Apple Watch review: a potentially revolutionary solution to smartphone addiction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2015, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 6:49pm

For most smartphone users, their always-online device has become the most constant companion in their personal and professional lives.

In Hong Kong, the lifestyle of people so closely tethered to their phones and annoyingly oblivious to the world around them has even spawned a Cantonese colloquialism — dai tau juk, or head-down tribe.

Yet there may be a way for those people, including this reporter, to be significantly less absorbed or distracted by their smartphones.

The smartwatch could be the ideal technology to reduce the attention-deficit impact of the smartphone on many users.

There is already an array of such devices available in the market or announced for release soon. For Android smartphone users, compatible devices like LG Electronics’ G Watch, Lenovo’s Moto 360 and the Huawei Watch support Google’s Android Wear operating system.

Start-up Pebble Technology’s smartwatch supports both Apple’s iPhone and Android smartphones.

For this reporter, the opportunity to take a demo unit of the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch for a spin over a 48-hour period revealed that a change may be looming for the way we use our smart devices. One that may thin the numbers of the dai tai juk.

Apple Watch is, indeed, the most personal device the technology giant has ever made because it is worn right on the wrist, not stuffed in your pocket or bag.

It is also touted by Apple as the most customisable timepiece, with about two million different combinations for the watch face and strap, and a growing list of apps that can be added and quickly viewed at a glance.

An iPhone user must first update the device’s operating system to iOS 8.2, which automatically installs the Apple Watch companion app. Through this app, a user’s iPhone is paired via Bluetooth with the watch.

Using this app, notifications that a user has set up on the iPhone can be similarly displayed on the watch. I included alerts from my office e-mail, WhatsApp messages and phone calls.

Right under that line is Glances, which Apple describes as “real-time summaries of the information you care about”.

The first program that I included under Glances was the South China Morning Post’s own app. This was followed by Apple’s World Clock, Maps, Stocks, Weather, Calendar, Battery, Now Playing (which remotely controls music playing on one's iPhone), Heartbeat (a heart rate monitor) and Activity (a fitness tracking app).

The demo unit came in the form of the stainless steel Apple Watch model with a 42mm case. It was combined with a white strap made of high-performance fluoroelastomer — a fluorocarbon-based synthetic rubber. This strap, which features an innovative pin-and-tuck closure, typically comes with the anodised aluminium-encased Apple Watch Sport model.

A clean, snug fit on the top of the wrist is necessary for the Apple Watch because all its sensors depend on taking accurate readings from the user's body. The strap and back of the watch felt comfortable and light on the wrist even when in use for nearly 18 hours, which is the estimated battery life of the device on one charge.

The 42mm case looked and felt the ideal size for my small wrist. But it would not be a surprise to find more people wearing this size, compared with the slightly petite 38mm version.

The clean and compact design of the case would not look too hefty if Apple decided to build a 45mm version. Bigger could turn out to be better for the Apple Watch, as the popular iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have proven in the smartphone market.

The watch face is the display a user looks at most of the time, so I chose a simple customisation.

After I had paired the watch with my Apple ID, pressing the display opens options for different watch faces. The display uses what Apple describes as "Force Touch" to provide a range of contextually specific controls.

It was fairly easy to set up “complications”, the term for specialised functions in traditional mechanical watches, on the electronic watch face.

Along with the basic colour face option, I added battery life on the upper right corner, date on the upper left corner, temperature in the lower right corner and a moon phase indicator on the lower left corner that, for this reporter, is reminiscent of a Jaeger-LeCoultre complication.

To see the configured Glances, the user simply swipes up from the watch face and the information appears. Tapping on the SCMP app reveals snippets of the day’s curated top stories. To read the full story, the app suggests users check it on their iPhone. Also featured are the top stories on the Hong Kong, China, Business and Sport sections.

Any notifications that would appear on a user’s iPhone lock screen can appear on Apple Watch as well. You feel a gentle tap on the wrist whenever a notification, e-mail or message arrives.

This is enabled by technology Apple calls the "Taptic Engine", which enables users to feel a tactile sensation, such as vibration, when interacting with an application. It is made possible by Hong Kong-listed Apple components supplier AAC Technologies, which also supplies haptics products used on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

The sensors on the Apple Watch are also configured to allow a user to check alerts and glances with a just a subtle lift of the wrist.

With my iPhone “silenced” and the Apple Watch serving as an unobtrusive channel for alerts, I went about my most important errands for the day without the need to take my phone out of my pocket constantly to check and respond to notifications constantly.

When the Activity app alerted me to stand or move to reach my activity goals for the day, a split-second glance was all that was needed to check what the silent tap was about.

While visiting my spouse in hospital, where she is currently confined, she asked if I'd lost my iPhone because she had not seen it throughout the visit. I showed her the Apple Watch, placing my iPhone’s back camera in front of her during lunch and tapping the remote camera app on the Apple Watch to take a snapshot on a three-second count. A much better selfie than one taken with the front camera.

Replying to messages is just as easy on the Apple Watch. There are preset replies, like “OK” or an animated emoji, to choose from based on the context of the message. A user can also answer a call from the watch as long as it is paired to an iPhone.

The Digital Crown is as revolutionary a new input device to the Apple Watch as the click wheel was to the original iPod. Scrolling with a finger would just cover the information a user it trying to see on the watch, but the Digital Crown can navigate fluidly and precisely without obstructing a user’s view. Press the Digital Crown for a second or so, and you can ask Siri for information using the command “Hey Siri”.

It would likely take a week or more to fully appreciate and explore all the functions and applications of the Apple Watch, but for me — someone who has not actively used a traditional wristwatch for more than 10 years — it is a benchmark for all smart wearable devices based on its outstanding user interface, sleek design, breadth of customisation and innovative communications capabilities.

The Apple Watch will go on sale in Hong Kong and eight other markets (including mainland China) on April 24. Pre-orders start on April 10.

Key features:

  • 38mm and 42mm cases
  • Digital Crown input
  • Retina display with Force Touch
  • Taptic engine
  • S1 chip
  • Heart rate, accelerometer, gyroscope and ambient light sensors
  • Speaker and microphone
  • Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Up to 18 hours of battery life
  • Water resistant
  • MagSafe inductive charging