I told myself that I didn’t want an Apple Watch.
I told my family and friends that I didn’t want an Apple Watch.
I wrote and tweeted about how I didn’t want an Apple Watch.
And yet, after learning that Apple Watch would include a comprehensive set of accessibility features, I enthusiastically pre-ordered one bright and early on April 10. Now that I’ve had some time (just over a month, to be exact) to use and work with the Watch, what do I think?
The Good: The Apple Watch is well-designed; completely accessible to blind users; has better-than-expected battery life; and simplifies managing incoming notifications and messages, answering phone calls, and a number of other tasks. The Complications on the clock faces are quite useful, giving you access to a variety of information literally at the tap of the screen or raise of the wrist. Glances also appear to be very promising, though I admit I haven’t found any third-party Glances or apps that I’ll actually want to use in place of my phone just yet. Watch bands are for the most part easy to change, and I found myself really liking the Sport band for its durability and "very Apple" look.
The Bad: There’s no escaping the reality that VoiceOver is rather sluggish when compared to a modern-generation iOS device, especially when using Watch apps or doing anything else that requires a longer interaction. The utility and accessibility of third-party apps is also hit-and-miss.
The Bottom Line: I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, need an Apple Watch. And yet, the Apple Watch is the first smartwatch that is completely accessible to blind and low vision users, and it simplifies some things that I already thought were simple as-is. Once I move past the idea of this device being a totally unnecessary purchase, it makes my life that much easier and is something I wouldn’t want to not have. While it is a first-generation product and VoiceOver currently has some latency issues I really hope will be addressed, there’s no denying the fact that quickly checking the information in complications and Glances, reading notifications and messages, and taking phone calls on-the-go are all more convenient on the Apple Watch. It’s also worth remembering that people—not just your reviewer—are still trying to figure out how the Watch is best used, so my experiences documented here may be totally different from yours. Thus, while reading this review will hopefully be helpful, the best way to know if an Apple Watch is for you is to make a try-on appointment and experience the Watch for yourself.
Understanding the Apple Watch
A lot of people are skeptical about the Apple Watch and what it is useful for. During my first week of owning the Watch, I had a huge case of buyer's remorse and was wondering that exact same thing. Psychological principles dictate that one must resolve their cognitive dissonance, and so attempt-to-resolve I did. I tried using the Watch for everything--from answering phone calls, to reading e-mails, to accomplishing tasks in third-party apps. I told myself that I had this shiny new Watch, and that I needed to justify my purchase by using it for everything...even if using my iPhone just made more sense. As I encountered more and more perceived limitations, I became increasingly frustrated with the Watch...until I took it off one night and told myself that I wasn't going to think about it or do anything with it for the evening. (My resolve to not do anything with the Watch lasted a mere two hours, by the way.) In short, I thought of the Watch as an iPhone replacement, which it was never meant to be.
Little did I know that spending less time actively thinking about the Watch was exactly what I needed to do to really begin appreciating it. The following morning, I put the Watch on and simply went about my day. I didn't constantly think, "Hey, I have this Watch on my wrist and I need to remember to use it." Instead, I just went about my daily activities, using the Watch where it made sense and letting interactions with the device come naturally. Once I stopped thinking of the Watch as an iPhone replacement and more as a complement, I found the experience to be much more enjoyable.
I share the above story with you because I think the Apple Watch is misunderstood, and that VoiceOver users might have some unique concerns that haven't really been addressed very thoroughly just yet. As David Goodwin aptly noted, some of the conveniences of the Watch--like being able to quickly and unobtrusively glance at notifications--are not going to be as beneficial to VoiceOver users. (I tend to agree with him that there really isn't anything more Apple can do about this; it just is what it is.) Additionally, people--myself included--are still learning how to use the Watch and how it integrates into their lives. While putting the finishing touches on this review, I became aware of two very helpful gestures that I did not know of until now--over a month after receiving the watch. So, all that to say that using the Watch is a learning process, and that it takes time to really get to know just what the device can do and how it can fit into your life.
