Apple Watch 2015 review

Apple Watch Hermés band
(Image: © iMore)

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We've seen it countless times: A starship reaches orbit, then launches a smaller ship. Enterprise. Executor. Galactica. They're meant for the bigger jobs, the longer jobs, the harder jobs. But the small jobs — the brief yet important ones — are better left to something lighter and more agile. So too, the iPhone and the Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch, however, isn't just a smaller, lighter, more wearable iPhone. With the iPhone, Apple sought to emphasize the mobile computer. With the Apple Watch, the company has chosen to focus on the watch.

This reflects the reality of how we've traditionally worn technology on our wrists — from mechanical to digital, from chronograph to calculator. By incorporating all the benefits of modern mobile computing, including communications and control, tracking and payments, it gives us more: It gives us our dreams.

We've read and watched them since childhood. Dick Tracy. Michael Knight. James Bond. They've been in the pages of our comics, and on our TV sets and movie screens, tantalizing us with just exactly those features.

That makes the Apple Watch a unique challenge. To succeed it needs to balance both past and future, tradition and technology, expectations and power efficiency. It needs to satisfy both reality and our dreams. So, does it?

For people who want:

  • Greater convenience
  • Phenomenal build quality
  • Early access to wearable computing
  • A second screen for their iPhones
  • A heart rate monitor and better health and fitness assistance

Not for people who want:

  • One more device to manage
  • Stand-alone GPS or cellular networking
  • A cheap smartwatch or fitness tracker
  • A second or third generation Apple Watch

Apple watch video review

Give us four minutes and we'll give you the Apple Watch.

Apple Watch packaging

The different Apple Watch collections each come in different packaging. The Sport comes in a long rectangular box. The Watch comes in a white square with a white plastic rounded square container. And the Edition comes in a darker, more elaborate version of the same.

Regardless of collection, all include the watch case, the paired band, a USB cable with a magnetic charger on the end, and an iPhone-style AC adapter.

Apple Watch design

The Apple Watch is the most impressive piece of industrial design to ever come out of 2 Infinite Loop. From materials to finish, digital crown to band swapping mechanism, Retina display to mics and speakers, heart rate sensor to inductive charger, the Watch takes myriad components and melds them into a singular and singularly impressive object.

That makes sense, given how personal the watch project was to Apple's senior vice president of industrial design, Jony Ive, and Ive's longtime friend, collaborator, and now colleague, Marc Newson.

The design language of the original iPhone is evident; the Watch pursues the same blend of restraint and inevitability. Yet this time the technology doesn't just have to be in service of functionality — it has be in service of fashion.

Materials

Apple is using three different materials for the cases: 7000-Series aluminum for the Sport, 316L stainless steel for the Watch, and 18-karat gold for the Edition. There are two finishes for each: silver and anodized space gray, silver and diamond-like coated space black, and yellow and rose gold respectively. The screens are Ion-X (ion exchange) glass for the Sport and sapphire for the Watch and Edition. The backs are a composite material for the Sport with hard-coated optical polymer sensor lenses, and zirconia ceramics for the Watch and Edition, with sapphire lenses.

Apple's industrial design team are more than masters at working with composites, aluminum, stainless steel, and hardened glass — generations of iPods, iPhones, and iPads have have seen to that. These ceramics, golds, and sapphires may be new, but look to be every bit as well-handled.

Seeing the glass curve down and almost melt away into the metal is impressive, as is the laser-ablated antenna groover, and the way the metal gives way to the Watch's inductive charger and sensor assembly on the bottom. There may be physical seams, but the execution looks and feels seamless, for both the 38mm and 42mm sizes.

Apple is measuring those sizes vertically, so neither is especially small or large by traditional watch standards. The difference might not sound like much, but 4mm is roughly 10 percent of the 38mm Watch's height.

Apple Watch size comparison

The depths are the same across the board: 10.5mm. That's not thin, but it's also not unprecedented in the watch world. If you frequently wear really tight fitting cuffs, you might notice a bulge, but I've not had any problem with any of the shirts or jackets I wear. The Apple Watch just disappears under the cuff.

