Apple’s current watch line is a little confusing. If you all followed their product launch this fall, you noted there are now 3 different watches to choose from. The Apple Series 1 (which I will cover in this review), Apple Watch Series 2, and Apple Watch Nike+. All three are updates from the original Apple Watch. Not to get super technical here, but the Apple Watch Series 2 and the Apple Watch Nike+ are essentially the same watch; outfitted with GPS and water resistant. I’ve heard some pretty horrendous things about the GPS these models are equipped with (doesn’t track elevation…What the fuck?!?). Ethan Newberry over at the Ginger Runner did a great review on the Nike+ model, which I HIGHLY recommend you check out if you are about to go drop $369(baseline price) on one of those.
I will be reviewing the Series 1, which does not have a GPS, but relies on being tethered to your iPhone via Bluetooth and hitching a ride via your data plan. It is $100 cheaper than the Nike+ and Series 2, but again, I heard that extra Benjamin is just going to get you less battery life and more headaches. I almost always take my phone out on my runs, due to the fact I’ve taken some pretty gnarly spills on some long runs. No serious injuries, but I like having my phone tucked neatly into my hydration pack in case I ever need it. Even if I had pumped the extra cash into Apple’s coffers and gone full GPS, I would most likely still take my phone with me on runs.
This is my third week as an Apple Watch wearer, and I think the watch is cool, but this is still very much a WANT and should be very far down on your list of NEEDS. If you are living happily ever after in the Apple ecosystem of MacBooks, iPhones, and iPads, the Apple Watch is certainly a cool addition, but I don’t think you will be blown away by it as you may have been those other products. Apple makes cool shit, there’s no doubt about it, but I think 90% of what I’ve loved about Apple is how intuitive their products are. Most children can find their way around an iPad or iPhone within five minutes of having it in their hand. The Apple Watch is the LEAST intuitive of any Apple product I’ve used in recent memory. It’s week three, and I’m still figuring things out. That’s all fine and good, but I think many people who’ve come to love the simplicity of Apple’s products and operating systems are going to get frustrated.
This review could get pretty techie, as I love talking about those kinds of things, but I’m going to keep my discussion of the Apple Watch Series 1 as it relates to running.
With the hesitant comments aside, I really like the Apple Watch. It’s not perfect, but keep in mind this really is only the 2nd generation model. I don’t really believe Apple hit their stride with mobile devices until the iPhone 4, so we have a few years to go before the Apple Watch hits the golden age.
I’m a Strava user, and damn proud of it. Strava makes the best tracking app out there, and it’s free (unless you want to go Premium, still only $6/month). I made sure that Strava released an app for Apple Watch and that it made full use of the technology. This is a sore point for some folks out there, that your favorite app may have an Apple Watch version, but that it can’t access many of the Watch hardware functions. That’s not the case at all with Strava. Strava uses the main technology I was concerned with, the Apple Watch heart rate monitor.
Using an Omron Digital Blood Pressure Monitor, I compared it to the LED/photodiode one on the Apple Watch. Most of the time, they were well within a small margin of error. The thing that bugs me about the Apple heart rate monitor is it fluctuates frequently. I discovered this because I was trying to photograph a comparison shot, and also seeing the Geiger counter-esque readings on my Strava runs. I guess that means it’s frequently monitoring everything, so maybe it’s just another plus mark in the accuracy column.
The Apple Watch heart rate monitor added a new category to my Strava page: SUFFER SCORE! Love it! Now, after each run, I can look at how hard I was pushing through each run. I’m excited about it to help me learn if I’m pushing too hard and could back off a little, especially if I don’t want to bonk on a 15-mile or greater run; or vice versa, if I can pick up the pace on an 8-mile. This feature is a “to be continued” one, but I really like it so far.
The Strava watch app itself is relatively straight forward. It cues up your iPhone app, as it’s going to piggy back the GPS from your phone, but you can control pretty much everything from the Apple Watch. One of the things I had a hell of a time figuring out was how to switch from ‘Run’ to ‘Ride’ during my morning commute to work. The Strava app will have your default activity, mine being ‘Run’, but if you want to switch you must press down on the start button and Strava will prompt you to switch activities.
For the most part, the app functions fine, but their are a few complaints. If you accidentally start your run and you’re not quite ready, your ZERO workout will automatically post to Strava. Then, you have to go back and delete it so your followers don’t give you shit for the ten feet of running it looks like you did. Another thing you have to do after ending a run, we’re talking about your actual workouts now, is go back to your iPhone or MacBook after the run and edit the name of your run, and if you keep track of your shoes you cannot change between them on the Apple Watch. I like giving my runs clever, little names that summarize how I felt. I also like tracking the mileage of my shoes so I know when it’s time to start saving my pennies for a new pair. It’s kind of a pain in the ass I have to wait until I get out my iPhone or get home to my MacBook to do this. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s a criticism for sure.
