Apple Watch: It’s not called the iWatch

The Apple Watch, announced at Apple’s September 2014 Keynote, is surprisingly in many ways. Breaking away completely from it’s one-size-fits-all philosophy with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple released the Watch in two case sizes – 38mm and 42mm, both of which can be configured to work on either your left or your right wrist. And it doesn’t stop there – there’s more than 20 variants listed on the Apple website in different colours and materials, including Stainless Steel, Aluminum, a fluoroelastomer version that comes in five different colors, and even 18-Karat Yellow Gold and Rose Gold. There’s a ton of customisable watchfaces, too, and you can swap between them from within the watch. (Including, I noticed, a quirky Mickey Mouse face inspired by the classic Disney-Ingersoll children’s watches popular in the 40’s and 50’s.) Apple’s made it clear – your Apple Watch is going to be your Apple Watch, and you’re going to look good wearing it.

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The interface, designed by a team lead by none other than Apple’s VP for design, Jony Ive, has a number of nifty features for interacting with a 1.5 inch display, the most interesting of which is the Digital Crown. It’s a small rotatable button that lets you zoom, scroll, and select things with a lot more precision than would be possible otherwise without obscuring the screen. You can also push it like a button to return to the Home screen, just like in an iPhone.

Taking a page from Motorola’s book, the watch display is activated when it detects a raise of your wrist, and you can say “Hey, Siri” and start speaking voice commands. You can also press and hold the Digital Crown to dictate messages. There isn’t nearly enough screen real estate for a keyboard to make sense, so the Watch relies on a combination of dictation and Smart Replies for textual input. A new feature called Glances offers quickly readable ‘glances’ at important notifications and is only a swipe away from the home screen. Apple also designed a custom font for the Watch to be easily readable at arm’s length, as Google had done with Roboto for phones. The font has a lot of the wide characters and curves of Helvetica, but manages to be a bit friendlier and legible at smaller sizes.

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Another interesting concept is the force-sensitive touchscreen, which in addition to recognizing touch, senses force. This adds a new dimension of context to the user interface – a tap and a press are treated differently, somewhat like a right click and left click on a mouse. Apple’s also shown a bit of it’s romantic side with the Watch’s somewhat gimmicky, but cute ability to instantly send your contacts your heartbeat, quick drawings (shown in the introductory video with a cutesy ‘I ❤ U’ message) and tap messages that they will feel on their wrist with the help of haptic feedback powered by the ‘Taptic Engine’. You’ll also feel a gentle tap when you receive an incoming message, which can be more convenient than another beeping/buzzing device to constantly listen out for.

The Apple Watch could do for fitness what the iPod did for music – make everything else before it seem completely obsolete. The Watch, which it’s gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS and heart-rate sensor gives you a comprehensive picture of your all-day physical activity, and measures both the quality and quantity of your movement. The Activity app has three rings that measure how much you move, exercise and stand. It then automatically establishes, and sets goals for you to keep, which you can later adjust. It also has periodic reminders and encouragement in the form of virtual awards, allowing you to gamify your exercise schedule.

All of this is fairly standard, but all this information then gets plugged into the Health app in iOS 8. This is where things get interesting, as third-party apps will then be able to tap into this data, letting you use all the information you are constantly generating in ways beyond what Apple dreamt up.

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Coming early 2015, the Apple Watch is a well designed, nifty little device. Is it better than the Android competition? In a lot of ways, yes. It does mostly the same things as Android Wear, just a little bit better, and with the finesse and attention to detail only Apple can seem to carry off.

Smartwatches as a whole, though, haven’t yet reached a point where all that they do, apart from the fitness tracking bits, is actually of too much use. Notifications are all well and good, but do we really need a remote control for our phones? Marketing it as a fashion accessory helps justify it’s existence, but Jony Ive’s bold statements about Switzerland’s watch industry needing to worry are a little optimistic – it looks cool, but it’s not replacing a Rolex or a Cartier anytime soon. The Apple Watch will sell by the millions when it comes out. A lot of people will want it. A lot of people will use it. I, however, still really don’t see why anyone would need it.

Gyan Lakhwani is a freelance graphic designer, geek and a part-time ninja (only on Wednesdays). You can find him on the internet, procrastinating and being distracted by cats.

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