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A Year With Apple Watch

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I never considered myself to be someone who was that big into wearables, mainly because I always used my phone for everything. Want to send an email? Use the phone. Check the time? Use the phone. So when the Microsoft Band 2 came out, I quickly took advantage of an offer to get it.

Start of a habit #

The life with the Band was somewhat shortlived (and today you can no longer buy it outside eBay and Amazon) but what I realized is that I got into the habit of “gamifying” my active life. Now, the interesting part here is that I didn’t really care much for notifications or any other functionality, but I just love seeing how many steps I’ve taken in a given day, and what is my average heart rate. It got to the point where I would take my dog on extra walks just because I wanted to hit the 100% goal.

The switch #

As I was looking at different candidates for a wearable I can pick up, I’ve looked at both personal and online reviews, and realized that I want deep OS integration between the wearable and the mobile device that I am currently working with. With iPhone being my daily driver, the choice was relatively simple - Apple Watch 2.

At first, I really wanted to use it primarily for same physical activity tracking, but soon got accustomed to more functionality that became extremely helpful in the long run.

The initial experience #

The first steps, from unboxing to pairing, took a couple of tries. As stupid as it may sound, the original band that came with the watch was S (small) - after trying it on, it didn’t quite feel right on the wrist, so I quickly went on Amazon to see if I can pick up a larger strap. Little did I know that they had a size M/L (medium/large) right in the original box. Lucky for me, I have not yet made a purchase of an alternative band.

The pairing with the phone was somewhat not smooth due to the fact that the animation on the watch just did not do anything on the device. After a couple of attempts, I switched it to manual pairing and it worked.

Tracking #

As I mentioned earlier, I am very keen on tracking my physical activity so obviously the tracking functionality was the first thing that I tried.

Apple Watch circles

One of the interesting concepts Apple applied here is the “activity circles” - they are split in three core goals:

  • Active Calorie Goal - how many active calories you burn per day.
  • Excercise Goal - how many minutes of exercise per day you get.
  • Standing Goal - how many hours of minimal movement per day you get.

There might be some confusion overall with how the Apple Watch activity tracker works, because despite the names, the activity tracked might be somewhat different. This specifically relates to exercise and standing goals.

For an exercise ring to be “complete”, an individual doesn’t necessarily need to exercise in the common sense of the word - you don’t need to run to the gym and start lifting weights, or jump on a treadmill. Instead, anything that elevates your heart rate and is akin to a quick walk (at least) will count towards this goal.

Standing goal has the same terminology problem - it’s not really about standing as much as it is about physically moving during an hour of the day. There were multiple times where I would be at my standing desk for 1.5-2 hours at a time, and the watch would give me a notification that it was time for me to stand. Well, I was standing, and all it took for the hour to be counted is me head for a tea.

Once I got used to the actual meaning of individual rings, it became much easier to understand my realistic goals. Oh, and by the way - when you set up the Apple Watch, your goals will be inferred based on the information you provide the app, so each person, depending on factors such as age and weight, might end up with different targets.

Circles definitely made the tracking more fun and definitely more visibile - I set them as the watch face and at a glance I could see where I am through the day. This also helped me to quickly determine whether I am at the same activity point in the day as I was, say, yesterday.

Apps #

Probably the most underrated part of the experience are the apps that come with the phone and the watch, that enable stat analysis at-a-glance.

Activity #

Hands-down, my favorite part of the entire endeavor. The Activity app provides historical context to all tracked physical activities when the Apple Watch was worn. When you launch the app, you can right away see a per-day breakdown:

Apple Watch daily activity breakdown

It’s oddly fascinating to see how much I’ve counted towards my goals every day (and somewhat embarassing that I only closed the calorie ring once in the entire year). Clicking on individual days brings up all the information pertaining to activity happening on that date - hourly breakdowns for each ring, achievement snapshots and tracked workouts:

Apple Watch activity screenshots

It started becoming a habit to go and try to close the rings to the max every day - a walk to the park, walk to the store, pretty much do anything that would make the counter move in the clockwise direction.

In addition to that, I love the concept of tracked walks. Apple Watch has a built-in GPS sensor, which allows it to track my excursions around the city - via the built-in Workout app:

Apple Watch map and workout tracking

Just like with the circles, it became somewhat of a goal to explore new places around Seattle and see that reflected on the map. The watch uses GPS assist from your phone, when available, so that the mapped out route is as accurate as possible - but worry not, if you forget your main device at home, the watch can still track your approximate location (which sometimes might look like you’ve been running through someone’s house or across the highway).

Health #

The Health app is yet another great app that is bundled with iOS, that tracks a lot of the information that the Activity app already presents, but in a different format and with slightly different granularity:

Apple iOS health app

I absolutely love tracking my heart rate and step counts. And because I love data, I like to look at how it changes over time and what I can do to hit the goals better. The UI is easy to navigate and I can quickly change views, which is convenient because I tend to change views a lot - from monthly to yearly, and then back to daily.

The cons and neutrals #

There are not that many, and mostly these are just quirks that I learned about my own habits.

Notifications #

I went right out for the no notification rule - I disabled all notifications other than for iMessage and Facebook Messenger, the most used apps and those where my wife might need to find me on. Everything else can wait. Not Snapchat, or Instagram - all of that is off. It’s less distracting and you don’t develop Pavlov’s response to every single buzz.

Message replies #

These are pretty much useless to me. You can only reply with so many things, and instead of just using canned responses, I can just pick up my phone and reply. Sending the heart rate or reactions is neat and romantic, but to me is mostly a gimmick that I barely used.

Other apps #

Not going to lie, but I am yet to find an Apple Watch app that works fully, eliminating the need for the phone. There are just none. Why would I browse the Instagram feed on a tiny screen? If I am looking for my bank statement, I would rather open the phone app and check the transaction list. Seriously.

Things like Photos require an explicit sync between the phone and the watch (you can’t just look at your gallery). Most other apps are slow and take forever to sync with the phone. Some apps provide information that without broader context are close to useless. You get the idea.

Lock-in #

One of the big drawbacks here is the Apple lock-in. You can’t export health data in a way that can make it easy to import it. No, really - you need to purchase a third-party app to import previously exported data. This is a big pain point that I assume Apple will resolve, given that its competitors, such as Garmin, already do that. This was not a surprise, but I somwhat expected it to roll in sooner than later. So far - no dice.

Conclusion #

As an activity tracker, the Apple Watch gets a 3.5 out of 5 stars, due to lack of export/import capabilities - everything else is very much an extra to me with minimal value. It’s somewhat disappointing in this regard, especially for the price, as one would expect more premium features integrated in it, but alas. Time will tell whether by the time the current watch gives up, I will look for the next generation Apple wearable or seek greener pastures with more flexibility on the data.