The Apple Watch reminds me a lot of the iPhone. Not in the obvious sense of design and functionality and Apple ethos, but in how it’s been received.
When the original iPhone came out, it arrived with a lot of fanfare (hello, giant Apple advertising budget!), but all of us who watch the company expected the phone to be Mac-like: technologically impressive and adopted by a minority of customers.
Instead, over the first year I began to see iPhones on a daily basis. Granted, Seattle is a technology hub, but especially in 2007 it was still a Microsoft town. The iPhone quickly moved out of the minority. Apple would go on to sell 6 million units the first year.
The Apple Watch has followed a similar path. When it was released with a huge amount of hype in 2015, I thought it would be a niche product for techies and celebrities — especially the premium gold Apple Watch Edition models that sold for as much as $17,000.
And yet, now I see people all the time wearing Apple Watches (the far more affordable aluminum models or stainless steel models, the only two materials being sold).
But what’s the attraction? With the iPhone, it was obvious, especially in the early days before other manufacturers made their own touch-screen smartphones: having a portable device that is always connected. The Apple Watch, although capable in many areas, is still an extension of the iPhone, and doesn’t have the same type of groundbreaking appeal.
I ordered the original Apple Watch as soon as it was available, wrote a book about it, and wore it on my wrist every day. In fact, I kept that Series 0 until late last year when I finally replaced it with the current Series 4 model, skipping the incremental updates in-between.
So what keeps this bauble on my wrist?
Series 4. It doesn’t sound exciting, I know, but the Apple Watch’s killer app is still notifications. I’ve minimized the number of notifications I get in general — I really, really don’t need to know when I get a new email message, nor when someone tweets at me — but it’s helpful to see when someone has texted, or when someone important sends me an email.
The latter you can set up in the Mail app on the iPhone by marking a contact as a VIP. In the Watch app on the iPhone, go to Notifications > Mail and turn VIPs on.
The usefulness of notifications isn’t even that I think I’m so important I need to stay on top of every communication. It’s that I can flick my wrist when a new message comes in, see quickly whether it’s something I need to pay attention to and then ignore it or act on it. I don’t have to pull out the phone every time, which is far more distracting.
I’m not heavy into exercise, but the Apple Watch has definitely gotten me moving more, and the occasional friendly exercise competition is fun, too. Apple realized with the Series 2 that exercise was a strong motivator for people to buy the watch, and the improvements it has made on that front seem solid.
It helps that Siri makes it easy. When I take a walk, I say, “Hey Siri, start an outdoor walk,” and the Workout app starts up. This is notable with the Series 4, because the speed of the processor compared with my Series 0 means the request is filled right away.
Moving from a Series 3 to a Series 4 may not seem like much of a jump in terms of performance, but jumping all the way from the beginning was a revelation.
One of the most notable features of the Series 4 is the ECG app that can take an electrocardiogram measurement at any time. Open the app, rest your finger on the Digital Crown and wait 30 seconds. The app checks for signs of atrial fibrillation — it pointedly states that it can’t check for a heart attack — and records the result in the Health app. It’s nowhere near comprehensive, but can prompt you to see a doctor for a more thorough test if needed.
This Apple Watch also includes a fall sensor, which I turned on and forgot about. The one time it activated was at one of my daughter’s soccer games, when a ball struck me from the side. I didn’t fall down, but I must have freaked out enough from the surprise that the watch immediately asked if I’d fallen and if it should contact emergency services. (The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern created an amusing and impressive video testing the feature with a professional stunt double.)
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any third-party apps. Although Apple has a software-development kit for watchOS, the operating system running the watch, most of the apps are companions to iOS apps on the phone. For example, I often use AnyList to see what I need at the grocery store without having to carry my groceries in one hand and my iPhone in the other.
Yes, there are apps designed just for the watch, but I’ve never been drawn to them.
Aside from the new features and the much improved overall speed, battery is also noticeably better than my previous Series 0. Largely that’s because the other’s battery is aging out; but with regular use, I typically have more than half of the battery capacity left in my Series 4 when I go to bed at night.
The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 for the 40 mm size and $429 for the 44 mm size — both sizes and prices are larger than previous models. A cellular model adds wireless communications so the watch doesn’t rely solely on the iPhone’s connection, though most carriers charge an extra fee to activate it as a new device.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at st.news/practicalmac.