Apple Watch Series 4

At last, a smartwatch that would make me look beyond a mechanical timepiece—except for occasions.

Few gadgets give you the sense that they will last with you for a long time to come. Apple Watch Series 4 is (for me, anyway) one such device. It seems Apple is on a roll once again—now under Tim Cook as it once famously was under Steve Jobs—with a series of brilliant hardware and software releases. The last time I felt this was just about a year ago when I got my 13-inch MacBook Pro to replace my old MacBook Air; and the time before that was when I got my iPhone X. It is hard to tell how long Apple can keep this up, and I would not be surprised if this is yet another great year for the company, but the Series 4 was good enough to make me consider giving my mechanical favourites some well-deserved rest. And that, trust me, is no mean feat.

A great fit and feel

The Apple Watch is, first and foremost, a wearable. An accessory in fashion terms. This makes its fit, heft and feel on the skin incredibly important. I cannot speak for the stainless steel model but my 44mm space grey Aluminium Series 4 sits beautifully on my wrist, has precisely the right heft, and just enough of a presence to remind me it is there should I need it while never drawing undue attention to itself. This is just how I like it, but keep in mind that everything said so far is highly subjective.

What is not subjective is how the Apple Watch Series 4 is a huge step up from the previous four generations (the first ever edition had no ‘Series’ number). It comes with a bigger display without an increase in footprint thanks to better screen technology. It also has a subtler look on the crown, and that beautiful haptic feedback that has been making using iPhones a pleasure since the iPhone 7 (think spinning a date picker on iOS, but better). And it also has a much better processor that—I say this based on hearsay—makes watchOS buttery smooth unlike its jittery ancestors.

The experience of an Apple Watch

I knew from the start that only a GPS + Cellular Apple Watch would even make me consider using it as a mainstream device. For one, I am not a big fan of cellular devices (no iPad I have ever owned has had cellular capability), and two, my preferred service provider does not offer an eSIM. Yet, the Apple Watch in its cellular variant offered enough to make me switch my carrier.

My insistence on the cellular variant comes from two use cases. First, when I cycle or hit the gym it would be great to leave my iPhone at home and travel light. This is possible with the GPS + Cellular Apple Watch because this means I lose nothing. While I might not be able to browse the web or read the news, I will get calls, iMessages, SMS etc. and have a good data connection for any other needs while tracking my workouts and listening to Beats Radio or Apple Music via bluetooth earphones.

The importance of Apple Health is twofold: one, the app is a central database for everything health-related... two, when it comes to privacy and security Apple Health is second to none.

Second, with the Apple Watch tapping my with notifications I really need to see, I have found that I can reduce the time I spend staring at my phone—and hence the time I risk getting lost in the internet void—and focus better on my work while balancing technology with near-zero effort from my part. Things such as meditation, time-boxing, calorie tracking, water consumption tracking etc. that I do use on a daily basis to keep up my productivity and health can all be done from my Apple Watch—these processes are simple and straightforward too. And with everything syncing beautifully to Apple Health, I only ever need to reach for my iPhone to get an overview of my health status and that of other select apps. With watchOS 6 brining Apple Health summaries to the Watch later this year the former need may drop too.

Moving from Fitbit

My first—and until now only—fitness tracker was a Fitbit Charge 2. Back when I first wrote about it (you can still read the article in my archives) I mentioned somewhat loudly and clearly that the one thing I disliked about my then-new Fitbit was that it refused to sync with Apple Health. ‘The Fitbit app refuses to talk to Apple Health,’ I had written back then. ‘There are workarounds… but they are convoluted… and it would not have been this way were it not for Fitbit’s stubbornness in keeping its app single.’ This was back in July 2016. Since then the problem has only increasingly gotten on my nerves.

A couple of months prior to getting my Apple Watch I recall rarely using my Fitbit. This was primarily because it refused to play nice with all my other apps. Even my calorie counting app prompted me to use a Garmin, and I know Garmin plays nice because my wife has one and hers syncs perfectly well with Apple Health. Perhaps it is age and experience, with Garmin being a much older, better established company than Fitbit (1989 v 2007).

The importance of Apple Health is not that it is an app made by Apple; it is not even that it is an app that comes preinstalled on iPhones. The importance of Apple Health is twofold: one, the app is a central database for everything health-related. (The app itself does little by way of data collection that other devices or apps do not already do better.) The purpose of Apple Health is not to collect data, rather to accumulate it from various apps, trim it down into easily understandable stats and present it in such a way that you can look and corelate and spot trends and take decisions. Two, when it comes to privacy and security Apple Health is second to none. It is simply in a user’s best interest that fitness devices and apps should sync to Apple Health. Fitbit refuses to oblige.

