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A Canadian takes the Apple Watch for a spin

Mike Yawney | posted Wednesday, Apr 8th, 2015

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The smart watch market is quickly becoming flooded. It seems like every other week another company is throwing another device into the fray, touting its unique features. On April 24 Apple will follow in the same footsteps, launching its highly anticipated Apple Watch.

I was at the initial Apple Watch unveiling in Cupertino last September. Like many journalists I sat back in the auditorium and was intrigued by what we were shown, yet it was hard not to be a bit skeptical. What would Apple do to make its watch stand out from the rest in an already crowded market place?

I’ve now had the opportunity to put Apple Watch through the paces for the past nine days. Each day I wore it during every waking moment. I traveled with it, exercised with it, and used the watch extensively for work. How did it fare? Read on for my full review.

Design
One of the first things I noticed about Apple Watch when I initially laid hands on it 7 months ago was the design. Not only did it look different than the majority of smart watches on the market, it felt different. I have worn many smart watches over the years, and while most feel like plastic gadgets, Apple Watch felt more like jewelry than a piece of technology. Now after spending extensive time with it this past week I can say that initial impression hasn’t changed.

While there are a number of different models you can choose from, the important thing to keep in mind is the core components remain the same. Apple Watch is probably the only Apple device where you don’t get a performance boost by spending extra money. From the most affordable model to the most expensive Apple Watch, the processor, memory, and internal parts are identical. The changes come in the materials the watch is made from.

The body of the entry level Apple Watch Sport is composed of aluminum with an ion-X glass face and composite back. The mid-series Apple Watch sees an upgrade to a stainless steel frame with a sapphire crystal face and ceramic backing. Apple’s high-end model, called Apple Watch Edition, is similar to Apple Watch with the exception of the frame which is comprised of 18-Karat gold (yellow and rose).

Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to try on all three models of Apple Watch. While the actual watch body feels similar against your wrist, it is the band that is the biggest factor. Two different bands can make it feel like you are wearing two entirely different watches, which is why I would strongly recommend trying on an Apple Watch in-store before purchase.

I was given Apple Watch with a 42mm face (also available in 38mm) and two different bands, a blue rubber one (standard for Apple Watch Sport) and a stainless steel link bracelet. While the rubber band was smooth and light with a silky texture, the heavier stainless steel link added quite a bit of weight, making it feel more substantial on my wrist. Bands can be swapped out quickly through a button mechanism, which is a great feature. Not only does it encourage you to buy additional bands, it also allows you to use your watch as a true fashion accessory, matching your outfit or mood.

I quickly fell in love with the stainless steel link bracelet, but was thankful for the rubber band, especially while working out. Let’s be honest, sweaty stainless steel in kinda gross. If you’re an active person and plan to run or workout frequently with your Apple Watch I seriously suggest purchasing a rubber band! It’s easy to wipe clean, even if it gets grimy.

The Face
Another way to change the look of your Apple Watch is by changing the digital face. Apple Watch comes with 12 default faces which can be swapped in a matter of seconds.

While the watch comes with many traditional faces, I found it fun to try some of the more whimsical ones which include jellyfish, butterflies and the ever popular Mickey Mouse, who tells times with his hands and taps his foot every second.

The fluid motion of the watch faces look incredible on the Retina display. Butterflies come to life on the screen and flowers open before your eyes. My personal favourite is the jellyfish which glides elegantly across the face of the watch. Rest assured more faces will be coming, probably in the form of apps in the near future.

One of the many available faces of the Apple Watch. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

Almost every face can be customized. You can change the number of digits which appear on the screen or change the colour of the second hand on some clocks. There are also additions known as “complications”. These tiny icons show the moon phases, calendar, date, temperature or your daily activity goal. You can add or remove these from almost every face, allowing for true customization to personal taste.

Setup
Apple Watch requires an iPhone to function, so it makes sense the first step is to pair it with your smartphone. If you updated your iPhone to iOS 8.2 you will have noticed the new Apple Watch logo. This is key to the setup process, which is surprisingly quick and painless.

