Original Apple Watch review
Welcome to our review of the original Apple Watch, which looks at the 2015 model’s features, design and build quality, screen quality, interface, battery life, specs and pricing, and where appropriate contrasts it to the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 that replaced it in September 2016. (The Apple Watch first-gen is no longer on sale from Apple, but you may find one second-hand on eBay; for more advice see our Apple Watch buying guide and Best Apple Watch deals.)
Apple’s 9 March 2015 ‘Spring Forward’ event saw Apple present its first wearable, the Apple Watch. Apple had previously unveiled its smartwatch on 9 September 2014, although details were scarce. The Apple Watch was Apple’s first new product category in five years.
Here are the key areas we’re going to cover in this in-depth, UK-focused review of the Apple Watch first-gen:
Original Apple Watch design
The Apple Watch is beautifully designed and engineered, with a great look and feel. Its chunky, rounded body is faintly reminiscent of the original iPhone, yet simultaneously modern-looking and very satisfying to hold. The Apple Watch is also pleasingly comfortable on the wrist.
We’ve seen lots of fitness trackers over the years, and they’ve typically struck us as pretty formulaic: plasticky wristbands with little fashion appeal. One activity tracker brand tried to convince us that their activity tracker was designed to appeal to a fashion-conscious woman; they even thought that women would wear it around their neck like a necklace. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t jewellery. None of the fitness trackers on the market are.
It’s a similar story with smartwatches. Sure, over the past year they’ve become more and more popular with guys looking for the latest tech gadget, but they don’t appeal to everyone. One major issue is that most smartwatches are designed for men. They wouldn’t sit comfortably on a smaller wrist.
This is where Apple, with its design expertise and its ability to appeal to the masses, comes in. Where other companies have failed to come up with a smartwatch design that suits anyone, Apple has solved the issue by coming up with multiple designs to suit everybody.
Rather than try to make one watch to suit everyone, Apple has designed three basic Apple Watch varieties that are targeted at different groups of people.
The Watch Sport, for example, is ruggedised and features strengthened Ion-X glass face so it should be able to take some bashing around. (If that fails, however, here’s some tips: How to repair a broken, scratched or smashed Apple Watch.) It’s also the lightest of the three Apple Watch editions because its case is made from anodised aluminium.
The Apple Watch Hermes is an interesting option: An Apple Watch combined with a handmade leather strap crafted by Herme’s artisans in Paris. There are three straps currently available (prices not including the Apple Watch): Single Tour (£299), Double Tour (£449) and Cuff (£699), and most come in up to four colours: Étoupe, Anémone, Bleu Agate and Rose Jaipur. The Double Tour wraps twice around your wrist and seems to be the most fashionable one of the bunch.
The Apple Watch Edition has changed from its original release, with the new version being only a Series 2 version starting from £1,249 for a Ceramic Case.
The watch face itself comes in two sizes, as we mentioned above. One is 42mm high; the other is 38mm (that’s about 1.5in and 1.6in).
The Apple Watch’s sapphire or Ion-X glass face (depending on which model you opt for) sits in a case made from the following material, depending on which of the three models you opt for (Apple Watch, Apple Watch Sport, or Apple Watch Edition). These finishes include: Stainless Steel, Silver Aluminium, 18-Carat Yellow Gold, Space Black Stainless Steel, Space Gray Aluminium, 18-Carat Rose Gold and more recently, Gold Aluminium and Rose Gold Aluminium.
In a sense it doesn’t matter which Watch you choose: the material it’s made from might be different, but the specs and the software and the way you use it will be exactly the same whether you buy the Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Sport or the Apple Watch Edition. (This is a paradox that we discuss a little over on TechAdvisor.)
There are two sizes of watch: the 38mm model (which actually measures 38.6 by 33.3 mm) and the 42mm model (which measures 42 by 35.9 mm). Both have a thickness of 10.5mm.
- 38mm model: 38.6 x 33.3 x 10.5mm
- 42mm model: 42.0 x 35.9 x 10.5mm
The 38mm version seems better suited to slender female wrists, while the 42mm is probably better suited to men – although that’s not to say that the guys can’t wear a 38mm version (which it turns out is £30 less than the 42mm Watch if you’re opting for the Sport version or the stainless steel Watch).
Indeed, one (relatively slim-wristed) male member of our review team insists that he very much prefers the dimensions and relative unobtrusiveness of the 38mm model. This is absolutely a personal matter, and we strongly advise you to visit an Apple Store and try the models for yourself before making a purchase.
Our main Apple Watch reviewer, Karen, was worried that even the 38mm version would be bulky on her wrist (which measures 150mm). Indeed, compared to her current Rotary watch the Apple watch is significantly larger, but it isn’t too bulky and she reckons she could probably get used to it.
Here’s how a 38mm Apple Watch looks on Karen’s wrist:
And the 42mm version on Lewis ‘Two Watch’ Painter’s wrist:
The other thing about the watch is the way it fits.
