Tushar BurmanDec 04, 2020 13:16:14 IST
There’s no reason for me to have any preconceived notions about the Apple Watch. If anything, I’ve always been a little negative about the concept. A digital wrist computer that costs as much as a perfectly good mid-tier automatic timepiece, that you have to charge every day. This is not my idea of an accessory I’d wear every day. The new Series 6 device is my first experience with the Apple Watch after some long-term use of various fitness bands, and it’s been a bit of a revelation.
The Series 6 arrived in 2020 after months of isolation in various stages of lockdown, and includes the ability to measure blood Oxygen along with it’s rather unique (when launched) ability to act as an FDA-approved EKG machine. COVID-19 is, unfortunately, alive and thriving, and these little diagnostic tools can be reassuring, if not medically competent. Of course, this ability is available in smart wrist devices as cheap as Rs 3000, and you can just buy a digital pulse oximeter for less, but here we are: the Apple Watch now does a full-ish complement of diagnostics.
With the sixth generation, Apple has made almost no changes to the basic form and format of the Apple Watch. Even the iPhone got a significant redesign right from gen 2. With the Watch, the approach seems to be to leave unbroken things as they are. The 6 is powered by a new S6 System-in-Package (SIP), that Apple claims is 20 percent faster than the previous S5. It also includes support for 5Ghz WiFi and Apple’s U1 ultra-wideband chip, which should be able to enable some very interesting applications in the future.
Along with the EKG ability and the new SpO2 measurement app, there’s also an always-on altimeter and a similarly always-on screen. This is unique to the Series 6, which is available alongside the competent but less feature-rich Apple Watch SE and the older Series 3. Also unique to the 6 is fast battery charging – 0-80 percent in an hour, and a full charge in 90 minutes. Even by Apple’s own reviewer’s guide, there isn’t a long checklist of new stuff that might get you excited about the latest and greatest Apple Watch, but it all comes together quite nicely.
Only for iPhone users
If you’re an Android user like the vast majority of Indian smartphone owners, you can stop reading here. There really isn’t much you can do with an Apple Watch unless your phone is an iPhone, or at least someone in the family uses one. WearOS-based devices, and even the most basic fitness bands can provide a surprisingly good complement of accessory features for your Android phone including viewing notifications, replying to texts, taking calls (on more expensive devices) etc. If you do have an iPhone, the Apple Watch can do all these and much more.
On the iPhone, the Apple Watch app allows you to configure all the settings for the Watch without having to fiddle on its tiny screen, and is required to use the Watch. However, once I had it set up, I almost never went back to the app on the phone.
Apple sent us a Series 6 review unit with built-in LTE connectivity. This means that the Apple Watch Series 6 I’ve been wearing effectively mirrors my iPhone, whether I have the phone with me or leave it at home. This has some interesting, and practical benefits.
An essential accessory
Let’s face it: the original 2007 iPhone kicked off an entire industry. The capacitive touchscreen is the only sort of screen an entire generation has grown up with. With the Apple Watch, it almost feels like the company tacitly acknowledges that they unleashed a monster. Everybody is buried in their own personal black mirrors for most of their waking hours. The smartphone monopolizes our time so much so that both Apple iOS and Google’s Android OS include tools for users to monitor and limit their screen time. I’ve found the Apple Watch to be the best tool for this task.
My relationship with my smartphone is problematic. As a tech enthusiast all my life, and a tech journalist for much of my career, it’s difficult for me to extract myself from an online existence. Also, I like it. But problematic, it is. It has caused friction in my relationships, exacerbates my already-poor focus and trains me in behaviours that are profitable for social media companies, and terrible for my life in general. The iPhone – mostly my smartphone of choice since 2007 – is the ultimate time-sink. It is a dependency that causes all manner of weird behaviours. Battery anxiety, for instance. I carry large 20,000 mAh battery packs wherever I go, and several Apple device charging cables. Thanks to their halfway commitment to USB-C while leaving iPhones on the Lightning port, that means at least two cables. Sometimes more, since now they also have USB-A and USB-C variants of them. But that’s another 3000-word rant.
Then there’s other sorts of weirdness that smartphones have trained me into: anxiety when one’s phone is not around; a compulsive need to clear notifications by interacting with them; spontaneous rage when I forget my phone at home, or the LTE network is poor. Like I said, problematic.