Once you launch the app on your iPhone and turn on the watch you select the Pair mode. (Note: Apple Watch takes a few minutes to boot up on initial startup. Don’t panic as subsequent restarts are much quicker.) Your Apple Watch will display an image which resembles a transparent globe made from thousands of tiny pixels. You will be prompted to take a photo of the image on the watch display with your iPhone. Once you snap the picture the two devices will pair automatically. That’s it. No fiddling with Bluetooth settings or entering pass-codes. It’s incredibly simple. Within minutes you’ll be using your watch.

Navigation
If you’ve used an iPhone or an iPad you know just how intuitive navigation on an Apple device can be. Hand an iPad to a three-year-old and they will have no trouble opening the apps, games or even figuring out how to unlock the device. Apple is known for its simple, yet friendly user interfaces. Apple Watch throws the user a bit of a curve ball in that respect.

Like all iOS devices, the Apple Watch is a touch screen device, but the screen is significantly smaller than an iPhone, so navigation had to change accordingly. Sure the swiping, tapping and scrolling are all here, but the familiar gestures like pinch to zoom are gone. The screen is simply too small.

A lot of navigation is now done through the digital crown. The crown on a traditional watch is typically used to set the time or adjust the date, but on Apple Watch it has a number of different uses. Turn the crown to magnify the tiny app icons on the home screen, or zoom in and out of photos without obstructing your view of the small screen. You can also use it to scroll through menus, lists or email on the screen. The digital crown also doubles as a home button. Press it once and you will be taken back to the main app page on the watch. Holding down the digital crown will call upon Siri, Apple’s built-in personal assistant.

The digital crown up close on the Apple Watch. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

It’s surprising just how fluid the motion of the digital crown is. It’s not too stiff, and yet it doesn’t spin freely.

Another hidden navigation feature is Force Touch. This is the equivalent of a right click on the track pad of an iMac or MacBook. Force Touch is activated with a hard press of two fingertips on the watch screen. This can open up hidden menus and options within apps. It’s a clever way to get even more navigation options on the watch without adding another button.

While navigation felt a bit alien at first (after all I have been using an iPhone and iPad for years) it’s surprising how quickly you become accustomed to the new user interface. Within a day I had most of the basics, yet even after a week I still find myself stumbling upon shortcuts and quicker ways to navigate.

Notifications
I would consider this the most basic and most frequently used feature on Apple Watch. Within minutes of pairing your two devices, your watch will begin to receive notifications. Every time you receive a message, email or social media alert, your Apple Watch will notify you with a quiet chime, along with subtle pulse or vibration on your wrist. Apple Watch has a built-in linear actuator, which produces haptic feedback or small vibrations on your wrist. A different vibration is felt for different notifications.

For example, incoming messages or mail will alert you with a vibration which consists of one long and two short pulses. An incoming phone call meanwhile will cause your watch to ring with a pulse which mimics the ringtone on your watch. Over time you can distinguish what type of notification you have received based on the vibration you feel on your wrist.

Notifications can be dealt with in two ways. Once you hear or feel a notification and you raise your wrist, the watch will display a basic description of what it is. It may say “Message from Johnny Appleseed”. If you wish to read it, simply keep your wrist raised and the message will automatically open up for you to read. If you have no interest in reading the message, lower your wrist and the notification disappears putting your watch to sleep. Your watch essentially acts as a filter, letting you decide if your notifications are worth a closer look or dismissal.

Messages appear as they do on your iPhone and can be read in full; however, email appears in a simplified text form. Any email formatted in html will display a message, letting you know the full version must be read on your iPhone. Social media notifications are also limited. While Twitter and Periscope will notify you of new followers and messages, other popular networks like Facebook offer no real details on notifications. This is probably due to the fact there is no dedicated Facebook Apple Watch app available yet.

A preview of an html email as read on the Apple Watch. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

Notifications will not appear on your Apple Watch if you are using your phone. Apple assumes you have already seen incoming activity and considers it redundant to notify you on your watch as well as your phone.

Glances
Think of these as snapshots of relevant information from the most popular apps on your Apple Watch.

Glances can be found by swiping up from the bottom of the watch face when the time is displayed. Glances can include weather, calendar, heart rate monitor or your “now playing” screen for audio. They are always basic, with all content appearing on a single screen. If you want more information tap on the Glance and the watch will open up the full app where more detailed information can be found.

