Thu Dec 31, 2020
It’s been five years since the release of the first Apple Watch and I’ve held off on getting one until now. I’m glad I waited.
In September, I wrote that the Apple Watch Series 6 release was decidedly mundane. Yet, it is precisely its mediocrity that convinced me to get one. When new functionality and design changes start to taper off, you know that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. This plateau is a strong sign that a product has reached its peak.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any more wearable innovations to be had - only that future innovations will be slow and hard won.
As always, these are my thoughts and impressions, pros and cons. This is not really a thorough review - there are many writers out there who are paid to rigorously test and evaluate tech products. If you’re looking to make a purchase decision, you should go and read those. I’m just a guy who writes a blog for fun.
Most times what I write will be boring to you, sometimes it won’t be. But if you’re interested in the Apple Watch Series 6 at all, read on.
I opted for the traditional 44mm Space Grey aluminium case with a black Solo Loop. While the new red and blue colours may appeal to existing Apple Watch owners looking for a reason to upgrade, black complements most band colours and materials and is perfect for new users.
As expected, the Solo Loop band is hard to size correctly without trying it on first. I ordered one size down and it is quite snug but I’m hoping it will loosen up over time. The stretchy silicone is very soft and comfortable though. Incidentally, the solo loop seems custom-made for the blood oxygen sensor as it keeps the watch snug on your wrist and is easy to slide further up your arm for an accurate reading.
If you want to amass a watch band collection, official Apple Watch bands are unsurprisingly expensive. Thankfully, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on new watch bands. I’ve bought a few $10 bands from Aliexpress and they are very good for the price. Given the generic design of the watch case, a nice leather or stainless steel band really does let you sport a more casual or formal look.
The build quality of this watch is better than I expected. Sure, it’s no rolex passed down from your granddaddy, but compared to the countless knockoffs and cheap smartwatches out there, you get what you pay for. There is no doubt that this is a well-made object. It also has a bright, crisp, OLED screen with LTPO backplane technology. When countless reviewers say that the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch, they’re not wrong.
But what I’ve come to really appreciate about the Apple Watch is that it really belongs to Tim Cook. Steve Jobs was famously ambivalent about his health. Indeed, his ambivalence may have cost him his life. Steve would not have appreciated the Watch’s gentle nudges to breathe deeply for one minute or stand if you’ve been sitting for too long. Tim Cook is a more well-rounded CEO when it comes to quality of life, or at least tries to be.
If you haven’t done so already, listen to a rare interview with Tim Cook on the Outside Podcast. As he strolls around the landscaped greenery at the centre of the new Apple Park spaceship, his appreciation for nature and staying active shines through. As he stops to muse over the orchard of trees that bear fruit (free for Employees to eat in the cafeteria), it all makes sense. And what a great symbolic tribute to Steve Jobs’ time on the Apple farm in his youth.
Health and wellness is now at the core of the Apple Watch - the right focus after a disjointed arrival in 2015 when nobody could figure out the watch’s raison d’être. When it comes to its health sensors, though, I think most reviewers miss the point. Yes, you may only take an ECG or blood-oxygen reading once or twice before forgetting about it after the novelty wears off. But it is the aggregation of data over many months and years that is most valuable, as the watch continuously monitors and analyzes key metrics.
From irregular heart rhythm notifications to the fluctuations in VO2 max that indicate a rise or fall in your cardio fitness level - it is the cumulative quantitative data that is most useful in showing whether your overall health is trending up or down.
Yet, although the health component is far more advanced than many other smartwatches, what I am enjoying most about the Apple Watch is its tight integration into the Apple ecosystem. Call it a “bait and switch” or “ecosystem lock-in” if you want to, but if you already have an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and MacBook, the usefulness of the Apple Watch increases exponentially with each device.
The difference between any other smartwatch and the Apple Watch quickly becomes clear once you start to use it in conjunction with other Apple devices.
