The Apple Watch can make you more productive, and it pairs nicely with business-casual dress — but so can other, less expensive smartwatches. That puts Apple's first wearable device in a bit of an awkward spot. It's an excellent product, but competing devices offer similar functionality at a fraction of the cost.
Fortunately, the Apple Watch does a lot to help justify its premium price. It offers a more polished interface than other smartwatches, as well as a bigger app library at launch than any other wearable operating system. You also get features you won't find on many other watches, like the ability to take phone calls. And like any good smartwatch, it ensures you'll never miss an important alert. Only iPhone owners need apply, though — the Apple Watch must be linked to one in order to function.
The Apple Watch is probably the best overall smartwatch on the market, and the best one for business users, too. But with such a high asking price — $349 for the smallest model with a plastic band, or $549 for a metal band — is the Apple Watch worth it?
Smartwatches are useful tools for business users, but until recently not many of them looked nice enough to wear to work, with most sporting plastic, toylike designs. The Apple Watch bucks that trend with a sleek, refined design. It isn't the best-looking smartwatch I've seen — that distinction still belongs to the Moto 360 — but it's certainly a nice piece of hardware.
The watch comes in two sizes, including a 42-mm version and a smaller 38-mm version, which are identical except for their physical dimensions. I tested out the larger of the two; the smaller version's screen just feels too cramped to me. On the other hand, the 38-mm model is one of the few smartwatches that's small enough to look decent on people with small hands and wrists.
As you would expect from Apple, the design of the Apple Watch shows great attention to detail. The transition between my review unit's sapphire crystal display and aluminum casing is seamless, making the whole device feel solid and well made. The Digital Crown that sticks out of one side of the watch spins smoothly, and offers a satisfying click when pressed. Even with the white plastic band on our review unit, the Apple Watch feels luxurious.
It's also one of the lightest smartwatches around, weighing just about 1.8 ounces. That's lighter than the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R, both of which weigh 2.2 ounces. A lightweight design is a good feature in a device you'll be wearing around your wrist all day.
I also like how easy it is to remove the band to swap in a different one. That could come in handy if you wear the metal band to work, but want to swap it out for a plastic band when you hit the gym. The bands don't come cheap when purchased separately, though; the Sport band costs $50, while the metal and leather bands cost $150 each.
Alerts and notifications
It's easy to overlook an important message, email or calendar appointment. That's the main advantage of owning a smartwatch; it puts notifications on your wrist so you can't miss them. The Apple Watch does this very well, and is more discreet about it than other smartwatches.
Instead of buzzing loudly and with every email, text message and calendar alert you receive, the watch uses Apple's Taptic Engine to deliver subtle, discreet vibrations that won't be a distraction in the middle of a meeting. You can tweak the intensity of the vibrations, and also add an alert chime if you want, though I preferred silent alerts.
I also like that the screen doesn't light up every time an alert arrives. Instead, the display only turns on when the watch uses a built-in motion sensor to detect that you're moving it up toward your face. This saves battery life and also keeps distracting flashing to a minimum.
The lifting action required to turn on the display is generally responsive, though I occasionally found myself shaking my wrist around as I tried to get the screen to turn on. Of course, you always have the option to press the Digital Crown button to turn on the screen manually.
Considering how crowded my inbox can get, I quickly realized that I didn't need to see every single email I received flashing by on my wrist. Thankfully, it's pretty easy to set up filters so that your watch only alerts you to prioritized messages using the Apple Watch app on your iPhone.
I expect Apple interfaces to be dead simple, so my first experience with the Apple Watch was a bit jarring. I had to do quite a bit of experimental swiping and tapping before I started to understand how to navigate around the watch's interface. It took even longer for me to realize that some functionality — like clearing away the notifications in the app drawer — is achieved by "force pressing" — in other words, pressing down on the screen with a bit of extra pressure.
The Apple Watch basically functions like a shrunken-down version of the iPhone. There's a home screen, which includes the time, weather and your next calendar appointment, an app drawer, and even a notification tray that's revealed when you swipe down from the top of the screen — just like on an iPhone.
