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Apple Watch review: Witness history in the making

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:59PM EST
Apple Watch Review, How-to, Tips and Tricks
Image: Chris Smith, BGR

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You know one thing that’s great about the Apple Watch? People often don’t realize it’s a smartwatch. I discovered this while visiting the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France when I asked the guard at the security checkpoint if he minded if I kept my Apple Watch on while walking through the metal detector. He didn’t seem to notice this wasn’t a typical watch, one that mostly shows you a black display instead of the actual time, and he let me pass through without putting the device into the plastic tray.

But the Apple Watch, of course, really does do a lot more than any old wristwatch – and as I’ll explain below, the device has so far really changed the way I’ve been using my iPhone. Don’t get me wrong, the Apple Watch isn’t ever going to “replace” the iPhone – however, it will make sure that you no longer have to pull the device out of your pocket for every single notification you receive.

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The Watch isn’t something I really need, but it’s definitely something I started appreciating having around from the moment I first took it out of the box and started wearing it. And yes, before you have to ask, you absolutely need the iPhone to use the Watch as a smartwatch. And you need the iPhone for everything else the Watch can’t do.

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I still think that smartwatches are not necessary purchases by any means. But after having worn it almost continuously for a week, I also believe these powerful wearable gadgets will turn out to be more than useful in helping us manage our increasingly busier digital lives.

If you’re willing to invest in one, you’ll soon see that investment pay off. The Watch already saves me time each day the more I use it. It only takes me a few short seconds to check notifications and glance over weather, calendar, maps and health and other quick info without having to whip out my iPhone.

A Watch built to last

From the get-go, two things struck me. First of all, the Apple Watch is better than any other smartwatch I’ve tried, and I have spent some time playing around with assorted Apple Watch rivals. Apple did not compromise when it comes to design, and the images you see online don’t do it justice. You just have to touch and wear one to really understand. It’s light and comfortable and once you put it on and integrate it in your daily routine, you won’t want to take it off. But you’ll have to do that nearly on a daily basis to replenish its small battery.

The Watch is not too heavy, and it’s not too big on the wrist – I rock a 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch model with white Sport band. It’s not too thick and it’s not uncomfortable to use. The square display has soft, round edges that reminded me of the original iPhone’s design, and the display feels great to touch. The downside is that it will take you a while to really master the Watch’s interface and the device sometimes incorrectly interprets your touches.

The Sport band feels a lot better on the skin than I expected, something I actually dreaded before buying it. It shouldn’t make your skin sweat more than other watches, and you’re not likely to get a rash, though that’s something each user has to discover on their own. Not to mention it’s really easy to clean.

The Watch seems to be built to last. I did not drop it a single time during testing, but I did bang its screen against a door at least once. I didn’t even bother to immediately check whether it scratched – it didn’t – knowing that the sapphire display of the stainless steel model can handle a good deal of pain.

How Apple put ‘smart’ in this Watch

You’ll be happy to learn that Apple didn’t compromise on the software side of things either. The iPhone maker wanted to make plenty of iPhone features readily available to buyers right on their wrists. With only a flick of the wrist I can access many of them without taking the smartphone out of my pocket.

And for me the software experience is even more important than its looks. While testing the Watch, and showing it off to some friends, I mostly talked about what the Watch can do for you in terms of features rather than addressing design and build quality.

Read more: Apple Watch tips: Everything you need to know about apps

Did Apple manage to deliver a flawless software experience? Not exactly. The more I used the device, the more I realized this is a first-generation Watch, one that won’t always deliver what you expect from it.

Activating the Watch is fairly easy, and Apple’s companion Apple Watch app that’s preloaded on the iPhone will most of the work for you. In a matter of minutes after taking it out its box, my Watch was already sitting on my wrist, tracking my activity and regularly checking my heartbeat. All the apps that had Watch components were cleverly installed with a simple tap, notifications started coming in, and some preferences and settings were already mirrored from the iPhone.

Does this mean it can replace the iPhone? Absolutely not. The tiny computer when your iPhone is within Bluetooth or Wi-Fi reach. Without it, the Watch loses most of its smart features. It’ll still be able to show the time, let you set up alarms, track activity, register heart rate and even play music. But everything else will essentially stop working until the iPhone is in range again.

The Watch apps are designed to be lighter versions of their counterparts on the iPhone, and many of them will require a permanent Internet connection. Notifications will stop coming in without one, and the Watch will cease to be as useful, unless you’re happy using it just as a fitness tool or a fashion statement.

Furthermore, the default Apple Watch apps that Apple developed for the device work much better than third-party ones. But you can expect glitches, stutter and lags from time to time across apps, even Apple’s. That’s probably something that will be fixed over time, as developers figure out how to make their apps more Watch friendly. Nonetheless, it is an issue for early adopters.

So don’t be surprised to see some stuttering on the screen when one app is playing animations and delivering sound at the same time. App performance inconsistencies like that will happen from time to time and you’ll just have to be patient and get used to it.

Before turning the Watch into a tool that takes your eyes and mind off the iPhone, you’ll have to tame it. And that also requires some patience, no matter how tech-savvy you might be. Not only isn’t this a smaller iPhone, it doesn’t behave like one all the time either.