The underside of the watch is actually convex: it bulges outwards slightly. The watch will still sit pretty flat, with that curved section pressing slightly into your wrist, but there will be gaps between skin and watch/strap at the top and bottom of the watch’s body. This effect is more pronounced with the 42mm model, and will also vary from person to person.
We found that the Apple Watch was heavier than the old-fashioned watch we had been wearing previously, but again, we could probably get used to that; and to be honest, it’s not as heavy as we expected. If you want the lightest watch going, the Sport version is lighter than the other versions – aluminium being lighter than steel, and steel being lighter than gold.
(The Apple Watch Series 2 is very slightly thicker – about an extra millimetre – and heavier than the first-gen Apple Watch.)
The watch strap you choose will also make a difference here, with some weighing considerably more than others. The plastic Sports watch bands actually have different weights depending on the colour (we’re not sure why). The lightest watch combination would be the 38mm Watch Sport with the black strap.
Read next: Apple Watch vs Apple Watch Sport
Speaking of the materials the watch is made from, there are three options: aluminium for the Watch Sport, stainless steel for the Watch, and 18-carat gold for the Watch Edition.
The Watch and Watch Edition come with sapphire screens, the Sport version with ion-x glass; but according to Apple all the screens will be durable, so it doesn’t make a difference to their ability to withstand knocks. The big difference is that the Watch Sport ion-x glass is lighter than the sapphire glass.
We love the look and feel of the Apple Watch. As we mentioned above, it looks a bit like a shrunk-down version of the original iPhone, and it’s reassuringly robust – after almost a year with the Watch, there no scratches on the body or screen, although the brighter of our two Sport Band straps is starting to look a bit grubby.
Is the Apple Watch waterproof?
Yes – up to a point. Apple Watch first gen (and Apple Watch Series 1) are water-resistant. The Apple Watch Series 2 is also water-resistant, but to a greater degree.
Apple doesn’t recommend dunking your Apple Watch first-gen in water. While the watch is rated as water-resistant to the IPX7 standard, which should mean it will survive in water up to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes, Apple describes it as “splash- and water-resistant but not waterproof”. So it’s ok to use it in the shower – as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook apparently does – but it’s not to be taken swimming.
Having said that, plenty of reckless reviewers have done exactly that, and we’ve yet to hear anyone complain that their watch was damaged by the experience. We don’t recommend taking the risk, and you obviously won’t have a leg to stand on with Apple if something does go wrong since they’ve been careful to only claim it’s water-resistant. But it appears that yes, the Apple Watch is waterproof.
One other thing: while the plastic watch straps are suited to damp environments, the leather bands obviously aren’t waterproof.
The Series 2 watch on the other hand has a water resistance rating of 50 metres under ISO standard 22810:2010. You can happily take that device swimming, as long as you try to keep it clear of soap and things like that.
You can read about the water resistance qualities of the various Apple Watch models, and the actions Apple recommends if they suffer liquid damage, here.
While we’re on the subject of straps, which one should you pick to go with your beautiful Apple Watch?
There are a wide collection of straps to choose from, including: Link Bracelet, Sport Band, Leather Loop, Classic Buckle, Modern Buckle, Milanese Loop and more recently, Nylon band and Hermes straps.
The Leather Loop, Classic Buckle, Leather Loop, Modern Buckle, Woven Nylon and Sport Band options are offered in multiple colour choices while the Milanese Loop and Link Bracelet are only available in two colours. The Sport Band comes in 22 different colours including black, white, pink, yellow, blue, grey, lime green, lavender, antique white, stone and midnight blue, for example.
There are a few straps that won’t work with (or in Apple’s opinion don’t look right with) particular watches – for example, the modern buckle isn’t available for the 42mm Watch, and the Hermes Cuff Strap isn’t available for the 38mm Watch. This seems strange, and some have suggested that this is typical Apple, controlling the options that will look the best, but it seems more likely that the diameter of the watchstrap just won’t fit the other watches.
There are various sizes of the different watch straps that should fit wrists of any size from 125mm to 210mm. There is nothing to stop you buying additional watchstraps; they are all available for different prices from Apple’s site. You might want to be careful about how you pair them, though – the aluminium Watch Sport might clash a bit with the stainless steel watch straps. We’d recommend sticking to the combinations that Apple sells together.
You can read more about the different Apple Watch straps available here. We’ve got pricing for the different Apple Watch/size/strap combinations in our Apple Watch buying guide and price list.
We’ve tried out the white, blue and black Sports straps and we’re slightly concerned that the white and blue ones will lose their looks quite quickly; the blue strap that we’ve been using most of the time got grubby really fast. The rubbery plastic strap can be cleaned but we don’t think it will stay pristine for long, and we’ve seen other products made from the same material end up looking dreadful.
Our colleagues at Macworld US tried out a Leather Loop and said it was soft and comfortable. The strap wraps around your wrist and, thanks to the magnetic closure, it sticks together to stay put. The Classic Buckle leather strap closes with a stainless steel buckle while the Link Bracelet band closes with a butterfly clasp.