On my Apple Watch, part 1. (From left to right) Wishes on my birthday with balloons; controlling music in my car while playing from my iPhone; unlocking my MacBook automatically when I sit before it; my choice of a simple, elegant watchface for occasions (my daily watch face is pictured above); the apps I use on Apple Watch as of now; Activity rings, one of the best features of the device.

On mechanical timepieces

I remember that everytime the Apple Watch crossed my mind in the past I always noticed how nobody ever had any complaints about the device. Hodinkee the magazine that describes itself as one that carries ‘in-depth reviews, critiques, and reports on watches of a particularly high quality’ interviewd Sir Jonathan Ive, who heads Apple’s design team, sometime in May last year. Hodinkee had, at least up to that point, been aware of the universal complaint watch enthusiasts like myself (or horophiles if you prefer) had bellowed time and again. A smartwatch is not a real watch, and smartwatches are trying out oust real watches.

Call it resistance to change but over time two things became clear to most of us: one, smartwatches are here to stay; two, mechanical timepieces are—somewhat ironically—not going away anytime soon. They can coexist.

Things are exceptionally fragile as an idea—entirely abstract—but once there is an object between us, it is galvanizing.Jony Ive, speaking to Hodinkee

Equally pleasing to find was that Jony Ive, and most of Apple’s design team, were not new to watches. Ive’s first was an Omega Speedmaster. Most of the team has always had a personal interest in watches, says Ive in the interview. He also goes on to say how Apple talked to experts in horology as part of the product development for Apple Watch. They discussed with the horologist Will Andrewes; the Curator Emeritus of the Royal Observatory in the UK, Jonathan Betts; the historian and horologist Dominique Fléchon; the historian of Geneva’s Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Grégory Gardinetti; the writer Claudia Hammond; the astrophysicist Chris Lintott; and the keeper of technologies at the Science Museum in London, David Rooney.

Having used mechanical timepieces for most of my life transitioning to a smartwatch was never going to be easy. I’ve long disliked even digital watches—except perhaps the quirkier ones. But the fact is that the Apple Watch is more than just a smartwatch.

When Hodinkee asked Ive if the crown was an intentional homage to mechanical watchmaking, he replied, ‘No, because if that was a nod towards origin that would, to me, have been superficial. A sort of exercise in marketing. Everything we did was in the pursuit of what we thought was the best solution… we found that as you moved your arm around, the several years of developing principal forms of interaction for the phone and iPad was only a partial solution for this product.’ And he goes on to say, ‘It took a modicum of courage to understand that this secondary device—the crown—was a fantastic solution for scrolling and making choices. It also allowed us to offer a ‘second button’ on the device. We were predisposed to thinking direct manipulation was sort of a panacea.’

So the Apple Watch was indeed more than just a smartwatch, more than a miniaturised iPhone- or iPad-like screen sitting on your wrist. While it is undoubtedly ‘smart’ it certainly is much more than just a watch; at least that is what living with my new Apple Watch has showed me.

Living with Apple Watch

Like all Apple products in my experience, my Apple Watch has fundamentally altered the way I do little things in my daily life. The overarching change is probably that I handle my phone a lot less now. Especially while I am at home, screentime tells me my pickups have more than halved. Thankfully there is a tracker, with beeps and flashes, that lets me find my iPhone when I’ve lost it somewhere around the house.

By trimming down how I interact with technology Apple Watch has given me considerably more control over it.

The second change is that I have trimmed down notifications to only the most important ones: e-mails from VIPs, all messages, all fitness-related notifications, Twitter DMs and mentions, and reminders and other stock app notifications. None of these are intrusive; all other notifications are disabled on my Apple Watch and I get to them on my time when I pick up my iPhone. That is not to say I do not carry my phone around, just that even when I do, I pick it up a lot less.

While this seems, on the face of it, unintuitive because it appears as though I had to physically keep my phone away to save myself from notifications, the reality is much deeper. Apple Watch is, in my opinion, the first of a wave of devices that will fundamentally change how we interact with our technology. And if Apple Watch is any indication of things to come, the future seems to be rather bright. If I had to boil things down to one sentence it would be this: by trimming down how I interact with technology Apple Watch has given me considerably more control over it.

I wake up every morning, put on my Apple Watch where I used to put on my Fitbit or, before that, one of my mechanical watches. I get on with my day knowing that I can quickly track my water and food intake, glance at my to-do list and calendar, keep track of my Activity rings, even check the weather later that day. I can focus on the things that matter because these utilitarian stuff now take much less time than they used to. iPhones were already more straightforward and faster than other devices; Apple Watch tops that in whatever functionality it shares with my iPhone.

