Apple Watch review

The original iPhone smartwatch remains an expensive convenience gadget

Apple Watch

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Apple Watch isn't a fitness band, watch or fashion accessory, despite taking a bit from each of those camps. It's hard to define what it really is, which means that users may struggle to justify the purchase.

What has saddened me in the time since launch is finding out that Apple won't be selling it properly into the health market. Apparently early tests to add in a stress sensor and blood pressure monitor failed, (beautifully, the reason was partly because of hairy arms) so the Apple Watch - at least version one - will be a cut down version of what it could have been.

Apple Watch review

Apple has improved its fitness features with watchOS 4, adding monthly challenges to the activity app, a high-intensity interval training workout mode and a few other tweaks, but there's only so much it can with the hardware.

The fitness tracking is comprehensive (in as much a fitness tracker can be) in that it wants you to exercise for 30 minutes per day, stand for at least a minute for 12 hours and burn enough calories every 24 hours. It'll also tell you steps and distance travelled, which is a staple of the tracker.

But like these trackers, it's pointless. I'm not saying that it doesn't help clue you in on sedentary habits, but nearly every person who isn't already active, but would like to be, will go through these phases: jumping to attention whenever the Watch tells them to stand, poring over their data to see how well they've done and making sure all the rings get filled.

Apple Watch review

Until the day they don't. Then a sense of guilt wanders in. So our hero promises to redouble their efforts, walking further the next day to make up for it. Except they inevitably slip again and then guilt roars higher. Then it's a couple of days with unfilled rings, and the nudges from the Watch become unfriendly. Why have you bought something that's telling you that you're not fulfilling your goals all day long?

The Watch also constantly told me to stand up just minutes after sitting down, which gave me very little trust in the app.

I know this is an extreme case, and many people are capable of ignoring the messages, but that misses the point. While a device that can act like a coach is good, if it was a person the goals would change each day. They'd be linked to a challenge, would increase or vary over time – it would give victory to this gamification.

And that's the very, very big problem I have with the Apple Watch when comparing it to a running watch: it's far too basic to be considered a rival to a Garmin or Polar device, and for the new user it doesn't have any way of helping you get fitter.

Starting up the Workout app and you've got a pleasing amount of options to choose from, with elliptical and rowing machines bound to attract those people that "always mean to use them things at the gym."

Apple Watch review

But running is the main focus, with Apple joining up with Christy Turlington-Burns to show how she trained for the London Marathon using the Apple Watch.

Perhaps she honestly did the entire time, but she would probably have wished for a more in-depth device during the training. The Apple Watch will ask you how many calories you wish to burn, how far you'd like to go or how long you'd like to run for (or just an open-ended goal) and then off you pop, with rings appearing to let you know how close to your goal you are.

Apple Watch review

But that's it. And it's up to you to improve, with "beating your best time / burn / distance" the only thing the Apple Watch will let you do. If this is for the beginner then it should be giving you different workouts to keep things interesting, helping you progress to improved running power.

There are so many apps out there which can do the same thing, so why can't Apple nail this area? There's also the fact GPS isn't on board, so unless the phone is tethered you won't get accurate data.

Actually, even with the phone in a bag, pocket or pouch the GPS is still a little on the generous side, compared the Garmin Fenix 3 which I tested against. Over a 5KM run, the Garmin was a shade under the distance, but Apple added another 160m onto the route.

Apple Watch review

I've been testing the Watch out with OS 2, but there's not been that much of an upgrade in fitness terms just yet. The biggest thing to come, for me, is Strava becoming a native application on the Watch - although that's not happened yet.

When it does, it will no longer mean the phone has to be tethered to me when I go out for a run - Strava can run on the Watch rather than being a second screen. I assume it will just use the accelerometer in the device to tell how far I've gone, although if we're lucky it can use the 'calibrated data' it's learnt from the GPS.

The other big chance is that it will show up whenever I raise my wrist, in much the same way the Workout app does now. It's so annoying that you have to change the mode to 'last app used' just to use it effectively, and now that's over.

The Activity app is getting an upgrade too, thanks to being able to draw data from apps like the 7 minute workout. This will now contribute to your exercise goal, rather than being a phantom workout that goes untracked in your daily efforts.

The heart rate monitor is also not up to the task. It needs a much tighter fit than the Watch seems to be able to offer and when running, and checking to see how hard I was working, the monitor constantly showed a much higher BPM than the chest strap was showing - and sadly this didn't change with the Watch OS 2 update.

Apple Watch OS 2 review

This means users will get erratic results, and it's not possible to tell when you're overtraining and the heart rate soars at low levels of exercise, which again makes the Apple Watch not great for training if you don't invest a little.

One thing that did impress me is that it can connect to sensors, so adding in a heart rate monitor like the Wahoo Tickr X, which can connect to nearly every device going, which instantly improved the health chops of the Apple Watch.

But having to fork out to improve a certain area when you've already paid so much for the Watch isn't going to impress everyone.

Apple Watch review

All this leaves me feeling like the Apple Watch 3 will be a brilliant running watch, when there are enough sensors and apps from third parties can use them to bring all the power of their standalone devices to the wrists of people who don't really care about running, Trojan Horsing a clever running plan into their lives.

But for now, it's hard to recommend the Watch as a fitness device unless all you want to do is be poked to stand up once in a while.

Matt Swider