FEATURE REVIEW – Apple Watch: Part 2

Introduction

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Wearables are a huge deal today. In fact, it’s one of the hottest growing computing categories on the market right now. Nearly every place you look and every person you actually look AT has some kind of wearable tech with them. Smartwatches and fitness bands seem to the easiest to spot, and nearly everyone at the office is wearing one, too.

Perhaps the biggest and most anticipated entry into the wearables/ smartwatch category is the Apple Watch. Is it the nirvana of wearables? Is it everything that its hyped up to be? Was it worth the wait? These are all GREAT questions.

The Apple Watch is a much anticipated, much sought after wearable. In part one, I took a look at the hardware specifically. In part two of this four part review, let’s take a look at what you actually get when you purchase the device – how wearable and usable is the Watch? What kinds of notifications does it send? How does it send them? We’ll look at battery life as well as connectivity options like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as well as making phone calls and using Siri.

Is the Apple Watch, with the way it works, the device for you? Let’s get into how it does what it does and find out!

Wearability and Usability

Regardless of what case size, type, or band type you get, the functionality of the Watch is consistent throughout the product. In other words, the 38mm Apple Watch Sport at $349 does the exact same things the 38mm yellow gold case Edition Watch with Bright Red Modern Buckle does. In fact, they do the exact same things, the exact same way. The only differences between any and all of the watches here is the case size, case materials and band. Their internals are exactly alike.

Notifications

I’ve honestly put off writing this section of this review for a while as there’s SO much information and feedback that I have on it, that I can’t possibly get it all down in a reasonable amount of words. There’s good and bad here. Some is very good. Some is, “smack yourself in the forehead stupid.” (As in, “Really, Apple..?? I thought you guys were smarter than this!” stupid.) It’s been both exhilarating and frustrating using Notifications on the Apple Watch; but as many will tell you/ comment/ say, “what is a smartwatch for, if not to notify you of incoming events and activities?”

And honestly, they’d be right

So, let’s talk about notifications, and how they work on the Apple Watch.

First, let’s talk about what Apple got right. Notifications appear on the Watch when it’s being worn and is unlocked. Wearing a locked Watch doesn’t provide the user with any kind of Notification feedback. When Notifications come to the Watch, a Notification Indicator, in the form of a red dot displays at the top of the Watch screen, letting you know you have Notifications to address. If you catch the Notification in real time, you’ll likely skip over the red dot and just see the notification. The dot comes in to play after the screen turns back off. This is a good visual cue that you’ve got something to review and check out.

Now, let’s talk about what Apple didn’t get quite right.

Notification Classes

You wouldn’t think so, but from an end user perspective, there are really a couple different types of Notifications – those from native Apple apps and those from third party apps.

Native apps include the following:

  • Activity
  • Calendar
  • Mail
  • Maps
  • Messages
  • Passbook & Apple Pay
  • Phone
  • Photos
  • Reminders

With these apps, unless otherwise specified in each native app’s settings, you have basically the ability to mirror the notifications the app sends to your iPhone or (Mirror my iPhone) or Custom. Custom really only gives you the option to display (not reject …there’s a huge difference. See below…) alerts received from your iPhone.

Third party apps (including, in this case, Apple Store) simply give you the opportunity to mirror notifications sent from your iPhone or not. You also have the opportunity to turn Notification Privacy on or off.

Notification Privacy when turned on, will only display details of a Notification when the notice of that Notification is tapped when it is displayed on the screen.

The distinction between the notification classes is important. Let’s face it. There isn’t’ a lot of control here in the first place. The Watch works the way Apple wants it to. You don’t have a lot of customization routes, despite all of the options and switches you may see in the screen shots here.

Notification Issues

What you need to know here is that like the Notification issue I described with the Fitbit Surge, despite the fact that a particular Notification is turned “off,” the data comes across anyway. This is especially true for Native apps, as you really don’t have any other choice other than displaying the notification or not. You can’t reject or turn off notifications at all.

Like on the Fitbit Surge, this is a huge problem. You should be able to completely turn off Notifications AND stop the data from coming over to the Watch.

Off is off!

This in between shit has to stop!

