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Apple Watch Hands-on

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After years (and years) worth of rumors, Apple finally announced their first smartwatch today. It’s called the Apple Watch, and it sure is feature-rich, we’ll give it that.

There are a lot of features to run down with the Apple Watch, far more than any other wearable device we’ve seen thus far. We’re not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing, but we’ll get to that later. First, we’ll get to the design itself. It’s rectangular, and comes in 42 mm and 38 mm sizes. Those sizes are by height, not by diagonal, so both versions are equally wide. On the side, there’s a large dial called the Digital Crown, which is key in how you actually use the Apple Watch, with another smaller, longer button beside that. It’s worth noting that this looks like it was designed as a smart device first, watch second—it’s not necessarily something people accustomed to wearing wristwatches would be willing to wear out in public. The selection of straps help the Apple Watch out in that department, though—there will be a wide selection of rubber, leather, and metal straps, so you can find something sporty, fashionable, or professional.

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In fact, even the Apple Watch itself will come in a few different styles. Apple announced the Watch, Watch Sport, and Watch Edition. The Watch is the standard stainless steel offering, which will also come in black stainless steel. The Watch Sport is made of anodized aluminum, and comes in silver or space grey. Despite being a sport watch, no mention was made of it being waterproof. The Watch Edition is the premium offering, and comes in 18-karat yellow or rose gold. The Watch and the Watch Edition will feature extra-durable sapphire crystal glass, the sort that was incorrectly rumored to be on the iPhone 6. The Watch Sport will have the same strengthened Ion-X glass you’ll actually find on the iPhone 6. As for the watch face, like any proper smartwatch, there will be plenty of different styles to choose from, including the classic Mickey Mouse watch face. That face is also a Retina display, which just means the pixel density is pretty high.

Of course, you’re not getting the Apple Watch for the Mickey Mouse watch face. A click on that Digital Crown on the side will bring up the home screen, which will have a bunch of tiny app bubbles. Despite all appearances, touch won’t be the primary way you’ll be interacting with the Apple Watch (although you certainly can). Instead, a twisting the Digital Crown will serve as a navigation tool for those apps, and can also be used to scroll or zoom, depending on context. 15 apps will fit on the home screen, but you can swipe to see more, or zoom out to view all of them at once. A potential problem for some is that you’ll still need to tap on those app icons to open them, and they’re pretty tiny—some might find themselves opening up the wrong app with some frequency. Time will tell if the Apple Watch will be able to get that part right.

Notifications will be pushed to the Apple Watch, and you’ll be able to send and receive calls, text messages, and emails. For the latter two, there’s no way to type, but you can choose from a selection of canned responses or simply dictate your message. For all incoming notifications, the Apple Watch will vibrate slightly to let you know you’ve received something new. There are also Glances, which you can access by swiping up on the watch face. Glances will give you quick looks at your calendar, local maps, and other essential, baked-in apps.

Siri will be on the Apple Watch, and will respond to voice commands and queries, although she won’t verbally reply to you. You’ll see answers to your queries on screen, which leads into navigation. If you ask Siri for the location of a restaurant near you, Apple Maps can handle the navigation part. The Apple Watch will then give you a little buzz when you need to turn left or right. You’ll get the buzz in different places on your wrist depending on which direction you need to go—Apple assures us that it’s all very intuitive.

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Fitness tracking is also a huge part of the Apple Watch. The Workout app will keep track of basics like steps taken, stairs climbed, and distance traveled, while the Activity app will monitor time spent active, time spent standing, and time spent idle. So, if you haven’t guessed already, this is something designed to be on your wrist at pretty much every waking minute of every waking hour. Both apps will also keep track of calories burned, and can help you set fitness goals and keep track of your progress. It sounds much the same as any other fitness tracker or smartwatch in this respect, just with different visuals—in this case, you’ll see rings that fill up as you spend time active or idle, and will receive notifications and nudges when your watch thinks you need an exercise break.

