Apple Watch Review: The best smartwatch and signs of trouble ahead for watchmakers

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Apple Watch Review: The best smartwatch and signs of trouble ahead for watchmakers



Till some years ago, I loved digital watches, the predecessors of today's smartwatches. Watches that could tell you the altitude to help you compete in a triathlon, never mind that you used the former only to try and impress someone, and never used the latter ever. But then I got a mechanical automatic watch from my father-in-law and fell head over heels. I have always loved machines and the fact that mechanical watches are tiny machines changed my outlook towards watches. And with automatics, the fact that you don't need a battery to power the watch–or wind it every day–and could just pick up this tiny machine and wear it and it would just keep ticking because of the rotor winding the watch from regular wrist movements, is a joy that's indescribable for a lover of machines.

Mechanical watches can be an addiction–once you realise that there are so many types–from dress watches to pocket watches and divers, from open hearts to skeletons, and everything in between; then brands, countries, limited edition, indie watches, and so on. So, when the Apple Watch was announced last year, it intrigued me and other watch collector friends. You may or may not agree with it, but Apple products are touted as works of art and things of beauty, besides being simple to use and functional. When competing against other brands for whom technology comes first and design comes later, Apple stands out. But would Apple meet its match in the watch category, where works of art and things of beauty are true of most brands?

That question was again uppermost in my mind when I started using the Apple Watch a few weeks ago. I've never felt a smartwatch could replace one of my mechanical watches and while I have used fitness trackers, they've always stayed on the other hand. My left hand wrist is reserved for watches. But I wanted to give Apple a fair chance and decided I would forego the pleasures of sporting a mechanical watch for a while. And here's how my two weeks went.

Build and finish

If I just had a line, I'd just say–a work of art, a thing of beauty. The design, build and finish tell me loud and clear that the Apple Watch isn't just another smartwatch, but a fresh take on a watch, a personal device most of us own, whether we wear it as a fashion accessory, a mere tool to tell the time and do some more, or as an extension of our personalities.

Apple Watch Review: The best smartwatch and signs of trouble ahead for watchmakers

The review unit I received was a mid-range Apple Watch 42 mm, made of stainless steel and with a classic buckle leather strap. Now, stainless steel is a material used in most watches, from your basic ones to even the really expensive ones made by the top Swiss brands, but you rarely see such a high quality of finishing at this price point in the regular watch world.

Apple Watch Stainless steel

While I felt the Apple Watch was a bit thicker than I would have liked, I was completely wowed by the fluid design where the sapphire crystal seamlessly curves into the highly polished stainless steel body. Apple claims it has worked with metallurgists on all the 3 models–the lower-end Apple Watch Sport that's made of aircraft-grade anodised aluminium and Ion-X glass, or the premium Apple Watch Edition made of 18 karat gold and featuring a sapphire crystal too. Each of the models uses metal alloys created specifically to ensure durability and protect against nicks and dings.

Apple Watch rear

The rear has four sapphire crystal sensors and engraved details about the model and features as all true watches have. Again, a small touch, but a reminder that this is first a thing of beauty, and that digital innards come second. And it wears very comfortably on my wrists, thanks to the extremely high-quality straps. As someone who appreciates fine watches, I can say this with certainty–the finish on the Apple Watch is something that far exceeds watches that retail for the same price as the Apple Watch; in fact, perhaps even better than far more expensive watches. The rectangular shape is great for optimal use of the screen real estate.

Apple Watch Crown

The Digital Crown is again a watch touch and the jog dial can be used for scrolling, zooming in and out, as a home button and more. The Apple Watch also recognises the difference between a tap and a push, and has different outcomes for taps and push, a la the iPhone 6s.

The high-quality finish is equally true of accessories like the straps. Anyone who collects watches would most likely have a good number of straps to mix and match. The Apple Watch offers a range of straps. Quality is top notch, and again, premium watch strap makers could learn a thing or two. For me, the buckle on the classic buckle leather strap sealed the deal.

