Design

With a new form factor comes the need to deeply analyze design, and in the case of a smartwatch it really becomes more important than ever before. Like clothing, watches are deeply personal in a way that smartphones weren’t. The most immediate aspect of the Apple Watch is the size. I’ve used the Moto 360 before, and while I didn’t think it was too big for me, people with smaller wrists can look rather ridiculous wearing the Moto 360 or many other smartwatches. Even in the 42mm variant, the Apple Watch is surprisingly small for a smartwatch. The 38mm variant is definitely sized for people with smaller wrists.

Outside of height and width, the thickness of the watch is definitely a bit more than what one might expect from a regular watch, but it isn’t really all that noticeable due to the rounded curves of the casing. When looking at the display, the display’s cover glass also blends seamlessly into the metal case of the watch, which really looks impressive indoors, although the illusion is somewhat lost in strong sunlight as it becomes obvious where the display ends and the bezel begins. This really helps with analog watchfaces, but in practice I found I was never really bothered by rectangular watch displays. If anything, I’ve found round watch display to lack information density; round watch displays just aren’t pragmatic for general purpose computing.

In order to really give a sense of what the watch looks and feels like when it’s on the wrist, I’m going to start by assuming that most people will wear this watch on their left hand. This places the side button and digital crown on the right. If you read nothing else in this entire article, you should know that the digital crown is probably the best solution I’ve seen to the smartwatch input problem yet. The digital crown manages to have just the right amount of friction to the knob so input feels deliberate without being difficult. The notches that surround the crown really help with gripping the crown and improve the precision of input with the digital crown. Both the digital crown and side button have a solid, clicky action, but it’s probably not a surprise at this point given that Apple seems to consistently nail down details like button feel on their iPads and iPhones.

On the left side of the watch, the only notable interruptions are the speaker and microphone holes. As far as I can tell there’s only a single microphone hole, but it seems that Apple has some form of noise cancellation as background noise is generally well-muffled.

The top and bottom of the watch are just the attachment points for the bands of the watch, but from a design perspective this is probably one of the most crucial. The interchangeable bands work incredibly well because of just how easy it is to attach and detach bands. Attaching a band is as simple as matching with the slot and sliding it in, although it is possible to get it wrong by putting a band in upside-down. The fit and finish of both the Milanese loop and sport band that I received were both essentially perfect here, and the Milanese loop band has a glossy finish on the side that helps the band to blend in with the casing of the watch.

The bands themselves are probably the most important aspect of the Apple Watch's design. While Apple definitely hopes that users will be purchasing bands in addition to the one that comes with their watch, it's a safe bet that most users will be using the fluoroelastomer bands that ship with the Apple Watch Sport and the entry level Apple Watch and Apple Watch Edition models. Because the fluoroelastomer band ships with the Sport version of the watch and has to fit every wrist size the fluoroelastomer band actually is more like one and a half bands. Included in the package is the section of the strap with the metal pin, and two pieces of different lengths with holes in them. The longer one is meant for users with larger wrists, and the smaller one for users with smaller wrists.

As for the band itself, the feel of it can be difficult to describe. When they were first revealed, my initial thought was that they would have a somewhat firm and rubbery feel. It turns out that the bands are very flexible, and also very soft. The best description I could give is that it feels similar to the soft touch back of the black Nexus 5 and Nexus 9, but much smoother and very resistant to smudges. Water also tends to roll right off of it which makes it very well suited to fitness activities. Since it's not infinitely adjustable there's always a small mismatch between the size of the band and the size of your wrist, but there's not much that can be done to solve that with a pin and tuck design.

In the case of the Milanese loop, the infinitely adjustable design has basically solved the teething issues I have with wearing most watches. The band manages to deal with the issues I’ve always had with wristbands that always seemed to be either too tight or too loose. The fabric-like pattern of the metal links also helps to distribute pressure while allowing for ventilation, so I don’t feel the need to constantly take off the watch due to trapped sweat or some similar issue. It’s also easy to clean the metal bands if they get dirty, although I suspect the leather bands will be rather difficult to deal with in this regard. There is some potential to pinch hairs, but in my experience this is pretty unlikely and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve noticed this problem in the past few months. As a result, this is probably the only watch I’ve ever worn that is consistently comfortable regardless of weather conditions. Independent of how good the wearable is from a digital logic/software standpoint, I’ve noticed that these aspects of the design are far, far more crucial than anyone seems to notice. In the case of Apple Watch, the bands are pretty much as good as it gets.

Moving past the bands, the back of the watch is somewhat unremarkable. There’s a rounded crystal that houses the heart rate LEDs and sensors, and serves as an attachment point for the MagSafe wireless charger. In practice, the only notable issue here is that the crystal seems to act as a pressure point when wearing the Watch, but it’s likely that this is done to ensure proper contact for the heart rate monitor.