Swiping up from the bottom of the screen, meanwhile, reveals your Glances, which are basically cards that deliver quick information like stock updates or the weather forecast. Glances are easy to swipe through and offer nice, bite-size chunks of information — exactly the kind of thing I want to see on a smartwatch. There's even one Glance that lets you ping your iPhone, forcing it to emit a loud sound so you can find it when you left it in a jacket pocket or behind a stack of paper on your desk.
The Apple Watch offers an impressive selection of third-party apps at launch. There are already more than 3,500 options to choose from, including dozens of great business and productivity apps. Here are a few of my favorites.
- Evernote for Apple Watch lets you dictate quick notes with one tap. You can also scroll down to review your old notes, or search for keywords.
- App in the Air can keep you updated on your next business flight, including real-time flight status, gate information and delays.
- Invoice2go can automatically prompt you to start logging your work time as soon as you arrive at a job site. It also lets you send basic invoices and receive alerts when they're paid.
- PowerPoint Remote is a nifty app that lets you use your Apple Watch to flip back and forth between slides in Microsoft's presentation software.
Get used to saying, "Hey, Siri." That's the command that calls up the voice command prompt on the Apple Watch, which is the only way to input text on the device. Dictating a text message reply is easy, but if you're in a quiet office, you might want to pull out your smartphone to fire off a reply.
You can do a lot by talking to your Apple Watch. I liked using it to set quick reminders, responding to messages and looking up answers to simple questions. I was really frustrated to find that it's not possible to send an email response using the Apple Watch, though. My guess is that Apple didn't want users to get frustrated by the watch's imperfect voice recognition software. Personally, I could do with a little less hand holding; dictating email replies on an Android Wear watch works just fine.
Still, it's hard for me to overstate the convenience of voice commands on the Apple Watch. Note-taking apps on your iPhone are handy, for example, but pulling out your phone to manually key in a note is often more trouble than it's worth. The Apple Watch isn't better at this task, per se, but it makes digital note taking so easy that you'll actually want to do it.
Personally, I find that setting up digital notes and reminders can free my short-term memory to focus on more important tasks, reducing stress and making me more productive overall.
The Apple Watch can also do a pretty good job of keeping your workday on track, providing a few easy ways to manage your calendar and create appointments without fussing with your smartphone.
Tapping the calendar icon that appears on the default watch face brings up a monthly view of your calendar; tap again to view upcoming events and appointments, including locations and times. It's pretty easy to use voice commands to add appointments to your calendar. Just launch the voice command prompt, then say something like, "Create an appointment to meet with Kevin on Thursday at 3 p.m."
Taking a phone call while you're driving isn't always the safest idea — especially when it involves fishing your phone out of your pocket or bag. That's why the ability to use the Apple Watch as a speakerphone is so interesting. Other smartwatches can alert you to incoming calls, but very few models include the ability to take calls using the speaker and microphone on the device itself.
When a call comes in on the watch, you can answer with one tap. Call quality is decent; I tried calling a friend, who said my voice sounded clear but a bit distant. Holding the watch up to my mouth while I spoke helped. It's not the ideal way to take a business call, but in certain situations — particularly when driving — it could really come in handy. Like most Apple Watch functionality, you can only take calls when your iPhone is nearby.
In addition to taking calls, you can use Siri to place outgoing calls. There's no option to manually dial in a number, but you can place calls to contacts already in your address book, or state the name of a business to call it.
Turn-by-turn navigation is really important if you need to get somewhere in a hurry. Accessing directions on the Apple Watch is easy with a voice command like, "Hey Siri, navigate to Don's Cafe." The device can find a local address in seconds and lets you start navigation with one tap. That could really come in handy if you're meeting a colleague or client for lunch, but forgot to set up navigation before you started driving.
The Apple Watch can't make you more productive if it's out of juice. And every evening around bedtime, it will run out of juice.
