Okay, it’s technically not “middle” America, geographically speaking, but it is a small chunk of suburbia on the outskirts of an even smaller urban center. A place where people don’t rush right out and buy the latest new gadget simply because it exists. Where people don’t even notice your upgraded Dick Tracy-style Apple Watch wristwear, unless you find yourself compelled to point it out them. And then, shrugging their shoulders, they say things like “Hmm, I don’t know if I really need that,” or “Why did you get one?” Or, at best, with a tinge of skepticism, “Do you actually like it?”
A place where you give them an honest answer to that last question as, “Well, I don’t know. Sort of?”
It does seem wrong to complain about an Apple Watch. A luxury item if there ever was one. After all, if you’re going to spend several hundred dollars or more on a fancy wrist computer that you didn’t even need a month ago, surely you’ve accepted the fact that you’re willing to play the role of guinea pig-slash-early adopter for Apple by doing so. You know you’re prepping for your future role of Apple Watch evangelist or possible Apple Watch naysayer.
But the thing is, the Apple Watch today is more of a promise than it is a platform you can fully recommend. There are some good ideas in there about the future of passive computing, but they exist amid an already cluttered ecosystem containing some 3,500 novelty apps that are more nuisance than practical at times.
What the Apple Watch does best, after all, are its most basic functions: those that take advantage of its small-screened form factor, meant to be used with a glance for brief moments at a time. Not one where you spend multiple minutes gazing at your wrist in lieu of gazing at a smartphone. These are the kind of features that have mainstream appeal, including out here in suburbia.
That brings me to my favorite features of Apple Watch: Messages, the ability to take phone calls in a pinch, and Maps. (When Maps decides to actually work.)
I’d add Apple Pay to this list, but my oh so innovative bank – the startup Simple, which tried to disrupt banking before selling to BBVA – didn’t bother to support Apple Pay until just hours ago. And so this magical world of tapping things to pay for things has been, so far, kind of lost on me. Instead, I’ve had to swipe my card like all those who don’t try to impress the others in line behind them by demonstrating the future of technology at every point-of-sale. (Admittedly, I’m now looking forward to being one of those annoying people.)
But that means that, so far, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve thought to myself, “wow, it was really useful to have an Apple Watch just now!” Because mostly, it’s not really useful. It’s fun. It’s neat, for sure. But, generally speaking, it has not been essential.
That said, I can still see the potential.
Built-In Apps Are Best
The first a-ha moment was when I had a dog leash in each hand, a door knob in my grip, and a 5-year old running around my legs. My iPhone, meanwhile, was somewhere back in the house. And then the phone rang. I knew the call was one of those brief ones – the old, “hey, I’m on my way” – but in days of yore (you know, like, earlier this year) – I would have had to just miss it. Or desperately scramble back inside, likely tangling myself up in dog leashes in some comedic way. Instead, I just banged on the Watch with my free knuckle and said “hello.” The Watch’s speakerphone-like calling feature let me have that quick conversation, and then get back to the task at hand: taking the dogs to pee.
Another notable feature is being able to view and respond to text messages when my phone was not around – whether that’s because it was tucked away in my purse (at last! I can do this!), or secured in a locker as I roamed the gym floor – it was refreshing to break the iPhone habit. The phone is put away, but I’m not missing anything.
The Activity app is also one of the better features of the Apple Watch, as it allows you to more passively take stock of your daily moves and exercise. With other fitness trackers I’ve owned, I tend to forget to charge them (like with FitBit) or leave them stuffed in a drawer when their batteries die (as with Misfit Shine.) The Watch, however, is routinely charged at night right next to the iPhone. And since you likely wear it for other reasons besides exercise tracking, you don’t have to remind yourself to put it on.
The app’s activity charts are simple and easy to read, but what’s better is that Apple’s Health app on the iPhone pulls the data for a more detailed analysis. I haven’t yet decided if I love or loathe the Watch’s incessant reminders to stand, however. (Stand!, it proclaims. But Watch, please, I’m trying to write something here!)
The final, and most promising feature is the ability to navigate via Apple Watch’s walking directions. As someone with a poor sense of direction, and whose driving is predominantly to and from Target, not traversing city blocks, this came in handy the most when traveling. It’s hard to argue that it will be a common use case out here in suburbia, however.