It's a thing of classic beauty–a design so simple, yet so elegant and so functionally aesthetic. And the ease of switching straps is something that almost made me cry–I have tools for switching straps on my regular watches and it's a pain. And then there's a Milanese Loop strap option, something every watch lover will know about. Just the fact that Apple even has this old fashioned strap on offer shows how serious the technology giant is about getting the watch category right. And that clasp on the Milanese Loop is again sheer genius.

Apple Watch straps

These straps don't come cheap though, with the classic buckle leather and the Milanese Loop retailing for around Rs 11,900 in India (the elastomer straps cost around Rs 3,900), but do remember that top-end original straps for the high-end watch brands can cost more and Apple Watch straps are of the highest quality possible. But if you don't want to spend a lot on straps after spending a fair bit on the Apple Watch, there are third-party options available now, which use adaptors and should work reasonably okay for the leather options.

Given the three main body types available in two different sizes and the wide range of strap options, there's a wide range of Apple Watch purchase options on offer with a high level of personalisation possible through the purchase of additional straps too.

Size

The Apple Watch comes in 42 mm and 38 mm and while I found the 42 mm version perfect for my wrists, I have a feeling that some folks with larger hands may find it a bit small, especially in this age of large watches. But on the other hand some may find the 38 mm version perfect (and not just ladies).

Watch faces, Complications & Apps

A field watch looks different and has different functionality than an Aviator's watch or a diver or a chronograph. On the Apple Watch, you have a range of watch faces possible with tremendous possibilities for customisation–from a modular one that's similar to many other smartwatches to a simple analogue face, a chronograph, time-lapse faces with time-lapse images from some of the world's great cities, photo ones including with Live Photos and in an ode to the astronomical origins of time keeping, a solar and an astronomy watch face too. There's also a Mickey Mouse one, which again harks back to a love of watches–of all cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse mechanical watches have been loved since the early years of Mickey Mouse in the 1930s and are still made by Ingersoll Watches for Disney.

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All you have to do is turn your wrist for the watch face to come alive. 9 out of 10 times, this worked perfectly, though a few times I did have to tap the screen. I wish the screen was always on, but that would be a battery life nightmare.

The Apple Watch has what Apple terms as complications. In the world of watches, a complication is a feature in a watch other than the basic display of hours and minutes–so everything from date/day, to perpetual calendar, moon phase, and so on. The more the complications in mechanical watches and even quartz ones, often the more expensive the watch, because the tougher it is to build. In digital watches, it's not rocket science to have such complications, but with Apple WatchOS 2, third-party apps can be used as complications. So, complications go beyond customisation such as changing what you can see in various elements of each watch face, from moon phase, calendar, to temperature, to Activity, calendar, sunrise and sunset times and more.

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They now extend to third-party app complications–from CNN's app for breaking news to Night Sky which tells you when the International Space Station is making a pass to App in the Air for flight updates on the go. You can also use the Digital Crown to roll through complications or even undertake 'Time Travel' which is basically going forward in time to check out upcoming calendar appoints or going back in a news app to see recent headlines. Essentially, using the Digital Crown ensures your hands spend as little time as possible on the tiny screen, which isn't the easiest to navigate, thanks to size.

You can send messages from the Apple Watch, but you'd have to really like complicated ways of working to prefer that. Because of the tiny screen, often I'd click on the wrong app.

What works better though is Siri. Saying, "Hey Siri" and giving a voice command is a much faster way to work on the Apple Watch. If you're not a big user of Siri on the iPhone, you will quickly realise that you have to make Siri your friend if you want to use the Apple Watch to its optimal best. Replying to messages works somewhat better with preset messages that you can customise, or again, is best using Siri.

The Apple Watch can also be used as a camera remote and to store music on the watch.

Calling & Notifications

The Apple Watch can also make calls (including FaceTime Audio) and while this is not a feature I would use much in public (remember those annoying folks with funny Bluetooth earpieces stuck to their heads who were quite common a few years ago--you don't want to get similar looks), it does have some surprising uses. For me, I used it most while driving. Very easy to take the call on and easy to speak even as you focus on the road. Incidentally, even if you keep your hand down at waist level, you can make a call and the other party can hear you quite clearly.