Talking to Siri is pleasanter too. I just raise my wrist and say what I want and Siri responds—about 75% of the time anyway—without the ‘Hey, Siri…’ call phrase. Manually calling Siri is possible too, of course, but when the ‘raise to speak’ magic works, why bother?

One of my main uses for Apple Watch is to track my health and fitness goals. I use it at the gym and when I cycle, both reasons to prompt my purchase of the cellular edition so I can safely leave my iPhone back home. And in both these cases Apple Watch excels where my Fitbit Charge 2 failed. Fitbit has GPS models too now, but they still do not do all that the Apple Watch does. I can play music to my bluetooth earphones, track my ride with GPS, all while knowing I will not be missing an important text, call or e-mail. Or, and perhaps more important, should I ever need assistance, I can make a call from Apple Watch even without my iPhone.

Coming from Fitbit and the step-counting tribe, something I thought was missing from Apple Watch was counting steps. I later realised that the watch does count steps but not as a primary function. Heading to the Activity app and scrolling down a bit shows the day’s step count, but Apple characteristically does things a bit differently—and, arguably, better. Activity directly tracks calories burnt based on my movement and heart rate, while separately tracking exercise by time and standing hours. While step counts are meaningful, these three parameters (activity rings) are together more sensible than just a sole measure like steps. It took me a couple of days but I managed to find the right calorie burn goal that ensures I hit about 10,000 steps every day by the time my activity and exercise rings close. This is a great middle ground in my opinion, and a good start for people who are unable to determine their ideal calorie burn count.

On my Apple Watch, part 2. (From left to right) Control centre on watchOS is quite capable despite the tiny real estate, but not customisable; incoming calls are easy to handle; turn-by-turn navigation is great, with the watch giving off little beeps just before an upcoming turn so you do not have to stare at the device all along; and lastly the detail view of the activity rings.

Besides all this what makes the Apple watch a good fitness tracker is that it does something rather cleverly. In my experience at least, when comparing data between Strava on my iPhone, my Fitbit Charge 2 and the Workout app on my Apple Watch, against known control data, the Apple watch managed to track trends nearly perfectly, and—this is the important bit—when it got something slightly wrong it always underestimated my workout. Any day I prefer a tracker that underestimates my workout rather than one that overestimates it. This was true of both outdoor cycling and on the treadmill.

Looking ahead

Information display is key to every smartwatch but one does not always want a lot of information on the screen. Apple tackles this well by allowing users to set up a string of watch faces to quickly change between. I use six of them, all analogue unless I have no option: I have one default face (infograph), one for the gym or for cycling (modular), one for occassions (simple), one for weekends and vacations (photos, with pictures of my family), one for daily use as an alternative to my default (utility, just in case), and one playful face (Mickey Mouse).

However, we only get to choose from among Apple’s offering of watch faces and pick ‘complications’ of our choice—little widgets that show off information from our apps, like the weather, moon phases, calendar, upcoming reminders and events, music etc. A section dedicated to watch faces in the upcoming watchOS 6, which includes a dedicated Apple Watch App Store, would not have hurt. Hopefully Apple will open this up to developers at some point down the road. It is likely Apple fears that allowing custom watch faces will take away some of the uniqueness that comes with their pricey Nike+ and Hermés offerings because somebody will undoubtedly replicate those faces for the ‘regular’ watches the rest of us buy.

While playing music through Apple Watch is great, with a full featured ‘Now playing’ list with shuffle and repeat buttons, it requires connection to bluetooth speakers or earphones. This means I cannot hop into my car, leave my iPhone at home and play music on my stereo. The Apple Watch neither connects to my (or any) car stereo, nor does it play music from its own impressive speakers.

Speaking of leaving my iPhone at home, it is important to remember that Apple Watch was never meant to replace your iPhone. It takes some of the load off the iPhone, it gives better context to the technology in the Apple ecosystem with which we interact everyday, and it truly helps take the focus off hand-held screens and brings it onto daily life—if you can keep yourself from reaching for your iPhone once you get a notification on your Apple Watch. In short, Apple has done their part; as the user, you have some of yours to do too.

All said and done, Apple Watch has some benefits over a mechanical watch, a piece of jewellery that a gadget such as this should never be compared to. It is not fair to either object. I will still wear my mechanical timepieces to the most formal of events, but my Apple Watch will sit on my wrist more of the time on any given day. While the charms of these two devices are entirely different, I think the greatest victory of Apple Watch is that it feels like a watch, not like yet another tech gadget.

Cover image: Lin Zagorsky.