For nearly a year, sweeping predictions and pronouncements have been ratcheting up about whether Apple’s newest launch will land. You know the one. But in the days before April 24th, when it finally hits, most of us are wondering the same two things: Do I need the Watch? Is it going to change my life?
Men’s Journal got an early eight-day test drive, a chance to wear the Watch through workdays and workouts, tapping, swiping, speaking, and scrolling to find out how, or if, this device fits into your life. Our main interest was in the health and fitness functions, but because the Watch will supposedly do for wearables what the iPod did for music, we also wanted to find out how it managed the parts of our day that had nothing to do with exercise — our calendars, messages, and interactions.
Now, after a week of testing, I can say that the Watch is useful, fun, inspiring — but it can also be a little frustrating, needy, and redundant with my ever-present iPhone. It certainly demands attention. Every form of information goes straight to my wrist, tempting me to constantly check my activity stats or see what I’ve been missing. And managing the stream of incoming emails, texts, calls, and notifications feels more distracting, more falsely urgent, than a phone you can just stuff in your pocket.
But this is Apple. Which means the Watch is a beautifully designed, genius piece of machinery. Every friend asked, “Is that it?” (Follow-up question was invariably, “Has anyone mugged you yet?”) Using it is intuitive and easy. But when it came down to asking, Does this feel essential?, I thought about walking out of my apartment and accidentally forgetting it one day. I know I couldn’t function without my phone. But I’d get by fine without the Watch.
Here, more on which features met the hype, what came up short, and whether the Apple Watch is for you.
It will nag you about sitting.
The watch has three built-in activity markers: Stand, Exercise, and Move, all represented as rings of a circle on the Watch face. (Complete a goal, and you complete its circle — surpass a goal, and the circle’s ring will wrap around again and again. Watching that happen is strangely gratifying.) If you’re active, you probably think you have a handle on the standing part already. I did. But the Watch’s sit/stand tracker ended up being my favorite feature. The Watch badgers users into standing one minute out of an hour, for a goal of 12 hours daily. This seemed simple, but absolutely wasn’t. I work out most days of the week, but like many of us, I go from the gym to my desk, and plant there. Once I’d been sitting for 50 minutes, the Watch gave me a slight double-tap on my wrist (accompanied by a double ding if I had the sound turned on) and a notification that it was “Time to stand!” This happened four, five, times a day.
It will bust you when you cheat.
If I tried to lean over my desk, half-standing, to keep working at my computer, the Watch would call bullshit, and mark that hour as inactive. Within a day, I started to anticipate these double-tap notifications, and would go grab a drink or walk around the office to beat the 50-minute warning. I ended the week only missing my stand goal once, but it made me realize that, all those days pre-Watch, I’d been sitting uninterrupted for hours. With the insidious health horrors that we now know about continuous sitting, this feature seems clutch for anyone, and particularly office workers.
It gives you credit for not being a slug.
The Watch racks up Exercise minutes if you do anything above a brisk walk. The goal is 30 daily minutes, and I’d get halfway to it just rushing to get ready for work in the morning. But that seems to be the point, seeing just how many of your daily activities actually count as exercise.
…and that includes sex.
Debate settled: the Watch says it’s exercise, and what a great way to hit your 30-minute quota. (Though it won’t help you meet your Stand goal, unless your sex is much less Midwestern than mine.)
It will actually motivate you to move.
The last activity marker, Move, counts exercise minutes and all my small movements throughout the day. When I set up my watch, I could pick a low, medium, or high movement goal, which is calculated via active calories. (That’s any cals above and beyond what your body needs to function, based on height and weight.) I picked high, 730 active calories a day, and so far I’ve missed it twice — both times on days where I worked out, but also on days where I sat at work for most of my hours. Which is telling. If your daily activity looks like an exercise sandwich — gym in the morning, sit all day, then walking around at night — you’re not going to meet a high activity goal. The Watch gives me little notification nudges to hit my goal, and “awards” when I got there (icons that, while they’re just simple badges, are actually motivating). Filling in those Stand, Exercise, and Move rings became a daily quest. Friday night at 11pm, I cranked through kettlebell swings next to my couch just to hit the Move tally.