There are endless extras. You can view photos on your iCloud account, although on such a small screen, I’m not sure how much of a boon that is. With Digital Touch, you can make little drawings on your watch and send them to someone else with an Apple Watch, who will receive a little nudge from their watch when they receive a drawing from you. You can use the same thing to send your heartbeat to someone else, which, alrighty. More usefully, the Apple Watch can act as a remote for your Apple TV.

More intriguing are early partnerships that show off the possibilities that third parties can bring to the table—the Apple Watch will have its own SDK for developers, so apps can be tailor made for the Apple Watch. For example, after the Apple Watch comes out, you’ll be able to use your watch to tap on your door at a W Hotel to open it. BMW has an app that will automatically bring up a map to guide you back to your car, using the same ‘taptic’ feedback mentioned above.

Finally, NFC is coming to the Apple Watch, which means Apple Pay, introduced in the iPhone 6, is also here. So, you’ll soon be able to tap your watch onto wireless card readers to pay for stuff at stores once you’ve linked your payment cards to the Passbook app on your iPhone.

Apple is also adopting wireless charging, but in a frustrating way all too typical of Apple. Instead of using an established standard like Qi or Powermat, which are being integrated in some city parks and Starbucks locations, Apple has characteristically gone its own way, developing a MagSafe connector that magnetically latches on to the back of the watch face. That said, the MagSafe connector is more or less like any wired MagSafe charger—the one benefit here is that with a magnetic surface connection, Apple didn’t need to worry about carving out a charging port on the Apple Watch that would have hurt the aesthetic value of the watch.

That said, we’re not too sold on the aesthetic value of the watch as is. The watch face seems awfully large and boxy, even when looking at the smaller 38 mm model that has been designed for women. The Apple Watch looks too much like a gadget and too little like a wristwatch to be the kind of thing a lot of people are going to want to wear on a daily basis. The Digital Crown, while useful, is also a little unsightly. Also, the large black border on the screen around the display looks very rough, and pales in comparison to other smartwatches with clean edge-to-edge displays. Ultimately, adoption of wearables is going to hinge on how willing people are to wear them as fashion accessories, and to this end, devices like the Moto 360 and Intel’s MICA appear to have been far more successful.

Of course, part of that has to do with the fact that the Apple Watch has so many more features than any other smartwatch. But, we’re not sure why. The Apple Watch does need to be paired with an iPhone (iPhone 5 to iPhone 6/6 Plus) to function, so it’s not like you’ll be able to leave the phone at home. There’s just a lot of functionality here that is also covered in the iPhone 6, including fitness tracking, which the iPhone 6 itself is capable of thanks to the M8 motion processor. There are fitness tracking apps that you can follow on both devices, too. It seems like the watch and the phone are trying to compete with each other when they’re supposed to be complementary, which is a strange choice for Apple, a company that usually errs on the side of simplicity.

Normally, more functionality would never be a bad thing, but it’s hard to say with a smartwatch. There’s a good argument for saying that smartwatches should aim to stay out of the way as much as possible. Watches like the Moto 360 seem to do a good job of providing you with notifications so you don’t have to drag out your phone and adding a few more smart functions without being too invasive. The Apple Watch is so packed with features, it seems like it could run the risk of demanding attention at a time when no one really needs another device to manage. This all depends on how well Apple implements all of these features, and it’s hard to tell, since more progress will likely be made between now and when the Apple Watch launches in early 2015.

The pricing is a bit rough, too. The Apple Watch will start at $350, which is a huge ask for something that is not a standalone device. Having said all that, Apple, over the years, has done a spectacular job at building a customer base that invests in all of its products as a unified whole. That’s a huge customer base that will by default already be interested in the Apple Watch. Apple’s wearable will, unsurprisingly, only work with iPhones, so it’s not like Apple is trying to market this to anyone else but their established clientele, anyway. In that sense, Apple has filled a niche only they can fill with the Apple Watch—it’s easy to have a hit when you’re not exactly competing against anyone, and I don’t know of anyone else who is seriously making iOS-complementary smartwatches. For Apple users, this is the wearable, and hey, it’s not a bad one if the looks suit you.

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