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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.

Categories
computing

Pebble Smartwatch

The pebble in Watch mode.
The pebble in Watch mode.
I find it somewhat suspicious that in the last couple of weeks, as the 70,000 people who backed Pebble’s Kickstarter start to get their rewards, that the interest in an Apple branded smartwatch has reached fever pitch.

The Pebble is a smartwatch in the same vein, a bluetooth-connected extension to your phone, so that notifications from it can appear on your watchface, you can control your phone’s music, and basically your watch becomes a remote control for your phone.

My Pebble arrived yesterday, and I’ve been prodding it a bit. More long-term thoughts when I’ve been using it for a while, but here’s my first impression.

Let’s start with the hardware. The face is a bit chunky. I haven’t measured it exactly, but it’s about a centimetre thick, and takes over most of my wrist, as you can see below. It seems solidly built, with a nice curve to the screen, and comes with a rubber watch-strap of standard size (which I intend to replace quite soon). Charging happens over a magnetically attached USB cable, the design of which allows the casing to remain waterproof down to 180ft. Since my bath’s not that deep, that should be enough for me…

The screen is a backlit e-ink kindle-style screen of sufficently high resolution that I don’t notice any pixels at normal viewing distance. The backlight (which can either be activated with an ambient light sensor or by activity) is bright enough to the display by, but neither dazzling or distracting, and you will probably not be able to use it as a torch, for example.

The setup process is a bit unwieldy right now. You’ll need to install the Pebble app for your phone first,  attach the thing in your phone’s own Bluetooth settings (where it says “Verify the Pebble is showing this set of digits” when it doesn’t appear to be able to do that until the new firmware is installed), and then back to the Pebble app to activate it and upgrade the firmware, which takes about five minutes.

After that, you have a watch which will buzz and display your most recent text message/email incoming.

The iPhone app’s not very good, right now. It suffers from a “clever” navigation structure where you can swipe to get to different areas of the app, or back to the menu, but with no clue as to what “direction” anything is. Currently the only thing you appear to be able to do is add new watch faces. Pebble’s hopes of getting the SDK out early enough for people to have written apps for the watch appear to have been (aha) dashed.

There’s platform variation too. Apple only expose email and SMS/iMessage notifications over Bluetooth, so until the Pebble app can send notifications in the background (which I hope will be soon), only Android can send arbitrary notifications for whatever apps you want (Personally, SMS & email are fine for me for now, though I’m interested in future apps), and I’m not sure if this is a pebble bug or because I’m using exchange-synced contacts on iPhone, but the callerID seems not to be working very well.

There’s a bit of beta quality about most of the software and firmware, in fact. The phone ships with the light-sensor for the backlight disabled, because when you enable it any button click toggles the backlight, including scrolling the menus, turning the device into an SOS beacon. The “Tap” functionality to light the backlight at night also doesn’t appear to be there yet.

 

Music_IntegrationThat all said, the basic functionality is working, and all the problems I’ve found are very much software issues, things that can be fixed with future firmware and app updates for the most part (save any limitations Apple put on the communication. Android users are generally going to find generic integration better, I think). The music functionality, where the watch will display the track name and artist for the currently playing song, as well as Skip, Pause & Rewind, is working very well, even for Spotify and arbitrary music players (though I’m told this isn’t generically true for Android right now).

…and right now I can’t recommend you get one.

I preordered mine in April last year, for $115 + P&P, which is kind of outside my direct “I paid x for this” mental connection, but I’m not currently convinced that if I were to buy one right now for that price, I’d be happy with it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t get one. If the apps start coming though, and if it becomes more useful (being able to see what’s on my phone without digging around in my pocket? Handy, but not £80 handy), that might change, but there are too many “not currently working”, “Only on android”, and “not quite there yets” in the paragraphs above for comfort.

We’ll see how much of an everyday necessity it becomes in the next few weeks, and I’ll report back then.

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