Apple Watch review

The original iPhone smartwatch remains an expensive convenience gadget

Apple Watch

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The Apple Watch needs a headline feature, and while it doesn't really have it yet (beyond sending random pictures to other Watch-wearers) the apps that live on it are going to be the real reason to buy one.

Sure, they're not there yet, but the in-built choices and first goes from third parties are pretty good already, meaning this is a device with a lot of potential.

Watch faces

Apple's watch faces take advantage of the pressure sensitive Force Touch display. Holding down on the glass, with a bit of exertion, zooms out of the current watch face and loads up a gallery of faces, from the information-packed Modular to the toe-tapping Mickey Mouse. Utility ended up being my favorite because it was simple, yet fit all of my customizations.

Apple Watch review

These let me insert information snippets onto the watch face, such as the full date, my next calendar appointment or the sunrise and sunset time if I really wanted to know daily. Most faces make room for smaller, pre-select spaces in the corners too. These let me display the critical Apple Watch battery life percentage, my daily fitness graph and the time in another city, which has been great for traveling.

There are "millions" of combinations, according to Apple, but these custom pre-determined spaces can't be moved around and, in reality, there are just ten faces. Apple has yet to open up its watch face API to developers and it's currently banning third-party faces.

With the watchOS 2 update, Time Travel is now enabled. This means that on the modular Watch Face you can use the Digital Crown to swing forward or backwards through the day to see what's coming up on your calendar, how the weather will be (or was) and when the sun will set.

These 'complications' are set to get wider as apps now have access to them, letting you choose more modules in this section.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

However, I can't really say that I loved Time Travel all that much yet, as I think I'm not alone in saying that my calendar isn't as complete as it should be. If you are one of those that plops every single appointment into the mix though, this is a great way to see what's coming.

I'm more looking forward to more apps coming to add into this mix - the ability to see what happened in sports games through the time, the chance for iTranslate to suggest key phrases at the right time of day - these will all be excellent additions that I'm looking forward to checking out.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

I'm really digging Timelapse pictures though - the ability to have a high-res image that changes throughout the day of iconic places around the world is just brilliant (even though it does expose where the edges of the screen are a little too much).

Apple Watch OS 2 review

The photos gallery is nifty too - you'll need to set the album on your handset too, but these will cycle through nicely. Apparently they'll even show dynamic photos if you've got an iPhone 6S or above handy, which means more motion on the wrist every time you look at your watch.

This really does help it feel much more personal, and the high-res screen is perfect for showing off the photos in the background.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

Apple has to catch up to Android Wear here as it's one of the things I love about Android Wear (the Goldeneye and PacMan faces are real crowd pleasers) and if Apple is serious about making the Watch personal, being able to choose more faces is a must.

Apple has also added additional faces with watchOS 4, bringing a Siri one and several Toy Story ones to the party.

Built-in apps

Apps, on the other hand, are open to developers, and it shows. There are loads available, and the best Apple Watch apps are those from Apple itself. Siri answered my basic questions, like "who is the governor of New York" and "when in the next Phillies game." Anything more in-depth than that, and the silent virtual assistant proposes you "handoff" to your iPhone.

Apple's built-in timer let me set the timer for cooking and the laundry, without requiring me to take out my iPhone (which were in my other jeans).

Apple Watch review

Passbook worked flawlessly at the airport (although be prepared for the 'Early Adopter' syndrome when you try and check in at a desk where the attendant has no idea why you want to use your watch) and Apple Pay enabled me to buy food at McDonald's (for testing purposes) while I continued to play on my smartphone.

Apple Pay on a phone? That's so 2014.

But a real USP of the Watch would be that runners who have left the phone at home can still get vital hydration or a ride home in an emergency thanks to the contactless capabilities of the Watch.

Well, that's if I'd ever use the Apple Watch as a standalone running device, which I'd struggle to at the moment (more on that later).

There's no camera on the Apple Watch, but it does have a Camera Remote app that let me snap photos remotely in conjunction with my iPhone's iSight camera. That was handy, unlike the actual Photos app, which was a tiny way to look at your photos from the phone.

Apple Watch review

The watch isn't a particular visual experience and it's restricted by its 8GB of internal storage (with about 6GB available), with Music running into the same dilemma, so controlling your iPhone's music collection is a better choice.