Unboxing and Initial Setup
The experience of unboxing the Apple Watch is like that of unboxing a new iPhone, except that the Apple Watch feels more luxurious. The Apple Watch comes in a cube-shaped plastic case with a soft interior lining, and this case is placed into a similarly-shaped traditional Apple product box. Apple doesn’t overdo things with the cardboard shipping package, too, making the entire experience of unboxing the device pleasantly easy. It's worth noting, however, that the case does not have any clasps to keep it shut, so this is something to consider if you're using it to transport the Watch or its charger.
Setup of the Watch was straightforward overall, though I did encounter some issues pairing the device using the manual pairing code. In particular, it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether I was supposed to interact with the phone or the Watch itself to display the pairing code—as both devices seemed to be directing me to each other for a time. When I re-paired my Watch roughly a week later, I was able to do so without difficulty—so it is very possible that the issues I experienced were because of operator error.
VoiceOver on the Apple Watch
One of the great things about Apple's products is that they are accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities, visual impairment being among them. This is certainly the case for the Apple Watch, with a fully-functional version of VoiceOver being available right out of the box with three presses of the Digital Crown on the setup screen. VoiceOver use is, for the most part, straightforward...with one interacting with the device mainly via one- or two-finger swipes and double-taps. The one less-than-intuitive area is activation of the Notification Center, as I found myself double-tapping on the Notification Center icon on the Clock face when the correct gesture is to swipe down with two fingers. While swiping down with two fingers makes perfect sense when considering the equivalent gesture on iOS, the confusion arises because it is presented in the context of other actionable elements and the double-tap gesture works most everywhere else.
For a first iteration of the OS, VoiceOver offers a reasonable number of customizations--but most of them are only available through the Apple Watch iPhone app. On the Watch, one can enable or disable VoiceOver and turn the Screen Curtain on and off; in the iPhone app, however, one can also adjust the speaking rate; change VoiceOver volume; turn hints on and off; and enable or disable Speak on Wrist Raise. I would like to see Speaking Rate replace the Screen Curtain option in the Watch's VoiceOver settings, but this is entirely a personal thing and is due largely in part to that I see myself wanting to adjust the speaking rate more often than I would the Screen Curtain option. But these are all minor complaints.
One of the more interesting VoiceOver settings unique to the Apple Watch is "Speak on Wrist Raise." When enabled, the Watch will announce the time whenever you raise your wrist--as a sighted person would to glance at the time--thereby giving you hands-free access to the time and other incoming notifications. In practice, however, I found that the Watch would activate any time I moved my arm at all, meaning that VoiceOver would constantly be chattering away to me even when I did not try to activate the Watch. Though I ultimately disabled the Speak on Wrist Raise feature, I very much appreciate that VoiceOver users have it as an option. In the future, it would be great to see Apple include a hybrid option for Speak on Wrist Raise, where the Watch would only speak if the user lifted their wrist when a notification was present. To me, this would be the best of both worlds.
The only real sticking point with VoiceOver on the Apple Watch is latency in responsiveness. I'm coming from using an iPhone 6 Plus, so the lag with VoiceOver when swiping around the screen...and especially when activating elements...is rather noticeable. However, before one writes the Watch off as being "too sluggish," it's important to remember that the Watch is not meant to be used for extended interactions; if you need to do anything in-depth, use your iPhone. It's also important to note that even non-VoiceOver users are all reporting the same type of latency issues, so this is very likely an area which Apple is aware of and actively working on for watchOS 2 and beyond. In speaking with others using the Apple Watch with VoiceOver, they report that latency is not a huge issue for them...so take my critique as just one person's opinion and know that your experience may very well be better in this regard.
