Smartwatches

Apple Watch review: Elegant, delightful ... and completely optional

Apple Watch review: Elegant, d...
Is the long-rumored Apple Watch worth a spot on your wrist? Gizmag reviews Apple's first smartwatch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Is the long-rumored Apple Watch worth a spot on your wrist? Gizmag reviews Apple's first smartwatch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Is the long-rumored Apple Watch worth a spot on your wrist? Gizmag reviews Apple's first smartwatch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Is the long-rumored Apple Watch worth a spot on your wrist? Gizmag reviews Apple's first smartwatch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Waiting for the Apple Watch to set itself up (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Waiting for the Apple Watch to set itself up (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Digital Crown pays homage to traditional watches by letting you scroll and zoom by twisting (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Digital Crown pays homage to traditional watches by letting you scroll and zoom by twisting (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Apple's three-ringed approach to glanceable fitness data (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Apple's three-ringed approach to glanceable fitness data (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
You can choose Mickey as your default watch face, if you like (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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You can choose Mickey as your default watch face, if you like (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch Sport may be the cheapest, but the Space Gray version we handled doesn't feel cheap at all – even with its rubber band (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch Sport may be the cheapest, but the Space Gray version we handled doesn't feel cheap at all – even with its rubber band (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch might be able to last two days if you wanted it to, but it's best to charge every night just to be safe (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch might be able to last two days if you wanted it to, but it's best to charge every night just to be safe (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch isn't going to change your life the way the iPhone and even iPad did, but it's still a fun new device – and the best smartwatch yet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch isn't going to change your life the way the iPhone and even iPad did, but it's still a fun new device – and the best smartwatch yet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Profile of a worn Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Profile of a worn Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch's screen stays off until you lift your wrist to look at it (or tap to turn it on) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch's screen stays off until you lift your wrist to look at it (or tap to turn it on) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Space gray Apple Watch Sport (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Space gray Apple Watch Sport (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch we handled costs $400 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch we handled costs $400 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The fluoroelastomer band of the Apple Watch Sport (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The fluoroelastomer band of the Apple Watch Sport (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum finish, while the more expensive Apple Watch (no suffix) uses stainless steel (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum finish, while the more expensive Apple Watch (no suffix) uses stainless steel (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Music control widget ("glance") on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Music control widget ("glance") on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch's heart rate sensor (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch's heart rate sensor (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
A bogus update telling us we've been standing all day long (we were sitting most of the time) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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A bogus update telling us we've been standing all day long (we were sitting most of the time) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch is a pleasure to use (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch is a pleasure to use (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
One of the default watch faces (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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One of the default watch faces (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Taking a heart rate measurement on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Taking a heart rate measurement on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
An outstretched Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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An outstretched Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Though it isn't trying to look like a standard watch, the Apple Watch is sharp-looking – and much smaller than Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Though it isn't trying to look like a standard watch, the Apple Watch is sharp-looking – and much smaller than Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch is available to order now, though it's backordered (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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The Apple Watch is available to order now, though it's backordered (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
App load times are one of the blemishes on this first-generation Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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App load times are one of the blemishes on this first-generation Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Apple Watch (left) with the Moto 360, one of its chief Android Wear rivals (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
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Apple Watch (left) with the Moto 360, one of its chief Android Wear rivals (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

After more than two years' worth of rumors, the Apple Watch is finally here. As the company's most closely-watched launch in five years, can it follow the Sasquatch-sized footprints of the iPod, iPhone and iPad? Join Gizmag, as we review the Apple Watch.

In terms of innovation, the Apple Watch is more like the iPod than it is the iPhone or iPad. The iPhone was (and is) Apple's most important product. It was like nothing else before it, pulling us all into the world of mobile multitouch that we live in today, one curious shopper at a time.

Three years later, the iPad took that same interface and adapted it to a much bigger, more immersive display.

At launch, both were without peers.

The Apple Watch isn't going to change your life the way the iPhone and even iPad did, but it's still a fun new device – and the best smartwatch yet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch isn't going to change your life the way the iPhone and even iPad did, but it's still a fun new device – and the best smartwatch yet (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

But the Apple Watch? Like the iPod, it doesn't really do much that its competitors weren't already doing. It just squeezes it all into a smaller and more elegant package.