That said, you can pair a set of Bluetooth headphones and tell your iPhone to shove some of your playlists over to the Watch. However the most you can have on there is 2GB of music (which you have to change from the 1GB default) so this is no iPod replacement.

It's good for music when you're out running though, and is a nice touch from Apple letting you choose between the phone and Watch for audio pleasure.

Apple Watch review

Apple Maps on Apple Watch let me navigate the streets of New York City without forcing me to foolishly take out my iPhone at every new turn, like a tourist. The iPhone app also opened up in my pocket, just in case I needed to change up the directions or see the route in full.

With Watch OS 2.2, Maps is also upgraded to allow you to navigate straight to work or home addresses, and incorporates Yelp info to help you find interesting places nearby from your Watch. Why you wouldn't want to do this right from your phone is beyond me, but if you're interested in saving time, Apple's got you covered.

I'm really enjoying the ability to navigate with Watch OS 2 - the Watch mimics the Maps directions exactly and can now even spew over transit directions thanks to the upgrade from the main app in iOS 9.

While I'm not a total fan of the ability to get transit directions from Apple's Maps app (it's a bit slow to register the locations and times to transfer between transport modes) I did like being able to check what I'm supposed to do from my Watch.

Calls and messages

Calling someone through an Apple Watch isn't the most ideal way to talk to chums, especially in a noisy environment. It sounds like a speaker phone with a little more static. But it works well in an otherwise quiet location or when your phone is two floors above you.

The Apple Watch side button leads to a dedicated "favorite contacts" menu, which let me text and call my friends and family (with the ability to add said friends directly from the Watch rather than having to do it via the app).

I can now even group them together for ease of chatting... but I'll be honest, that was an effort that I never got around to doing. If you've got more than 12 Watch friends, you've got a problem.)

Apple Watch review

I found sending a speech-to-text transcription a bit easier on the Apple Watch than any Android Wear watch. Apple's way of doing it doesn't rudely cut me off and hurriedly send a broken text message when I stop mid-sentence. I actually get to think about what I want to say. I value that distinction.

Apple Watch review

Apple Watch users have the added bonus of including very simple sketches and attention-grabbing taps to other Watch owners using the timepiece's Taptic feedback vibration. Heartbeats can also be exchanged for what may be the weirdest / creepiest Apple Watch feature.

Apple Watch review

It's novel at first, but after receiving my tenth heartbeat from the same few People Watch owners, it has become fairly annoying.

The sketches have been upgraded too - you can now send phallic drawings in multiple colors. It's a fairly terrifying experience, as you feel you have to draw at the speed of light in order to make sure the picture doesn't start to disintegrate and send to the recipient before you've had a chance to change the color of your sketch.

Third-party apps

Apple Watch apps from developers are hit or miss when it comes to design and performance. I can request a car with Uber, receive breaking news alerts from CNN and track my lost wallet with the Title app on Apple Watch. But many of them are read-only apps. Instagram is here, but you can only see a few recent posts and comments are limited to emojis at the moment.

Twitter, the New York Times and Nike+ Running made the jump to Apple Watch, but a number of other essential third-party apps are missing, at least in native form. This includes Facebook, Google Maps and the iOS Gmail app, which forced me to switch back to Apple's default mail app.

Apple Watch review

Sure, Facebook main app notifications pop up on the watch, as do emails snippets from the Gmail app, but seeing anything beyond "Lily posted a comment on your timeline" or reading the full email requires an iPhone for now. Worse, getting two Facebook comments or emails makes it even more vague.

"You have two messages." That's less than helpful, Apple Watch. Thanks. This is unlike Instagram's native app or Apple's built-in Mail app with interactive controls on the wrist.

Having Mail as a native app makes a big difference, as it allows you to interact with one of the most important parts of your phone directly from the wrist.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

Being able to reply or archive the message using the same methods as in the messaging app is really handy (and feels like it should have been there from the start) but it's quick and easy, working well to show off what the Watch can do.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

Many third-party apps need to load faster and include finer controls that go far beyond "Show App on Apple Watch." This is up to developers and over time I'm sure some really great apps will begin to appear that take advantage of this new tech location - and we're already seeing that with the new Watch OS 2 update.

Matt Swider