I'm not even sure we can call it a watch. Okay, it goes on the wrist, and it happens to tell the time, but that's about where the similarities between Apple's just announced watch and the hand-assembled, often painstakingly finished mechanical watches we write about, and obsess over, end. I was lucky enough to be invited to Cupertino to witness the announcement of the Apple Watch firsthand, and though I do not believe it poses any threat to haute horology manufactures, I do think the Apple Watch will be a big problem for low-priced quartz watches, and even some entry-level mechanical watches. In years to come, it could pose a larger threat to higher end brands, too. The reason? Apple got more details right on their watch than the vast majority of Swiss and Asian brands do with similarly priced watches, and those details add up to a really impressive piece of design. It offers so much more functionality than other digitals it's almost embarrassing. But it's not perfect, by any means. Read on to hear my thoughts on the Apple Watch, from the perspective of a watch guy. Oh, and there are dozens of in-the-metal pictures, too.
I won't get into the raw functionality of the Apple Watch – for that, refer to my colleague Kelly Jasper's introductory article here. Instead I've chosen to focus on the many things I believe Apple got right and those I believe they got wrong, all the while viewing this piece of wearable technology not as a digital peripheral, but as an actual watch. Essentially, what can our friends in Switzerland learn from Apple, and what can Apple learn from the Swiss.
WHAT'S GREAT ABOUT THE APPLE WATCH
The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350. There is nothing that comes close to the fluidity, attention to detail, or simple build quality found on the Apple Watch in this price bracket. The Sistem51, for example, is a very cool, inexpensive mechanical watch. But it feels like it costs $150 (for the record, I bought one and adore it). Then, for closer to the price of the Apple Watch, you could own this, which is, well, downright horrific in just about every conceivable metric. Seiko does offer some nice things at $349 or less, but again, they feel like they cost exactly what they do. The Apple Watch feels like a lot of thought went into it, and no doubt it did. It feels expensive.
Overall design of the object – most obviously, the way that curved screen flows perfectly into the case – is just gorgeous. As Tim Cook said during the keynote address, you can barely tell where the software stops and the hardware begins. The rounded edges are very Apple, even very Marc Newson, who, based on absolutely nothing but a gut feeling, I'm sure had something to do with the design of the Apple Watch. Why? Just look at it. Also, take a read of this article I wrote back in 2012 when Newson's Ikepod showed its then new Horizon. I call attention to the fact that the bezel is seamlessly integrated into the case. Not dissimilar to the way the screen of the Apple Watch wraps into the body. And the strap found on the Apple Watch Sport? Look at the strap from the Newson-designed Ikepod. Jony Ive's friendship with Newson is well documented and it's possible they simply shared ideas over drinks, or maybe Newson was entrenched in the project, imparting all he learned at Ikepod with his friends at Apple prior to the announcement he'd join their ranks. We will never know.
The Apple Watch is available in both 38 mm and 42 mm. I tried them both on, and they both worked perfectly on my wrist. They didn't exaggerate the options and make one decidedly male oriented at 44 mm and a girly equivalent at 35 mm or the like. Any man, woman, or child could pull off either size with ease. This may not seem like much, but remember this is Apple's first watch, and it would be a very easy mistake to make it too big or too small. I'm sure there was much discussion about making it larger – how could there not be? It would've made the entire interface bigger, bolder, more recognizable from afar and easier to use. The fact that they chose to actually make the thing wearable shows a great deal of restraint. The 38 mm example is particularly nice on the wrist as seen here.
The Apple Watch, in its own way, really pays great homage to traditional watchmaking and the environment in which horology was developed. We have to remember that the first timekeeping devices,things like sundials, were dictated by the sun and the stars, as is time to this day. The fact that Apple chose to develop two faces dedicated to the cosmos shows they are, at the very least, aware of the origins and importance of the earliest timekeeping machines, and the governing body of all time and space – the universe. (Sidenote: this "Astronomy" face will make it super easy to set the moonphase on your perpetual calendar. #watchnerdalert)
Apple will also offer a few faces that are reminiscent of modern analog watches. I expect that we will see many developments on the face front when Apple Watch hits stores.
Further, they kept the crown. Okay, so it's a "digital crown" on the Apple Watch, but for a company founded by a man known for his distaste of buttons and switches, the fact that they kept the original horological control center says something. Sure, it is critical to the UI of Apple Watch, but I was surprised to see that they hadn't attempted a device that is completely void of physical controls.
Options, And Obsession
There are so many different variations on the Apple Watch it's hard to keep it all straight. There is the normal Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Sport, and the Apple Watch Edition. That means it's cased in steel, DLC-coated steel, aluminum, grey DLC-coated aluminum, rose gold or yellow gold. There are six different styles of straps and bracelets, in a number of colors.