That analogy only goes so far, though, because the quality and design gap between the Apple Watch and the best smartwatches to come before it is much smaller than the gap between the first iPod and its clunky predecessors. Wear watches are far from perfect, but they're infinitely better as smartwatches than the Creative Nomad and Diamond Rio ever were as MP3 players.

An outstretched Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
An outstretched Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Apple Watch is a delightful smartwatch that's a ton of fun to use. Of all the wearables we've handled (and we've handled quite a few), the Apple Watch is the most refined and human-oriented, as well as the easiest to fall in love with.

Apple squeezed its wearable tech into a smaller body than we've seen from any of the Android Wear or Samsung Gear watches. It's actually the closest in size to Pebble Steel, which has a black & white, non-touch display and primitive processing power. It's quite the feat that Apple crammed some pretty advanced tech into a casing that's around the same size as Pebble's barebones watch.

Apple Watch (left) with the Moto 360, one of its chief Android Wear rivals (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Apple Watch (left) with the Moto 360, one of its chief Android Wear rivals (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Apple Watch isn't trying to look like a regular timekeeping watch, but the fact that it's as small as one makes all the difference. We find this approach to work a little better than watches like the Moto 360 (above, with the Apple Watch) or Asus ZenWatch, which look a bit more like standard watches than the Apple Watch does, but are also noticeably bigger.

... and keep in mind that we're only handling the 42 mm Apple Watch, which is the bigger model. The 38 mm model stretches that size gap between it and Android Wear watches even farther. The Apple Watch is the first smartwatch that women with smaller wrists can wear without looking like Dick Tracy's awkward twin sister.

The Apple Watch Sport may be the cheapest, but the Space Gray version we handled doesn't feel cheap at all – even with its rubber band (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch Sport may be the cheapest, but the Space Gray version we handled doesn't feel cheap at all – even with its rubber band (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Apple Watch Sport that we're using is the entry-level model, but it doesn't feel cheap at all. Its aluminum body looks and feels smooth, and its fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) band is, somewhat paradoxically, a rubber watch strap that actually feels pretty high-end. If you were thinking about paying a few hundred bucks more for the stainless steel Apple Watch, mostly out of fear that the Sport is "the cheap one," then don't worry. We think this space gray Apple Watch Sport looks very sharp.

Apple is all about simplicity, so you'd expect its smartwatch software to be the simplest, right?

Well, not this time. Apple's "Watch OS" actually has the most complex wearable interface we've used, with its user interface and input methods requiring a bit of a learning curve. Unlike an iPhone or iPad, this isn't something that a child can pick up and just "get" within a minute or two.

Music control widget ("glance") on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Music control widget ("glance") on the Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Though the Watch is more complex than we'd (historically speaking) expect from Apple, it's every bit as intuitive as you'd expect. After learning the software layout and different ways of interacting with the watch (this took all of half an hour), we realized how naturally it was all laid out.

While that slight complexity the first time you put it on may be surprising to Apple Watch buyers, it also gives developers more ways for users to interact with their apps. Once everyone learns how to use the Apple Watch (trust us, it won't take long), and developers get some time to cut their teeth on it, there's a lot that we'll be able to do on these tiny screens. More so than other wearable operating systems, Watch OS feels like an exciting new frontier.

That's because the Apple Watch doesn't rely solely on a touchscreen and a button or two. It has the touchscreen and it has two physical buttons, but it also has a second, never-before-seen way of touching your screen, known as Force Touch, along with the winding "Digital Crown" you see below.

