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Apple Watch Update: More Details and Hands-On Impressions

·Tech Critic

Today, it seemed as if every tech journalist in America was crammed into Apple’s auditorium. We were there to see the unveiling of the Apple Watch, the first new product category from Apple since the iPad.

Flint Center auditorium
Flint Center auditorium

The Flint Center, where Apple introduced the Apple Watch … right before it became a sea of tech journalists. (Stephan Lam/Reuters) 

Yes, the new phones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, are intriguing, and I’ll be reviewing them soon. But the watch stole the show.

When can you get it? Not today. In fact, it’s a long way from being ready. We don’t even know when it will come out, except that it will be in 2015 sometime.

But I did get a chance to wear one briefly, use it for a little bit, and learn more about it in a private session. Here’s what I know.

What Apple said publicly
The Apple Watch is a gorgeous little metal square with rounded edges; at first glance, it could be a tiny iPod Shuffle strapped to your wrist.

Apple Watch on a wrist
Apple Watch on a wrist

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

But, up close, you realize that this watch is much smaller and more beautiful than most previous smartwatches. It’s available in two screen sizes: 1.5 and 1.7 inches.

Within each size, there are three models: Apple Watch (stainless steel body, sapphire back); Apple Watch Sport, built to be tougher and 30 percent lighter (aluminum body, stronger “ion-exchange” glass front, plastic composite back instead of sapphire); and the gold Edition watch, which is 18-karat gold (including the buckle on the band) and quite heavy.

There are six different band styles in various materials (leather, plastic, stainless steel). On the bottom of the watch, at each end, there’s a tiny release button that lets you make quick band changes without a Phillips screwdriver or a visit to a jeweler.

Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch
Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

That means there are a lot of options. It’s unlike Apple, really. This is the company usually known for designing products that say, “Here’s the look we’ve chosen for you.”

You can control the watch using at least four methods. First, there’s Siri. You can dictate text or give commands.

Second, there’s a remarkable “Digital Crown” on the right side (sorry, lefties). Turning the knurled knob zooms in or out of the Home screen, or moves the highlighting through various onscreen options so you can change them. You can also click this crown as an OK button.

Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch
Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Third, there’s a big button below the crown, again on the right side. Apple showed only one function for it: Press it to summon the icons of the people you communicate with most frequently, in order to send them texts, drawings, or — this is so cool — tap signals.

For example, when you want to leave a party, tap three times on your watch’s screen. Your spouse feels the same tapping pattern on her wrist, elsewhere in the room. Or you could send a silent “I love you” tap to your spouse’s wrist when you’re thousands of miles apart.

You’ll also press the big side button twice when you want to pay for something using Apple’s new Apple Pay wireless payment system (see below).

Finally, you can touch the screen: Tap buttons, tap app icons to open them, and so on.

Interestingly, this screen knows how hard you’re tapping — I haven’t seen that before in watches or phones. Pressing hard will serve as a “right-click” — to open a shortcut menu full of options.

There’s a home screen full of tiny round app icons. You can zoom in and out by turning the crown, but there are no labels on these icons, which sounds like it could be problematic.

Apple Watch displaying its home screen
Apple Watch displaying its home screen

(Siemond Chan/Yahoo Tech)

When you raise your wrist, the darkened screen lights up to show you the time, using your chosen watch face. From there, you swipe up to see Glance: a series of horizontally scrolling info-screens like weather, GPS, stocks, calendar, and so on. (Yes, reminiscent of Android Wear.) You can specify which of these you want to see, and developers can write new ones.      

On the back: four round lenses. Light is sent through two of them, and the other two are infrared sensors. Together, they examine the blood flow through your skin, for the purpose of determining your pulse rate.

Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch
Tim Cook with screen showing the Apple Watch

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The charger is a magnetic disk that snaps right onto the back. You don’t have to fuss with prongs or getting the orientation right. It’s even better than the MagSafe adapter on MacBooks.

What Apple said privately
Apple reps offered individual briefings to some tech writers; there I learned a bunch of stuff that Apple didn’t say in its keynote.

For example, the Apple Watch is water resistant. Sweating, wearing it in the rain, washing your hands, or cooking with it are fine. Take it off before you swim or get in the shower, though.