On the notifications front, Haptic alerts (which result in a gentle tap) are very useful and you can adjust the intensity. For a personal gadget, this ensures no one but you know a notification has just come in, unlike other smartwatches that vibrate. There's also a fun, yet very useful mute gesture--say a call comes in during an important meeting and you've forgotten to set the mode to Silent, all you need to do is cover the watch face with your free hand to mute the ringing.

Fitness

The Apple Watch comes with a range of fitness options and also supports third party apps. The sensors work well to capture heart rate, steps, etc, and there is a cool Activity app that even reminds you to stand up regularly. But if you're buying the Apple Watch only as a fitness tracker, you might make better use of your money on a Fitbit and also save a fair bit in the process. The Apple Watch is great for fitness and activity tracking and has a cool iPhone app to keep track, with achievements being unlocked too, but a dedicated fitness tracker may do better.

Battery life

This is the bummer. The Apple Watch lasted me two days easily and charging through a cool inductive charger that magnetically latches itself to the back to the watch just took a few hours, but to me this meant one more device that needed charging. And that's not great. I believe that Apple needs to ensure that the Apple Watch can work for around a week at least without being charged.

Let's be practical–I've travelled with the Apple Watch and in hotel rooms, I always have a task on hand to find charging points for a laptop, a tablet, two smartphones and a personal Wi-Fi unit. Add the Apple Watch to the mix and it just about gets to the point of being unbearable. Even for those who don't use more than a smartphone, is one more gadget to regularly charge okay, especially when it also means you need to carry a completely different charger?

Conclusion

I'm not going to give an opinion on price. That's because you may not understand why I spend Rs 20,000 on a basic mechanical watch when you might think a Rs 2,000 quartz watch is built as well and has the same function–of showing the time. Besides, there are a range of models available with the Apple Watch–starting from Rs 30,900 and going up to over Rs 14 lakh (details below). On price, I will only say that I wish India pricing was closer to US pricing.

Battery life is not as good as I would have liked. Another issue is the fact that the Apple Watch is not of much use by itself. Almost all features require an iPhone. But there's a big plus there too. I noticed that I was using my phone far lesser when I was using the Apple Watch to check notifications, etc. I could prioritise what was important and what was not. For instance, if a notification came and I glanced at it, to ignore it I just had to bring my wrist down and it would disappear.

The biggest problem I see with the Apple Watch as a watch lover, is that though it is an extremely personal device, it is not as personal to me as my mechanical watches. And while it’s a thing of beauty that's comparable to the best mechanical watches, watches still come in so many different shapes and sizes that digital watch faces can't quite match. Besides, most of my mechanical watches will most likely outlive me, including those that are already older than I am. And some of them will also appreciate in price, both of which are just not possible with the Apple Watch. But on the flip side, I'm a collector and the Apple Watch will become one more watch in a loved collection, because that's how most collectors are. Indeed, the Apple Watch has been the only smartwatch that evoked any interest in the watch collector circles I'm a part of. For reputed watch brands, that should rightly be seen as a shot across their bows--the Apple Watch has got a lot right about watch making and has breached the fortress of elite watchmakers, though it will be a long time before anyone can say with any certainty which way the war will go.

That essentially means one thing. For 90 out of 100 people in the right income bracket, watch-collecting may hold no relevance. They don't care that their chronograph is a quartz movement that watch collectors turn their noses up at. They may have just a couple of watches in their drawer, and for them, the Apple Watch may well be a keeper.

Of all the gadgets I've reviewed, the Apple Watch has been one that has seen the maximum interest and conversations over with friends and complete strangers. For this group, which is the vast majority, the Apple Watch may just be the next watch they will pick up. It may be early days yet, and there's lots more Apple needs to do to improve the experience and features, but one more category conqueror from Apple may well be here. At the moment, this is the best smartwatch on the market.

Price & Models: The Apple Watch Sport starts at Rs 30,900 for the 38 mm variant and Rs 34,900 for the 42 mm variant. The Apple Watch (stainless steel  case) is priced between Rs. 48,900 (with the elastomer strap) and Rs. 95,900 for the link bracelet. The 42 mm Apple Watch I reviewed (with classic leather buckle) costs Rs 60,990. There are many more options on offer with the most expensive model--Apple Watch Edition with Gold Case and Modern Buckle--retailing for over Rs 14 lakh.

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