Within a week of wearing the Apple Watch as my only timepiece, I found myself surprisingly detached from my iPhone. At the most basic level, I didn’t need to have it in the room at all times. The Apple Watch politely sends my important notifications to my wrist, requiring less iPhone screen time. You might argue that I’m just trading one screen for another, but as good as it is, interacting with a tiny screen with my failing eyesight is reason enough not to. I’ve also found that limiting the notifications to only the essentials frees up a lot of time. Even leaving WhatsApp notifications on – as intrusive as anything – doesn’t seem quite as invasive. The phone and watch play nice with each other, so I don’t have multiple chimes and buzzes for every duplicated notification. If the Watch is on your wrist, that’s what beeps. Your iPhone stays mostly quiet.
Considering that the 44mm Series 6 GPS+LTE review unit we tested costs Rs 52,900, you might be inclined to opt for the basic, non-LTE model that’s a good Rs 9,000(!) cheaper. And that would be fine for 95 percent of the time. Unless the Watch succeeds – as it did with me – in reducing your dependence on the phone. Then you might find yourself in the car, out the gate before you remember where you left your black mirror. This is no biggie with the LTE model Watch. When you pair it with your iPhone, it asks if you’d like to sign up for a cellular connection for the Watch. My Airtel number added the Watch to my account in one click. Effectively, the watch behaves like a Bluetooth hands-free when you’re near the phone, and like a separate phone with your calls forwarded to it, when you’re away from the primary device.
For short trips away from home – as in this instance for me – I was perfectly happy with the Watch alone. I received a call, responded to texts, read the odd email all while my cat got a check-up at the vet.
Health and Fitness
With the new Series 6 and SE models, Apple went all-in with their Fitness+ service (coming late 2020, according to the website) that provides a subscription-based video fitness coaching service to pair with all the data the Watch is able to gather from your wrist. For now, we made do with the workout tracking that comes built-in to the Watch. There are a bunch of them, including running, hiking, functional and strength workouts. You can even track your swims with the Series 6.
For my home workouts, I found the Watch to be an excellent companion. I didn’t need to look at my phone and be distracted by Instagram between sets, workout tracking is fuss-free and setting timers is as easy as telling Siri to do so – more about Siri later on. Workouts and the attendant data about calories burned is available in your activity app on the watch and phone, and syncs data with the Health app as well.
I despise running, but evidently, many don’t, and I can imagine they’d be quite pleased with the Apple Watch. The last time I tried running with my iPhone, between the pointless sweating, tangled earbuds and poor network connectivity, I was just hot with rage at the 2k mark. The Apple Watch Series 6 we tested contains LTE and GPS. With a set of Bluetooth buds, one can pair with the Watch and listen to streaming (or even offline) Spotify without having to carry an iPhone. No matter how securely you carry the device, it’s never going to be as hassle-free as something strapped to your wrist. The GPS ensures that your runs are accurately tracked, and you can even use Apple Maps on the tiny screen if you get lost.
Sleep tracking is, inexplicably, late to come to Apple Watch. It is available on the Series 6, but strangely, is not as reliable as on the Rs 4000 Realme Watch. To begin (end) with, you must explicitly put the watch into ‘Sleep’ mode for it to track your sleep. And when it does, the health app on the phone tells you very little apart from the total time asleep. Sleep is something I track regularly, so I downloaded the paid Autosleep app for the watch, which works as intended – you go to bed and it tracks your sleep. It even works for naps during the day, which I admittedly take on occasion, and breaks your sleep down into deep, shallow and REM. App support is unassailable on Apple WatchOS, so I’m not surprised by this experience.
Speaking of sleep, the Watch, in combination with the Autosleep app, does a lovely job of gently nudging you awake using vibrations on your wrist rather than an ear-shattering alarm. It does this when it knows that you’re in a lighter phase of sleep, so the effect is more comfortable. Excellent!
The headline EKG and recent SpO2 features are nice to have, but can be finicky. Tracking blood oxygen needs your arm to stay quite still for 15 seconds, and even then will occasionally glitch out and return a strange reading. The EKG is equally touchy, requiring you to hold your finger on the digital crown for 30 seconds to get a reading. The EKG app can tell you if your heart is showing signs of atrial fibrilation – a potentially life-threatening condition. It is not, however, intended to tell you that you’re having a heart attack. The heart sensor seems fairly solid, on the other hand, taking background readings while awake and asleep.