The underlying issue here is that you really don’t have any control over what Notifications are and are not transferred over to the Watch, and you really should.

For example, I don’t want text messages and their notifications on my device. I can effectively stop the Watch from notifying me when my iPhone receives a text message, but the data still comes to the Watch. As I said in my Fitbit review, this is wrong. Off is off. No is no; and knock it off means stop it now. Honestly, if I could get the Messages app off my Watch entirely, I’d do it. I don’t want this (or data from other apps I’ve turned “off” coming to the Watch. There needs to be more granular control here. One can only hope that WatchOS 2.0 includes this.

Battery Life

Battery life for the Apple Watch is a bit of a love hate thing. If you recall from page two (2) of part one (1) of my Microsoft Band review, I encouraged everyone to find and establish a charging strategy. You’re going to need to do that here with Apple Watch, too.

Depending on how you use Apple Watch, you’re charging strategy is likely going to mimic mine, at least in some small way. It involves a nightly recharge. While many new users are likely to run through the battery of their Apple Watch in 24 hours or less, more seasoned or experienced users have likely gone through all of the Applications, Notifications and Glances and pared them down to just the stuff they know they’re going to use on a regular basis.

This activity is going to GREATLY enhance the battery life of your Apple Watch. As such, you’ll likely find that by the time you’re ready to call it a night, your Watch is going to have approximately 40-50%+ charge left to it.

I get up at 5:30am Central Time every morning. I’m usually out of the house between 6:15am and 6:30am and have put my Apple Watch on shortly before running out the door. My work day usually runs about 12 – 14 hours a day; and I usually take my Apple Watch off and put it on its charging cable between 9:30pm and 10pm every night.

At that point, depending on the amount of activity during the day, I’ve usually got somewhere between 42% to 55% battery life left. Theoretically, I could go about another 12 to 18 hours at least without HAVING to recharge the Watch; but between us… I don’t trust it. I never know how many email notifications I’m going to get or how much data is going to pass between my iPhone and my Watch, so there’s no way to tell how long it would last the second day; and I honestly am trying to not HAVE to purchase a second charging cable or to take it off during the day to charge it.

Watch wearers, myself included, are most active during the day, and I don’t want to be without my watch at the office – especially during a meeting – because its busy charging and I’m getting buzzed to death by my phone due to an influx of email.

While it’s clear that the Watch will have enough juice to get me through my day, you have to admit that battery LIFE on a device like this is very low, meaning that it doesn’t last very long. The Pebble Time has a battery that can last a week, and is about the same size as the Apple Watch. While it won’t do all the fitness or payments stuff that the Apple Watch does, it does do all the notifications, and it can still last a week. Microsoft Band has a battery that can last 36 – 48 hours. With the Apple Watch (nearly) requiring a 24 recharge schedule, it makes it difficult to use it for things like Sleep Analysis or anything else; or even to put it on and leave it for a while (as in more than a day to day and a half).

Connectivity

Current Apple Watch hardware requires at least an iPhone 5/c/s to work. If you want to use Apple Pay, you’ll need at least an iPhone 5s. This is important information to know as the Watch will not make a call on its own (it needs the phone for that). In order to function, it needs both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to work its magic…

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

The Apple Watch uses both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to connect to your iPhone, which I think is kinda cool. If you’re within standard Bluetooth range, your Watch and iPhone communicate that way. If you bug out of Bluetooth range, then as long as your iPhone can find your Watch on the Wi-Fi network ITS connected to, then you’ll still receive any and all notifications iPhone receives. This is a huge help in meetings, as there may be time when taking a phone in to a meeting isn’t the best course of action. In cases like these, you’ll still receive calls, txt messages, and all of your notifications from your phone, even if you’re a couple floors away. The first time this happened to me, I was really pleasantly surprised.

The inclusion of Wi-Fi in the connectivity equation, really makes it easy to keep your iPhone at your desk, in your jacket, in your purse – wherever – and just use your watch. However, there are a few gotchas that most everyone needs to hear about, and if you think about it, it definitely makes sense.