Apple automatically places basic apps such as weather and calendar in Glances, but you can modify Glances to your liking at any time though your iPhone. I narrowed mine down to only a few to keep everything streamlined.

Responding to Messages and Mail
Apple Watch isn’t just a one-way communication tool. The device allows for quick response to specific messages despite the fact there is no virtual keyboard.

There are three options for a quick response to text messages. When a message is received, Apple Watch gives you a series of quick auto response to choose from. These can range from “yes”, “no”, “thank you” to “can’t talk right now”. These responses can be edited on your iPhone but must be kept short.

Another way to respond to incoming messages is through animated emojis. These brand new emojis (exclusive to Apple Watch) consist of faces showing a wide variety of emotions, animated hands which can wave or give a thumbs up, and animated hearts which beat or break into two. Users can also choose from standard emojis like the ones you use on your iPhone.

Voice dictation is my favourite way to respond to incoming messages. The built-in microphone does an amazing job of picking up your voice, even in loud environments. After you record your message you can send it as an audio file or as text. I found this to be much easier and even faster than typing a response on my iPhone. I now use this feature all the time, unless of course the discussion is of a private nature … which can be awkward.

Mail on the other hand is a different beast altogether on Apple Watch. While you have a few options such as mark as unread, flag, trash or dismiss an email, you cannot send even a simple response. Users will have no choice but to pull out their iPhone for email.

Phone Calls
Yes, you can make and receive phone calls on your Apple Watch. It’s not the most glamorous experience but there are times when it comes in handy.

All incoming calls are mirrored from your iPhone directly to your Apple Watch, as long they are within Bluetooth range of each other. Your watch will ring just like your phone and you will feel a gentle pulse on your wrist, notifying you of the incoming call. You can choose to accept the call or ignore it. Answering the call will allow you to chat just as you would on your iPhone thanks to the built-in speaker and microphone on your Apple Watch.

The speaker on the Apple Watch is tiny. While it’s ideal for making notification chimes, it’s not great for phone calls. Voices often sounded airy and tinny, making them difficult to hear in louder environments. That being said, I can’t see many people actually making calls in public as you have absolutely no privacy.

There are times when the phone feature does come in handy. If your iPhone is in your purse or briefcase, and not easily accessible, it gives you the ability to answer without letting it go to voicemail, at least until you can grab your phone. Calls can be transferred to your phone at any time via handoff (an icon which appears on your iPhone).

Digital Touch
This is a new feature never seen before in any Apple product. It’s a unique way to communicate with friends without using text or voice.

On the side of the watch, just below the digital crown you’ll find an elongated button. Pressing this will bring up your friends, a list of close contacts you assign directly from your iPhone. Once you tap on a friend you can start communicating through Digital Touch.

The first way to communicate through Digital Touch is through taps. Tap a pattern on your Apple Watch face and the recipient will feel the pattern on their Apple Watch seconds later. Imagine sitting across the table from a colleague in a meeting and you notice them dozing off. Send them a few taps to wake them up! You could even create your own secret language like a modern day Morse code.

Digital Touch can also be used to send drawings to others. Select the colour you want your doodle to appear in, then start drawing. The screen is small and your finger is quite big so drawings often appear a bit crude, but it is fun to see what you can come up with. Once you start drawing there is no stopping. If you do stop for more than a second the watch will automatically send what you have drawn. When the recipient receives the doodle it will be drawn on their watch in real time, just as you drew it. Be careful with this one. Once you start a doodle there is no going back. There is no erase and no cancel!

The final thing you can send is your personal heartbeat. Apple Watch will read your heart rate through the built-in heart rate monitor and then send the pulse to another Apple Watch wearer. This feature is very cool. But also kinda creepy. I can’t really think of a reason why you would want to send a heart rate to someone unless you were flirting with them or they are your workout partner. Then again, you can only imagine the apps developers will come up with that will take advantage of this feature.

Health and Fitness
A huge draw for many will be Apple Watch’s health and fitness components. After using Apple Watch extensively for a week it’s become clear Apple put a lot of work and effort into these.

