Apple Watch Review: Beautiful Design, Complicated Fitness Tracking

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I’m not one of those “stand in line at 5am outside the Apple store” people, but I do love my Apple products. I like how well they all work together, and I love how beautifully designed they are. So when the Apple Watch came out, I knew I would give it a whirl and review it from a fitness-tracking POV. Compared to most other wearables, I thought it was pretty good-looking (albeit in a sporty, space-agey versus truly fashionable way) and held the tantalizing promise of …. well … I wasn’t really sure.

Did I really want all of my emails, texts, calls and other notifications tapping my wrist? Would I actually use my phone less (even though the phone needed to be close by for the watch to work)?

And most importantly, would it hold a candle to my beloved Fitbit?

I’ve used a Fitbit for a long time and I’m hooked. Once, my husband caught me running in place at 11pm on a Wednesday to bank another 300 steps so I could hit 15,000. So … yeah. But in all seriousness, I truly believe in the value of using fitness and health data to help lead a healthy lifestyle.

I ordered my Apple Watch a bit late and it was slated for June delivery, but lucky me, it shipped early and I somehow got it on April 30.

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Right off the bat, I was impressed with the quality. Typical Apple design —  the materials were beautiful and hefty, and they thought of every little detail. For example, the watch strap has a unique closure to reduce bulk and it’s hollowed out a bit on the inside so that less band touches your skin, making it more comfortable. The display is absolutely gorgeous — bright, colorful and super crisp. And the 38mm version was the perfect size (I was surprised, since I have tiny wrists). I set it up and spent a little time learning how to use it. It’s definitely not as intuitive as most Apple products. I was able to figure out the basics by playing around, although more advanced functionality actually required reading the online user guide, a first for me.

The first few days were all novelty and strangers noticing it and asking about it. A colleague even reached over in the middle of a meeting and tapped the “dismiss” button on a text that had popped up, saying he “just couldn’t help it,” which was pretty funny. It was neat to get a bunch of notifications on my wrist, like when a calendar alert would pop up for my next meeting. I even took a wrist call in the grocery store one day, when my hands were full and my phone at the bottom of my bag. I did experience a few annoying glitches, most notably that it didn’t like to register my password (requiring me to punch it in over and over), and calendar updates from my Outlook work account wouldn’t update on the watch. But overall, it was a pretty good experience.

But the fitness tracking. Sigh.

Reading about the fitness functionality before wearing the watch, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In theory, Apple has put a fair amount of thought into it’s “Apple Health” functionality, and the watch is designed to track your fitness and health holistically, giving you a big-picture view of a variety of wellness metrics. Moreover, the watch is supposed to “learn” your activity, becoming more accurate the more you wear it. I love the idea of all of this, and I was excited to try it.

Unfortunately, in practice, I don’t think they’re there yet. The fitness and health tracking functionality felt confusing, convoluted and overdone — as if they had too many good ideas, and couldn’t figure out how to package them into a manageable experience. Even after a month with the watch, I found I still wasn’t truly comfortable with how to use the fitness and health functionality effectively.

Here is my Apple Watch review from a fitness standpoint:

  • I quickly learned that the Apple Watch focuses less on steps and more on “overall health.” It does this by tracking three metrics, illustrated by three rings, which you’re supposed to complete every day: exercise time, calories and standing time. This was a bummer to me, because I’ve become addicted to tracking my steps via my Fitbit, and I know what 10,000 versus 20,000 steps looked and felt like in my day. I figured I’d eventually get used to the new metrics, but I continued to miss seeing my steps front and center. I later learned that you can see your steps on the watch, but they’re buried in the Activity app, and not measured by an activity ring.

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  • I found the “Standing” functionality pretty useless. I stand at least 4 hours a day at a standing desk, but the Watch doesn’t know that because oddly enough, it needs to detect movement to register standing. Instead, it would regularly tap my wrist every hour, telling me it was “time to stand up,” even though I’d already been standing for hours. In order to get an accurate “standing time” read on my activity tracking rings, I would have to go walk around for a few minutes after getting the standing alert. It would be much more useful if the Watch could just detect that I’m standing continuously at my desk. Because, well, standing is not the same as walking around :-)
  • When you exercise, you use the “Workout” app. Before you start working out, you go to the watch app, choose your exercise, select a goal (either calories, distance or time) and hit start. You can choose from walking, running, cycling, rowing, stair stepping, elliptical and “other.” It also differentiates between indoor/outdoor for walking, running and cycling. While you’re working out, the watch stays in workout mode, so you can access a dashboard that shows you your progress. You can customize this view to show you the metrics you’re most interested in (calories, distance, elapsed time, pace/speed and heart rate). It’s funny, because in theory all of this sounds great, even as I write this. But in practice, I found the process of using the Workout app complicated and convoluted, and I still missed seeing my steps as I worked out. Finally, I found the “other” category questionable. I had to use it when I played tennis (which is often), and the stats were all over the place, which made me question the accuracy. On the flip side, I imagine that cyclists would appreciate that the watch tracks cycling, since many mainstream fitness trackers do not.

