A Year With the Apple Watch

Until a year ago, I don’t think I had worn a watch since high school, if not earlier. I was interested in an Apple Watch for nebulous reasons of “that looks kind of cool,” but I wasn’t going to buy a first-generation product. By the time the Series 3 came out, I was sorely tempted, but I held off until the beginning of 2019, when thanks to a gift card to B&H the price of a Series 4 was far more palatable.

My main interest in the Watch at that point was as a fitness device; while there are certainly cheaper fitness bands out there, the Apple integration with the Health app appealed to me, and I was dissuaded from some of the cheaper options by the experience of friends and family members burning through plastic FitBits at a rate that made an Apple Watch actually seem more cost-effective.

At the time I was working a remote job, and so my main interest with the Watch was having something to prod me into more activity. The Apple Watch’s Activity application, in particular, seemed like it fit right into an achievement-hunting and gamification strategy for success. But I still didn’t know if I would find the hassle of another device to charge and the cost of the device to really move the needle for me.

After a year with my Series 4, I can confidently say that I love the Apple Watch, and more importantly, it has made a difference to my day-to-day life, in ways both expected and totally unforeseen.

Since I’m not one to spend a ton of cash on items of unknown value (and B&H was selling White Apple Sport models for $15 less for whatever reason) I picked up a 40mm Apple Watch Sport in silver. I have small wrists, and when Apple unveiled the larger Series 4 case dimensions I was a bit concerned about not having a 38mm option. Overall, though, the 40mm fits me well without looking ridiculous.

The fit and finish of the Watch itself is still interesting to me. It’s the only Apple device I own I want to be thinner, but it sits far better on my wrist than I would have expected given its bulbous proportions. The ideal Apple Watch of multi-day battery life in a slim package still isn’t here, but with the Series 5 it’s inching closer (and I think Apple’s right to prioritize battery life and processing power over thickness at this point.)

Roughly half a year into owning my Series 4, I made an ill-advised decision to remove the watch in my bathroom, with the end result being a drop onto tile and a smashed corner and crack across the face of the Watch. This hasn’t resulted in any noticeable performance or display degradation (besides, you know, the crack across it) and I’ve lived with the cosmetic damage; really the only downside is I’m pretty sure the water resistance of the thing is shot, but that just means a little more consideration when it rains. Apple’s repair quotes for the screen (and the cost of doing it yourself) are ridiculous, and so I’ll keep running with the battle-scarred version I have until I eventually replace it.

Even before the smashed screen, however, I’d ended up with a fair few minor scratches across the watch face. Training my brain to walk around with a wristwatch again took longer than I expected, and I’m pretty sure the majority of the scratches were accumulated by just running into doors or walls with my wrist because I’d gotten used to being able to do that without consequence. The stainless steel or Edition models with their sapphire glass would probably have survived that damage, but on the other hand, they may have fared worse in the drop. Either way, I don’t think these devices are hardy enough (nor long-lived enough) at this point to make a more expensive watch worth it. When I was purchasing the Watch, there wasn’t really any question I’d get aluminum anyhow—leaving aside the cost, the stainless steel models felt like too much flash for a guy who doesn’t wear any jewelry otherwise. The Series 5’s titanium finish looks higher-end than the aluminum without tripping that flashy line for me, so in the future if that material sticks around, I might consider it.

As a fitness device, the Watch has absolutely served its purpose. I was averaging only around 6,100 steps a day in 2018. For 2019, I averaged 10,280, and ended this January with in excess of 11,000. The Watch prodding me to get up and move around a bit also helps get in more activity and sit a bit less. The achievement aspect especially proves a tremendous motivator; I’ve reached an unbroken streak of 380 Move goals, which enforces a much higher minimum amount of activity to my daily routine. That sort of push was not there just using my phone’s tracking capabilities. The other health aspects are a mixed bag. I turned off the Breathe notifications within a week, but the newer noise monitoring feature has been great whenever I’m out at a bar or concert. I do not have a large social circle using Apple Watches to compete against, but fortunately personal motivation works just fine.

More interesting has been the ancillary benefits of the Watch beyond its fitness functions. I would regularly miss notifications when out on a walk or placing my phone down in my apartment; the Apple Watch makes it much harder to not see notifications when I’m on the go. It’s also amazing how nice it is to be able to deal with some things from my wrist and not pull out my phone—especially things like calls from unknown numbers, or sending a quick voice message or acknowledgement thumbs-up to a text update that doesn’t need a substantial reply. These are saving just a few seconds at a time, but once you’re used to that convenience, it’s hard to let it go. The ability to send directions to my watch and have it quietly tap me where to go when I’m out walking so I’m not running around with my phone out is also a very nice benefit.

That said, there are some annoyances with the product. Battery life is of course always less than I’d like it to be, and I’d prefer a more slim look for my wrist, but many of my nitpicks come from software, not the hardware.

I’ve bounced between several different watch faces. WatchOS has added more options and ameliorated some of my concerns, but the jump between faces has less to do with a sense of style and more that no single Watch face does exactly what I want it to.

I appreciate the visual component to time-telling, so I’m an analog watch face guy. But the Simple and Utility faces have some deficiencies; the utility doesn’t let me fine-tune which numbers show up on the face as much as I want, and the Activity complication is stubbornly colorful in the corner. The Simple watch face banishes the color, but I’m left with two complications on the bottom which don’t provide as much information as the single one on Utility. Infograph now comes in a monochrome option, but its analog face is hard to read quickly with its very thin hour and minute ticks, and populating the complications just makes it feel like information overload. Recently I’ve settled on Meridian; while it still isn’t monochrome, it’s at least two-toned. The complications being in the middle of the watch face makes them a bit harder to read depending on where the hands are, but they are generally fuller-featured (the temperature complication gives me the high/low plus current temperature like Infograph, instead of just current temperature like Simple and Utility.) As part of the trade you get a more legible analog face that takes up the entire screen, which certainly looks much nicer and embraces the fact that the Apple Watch is square rather than pretending it’s round.

Still, this all screams for richer complication customization, and true custom or modular watch faces. It’d also be great to have a machine that feels more capable when away from the phone. But the Apple Watch has become one of my favorite gadgets, and I’m looking forward to Apple continuing to push the frontier of health.