Apple Watch One Year In

Scattered thoughts on why the Apple Watch is getting mixed reviews one year in

May 16, 2016

I’ve read (and heard) quite a bit over the last few weeks about how Apple Watch is both a failure and not. I wrote about smart wearables (in the context of Disney’s Magic Band) last year, a couple months before I got an Apple Watch.

Back then, I felt that a visual interface was secondary for a great wearable, and I think that premise still holds true for a lot of use cases. But after using my watch for 10 months, I think there are some things the Apple Watch does well, some things that could be great with a little improvement, and a few things that I almost never use.

It’s great

I still enjoy wearing my Apple Watch every day. I’ve gotten a couple different band options (with a few more I’d love to get eventually), and I change them out regularly.

As a watch

Telling time accurately is job number one for anything claiming to be a watch, and luckily Apple Watch excels at it. The various faces are clean and easy to read with a variety of complication options (that got much, much better after the watchOS 2 update). I’d love a few more watch face options with more personality, but for a first iteration, the choices are pretty great.

At keeping me informed

The praise I’ve heard most often about the watch is that people love getting notifications on their wrist more than in their pocket. I agree. Most notifications just need a quick glance, and I almost never have to pull my phone out anymore. After disabling sound, it’s even less disruptive to others around me.

As a fashion statement

For me at least. This is the first “fancy” watch I’ve owned and it fits my personality. It’s nice-looking yet functional. I can change the bands and faces to match my mood, my attire, or my plans. (You can bet I’ll have the Mickey face on at Disney World!) They’ve continued to introduce more great band options, and even third-party bands expand that further.

It could be great (but isn’t yet)

Those things being said, some of the other useful features still feel half-baked. Here are a few areas for improvement.

For quicker payments

Apple Pay sounded nice when it debuted on the iPhone a few years ago. But pulling out my phone and fiddling with buttons to pay isn’t much more efficient than pulling a card from my wallet. On top of that, the service wasn’t ubiquitous enough to make it a habit. Apple Pay on the watch, on the other hand, is far more efficient, and I have happily used it much more than I ever did on my phone.

That said, the service is still not ubiquitous enough to make it second nature. I have to deliberately remember where I can use my watch to pay. By the time I remember, my wallet is already in my hand. And at that point, it feels silly not to pay with my card. I hope Apple will continue to work on partnerships so that at some point this payment option will be supported as widely as most credit cards.

For voice commands

Like Apple Pay, I use Siri far more on my watch than I ever have on my phone. I use it regularly to set reminders, alarms, and timers and to send simple texts. But Siri could be so much better for several reasons:

  1. It’s randomly unresponsive. When I’m cooking and I need to start a timer, I don’t want my request to spin for 30 seconds to a minute before it starts listening. “Hey Siri, set a … HEY Siri, set … HEY SIRI!” sigh
  2. It’s limited. Both basic first-party functionality and third-party app integration is still limited. Siri feels like it’s still on the first iteration even though it’s been around for a few years now.
  3. It’s my mute assistant. I could argue both ways for a more conversational approach to Siri on the watch. There are times and places for hearing a response vs. reading a response. When I’m setting a reminder at the grocery store, I don’t want to pester others with an audio response. But when I’m at home or driving, it’s much less intrusive (and likely more helpful) to hear a verbal response. (I suspect this is more a result of the limited hardware in the first version.)

For tracking exercise

I’ve used a Fitbit and before that even had a basic pedometer that didn’t sync with anything. I love using data to build better habits, and the watch promised to give me more of it. Mostly though, I feel like it’s just made me better about standing more often. (That and drinking TONS of water.) It’s inconsistent in measuring exercise and movement unless I explicitly use the Activity app. When I go for a walk and forget to tell my watch, it’s frustrating to arrive home and be told that nothing has changed.

I miss the sleep tracking feature on my old Fitbit. I don’t wear my watch at night because it needs to be charged daily. Further, there’s no built in feature or app for sleep tracking. I know I could potentially get third-party apps for this, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it until Apple solves the battery issue.

Finally, Fitbit has lovely interfaces for actually viewing all the data that it collects. Apple’s Health app, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. I had to download a third-party app just to visualize how much walking we did every day in Disney World last year. Back then, the Health app showed data by hour I think, with the option to view it in “chunks” of steps. It felt like it was built for developers to view it rather than users. It’s a little better, but not much.

It’s just not good

There’s a lot of stuff I could do with my watch that I find myself not interested in.

As a platform for apps

I almost never use apps or even glances on my watch. I like the data that some apps pull in through notifications and complications, but I don’t often find myself using the apps directly. It’s not comfortable to look at or interact with something on my wrist for more than a few seconds. The few apps I want to see are apps that allow me to tap a button to do something (Workflow for instance) or that act as a passive input for my voice (Just Press Record).

For intimate communication

I had some misgivings during the original Apple Watch event when they showed the digital touch features. For the first day or two that I had my watch, it was fun sending sketches to my wife and one other friend who had a watch. Since then, I’ve barely used it. It’s not particularly easy to draw with a finger that takes up practically a quarter of the screen. It’s not comfortable to look at the screen for longer than a glance. There’s no room to draw more than basic shapes. And beyond those very real reasons, sending digital sketches just doesn’t feel meaningful.

If I’m going to send my wife or friends something to let them know I’m thinking of them, a sketch on a watch doesn’t feel particularly worthwhile. It feels more like the least I could do, like a poke on Facebook (do they still have that?) or a “Yo”. Maybe that’s enough for some people, but it’s not my style.

For establishing my identity

I would love to see the watch heading toward this in the future, but right now there just aren’t many ways to use the “identity” features of the watch other than Apple Pay. I would love to see more applications using my watch to automate things based on knowing my identity, whether that’s:

  • unlocking doors for me,
  • turning on lights or activating devices,
  • adding customer reward IDs to a purchase automatically,
  • starting my car,
  • or flagging me as arrived at and automatically checking me in at, say, an Apple Store for a Genius Bar appointment.

I’d love to see more thinking along the lines of “What can my watch do for me without my needing to interact directly with it at all” based solely on these things:

  1. that it knows that I am me (because I authenticated after putting it on and haven’t removed it since)
  2. that it knows where I am and when I’m there
  3. that it knows a rough pattern of my routine

Wrapping up

I’m still wearing my Apple Watch every day. I still get a lot of use out of it, even if I’m not actively interacting with it most of the time. I will continue to actively wear it, and I’m hopeful about where it can go in the future.