In appreciation of the design
The Series 6 comes in two sizes: 40mm and a larger 44mm that we tested. The larger size works well for my otherwise small wrists. Certainly better than a traditional 44mm watch would. The glossy, all-black lozenge looks impressive when worn, and the always-on display means that your custom watch face is visible to people other than yourself. Little has changed over generations of Apple Watches. Rectangular touchscreen, one pusher button and that lovely, lovely digital crown. If you’ve used a crown on a typical mechanical watch, then you’re in for a surprise. The digital version is nothing like that.
This is not news to anyone in the sixth generation, but it bears mentioning for me: the crown on the Apple Watch is unique to use. It’s a free-rolling little knob, but you can feel precise little clicks when you rotate it. These are actually simulated clicks made by the haptic feedback motor in the Watch. They’re so well calibrated with the software on the watch that I much prefer the way they feel and interact with what’s on the screen than my somewhat vague self-winding watches.
We’ve grown accustomed to capacitive screens on smartphones that mostly work as intended. My experience with fitness bands and smart “watch-like” devices hasn’t always been as good. My Realme Watch, for instance, is a respectable facsimile of the Apple Watch from a distance, but the touchscreen is nowhere as good. To the point that I was unable to fold my arms across my chest without the watch doing something unpredictable, thanks to skin contact. It’s remarkable how Apple has just plain solved this issue. I’ve never had an issue with mistaken gestures on the Apple Watch, and there are some dead-simple gestures – like covering the entire screen with your palm – that do useful things like silencing a call, or putting the screen back to standby mode. Much like with the iPhone, my sense is that Apple has perfected touchscreen interaction on a wrist-size device.
If ever there was a killer app for Siri, using it on the Apple Watch is it. It is, arguably, the best implementation of Siri there is. You don’t even need to say “Hey Siri” or press and hold the crown. You can just raise the watch to your mouth and speak a command. It works about 70 percent of the time, but when it does, it feels like magic.
The design of the Watch doesn’t make excuses for the small screen, or the limited touch area. Siri fills the gap where traditional input is impractical. Over the years, I’ve found Apple’s assistant to have overtaken Google’s Assistant in accuracy and general usefulness. Raising the watch to my face and asking for a timer, directions, a currency conversion or even a song on Spotify -- which then plays through my home HiFi system -- feels very natural around the house. Even texting is entirely possible and usually a MUCH better option in the car. For some reason, in 2020, car manufacturers can’t figure out how to get microphones right.
There are few downsides to the Apple Watch, if indeed you must have a smartwatch. The most obvious being that it’s restricted to the Apple universe, but then, everything within that universe is. But even before you consider that detail, there’s the price. As tested, the 44mm Apple Watch Series 6 GPS+LTE costs Rs 52,900 and comes with a simple black silicone strap. The nicer new “loop” one-piece straps cost extra, as do the leather, milanese and sport loop bands.
Sleep tracking is another weirdly lightweight feature in the current WatchOS. It’s there, and that’s about it. It’s not particularly useful unless you buy an app like I did. Finally, there’s the sheer jewel-like nature of the Watch. It’s glossy, exposed and I’ve knocked it around a few times. There’s no wear on it yet, but I do feel like putting a chunky G-Shock style case/band on it to be sure. It’s not something I’d use as-is in more active situations.
Final thoughts and the future
If you read some of the Android WearOS watch reviews on Tech2, you’ll find that they’re a mixed bag. They have flexibility, but not the kind of simplicity and integration that you get with a WatchOS/iOS device. App support is solid by now and I’m excited to see what comes next. The built-in U1 wideband chip has interesting applications as a car key(!), for contact-less payments and for indoor navigation. I imagine Apple will find a way to use the health sensors to make the Watch some sort of authentication device as well.
I’ve enjoyed my time with the Apple Watch, but at Rs 52,900, I’m not sure I can justify the value, especially paired with the iPhone Pro I’m using that costs an eye-watering Rs 1.5 lac. That’s over Rs 2 lac in your hands, most of which you could easily leave behind in a rickshaw. If you ask me whether you should buy one, I’ll need you to answer a rather long questionnaire before I can give you an answer. Is it the best smartwatch? Yes. Do you need the best smartwatch? Probably not. If simple health tracking is your goal, you’re easily served by the multitude of smartphone brands that will sell you smartwatches, or even premium brands like Fitbit that have a more solid track record in fitness data.
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