Does that mean there is an Apple Watch for everyone? No, it doesn't, but it reinforces Cook's message that this is Apple's most personal device, offering a range of options that fit someone's varying lifestyle. No watch from Switzerland comes with this many choices of finishes, and in a world where every industry is splitting hairs (I'm looking at you, BMW 4, 6, and 8 series / and you, Audi A2, A3, A5, and A7), it only makes sense to offer the chance for people to obsess of the details. Details are what make life interesting, it's what allows me, for example, to have a job writing about something that we literally do not need in any capacity, but enjoy a great deal. I guarantee that there are a very high number of people out there who just adore the standard Apple Watch, and hate the Apple Watch Sport. Similarly for the solid-gold Apple Watch Edition, because though it received over 2,000 likes on Instagram, many of the comments were quite negative. I think Switzerland should take a clue here, and realize that once you find something that works, it doesn't hurt to offer it in any number of aesthetic options. Consider how robust our straps business in on the HODINKEE shop – that is because watch consumers simply didn't like having only the OEM-supplied strap or bracelet as an option. We're starting to see the slight deviation model a little bit from the Swiss, an example being the Tudor Black Bay, which comes with a burgundy bezel and gilt dial, or blue bezel with silver dial, each with three strap options.
And that leads me to my next point. Apple absolutely, positively, indisputably NAILED its straps and bracelets. In addition to offering a bevy of options from leather to fluoroelastomer to link bracelets to Milanese, it is here that you really see how much attention Apple was paying to the way people wear watches, and the how bad existing options were.
The Apple Watch can take an integrated strap or bracelet, or one with wire lugs. It totally changes the look of the watch, and swapping them couldn't be any easier. Changing straps is one thing, but the attention to detail on the straps and bracelets themselves is downright incredible, and when I mentioned above that nothing comes close in this price range, it is very visible when talking about straps.
I mentioned the Ikepod style closure of the Sport watch straps above, which is clearly just a superior way of closing a strap like that. But, it gets better. The leather is super soft, super high quality. It is much nicer than any leather strap I've ever felt on a $350 analog watch. Then, look at the buckle. It looks like a normal tang, but notice that the tang itself doesn't simply sit on top of the cross bar, it's actually integrated into the buckle itself.
Then you have the link bracelet. Did you know that the entire thing is sizable with just your own hands, no tools required? All you have to do it press on the center link from the rear of the bracelet and a link pops right out. It reminds me a little bit of how IWC's Aquatimer straps attach to the case, with a center release button, but here it's for every single link. Additionally, the deployant (did you notice Jony Ive called it a "deployment" buckle in the video? Cute.) is again so slick, where it actually folds over itself to be far thinner than a traditional bracelet clasp.
But for me, it's all about the Milanese bracelet, baby. The fact that Apple even knows what this is is remarkable. I promise you not a single other tech company in the world would've spent the time to make this admittedly outdated looking option. But I absolutely love it.
I love it because it's so comfortable, so different than a traditional link bracelet. I love because it's so 1950s and '60s. I actually wear a Milanese-style bracelet on my 1957 Omega Speedmaster (ref 2915-2 for you nerds) and I get more compliments on it than just about anything I own, because of the bracelet.
The 42 mm Apple Watch on this bracelet was the one I was determined to try on first, and here it is on my wrist.
This "loop" style bracelet is just fantastic, and unlike the bracelet on my Omega, it just works. It's magnetized and you can close it at any size. It is light to wear, but substantial, and feels fantastic on the wrist. How does it compare to this nice Tissot with a similar bracelet? Switzerland, you don't want to know.
Again, Apple has paid excruciating attention to detail in the design and wearability of the Apple Watch. In many cases, its offerings make what is coming out of Switzerland (or Asia) look amateurish. But, let me remind you that I am looking at this object as just that, the physical form, not in the interface. If this was simply a digital watch, I could say it's a well designed, well-executed one. But it's not a watch, and that's where I think it missed the mark.
WHAT'S NOT SO GREAT ABOUT THE APPLE WATCH
Emotion, Or Lack Thereof
What surprised me the most about the introduction of a large(ish) device, complete with a screen and not simply a wearable, is that it shows Apple is comfortable not having its object worn by a significant percentage of early adopters who normally flock to their launches. Those who love, and wear, mechanical watches tend to be slightly higher income. They tend to want things that are beautifully made with great purpose – in a nutshell, Apple products. But what makes the millions of us that would never trade a Rolex in for an Apple is the emotion brought about by our watches – the fact that they are so timeless, so lasting, so personal. Nothing digital, no matter if Jony Ive (or Marc Newson) designed it, could ever replace that, if for no other reason than sheer life-cycle limitations. My watches will last for generations, this Apple Watch will last for five years, if we're lucky. On an emotional level, you can't compare them, and that is why I don't believe many serious watch lovers (who, again, would normally be racing to spend their cash on an Apple release) will go for this. It's directly competing for the same real estate, where as if we had seen a bracelet of some kind announced yesterday, those early adapters, myself included, would be begging Apple to take their pre-pre-pre-order (truth be told, I'll obviously be buying one, but you know what I'm saying).
