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Reality Check: Should We Buy an Apple Watch for Its Potential?

By Chris Maxcer
Apr 10, 2015 12:44 PM PT
Apple Watch Sport

Because there are so many Apple-loving fanatics who are hopelessly addicted to their iPhones, the first wave of Apple Watch sales won't give us a reliable indicator as to whether it is a real success... or not so much.

Because we're talking about Apple here, there will be a couple million customers who will love it and make it work -- even if, deep down, they're slightly disappointed.

Such is the power of Apple and the loyalty of an Apple fan.

So -- do the reviews even matter?

Reviewing From the Choir

Early reviews, it turns out, are a different animal, especially for Apple. The company has a tendency to send review units only to high-profile journalists who are generally appreciative of Apple's previous products. It's a tightly controlled process, designed to prime the marketing and sales effort.

If you can get some good high-profile reviews written -- the publications all release the initial reviews on the same day -- it sets expectations, both with readers and with every other tech journalist out and about.

Because these journalists don't want to miss the chance to review the next prerelease Apple product, any negative impressions tend to be gently noted and immediately tempered by positive statements. Of course, Apple usually produces great products that have some sort of newish feature to discuss with optimism or appreciation, so staying in Apple's good graces isn't so hard.

In the case of the Apple Watch, the reviews are coming in from Apple's people -- consumer tech-focused journalists who know a lot about how gadgets and apps work. They not only have a tolerance for confusing interfaces, but also the experience to sort them out with little trouble.

In order to learn something important from the early reviews, you need to read between the lines -- and maybe even amplify the sentiment. The first batch of Apple Watch reviews, while positive, manage to point out plenty of shortcomings.

All the early reviews I've read so far are either "balanced" or simply oxymoronic. If all the reviewers had just been asked by someone to marry them, they would tell us about their suitor's career, then start ticking off their pros and cons, and then ultimately say "yes" -- not because of the person's qualities right now, but rather because of their hopes for what that person could become in the future.

What all this seems to point to, so far, is that the Apple Watch may be shaping up to be the first Apple product you might really have to try on and use -- maybe for days -- before you'll really know if you like it and if it's worth several hundred dollars.

Gentle Digs, Yet Falling in Love

The Apple Watch "interface isn't exactly easy," and "figuring out what it can do, and how, takes a few days of adjusting," wrote Farhad Manjoo for The New York Times.

So, for a regular guy, does this mean the interface actually will be hard to learn? It might very well be hard to learn. If that is indeed the case, it's a striking change for Apple. Being easy to use and learn has been a hallmark of many of Apple's products. Despite all of Apple's user-interface design efforts going into the Apple Watch, its UI does not appear to be user-friendly.

It's hard to know if this is going to be a problem with the general populace just yet, but the original iPhone interface was not only intuitive, but also fun.

On day two, Manjoo admitted that he struggled to figure out which notifications he wanted to receive on his Apple Watch -- and that he seemed to spend many hours fine-tuning the notification screen. "In other words," he wrote, "it didn't just work."

Perhaps most damning of all, Manjoo wore the Apple Watch in public in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Manhattan, but nobody seemed to notice or express much interest in it. How's that for a gadget that Apple has worked so hard to turn into a fashion accessory?

Still, in one of his reviews, Manjoo also admitted that while it took three long, confusing, and frustrating days to adjust to it, he fell hard for the Apple Watch.

Tension Between Hope and Reality?

The Apple Watch wasn't quite the gatekeeper to his digital life that he wanted it to be, wrote Geoffrey Fowler for The Wall Street Journal. Plus, there were only about three dozen apps available -- although 1,000 have been submitted to Apple -- and they didn't seem useful enough.

"Still, in these early sketches of an experience, I can already imagine so much more. I'd like for the Apple Watch to be my train ticket and my office key, for starters," he wrote -- which seems to be a common refrain among the early reviews: the promise of the Apple Watch seems more compelling than the actual device right now.

That's OK, the reviewers pretty much say, because this product is a first-generation product and Apple will refine it soon enough.

I'm not sure how I feel about this sentiment. On the one hand, they're totally right. On the other hand, is that going to be my sentiment, too? That I'll feel good about the wearable computing future because this is Apple Watch version 1.0?

Is It Really Going to Be Slow?

While concluding that the Apple Watch is a way nicer than any other smartwatch out there, The Verge's Nilay Patel couldn't get around observing that it's also kind of slow. Sometimes it stutters loading notifications or it's just unresponsive for a few seconds while it thinks and comes back.

Ouch.

Apple will address the performance issues in future software updates, Patel noted, but still, "slow," "sluggish," and "underpowered" are words you usually don't want to see as you consider buying some sort of tech.

On the other hand, the Retina display is getting rave reviews, and Apple Pay is fast and easy.

Speaking of Style

While taking the Apple Watch for a workout-oriented review, The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern commented on its style as well.

She generally loved it and the bands, remarking that she even got an unsolicited compliment, but the aesthetics don't seem timeless, Stern also noted. She could already imagine how the next one would look better -- thinner body, edges less rounded.

Would she recommend the Apple Watch to a friend? For most friends, her answer was "No."

More 'Hmms' Than Huzzahs?

So far, it seems that the biggest issue is that the Apple Watch does so much -- it's a fitness band, a notification tool, a payment method, a communicator, a watch, a music player, a navigation aide, and a platform for apps.

All of this functionality must be addressed in the early reviews, with detailed coverage about how features actually work. It seems the reviewers can't help but want the Apple Watch to be just a little bit better, just a little more awesome, just a little more of imagined future versions to come.

All-in-all, if one thing is clear to me, it's that the sales cycle for the Apple Watch will be radically different from other Apple products. With an iPad, you just have to choose if you want a tablet with iOS. With a MacBook Air or Pro, it's just which laptop you want. With an iPhone, it's a smartphone -- do you want Apple's or someone else's?

With the Apple Watch, customers will have to consider not only what the Apple Watch does that is new and extends their experience, but also which of its features actually are worth buying -- and, more importantly, worth taking the time to learn.

You don't really have to spend much time or effort setting up an iPad, but fine-tuning an Apple Watch? It took tech-savvy reviewers many hours -- even days -- to get it right.

So regular consumers will be choosing not just to buy a simple gadget or watch, but to affect their life in a far more direct way than ever before. For early adopters, there will be pros and cons -- and visions of a better Apple Watch future.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.


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