The Digital Crown pays homage to traditional watches by letting you scroll and zoom by twisting (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Digital Crown pays homage to traditional watches by letting you scroll and zoom by twisting (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Here's a quick breakdown of all the different ways you can interact with the Apple Watch:

  • regular touchscreen input is still the first way of getting around: you know, taps and swipes like you'd use on any smartphone or tablet
  • pressing down farther on the touchscreen activates a "Force Click" – a secondary touch that often brings up menus or other options (also seen on Apple's latest MacBooks)
  • pressing the Digital Crown (again, that's the winder on the watch's top right side) serves as a back button and shortcut to your apps screen
  • twisting the Digital Crown lets you scroll up and down lists and messages, as well as zoom in and out of your app collection and images
  • double-pressing the Digital Crown jumps to your most recent app
  • long-pressing the Digital Crown starts Siri
  • single-pressing the lower right side button jumps to a list of your favorite contacts for easy messaging
  • double-pressing that messaging button activates Apple Pay

That's eight different input methods, all on a teeny-tiny device with only a screen and two physical buttons. So while the Apple Watch's UI might not be the simplest from the moment you pick it up, it still does more with less than any other wearable we've used. Once you learn the ropes, this is the most advanced and intuitive smartwatch OS today.

The last thing to note about that learning curve is that it isn't a chore. On the contrary, we found it to be a fun process of discovery. The first time I felt an alert "tapping" my wrist (as opposed to the motor-like buzzing you'll find on other smartwatches) I was reminded that Apple still gets the whole human touch thing better than any other tech company.

You can choose Mickey as your default watch face, if you like (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
You can choose Mickey as your default watch face, if you like (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Apple Watch has a gorgeous display. It isn't alone in this respect, as rivals like the Samsung Gear S, Asus ZenWatch and LG G Watch R also have great-looking AMOLED screens (technically P-OLED for LG's). But we would put the Apple Watch's Retina Display at the top of that group. It has a satisfying blend of rich colors, sharpness (302 pixels per inch, which looks very crisp at a typical watch-viewing distance) and color balance.

So what do you do with an Apple Watch? The answer to that doesn't differ much from other smartwatches. Like Android Wear and Samsung Gear, Apple's Watch centers around things like notifications, reminders, voice control and fitness tracking. The common theme is that it's all glanceable and easily digestible.

A smartwatch isn't meant to be a fully immersive device. Instead, it's something you use in short little bursts, often while you're on the move or in the middle of doing something. It replaces the habitual whipping out of your phone.

Think of all the things you'd do on a smartphone. Now subtract all of the things that you'd also do on a tablet. What you have left should be a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that work well on a smartwatch. It's the quick-access kinds of tasks – checking alerts, sending a quick message, looking at the forecast, getting directions, etc. – now living on your wrist.

The Apple Watch is a pleasure to use (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch is a pleasure to use (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

As you might expect, the Apple Watch is launching with a much better selection of third-party apps than Android Wear or Samsung Gear's Tizen did. In fact, Watch OS might already have a better library than those two do right now – and both of those platforms launched in early to mid-2014.

Why all the app love? Well, developers don't have to second-guess whether the Apple Watch will sell, and they know iPhone owners aren't afraid to spend money (as evidenced by iOS app spending). Fair or not, the Apple Watch is the first smartwatch to have a damn solid selection of apps on Day One.

Some of the early highlights include Uber (calling a car from your wrist is pretty convenient), Amazon, Philips Hue, Shazam (for some reason Android Wear still doesn't have a song ID feature) and, if you're into social media, Twitter.

There is, however, one big problem with running apps on the Apple Watch: most of them are slow as molasses to load. We're talking "pick up a smartphone from four years ago and use it with today's apps" slow. Many apps – both from Apple and third-party developers – make you stare at a loading screen for as much as five or six seconds before they start. In the world of today's speedy mobile devices, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

App load times are one of the blemishes on this first-generation Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
App load times are one of the blemishes on this first-generation Apple Watch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Once they're loaded, they're as zippy as they need to be. And those Glances (widgets or cards) that live below the main clock face don't take any time to load.

Of course we can look forward to a second-generation Apple Watch that will have a faster processor. Maybe Apple will even be able to push some software updates that will help to cut down on the problem in this first-gen Watch.

But for now, app loading times can be a big annoyance in what's otherwise a very smooth and airtight experience. Especially when you're on the go and trying to do something quickly, you don't want to wait five seconds to use an app (first-world problem, yes, but for a device that starts at US$350 and runs as high as $17,000, it's disappointing).

Apple's three-ringed approach to glanceable fitness data (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
Apple's three-ringed approach to glanceable fitness data (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Watch shows you your fitness details in a handy little graphic that, like the Watch's software as a whole, seems complex at first glance, but then turns out to be a more economical way of doing things.