Read more: Apple Watch tips: The good, the bad and the ugly about talking to your wrist

Learning new gestures takes some time

Because it has a smaller display, Apple had to develop new ways of interacting with it. Instead of touching and multi-touching the screen, you now have several other ways of handling it: There’s the Force Touch gesture, the Digital Crown button, the Glances panels, and other features you’ll need to get used to.

In other words, there’s a learning curve, and it might not always be clear what you’re supposed to do. It’s not obvious when Force Touch will bring up a new menu, for instance, so I find myself guessing what comes next more than once while dealing with Watch apps.

The same goes for the Digital Crown. The button is slicker than I’d have imagined and responds quickly to presses and turns. At the same time it is prone to getting sticky, at which point you’ll have to wash it to make it function properly again. But the crown is crucial for zooming in and out of pictures and maps; scrolling through lists, features and notifications; and customizing certain aspects of the Watch, like choosing the watch face. In some ways, this is the home button.

Just like with Force Touches, Digital Crown gestures aren’t always obvious either, and you’ll have to keep trying them it in each app you have installed to nail them down.

Finally, the last new thing you have to get used to on the Watch are the new Glances. Activated by a swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen, these are essentially permanent notifications. They contain tiny windows filled with key information, including access to some quick settings, music controls, heart rate measurements, battery information, activity updates, calendar events, weather, and maps to name just a few.

They can also trigger apps and can be customized in the Apple Watch iOS app so they only show the kind of instant info you want to have access to at all times. But it’s not immediately clear how you get this instant information, and how you personalize it. Again, it takes some time getting used to Glances as well.

Speaking of customizing the Watch, you’re going to spend a lot of time using the Apple Watch app on your iPhone. The app is your main hub for setting up all your important preferences on the device. The most important preferences deal with managing all the apps you have, managing the device’s internal memory and – very important – limiting the number of notifications you receive.

The one major Watch software feature many buyers won’t be able to use at first is Apple Pay. The mobile payments solution isn’t supported in Europe and other markets yet, and I wasn’t able to test it while out and about.

Once you get used to all that, you’ll start to really appreciate what the Apple Watch can do for you.

I love the Watch even when I hate it

The Watch is a major technological achievement. The S1 chip inside it is a marvel of technology and future generations will make the device even more powerful. But its amazing hardware does have limitations, which is why you’ll both love and hate the Watch, depending on how you use it every day.

I love that Retina display, especially when selecting certain graphically richer watch faces, and I love changing faces and customizing their features. Sure, looking at it under direct sunlight might still be annoying, but the Watch is not an iPhone, and you only have to check it for a few seconds each time rather than lingering over it for gaming, reading news or streaming media.

In fact, I love the fact there’s no browser on this thing. The screen offers a great viewing experience, but loading web pages or looking to stream video on it is hardly something you should be able to do on the Watch. Remember: The Apple Watch is a compliment to your iPhone, not a replacement.

I love how the Apple Watch tries to make me walk around at least once every hour, and I found challenging myself to beat daily Activity goals (that includes burning a certain amount of calories, exercising for a certain amount of time, and standing up for a minute every hour during the day) thanks to the Watch’s fitness apps.

I loved discovering the tiny tricks of the Watch too, like double pressing the Digital Crown app to switch between the last used apps, or covering the Watch with your hand to shut the screen off at any point after being done with it. And yes, there’s Handoff too, a feature that lets you ‘sync’ up app usage between the Apple Watch and your iPhone.

Read more: The Apple Watch’s battery is much better than I thought… but I still have to charge it every day

The thing I love most about the Watch is that it really freed me from checking the iPhone as often as I used to. I have everything I need coming in right on the Watch. The device will tell me when the important people in my life are looking for me, and offer me ways of quickly responding to their pings. It’ll tell me when I’m needed at work, and it’ll deliver updates on my health and fitness life on a regular basis. And of course, it will tell me what time it is. For everything else, entertainment included, I have an iPhone and a computer.

Now that I’ve told you what I love about the Watch, here’s what I hate about it: I hate having to charge it when I least expect it. I hate seeing the battery go off in the middle of a fitness session, at which point the device will stop tracking fitness data. I hate wondering whether there’s enough battery to wake you up in the morning, and worrying about packing a second charger. And I hate taking it off to charge it – wireless charging that doesn’t require a cradle would be a very welcome future feature.

Read more: 25 tips and tricks to improve Apple Watch battery life without compromising the experience

I also hate it if it malfunctions, or having something else on my wrist activate Siri every single step of my jog and interrupt the music playback in the process. Not to mention that I hate that the stainless steel model scratches, as mine did after only three days of use.

Do you need an Apple Watch right now?

I’ve been wearing my Apple Watch all the time: While sleeping, in the shower and I washed dishes with it. I traveled, I lugged heavy stuff around, I went on with my daily activities as I’d normally do without minding its presence unless a notification came in.

Read more: The one feature the Apple Watch needs more than any other

All the same, I absolutely don’t need an Apple Watch. Once I got one, however, I’ve found ways of including it into my daily digital habits, in spite of the glitches I’ve encountered along the way. Most importantly, it’s stopped me from checking my iPhone all the time.

The Watch is Apple’s attempt at reinventing a device we’ve used for many years, and you’ll be in for an interesting ride if you choose to buy it. Not to mention that soon, when developers and third-party accessory makers have finally figured out the Watch themselves, the device will probably turn out to be even more useful that it is right now.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.