Apple Watch stands out from the smart watch crowd

The new device actually looks and feels like a watch

Published: September 09, 2014 06:30 PM

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At Apple’s launch event today, without a doubt the star of the show was the company’s new Apple Watch, which will start at $349, but won’t be available until early 2015. Considering the fact that competitors, including Samsung, are already shipping multiple generations of smart watches—Apple needed to show something genuinely different today to convince consumers that its watch is the one worth waiting for.

Even by typical fanboy standards, the crowd went wild for Apple’s timepiece. We’re a bit more reserved in our enthusiasm, but the Apple Watch has enough new thinking to differentiate it from most of the other smart watches on the market today. We got some hands-on time and a highly controlled demo. Here are our first impressions.

The most impressive thing about the Apple Watch is that it looks and feels like a watch. That’s not as much of a given as you might expect when it comes to smart watches. Many of them are plasticky, or bulky, or just plain ugly. Not the Apple Watch. It is a designed object, and a highly customizable one. Apple promises that the watch will be available in two sizes (38mm and 42mm) and three versions: Apple Watch (polished stainless steel), Apple Watch Sport (anodized aluminum), and Apple Watch Edition (believe it or not, 18-karat gold). Only the stainless version was available for touching and feeling today, and press members were allowed to hold Apple Watches running a demo loop while Apple employees walked us through the user interface on a separate device (that generally screams “we’ve still got a lot of work to do”).

In the hand and on the wrist, the Apple Watch feels weighty, like a piece of jewelry, but not overly bulky. There are six different bands in stainless steel, rubber, or leather, and the secure in a variety of ways. We tried leather and “Milanese” stainless steel bands that secure using magnets, which felt at once opulent and high-tech to put on.

Apple Watch with white Sport Band
Apple's smart watch will be available with 6 interchangable bands

Apple made much of its Digital Crown during the press event, and it is the most obvious differentiating feature of the Apple Watch. It resembles a mechanical crown from the “hey, I need to remember to wind my watch” days. Apple uses it as a home button, as well as a zoom/scroll controller, and functionally, it is reminiscent of the old iPod Click Wheel. The demo we saw showed it zooming in and out of maps and changing settings, and it does seem like a useful bit of hardware design. There’s another “Friends” button, which seems to exist solely to bring up a list of favorite contacts. Aside from that much of the user interface does occur on the touch screen.

The device seems to serve three core functions. It is a phone extension (it works only with iPhones, but it should be compatible with the iPhone 5), a fitness monitor/sports watch combo, and a transactional device.

Bizarrely, we made it through the whole day without once hearing how it communicates with the iPhone (presumably Bluetooth), but it has a built-in mic for Siri voice control and to take phone calls, and it can send and receive messages directly from the watch (it even analyzes incoming messages and automatically formulates a choice of potential outgoing replies).

The backside of the watch has a heart-rate monitor under zirconium, which is used to take your pulse. Heart-rate info can be combined with input from a variety of other sensors to determine activity, calories burned, even the amount of time you spend standing vs. sitting. The watch also has the same integrated NFC that is found in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, so it can be used for tap to pay.

Our time with the Apple Watch showed visually how much of that would work, but you’ve obviously got to live with a device like this to see how much is truly useful, and how much is just technological fluff.

And before we can render judgment on that, we, like the rest of the world, will have to wait until next year to get the Apple Watch into our labs.

—Glenn Derene

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