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Technology

Don't Gift The Apple Watch This Year

The smartwatch may be good someday, but not today.

[Photos: valzan, EM Arts, Tolga TEZCAN via Shutterstock]

We've been pretty critical of the Apple Watch around these parts. We stand by that criticism. In fact, as a wearer of the Apple Watch since its launch, I'm here to underline it: Don't buy an Apple Watch as a gift this holiday season.

Several months ago, I got into an argument with my girlfriend's mother, who is—according to her sources—always right. My girlfriend, KP, was training for the New York Marathon. Her mother texted me to say that she was buying KP a smartwatch by Garmin.

"I did all the research," she said. "It's the best one for runners."

"Oh, Barb, what a mistake," I tried to imply subtextually. "I'm buying his-and-her Apple Watches, which will clearly provide the best experience not just for running a marathon, but for the race we call life." It took some convincing—this is a family of tenacious Greek women—but I won out: KP would get an Apple Watch, while her mom would buy her some technical clothing.

Now, having worn our Apple Watches for the last couple of seasons, I have a terrible confession: I'm pretty sure Barb was right. KP wore her Apple Watch throughout her training, despite its inability to track her running location data in Nike+ without carrying her phone along with her on every training run. She wore it while running the New York Marathon, and its battery conked out 2.5 hours in.

I asked KP to list her biggest gripe about using the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker—she gave me four.

1) It's slow
2) It doesn't work about 40% of the time (just stays frozen on the "outdoor run" screen).
3) If you want to just wear it and go, you have to swipe four times to get to the simple "Open, No Goal" setting
4) To my knowledge, it doesn't actually save my total runs, pace, and mileage. It just logs them on my iPhone as EACH INDIVIDUAL STINKING STEP. Do you really want me to count every single step to determine my total run?

I would love to be able to access my accumulated runs and review my progress (like Nike+). I had assumed that the Workout app did save my runs, so I stopped using Nike+, only to realize it didn't store them, so I lost 3 weeks worth of mileage.

(Note: I could be wrong and maybe there is a way to log them but its not advertised / common knowledge / easy to find.)

As a health and activity tracker, the Apple Watch is adequate at best. Even Apple critic John Gruber has lost interest in tracking his activity—or even wearing his Apple Watch every day. (I will say that I've logged several amazing activity days when my Apple Watch confused driving down the highway as running, while it was concurrently being used for driving directions.)

My biggest geek-out dream was to be able to control my Philips Hue bulbs via my watch, both through touch and Siri. But Siri isn't good enough—or fast enough—to make that work. Apps load too slowly—taking 5 to 10 seconds, even after an update of the watch's operating system last month—and Siri stops listening to me mid-sentence more often than she accepts my request.

iOS developer Chris Dzombak wrote about similar experiences recently, explaining why he's stopped wearing his Apple Watch:

Siri should be great on the Watch. And when it works well, it’s great. But—again, even with watchOS 2—it’s not responsive enough to be useful rather than annoying. "Hey, Siri" activates my virtual assistant maybe 70% of the time, meaning it misses frequently enough that I want to wait to see if it’s actually listening. But the Watch expects you to keep talking, without a pause: "Hey Siri, set my timer for thirty minutes." If I pause after "Hey Siri," to check whether the Watch is listening, it assumes I’m done talking. So I’m stuck: I have to trust the Watch to listen when I tell it to, and often I have to repeat my sentence.

What the Apple Watch does well is notifications, which, despite manual pruning on my part to make sure I get only alerts I care about, remain superfluous 90% of the time. My phone is always nearby—and if it's not, I'm probably on my Mac. And despite the promotion by Apple that the Watch can free me from being tethered to my phone, most of the time it's faster to pick up my phone to respond to a text or check my calendar than it is to slog through tiny app icons or navigate with the Digital Crown.

The primary problem is simply that the current version of the Apple Watch is too slow; it needs a faster processor, which will only come in a future version. The failings of its baroque, do-everything interaction modalities are a close second, although to be cruelly fair it's hard to critique them fully when they execute so sluggishly. The watchOS interfaces are mostly designed around a ticker-tape concept, and many alert screens, even those from Apple 1st-party apps, show half of a button at the bottom which must be scrolled up to click. (More unfortunate, that half-hidden button is usually "Dismiss.") While Apple encourages designers to limit the amount of text shown in alerts, to a great extent that too-long text is exactly the information I want to see quickly; it's a Glance-22. In designing the Apple Watch as a sort of mini-iPhone instead of a wholly new visual interface, the entire UX feels less than delightful. Again, more speed would help, but I often consider if Apple didn't go far enough in exploring new ways to present text, like the quick-word-flash speed-reading concept used in apps like Read Quick. A smartwatch will never become a phone replacement unless it does something a phone can't do better—or at least do the same thing in a new, snappier way.

What the Apple Watch can technically do is often entertaining as a party trick—and even occasionally a pleasant surprise, like discovering that I do like answering phone calls from my wrist from time-to-time—but there's always a bit of sadness evident when I share these trifles with others. No truly successful product should have to be leavened with self-deprecation when used among friends, which is what I continually find when using my Apple Watch in public. "When this works it's mildly amusing" is not the sort of feedback that any company wants to see customer satisfaction surveys.

In short, if you buy someone an Apple Watch this year, don't be upset if they don't love it. It's a toy right now, even if I am sure that future versions will be able to more fully realize the potential—whatever that might be—of a smartwatch. (And with $100 discounts on Apple Watch at Best Buy this shopping season, it's damn near certain that an updated version will come, well, sometime. But I'd guess next year.)

Want a gift in a similar price-and-vibe-space? The new Apple TV is pretty great!

But if you're shopping for a runner, you might consider a Garmin. Barb's done the research.

Related: History of Apple in Under 3 Minutes

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