttering "Hey Siri" wakes her up, and asking for items like "Who won the Clippers game last night?" brings up cards with glanceable information.

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This won't get the attention it deserves, but Siri was made for Watch. I've begun to lean on Siri like never before, simply because it's easier to talk to a watch than to try and type on it. The exact opposite is true when on an iPhone, which is why most people don't use Siri with regularity on their handset.

Notifications and bothers

Many have asked me if I feel burdened by having notifications on my wrist. The answer is "no," but allow me to explain. The Apple Watch iOS app will pull over your iPhone notification settings by default and apply them to Watch. However, you can tweak each app's notification settings for Watch. I've ensured that the only time my Watch taps me or makes a noise is when I have an incoming call or iMessage. Every other notification is delivered silently, which allows me to remain present in the real world and simply see a red dot atop whenever I check the time.

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You could certainly inundate yourself with notifications, just as you can already with a smartphone, but the Apple Watch is best used passively in my opinion. I have no intentions of letting a world of dings, pings, and chirps dictate my day. Unless you wrangle your notifications, you'll be driven crazy by wrist taps and chimes. I still allow notifications to flow to my Watch, but they do so silently, enabling me to check them whenever I so choose without a litany of bothersome taps in the interim. 

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