At long last, Apple has launched its Apple Watch, the first completely new product in years. The world was eagerly waiting for it, and although the media hype predicted a “historic” day for Apple, it is more likely to be not as historic as once thought a few years from now.
Apple may be a late comer on the smartwatch scene, but it got a lot of things right, even if it didn’t “blow away” the competition. As the latest to present its product, the company benefits from a slight announcement edge since it has tweaked its message and functionality.
However, with an “early 2015” availability and a high $350 price tag, there is ample room for the competition to catch up and undermine some of the real advances made by Apple today. Let’s go over the key points that you should know about the Apple Watch.
Industrial design (very nice, but not “killer”)
Let’s start with the obvious: the unveiling of the highly-anticipated Apple Watch design was received with mixed emotion. Some were very satisfied with the high quality of the material used, while others were disappointed by the design itself, which some still describe as an “iPod nano with a wristband” – it’s too harsh in my opinion, but their point is that it is boxy and quite “smartwatch-like”, for a lack of a better term.
Many expected Apple to walk on water, and… it didn’t, especially since the real-world photos and videos show that the marketing images look noticeably nicer than the real thing. At the moment, and in terms of design, the Motorola Moto 360 remains a firm competitor for many users.
The reality is that Apple is limited by the same technology as everyone else, namely: battery size, electronics size and display size – so it is fundamentally bound to be within the same neighborhood. Worse: it doesn’t create batteries or displays, so it can only source the “best” components it can find — possibly from its largest competitors: Samsung (Gear S) and LG (G watch R) who have curved and round displays already in production.
What Apple had when the original iPhone came out, was a “vision” that nobody else had, no matter the hardware. Today, it is playing catch-up, but certainly does it in style, and with some flair.
If you can look beyond the relative thickness of the watch’s body, there are a lot of good things to like. For example, the straps are very easy to remove in case you want to change or to clean them.
Apple is also the only company to feature a truly smaller model, which is what women have been asking for, and what the industry has largely ignored. Is it small enough? We’ll see. But what toll does it take on the battery life?
Finally, the physical dial on the side is an excellent idea, because it provides a fine-tuned control over functions like zoom, which cannot be done precisely with a pinch motion on such a small display. It’s a very, very nice touch which integrates completely in a smart watch design.
There is no question that Apple has been very thoughtful in adding these features, but it is also clear that these are not “game changers” from an Industrial design standpoint – they are merely nice tweaks. The competition is watching, taking notes, so just wait and see what will come out by “early 2015” when the Apple Watch is ready.
Not waterproof (!)
This is a bit surprising, but Apple’s Watch is not waterproof, which makes it a little higher maintenance than others. How much of a drag is this in terms of usability? It depends on how you live and in which conditions you plan to use it. For most people, it’s probably OK as long as you don’t accidentally drop it in the sink or the bathtub. We already know that of the smartphones that “die” in an untimely fashion, half do so because of water immersion. There are no statistics for smartwatches thus far.
Software and User Interface (great!)
This is where Apple truly takes the lead, and the software engineers and User Interface (UI) designers are the real heroes of this story. The Apple Watch user interface is more polished than what Google and Samsung are currently offering with their own interfaces (Android Wear is Google’s UI for watches.) Let’s look at the core features:
App Notifications seem clean and efficient, and the system even analyzes SMS messages to propose quick replies. This is really smart because the metric of success is how little you have to touch the watch. When an object is so small, increasing the number of physical interactions is counterproductive. Of course, it is also possible to dictate sentences to be translated into text.
Being able to send small hand-drawings are a fantastic idea. It’s OK to use for many little things in life and it is a huge personal touch. It’s nearly impossible not to like this one.
The Health monitor / bio-sensor seems to be well designed, and its placement is relatively classic. Now, we need to test this in the field. We know for sure that previous generations of smartwatches have seen enormous improvements in bio-sensor accuracy, and it is clear that people expect this to work every time – and that can be a challenge…
The charging mechanism is great. It requires little effort to connect, which means that users will be more likely to have their watches charged – a common pitfall for most wearable tech devices. LG led a similar push with their G Watch’s magnetic dock back in the Google I/O 2014 days and proved that every little bit of friction that you can remove from the charging process is a huge win.
Possible extended use cases
Beyond what I would consider as “core use cases” above, there are peripheral tasks that can be done. Among the interesting ones, I would like to list these:
Maps can be used in the watch, and in pedestrian mode, it could make a lot of sense. You don’t need to see a lot of map area, because you’re not moving fast. Also, the watch can buzz to indicate that a turn needs to be taken when you reach an intersection. This is much nicer than the alternative: walking with your phone and hearing it say voice directions while we’re walking on the curb.
The Talkie-Walkie function can be fun, but we’ll have to investigate how the idea holds up in the real world, when things get noisy – both in terms of voice clarity and being able to hear the other party.
NFC payment has a lot of potential, but we have yet to see the goods. Wireless credit card and other more modern means of payments have existed for some time, but most people don’t bother asking for them.
Your luck may vary depending on where you live, but basically the metric for success here is whether or not you can pay faster. It is true that in some cases mobile payment can improve the security of your account, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem that the public is dying to see solved. Instead, everyone wants more battery life. Still, there’s no harm in poking around, and maybe this will finally take off.
Battery life: zero visibility = bad omen
All the functions are great, and we can’t wait to use some of them in the real world. However, they come at a cost: everything that’s cool here consumes power, and potentially a lot of it.
Apple didn’t talk about the battery and battery life, and this is typically not a good sign. We need to rely on independent reviews to determine what the battery life is, so stay tuned. However, brace yourself for impact when the actual number hits, because chances are that you won’t like it, at all.
Apple also avoided talking about the underlying hardware that is powering the watch along with the display brightness and resolution. This information could be used to extrapolate what kind of power the watch draws.
Display “Not ON” at all times
This is one of the weak points of the Apple Watch. Recently, Google, LG, Samsung and others have proven that having an always-on watch is an excellent usability feature, and that the only reason to shut down the display is because you’re having battery life issues.
Yet, this is precisely what Apple is doing, probably relying on a motion detector to turn the watch ON when you want to interact with it. This has been tried before and it’s hard to believe that it’ll be much better than having an always-on display. Nothing beats an always-on screen.
Conclusion (welcome Apple Watch!)
Apple doesn’t command a clear lead on this otherwise subjective topic of design. It has gone very high in terms of pricing ($350), which is a bold move for an unproven product, but Apple absolutely had to outshine others at least with the build quality, if nothing else – and it seems to have worked for now. The device feels very polished and high-quality regardless of how you like the actual design.
Apple Watch is a win for Wearable Technologies industry as a whole. It seems poised to please the Apple early-adopters, and has improved upon existing core functions and interfaces that existed before it.
It won’t be like “the second coming of the iPhone”, but it’s a nice iPhone-complement which will evolve. Like everyone else, Apple is limited by battery and display technologies, and it’s fair to argue that they are even a bit behind, since they aren’t building those two components.
What do you think? At $350+ is this a must-have for you?