It's hard to believe that it was 8 years ago that the first Apple Watch was released! I wasn't someone who dived straight in with Apple's new smart watch, but I did watch the reviews with interest and eventually, in 2016 I finally got a series 1 watch, which was actually the second version of the watch (just to make life confusing). I remember reading David Goodwin's one year anniversary blog post and a lot of his points really resonated with me. I liked the product, but there wasn't a "killer app" that made me love it. I eventually moved away from the Apple Watch when I briefly went over to the dark side (Android). I went back to iOS after a few months for reasons I won't get into here, but it took me a lot longer to go back to the watch. Quite simply, I wasn't missing it.
As with all products, the Apple Watch evolved. new generations came along with faster processing, louder speakers and they became much less dependent on the phone. Last year, curiosity got the better of me and before I knew it, I had an Apple Watch SE first gen strapped to my wrist. Despite the huge improvements in speed, speaker clarity and not needing to be tied to the iPhone, I still find myself wondering what exactly the watch offers me and disappointed to find that a lot of my hopes for this device have not really come true.
My Use Case
I'll get one thing out of the way straight away; I'm not a fitness guy. Having insights about my health is nice, and I do feel like the activity prompts from the watch get me moving around more instead of sitting at my desk for hours particularly when working from home, but I don't often do workouts or go to the gym on a daily basis (that'll be my new years resolution... Again!).
What I was hoping to use the watch for was to make life easier while out and about. As someone who is totally blind, one hand is always busy with either my guide dog's harness or, as things are nowadays, my cane. Being able to do certain actions, such as answer calls, check notifications and reply to messages without having to take my phone out of my pocket was the ultimate aim.
After listening to The Apple Watch 101 podcast on navigation, I was also hoping to use the watch for this purpose as well. The haptic feedback for turn-buy-turn directions on the wrist sounded fantastic, as did being able to check on my route without having to use my iPhone.
As the series 1 watch was now 7 years ago, I will mainly be talking about my experiences with the newer SE unless otherwise stated.
The Good Bits
First off, calls on the watch are great... Most of the time. I'm never entirely comfortable with having calls on loud speaker, but being able to quickly take a call while I'm working at home and keep my work headset on, meaning I can still hear emails, Slack messages etc coming in, while my phone is on charge in the other room is extremely convenient. It also works great while out and about. If I'm in an area that I'm confident navigating and therefore don't have my earphones on, taking calls on the watch comes in extremely handy. Yes, it means your conversation is being broadcast out loud to the world, but as long as the conversation is not too personal I can live with it. I'm always pleasantly surprised by the quality of the call both from my end and how well the other person can hear me, which brings me to my next point...
The Microphone Quality
The quality of the built-in microphone is absolutely fantastic! Don't get me wrong I wouldn't record a full podcast episode using it, but the casual audio listener would have a hard time telling the difference between someone using an Apple Watch vs their iPhone or a reasonably good external microphone. It makes a great tool for quickly recording high quality voice messages or voice notes. I very rarely take notes in audio form, but the watch is there if I need it.
Apple Pay is another new-found convenience of the watch. When this first arrived in the UK, similar to David's post linked to above, getting the watch to register with the payment terminal was unreliable at best. It was also not helped by the fact that VoiceOver's volume would drop to almost a whisper as soon as you double tapped the side button, making it difficult to select which card you wanted to pay from or seeing if there was some kind of error. I'm still not sure whether this volume drop was a bug or a privacy feature as it still happened with my SE at first, but it doesn't happen anymore with WatchOS 9 and it works beautifully, easily allowing me to pay for something using either my personal or corporate card without having to fiddle around with my wallet looking for the correct card.
There are sometimes occasions where I need to be up earlier than my wife, especially when I'm going into the office. Much to my wife's annoyance, I'm terrible for snoozing my alarms a few times before I eventually get up. Being able to set silent alarms on the watch has probably saved our marriage!
The Not So Good Bits
Let me go back to calls for a minute. I said they were good most of the time. When things work as expected, taking calls on the watch is simple and fantastic. When things don't work as expected, the result is often an absolute mess. I've lost count of the number of times I have put my AirPods in while on a call on the Apple Watch, expecting the call to instantly switch to them. What actually happens when I do this is that I lose all sound both from my watch and from my phone. It's almost as if they're both trying to fight for the connection to the AirPods, resulting in a lot of taking my AirPods out and putting back in again, triple pressing the side button on my phone and triple pressing the digital crown on the watch just to get VoiceOver back. A similar connectivity mess sometimes happens when trying to transfer a call from the watch to the phone or the other way around. The most recent issue is with the magic tap on the watch when call comes in. Normally this would answer a call, but lately it starts the last played media playing on my phone, meaning my phone is playing both the ringtone and media (usually music or a podcast episode) both at the same time. A second magic tap (to try get the media to stop) actually answers the call, resulting in the media playing over the call... As I said, it's a mess. This particular issue has happened a couple of times now and has even persisted after a reboot. As the magic tap is a VoiceOver gesture I'm putting it down to a VO bug rather than an issue with the watch itself, but still, it's a frustrating one.
Taptic time is another VoiceOver feature that is not reliable enough for me. This is great for being able to check the time quietly in meetings or when I wake up in the middle of the night, but again, when it works. Sometimes it will require a triple tap instead of the double tap to work. Sometimes a triple tap will only vibrate the minutes, sometimes it will just decide to wake up and speak regardless of how much double or triple tapping you do. A great feature, just not reliable enough to be truly useful from my experience.
