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Hands-on Apple Watch review roundup

Published Mar 11th, 2015 8:05AM EDT
Apple Watch Review

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When Apple first unveiled the Apple Watch this past September, the demo units journalists were allowed to play with weren’t fully functional, which is to say they mostly contained pre-roll demo videos. So sure, everything looked great, but it’s impossible to truly assess the value of a new product without giving it a proper spin.

Following Apple’s special media event on Monday, Apple finally let members of the press play with, to a certain extent, fully baked Apple Watch devices. So without further ado, here are the first Apple Watch reviews from the folks who have actually gotten a chance to use them at length.

DON’T MISS: 5 key ways the Apple Watch crushes Android rivals

First up, we have Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch who found the Apple Watch software to be rather intuitive.

The Apple Watch system software was new to us, but it is expectedly intuitive. After so long using all-touch devices, the digital crown does at first take some getting used to, but soon enough it makes as much sense as a navigation input as did the iPod’s clickwheel, if not more so. And when you do use touch input, it’s fast and responsive.

Apple’s ‘taptic’ touch engine is another tentpole feature of the wearable (though it’s also now in the new MacBook) and this works wonderfully in this setting. The engine’s vibration is very subtle and subject to fine tuning, providing a different response though only small variations. Compared to most haptic feedback in wearables that I’ve tried before, it’s almost on a completely different level – whereas you won’t even notice the kludgy vibration motors in a lot of Android Wear devices, taptic feedback is as difficult to ignore as an actual human lightly tapping your wrist.

Nilay Patel of The Verge

seemingly liked the device more than he was anticipating but still has concerns about the device’s potential to present a killer use case. Indeed, the fate of the Apple Watch may ultimately fall on the shoulders of developers.

That’s sort of the defining theme of the Apple Watch so far: it’s nicer than I expected and I’m sure the confusing interface settles down into a familiar pattern after you use it for a while, but I’m still not sure why you’d want to put this thing on your wrist all the time. Apple’s big task at this event was convincing people that a use case for the Watch exists, and at this moment it still feels like an awful lot of interesting ideas without a unifying theme. We’ll have to wait until we get review units in hand and spend way more time with one to really understand the value of the Apple Watch.

Brandon Russell of TechnoBuffalo was nice enough to put together a few YouTube videos showcasing how the Apple Watch UI operates.

While Russell had mostly positive feedback about the Apple Watch, he did note that navigating the UI was a bit more complex and involved a process than we’ve come to expect from Apple products.

Force Touch is also another big way users will be navigating the Apple Watch. The technology will essentially determine how hard you’re pressing down on the device’s screen, and act accordingly. So if you press hard, one UI element will pop up, as opposed to a simple tap. There are a lot of new elements and gestures users will need to learn, so the learning curve is definitely steep in the early going.

Learning how to navigate software on your wrist has become a complicated problem, one that companies like Pebble and Google have tried to address. Apple’s take is nothing if not colorful, but, at least in our early hands-on, it’s definitely not the easiest thing to use. Not something you typically say about Apple products. However, this isn’t a typical Apple product.

Lance Ulanoff of Mashable was equally pleased with the Apple Watch, noting that the bands were particularly comfortable. Ulanoff, though, did note that the myriad of the device’s functions could potentially get confusing.

I also got a chance to see inside the health and fitness area but, quite honestly, I got a bit confused about how I got there. That leads to a minor caveat: Until I get to spend a lot of time with one of these watches, I am going to remain confused about whether I should tap, scroll, swipe or push. For a watch, there are a lot of options.

Indeed, if there’s one underlying thread that unifies all of these early Apple Watch reviews it’s that it requires users to learn completely new gestures.

Ryan Smith of AnandTech writes:

In-hand (or rather on-wrist), the size feels right, at least for someone used to wearing a sizable sports watch in the first place. Though the Sport bands Apple had on-hand did not come in a size-Ryan. Interacting with it is definitely going to be a learned art; the only physical controls are the side button and the crown, so most interaction comes from touch interactions with a fairly small screen. The Apple Watch combines traditional touch gestures with pressure gestures from their new Force Touch technology, so interactions can come from swipes or touches of various pressure.

Smith also had some comments about how smooth the mobile OS operates:

The Watch appears to be running a heavily scaled down version of iOS, and in terms of performance it’s perhaps not surprising that performance feels like it’s yearning for a full Apple A-class SoC at times. Apps other than the clock – which is essentially part of the home screen – have a short but distinct loading time. Once you’re in an app most move smoothly as you’d expect, though flipping through one of the Apple fitness applications saw noticeable stuttering. Whether the load times and stuttering I saw is a limit of the SoC or the NAND I’m unsure, though as this is a pre-release device it’s entirely likely that Apple still has some performance tuning to go. What we’re seeing right now is generally going to be performant enough, but it’s not iPhone 6 level smoothness.

Gizmodo’s time with the Apple Watch

left them a tad pessimistic about Force Touch:

Worse was Force Touch. “Force Touch uses tiny electrodes around the flexible Retina display to distinguish between a light tap and a deep press, and trigger instant access to a range of contextually specific controls,” reads an Apple description, which roughly translates as “When you press down hard on the screen, sometimes you can activate hidden controls.” Like changing up your watchface (see above). But sometimes when I tried to tap, it thought I was trying to Force Touch—and it wasn’t always clear which one I needed to do to perform any given action. Again, maybe I’d get the hang of it after a while.

All in all, it seems that early hands on impressions of the Apple Watch are a mixed bag. While a learning curve is one aspect of the device most reviews had in common, there seems to be an underlying optimism about the device’s potential a few iterations down the line.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.