Phone Calls

The first thing that you want to do when you get the watch – aside with play with the Cutesy Stuff (see below) – is to either make or take a call with the Watch. This has you talking to your wrist, a la Dick Tracy; and its totally the coolest thing you’re likely to do with what is essentially, a Bluetooth headset. However, I have found it to be a total train wreck.

First of all, there are at least two Bluetooth audio streams active when you are on a call – incoming (the Watch’s speaker) and outgoing (the Watch’s microphone). The Watch is totally NOT a full duplex device; or if it is, its processor totally gets overwhelmed, and dual, same time audio doesn’t flow over the Watch as it does if you were DIRECTLY speaking on your phone. This means that you have to “walkie-talkie” your calls – you say something, and then I respond back – rinse/ repeat. This is fine unless you’re having a really good or passionate conversation and you can’t wait for the other person to shut up so you can get YOUR point across the line.

Secondly, I have found that even with my iPhone close by, there’s a lot of chop or break-up in both the incoming and outgoing audio streams. In other words, as a Bluetooth headset, the Apple Watch isn’t that great of a way to make and take calls. Something is always lost in translation, and you end up grabbing the phone and switching/ taking the call directly on the phone or putting in a more reliable headset. I ended up turning off call notifications entirely; but as I eluded to above, this doesn’t always make those notifications stop coming across the Bluetooth connection and appearing on your Watch.

I have also found that the speaker doesn’t work very well outdoors. The sound is swallowed up by background noise and its often difficult to hear the caller clearly. The same can be said for the microphone on the Watch. Your caller likely won’t be able to hear you very well outdoors, either. Both my wife and I stopped making or taking calls on the Watch after the first couple of days. This works well in an indoor setting, but I’m more likely to have my phone nearby and accessible when I’m indoors – like at the house or the office – as opposed to outdoors – like the golf course or on the deck at the house – where I’m likely to want to use it more.

Siri

Due to problems with Bluetooth audio, using Siri for much of anything is a bit difficult. I’ve found that even indoors or in the car, for example, she’s not as attentive as you want or expect. The Watch keeps tell me that I need to be connected to my phone to use Siri (and it is), or she tells me that she just doesn’t get me… which is depressing. I thought we were closer than that…

Part 2 Conclusion

I’m gonna say this a lot…, “there’s a lot here.”

Notifications are the life blood of any smartwatch. Honestly, it’s likely the number one reason why anyone who buys a smartwatch actually makes the purchase.

The biggest problem with the biggest feature though, is lack of control. You should be able to do a lot more with customization of notifications here than Apple actually lets you do. I should be able to turn alerts for any notification class on or off. When on, they should work as configured. When off, they should truly BE off and the data should not come to the device at all. That’s a huge security hole as well as a pain in the butt.

If Apple does anything with WatchOS 2.x, it needs to add in a great deal end user based control for notifications and data coming over to the Watch. No is no, and off is off. I can’t stand that unwanted and unneeded information is coming to my Watch when I’ve specifically tried to eliminate it.

Battery life – yeah… it still sucks. I’m hoping WatchOS 2.x makes things better, but I’m not holding my breath. When other smartwatches can last longer, you have to wonder what’s going on and why Apple made the choices that it did. Just because I may not put it on a charger at night doesn’t mean that I don’t expect the Watch to get me through the next day. Apple needs to solve this problem.

Connectivity via Bluetooth has always been problematic, but honestly its really much better than I thought it would be. With my Microsoft Band, having it connected to my phone interfered with the connection to my car radio as my iPhone recognized the Bluetooth microphone it has and expected me to always want to speak to callers through it, though it’s not supposed to support that functionality under iOS. I’m pleased to say that regardless of connectivity to my watch or not, my iPhone 6 communicates (as well as can be expected) with my car radio/ hands free kit.

If you want to try to actually make a call with the Watch, you can try it. I don’t know too many people that still do that after a couple of weeks of ownership though. The experience just isn’t all that great. Because the Bluetooth mic experience is a bit wonky, using Siri isn’t all that great on the Watch, either, I’ve found. As with phone calls, its hit or miss depending on your current environment.

Come back next time for Part 3 of my four part review. During part three, we’re going to get to the heart of the matter and we’ll talk about Software and Interfaces.

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