There is a link release button on several of the links, so it’s possible to easily remove links yourself to customise the fit. No need to go to a jeweller to do that.
Finally, the Milanese Loop band is magnetic so, like the Leather Loop, it just wraps around your wrist and stays in place.
The strapping mechanism by which the strap attaches to the watch case makes it really easy to changes bands – Apple is clearly hoping that we will purchase multiple watch straps and change them at will.
If that’s not enough customisation options for you, there are a number of watch faces to choose from too – some are even animated. And you can change the colours and design elements of these. Have a look at the different watch faces on offer here.
Original Apple Watch screen
Returning to the screen, the resolution depends on the watch you choose. The resolution of the screen on the 38mm Apple Watch (which measures 1.32 inches diagonally) is 272×340 while the 42mm model offers 312×390 on a screen that measures 1.5 inches. Both models, therefore, offer a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, or ppi.
In both cases, the Apple Watch screen is officially rated (or perhaps we should say branded) as Retina-quality, and our subjective experience with it has been great. It’s sharp and vividly colourful and we’ve yet to notice any pixellation.
The touchscreen aspects work terrifically too: it’s highly responsive, and we found we tend to fall back on old habits, swiping through screens whenever possible by using the touchscreen even if a scrolling option is available via the Digital Crown.
Apple’s design expertise is only a small part of what makes the Apple Watch stand out. Another factor in its favour is the user interface.
The problem many current smartwatches have is that the UI is packed onto a tiny display and you need to manipulate those tiny visual elements using your fingers, which are inevitably bigger than the elements you’re trying to touch.
The Apple watch runs a scaled-down version of iOS, but it’s not iOS as you know it, so you will have to learn what all the icons mean and how things work. Once you get the hang of it, the Apple Watch apps, along with the glances and notifications, are easy to use. However, getting to that point can be a bit confusing. There are so many ways to interact with the Apple Watch that it’s not always clear whether you should tap, scroll, swipe or push.
Early reviews of the Apple Watch would complain that the interface wasn’t intuitive and that there were so many different ways to do things that it wasn’t obvious which should be used, which we would agree with – although with time, it becomes easier to use. Sometimes you drag the screen around with your finger, other times you tap an icon or on-screen button, or you press the screen a bit harder to see new options. And then there are occasions when you use the Digital Crown.
There are certain behaviours on the iPhone that you expect to encounter on the Watch but aren’t there. You can’t view running apps by double-tapping the home button and you can’t close them by swiping up, for example. You can’t put apps in folders – which would make it easier to manage things when you have lots of apps on your Watch. We could hardly find the apps we were looking for most of the time, and there weren’t very many apps on there.
While doing our best to extend the watch’s battery life, we wanted to force-quit some apps and found the method of doing so deeply counterintuitive. It ought to be as easy to quit apps and glances as it is on the iPhone – but it isn’t. To quit an app you have to press and hold the side button, and then do the same again. Nobody is going to stumble on that by accident.
Below we examine Apple’s method for controlling the user interface, and the software you can expect to see on the Apple Watch.
Using the Apple Watch screen
One way to use the Watch is via the screen. You can scroll around the screen, tap on items to select them or press harder to get more options – akin to using right click on a mouse. Various gestures bring up other elements of the operating system. For example, Glances are accessed by swiping up on the watch face.
There’s also Apple’s Force Touch technology that determines how hard you are pressing the Watch and will act accordingly. There is a difference between a hard press and a simple tap. (We discuss Force Touch in more detail below.)
While scrolling is smooth and the touch screen responsive there have been a few criticisms. There are so many swipes, presses, and taps to do things that some early testers are finding it a bit complicated. No doubt it will take a bit of getting used to.
There is also an issue for those with thicker fingers not being able to select the tiny app bubbles on the home screen without missing the app they are trying to select, which we’ve experienced on a handful of occasions. It’s frustrating, but not a deal breaker.
If you do have problems the best system appears to be nudging the icon of the app you want to open toward the centre, where it will increase in size, so that you can tap it with more ease. You can also use the Digital Crown – more on that below.
One possible weakness of the first-gen Apple Watch – depending on how demanding your standards are when it comes to wearable tech – could be its all-around speed. Numerous reviewers have found the interface sluggish in use and noticed a delay before certain actions. (Note that the Series 1 and 2 models feature a 50 percent faster processor, so this is far less of an issue for them.)
As with many aspects of this product, experiences have varied among the team, and it’s likely that day-to-day performance is influenced by factors such as apps currently running. It’s rare to find an app that’s near-instantaneous to respond, as they’ll open quickly but will often hang, leaving us staring at a black loading screen; and syncing processes with the iPhone, over a Bluetooth connection, can be sluggish.
We’ve also found, as have many users, that third-party apps can sometimes be slow to start up, although this has improved with subsequent watchOS updates.
Best Apple Watch apps | Best Apple Watch games
Using the Digital Crown
Apple’s solution to the navigation problem is to use something that has always been a feature of watches in a new way.