This is what you should see as you are running. You see it keeps all the stats neatly and nicely on the screen. Unfortunately, you do have to press the Digital Crown to get the screen back up. The only option to getting around that is if you have your watchOS (Apple Watch’s operating system) set to Wake Screen on Wrist Raise. This is actually the default setting out of the box, but I would highly advise you to switch this option off. If you don’t, plan on your watch needing a charge every few hours. This sucks the battery dry, so it’s a little baffling why this is the default setting. I’ll post a screenshot towards the end of this review to remind you. Back to the Strava display…not bad, eh? I like having my minutes-per-mile nice and handy. I’m still getting used to having this information at my disposal, but it’s a nice feature to have.
Apple Watch is great for monitoring your daily activity, whether that’s running or a day off. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a coffee roaster, so my job is very physical. Those 150-pound bags of raw, green coffee don’t lift themselves into the roaster, so it was cool to find out just how active my job was. It was also good to use as a cautionary for my post-work runs. If I saw my ‘Move’ category was fairly high, I could temper the distance and speed with which I’d approach an afternoon or evening run. I’m a recovering fantasy sports addict, so I love me some stats. Apple Watch breaks down your day into ‘Stand’, ‘Exercise’, and ‘Move’. I’m still a little confused about the ‘Exercise’ category, as it seems to be a bit redundant. The ‘Stand’ category will prompt you throughout the day to get off your ass. I was off work the last few days, so ‘Stand’ was hassling me to stop binge watching Netflix on my couch.
Slowing down and finding time to just breathe is something I never do. When I hear people talk about meditation and “in the moment” kind of things, I could never see myself doing that. Not that I think those kind of things are without merit. Since I slapped this Apple Watch on my wrist, I’ve respected the guidance it’s given me with taking a few minutes out of the day to properly breathe. The ‘Breathe’ notification pops up every few hours and suggests you stop and take a moment to take some deep breaths. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to when these notifications alert you. The haptic sensor gives you a little tap (similar to when you get a text message), and you decide whether to accept the invitation or decline. If you accept, the haptic sensor guides you with gentle vibrations, setting the cadence at which you should inhale and exhale. This is something I try to do as much as I can, but if there’s a time I can’t stop and do that, I hit the ‘Snooze’ option, and the ‘Breathe’ prompt will appear again in a few minutes. I feel like this is one of those things that is helping me in a lot of little ways, making the stressful days move a little slower, and I’ve noticed I’m a little more at ease later in the day.
At the end of your day, you can open your ‘Health’ app on your iPhone to see how you did. This is mine from a few hours before I wrote this post. If there’s something I could complain about here, it’s that there is really no way to access this from your iPad or MacBook. It doesn’t make much sense why this app doesn’t exist on either of those devices and is exclusive to the iPhone. Since I’m already living in the Apple ecosystem, I might as well be able to see this on all my devices. I hope Apple changes this down the road.
So, any major changes you want to make on your Apple Watch are best done through the native app on your iPhone. In the screen shot above, as I mentioned earlier, make sure to turn off the Wake Screen on Wrist Raise. If you don’t, your battery will not last more than a mile into your run. I learned that the hard way.
The only other fitness watch I’ve owned is a Garmin Forerunner (2012 model–I think). It worked well, but I wasn’t as serious of a runner back then. The Apple Watch is certainly an upgrade from that, but as far as fitness tracking goes, they didn’t reinvent the wheel.
If you are already living in the ecosystem of Apple and want to invest in a piece of gear that will track your runs, I think you will be happy with the Apple Watch Series 1, especially if you are used to carrying your phone with you. Again, let me be clear, the Apple Watch is a WANT, not a NEED. It’s still $269, and that’s not cheap for a watch that pretty much needs to be tethered to your iPhone to work the best. If you are not already deep in the Apple ecosystem, there really is no need for you to get this watch. From what I read, there are plenty of other trackers out there that will suit your non-Apple technology just fine.
I’m mostly pleased with this purchase. I imagine as I use it more, it will become more intuitive, but that still feels like an oxymoron. Apple, you did good with this watch, but I’m sure you can do a hell of a lot better in the next few years. Until then, unless you’re absolutely dying for an Apple Watch, you may want to use that $269 for something else or just keep it in your coffers. Oh yeah, and if you do want to spring for this, you may want to put a little more money down and get the 42mm size. I got the 38mm, and it feels tiny.