Three nested rings, with different colors, denote your progress towards your daily goals of standing time (hours in which you've stood for at least one minute), exercise time and calories burned. Once you learn which ring means what, it's a more glanceable way of keeping tabs on your fitness – and one that doesn't clutter up your screen with a bunch of numbers.

The Apple Watch might be able to last two days if you wanted it to, but it's best to charge every night just to be safe (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch might be able to last two days if you wanted it to, but it's best to charge every night just to be safe (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Battery life is good, and not too far off the pace of the longest-lasting Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches. On a 16-hour day with moderate use, it usually ends the day with nearly 50 percent battery left. We recommend following Apple's advice and charging daily no matter what, but as long as you do that, you shouldn't have any problems.

The Apple Watch's charging mechanism is pretty elegant (though the Moto 360's wireless charging is still the best approach we've seen). Hold the Apple Watch's magnetic charging nub near the back of the device and it will snap into place. And if that doesn't work for you, third-party accessory makers are already churning out charging stands to hang your Apple Watch on at the end of the day.

The Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum finish, while the more expensive Apple Watch (no suffix) uses stainless steel (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch Sport has an aluminum finish, while the more expensive Apple Watch (no suffix) uses stainless steel (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

The Apple Watch is a new frontier in wearables, one that's enjoyable to use on Day One and will only get better as developers continue to cut their teeth on it.

Do you need an Apple Watch? Of course not. It doesn't do much that your smartphone won't already do. It just does it a little more conveniently. After a decade or so full of flourishes of innovation in the mobile world – digital music players, smartphones and tablets – we're now to the point where the latest and greatest devices don't really change our lives so much as they remove a step or two from the process. In this case, that step is whipping out your phone.

Smartphones changed everything, putting multitouch computers in our pockets. Tablets then created a new middle-ground product that was more immersive than a phone but more handheld than a laptop. But what do wearables do? They just take all the things we're already doing, and give us slightly easier access to them.

That has value, but it also makes sense that smartwatches have been slow to catch on. Though they're fun, convenient and – in some cases – fashionable, they aren't going to make an enormous difference in your life. The Apple Watch, at least right now, is no exception.

The Apple Watch's screen stays off until you lift your wrist to look at it (or tap to turn it on) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)
The Apple Watch's screen stays off until you lift your wrist to look at it (or tap to turn it on) (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

But that doesn't mean there isn't a place for smartwatches. First, this stuff can be fun: the joy of using a well-designed new gadget, along with a little bit of convenience, may be all the justification you need. And as the app ecosystem grows, and as connected home ("internet of things") types of devices expand, we may actually get to the point where we "need" smartwatches – even if they're just an expensive luxury right now.

We won't pretend to know whether a smartwatch is a wise purchase for you today. But we can recommend the Apple Watch as the best of the current bunch, even if that lead is the smallest we've ever seen for a brand new Apple mobile product on Day One. Android Wear is a promising platform as well, and Samsung is going to keep trying new things with its Tizen OS. It will be fascinating to see how those rivals react now that the elephant in the room is out in the open, and strapping itself to early adopters' wrists.

The delightful Apple Watch is available now in Apple's online store (though it's backordered by more than a month), starting at $350 for the 38 mm Apple Watch Sport. The 42 mm space gray Apple Watch Sport that we handled for this review costs $400. All versions require an iPhone 5 or newer to pair with it.

Product page: Apple

Editor's note: The original version of this article stated that the Apple Watch's standing tracking was off, but it tracks hours in which you've stood for at least one minute, not total time spent standing.