The dial on the side of the watch – its proper name is the crown – has been brought into the 21st century and turned into what Apple calls the Digital Crown. This Digital Crown solves the problem of swiping through icons on a minuscule display.
The Digital Crown lets you navigate around the watch without covering the screen with your finger. You can tap or rotate the Digital Crown to navigate around the Watch interface.
Tapping the Digital Crown takes you to the home screen where you can see all your apps. You can also use the Digital Crown to zoom in and out of photos, scroll through lists, and zoom in and out of maps.
You can use the crown to zoom in on interface elements and scroll through content on the watch face, without your fingers obscuring the view. Apple showed how the Digital Crown, which reminds us a little bit of an iPod’s Click Wheel, can be used to navigate through lists as well as zoom in on data, maps or photos.
The Digital Crown is also a little bit like the home button on the iPhone; press it to return to the home screen. (Press it again to go back to the watch face.)
Below the Digital Crown is another button. This button takes you to the home screen and to the Friends app, from which you can contact your friends (more on that below). This button is also used when you’re paying for things using Apple Pay (more on that below, also).
When first announced there was some concern that the positioning of this dial on the right-hand side of the watch face would mean that left-handed people wouldn’t be able to use the Apple Watch. Apple wouldn’t be so daft as to rule out a huge bunch of people. Obviously, as with the iPhone, the interface can be displayed in any orientation, so you turn your watch face around to flip the UI over to the correct orientation for you.
The watch face is touch-sensitive, and you can tap and swipe the screen to access summaries of things like your location, the weather and your calendar.
In fact, the Apple Watch display is able to determine just how hard you touched the screen. It can distinguish between a regular tap, used to select things, and a harder press, used to access contextual menus. Apple refers to this technology – which also appears in the new 12-inch MacBook’s trackpad – as Force Touch (it’s also a feature of the iPhone 6s and later, although it’s called 3D Touch instead). It is made possible by tiny electrodes that are embedded in the display.
For more on this, see: Everything you can do with Force Touch on Apple Watch.
Taptic feedback & Digital Touch
You aren’t the only one doing the tapping when it comes to the Apple Watch. The watch incorporates what Apple is calling a “Taptic Engine”. This enables it to ‘tap’ your wrist to alert you to notifications. These notifications could be for messages from friends, or they could be to tell you to turn left or right when following directions – that’s right, there are different kinds of taps depending on whether you should turn right or left.
It’s similar to the vibrate function on an iPhone, except that only you know that you are being nudged. Let’s face it, when your phone vibrates everyone knows when you get a call, even if you have the sound off. Vibrations are fairly gentle, and we sometimes completely miss them, but we prefer this style of vibration over the traditional OTT vibration.
The heartbeat sent by your significant other, or just an angry colleague, is delivered to your wrist via Apple’s Taptic Engine that produces haptic feedback which feels like a tap on your wrist. These taps will also alert you when Notifications arrive, or if you are following directions the tap will effectively tell you whether to turn right or left.
We think it sounds a little like telepathy and we can imagine a future where we have all learned Morse Code and are communicating with friends via taps on the wrist. One tap for yes, two taps for no. Or should that be two taps for yes, one tap for no?
Digital Touch is a quick and clever way of contacting friends via their Apple Watches in a way that suits the constraints of the interface.
You can use Digital Touch to draw on your watch face and send that to your friend. You can even hold down two fingers in Digital Touch to send your heartbeat (so romantic!). This shows up on your friend’s watch as a glowing, pulsing heart. It’s a fair bet that Apple’s hoping couples will buy his-and-hers watches.
These taps are difficult to ignore – it’s quite bizarre at first but you won’t miss it! – and there are different variations of vibration that are easily distinguishable. We’re sure it will take a bit of getting used to with a few people jumping out of their chair in a meeting because they have just received an alert. Still, it’s got to be preferable to having your iPhone buzzing away in your bag.
The watch will notify you when you receive emails from VIPs, text messages, and other information on your iPhone.
We generally like the Apple Watch’s notifications, which are harder to miss than a buzzing iPhone that might be in a bag some distance away, and mean you can quickly deal with the notification and get on with what you were doing. But we have some reservations.
For one thing, it’s a good idea to disable notifications for less important apps because it drains battery life and makes the Watch notification centre harder to manage. For that matter, it would be nice if the notification centre was accessible from any screen, rather than just the watch face.
We do like the fact that if you dismiss a notification on your Apple Watch, it also removes it from your iPhone – after all, by that stage you’ve got the memo and know about the emergency/Twitter mention. But it doesn’t work the other way around. And clearing notifications one by one on the Watch notification centre is a long-winded process.
Using Siri on the Apple Watch
There’s yet one more way of entering information on the Apple Watch. Siri, Apple’s personal assistant that first arrived on the iPhone 4s. Four years on and Siri has improved somewhat, but we don’t find ourselves using it often (we only really use it to set a timer). However, Siri may really come into its own with the Apple Watch.