Clock Faces and Complications
One of my favorite features of the Apple Watch is the ability to customize the Clock Face. The Apple Watch includes 10 different faces (Note: more faces will be added in watchOS 2, discussed near the conclusion of this article): Utility, Modular, Simple, Motion, Astronomy, Color, Solar, Chronograph, Mickey, and X-Large. For most of these faces, you can customize the "Complications," or extra pieces of information presented in addition to the time. Available Complications include: Date, Moon Phase, Sunrise/Sunset, Weather, Stocks, Activity, Alarm, Timer, Stopwatch, Battery, and World Clock.
Customizing the Clock Faces with VoiceOver is very straightforward. Simply force touch (double-tap and hold with slightly more pressure) anywhere on the Clock Face, and you will be presented with a list of all available faces. Swipe left and right to move through the list, or swipe down (and then double-tap) to customize a face. In the Clock Face customization screen, swipe left and right to move between Complications, and use the Digital Crown to cycle through the available options for each Complication.
Depending on the location and size of the Complication on the Clock Face, you will get more or less information. For example, if I'm using the Modular face (the Clock Face that allows for the most amount of information to be displayed) and I have Weather set as the large complication, I get not just the temperature, but also the current conditions and a forecast high and low for the day. If I set Weather as the bottom-middle Complication in the Utility face, I get just the current temperature and weather conditions. There are a lot of available options and ways one can customize the Clock Face, so I definitely recommend taking some time to figure out what works best for you.
In daily use, I found myself alternating between the Utility and Modular faces, simply because they fit my style. Of the other available faces, I was especially impressed by the Mickey Mouse face--not because I'm a huge Disney fan, but because Apple's designers even have Mickey (VoiceOver) speak the time in a higher-pitched voice. As a child, I loved the Mickey Mouse talking watches I had, and the fact that Apple put such thought into designing the accessibility of the Mickey face further illustrates that accessibility is simply a part of Apple's DNA, even in the smallest of details.
Another hallmark feature of the Apple Watch is Glances. Basically, Glances provide small snippets of information (your heart rate, for example) or app functionality (checking stocks or the current Weather). One accesses Glances by swiping up with two fingers on the Clock face; once a Glance is activated, [swipe left with two fingers to move to the next Glance, or swipe right with two fingers to move to the previous one](http://www.applevis.com/comment/41176#comment-41176]. Glances are efficient and, in my experience, serve the purpose of getting the essentials to the user at a glance (or swipe of two fingers).
For the most part, I found myself mainly using two glances: Heartbeat and Now Playing. The Heartbeat glance allows one to quickly measure their heart rate, as well as to view the most recent heart rate measurement. The Now Playing glance allows you to control music (or audiobook) playback on your iPhone directly from the wrist--a feature I find especially helpful when carrying the iPhone in my pocket and wanting to change songs or pause playback. I also just recently discovered that turning the Digital Crown while in the Now Playing glance adjusts playback volume--a very nice touch. As you can only move through Glances by swiping through them one at a time, customizing which ones you want to appear is essential. This is accomplished through the Apple Watch iPhone app, and the process is straightforward and very accessible.
With the Apple Watch, management of incoming notifications got a whole lot more streamlined. Nine times out of ten, it "just works": a notification comes in, Apple Watch taps you on the wrist, you check the notification, and you're on your way; no more pulling your phone out of your pocket just to see that your friend's brother's mother-in-law commented on a Facebook status that you're not really even following any more. It's important to note, however, that--depending on how many notifications you get during the day--you will likely wish to customize which apps send notifications to the Watch and which send them to the iPhone. To do this, go to the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, and tap Notifications. Apps which do not have Apple Watch support (or which do not have their companion Watch app installed) will be shown under the heading "Mirror iPhone," and one can simply turn these notifications on and off.