If I had to criticize the actual form of the Apple Watch, it would be a complaint you've heard from me before (most recently with the Habring2 in our latest Three on Three); the Apple Watch doesn't fit under my shirt cuff without serious effort, if at all. I believe that great design should not disrupt daily life, and a watch that doesn't fit under a shirt sleeve is missing something. Apple is amazing and building thin, elegant machines, and I was surprised by how bulky this is, especially when the 45 minutes prior to the introduction of the Apple Watch were spent discussing how svelte the new iPhone 6 is. I understand the physical limitations and the required dock on the rear of the watch, but the Apple Watch is bulkier than I would've liked.
Could I have likely figured out a better solution for all that went into the Apple Watch to make it thinner? Certainly not, but to get mass adoption, I think it needs to be sleeker.
Digital Watches Are For Nerds
And about that. The Apple Watch is an incredible piece of engineering, no doubt. It is still not as cool as a mechanical watch, to real people. This might change with time, but my feeling is that not any time soon will a digital wristwatch, no matter what it's capable of, be considered "cool." I am talking pure aesthetics, and 100 perfect superficial judgement here, but at the end of the day, I don't see people that love beautiful things wearing this with any great regularity.
Imagine a man who grew up in the middle class, went do a decent school, got an okay job, lives in a nice apartment in some metropolitan town, maybe drives a German car and occasionally splurges on something nice for himself. Do you see him wearing the Apple Watch? I don't. I do see him buying the Apple Watch,but it will need to go further than that. Take me, for example, I am sitting here on a gorgeous 27-inch iMac, wearing an ultra-thin perpetual calendar in white gold, and in fact, to my left is an Ikepod Hourglass (designed by Marc Newson) that I wanted from the minute I laid eyes on it. I saved up and bought it because it's a perfect object, and even those people who don't care about time, or design, agree that it's beautiful. The average well-to-do person buys an iPhone 6 because it's the absolute best offering in the category in both form and function. I'm not sure the same can be said about Apple Watch because things like my Patek Philippe 3940G exist, and they always will.
The biggest concern those in the mainstream press have with the actual functionality of the Apple Watch is that it must be tethered to an iPhone. Does that mean, if you were to go for a jog, that the iPhone has to come with? During yesterday's hands-on session we asked that directly to Apple PR, and they didn't have an answer at that moment. If so, that's a problem, but one I expect to be remedied quickly, if even a valid concern at all.
Market Leader In A Category No One Really Asked For
The Apple Watch is absolutely the best smart watch on the planet. That much I'm sure of. But are we sure that wearable technology is something we really want? In the same way those who publicly wore blue-tooth headsets five years ago and those who wore Google Glass one year ago, will smart watches ever become a thing that people genuinely want? If anyone can make it happen, it's Apple. It's going to take a lot of time, and a lot of test cases when this thing launches next year.
IS IT A THREAT TO "REAL" WATCHES?
This a question I've been asked countless times in the media of the past few months ( / days / hours). Will anyone be trading in their Lange Double-Split for an Apple Watch? Certainly not. But, will the average Lange owner buy an Apple Watch, wear it on the weekends, and then, after a great workout with it, decide to leave it on next for a vacation to the beach, and then maybe on casual Friday to the office? It's possible. Apple products have a way of making someone not want to live without them, and while I wasn't able to fully immerse myself in the OS yesterday, what I saw was impressive. So while certainly not direct competition for haute horology watchmaking right now, the Apple Watch is absolutely competition for the real estate of the wrist, and years down the road, it could spell trouble for traditional watches even at a high level. When you realize you just don't need something anymore, there is little desire to buy another.
At the lower end, I believe the Apple Watch is a serious threat to those less faithful lovers of analog watches. There is a certain percentage of the population that simply doesn't care if they're wearing a watch of any great manufacturing process and the Apple Watch will appeal to them, if it works as advertised. Brands like Suunto should be worried. Casio as well. Even Seiko with its Astron line could fall into the same group of those looking for pure function. The other thing that could spell trouble even for the Swiss is Apple's cool factor with the young. At 16, will someone want a swatch or an Apple watch? At 20 will they want a Hamilton or the Apple Watch 3. At 25 will they want an Omega or an Apple Watch Plus? That should be a very real concern for the Swiss, appealing to a younger generation of buyers who live and breathe Apple.
Again, Apple paid great attention to detail with this new wrist-bound peripheral, and it shows the Swiss that it is possible to have great design at low costs. That is the most exciting thing about the Apple Watch for me – it will push the Swiss to take the sub-$1,000 mechanical watch category more seriously.
The Apple Watch is slated to ship in early 2015, and you can be sure we'll put its through its paces once available. You can read more on it here, and enjoy the dozens of live photos from the launch event below.