Initial testing of the Apple Watch took place in a busy room and the general consensus appears to be that Siri worked well despite the noise, although it doesn’t tend to work well in noisy environments (like a tube station or shopping centre).
You can use Siri to search, set reminders, or you can dictate messages that it will transcribe. Alternately, you can just record messages your message and send it from your Apple Watch.
Just raise your wrist and say “Hey, Siri”, or press and hold the Digital Crown and you can dictate messages or request turn-by-turn directions.
After months with the device, however, our opinion of Siri on the Apple Watch has fallen somewhat.
When texting we pretty much gave up on trying to use dictation as the device always got it wrong, and it’s not easy to correct it like it is on the iPhone. (On the iPhone you could just edit the text it thinks you’ve said using the keyboard, which obviously isn’t an option on the watch, and that’s probably the reason why emails can only be read, not sent.) You would be better off sending the voice recording rather than trying to use Siri to write a text.
The Apple Watch has a microphone and a speaker, so you can talk to it and it can talk to you. You can also use the Digital Touch features mentioned above to send them a drawing of your choice, or just to let them know your heart is still beating. And yes, you can use the Apple Watch to make and receive phone calls, as well as transfer calls to your iPhone or a Bluetooth headset, although we’ve generally not had a good experience using the Watch for calls. We’ve experienced lag of 1-2 seconds on many occasions, making having a phone call an awkward, if not completely impossible option. Plus, the speaker isn’t very loud so you’ll have to have the watch to your ear to do so, in which case you may as well use your iPhone.
Here are the default Apple Watch apps that will be preinstalled on your device:
- Activity & Workout (see below)
- Apple Pay
- Apple Remote
- Digital Touch
- Remote Camera
See also: Best Apple Watch apps
The watch app
Not only is the Apple Watch accurate to within 50ms of the Universal Time Standard, it will also spring forward when daylight saving time begins, and ‘fall back’, as our American friends would say, in the autumn. It will also adjust according to the time zone you are in.
The watch face is not on view all the time, presumably to save battery. If you want to see the time, you have to raise your arm to make the screen come on. Quite a few early reviewers have complained that this isn’t quite instantaneous, and as precious as that might sound, even a second or so of delay is likely to become highly frustrating when repeated dozens of times every day. But our issue with this experience has been less about speed – which seems fine to us: close enough to instantaneous that we don’t mind – and more about the way the ‘raise wrist to activate’ action doesn’t always fire correctly.
You’ll get false positives, where your arm is on the desk at what the watch considers to be a suspect angle and the display will suddenly light up. No harm done, if a little distracting. But more annoyingly, there will be times when you raise your wrist and it doesn’t quite register the movement. This is only an occasional problem, and presumably will get less common still as we get used to the action required, but it’s still mildly irritating.
While Apple offers a collection of watch faces to choose from, each of these is customisable; you can choose colours and add details, choosing from various Complications – that’s the technical watchmaking term for specialised functions. You can read more about the Apple Watch faces here.
Using the Apple Watch to make phone calls
You can make and receive calls from your wrist, which will either leave you looking like someone out of a science fiction novel, or a detective, or a bit of a plonker.
To place a call press the Side Button and select your friend. (Alternatively, you can open the Phone app on your watch and place the call from the Favorites, Recents or Contacts screens.) The Apple Watch includes a microphone and speaker, but you could use a synced Bluetooth headset and not look quite so silly.
Our very first watch-based phone conversation didn’t go well, but this was because we made a silly error. One of the buttons that appears once the conversation starts shows a speaker with a line through it, which fairly obviously activates mute; but instinctively, and based on our experience with phones, we just saw the speaker and assumed we had to put our friend ‘on speakerphone’ before we could talk to them.
(You won’t make the same mistake now, and probably wouldn’t have been as daft as us in any case. But this is typical of the small confusions you are likely to encounter while getting to know the Apple Watch. It’s not totally Apple’s fault: a lot of it simply comes down to the fact that smartwatch usage conventions haven’t been established yet.)
On our second and subsequent conversations, things went much better. Sound quality seemed fine, at least when talking indoors or in quiet settings. It can be difficult to hear, or make yourself heard, in noisier environments – and you may feel self-conscious about looking silly or attracting the attention of muggers in crowded areas anyway.
For more on this subject, see our Guide to making & taking phone calls on Apple Watch.
The preinstalled Maps application feels like it has a lot of potential: it offers the possibility of discreet turn-by-turn navigation, tapping you on the wrist when a turn is coming up. But our experiences with the app haven’t been particularly impressive.
One member of our reviews team decided to plot a route to Marylebone and found that Maps was quite keen to proceed along Euston Road. No thank you, she thought, switching to a different road with a more pleasant back-street route. Sadly, Maps failed to establish a new route for this road, apparently deciding that our reviewer was still on Euston Road: all the directions it gave were related to the original route.
As usual, your mileage is likely to vary depending on where you test out the Maps app, but we’re not convinced that it’s completely bug-free quite yet.