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  • The heart rate monitor is a true bright spot and a game-changer for me. I found it interesting and insightful to look at my heart rate throughout the day. I learned that I generally have a low resting heart rate (in the low 50’s to 60’s). I liked being able to adjust my exercise intensity depending on what I was looking to get out of my workout (e.g. higher heart rate for cardio training). I learned that stress at work raises my heart rate noticeably, which got me thinking more about breathing and relaxation techniques at the office. I also confirmed that I should not stand in lines, listen to people chew loudly or talk to customer service reps, as those activities seemingly put me at risk for a heart attack (kidding, sort of).
  • I ran into trouble when I tried to make the Watch integrate with the other fitness apps I like to use, like MyFitnessPal, Strava and FitStar. Although all three have Apple Watch apps, they’re little more than so-so data displays with very limited functionality. The exception is supposed to be FitStar Yoga, which you can actually use on your watch for guided yoga. But I found it awkward and ultimately untenable to do yoga while trying to look at my wrist. Ultimately, I found these apps pretty useless on the watch. This is an area that I imagine will improve over time — as app developers figure out how to create apps better-suited for the watch.

Overall, I really wanted to love the Apple Watch. It’s easily the best-looking wearable available, and I think that Apple has the right idea in trying to provide a deeper, more holistic view of your fitness and health. But in reality, it’s too complicated and convoluted, and feels overdone. It’s not the easy, seamless, intuitive experience I’m used to with Apple, and it shows that this is first-generation stuff.

Looking back, I think I knew where I would land with the Apple Watch within a few days of wearing it, but because I was smitten with the idea of it, I kept trucking along, hoping that one day it would click and feel right. After about month, it still hadn’t, and I listed it on Craigslist. Lucky for me, there’s still enough demand for it, and I was able to sell it at a nominal $30 loss within one day.

Surprisingly, I haven’t gone back to my Fitbit. Instead, my Apple Watch review experience made me realize that what I really want is a wearable that is 100% fitness focused, but that goes a bit deeper than the Fitbit. So I got Intel’s $199 Basis Peak watch, which I’ve been hearing about for months. Many people say that it’s the fitness-minded person’s Apple Watch (I hear similar sentiment about the Garmin watches).

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Simple and straight-forward activity and (deep) sleep tracking are front and center on the Basis Peak, and it also monitors your heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration levels (seriously!). It’s not as pretty as the Apple Watch, but it looks sporty and it’s growing on me. Most of all, I love how wonderfully straight-forward it is. You simply start exercising and it automatically starts tracking, pulling up a dashboard of metrics. Plus, as a secondary feature, it shows you text, call and email notifs, which is nice, since I enjoyed those features on the Apple Watch. I’ve had it for a week, and I’m liking it more and more every day.

Truth be told, I still kind of miss the beautiful Apple Watch display and extra sleek look, but in this case I’ve come to the conclusion that I value brains over beauty in my fitness wearable.

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Chrissy Trampedach
Chrissy Trampedach is a PR & communications pro by day and fitness buff, skiing fanatic, dedicated yogi and wannabe tennis champ by night (and weekend). As a former competitive figure skater, she’s lived a life of training and sports from a young age. Today, she fuels her competitive spirit and drive to challenge her body and mind with USTA tennis, skiing adventures around the world, the SF yoga community and tracking the latest fitness trends. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Tim and their “75-lb lap dog” Enzo.

3 Comments

  1. I’m currently wearing Apple Watch on the left, Fitbit Charge HR on the right. I agree w your sentiments about Apple Watch Activity rings – useless! I don’t wear it while exercising anymore because I haven’t found the benefit. Instead I just want the step credit on my Fitbit because of all the challenges I’m part of.

    There’s definitely lots of potential with heart rate for both devices. The one that’ll win for me will likely be the one that nails why HR is important and how I can see this info during a workout without having to grab my phone. I’m betting it’s the Apple Watch, but agree that it’s got a ways to go.

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