The watch contains an accelerometer which tracks all your movements and steps throughout the day. On the backside of the watch there are a series of sensors that monitor your heart rate. Both are used to help you achieve your personal fitness goals through continuous monitoring.

It all starts when you first set up the fitness app. You will be asked to enter your personal details such as your height, weight, age and desired activity level. After that the watch does the rest. Go for a 30 minute walk and Apple Watch will be able to determine not only how many steps you took, but how many calories you burned as well. Did you have to run because you were late for the bus this morning? Maybe the dog took you for a walk this morning and you spent more time chasing rather than leading. Everything is monitored throughout the day. The watch also gives you a nudge every hour reminding you to get off your butt and do something active for a few minutes.

Instead of posting page after page of numbers and stats, Apple Watch simplifies your daily progress through a series of rings. The outer-most pink ring is known as the Activity Ring and represents how many calories you burned throughout the day. The ring grows as you become more active. If it grows large enough for both ends to connect to form a complete circle, then you have reached your set goal for the day. The inner green ring represents exercise. It will track how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve completed for the day. The inner-most blue ring is referred to as the stand ring, ensuring you stand up and get active at least once per hour throughout the day.

The Apple Watch activity monitor. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

The Apple Watch activity monitor. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

The Apple Watch activity monitor. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

The built-in heart rate monitor can also be used on its own to measure your pulse or in conjunction with the built-in Workout app.

The Workout app is intended to be used for dedicated cardio workouts. This includes running, walking both indoor and outdoor, elliptical machines, rowing machines or stair climbers. If your cardio machine of choice is not on the list you can select the “Other” option on the menu.

Once you select your workout, you choose your goal. You can attempt to burn a set number of calories, exercise for a predetermined amount of time or distance, or leave it open to exercise with no set goal. As you work out the app will take into account your heart rate, and determine how many calories you have burned. If you are running it will also determine your distance and the total time you spent with an elevated heart rate.

I have tested many smart watches and activity trackers over the years and I have always had issues. I always ran into problems with monitors losing track of my heart rate during intense workouts. The heart rate monitor on Apple Watch never missed a beat.

The heart rate monitor is a huge selling point for Apple Watch. I tried it out while running in the rain in New York’s Central Park (Apple Watch is water resistant). I ran indoors on a treadmill, used an elliptical and a stair climber. Each time the result was the same: it was able to determine my pulse every time I checked. It would even encourage me with a little nudge when it noticed I reached my halfway point on one of my longer runs. Sometimes that’s all you need to pick up the pace.

If you want even more information from you outdoor runs, I highly recommend bringing your iPhone along with you. Apple Watch can use your phone’s GPS to help it determine distance. The more you use Apple Watch outdoors with GPS the more accurate it becomes when you use it indoors on equipment such as treadmills and ellipticals.

Music and Photos
Like your iPhone, Apple Watch has built-in memory which can be accessed by the user. No matter which model of Apple Watch you purchase, the memory remains the same. There are 8 GB in total, with a portion of that reserved for the operating system and apps.

Users can save total of 2 GB of music to their Apple Watch. That’s the equivalent of about 250 songs. It’s a great option for those who want to take their watch out while exercising and do not want to take along their iPhone or MP3 player. All you have to do is pair your watch with Bluetooth headphones and you can listen to and control your music.

Songs can be synced wirelessly to Apple Watch through the iPhone. Simply select the playlist you want to sync from the Music app on your iPhone and you will be on your way. Since syncing is done wirelessly it does take a long time. I transferred around 30 songs when I first set up my Apple Watch and it took close to 20 minutes for the music to successfully transfer from my iPhone to my watch.

You can also store photos on your Apple Watch. Seventy-five megabytes of storage is allocated for photos, which is equivalent to roughly 500 pictures. You choose the album on your iPhone you want to sync on your Apple Watch and it does the rest. All photos will appear direct on your watch for viewing, even if your phone isn’t with you.

Viewing photos on Apple Watch is a bit tricky. They appear as one huge event, combined into a giant mosaic timeline. Using the digital crown you can zoom in to find specific pictures. It works when you have only a few dozen photos but good luck finding a specific pic if you have a few hundred to sort through.