Incidentally, do bear in mind that you can close down the Maps app with a Force Touch – and indeed, you should do so in order to preserve battery life. Given our (and others’) occasional issues with battery life, it seems odd that Apple doesn’t offer this feature with other apps.
For more on this topic, take a look at our tutorial: How to use Maps on Apple Watch.
Using the Apple watch as a health & fitness tracker
Much of the focus has been on the fitness and health apps being built for the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch has a few different sensors, including a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a heart rate monitor. These sensors feed into the Activity app so that you can chart your efforts to get fitter.
Two of the default apps are specifically devoted to fitness: Activity, which passively measures your movement, exercise, calorie consumption and standing/sitting times throughout the day and shows your progress towards customisable goals in each of these areas. And Workout, which you fire up when you’re about to start a (cardio) workout and measures your time, pace per mile (or km), heartrate, distance travelled and so on.
Let’s look at these two apps first, before we discuss the Apple Watch’s other health-related features.
The Activity app uses three circles to demonstrate how close you are to meeting your daily fitness targets (a complete ring indicates a goal successfully met). The outer red/pink Move ring indicates calories burned through general movement, the Exercise ring indicates the number of minutes of brisk exercise you’ve done so far (which in our case includes normal walking pace, although your experience may vary), and the Stand ring keeps tabs on the hours in which you’ve stood up for at least a minute.
The Move goal can be customised to suit your personal fitness levels (and the app will suggest suitable changes if you’re smashing your current target consistently), but the other two are set in stone: 30 minutes per day for Exercise, and 12 hours for Stand. That’s 12 hours each containing at least one minute of standing/moving around, not 12 hours of continuous standing!
You can swipe up to see more details about your daily progress (and more still are accessible on the Activity app for iPhone); and you can focus on individual rings, and see charts of when in the day you made the most progress, by swiping to the left.
We’ve found the Activity app compulsive – almost certainly our most-used app – and weirdly fun. You can set the device to ping you if you haven’t stood up for the first 50 minutes of an hour, which has got us out of seats a little more, and the video-game-style achievements you get for meeting or exceeding targets on multiple days are silly but motivating too.
We’ve found, however, that the Stand ring is sometimes quite hard to convince that you are indeed standing up: jumping around a little generally does the trick.
Read more about the Activity app in our beginner’s guide: How to use the Apple Watch Activity app. And users with disabilities may be interested in the wheelchair-focused features that will be added to Activity (and Workout) in the watchOS 3 update. More on that in Best fitness & activity trackers for wheelchair users.
Whereas the Activity app is tracking you throughout the day (and can be placed on your watch face, so you can see progress at a glance), the Workout app is for specific, dedicated periods of exercise.
Open the Workout app and you’ll be presented with various kinds of cardio exercise: indoor and outdoor walking and running, cycling, rowing and so on. Once you pick one, the app will ask you to set a goal (which, depending on the type of exercise you’re doing, may include such options as distance travelled, cardio burned and duration), and then you get started.
It’s pleasingly frictionless and quick to get going, particularly once you’ve used it a few times – the app will remember the target you set last time and allow you to jump straight to that if you wish.
Once you’re exercising, the app displays what it considers to be the most relevant metrics: usually your pace per mile. But you can swipe or tap through various display options so as to show, for instance, distance covered at the bottom and time elapsed at the top.
Again, the app remembers your preferences on a per-exercise-type basis: more user-friendly design. And you can easily change the units to kilometres if you wish. (A niggle, however: we’ve yet to work out how – if it’s even possible – you change the units from miles to km in the workout report that is saved to the iPhone Activity app. Answers on a postcard, readers.)
How accurate is the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker?
But here’s the key measure of a fitness tracker: how accurate is the Apple Watch? Not very – at least at first. But you can improve things very quickly if you calibrate the device.
You see, the Apple Watch doesn’t have GPS: for that, it relies on the iPhone. So without the iPhone in your pocket, the Watch doesn’t know how much distance you’ve covered. It can only use the accelerometer to count your steps and estimate distance based on that.
First runs without calibrating with an iPhone: Our experiences with this were initially disappointing: we went for a run on a treadmill, covered what the treadmill reckoned was 5km, and then found that the Apple Watch had only recorded 3.8km. A later run outdoors was slightly better, but not brilliant: this time, a course that we had previously mapped as 5km was reported as 4.2km.
After calibrating once with an iPhone: Undaunted, we went for a third run and, this time, carried the associated iPhone along for the ride. Without having to be instructed to do so, the Apple Watch and iPhone talked to each other and ensured that the distance covered – and, therefore, the pace per km – were spot on. But better still, when we went back to the treadmill and did another 5km run, this time without the iPhone, the Apple Watch had cleverly gained a better understanding of our stride and estimated the run at 4.8km.
That’s an increase in no-iPhone accuracy from 76 percent to 96 percent, thanks to a single calibrating run with the iPhone.
