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Apple's entry into the wearable market is typically elegant, and expensive. However, its reliance on a companion iPhone can make it seem like an optional extra rather than a 'must-have' item.
- Excellent build quality
- High-quality 38mm or 42mm touch-screen
- Well-designed interface and customisation options
- Innovative taptic feedback
- Built-in mic and speaker for phone calls
- Good selection of bundled apps
- Limited functionality when not paired with an iPhone
- Modest battery life
£299 - £13,500 (inc. VAT)
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Even by Apple's standards, the frenzy surrounding the launch of the Apple Watch has been unprecedented. There's always a risk that the eventual arrival of the product itself can feel rather anti-climactic, but now that the initial media blitz has subsided we've had the opportunity to take a more measured view of the Apple Watch.
In many ways, the Apple Watch is an absolutely typical Apple product. It's a late entry into the market for wearable tech (just as the iPhone was a late entry into the smartphone market), but it stands out from the crowd thanks to Apple's unrivalled design skills and software expertise.
There are three Apple Watch models available, starting at a relatively affordable £299 (inc. VAT) for the Watch Sport, which has a 38mm screen with 340-by-272-pixel resolution, housed in a smart grey aluminium case. There's also a stainless steel model, simply called Watch, that starts at £479, while the top-of-the-range Watch Edition comes with an 18-carat Rose Gold case and features a scratch-resistant sapphire glass screen, all of which bumps the starting price up to £8,000. The most expensive Yellow Gold Edition model costs a staggering £13,500.
Each model is also available with a larger 42mm display and 390-by-312 resolution, which adds £40 to the cost of the Watch Sport and Watch models, and a thumping £1,500 to the Watch Edition. Those prices include a plastic 'sport band' wrist strap, but there are several additional straps available at prices ranging between £39 and £300. Fortunately, all three models share the same basic features, so our humble 38mm Watch Sport still allowed us to get a good feel for the way the Apple Watch works.
iPhone not included
It's important to realise that the Apple Watch is, ultimately, just an accessory for the iPhone. It can do certain things on its own, such as telling the time or using its built-in sensors to monitor activity and heart-rate, but most of the core apps that run on the Apple Watch require it to be paired with an iPhone (a process that requires both wi-fi and Bluetooth to be activated on the iPhone).
The initial setup process also requires you to run the Apple Watch app on an iPhone first. This iPhone app enables you to set up features such as a passcode for the Apple Watch, and to configure the various apps are provided with the Watch. It also acts as an app store where you can browse and download third-party apps.
Once you've set up the Apple Watch and strapped it to your wrist, it then works in two main modes. When you tap on the screen or raise your wrist it automatically wakes from sleep and activates the watch 'face'. This face mode works like a conventional watch, displaying the time, date and a few other key items of information that you can customise to suit your personal preferences.
When the Apple Watch is paired with an iPhone it can display notifications of incoming messages and phone calls -- often accompanied by a tap on the wrist from the vibrating 'taptic engine' built into the back of the watch face. The built-in microphone and speaker also allow you to answer calls on the watch, or to issue voice commands using Siri. I felt like a complete fool when testing the phone call option and talking to my wrist in public, but it's handy to be able to screen calls on the move without having to reach for the iPhone, or to just take a quick glance at new emails before replying on your iPhone.
Pressing the 'digital crown' button on the side of the Apple Watch switches it over to the Home screen, which is the other main mode you'll work with. Unlike the iPhone or iPad, which allow you to organize different sets of apps on multiple screens, the Apple Watch crams all your apps onto a single Home Screen. The app icons are arranged in a circular cluster on the Home screen, with the most recent or frequently used apps displayed at the centre of the circle, and with larger icons. New apps that you add to the Apple Watch, or apps that are used less frequently, are consigned to the outer edges of that circle and their icons are considerably smaller.
The display on the Apple Watch is impressively bright and clear, but some of the smaller icons can still be difficult to see at times. Fortunately, Apple has come up with a useful 'pan and zoom' option that allows you to tap on the screen and drag smaller icons into the centre in order to improve visibility.
The Apple Watch includes its own versions of many standard iPhone apps, such as Apple's Mail and Calendar, Messages, Maps and Stocks, and these can all draw information from their counterparts on your iPhone. Many of the third-party apps that have already appeared focus on health and fitness, but there are also quite a few news and social media apps, including the inevitable Twitter and Instagram. However, Facebook has so far only stated that it is 'evaluating' the possibility of releasing an app for the Apple Watch.
It's important to remember that the Watch OS that powers the Apple Watch is not identical to iOS used on the iPhone and iPad, so if there's a key app that you use on your iPhone you should check to see whether there's an Apple Watch version of that app being developed. Business users should note that a few of the Apple/IBM MobileFirst for iOS business apps now support the Apple Watch, while Salesforce has released Analytics Cloud for Apple Watch. The latter is built on the Salesforce Wear Developer Pack that leverages Apple's WatchKit and allows developers to build wearable apps that connect to the Salesforce1 Platform.
There's a smaller, second button on the Apple Watch, just below the digital crown. A single tap on this button takes you into the Friends screen, which allows you to quickly make calls or send messages to 12 people that you can choose from the contacts list on your iPhone. Apple's user guide also states that double-clicking on this button should activate the Apple Pay contactless payment system. Apple Pay isn't currently available in the UK, although an announcement is expected soon.
However, the primary function of this button is simply to act as the power switch. Pressing and holding it allows you to turn the Apple Watch on or off, but there's also a special Power Reserve mode that you can use when the battery is running low. This reserve mode turns off all your apps and just keeps the Watch's main time-keeping functions running.
There have been some doubts about the battery life of the Apple Watch, and if you use it continually to make phone calls or record voice messages then you'll probably drain the battery in three or four hours. However, this device is really designed to be used in short bursts -- a few seconds here and there to check an email or your progress in a workout session, for example. Used in that manner, the Apple Watch should last all day quite easily, and then you can leave it to charge when you take it off at night.
It's hard to deny the sheer craftsmanship and care that has been lavished on the design of the Apple Watch, and Apple has done a good job of ensuring that it works well with the apps you're already using on your iPhone. However, that reliance on the iPhone is also a weakness, as it means that the Apple Watch often seems to merely act as a second screen for the iPhone. Fitness fanatics and market-watching moguls will love it, but lesser mortals may find that the Apple Watch doesn't do much that can't already be done on the iPhone.
Still, it's early days and it'll be interesting to see what developers come up with once they get their teeth into Apple's new wearable platform.