Replying to Messages
Messages is also something that leaves me underwhelmed. The only way to respond to messages is by using dictation or by selecting one of the available responses. I have customised these, but there will always be times where they don't quite get across exactly what I want to say. As for dictation, this was one of the things I was pleasantly surprised by with my first watch - the dictation was unbelievably accurate, way better than on the iPhone! Now, though, it seems to be more aligned with the iPhone's level i.e. often inaccurate. VoiceOver's performance also struggles just after dictating a message, which has resulted in me being unable to review a message before I send it and in one particular case, accidentally sending the message. Thankfully dictation had done a reasonably good job on that one! I will always double check messages before I send them out regardless of how I've typed them, but especially with dictation. Not being able to consistently do this leaves me reluctant to use the watch to respond to messages, even if pulling out my phone and using Braille Screen input is slightly less convenient. By the way, I know there is an on-screen keyboard on the series 7 and later, but judging by some of the comments on here, it's not very popular.
Complications Could Be Better
Some of the complications are nice, but I want them to be smarter. For example, being able to tap my watch and see the weather forecast for the next couple of hours is nice, as is being able to check how long is left on a timer while I'm cooking... But what about when I don't have a timer set? I just have a complication that says "timer" taking up a space. I'd love to be able to walk up to my local bus stop, tap my watch and hear the next few arrivals, but I can't seem to find a way to do this with MoovIt (the main app I use for public transport). When I'm at home and sunset is approaching, I'd love to have my lights as complications so they can easily be toggled from my wrist. I'm using the Modular watch face as that seemed like the simplest one, but I'm not sure if there is a better one that might achieve what I'm looking for. I know the Siri one can do this somewhat, but it often shows me news stories and other things I'm not particularly interested in and it feels clunky and awkward to navigate. If anyone has any recommendations for the most accessible watch faces with plenty of space for complications, do let me know in the comments. I'm excited to see what the Smart Stack feature in WatchOS 10 brings.
Navigation is an area of the watch that I had really high hopes for, but it doesn't seem to have changed much since the release of the first gen watch. I loved what Apple did with the haptic feedback in Maps, and I was really hoping that other apps would've implemented something similar. Imagine being able to start BlindSquare tracking somewhere via the watch and receiving haptic directions in some form, without having to touch the phone? That's what I was expecting, but it just... Doesn't seem to be there. I'm sure there's a good reason for this and I've love to know about it, especially if it's due to technical constraints.
Most Notifications Sound and Feel the Same
I've made a lot of customisations to my notification settings in terms of what notifications go to my phone and which ones give me a tap on the wrist, but I would still like to customise it more. At the moment, if my watch buzzes it's probably important, if my phone buzzes it can wait, but this isn't always the case. The fact that Mail and Messages use the same vibration and tone means that I can't tell the difference between a text/iMessage, an important email or a junk email (and I get a lot of junk). Being able to set different haptics for different mail accounts or contacts would be nice, as would being able to set different haptics for different apps. Currently, all third-party apps use the same generic haptic, meaning I have to tap the watch and listen to VoiceOver to find out the notification. I actually find I can tell more information about notifications from my phone, as apps can use their own different sounds. Let's say someone presses my Ring Doorbell, I can tell that from the phone, but not from the watch haptic as it feels the same as most other notifications.
I've Got the Notification... Now What?
Similarly, most notifications can't actually be responded to on the watch. Take WhatsApp for example. When a voice message comes in, you can see there is a voice message and you can reply to the message by dictating, but you can't record a message back and, most importantly in this scenario, you can't listen to the message. I know there are third-party apps that can do this, but why not the first-party? I can see that someone has pressed my doorbell on the watch, but why can't I answer the door? That is a perfect example of where having the watch easily available on your wrist would come in extremely useful rather than seeing that and then having to look for your iPhone. Of course this is not Apple's fault, but it feels like there is only a tiny portion of the functionality here even though the watch is more than capable of offering more.
I went on holiday a couple of months ago and, not wanting to take my Apple Watch on holiday with me, I went back to my Eone Bradley tactile watch. When I returned home, I just kept the Bradley on. I love my Apple Watch but, just like that time a few years ago when I stopped using my first one, I wasn't missing it, and it got me wondering why.
My intention of this post was not to bash the Apple Watch, it was to share my observations of using it and that, for me, not much has changed in the few years since this product was released.
I'm very conscious that the Apple Watch is primarily a fitness device and, as I said at the beginning, I'm not using it for that reason, and I wonder if that's what my problem is. If you're into your fitness in any way, the Apple Watch is without doubt the device for you. I know some blind people who get by with devices like the Fitbit and the app, but there is no accessibility on the devices themselves. If you want full functionality, go for an Apple Watch if you can. But what about for lazy people like me?
Ultimately, I wonder if a lot of the convenience of an Apple Watch is lost on blind people. It's all about being able to quickly glance at your wrist and check those notifications, tap a response to a message and send it within a couple of seconds, look at your next calendar appointment etc. For us VoiceOver users, we still have to listen to it which takes away from it being quick and discreet. Sure you could turn VoiceOver's volume right down if you wish, but then you have to hold your wrist up to your ear. You could connect AirPods or Bluetooth earphones to the watch, but if you're going to do that, you may as well connect them to your phone and get the full functionality.
I'm really interested to hear other people's thoughts on all of this. What do you use your Apple Watch for? Am I trying to use it for the wrong reasons? Expecting too much from it? Share your thoughts in the comments!