The tech world, at least, is eagerly awaiting the debut of the Apple Watch, a new category of device from a company so profitable that the market values it twice as highly as Exxon Mobil, a company that extracts liquid money from the ground.
And today, the Apple media machine began revving its engine. A hand-picked selection of reviewers got to wear the watch for a week, and today, their reviews all went up at the exact same time. Each review is big, befitting the importance of the launch, running into the many thousands of words. These reviews won't change hearts or minds about the watch. If you were going to buy one before, a mediocre or negative review won't change that. If you weren't going to buy the watch, nothing in these write-ups will sell you.
But some fascinating themes emerge. One, the watch's build quality, its look-and-feel, and all of the other industrial design details are as good as any device on the market. Two, this is the best smartwatch available today. Three: man, is this thing a first-generation product.
The messaging layer of the watch—with its animated emojis, little drawings, voice messages, and heartbeat-o-grams—is a disappointment. The reviewers most attuned to the intricacies of communication systems seem unimpressed, counting its features as me-too add-ons in the world of WhatsApp and Snapchat. The workout features, too, are considered to be mostly disappointing. Heartbeat tracking is erratic. And if you do anything aside from basic aerobic training, it performs as poorly as other fitness trackers.
The one area of real disagreement among reviewers is whether the Apple Watch is a wrist-bound distraction, or whether it helps you keep your phone in your pocket and your mind engaged with the people around you. Apple has leaned in to the idea that the watch will make users less distracted, not more. And some reviewers, like the Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler, thought it helped. Others, like Bloomberg Business's Joshua Topolsky, found the opposite.
After reading all these reviews, it does not seem clear to me that the Apple Watch does anything all that well, and yet, the mere promise that it could evolve into the first mainstream wearable makes me want to buy it. Because the watch's current failings raise some of the most interesting questions in technology: How do you make a tiny user interface work? How good can we a battery be made? How do you communicate with people without text? Can devices make us healthier? What role will our phones play in our lives? How will computers work on our bodies?
Apple is trying to figure out all of these things at once.
And now, here are your tl;dr reviews of the reviews:
Recode's Lauren Goode: The watch is a slick extension of your phone that will change your life, however incrementally.
Key excerpt: "From a technology standpoint, it is an extension of the iPhone. And just like the smartphone, it starts to change your habits over time. It’s swiping through pictures of family on your wrist, seeing your heart rate spike when you’re watching an exciting game, and getting a glimpse of a message when you’re rushing between classes or meetings. It’s trying really, really hard not to look at your wrist when you’re in the middle of a meeting. In our new world of too-many-devices, it somehow becomes the second thing you reach for when you roll out of bed."
The Verge's Nilay Patel: The watch is too slow to defeat your phone in the battle for your attention.
Key excerpt: "There’s no getting around it, no way to talk about all of its interface ideas and obvious potential and hints of genius without noting that sometimes it stutters loading notifications."
Bloomberg Business's Joshua Topolsky: The watch is the best available, but also just another distraction machine.
Key excerpt: "Isn’t the promise of the Apple Watch to help me stay in the moment, focused on the people around me and undisturbed by the mesmerizing void of my iPhone? So why do I suddenly feel so distracted?"
New York Times Farhad Manjoo: The watch is a flawed first-generation device, but it's a thrilling new way to interact with the digital world.
Key excerpt: "What’s most thrilling about the Apple Watch, unlike other smartwatches I’ve tried, is the way it invests a user with a general sense of empowerment."
Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern: Sure, the watch doesn't do much that other devices can't do, but you'll actually keep wearing the watch.
Key Excerpt: "I know what you’re thinking: Can’t I just buy a $150 fitness tracker for that? Sure, but it might end up in a drawer. The Apple Watch succeeds where the fitness trackers have failed. Not only does it provide more accurate data and a platform with big promise, but it’s an accessory I love to wear all day long."
Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler: The watch is an excellent new screen in your life, and helps you check your phone less.
Key excerpt: "I’ve found the Apple Watch isn’t a replacement for the iPhone, but it’s the right screen for many important things. I only look at it in blips, for rarely more than five seconds. It shows me the weather with one finger swipe. It gets physical, gently tapping my wrist when something important needs my attention and lighting up when I lift my arm to look. It nudges when I’ve been sitting too long."
Mashable's Lance Ulanoff: Actually, this thing is amazing.
Key excerpt: "I didn’t expect to like the Apple Watch. But I didn’t expect to dislike it either. I feared my reaction would be meh. That would’ve been a shame because I believe in wearables and have been pulling for a breakout star. The Apple Watch is that breakout star. It’s gorgeous, smart, fun, extensible, expensive (a plus if you want to telegraph luxury and excellence) and an object of true desire."
CNET's Scott Stein: What a nice toy!
Key excerpt: "If you're curious where Apple is going next and have $350-$400 to spend, the entry-level Apple Watch might be fun to explore. Everyone else, I'd wait and see how the apps shape up, how the kinks get worked out, whether any software updates help with battery life. There's a lot more time to decide."
USA Today's Edward Baig: It's a good smartwatch, but there's a UI learning curve.
Key excerpt: "It may take you a couple of days to get reasonably comfortable using the watch, especially getting the pressure sensitivity thing down. I sometimes needed to tap more than once or more precisely. You sometimes get tactile feedback."
Recode's Bonnie Cha on 3rd party apps: The current crop of apps is pretty limited, although the local info apps are useful.
Key excerpt: "For this first wave of third-party smartwatch apps, Apple also has some strict guidelines in place on what developers can and cannot do, and which Apple Watch features they can access. For example, custom sounds and “taptic” feedback are not allowed, and access to the heart-rate sensor is prohibited. Part of the reason is to provide Apple Watch users with a simple user experience."