Apple Watch’s early reviews reveal strengths and weaknesses

The Apple Watch was made available for pre-order last week, coinciding with the embargo being lifted on major publications’ reviews for the device. To put it lightly, impressions have been mixed on the device. While professional reviewers have all agreed that the Watch is fine hardware, there have been several notable drawbacks pointed out that prevent the device from landing in must-have territory for iPhone owners.

The Verge, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNET all agree that the Watch is well-made, hardware-wise, and that its design goes some way to justify its price, which is $350 for the base model. Geoffery A. Fowler of The Wall Street Journal said, “One big challenge Apple conquered is making its wrist computer small and stylish enough to wear without a nerdy pocket protector… the Apple Watch is a fine watch for both men and women.” Scott Stein of CNET called echoed this sentiment in his review. “…in terms of craftsmanship, there isn’t a more elegantly made piece of wearable tech.” That’s just in terms of the currently available smartwatches though. In The Verge’s filmed discussion with editors at Racked, the editors dismissed the Watch as a legitimate fashion piece, but said there may be some potential for future versions of the product. In terms of tech, the Apple Watch is the highest of the high-end, but it still has a ways to go before people start mistaking it for a real watch.

The Watch’s mission statement, according to Apple’s marketing, is to alleviate the pressure of the constant barrage of notifications on your phone so that you can pay more attention to what’s happening around you. We’ve already seen many other smartwatches attempt this in the past few years, but Apple brought some new ideas to the Watch, attempting to ascend beyond the smartwatch’s current status as a notification delivery vessel, that may revitalize other manufacturers’ efforts.

Among these ideas, one of the of the most compelling is what Apple calls the Taptic Engine, marketing speak for a vibrating motor on the Watch’s underside that sends specialized taps to your wrist for different types of notifications. Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief of The Verge, found the Taptic Engine especially cool, though somewhat half-baked: “If anything, Apple has been underselling the Taptic Engine… But it’s also pretty clear that taptics on the Watch are only the first half of a brilliant idea. There are a ton of missing pieces that need to get filled in before the Taptic Engine lives up to its potential.”

The notifications manifest either in light taps, or sharp vibrations. Stein found the default setting not very useful: “Sometimes the feelings are too subtle: I don’t know if I felt them or imagined them… I set my alerts to ‘prominent’ and got sharper nudges on my wrist.” Patel, however, found issue with the aforementioned prominent setting. “It’s the haptic equivalent of having an assistant blow a reggaeton horn before discreetly handing you a note in a meeting.” Overall, it appears that the Taptic Engine is a promising feature that needs refinement for the next version of the device.

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The Watch’s support for Apple Pay was a highlight among the reviews. Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist at The New York Times, was enthralled with it. “I used the Watch to pay for New York cabs and groceries at Whole Foods, and to present my boarding pass to security agents at the airport. When these encounters worked, they were magical, like having a secret key to unlock the world right on my arm.” Patel expressed similar thoughts in his review. “Apple Pay is my favorite part of the entire Watch, a little blast from the future. I love using Apple Pay with my phone, but it’s even better with the Watch, some mild contortions to line it up with payment terminals aside… Apple Pay remains a shining example of what Apple is able to do when it has complete control over hardware, software, and services.” Mobile payments are currently not possible on any other wearable device, so it’s good to see Apple pioneering this particular previously untapped avenue of functionality.

Then there were the negative aspects of the Watch mentioned in the reviews. Most reviewers drew attention to the unintuitive initial experience of using the device, which is uncharacteristic of Apple, especially considering their “it just works” marketing campaign of the last several years. Manjoo said, “…unlike previous breakthrough Apple products, the Watch’s software requires a learning curve that may deter some people. There’s a good chance it will not work perfectly for most consumers right out of the box, because it is best after you fiddle with various software settings to personalize use. Indeed, to a degree unusual for a new Apple device, the Watch is not suited for tech novices.”

Patel took note of the new digital control mechanisms that don’t translate to recognizable smartphone controls in any apparent way. “On the right side of the Watch you’ll find the Digital Crown scroll wheel and a dedicated button (the official name is just ‘side button’) that opens your favorites list with one tap and activates Apple Pay with two taps. This side button is extraordinarily confusing — it looks and feels so much like an iPhone sleep / wake button that I still hit it to turn the screen on and off, even though I know I’m doing the wrong thing.”

The app ecosystem was another point of contention in reviews—mainly due to the fact that there isn’t one. Apple is only allowing a select group of partner companies to release software for the Watch right now. Stein’s evaluation of the state of third-party software on the Watch was lukewarm: “The Apple Watch’s early apps feel like those apps from the first days of the iPhone: simple menus, basic functions, common interfaces. Most apps aim for bare-bones utility. Apple has suggested that Watch apps aim for no more than 5-10 seconds of interactivity at a time.”

Manjoo lambasted the initial app offerings in his review: “Third-party apps are mostly useless right now. The Uber app didn’t load for me, the Twitter app is confusing and the app for Starwood hotels mysteriously deleted itself and then hung up on loading when I reinstalled it. In the end, though, it did let me open a room at the W Hotel in Manhattan just by touching the watch face to the door.”

The battery life of the Watch, though in line with most of its competitors (except the Pebble, which boasts a five to seven day lifespan), still leaves much to be desired at roughly one day. Fowler said the battery was adequate. “The battery lives up to its all-day billing, but sometimes just barely. It’s often nearly drained at bedtime, especially if I’ve used the watch for exercise. There’s a power-reserve mode that can make it last a few hours longer, but then it only shows the time.” Though the battery life is comparable to the Moto 360 or LG G Watch R, it’s not breaking any records. If you were hoping for some kind of technological innovation in this area that other watches (except the Pebble) haven’t delivered on, keep waiting.

Overall, impressions of the Apple Watch from currently available reviews have been mixed. While satisfaction with the software and hardware design varied slightly on a per-reviewer basis, the weak app ecosystem, weak battery life, confusing interface, are objective facts that potential buyers will need to take into account. There were other minor annoyances, such as Digital Touch, a gimmicky communication platform that allows you to send drawings to other watch owners, occasional connection issues with iPhones, and slowness, but odds are that the latter two will be ironed out with software updates.

If you are looking for the best, most fully-featured smartwatch for your iPhone right now, this is it. Though it has some downsides, it’s still undeniably a nice piece of tech. For those interested in buying a great smartwatch, reviews seem to indicate that this is merely a good one. As with most first-generation hardware, we can probably expect to see the bad stuff ironed out in the next hardware that will almost certainly arrive next year. Though I would advocate for the upcoming Pebble Time Steel as a worthy mainstream smartwatch, I can’t deny that there is an aspect of good old Apple niceness that will make the Apple Watch a tempting purchase for many.