Apple Watch Part II: First Impressions + Video
In Part I of my Apple Watch preview, I cover everything from reserving my “try-on appointment” and ordering my Apple Watch online, to finding no line and some unexpected intimacy in the Apple Store.
As it turns out, most of the Apple Watch models you see in the Apple Store today are demonstration models that simply run through a canned preview of various screens. Still, you get a good sense of how the watch and its various bands feel, which is a big part of the experience. And the tablet-mounted display unit did allow you to interact with the software quite a bit.
Below, some of my thoughts on the Apple Watch hardware and software. But first, here’s a video I made of my Apple Watch Aloha Friday at Ala Moana Center, from the quiet beginning to the enthusiastic store opening to the “try-on appointment” walk through.
The first question I wanted to answer was whether I should get the 38mm Apple Watch or the 42mm Apple Watch. I wear a Pebble Steel, which feels a little big on my wrists, so I knew I didn’t want to get something much larger. I mistakenly looked at screen size first: the Pebble Steel screen measures 1.26″ diagonally, whereas the 42mm Apple Watch screen was 1.49″. But the Pebble Steel has a proportionally huge bezel, and when I looked at the dimensions of the watches’ cases, the comparison went the other way. The Pebble Steel case measured 57.2mm diagonally, compared to the Apple Watch at the stated 42mm. The Apple Watch was supposedly smaller, just with much more screen.
In person, the Pebble-Steel-to-Apple-Watch comparison is more of a toss up. The Apple device definitely wears its weight differently from the Pebble. On the other hand, the difference between the 38mm and 48mm Apple Watch was much less more subtle than I expected. Knowing that Apple says “a 42mm Apple Watch typically experiences longer battery life,” I decided to just get the larger one.
One wrinkle? The larger watch comes with a longer band. When I wore the 38mm Apple Watch, I used a middle-ish notch on the fluoroelastomer band. On the 42mm model, I needed the very last, smallest notch for a reasonable fit.
Honolulu didn’t get any Apple Watch Edition models, so there wasn’t an opportunity to touch that glorious gold (or rose gold). But there were plenty of Apple Watch Sport models in aluminum and Apple Watch models in stainless steel.
The Apple Watch Sport in silver aluminum looked good, with a matte finish that reminded me of the first iPhone, especially given the rounded curves of the watch case. And the space gray aluminum looked really good. It wasn’t surprising that it was apparently the most popular model during pre-sales (as its shipping dates pushed back the furthest and fastest).
I didn’t get to spend much time with the stainless steel Apple Watch, but I will say that I could feel the $200 difference. While the watch overall feels like a solid, elegant piece of hardware, the stainless steel upgrade brings a surprisingly tangible boost in finish and density. Greg Yamane said it was noticeably heavier, but in a more reassuring way. He even said the Sapphire Glass felt better than the Ion-X glass on the Sport.
The primary way you get to more than 50 possible models of the Apple Watch is through the many different watch band options. A slick side-sliding latch makes it simple to switch among them… but you’ll need a decent budget if you plan to have more than one band on hand. Prices range from $49 for the fluoroelastomer band to $449 for the larger stainless steel link bracelet.
As a huge fan of the color green, I was more than happy to start with the green Sport band. It’s hard to not simply call it a rubber band. It felt soft but strong and just flexible enough, and the way the end of the band tucks under rather than over and through a conventional loop was… interesting.
I tried the leather loop, which had a nice soft finish and, thanks to a magnetic closure, provided decent flexibility in how tight you’d want it to be. But priced at $149 compared to the $49 Sport band, I didn’t feel like it was a $100 upgrade.
The band I really wanted to try was the Milanese Loop, a woven stainless steel mesh. It felt as good as it looked, an almost liquid-feeling metal that felt as good as cloth on my skin. It also had a magnetic closure, and as a result, nearly complete flexibility in how tight you could make it. The magnet was nice and strong, and didn’t seem to budge with even firm tugging. It did feel like it was worth its $149 price.
I don’t think my try-on station had a Modern Buckle leather strap ($149), and I only got to hold the stainless steel Link Bracelet ($449). But that didn’t matter, I knew the Milanese Loop would be my first upgrade.
Apple Watch Software
The Apple Watch models that were put on my wrist during my try-on appointment were primarily dumb screens playing a demo video. The most interaction I had with the software was on the tablet-mounted unit, which certainly isn’t the ideal test setup.
I concede that the controlled environment gave the Apple Watch the best possible chance to shine. And I got barely a minute to play with it, while pretending to listen to my Apple guide. But what I did try was still impressive, especially considering how happy I’ve been with my Pebble Steel smartwatch. The Pebble Steel suddenly felt like a 1990s flip phone compared to the iPhone, with its sleek, colorful, and touch-responsive screen.
And the screen was fun to touch. I didn’t feel as if it was too small to use, although I do have smaller fingers. It responded as instantly as I expected, but on the other hand, I could immediately appreciate the confusion many earlier reviewers reported about the user interface. iOS and iPhone interactions are deeply ingrained in my brain, so I tried to swipe up or down to get to basic system functions.
The most interesting new idea with the Apple Watch is the Digital Crown. And compared to the way the screen worked (and didn’t), I was surprised as how intuitive this input device felt. Want to scroll up and down a list? Spin. Want to zoom in or out on the cluster of app icons on the home screen? Spin. It was eerily smooth, with just a bit of resistance but no tangible increments or ‘clicks.’
As for buttons, the Apple Watch has a few. The Digital Crown itself is a button, and functions as a “back” and “home” button. The fact that it didn’t always go all the way to the home screen was something that confused even the Apple guide. And the creatively-named Side Button was a dedicated “contacts” button (even though it really looks like a power button). Hitting it takes you to a spin-able dial of 12 favorite friends. Hitting it twice would launch Apple Pay (but I didn’t get to see it).
The last button is the screen itself, thanks to Force Touch. It’s an extra firm press, rather than a tap. I’m told this feature — coupled with the “Taptic Engine” that’s a far more sophisticated way to get your attention than and old-school vibration — is transformative. But unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience it.
It’s obvious that Apple is still not quite done with the Apple Watch software, and the early reviews say it’s the shakiest part of this new device. I look forward to seeing for myself, in two weeks or so, just how far things have improved.
If you missed it, check out Part I, posted yesterday, as well as my photo gallery from my visit to the Apple Store at Ala Moana Center. You may also be interested in watching Burt Lum’s “try-on” appointment (above), which he was streaming live until someone told him it was against store policy.