While I was somewhat expecting to be receiving too many notifications--as many other reviewers have experienced--I actually found my notification load to be quite manageable. This is largely, I think, because I really only have notifications coming to my phone for things which require my attention immediately or which I might otherwise miss; no Twitter push notifications here. In my case, I did opt to have Facebook notifications not be sent to the Watch, as sounds in the Facebook app have not worked right for years (including when notifications are mirrored to the Apple Watch)--and I was missing activity because notifications were coming in silently. I tried enabling notifications for and reading Mail on the Watch, but found reaching for my phone to be simpler. Here again, the takeaway is that customization of notifications is a must.
Apple says that the Watch is its most personal device yet, and the wide variety of band options is one of the things that makes it so. I purchased the Apple Watch with stainless steel link bracelet, and Apple also loaned me a Milanese loop and a Sport band for review purposes. After using all three, I can safely say that changing bands gives the feeling that one has a whole different Watch, and that I perceive the Watch somewhat differently depending on which band I am wearing. All three bands have their own advantages and drawbacks, and...try as I might...the reality is that it's difficult to describe something like a Watch band in writing. Thus, I strongly recommend that you go into the Apple Store to experience the bands in-person before making a purchasing decision.
The Sport Band
The $49 fluoroelastomer Sport band is probably the most popular Apple Watch band out there, and for good reason. The Sport band feels great to the touch, with a smooth, but not-too-glossy, finish. Though fluoroelastomer is technically rubber, this is no ordinary rubber Watch band; it is thick, substantial, and just what you would want if you live an active lifestyle or want something more casual in nature. As I noted in my article detailing my try-on appointment experience, I'll probably be buying one of these at some point in the near future.
Unlike traditional Watch bands, the Sport band does not have a buckle; rather, it fastens with what Apple calls a "pin-and-tuck closure." While fastening the pin-and-tuck closure did take some getting used to, it soon became second nature. However, it is definitely not the easiest of bands to fasten, so this falls into the category of "you should really try it in-store first" if you have any difficulties with dexterity or other concerns. It's currently available in green, pink, blue, white, Space Gray, and Aluminum. One final note about the Sport band: it is very identifiable as an Apple product and is a great conversation-starter.
The Milanese Loop
If you're looking for an infinitely-adjustable, easy-to-fasten, comfortable band, the Milanese loop is definitely an option worth considering. The Milanese loop is very lightweight and flexible; made of finely-woven stainless steel; and it has a mesh-like texture. Fastening the Milanese loop is about as easy as it gets; simply lift the magnetic closure, adjust the band, and re-place the magnet to secure the band at the desired position. As the band is one uniformly solid piece of steel, you can secure the magnet anywhere along the band--allowing you to adjust the band for just the perfect fit.
But therein lies my criticism of the Milanese loop. Because you can adjust its fit so precisely, it feels different every time I put the Watch on--and so I find myself wanting to adjust it constantly until I get a comfortable fit. With the Sport band and link bracelet, I can just fasten the Watch and away I go. And because the Milanese loop is lighter than the Sport band and certainly lighter than the link bracelet, the Watch with Milanese loop just feels a little too top-heavy for my liking. That is not at all to say that the Milanese loop is a bad design, or that you won't like it or shouldn't buy it. Based on conversations I've had on Twitter, it appears as though my unenthusiastic reaction to the Milanese loop is mostly in the minority, so...here again...the best way to get an idea as to which band you would prefer is to make a try-on appointment in-store and ask to try on the bands you are considering. Apple's store staff are almost always willing to help in whatever way they can, and wearing just the right band will likely have a huge impact on how you perceive the Watch overall.
