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Sep 28, 2014 — By

Apple Watch Hands-On: The Wristwatch Just Caught Up To The 21st Century Hands-On

After some hands-on time with the Apple Watch, I’ve learned a few things. Perhaps the most important of which is that the majority of discussions regarding the Apple Watch by the traditional watch media have been rather misguided. I feel that people need to understand that the Apple Watch is not only a new type of product for Apple, but the first real “cross-over watch” that wades in both the waters of technology and horology. For a moment, I’d like people to put aside their criticisms and complaints, and consider what I believe to be a future inevitability: the dominance of the smartwatch as a necessary tool in the everyday lives of everyday people.

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I mention this important segue to suggest that the Apple Watch isn’t just another gadget that Silicon Valley hopes might be its next cash cow. I instead think that the Apple Watch (which we debuted here with a lot more detail) is part of a larger evolution of how we integrate technology into our lives. The genesis of the Apple Watch is still something that Apple will not discuss at length. Apple is famously sly with their responses to product questions, but I gleaned enough information to determine why the Apple Watch has been in the works for years, just as many reports have suggested. At a time when naysayers all over the internet described the Apple Watch (then “iWatch”) as a fiction, I wrote about how such a device was an inevitability, back in January of 2013. Nevertheless, I was proven somewhat wrong about when Apple would release a smartwatch product, as I privately guessed a September 2014 launch was too soon. It turns out that Apple was ready with a product sooner than expected, but still, I was partially correct in that the Apple Watch was still not ready for prime time.

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The price of the Apple Watch and where people can buy it is a topic of rich discussion. Apple hasn’t announced the full price list because, it’s my guess, they haven’t settled on final prices yet. Apple has indicated that the Apple Watch will start at a price of $350, but that is for the most basic Apple Watch Sport models that come in aluminum cases, without all the “premium materials” available for the Apple Watch in steel or the Apple Watch Edition in gold. Apple pointed out to me that the Apple Watch will be initially available in six different finishes – which is a mixture of both case materials and colors. These finishes include two colors of aluminum, two colors of steel (polished and PVD black), and two forms of gold (18k yellow gold and 18k rose gold). That, of course, doesn’t include the many strap and bracelet options.

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At $350, the Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum case, non-sapphire crystal, no ceramic parts, and a simple colorful strap that feels like something which is a mix of silicon and rubber. The strap is pretty great, actually, in regard to softness and wearing comfort. This is for the absolute base model. The Apple Watch in steel has a more durable case, sapphire crystal, as well as ceramic elements. I have hypothesized that it will be priced at around $500, but other sources have estimated that the steel Apple Watch will be priced as high as $1,000 – a price that would not surprise me. The Apple Watch Edition in 18k gold is another topic of hot debate. I have previously estimated that it may be priced at between $5,000 – $10,000. Others have estimated prices from about $1,500 – $10,000. That is a pretty big gap in estimated pricing for the Apple Watch Edition. On one hand, the watches do use 18k gold (which is expensive), but on the other hand, we aren’t sure exactly how much gold is in the case and what type of deal Apple has – as they are a company famous for securing good pricing on components and materials. At this point, I would be surprised if the Apple Watch Edition was priced at over $5,000, but also surprised if it was priced at under $1,500 or $2,000.

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Yes, of course the Apple Watch is a “watch.” Many people, especially in the watch community, have defended their love of traditional mechanical watches by segmenting the Apple Watch in a category of high-end gadgets versus “watches.” While I understand and perhaps even empathize with this sentiment, I disagree. If anything, the Apple Watch is what the wrist watch is meant to be in the 21st century. You might not like that, but it is the truth, when it comes to wearable wrist technology. Traditional watch lovers know (and even relish the fact) that their timepieces employ antiquated technology. Such technology might be produced using the most modern construction equipment and with innovative materials, but at the end of the day, no one can argue that a mechanical wrist watch would be able to compete with the sheer utility of a computer.

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Those familiar with the world of high-end timepieces will notice an endless series of “watch-related” design cues, noises, materials, finishes, and features that Apple adopted from the traditional world of watches. Some things they improved upon, and some things were merely used in the overall performance of the Apple Watch. A good example of the latter is the alert noise. Apple could have chosen an endless array of sounds to use when the Apple Watch needs to alert its wearer of something. Instead, they used a chiming sound that is clearly inspired by the mechanical chimes present in complicated watches with musical minute repeater or sonnerie complications.

Forgive me for not going into every single detail of how Apple was inspired by the world of traditional watches for the Apple Watch – there are frankly too many to list. I do have confirmation that Apple dedicated a great deal of time to studying and surveying the watch industry, as well as engaging in copious amounts of research on websites dedicated to watches, including aBlogtoWatch. In an inadvertent way, a lot of our work likely helped influence how the current Apple Watch was designed, and where Apple will take the Apple Watch in the future.

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Having said that, the future of the connected wrist watch is about so much more than reading the time. Apple and its competitors are clearly dedicating huge amounts of resources into trying to discover what other features will best resonate with consumers. Still, the Apple Watch is very much about simply being able to glance at it and read the time – in a way that is both convenient and useful – just like a “real watch.” In that regard, the Apple Watch doesn’t try to reinvent the concept of a “wrist wearable” but begins with the concept of a traditional watch and develops it from there by adding functionality and connectivity. At its heart, I truly feel that the Apple Watch began life as just that… a watch. I don’t necessarily feel that way for many of the currently available competitive products.

