Here’s what you need to know about the Apple Watch

Tony Wagner Apr 9, 2015

Presales for the Apple Watch started Friday, and anticipation is running high. It’s Apple’s first brand-new product line since the iPad, and like the iPad, the smart watch has potential to bring a niche product into the mainstream.

Apple lent a few models to members of the media, and a torrent of reviews came in last week. Most talked about the device’s potential, noting that the first iteration comes with major compromises. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, praised the device while noting it’s not for everyone, writing that Apple is “on to something.”

We’ve pored over this week’s major reviews and found these key takeaways:

It’s worth the steep learning curve

Though the Watch in inextricably linked to the iPhone, it’s not like having an iPhone strapped to your wrist.

The Watch takes some of the iPhone’s swipes and taps, but also adds a side dial — the “digital crown” — for scrolling and zooming, as well as a side button. You can also press the screen to activate other functions, a feature called “force touch,” and you navigate the software differently than on the iPhone.

All of this adds up to a steep learning curve — maybe too steep, if you haven’t mastered your iPhone yet. Most reviewers said it took at least a day of regular use to figure it all out, but the new interfaces were smooth after that. Apple is also offering prospective Watch buyers a one-on-one tour of the device.

The Watch is stuck in Apple’s walled garden

You need an iPhone 5 or later to use the Watch, because it relies on your phone for just about everything. It’s constantly communicating with the phone via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so your directions, calls and messages travel back and forth from your pocket or bag. That can lead to performance issues.

Committing to technology that’s a little slow to respond to you is dicey at best, especially when it’s supposed to step in for your phone,” Nilay Patel writes in the Verge. “If the Watch is slow, I’m going to pull out my phone. But if I keep pulling out my phone, I’ll never use the Watch.”

It’s a bigger problem with third-party apps. There aren’t tons available yet, and many act as little more than remotes for their counterpart application on your phone. Without the phone, the Apple Watch basically bricks, becoming, well, a watch. 

“Over the weekend, my iPhone 6 ran out of battery before the Apple Watch did, and it was a couple of hours before I could charge my phone again,” Bonnie Cha in her review of third-party Watch apps in Re/Code. “During that down period, I could only use the Apple Watch to get the time and view existing messages and calendar appointments.”

All of this is bound to improve over time, but it limits the Watch’s potential at launch.

Notifications, notifications, notifications

Just about everyone dinged the Watch for sending too many notifications out of the box, notifications that feel all the more urgent when they’re coming to your wrist.

Most people have grown used to glancing at their phones while talking to others, and the Watch is supposed to cut down on that and keep users in the moment. But how does that play out when glancing at your watch can be considered so rude? 

“[Using the Watch] calls for new rules of etiquette, or at least new tolerance.” Geoffrey A. Fowler writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Is it appropriate to peek at a wrist alert during a meeting with your boss? What about on a date?”

In the Times, Manjoo wrote that the stream of notifications on his Watch kept him from getting lost in his phone and improved his (and others’) day as a result, but only after he’d done the work of really pruning the Watch’s settings.

The new features are good… mostly

Besides the obvious hardware differences, Apple is using the Watch to explore new territory.

The first is health tracking, which most reviews noted is limited but solid. The Watch keeps track of how long you’re seated, moving and working out. The latter is mostly tied to heart rate, meaning weightlifters and yogis might not get as much out of it.

“I have no idea if this will have any lasting impact on my health,” Joshua Topolsky writes in Bloomberg. “But I think Apple’s beautiful and frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction.”

The other much-touted new feature is messaging, which Apple has expanded considerably for Watch users. You can draw a little picture to send to a friend, share your pulse or animate a small set of emoji. Most reviewers wrote this off as a novelty, and the Verge called the animations “nightmare fuel.”

Overall, the Watch, like many first-generation Apple products, seems to be the first step in a much bigger sea change in tech. Every review I read seemed to be writing with an eye toward what’s to come, and Apple is sure to refine the Watch more after people buy this model in droves starting April 24.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.