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Apple

Technical Gadgets That Have Not Changed My Life Episode X: The Apple Watch

I am an aspiring early adopter. I rarely have the budget to buy the newest shiniest version of a thing, but I do tend to be the first in my monkeysphere to engage with technological things.

There’s a common narrative that technologic devices change your life, or revolutionise it, and if they don’t then they obviously have failed. I find this isn’t true. Technological devices usually take something I already do and shift the context, either generalising it or specialising it, and then add functionality. Sometimes this results in a new thing I do, which might shift into another device later. That’s a bit complicated, so an example:

For my first iPhone (the 3Gs) I got an app called Sleep Cycle. The idea was that you put your phone under the sheet next to you when you went to bed, and the app used the motion trackers in the phone to measure how much you were moving around in your sleep. From there it could time your sleep cycles, tell you how well you slept, and wake you up when you were lightly sleeping within twenty minutes or so of your optimal alarm time. For a while it was my default alarm, because it helped me get up on time. On the downside, iPhone apps at the time didn’t support running in the background at all, so you could screw up the whole thing by clicking on the home button in your sleep. Plus, having the phone in the bed with you always risked accidentally sleeping on it – not great for either of you – and it didn’t work as well once Fyr moved in with me. When I drifted to Android for a couple of years I got a similar app for that – Sleep as Android – which was better at the background thing, but didn’t work as well for me. Later on I used a Fitbit for sleep tracking, which didn’t do the alarm cycles trick, and for the last six months it’s been one of the things Misfit tracked with my Pebble. Most recently, it’s what the Sense is for.

I had a Diamond Rio MP3 player when they could only hold 8 songs in terrible quality, and then a Rio 500 when they could hold almost 30. At one point in the early 2000s, I had a Palm Pilot, an IRDA connection to get it on the internet via my nokia, a no-brand MP3 player with almost a gig of usable storage and no pocket space at all. The iPhone didn’t really change what I was doing, it just put it into a single dedicated thing.

All of this is four hundred words of preamble to the following statement:

Technological devices are generally not life-changing revolutions, but different/better ways of doing things. The advancement is evolutionary, even with revolutions in technology.

A wrist, with a watch on it.
A wrist, with a watch on it.

It’s with that in mind that I bought an Apple Watch.

I’ve taken my side in the war, and I took it gladly. I signed up to the Apple ecosystem, and I’m happy with it. It’s not my first Apple device.

Left, my KS-backer original Pebble. Right, the new hotness.
Left, my KS-backer original Pebble. Right, the new hotness.

It’s not my first Smartwatch, either. I’ve been a happy user of my Pebble since I backed the Kickstarter for the first model, so the revolutionary aspect of being able to look at my wrist for notifications (and look like I’m an asshole who has somewhere he’d rather be) has replaced the aspect of looking at my phone for notifications (and looking like a more generic brand of asshole).

It’s not a revolution. It doesn’t change that I’m wearing something on my wrist – before the Pebble I wore a less-smart-watch. It doesn’t change that I have a computer on my wrist – as I say, Pebble. It doesn’t even change whether people talk to me about the Apple watch on my wrist, as that was happening while I was wearing a pebble too.

So, these are the things I use it for, and from there you can make your own judgements on whether it’s a worthwhile thing.

Notify

My standard simple watchface. The red dot means I have notifications waiting
My standard simple watchface. The red dot means I have notifications waiting

I’ve turned off most of the notifications in my life. SMSs, mentions in Slack, emails from people I care about, these things notify me, but as far as possible I’ve trimmed down the things that buzz and ping from my pocket. This is a continuing process, it was down a lot for the phone, back further for the Pebble, and the watch hardly at all, but I’ve come to like the Watch notifications. It was advertised as a “tap on the wrist”, which is a little more human than the final approach ends up being. It’s a more subtle form of haptic feedback, but it’s still mechanical. By default it still pops and pings when things happen, so I generally run it in silent mode.

Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy looms large over the concept of the smartwatch. One of the first watches I ever bought was a cheap plastic digital Dick Tracy style watch, with an LCD-rendered analog screen and a light where the speaker would be. The thing you couldn’t do with it, and even up to recently couldn’t do at all with a smartwatch, was actually take calls on it.

Which makes sense, because you don’t actually want to.

A couple of times in the last month I’ve taken calls on the watch, either because the phone was far away or the time was pressing, and while there’s certainly an element of secret-spy future-living moment, more so there’s an element of attempting to have a conversation on a small tinny speakerphone in an inconvenient location. I’m happy with the lack of video in these, too, since my nostrils don’t need that deep an investigation.

Going Around In Circles

The second big thing in the Watch’s existence-reason list is the monitoring and exercise tracker functions. One of the uses of my Pebble, and Fitbit before it was as a pedometer, encouraging me to complete my X steps a day. The watch replaces this with a series of concentric circles, encouraging you to stand once an hour, move a bit, and do 30 mins of heart-rate-rising exercise a day.

So far this is working well for me. The tap to remind me I have been sat at the same keyboard for two hours is a welcome reminder, and I’ll often make decisions about routes home based on things that will please my watch. It’s a little annoying you can’t correct it – if I don’t have it on when I go for a walk, it might as well not have happened – but its a nice bit of encouragement.

Five Second Interactions

Deliveries app informs you when stuff's likely to arrive. The white blob will be a map when it renders.
Deliveries app informs you when stuff’s likely to arrive. The white blob will be a map when it renders.

But the big thing that the smartwatch replaces, non specific to the Apple Watch, but done better by it; is the replacement of all the five-second glances at your phone. Not only the simple world of notifications, as mentioned above, but the five second “Heading home now” text message. The check on the map that you’re on the right road. The skipping of this song, changing of this playlist, pausing of the track. Is it going to rain in the next hour? Siri, remind me to take the washing in at 4 o’clock.

Charge

Full high resolution LCD displays, wifi connectivity, all this comes at the cost of power, and the battery life on the Watch isn’t great with the first version. Mine consistently hits ~30% battery life as I got to sleep at the end of the day, I can squeeze a couple of days out of it if required. The only time I’ve actually run it down was a day that started at 4am and required a lot of travelling – I was doing a fair amount of navigating by it, which is always a killer – where it hit Low Power Mode sometime near midnight on the way back to the hotel. Low Power is a mode where it turns off everything except a simple digital watch display, and will last a few days in that state. I’ve not really got an issue with having to charge it at night, it goes alongside my phone.

Finale

The Apple Watch does everything I wanted the Pebble to do, but it couldn’t due to technology or API constraints. The first hardware version – as with pretty much all r1 hardware – isn’t superb, and I wouldn’t recommend it without caveat. The future revisions of the interface (WatchOS 2 happens later this year) look like the right track, though. It’s a wrist-mounted interface to the bits of your phone you can fit in a 40mm square screen, it does that very well, and if you think that’s worth your resources, go for it. I’d recommend waiting for the Watch 2, though.

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Apple

Watch the next step

New Apple announcement looks interesting. Handily, the new Macbook will been in second revision about the same time I’m looking to upgrade my work MBA, I’m impressed they got a high-res display into a fanless thiner-than-air case without too much of a hit on battery life.

Less impressed with the loss of Magsafe as a feature, though the one-port expansion will make plugging in to add power, extra monitor/s and everything all at once a bit nicer. I’m curious as to whether they’ll switch to USB-C for iPhone/iPad so soon after the Lightning transition. They’d take a PR hit on forced upgrades, but seeming as tech media appear to be reacting like someone’s set fire to the sky already, it might not make a difference.

And the Watch.