Siri
Apple’s popular personal assistant has a presence within Apple Watch. Hold down the digital crown for more than a second and Siri will ask what you need assistance with.

Siri works just like she does on the iPhone. I was able to convert kilograms to pounds while setting up the activity app on the watch. I also used Siri to bring up maps and respond to a text message (just to see if she could). It should come as no surprise that Siri is just as witty on the Apple Watch as she is on your iPhone. When I asked her what the best smart watch is she simply stated “the one you are wearing”.

There is one major difference between how Siri works on Apple Watch compared to iOS devices: she doesn’t talk on the watch. Siri communicates through text only. At first I was annoyed with this, thinking I would like to hear what she had to say but I quickly realized it’s probably for the best as that would probably compromise battery life.

Apps
All of the features and apps mentioned so far in this review are built into Apple Watch. However, Apple has created a dedicated Apple Watch app store which can be used to gain even more functionality on your Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch app for iPhone. CITYNEWS/Mike Yawney

Over the past week and a half I was able to try out at least a dozen apps. Not all of them were fully functional, but keep in mind as I write this review the app store hasn’t gone live yet and Apple Watch is still nearly three weeks away from launch.

I was able to unlock my hotel room door while on a trip to New York using only my Apple Watch using the SPG (Starwood Preferred Guests) app thanks to NFC technology built into Apple Watch. I was able to call a town car to my location while in Times Square using the Uber app on my Watch. I kept track of finances while on a business trip with the Tangerine app. I boarded a flight from New York to Calgary without taking out my boarding pass thanks to the Air Canada app. I was also able to purchase a cup of coffee at Starbucks using the Passbook app.

It’s important to note, most apps do require you to have your iPhone within Bluetooth range of your Apple Watch to work. In fact, the only way to load the apps onto the watch is through your iPhone.

Even though there aren’t a ton of apps available yet, it’s clear Apple is keeping a tight rein on the types of apps which are being developed. For the most part all the apps that have been released so far have been useful. The quality of apps is high, which has always been the case with Apple.

Apple Pay
Apple has always touted Apple Pay as one of the big selling points of Apple Watch, unfortunately for Canadians it’s a feature that will be absent at launch. Apple has yet to launch the service in Canada. Until that happens Canadians will not be able to pay by tapping their Apple Watch at the checkout.

Battery Life
This has been one of the most controversial topics when it comes to Apple Watch.

Apple has stated the average user should see about 18 hours of life out of a single charge. In my week and a half of testing the device I have to say I found that number to be quite accurate.

Most days I never had an issue with battery life. By the time I was ready to call it a day, I still had around 10 percent of battery. However on days where I used apps extensively, I found the watch drained faster.

If you are a long distance runner, or use your watch extensively to help you navigate you may have to recharge part way through the day.

Since Apple Watch connects to your iPhone via Bluetooth, it does impact your iPhone’s battery. It’s not a huge drain, but it is noticeable.

On the bright side, charging is quite fast. Plugging in for 30 minutes will more than likely give your watch enough juice to get you through the day. That being said this is not a device that must be charged each and every day. If you forgot to plug it in – expect to leave it at home or take your magnetic charge cable with you.

The Bottom Line
It would be easy to read through this review and say to yourself “My smart watch has many of these features. What’s the big deal about Apple Watch?” It’s true, Apple wasn’t first to launch a smart watch, but it has done something other companies have failed to do: make us realize just how useful a smart watch can be.

Apple Watch is easily one of the best designed smart watches on the market. It has an elegant look and feel yet is surprisingly rugged. It’s also loaded with useful apps with a strong developer community to back it up, which will only add even more functionality as the device matures.

If there’s a negative side to Apple Watch, it would have to be the battery. Those who want to get the most use of their watch through intensive exercise and app use may find themselves short on power towards the end of the day.

Apple Watch doesn’t replace your iPhone. If that’s what you’re looking for then the device simply isn’t for you. The watch compliments your phone, acting as a filter so you don’t have to dig for your phone every few minutes. For many, the idea of spending less time on our phones is an attractive quality. One that may be well worth the price.

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