Of course, activity monitors from Fitbit, Jawbone, and Garmin have similar features to prompt you to stand and move more, and for a fraction of the cost. But the simple, clear design of the Watch and the iPhone’s Activity app make it easier to digest your health data at a glance.
It won’t track your sleep.
This seemed odd, because the Watch’s built-in hardware has everything you need to get a surface-level summary of sleep. It could just be that Apple’s expecting third-party apps to own sleep tracking. But more likely, it’s the Watch’s battery life — what Apple says amounts to about 18 hours, though my charge was my more like 16 throughout the testing. I tried strategically charging my Watch so I could wear the Watch while I slept — and missed out on 80 minutes of movement tracking and notifications to do it — but without a dedicated sleep app, there’s no real benefit.
It won’t replace your heart rate monitor.
To track any workout, the Watch employs an accelerometer and optical heart rate monitor. I used the Watch’s built-in Workout app whenever I began a session, designating if I was going for a run, walk, cycle, or “other.” Just like nearly every other tracker or sports watch on the market, the Watch is primed to gauge my cardio workouts, but not muscle-activation during strength training — if I bend over to pick up a quarter or a 200-pound barbell, it doesn’t know the difference. But the Apple Watch can factor heart rate. Pick up that barbell enough, and it should read my elevated heart rate and log a higher calorie burn. Except the optical HRM didn’t really seem to do that. Huffing through heavy squats, the Watch read my heart rate as fairly low. And more frenetic CrossFit workouts perplexed it; the Watch couldn’t get a read on my second-by-second HR during box jumps, burpees, and pull-ups, and my overall calorie burn and HR seemed off for these “other”-type training sessions. That’s a problem Apple says you can fix by using a heart rate monitor strap and synching it with your Watch. Or, maybe you don’t care so much about hyper-accurate HR and calorie counts, and in that case, just go by the Watch’s less-than-perfect estimate.
It won’t satisfy a hardcore runner.
You may have heard that you can’t hit the road without your iPhone, because the Watch needs the GPS tracker to dial in the distance. In the beginning, this is true. (The Watch was wildly off for pace and distance the first time I went out for a run without my phone.) But according to Apple, the more I work out with my iPhone and the Watch, the more it will learn my personal movement, and dial in accuracy, so in a couple weeks, I won’t need to bring my phone with me. I noticed this start to happen after a couple of runs. But without GPS dedicated, runners will likely miss the map functions that provide more granular data like elevation gain, altitude, or an actual map of a run. If those same runners don’t really care if their smartwatch looks overtly stylish or whether it can juggle their calendar and push notifications, they might be better off with a traditional sports watch with GPS built-in, like the Garmin Fenix or Fitbit Surge.
It’s never heard of interval training.
Here, the Watch wasn’t as sharp as I’d hoped. It would take 15 seconds or more to register changes in speed and HR (as compared to the quick toggling that my Runkeeper app and a Polar HRM could handle). And unlike Polar, Garmin, and the Fitbit Surge, the Watch didn’t call up my previous workouts (I had to dive deep into the Activity app for that, searching day by day). I also couldn’t record split times, see my HR and speed charted out over my workout, or easily do sprint repeats (to compare my times, I’d need to stop and start the watch for separate workouts). It’s likely that Apple expects third-party apps to do all of this heavy lifting — or maybe we’ll just see some of this higher-level tracking baked into the hardware of future Watch iterations (which at some point, will hopefully be waterproof, so swimmers and triathletes can track their training too).
You’ll be less glued to your phone.