The reaction to the watch has fallen into three camps. Camp one: “That’s roughly what I thought. Cool.”. Camp two: “Why the hell would I buy a watch?”. Camp three: “Apple forces everyone to buy a $10,000 gadget that will explode in exactly one year”.

Camp One: Way to keep your cool. Proud of you.

Camp Two:

I don’t have an Apple Watch. I might – it depends on several things, including budget stuff – but what I do have is an original, Kickstarter funded, wlack & white e-Paper pebble, which I’ve written about before.

I’ve been using a smart watch, then, for a couple of years. Reading that article again, I am amused, partly that I thought that the interest in Apple Watch was reaching fever-pitch then, and mostly that my issues remain mostly intact.

The thing it mostly replaces are the day to day references to my phone. Who is calling me? What was that notification? Set a timer for five minutes. What song is this? Next track, previous track, volume controls (since my current headphones don’t have them).

More recently it’s also replaced my fitbit as an activity and sleep tracker.

There are pluses and minuses. The ability to see my notifications without looking at my phone has made me more likely to see and react to notifications, which is good and bad. The looking at my wrist makes people think I’m in a hurry or too busy to talk to them (or being desperately rude), and it’s not done by inability to disconnect many favours. On the other hand, the ability to see my current GPS route on my watch has been great, and Runkeeper’s status output to it has been handy too.

The being able to see who’s phoning is great, and access to SMS messages on the go – even without the ability to reply, on the Pebble – has been handy too.

Those are the Smartwatch features, generally, and they’re the things I expect to carry over from the Pebble to the Apple Watch.

It’s not been a life-changer, but as someone who tends to wear watches anyway (I never liked pulling out my phone to check the time), but I don’t regret my purchase.

On a more specific comparison, the battery in the Pebble lasts about six days, depending on the animatedness of the watchface you’re using. The battery on an Apple Watch is predicted at 18 hours, which means daily charge. Daily charge would be irritating, I think, but in a world where I have to do that with my phone anyway, not life-defining.

The first thing the Pebble misses that the Apple Watch provides is two way communication. In general, save acknowledging notifications and music state changes, pebble communication on iPhone is one way. This is mostly Apple’s fault, rather than Pebble’s. The Android support allows for more advanced notification responses, but iOS doesn’t have the hooks for that kind of response over bluetooth, at least not yet. It’s possible that with initiatives like carplay, and the Watch itself, that work over bluetooth, new capabilities may emerge, but holding your breath waiting for Apple to open up that kind of integration isn’t a life-saving mechanic.

The other thing is… and this is where I move from mostly-detached analysis to Apple eco-system member… design and whole-ness. The Apple Watch is still a bit chunky for a fashion item, but it’s ahead of the rest of the smart watch market by quite a way. The magnetic charger and basic design are directly comparable to the same things for the Pebble Steel, but have an elegance that is the difference between Apple’s design aesthetic and that of others. Pebble’s done a fantasic job, but against a company who hold both sides of the development API, and can dictate their will at every stage of the supply chain (They formulated a custom metal alloy for the bands, for starters. I didn’t expect to see metalurgy porn in an Apple presentation), they’re going to pale slightly.

That said, I’ve tried the Samsung Gears, and I’ve seen the Motrola and Sony attempts, and if I was a part of the Android Ecosystem to any personal degree, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep upgrading my Pebble.

Camp Three:

Don’t buy an apple watch.

It’s the same insides at £299 as it is at £12,000. I know one person in the universe who might buy an Edition, and I expect him not to at least until version two.

There was a similar thing around the time of the Cereal Cafe opening on Brick Lane, where you could buy cereal for £3/bowl, when you can buy two packets of cereal for that!!! This the other end of the street where you can pay £25 for a fuck-awful curry which you could pick the ingredients up for in the shop down the road for around£5.

It’s very nearly the same as the Daily Mail whining about people who save up their low incomes to buy a nice new TV.

Buy things you like, if if you don’t: Don’t buy an apple watch.