After many months of anticipation, Apple's (AAPL) first genuinely new product since the iPhone is officially on customers' wrists: The Apple Watch started shipping last Friday. After a few days of real-world trials, it's clear that the watch is better in some ways, and worse in others, than pundits had predicted.
To be clear, Apple Watch is not an entirely new, innovative kind of product. Smartwatches like the Pebble, Sony SmartWatch, Moto 360, and Samsung Gear have been around for a couple of years (and don't forget Microsoft's SPOT watch, which dates all the way back to 2004). Apple isn't the first to this party, but it is the arriving with the most panache.
Apple has tried to refine the experience of getting an Apple Watch: To avoid mobs at the store, you can purchase the watch only online (a few notable exceptions include the high-end LA fashion store Maxfield, which sold them on launch day to long lines of fans who failed to preorder). The watch itself comes in an elegant jewelry box suggestive of more than mundane consumer electronics.
Apple prepares you for its arrival by offering personal instruction via video chat. Unfortunately, that option failed spectacularly for me. Despite trying to book a session many times on several different devices and computers over the span of days, I was never able to lock in an appointment. The process failed with "Something went wrong with your request. Please try again later" every single time.
On the plus side, setup is an entirely mobile experience between your watch and phone -- no PC required.
You probably already know the basics about the watch: It syncs with your iPhone and is primarily a way to see and interact with common notifications without taking your phone out of your pocket. It also bolts on health and fitness features. The Activity app is a central part of the experience, and the watch includes both a heart-rate monitor and the usual step-counting capabilities you'll find elsewhere.
Where the Apple Watch stands out (both good and bad) is in how all that works in practice, and that's something you can't really appreciate from demos or spec sheets.
First, the watch faces: They're gorgeous. Apple spent a lot of time getting them just right, and as the first thing you experience, it pays off. Some are animated, and many are customizable. You can tweak the information they display and sometimes their color palette.
On the downside, this is a watch that doesn't actually show the time unless you deliberately raise and tilt your wrist. You can't subtly glance at your watch, which can send horrible social signals.
Then there are the apps. Many developers have jumped on the Watch bandwagon, releasing versions of their iPhone apps for your wrist. This is where things get wonky.
Essentially, many of your apps now have their own apps, and using them is legitimately confusing. Some apps have a lightweight mode called Glances, which you get to by swiping up and then switching among them by swiping right and left. If you have a lot of apps, get prepared to swipe a lot to find the one you're actually interested in.
Does a particular app even have a Glance mode? Maybe. You can swipe around till you find it. Or not, and just launch the full Watch app from the home screen, which is a collection of app icons that look like the mafia tossed your apartment and left these apps lying on the floor near your overturned sock drawer.
Apple was clearly trying to invent a new visual metaphor for finding and starting apps, but this one barely works. It's hard to find what you need, and tapping the one you want is like whacking a pinhead-sized mole. You can enlarge everything by spinning the digital crown, but that's yet another extra step (and one you'll often forget is even an option).
Swiping up gets you to Glances, but you can also swipe down, which displays missed notifications. And you can press -- or double press -- both the digital crown and side button, for a total of four other ways to interact with the watch. And don't forget about long, hard presses on the screen. That's a lot of stuff to keep track of to operate a watch.
Speaking of difficult touch targeting, buttons on the Apple Watch are surprisingly finicky. When reviewing notifications or trying to send a short reply to a text message, for example, you have to hit the appropriate button just right, or nothing happens. It often took me three taps to get the watch to acknowledge a command.
Perhaps that's why Siri is so refreshing. Just raise your watch as if to check the time, and say "Hey Siri," and she goes to work. She'll even launch apps ("Hey Siri, start Pandora").
Another thing that work like a charm: You can take a call right from your wrist, and while you look a little crazy talking to your watch, call volume and clarity are perfectly acceptable if you need to make a short call and can't be bothered to pull your phone out.
But the list of things Apple didn't get right in this first version is distressingly long. The health and fitness features are, notoriously, a mere shadow of what Apple originally intended, and that means the Basis Peak is a dramatically better fitness watch by almost any measure (Peak even has limited support for notifications).
Want to get your watch wet? Don't take Apple's underwater, though Pebble is fine even if you swim laps.
And then there's the battery life. Clocking in at about 18 hours of routine use, it can barely last an entire day -- much less be used as a sleep tracker like, say, virtually every other smartwatch on the market. In my first few days with the Apple Watch, I was able to go from morning (wakeup between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m.) to bedtime at 11 p.m. without completely running the watch battery dry.
But like owning an electric car, range anxiety hangs uncomfortably over your head, making you nervously second guess every interaction with the watch.
Finally, the watch is almost maliciously overpriced. The semi-affordable Sport version starts at $350, while the mid-level model starts at $550. Of course, you can pay $10,000 (or more) at the high end. Keep in mind that functionally they're all exactly the same.
The bottom line is that there are enough serious limitations in the Apple Watch to warrant a "do not buy" recommendation. It's finicky and not quite ready for prime time.
On the other hand, it can genuinely be fun to use, and it moves critical information from your phone to your wrist in an organic and useful way. In other words, the experience of using the watch adds up to a better rating than an objective analysis would suggest. And that leaves us with a paradox: It's entirely possible to dislike the watch in theory while loving it in practice.
Photo courtesy Apple