Overall, Apple has pretty much nailed the design of the watch. The controls are well-executed and placed in a pragmatic position, in a way that I haven’t really seen anyone else achieve yet. The only real objection I have to the design is that the stainless steel casing seems to be a magnet for small scratches. They’re tough to see in most conditions, but with strong lighting it becomes pretty obvious that it’s pretty easy to scratch the watch casing. I suspect the only solution here is to regularly buff out scratches from the casing like most any stainless steel watch. As for the Apple Watch Sport, the 7000 series aluminum seems to hold up to daily use without any sign of scratches or chips on the casing of the watch. At 25g and 30g for the 38mm and 42mm respectively it's also lighter than the 40g and 50g masses of the stainless steel models. Since the Sport edition uses Ion-X glass like the iPhone 6 instead of the Sapphire crystal of the normal Apple Watch and Apple Watch Edition, the display cover glass is much more susceptible to scratching. While I haven't encountered any scratches at this point, the sapphire glass editions will undoubtedly better stand the test of time.

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  • victorson - Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - link

    Oh hey, here's a newsflash: it's not nerd rage over Apple's success, it's nerd rage over unjustified worshipping of Apple products by the media. Reply
  • Buk Lau - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - link

    Josh, if possible I think it's better if you listed all the smartwatches that you have used in the conclusion.
    "For those still deciding on whether the first Apple Watch makes sense, I have no reservations in saying that it’s the best wearable I’ve ever used."
    This line, although if thought logically people would understand that you have used a limited number of devices out of the many, but upon first impression it can be a bit misleading given that there is no clear comparison that you are giving here.
    So I say if you want to clear things up more, you can list all or some smartwatches that you used in that sentence for a better expression. Just my 2 cents :D
    Reply
  • thomasguide - Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - link

    "the best wearable I’ve ever used" That's like saying you have the highest rated tv show on the Ovation network. Reply
  • lilo777 - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - link

    Unfortunately this review follows the very familiar pattern of the reviews for sub-par Apple products. When Apple device falls short on technical merits (no GPS, no 3/4G, mediocre battery life, nothing that would differentiate it from the cheaper - and in some cases better - competitors) the reviewers resort to praising the "experience" an "ecosystem". OK got it. The chore of charging you iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch daily now qualifies as a "great experience". And it's not like Apple makes your life easier offering wireless charging for iPhones and iPads. Other than that (or, sorry, as our beloved leader used to say: one more thing - no fast charging either) the experience is really great. Admittedly some people complained that with Apple Watch it was impossible to stand in lines over night but they will get used to it. Reply
  • deasys - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - link

    Surely you can do better than that, lilo777! For example, not only is the Apple Watch missing GPS, 3/4G, but what about a USB port, a video port for an external monitor, and a floppy disc slot! Yes, missing so much… Reply
  • lilo777 - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - link

    Apple apologists have a long history of denying usefulness of features that Apple devices lack only to be laughed at later when Apple eventually implements them: USB 3.0 in computers, barometers in smart phones, NFC, phablets, 7" tablets, ANT+, multi core processor for smart phones/tablets, 2GB RAM in smart pnones etc.

    But I can do better indeed. Here is an additional list of missing features in Apple Watch: Wi-Fi direct, blood oxygen censor.
    Reply
  • mrochester - Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - link

    That doesn't stop the Apple Watch from being great as it is now. The length of the feature list has little bearing on how good a device is. Reply
  • lilo777 - Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - link

    If that were true Apple would never add a new feature but they do. They do deny the usefulness of the features their devices lack at first (remember the infamous Steve Jobs' statement about 7" tablets: "It's meaningless unless your tablet includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of their present size." ) then they implement them. I understand why many people get fooled by Apple PR but I do expect better from AT readers. Reply
  • beggerking@yahoo.com - Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - link

    agreed.

    i've owned several Android watch phones over the years and all of them have longer battery life, micro sd, and are FULL functional phones costing hundreds less.

    the reviewer is simply naive of whats been going on in the watch phone industry.
    Reply
  • CGHMARTINI - Tuesday, July 21, 2015 - link

    Thanks for the review.
    Things I learned here exclusively were details on the chip and on the display.
    Things you added valuable details to were App integration and watch face customization.
    The valuable thing I learned elsewhere was the annoying lag when the watch wakes up.
    I also learned valuable stuff from the comments of Watch Owners, so I'd really appreciate the possibility of downrating trolls.
    All in all I'll wait for another iteration - but then I'll buy it. By then I expect it to have, apart from the obvious:
    - fluent IoT / smart home commander functionality
    - medical condition alert escalation
    - bio & sleep cycle based alarm clock functionality
    - a lot more contextual awareness (my major reason to buy Apple over Google/Android is their design, a close second is that they are the only one that I trust not to barter my data to NSA, Insurance, Bank, Employer)

    I'm already looking forward to the next big thing: AR !
    Reply

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