Apple Watch hands on review: notifications, interface, fitness and more

The Apple Watch is shipping, at least for those who preordered it early enough, and thus far I’ve been able to spend ten days using it hands-on for a variety of intended tasks. I’ve tested everything from the basic interface and notifications system to the activity and fitness features on down. Based on my testing, here’s my hands-on review of the Apple Watch, broken down by category, complete with letter grades for each:

Interface: B+: With only a wheel and two buttons plus a tiny touchscreen, the spareness of the Apple Watch interface means that every aspect of it has to be just right. For the most part, that’s the face. The basic interface is intuitive within second of fiddling with it. The crown operates just as you’d expect it to in each context, and the built in apps have remarkably easy to use interfaces considering the size constraints. Two problems: the second hardware button is largely useless, and Apple needs to allow users to reprogram it to suit their needs. And there’s no way to delete or hide the built in apps, which makes the honeycomb too large, making it difficult to access the apps you do want to use. If those two easily correctable mistakes are fixed with the 1.1 software update, the grade in this category gets changed to an A.

Hardware: A: The Apple Watch hardware design is all about minimalism; it’s the kind of watch you forget you’re wearing until you need it. Even the large model isn’t heavy, and while the styling will depend heavily on which band you choose, even the simple black sport band is something you can get away with wearing in a formal setting. Minimalism only works when there’s no need for anything more complex, and that’s the case here.

Notifications: A-: Simply put, the notifications work just as advertised, and just as you’d hope they would. They’re there when you want them, unintrusive when you don’t, and most importantly they greatly reduce the number of times you’ll need to pull your iPhone out of your pocket just to find out what’s going on in your digital world. The only catch is a temporary one: because Facebook hasn’t released its promised app yet, you can receive Facebook notifications but not fully view them. Once this is resolved, this grade also gets changed to an A.

Fitness: D: The Apple Watch comes with a set of robust and highly intuitive fitness themed apps. The trouble is they simply don’t work. When you’re on an inclined treadmill, for instance, the Watch has no idea you are – and so it gives you the calorie count for if you were walking on a flat surface. And that’s just the beginning of the problems. I’ve done entire sweat-laden workouts in the gym which the Watch failed to recognize at all. But twice now, once while strolling through the grocery store and once while sitting in a movie theater, the Watch congratulated me on being partway through a workout. Worse, there have been days in which the Watch congratulated me on having been standing for more hours than I was awake. At first I assumed my Watch was defective, but after talking to various other users, these issues appear to be more systemic. The silver lining is that this is likely just a matter of unfinished software development, as it’s unlikely Apple would have created these sophisticated apps if the Watch hardware were incapable of measuring activity. So the Watch gets a D instead of an outright F in this category, but only based on the promise that this will hopefully soon be cleaned up.

Overall: B: With the exception of the fitness failure, the Apple Watch feels a lot like a polished third generation product. If Apple had simply left out the unfinished and useless fitness features until a later software update, the overall grade here would be an A-minus. But as it stands, the product has to be judged based on all the things Apple has asked it to be judged on, which means its overall grade is a B. It’s fairly stunning that Apple allowed the Watch to go out the door with one of its key advertised features in such worthless condition, but again, I expect much or all of that to be cleaned up in software updates.

Will Stabley
Will Stabley is the Founder and Senior Editor of Stabley Times.
Will Stabley