9 comments
hkmk23
Very nice but not ready yet...............not waterproof.....battery life less than 24 hours......
willemco
WOW! Apple has finally put their smartwatch on the market. More than anything this proves that Apple has become a market FOLLOWER rather than a LEADER. This watch has nothing that others don't already have. The only thing different is that it is small. Is that a plus? Not in my book as some of the features really need a bigger screen. Is there a place for smartwatches? Yes, but they're never going to replace a smartphone. So having a few things that a smartphone can do is OK but for most I would rather use my phone. What I look for in a smartwatch is a watch, complete with timer, alarm, chronometer - that kind of stuff. The biggest advantage of smartwatch that is gives you the proper time and date without having to change the date manually every month that hasn't 31 days (my pet-hate with normal non-electronic watches). With smartwatches you can pick and choose the screen from very simple to very complicated. I go for simple! I would also want a proper standard size INTERCHANGEABLE strap - preferably a metal one. Plastic sweats and they always come as a fully opening closing mechanism. The one that magicians use to take off your wrist without you noticing. Pick-pockerteers use the same trick but with the difference that they don't hand it back. They can also become undone automatically and you don't notice that you lost it until it is too late. I like the ones that open but nut fully, so they can't fall of your wrist or taken from your wrist without you noticing. Especially when they are $350 plus devices! Pulse monitor, etc and all that stuff can be included. Bluetooth capability with my smartphone a definite YES. Anything that needs a keyboard would be a waste as inevitably watches are too small for that. Quite frankly I reckon there would be VERY few people purchasing a smartwatch who don't already have a smartphone so doubling up on things that a smartphone can do better would be a waste on smartphones. Keep it simple and the cost down.
iperov
no thanks.
kcl620
@willemco, are you aware that Apple has been working on the Watch for the past 4 years??? You say this release proves that Apple is an industry FOLLOWER, not an industry LEADER. The thing is, Apple truly believes in R&D, having the patience to wait until the technology behind what they envision is really there. Unlike some of their competitors, they don't just slap something together and rush it out the door. Samsung released 4 iterations of their smartwatch in like 8 months!!! Clearly, they were using customers as beta subjects. My co-worker was rightfully ticked off that he spent over $300 on the first Samsung Gear watch, only to have a new one released 2 months later! One simple aspect of the Watch that shows Apple is leading is the mere size of it. Have you SEEN the huge size of LG and Samsung smartwatches? Not to mention, the cheap materials and design details? Just give credit where credit is due.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
I have considered buying one of the many watch phones. Don't go anywhere so I get by fine with PC and Magic Jack w. Google Copper. Buy a Tracfone for class reunions, etc. Might buy smart phone if it would replace wallet. There should be a belt buckle battery with EM connect for watch phone. Should have full time HR monitor with Life Alert.
pwndecaf
Hmm...it's about perfect except apps take 5-6 seconds to load? For what should generally be a glanceable tool?
charlieFreak
Mention of the iPod reminds me how surprised I was by all the hoop-la on its launch. At that time I was using a little SAFA MP3 player/recorder, hung around my neck on a lanyard (with in-built earphones), which I thought was far superior to the iPod. As well as playing MP3 files, I could record conversations, and record inline from any source through a 3.5mm jack. The iPod couldn't do any of this and was about 10 times bigger. I really think the only reason it was so popular is that most people in the US weren't aware of Asian-made MP3 players.
George W. Groovy
The Apple Watch like those gadgets in the old SkyMall catalog — gimmicky and expensive — but of dubious utility.
willemco
@kcl620 - Samsung spent well over 1 billion dollars on R&D and it paid off - they're now the market LEADER. Apple (supported by their followers) rejected the larger size and saw with envy how other phone manufacturers took up the challenge and one after the other followed in their steps. Apple was the last to do and now they pride themselves in having an even larger phone - albeit with the smallest usable screen. Now Apple (finally) introduced their smartphone and failed totally to impress the market. There is an abundance of similar sized and equipped smartphones on the market now, most of them much cheaper. Apple failed completely to use the advantage of being a market follower to IMPROVE on what is currently available and introduced just another smartwatch relying on their fan-crowd to overlook the obvious . Samsung managed to make the silliest of mistakes and decided to COPY Apple with their Galaxy S6. Steel and glass. But no longer an extra micro SD slot or ability to quickly change the battery. BIG MISTAKE and it will cost them dearly. People don't worry about plastic because it can be changed quickly and easily (when needed) but more importantly, most people put their phone in a case anyway so who cares? Big mistake, Samsung, but I still can't congratulate Apple because, just like Samsung, they're moving BACKWARDS! May I add that, again other then Apple, Samsung believes in giving people CHOICE...