The Watch will not replace your iPhone. That bond may never be severed. But the Watch did make using my phone more purposeful during the workday. Any data from my phone I wanted to be able to see instantly — my next calendar appointment, the weather, my activity progress — I could add to my Watch face, or I could swipe up on the face and scroll through nine “glances.” (These include heart rate, battery charge, a control for your music, and activity data; they’re all customizable too.) All of my texts, emails, app notifications, and meeting reminders also streamed through the Watch, and were delivered with an audible ding and a slight buzz at my wrist. Fittingly, Apple uses a buzzword for how to handle these alerts: “triage.” This stopped me from habitually picking up my phone to see if I’d missed something — a tick I’ve read that we all do some 150 times a day — or interrupting a work meeting, dinner, or personal interaction by digging out my phone and making that “Sorry, only going to take a second” face to deal with an incoming message. There’s a caveat to this, however:
It will annoy other people.
The unexpected side effect to triaging communication around other people is that it made me seem like a Dick Tracy, minus the Tracy. After all, what’s the international gesture for “Wrap it up, I have somewhere else to be,” and “This conversation is boring me”? Glancing down at your watch. I found myself in work meetings getting the buzz-buzz-buzz of incoming data, but avoiding looking down to check the updates because I didn’t want to seem distracted or rude. At drinks with my former boss, I felt the buzz on my wrist, and instinctively checked my watch. Put-off, she asked, “Do you have somewhere to be?” Maybe one day, if the Watch becomes as ubiquitous as the iPhone, people will automatically understand what the new version of a glance to the wrist means (and accept it, to a point, as we all do now with cell phones). But even then, there’s a problem. Where we can establish spoken or unspoken social rules for our cells — “Let’s have a no-phones dinner” — we’ll never expect people to remove and put away their smart watches.
It makes quick communication simple.
Where this works best is for texts. For example, walking down Sixth Avenue with bags in my hands, I got a text from my mother that I was able to answer by tapping the Watch screen and dictating a response. It accurately picked up nearly every message I spoke. (Though it would never properly write “Yowza,” an expression I now know I use too much.) It was also simple to use Apple’s pre-loaded text responses, which, while this doesn’t speak to my texting creativity, were more often than not exactly what I planned to say.
But the notifications can get tedious.
If you’ve ever been a part of a multi-person text chain, you know the feeling of picking up your phone and seeing that, incredibly, you’ve missed 56 messages. No such blissful ignorance with the Watch. I’d feel a little buzz to my wrist each time someone sent a reply, which escalated to a crescendo of buzzes in one particularly active 10-person text group. It was nearly impossible to ignore at work, during a meeting with my boss, and talking face-to-face with my friends. Sure, I could silence the sounds and the taps. But at that point, what’s the difference between the Watch and checking my phone later?
The Watch is beautiful.
As a functional fashion accessory, the Watch is pretty incredible. It feels lightweight on my wrist, looks slim and sleek, and if I wanted to pony up for leather, chain-link, and other less sport-like band options, I could imagine wearing it almost anywhere. The UI — that’s User Interface, in Apple-speak — is easy to navigate, and the screen resolution is razor sharp. Even on the 38mm version’s small screen, Twitter posts and Instagrams came up in high-def clarity, and thanks to the black background and florescent colors, during workouts, I could glance down and see my stats pop off the screen. Along with swiping, the Digital Crown, a small toggle on the upper right-hand side of the face, allowed me to easily scroll through emails and texts too.
So, do you need it?
That’s the big question. Just look around you, wherever you are, and you’ll see people that have their phones within grabbing distance. And aside from tracking our heart rates, right now our phones do — or can do — everything that the Watch does. Do we need this level of tech redundancy? Apple executives have sold the Watch as a way to detach us from the self-absorbed tyranny of our phones, to make us less dependent on technology via a device that allows us to quickly and effortlessly manage information. Except that the Watch served me a lot of the same information, albeit in smaller-screen form, as my phone does. And looking down at my wrist to decide what to do with those texts, emails, or notifications still required attention and time. The Watch curbed my iPhone usage in those specific moments — but I still went back to my phone to deal with all of that info later. What Apple has created is a brilliant way to hold my attention for even more time over the day. And with the onslaught of new apps made just for the Watch, the device can only capture more and more of it. You have to decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.