After calibrating twice with an iPhone: After a second calibrating run – again taking the iPhone along for the ride – we returned for one final run with the Apple Watch alone. Accuracy had gone up again: this time, a route that we had measured at fractionally over 5km was recorded by the watch as 4.92km. That’s a terrific performance.
This final run highlighted a separate issue, however. At what we happened to know was the halfway point of the run, we glanced down and saw, to our disappointment, that the Apple Watch had logged just 2.3km instead of 2.5km. In the second half of the run, in other words, the app made back some of its error margin. Presumably, as we get tired our strides get shorter, which means that an analysis based on average stride length will underestimate distance in the first half of a run and overestimate it in the second, producing an impressively accurate total measurement but far weaker split recordings.
We don’t know yet whether giving the Apple Watch still more trials with the iPhone’s help will enable it to get smarter about the times, speeds and heart rate measurements that correspond to varying stride lengths, or if it’s even capable of taking those factors into account. But if split times are a priority feature for you, bear it in mind that mid-run measurements appear to be less accurate than overall measurements, at least after only a small number of runs.
The Workout app measures average heart rate across your exercise period – a sensor on the back of the device uses visible-light and infrared LEDs and photodiodes to determine your heart rate – and while we don’t feel able to provide expert analysis of how accurate this is, other reviews have been positive. Re/code’s Lauren Goode, for instance, writes: “The heart-rate readings I’m getting from the Apple Watch during indoor cycling are very close to the readings I’ve got from a chest monitor. I haven’t yet seen the kind of wildly erratic readings that I’ve experienced with other health watches that measure heart rate through the wrist.”
Other health-tracking features
The Apple Watch was also expected to have even more sensors for more advanced health features, but reports have claimed that manufacturing problems and reliability issues meant that Apple was forced to leave sensors including blood pressure sensors out of its smartwatch.
Since Apple previewed the Watch in September 2014 it has emerged that the Apple Watch will not be able to offer all the health-related functions Apple had hoped for, due to technological and regulatory hurdles.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Apple wanted the Apple Watch to be a health-monitoring tool, capable of measuring a user’s blood pressure, heart rate, stress level and more. However, when it came to the necessary sensors, in many cases the components weren’t reliable: for example, skin conductivity sensors gave different results depending on how hairy the users arms were, and blood pressure and blood oxygen measurement was inconsistent.
As a result, the first Apple Watch to be released lacks some of these health-related features. But they may well come in future versions (see Apple Watch 2 rumour roundup).
All of this negativity, however, hasn’t stopped Apple teaming up with medical researchers and offering ResearchKit, an open source software framework that lets researchers create apps for medical studies. ResearchKit is already being used by several of the world’s leading medical institutions to gain further insight into diseases, according to Apple.
Using Apple Pay on the Apple Watch
The Apple Watch includes an NFC chip, so you will be able to use it to pay for things with Apple Pay, which launched in the UK in the summer of 2015.
To use Apple Pay all you do is double-click the button below the crown and hold up your watch to a payment reader. This is made possible because the Apple Watch includes an NFC chip. But that’s not all; there is also a dedicated ‘Secure Element’ chip that stores encrypted information about your credit and debit cards. It doesn’t store your actual credit card number, but rather a “device account number” that is used to create a single-use security code to authorise each transaction.
And for added security: if you take the Apple Watch off, it’ll lock and require a code before you can purchase anything. Apparently the watch’s rear sensor can tell if the watch is being worn and you need to enter a PIN when you put it on before you can use it. Thieves who don’t know your code won’t be able to use the watch.
To set up your Apple Watch for Apple Pay you will need to add your credit or debit card information to the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, then a token will be synced with your Apple Watch which will be used when you pay for something. For security purposes, your credit or debit card details will never be sent to your Apple Watch, and if you remove the watch from your wrist you will need a code before Apple Pay can be used again. Read more about Apple Pay here.
Read our Apple Pay FAQ to find out when your UK bank will join up with Apple Pay.
Apple claims that on a typical day, with typical usage, you should get 18 hours of battery life from the Apple Watch. In other words, you ought to be able to get through a whole day, but that will be about it: expect to charge it every night. (Which, incidentally, rules out being able to sleep with the watch on – which is likely to be a disappointment to developers of sleep-related apps.)
In fact, your use may vary. Apple’s ‘typical day’ included a half-hour workout, but if you exercise more than that you may use up the battery quicker – in Apple’s tests, the battery lasted 6.5 hours during a workout (so you should at least be able to run that marathon without running out of battery). If you use the Apple Watch to play music you will also find that to be a bit of a battery hog. Apple got 6.5 hours of audio playback out of the test device before it ran out of power.
Our experience with the battery was mixed. We had a couple of spectacularly bad days: ones where the power was all used up by late afternoon. With these situations, we suspected that we’d ill-advisedly put an app in the Glances that makes regular contact with its iPhone to update information. (A bus-checker app seemed particularly power-hungry.)