Weights vary by not just size, but material: the Sport models weigh 25g and 30g; the Watch, 40g and 50g; and the Edition, 54g and 67g for rose gold and 55g and 69g for yellow gold.

Though the weight almost doubles from Sport to Edition, neither feels too light or too heavy. After a few minutes wearing them, whichever one you're wearing simply seems 'normal'.

Update: Gold and rose gold Sport

On September 9, 2015, alongside a variety of new band options, Apple introduced two new anodized aluminum finishes for Apple Watch Sport: gold and rose gold.

Rather than imitating the existing 18K yellow and rose gold Apple Watch Editions, they've been made to perfectly match the gold iPhones 6 and iPhones 6s, and the new rose gold iPhones 6s.

The aluminum Watch is blasted by microscopic zirconia beads for a matte finish, while the stainless steel and golds are polished to a shine. The ceramics are polished with a grinding stone and the sapphire with diamond covered pellets.

Like any watch, scuffs and scratches are inevitable. And like any watch, you'll be able to treat them as and when they happen. I've had my steel and sapphire Apple Watch going on three weeks and it still looks as good as it did when I took it out the box.

OLED retina display

The Apple Watch's front is dominated by its Retina display. That's not unusual for a mobile device, but this Retina display is OLED (organic light-emitting diodes), and that's a first for Apple.

The 38mm Apple Watch has a display size of 340-by-272 pixels.The 42mm Apple Watch has a display size of 390-by-312 pixels.

Modern OLED has improved upon its ancestry to retain its traditional advantages and mitigate its disadvantages. With deep blacks and high power efficiency, it's a perfect match for a device that's designed to be viewed quickly.

The deep blacks and power efficiency are related: With Apple's traditional LCD (liquid crystal displays) technology, there's a single backlight that's either on or off. It doesn't matter if there's one subpixel or every subpixel active, the entire display is drawing power. That also means, even for unused areas, there's some light coming through; the resulting blacks look closer to very dark gray.

With OLED, the subpixels light themselves. So, if any part of the display isn't being used, it's also not being lit up. That both saves power and allows the unused areas to stay closer to true black.

The colors are bright and, in addition, the Watch appears to match the iPhone's calibration, making for an incredibly consistent experience.

Both text and graphics look look crisp and clean, and have great viewing angles — though it's arguable how much that matters on as personal a device as a watch — and the screen remains legible in all but the brightest, most direct sunlight, even at low brightness settings.

The OLED display has matured so well, in fact, that it's hard to imagine we won't be seeing it on more and bigger products in the future.

Digital Crown and side button

There are two physical buttons you can use to interact with on the Apple Watch: the side button and the Digital Crown.

Apple Watch side button

The side button is, as the name implies, on the side of the Watch. While it serves several functions, in practice it feels like the sleep/wake button on the iPhone — especially the newly relocated sleep/wake button on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

Unlike on the iPhone's sleep/wake button, the side button is not an on/off switch: Press it once for the Watch's Friends interface; press it twice for Apple Pay (currently only available in the U.S.). Press and hold it for the the power off, power reserve, and lock device menu. Do that while you're in an app, and then press and hold it again, and you'll force quit the app.

That a single press of one of only two control buttons on the Apple Watch is devoted to Friends indicates that Apple believes communication — along with the fancy new Friends interface and Digital Touch system — are among the most important features on the Watch.

Depending on how highly you value your friends and how much you enjoy Digital Touch, you may agree or disagree with the choice. Regardless, you can't change it: If health and fitness is more important to you and you'd rather have workout or timer functionality a single hardware button press away, you're out of luck.

Perhaps Apple will make the side button configurable at some point, the way they did with the late mute/orientation lock switch on the iPad, and the way they have and still do the triple press for accessibility. But I'm not counting on it just yet.

Because a single press is assigned to Friends, and you can't use it to sleep the screen the way you can on the iPhone. To do that, as Serenity mentions in the roundtable below, cover the Watch with your hand and let the ambient light sensor do the sleeping for you.