The Link Bracelet
Having always loved heavier, link bracelet watches, I knew that the link bracelet was ultimately what I wanted for my Apple Watch sight unseen. While the Milanese loop and Sport band really need to be experienced in-person, Apple's link bracelet is probably most like what one would expect from a link band. The links are smooth and flat, and the entire band appears to be very well-constructed and durable. (This could definitely also be said of the Milanese loop and Sport band--everything is very high quality.) The only downside of the link bracelet is that the quick-release buttons for link removal are not tactually identifiable to me. While the process of swopping bands is very simple, Apple recommends that users separate the link bracelet before removing it from the Watch; this means that, if I want to change the band by Apple's recommended procedure, I have to get sighted assistance in doing so. As I'm quite happy with the link bracelet (especially after I've gotten used to typing with it on my wrist), this isn't a huge issue in the grand scheme of things...but it is something to consider if you're thinking about buying multiple bands and wanting to change them regularly.
While I generally have a positive opinion of the Apple Watch, I have not found a compelling use for Watch apps as of yet. While the Watch is great for reading and replying to messages; receiving and managing notifications; making phone calls; and checking various information via Complications and Glances, a lot of the things I want to do with third-party apps are simply easier or more efficient on my iPhone. Part of this is because of the VoiceOver/general user interface latency discussed above; and part of this is because developers and users alike are still learning what wrist-worn apps should and shouldn't be used for. So far, the apps I use on a daily basis are either not available on the Watch, or the user experience isn't compelling enough for me to choose the Watch over the iPhone. The inconsistent accessibility of third-party Watch apps (some apps that are accessible on the iPhone are not on the Watch, and vice versa) and the slow load times for app data have also partly led to my disinterest in Watch apps. When native Watch apps and third-party complications become a reality later this year, I'll definitely be giving this part of the Watch experience another try--as I think third-party apps have a huge amount of potential.
Activity and Fitness Tracking
The activity and fitness tracking features are two areas I don't have a real strong opinion on one way or the other, simply because I am not much of an exerciser and thus don't really have a frame of reference on which to base my experience. I can say that I particularly appreciated the activity tracking while working at a week-long conference, as it allowed me to actually know how much walking I was doing on a daily basis. (The answer: more distance than I expected, which is certainly a good thing!)
The Stand Reminders, while well-intentioned, are still in need of some refinement. The Watch did not always realize when I was standing, and sometimes alerted me to stand a mere few minutes after I had just sat down. I also foresee situations where the stand reminders could become very annoying very quickly, such as while in a college class or meeting where randomly standing up is just not an option. I've read and heard from others who absolutely love the Stand Reminders, though, so this is another area where your experience is going to come down to personal preference; just because the Stand Reminders are not helpful for me doesn't mean they won't work for you.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my biggest uses for the Apple Watch thus far has been reading incoming notifications--including those for messages. As with other types of notifications, all a VoiceOver user need do to read an incoming text is tap the screen and swipe to the message. Options to reply to the message and dismiss the notification are usually present, though this is not always the case; I can't figure out what action brings up the reply options, as double-tapping on the message does not seem to be doing the trick. In such cases, I've usually just put the Watch to sleep (which you can easily do by covering it with your opposite hand) and reached for my phone. (After this review was published, a reader suggested that I scroll up the screen to bring the reply button into focus; this appears to have done the trick.)
Reading messages on the Watch is undeniably convenient; dictation of replies, however, is more of a mixed bag. While I could dictate replies on the Watch with great accuracy, it does not appear possible to review the dictated text if the recipient is not using iMessage. (iMessage users have two options--send the dictated text as an audio message or just as text, and this is how you review what was actually dictated.) This essentially means that, if your contact isn't using iMessage, the dictated text will automatically be sent without you first being able to review it.
While the inability to pre-read dictated texts may not be important for many, it is an absolute deal-breaker for me. I use my phone to communicate with a mixture of friends, family, and professional associates; I simply am not willing to run the risk of Siri possibly miss-dictating (and even sending something downright inappropriate) just for the few seconds of extra convenience using the Watch has over my phone. Thankfully, this only impacts use for non-iMessage devices, and I have a pretty good idea of which of my contacts are using iPhones and who hasn't yet made the switch. Regardless of whether this is a bug (as some have hinted it is) or an intentional design decision, it would be wonderful to see universal text review options in watchOS 2.