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Apple Watch Hands-On: The Wristwatch Just Caught Up To The 21st Century Hands-On

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Apple has not yet released a final version of the Apple Watch software, so there isn’t a final user interface experience for people outside of Apple to test. However, we more-or-less know exactly what the user interface of the Apple Watch is going to be like, and after experiencing it first-hand, I can assure you it is pretty good. Apple was really (and I mean really) concerned that the screen size of something on your wrist would be far too small to properly interact with. The irony of the Apple Watch release date was that in addition to Apple releasing perhaps its smallest screened item yet, it also released its largest iPhone screen with the iPhone 6 Plus. As you probably know by now, the Apple Watch combines both a touchscreen and a crown, along with an additional pusher on the case. The touchscreen is not multi-touch, but it does have a cool system that is able to differentiate between a short tap and a long press. This is really important in how you select and adjust various functions.

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Can you type into the Apple Watch or is there a keyboard? That is a good question, and the answer is no. The Apple Watch employs Apple’s Siri function, which is a powerful voice recognition system that allows you to operate many of the Apple Watch’s features just by talking to it – we have also seen voice activation incorporated into Android Wear, Google’s operating system that is tailored specifically for wearable devices. The Apple Watch also has a speaker built into it (in addition to the microphone). So speaking naturally to your wrist is going to be a lot more common in the coming years. This means that you can have a phone call with your Apple Watch, if you choose, and you can also listen to messages or watch videos on it.

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While an iPhone can live without an Apple Watch, all Apple Watches must have a host iPhone. None of this is because Apple is trying to make extra money by selling people two products: it is because the technology does not yet exist to allow for smartwatches to seriously live on their own and offer all the functionality of a phone and then some (yes, there are “stand alone” smartwatches, but in my experiences, none of them are particularly good or highly recommended by critics). However, that doesn’t mean that the Apple Watch cannot be away from your phone for periods of time.

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Apple actually made clever use of the Apple Watch’s relationship with the iPhone. Apple Watch users will install an Apple Watch app on their iPhone, which will be used to download apps onto the watch as well as likely manage Apple Watch settings. A user’s iPhone is also used to help with computational demands. Apple cleverly pushes a lot of processor needs to the phone in order to preserve Apple Watch battery life. Thus, the Apple Watch is snappier, with longer battery life because a lot of tasks can be off-loaded to the host phone. Having said that, aside from installing apps, most things can be done from the watch itself (such as adjust settings, customize the interface, select watch dials, switch apps, etc…).

Apple Watch Hands-On: The Wristwatch Just Caught Up To The 21st Century Hands-On

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I’ve seen some terrible $400 watches and some rather amazing ones. Watch lovers know that you can’t always equate a specific price to a specific expected level of quality. Part of that has to do with economies of scale, meaning that lower production watches often have to charge more for less. This is something Apple does not need to worry about. In fact, given Apple’s likely huge production of Apple Watches, consumers should be able to acquire amazingly feature-rich watches for prices highly uncommon in the watch industry. So with that said, I think it is important to state here and now, that for the money, the Apple Watch is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

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Going up the price ladder, the Apple Watch is still a viable competitor to existing traditional watches. What Apple did that was interesting, was to not only take inspiration from the traditional watch industry, but to improve upon some things. A good example is how they measure their watches. The 42mm Apple Watch (there is also a 38mm version) is measured from top to bottom (height as a function of lug-to-lug distance). In the watch industry, the basic measurement of a case is width, not height. Apple knows this, but ultimately decided to designate the “size” of their watches by height, but not width. Why?

Apple confirmed that there was an internal debate about this. Some people wanted to go with the traditional way of describing a watch’s size, while others said that what was more important to assess a good fit was the height of a watch – such that the edges of the case do not extend past the boundaries of one’s wrist. This is absolutely correct, and something I have been preaching for years. Apple decided that height was a better measurement, and thus decided to use that as a designation, arguably clarifying one of the more ambiguous areas of trying to size a watch without actually wearing it.

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Apple doesn’t have the best track record of producing durable products – as evidenced by anyone you know who had excessive wear on the sides of their iPhone or a cracked screen. These issues indicate that not even working with more high-quality and expensive materials, like aluminum, is a guarantee for greater durability. So where does that leave the Apple Watch? I don’t really know, to be honest, but I am told they have been designed to put up with one’s daily life. I assume that means they can be at least dropped from time-to-time.

The steel-cased Apple Watch with its sapphire crystal will likely be the most durable version, but having said that, the very light-weight Apple Watch Sport in aluminum feels surprisingly solid as well. None of these devices use Gorilla Glass like other Apple products, and they are said to be designed with “impact” in mind. From a fit-and-finish standpoint, they are built excellently – in a manner far removed from other Apple products. While the Apple Watch no doubt feels like something from Apple, it exists in a totally new class, when it comes to use of materials as well as the overall concept of what it even is. There has never been an iPhone designed with a strap for you wrist, nor was it meant to look good with a suit. The Apple Watch was. The various bracelets and straps are not only clever, but really comfortable. The Milanese mesh metal bracelet is “infinitely adjustable” thanks to having a secure magnetic clasp, which is similar to the leather strap that also uses magnets. Unless competitors quickly step up their game, at launch, the Apple Watch could easily make other smartwatches appear primitive by comparison.

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Apple Watch Hands-On: The Wristwatch Just Caught Up To The 21st Century Hands-On

 

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Fueled by an unshakable love for horology and a general curiosity for intricate things, Ariel Adams founded aBlogtoWatch in 2007 as a means of sharing his passion. Since then, ABTW has become the highest trafficked blog on luxury timepieces, and Ariel has become a contributor to other online publications such as Forbes, Departures and Tech Crunch, to name just a few. His conversational writing style and inclusive attitude brings a wider appreciation for watches the world over, and that's just the way he likes it.

Follow me on Google+ Ariel Adams

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