On our very first day with the Apple Watch, the battery on the associated iPhone ran out at 6.15pm, and the watch itself turned to the battery-saver mode at 6.45pm. Why did it run out of battery? We’d obviously been playing around with settings a lot that day, both on the watch and in the iPhone app, and we’d installed a few apps with associated glances. We’d used Maps to create a route. And we’d been out on a photo shoot with it, using a lot of features, opening a lot of apps, and using the Digital Touch features, sending drawings, heartbeats etc – so all pretty processor-intensive stuff. But it’s not as if we were running a marathon.
Still, being more careful about the apps that we kept in Glances, or kept running, sorted this problem, and the vast majority of days saw us get through the full 18 hours without even getting close to zero percent. One member of our team (who points out that she didn’t measure any workouts, admittedly) went to bed with the watch on more than 40 percent every day; and even those of us who put the fitness-tracking apps through their paces have mostly found that battery life isn’t a problem.
For more tips on extending your Apple Watch’s battery life, take a look at this tutorial: How to make Apple Watch battery last longer.
When the battery runs out, mind you, all is not lost: just before the battery dies, the watch will switch to Power Reserve, which should get you through another 72 hours on the bare minimum of functionality – which is to say, being able to see the time, when you press the side button. Not exactly what you were imagining when you paid for the watch of the future, but better than nothing.
You can activate Power Reserve at any time, by the way, via the Control Centre. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen and tap the battery-percentage button, then swipe where it says Power Reserve.
Charging your Apple Watch
When it comes to charging the watch, Apple says that charging to 100 percent takes 2.5 hours, and you can get to 80 percent in 1.5 hours.
The Watch charges via a magnetic charger that snaps onto the back; this is inductive charging, kind of like your electric toothbrush. The Apple Watch comes with one inductive charger, which probably won’t be cheap to replace if you break it, or if you just want a second one to use at work. (Because these devices are routinely charged at night, they all live in people’s homes which means that if our office Watch runs out of battery during the day there’s never a spare charger around to top it up.)
We’ve known that battery life was a potential issue for some time. Apple CEO Tim Cook hinted that the watch would need to be charged daily in an interview with the Wall Street Journal back in October 2014: “We think people are going to use it so much that you’re going to wind up charging it daily – overnight… Given my own experience and others around me, you’re going to wind up charging every day because you’re using it so much that it’s going to need to be charged.”
We like the look of the magnetic charging attachment. It’s similar to the MagSafe plug used on MacBooks in that it snaps into place on the back of the watch. There are no exposed charging contacts so the charge is delivered via induction. That has led some to refer to this as wireless charging, but it’s not true wireless charging.
Specs & features
There are a few features that the Apple Watch doesn’t offer. Many of the features require an iPhone to be present, for example, although not all of them – you don’t need to carry your iPhone with you when you go for a run, for example, nor do you need your iPhone when you wish to make a mobile payment using Apple Pay.
Which iPhones are compatible with the Apple Watch? The good news is that the Apple Watch will work with any iPhone from the iPhone 5 up. So you probably won’t have to run out and buy a new iPhone to go with your Apple Watch.
Camera: Some are disappointed that the Apple Watch doesn’t include a camera. But unless you’re an undercover spy we think it’s unlikely you would want to take pictures with your watch. Then again, we can see it being added as a feature in a future Apple Watch, as it would make video calls possible and allow people to send selfie snaps to others.
It’s not such a big failing, either, because the Apple Watch can act as a viewfinder for your iPhone’s camera, letting you snap pictures from afar. That’s a much more useful feature than trying to take a picture with a camera strapped to your wrist.
NFC: As mentioned earlier, the watch has a near-field communication, or NFC chip as well as a ‘Secure Element’ chip to stores your encrypted information. It also has sensors to measure blood pressure and distance travelled. It doesn’t include GPS; instead, it hooks up to the GPS inside the paired iPhone.
Processor chip: The Apple Watch features Apple’s own S1 processor chip.
You can also control the music playing on your iPhone via your watch, or even play music stored on the watch itself. We presume if you are enrolled to iTunes Match you will be able to play any of the music you have stored in iCloud this way.
You will need an iPhone to use the Apple Watch. Apple Watch will work with the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s or 6s Plus running iOS 8 or later.
The first-gen Apple Watch is no longer available from Apple or from most retailers, and even where it can be found the price has often become unreasonable. The Apple Watch Series 1 is largely the same as the first-gen model except that it comes with a faster processor, so you may be better off going for that.
Back when the 2015 Apple Watch launched, pricing varied depending on the watch and strap you chose. It started at £259 in the UK; that’s for the 38mm Apple Watch Sport with a plastic band, and £299 for the 42mm version. The stainless steel Apple Watch started at £479 and the newer Apple Watch Hermes started at £1000, while the 18-carat gold Apple Watch Edition started at an eye-watering £8,000.
Apple received some criticism for introducing the high-priced Apple Watch Edition, a strategy that was apparently spearheaded by head of design Jony Ive who wanted to offer a watch for this part of the market. By targeting fashion and celebrity, Apple might well be able to make the Apple Watch appeal to the mainstream rather than geeks and gadget lovers.