Apple Watch review: Pricier than the competition, but this is one superb smartwatch
The Apple Watch is a brilliant, highly capable smartwatch - the only downside is that you have to have an iPhone to use one
Reviewing first-generation Apple products is one of the trickiest things a journalist can do, and the Apple Watch is a perfect example of why. After a look at the specs, the price and the features, you end up giving it a mediocre review, because on the face of it competing products simply offer more.
Then Apple promptly sells millions of them, sets the agenda for the rest of the tech industry, and you end up looking like an idiot for missing what looks – with hindsight – perfectly obvious.
Just as the iPad Pro isn’t the first supersized tablet, the Apple Watch isn’t the first smartwatch by a long way. With the Gear S2, Samsung is already on its fifth generation of smartwatch, and plenty of other models from LG, Huawei and Sony are available to buy - many at knock-down prices.
But just like the original iPad, the Apple Watch has waded in and set the tone, and it's already pushing on in terms of numbers sold. Although Apple is remaining tight-lipped itself about sales figures, industry experts at analysts Canalys pegged sales at more than seven million units since launch in a report issued in November 2015, while other estimates set that number at nearly 12 million.
That's a huge number: more than any other smartwatch vendor already, and especially impressive given the comparatively expensive price. I looked at the 38mm “Space Grey” Apple Watch Sport for this review, which is the cheapest version available, yet it still costs a premium price of £299. Opt for a different model, and the price ramps up even further.
Choose the larger 42mm version of the Sport, for instance, and you’ll pay £339. Go up a level to the steel Apple Watch, and it will cost you up to £949 depending on your strap. If you’re rich enough to even consider the Apple Watch Edition, you probably won’t care that it costs from £8,000 to £12,000.
Apple Watch: Hardware and design
Whatever price you pay, you’re going to get roughly the same Watch. The only differences are the materials used for the case and the screen while the larger 42mm model gets a slightly bigger battery.
The Sport uses anodised aluminium for the case and scratch-resistant glass for the screen. The next models up swap to hardened stainless steel and a sapphire crystal, and the Edition takes things up a notch to a unique-to-Apple 18-karat gold.
In fact, there are now more choices than ever. During Apple’s 9 September event in 2015, alongside the iPhone 6s and iPad Pro, the company announced brand-new finishes for the Apple Watch Sport, including an anodised rose gold and a standard gold finish, and the rumours are that it's set to do the same thing at its March 21 event.
Apple has also announced a strap collaboration with the renowned fashion house, Hermès. Using brown leather, synonymous with the marque, the straps also come complete with a dedicated Hermès watch face. The cheaper Single Tour band will set you back a hefty £1,000, the Double Tour version costs £1,150 while the Hermes Cuff is even more expensive at £1,350.
In the far east, Apple also announced a special edition celebrating the Chinese New Year, all decked out in red and gold.
As with most of Apple’s products, however, the result of the company’s attention to detail and manufacturing prowess means that even the most basic model feels like it’s been put together with a lot of care.
It’s one of the few smartwatches I’d wear not simply for its technology, but because it looks great. Putting it next to the original Motorola Moto 360, for example, makes the Android Wear device look chunky and old-fashioned, despite there not being a huge amount of difference in thickness. Design is all about details, and whether you love them or loathe the firm, you have to acknowledge this is something Apple has mastered.
The Apple Watch has only two physical controls. The first – a plain button – simply brings up a list of your favourite contacts, allowing you to quickly place a call or send a text message (there are several Watch-specific kinds of communication, which I’ll come back to shortly).
The other control is much more interesting and ends up as the heart of how you work with the Apple Watch. The “Digital Crown” looks and feels like a normal crown used to wind up a mechanical watch or adjust the time. On the Apple Watch, you rotate it to scroll up and down lists of content on screen; press it to take you back to the watch face or app homescreen; or press and hold it to invoke Siri.
The insight behind it is simple: on a small screen, if you have to use your finger to scroll through content, you obstruct the screen. Rather than using your finger to scroll (which is an option), you should use the Digital Crown instead.
If you’ve used a smartwatch before, this takes some getting used to. I had to spend a couple of days reminding myself not to scroll onscreen with my finger, but once I got used to the idea the Digital Crown was incredibly useful, allowing me to see and do more on the Watch.
The screen itself is a high-quality AMOLED display, and perfectly readable in sunlight. Despite wearing glasses and being old enough that I need to squint occasionally when reading things, I found it perfectly comfortable. The resolution is 272 x 340 on the 38mm model, and 312 x 390 on the 42mm, which is to say perfectly sharp at normal viewing distances.
And, like the trackpad on the 12in MacBook and 13in MacBook Pro, the Apple Watch screen incorporates Force Touch. Tap on the screen to do one thing. Tap and press harder, and it appears as if you’re pressing through the screen – a weird feeling at first, but one that you very quickly get used to. This is used in apps to show additional options, such as dismissing all your alerts.
On the back of the Watch, you’ll find the sensors for checking your heart rate. Heart-rate checking is, in theory, continuous. In practice, in order to save power, the Watch only checks your heart rate every few minutes unless you’re explicitly exercising. I compared the Watch’s heart-rate claims by checking my pulse manually, and found they were accurate to within a handful of beats per minute.
Setting up the Apple Watch is one of those experiences only Apple could create. There’s no fiddling with Bluetooth pairing. Once it starts up, the new Apple Watch shows an animation on its screen and you simply point your phone’s camera at it. It then pairs for you; you never have to do anything else.