Take notifications for instance. With the “other” guys, notifications buzz, beep, and bloop on every device all at once. In the Apple ecosystem, you only get a notification on the device you’re using. For example, if you’re looking at your iPhone, you’ll only get incoming notifications on your phone, not on your watch or anywhere else.
The use cases start stacking up into a cohesive whole: My MacBook unlocks instantly if I’m wearing my watch. I can triage reminders, or create them by raising my wrist and speaking to Siri (when it works - more on that later). I can control my Hue lights from my wrist or my podcasts or music. My podcasts sync with my iPhone and remember where I left off on either device! The Remote app lets me control navigation and playback on my Apple TV (I can’t overstate how convenient it is to have the remote always there on my wrist - not lost in the couch cushions somewhere).
I couldn’t do any of this with my Samsung Gear Fit, which seems woefully inadequate now. The third-party app ecosystem is also better than the Android Wear equivalent. Even Google has eschewed its own wearables platform and released a YouTube music app for Apple Watch - but not for Android Wear.
The most satisfying part for me personally is that I hardly have to ever pick up my phone anymore. If I had a new phone, I’d be somewhat conflicted about this. But given that my iPhone 6S is so outdated, I don’t really want to stare at it much. Now it’s just a dumb pipe feeding data to my watch. And given the terrible battery life of my 6S, it’s a lifesaver that my watch still receives texts and phone calls (on WiFi) when my phone powers off.
I think that covers most of what I like, so let’s take a minute and talk about what I don’t like.
I can summarize what I don’t like in one word: inconsistency. Unfortunately, if it happens too often, inconsistency breeds mistrust. Fortunately, Apple’s regular software updates go a long way into re-establishing trust that they are committed to the user experience over the long term.
For example, I had set up a few automations to change my watch face and turn the always-on display on or off at certain times of the day. Then one day, they just stopped working. A couple of weeks later, after a software update, they sprang back to life.
Siri is not the best AI assistant out there and let’s be honest - saying Siri is “inconsistent” is just being polite. I love the idea of raising your wrist to talk to Siri, but it often doesn’t work, which is frustrating, especially when you’re trying to go hands-free. Using the annoying “Hey Siri” prefix doesn’t work any better, as the phone in my pocket responds instead.
Other annoyances include a propensity to constantly lock if the strap is a bit loose (requiring the passcode to unlock) and a hit-or-miss handwashing timer. It seems that this feature was fast-tracked after COVID-19 hit. But these are minor gripes in a smartwatch that, overall, I’m very happy with.
I should mention that I was looking forward to my three-month trial of the new Fitness+ service, but it’s a non-starter for me. You need the latest Apple TV to use it on your TV, and my Apple TV 3 doesn’t make the cut. These are typical Apple upgrade tactics. Either try to follow along with the workout instructor on your tiny iPhone screen, or buy a $200 streaming box nobody needs anymore. You also can’t Airplay Fitness+ to your Apple TV - whether intentionally or because of some technical limitation. It doesn’t work on the Mac either. I’m hoping that the broken Airplay support is a bug, but I’m not holding my breath.
Okay, 2020 is finally over - it is now New Year’s Eve. Unlike just about every New Year’s Eve prior, there won’t be any large crowds gathered in Times Square or bars packed with drunk revellers. At the last minute, the government has banned liquor sales after 8PM, you know, to make sure all citizens have good judgement tonight. Never mind the fact that this order has created long lineups as people desperately stockpile their booze. Sigh.
As I hate lineups, I’ll raise a virtual glass to you and wish you a happy New Year and all the best to you and your family. Although I hear that they’ve all gone into anaphylactic shock after injecting the rushed vaccine.
I just can’t be all that optimistic about 2021, but let’s all take a page from Ted Lasso’s book here (great show on Apple TV by the way). They say it’s the hope that kills you. But that is wrong - hope is all we have. Be a goldfish.