With a long press on the Maps app, I could speak my destination in order to get turn-by-turn directions. As someone who tends to twist my phone around to orient myself against the streets displayed on its screen (oh c’mon, I know you do this, too) – the ability to simply be told to walk this way or turn that way is sort of a godsend.
The cleverest thing about this feature is the haptic feedback the Watch provides. There are two different pulse patterns that inform you whether your next turn is a right or left. In other words, you can walk around like you know where you’re going by following little buzzes on your wrist. I wouldn’t say it’s immediately obvious which is which, but it’s something you should pick up after a few uses. And if needed, you can simply glance at your wrist for a quick update on how many feet away you are from your next turn, which continually updates as you move.
When Maps worked, it was downright fantastic. Unfortunately, the experience was glitchy three-fourths of the nearly half-dozen times I tried it. The app got stuck on the “Loading” screen so long on one occasion (in an area where I had perfectly good coverage, in fact) that I had to force close the app and start over.
Another time Maps was just super laggy when loading. And more than once it just slowed down, failing to update with the next turn or the remaining feet until the next turn, which could leave you heading in the wrong direction. Obviously, these sorts of glitches damage the trust factor you have to have with a mapping application, and have you at times pulling out your iPhone to fact-check by way of Google Maps.
Many Third-Party Apps Disappoint
Beyond that, most of the current third-party applications are non-essential at best, and nearly useless at worst. At present, I can’t think of a single third-party app that could convince a suburbanite that an Apple Watch is a must-have.
I mean, I guess it’s nice to be able to read the headlines in the bathroom without taking your phone in there with you? And I honestly don’t care that my friend just shared some stupid viral link on Facebook or liked my Instagram photo. I found don’t really need to know the moment I’ve been retweeted, either.
Perhaps it’s because I’m still getting used to the idea that there’s now a screen for these kinds of interactions available on my wrist, or maybe it’s because these kinds of interactions work better on smartphones.
I did pull up my TripIt itinerary a couple of times, but you can already do that on your phone. The same goes for the various airlines’ Watch apps. Their Watch apps are certainly nice to have – especially in that panicky moment in the security line where my iPhone randomly rebooted only moments before I had to show my mobile boarding pass to TSA staff. Whew! But they are not critical. A phone would generally suffice.
However, I really liked the Uber app, which buzzed when my car was arriving, but again–this is an app that won’t be used regularly out here in the ‘burbs where we generally drive ourselves.
I think the most valuable third-party apps today are those that focus on taking advantage of the Watch’s sensor array (heart rate monitor, accelerometer) and small screen. That is, fitness and transit apps are best. For fitness-tracking, while it makes sense to be able to kick off tracking a running session, for example, it’s frustrating because the Apple Watch taps into your iPhone’s GPS instead of having access to its own. That means you still have to tote your iPhone on a run to track your route (though not your activity, which it estimates.). Presumably, if Apple chooses to add GPS to the Watch in later generations, this could be an improved experience.
And while transit apps like CityMapper are less applicable in Middle America, it’s worth at least acknowledging their importance to a large number of people today. And commuters to large cities will certainly find it useful.
The Promise: Your Life, Returned
The best thing about the Apple Watch in Small Town USA is that it lets me get back to my life. I may be leading a double life as both a tech addict and a soccer mom, but the Watch lets me take a break without feeling like I’m missing out. I can give my friends my full attention as we chat about our lives, without needing to hold my iPhone or pull it out and check it from time to time. I can stow my phone in my purse, gym bag, or pool tote and still feel connected, just as promised.
Life here is slower, but the interruptions offered by technology have impacted suburbanites and urbanites just the same. PTA moms and barbecue-grilling dads may see initially see the Apple Watch as yet another tool forcing us to stay connected, but really, the opposite is true.
Like our city-dwelling counterparts, we also spend too much time tapping on small screens, while ignoring the vistas in front of us. We, too, carry around the guilt of having missed moments, while having forgotten the people in front of us. We stress over phones at dinner tables. Over eyes fixated on digital conversations, instead of spoken ones.
The Apple Watch’s promise is the ability to break that cycle. How ironic that is. We once paid Apple time and again for the privilege of using its many devices. And now – oh how clever, Apple! – we must pay again for the privilege of being able to stop.