On the bright side, the Apple Watch has no trouble lasting through the end of the workday and beyond. Apple claims the device should get around 18 hours of battery life on a charge, and that claim was true to my experience. During my testing time, I never worried about it dying before bed, even with heavy to mixed use including notifications, email, voice commands and app use from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
When I used a run-tracking app during an outdoor workout, it seemed to drain the battery faster. That's something to keep in mind if you hit the company gym in the middle of your workday.
As a battery-saving measure, the Apple Watch's screen turns itself off relatively quickly when not in use. To view the time, you'll need to raise the watch toward your face to activate the screen or click the Digital Crown button. It's not a big deal, but many other smartwatches manage to keep the current time on-screen without killing the battery.
I really liked the Apple Watch's magnetic charger. Snapping it onto the back of the device before bed is easier than plugging in a finicky micro USB charger, which makes charging the Apple Watch nightly less of a chore than charging other smartwatches.
Apple advertises the Apple Watch as starting at $349, but you might pay a lot more, depending on what kinds of materials you want. The cheapest model is the Apple Watch Sport, which comes with an aluminum body and a rubbery plastic band in a range of colors. It starts at $349 for the smaller 38-mm model, or $399 for the 42-mm unit.
The Apple Watch Sport probably won't be a top pick for many business users, since the plastic band might not pair very well with your office's dress code. On the other hand, the white and black Sport bands are understated enough for most work settings.
The standard Apple Watch model comes with a more durable stainless steel case and many premium band options, including a classic leather buckle, Milanese loop or metal link bracelet. You'll pay a big premium for this model, though; it starts at $549 for the 38-mm version, and $599 for the 42-mm version.
Pebble watches are the only real alternative to the Apple Watch for iPhone owners, since most other smartwatches aren't compatible with Apple smartphones. Pebble sells a handful of different models, including the original Pebble smartwatch, the Pebble Steel (which is functionally identical but sports a band made of leather or metal instead of plastic) and the new Pebble Time (which is the first Pebble watch with a color display).
Pebble devices have a few key advantages over the Apple Watch, the biggest being battery life. All Pebble watches can last for five to seven days on a single charge, which means you can get through the whole workweek without needing to plug it in. Compare that with the Apple Watch, which turns into an expensive bracelet if you forget to charge it for even a single night. The other advantage is that Pebble watch screens are always on, because they use superefficient E-paper screens instead of LCD or AMOLED displays. That means you can see the time and other information at a glance, without waiting for your display to turn on every time.
On the other hand, you can't make a call using a Pebble (though the Pebble Time model does include a microphone for other voice commands). The Apple Watch also has a more vibrant display, a sleeker design and a larger app library.
Android Wearwatches are another good option, though they only work with Android smartphones. These devices come in a big range of sizes and shapes, including a few round models like Motorola's Moto 360 and LG's G Watch R. They're made by a variety manufacturers, but they're all powered by Google's Android Wear operating system. Like the Apple Watch, they generally offer about one day of battery life.
Android Wear is simpler than the Apple Watch software, which makes these devices easier to use but less functional overall. On the other hand, they're generally much less expensive. Plus, rumors suggest that Google might make Android Wear devices compatible with iPhones through a software update later this year.
As a stand-alone piece of hardware, the Apple Watch is probably the best smartwatch for business users — even if it's far from the best-looking, in my humble opinion. But it still offers a nice design, tons of productivity-boosting features and the best selection of smartwatch apps anywhere. It's not quite the complete package, but it is the most well-rounded wearable yet.
Still, I have a hard time recommending the Apple Watch when competing devices cost so much less. If you're an iPhone devotee who's curious about smartwatches, you might be satisfied with the Pebble Steel, which costs $250 less than the cheapest Apple Watch with a metal band. Android Wear watches like the Moto 360 also offer similar functionality for a lot less, though they're not compatible with iPhones.
Smartwatches have been around for a few years, but only recently have they gotten good enough to seriously recommend. For the average business user, a smartwatch is finally a decent investment. But only those with a lot of disposable income — and an iPhone in tow — will want to give the Apple Watch a second glance.