Making and Taking Phone Calls
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked taking phone calls on the Watch. While the audio from the Watch's speaker is a little lower in volume than VoiceOver, I still found it very listenable in a quiet room. Call recipients reported that my audio was very clear, and I also observed the same while showing the Watch to someone else and demonstrating call reception. Only twice so far have I had issues with lag on calls, but I'm not sure what the cause was and, more importantly, if there was anything I could do differently to improve connectivity. Given that all of the call data is being pushed from the iPhone, I was very impressed overall. Making phone calls was simple enough, and this ability may finally be what it takes to get me to create a Favorites list of frequently-called contacts, as browsing through my entire contact list was rather time-consuming and the Watch does not appear to have a phone keypad.
Sounds and Haptic Feedback
Haptic feedback on the Apple Watch is one of those things that integrates so well into the experience that you don't really even stop to think about it. Each type of notification has its own Haptic setting, and they are all uniquely identifiable even without the accompanying auditory feedback. I turned the sounds off for a couple days, and found that the Haptic feedback worked well by itself for alerting me to events on the Watch. I would like the ability to customize the vibration patterns for certain events, as the longer vibration pattern for an incoming telephone call is perhaps a bit too much of a good thing. The sounds on the Apple Watch are, in most cases, very subtle and unobtrusive; incoming notifications, messages, and phone calls all have their own alerts. Like with Haptics, I would like to have some customizations, as the ringtone is a bit too high-pitched for my tastes.
Battery Life and Charging
Like phone call audio quality, another area of the Watch performance I have been quite impressed by is battery life. Based on Apple's 18-hour estimate, I expected that I'd be needing to watch my battery level constantly; happily, this has not been the case. I consistently end the day with over 50% of the battery remaining, and have never had the Watch go into Power Reserve Mode for lack of available juice. (It's worth noting that VoiceOver is turned off while the Watch is in Power Reserve Mode; to resume normal operation, hold the Friends button for four seconds.) While I had read reports that the Apple Watch's battery life was better than expected, I figured that the use of VoiceOver would negatively impact battery usage times; here again, my concerns have simply not materialized. While it's true that I don't use the Watch as much as some power users might, the battery performance I'm getting has been better than expected--and I'm not alone in this regard.
Charging is also as simple as it could be. Simply place the smooth side of the magnetic charging puck against the back of the Watch, and the magnet automatically aligns it with the Watch to make the connection. Once the connection is made, the Watch will play a tone and the Clock Face will indicate that the Watch is charging. I charge my Watch every night, simply because I have the ability to do so and see no reason not to; as I don't yet have an Apple Watch charging stand or dock, I use the lower part of the Watch case to hold the Watch while charging.
On a recent morning, I woke up, got out of bed, and realized that I had fallen asleep the previous evening without first putting the Apple Watch on the charger. Over the next two hours while I let the Watch charge, I went about my morning routine as I usually did. And yet, there was something different...something missing: the Apple Watch. While I don't consciously think about the Watch 24/7 any more, it's become a subconscious part of my life--so that when I'm not wearing it, I miss it. Does my usage for the Apple Watch constitute a need to have it in my life? No. But does it constitute a want? Yes. And I'm okay with that.
And things are only going to get better from here. At Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference, Apple announced the next version of the Watch's operating system--watchOS 2. While we'll know more in the fall when the update is released, Apple announced that, among other things, watchOS 2 will allow for native Watch apps and third-party complications. watchOS 2 will also include a convenient "Nightstand Mode," which will allow the Watch to be used as a bedside alarm clock. (There's another feature I can happily delegate over to the Watch from my iPhone.) If there's one thing I took from the Watch presentation at the WWDC 2015 Keynote, it was that the future of the Apple Watch is very bright; I, for one, can't wait to see how the Apple Watch ecosystem evolves in the coming months and years.