Essays on Technology and Culture

Six Months With Apple Watch

One of the difficulties I’ve found in writing about smartwatches is that there’s no good answer about what they are for. There’s plenty that they can do: fitness tracking, notification triage, glanceable information, contextual computing, showing the time—but none of these stands above any of the others. It’s a conundrum I had when I tried using and writing about the Pebble, and it continues to be a conundrum six months into life with the Apple Watch.

That’s not to say I don’t like my Apple Watch. I still wear it every day, unlike John Gruber. At the bare minimum, it’s the best fitness tracker I’ve ever owned, though I haven’t had the same level of success as Jim Dalrymple from using it. Still, the fitness features alone is enough to keep it on my wrist seven days a week. Filling the rings is still insanely motivating, the workout tracking is great for my daily walks, and Sleep++ fills in the missing feature of the FitBits and Jawbones I’ve used in the past. That’s huge.

Everything else? I’m not sure. There’s still a lot of friction to using the Watch to do things that I used to do on my phone. Sometimes, that friction is because using the phone is engrained in my muscle memory. For others, it’s because using the Watch is a clunky experience due to slow software. I’ve ameliorated some of the frustration around app slowness by turning on “Resume to Previous Activity” for the Wake screen in settings. This means that, if I want to do something on my Watch, I can launch the app, lower my wrist, and bring it back up a minute or two later without losing where I want to be. I sometimes forget to go back to the watch face, but that’s less inconvenient than trying to launch an app, checking my watch, and being back on the watch face.

An ongoing thing with my Watch, particularly since the release of watchOS 2 has been determining specifically what information I keep on my watch face and in my glances. What information do I need to see when I turn to my wrist, versus what do I want quick access to, but not immediately on my wrist? I’ve yet to settle on any particular setup, but I want to reduce the amount of redundancy between Complications and Glances. I’m currently using a Modular face with Complications for Fantastical (showing the date), Sleep++, Streaks, Lose It!, and Dark Sky. I also have a Utilty face set up with just Sleep++, Streaks, and Dark Sky for when I need something less busy. Finally, I have an X-Large face for when all I need is the time. As for Glances: I’m using Battery, Settings, an app for NYC subway status, Now Playing, Due, Things, Activity, Lose It!, and the Heart Rate monitor. I keep a few more apps installed, but rarely use them. Some stuff just… doesn’t need to be on the wrist, I think.

I am making a concerted effort to use the watch more—especially Siri. Siri is great in the kitchen for setting timers, provided you give it a little slop time. I’m making sure to track more of my walks as workouts, and I’m trying to train myself to use the controls in the Now Playing glance when I need to control my music, versus whipping out my phone again. Did you know that if you’re playing audio from an app that also has a Watch app (say, Overcast, for example), tapping the scrolling title will take you to that app on the Watch? I didn’t until just recently. If there’s been a theme for the last six months of using my Watch, it’s figuring out what I want to get out of it, and dropping what it’s bad at. Six months from now, a year from now, who knows?

I know there’s plenty I don’t use the Watch for, though. It’s not a great communication device, mostly because I don’t know enough people with both iPhones and Apple Watches to use some of the more interesting communication features. I’ve used quick replies and dictation over iMessage from time to time, but never more than once or twice a month. I’ve only used Digital Touch and Sketches once or twice with some Internet friends who own watches. And since my bank doesn’t support Apple Pay yet, about the only time I ever hit the side button on my Watch is by mistake, or to force quit a stuck app. (Hold the side button until the power screen comes up, let go, and then hold it again until the app quits.) It might as well not even be there. Maybe watchOS 3 will let me customize what I use it for.

Six months in, though, the biggest issue I have with my Apple Watch is speed. Even if it came at the cost of some battery, I would love it if the Watch just was more responsive when using Apps and Glances. The watchOS 2 release has helped a bit in that regard, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. Beyond speed, I think the biggest obstacle Apple and the other companies in the smartwatch space have right now is creating a compelling enough use case for someone to not just buy a smartwatch, but keep wearing it. A smartwatch needs to add something to a person’s life beyond just another place to check for more information. That’s nice, but it feels like this can and should do more, and do it with less effort on my part. The perils of early adoption, I suppose.