What you also couldn’t tell in the keynote presentation was how this watch feels and sounds. It issues little vibrations of various intensities (it can control both the intensity and the rapidity of the vibration), which will have different meanings. For example, one vibration means “turn left” when you’re using GPS, and another means “turn right.” The watch is light and comfortable, and its sounds are clear and full of personality.

There’s a speaker and a microphone on the watch. You can, in fact, take and make phone calls from your wrist, Dick Tracy style. That goofy ergonomic position was first made laughable by the Samsung Gear watches, so I’m not sure how many people will use it — but you can do it if you want.

I also learned that you’ll load apps onto the watch from your iPhone. And you’ll be able to rearrange those app icons into little clusters on the home screen. (To do that, you’ll use the same technique you do on the iPhone: Hold your finger down until they start wiggling, and then drag them around.)

Oh, and there’s a “Ping My Phone” button on the watch, which will make your phone beep. Great when you’ve lost your phone somewhere in the house.

The fanciest model, the gold Apple Phone Edition, comes in a gorgeous jewelry box — which doubles as a charger. The back of the box has a Lightning connector, and the inside of the box has the watch’s magnetic round charger pad, standing vertically. So as you retire each night, you can just lay your gold watch into its case and let it charge.

What Apple knows but hasn’t said
There’s quite a bit that we don’t know yet about the Apple Watch, and Apple isn’t yet saying. For example:

• Technical specs. We don’t know the screen resolution or the screen technology. We don’t know how much storage is inside or the processor speed.

Battery life. We don’t know the battery life. (I’ll bet on “one day.”)

• What that big button is for. That big button below the crown: What’s it for? We know that it summons your friends’ icons or lets you pay for things. But it will have other functions, as yet unannounced.

• How you’ll manage the phone. How do you delete apps from the watch? How do you change the settings? How do you specify which Glance screens you want to see? I’m guessing you’ll use a special phone app, but Apple isn’t saying yet.

What even Apple doesn’t know
Lots of the Apple Watch’s systems aren’t working yet. Pricing and models haven’t been ironed out.

We know that the least expensive watch will cost $350. But there are a bunch of models; how expensive they’ll go, Apple hasn’t determined yet.

Will you be able to mix and match bands with watches? Not decided yet.

Apple hasn’t yet determined exactly which features will make the cut, either. For example, will the watch offer geofencing (where it beeps to let you know that you’ve wandered away from your phone, leaving it on a restaurant table)?

Finally, the big one: Nobody knows if the Apple Watch will be a hit.

Smartwatches so far have failed with the public because they were ugly, they were big and bulky, or they didn’t do much more than your phone could do. Or all three.

It’s clear that Apple has put more thought into these factors than any other company so far. The Apple Watch is by far the least gigantic fully capable smartwatch, and it’s among the best looking.

Its reason for being also seems better considered than previous smartwatches. It’s the health monitoring. This watch keeps track of your heart rate as you exercise. (And that’s as you exercise — continuously; you don’t have to stop, hold still, and wait for it to take a sample, as on Samsung’s watches.) It keeps track of how much time you spend standing. Moving. Working out.

If the new Apple Pay system catches on, that’s a natural for a smartwatch, too: Pay for something at the register by waving your hand at a special wireless payment terminal. (Apple says that 220,000 stores are already equipped and that it’s working to sign up national chains like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Disney, and so on.)

Apple even said that your watch will double as a wireless hotel-room key at Starwood hotels. That’s cool.

But let’s remember that the most notable wrist trend in the past few years is people abandoning wristwatches. If the Apple Watch succeeds, it will have to overcome that tidal force.

And, of course, the Apple Watch requires that you own an iPhone. It requires that you sign into the Apple ecosystem. It won’t work if you’re among the hundreds of millions of people who have Android phones (or the 23 people who have Windows Phones).

In other words, the new watch won’t do anything to bring a truce between the Apple fans and the Android fans (whose vitriol toward one another will be clearly visible in the comments on this article).

The bottom line: Many questions remain, but one thing is for sure. By blessing the Apple Watch with great looks, small size, customizability, and reasons for existing on your wrist, Apple has gone further than any other company — much further — in helping to launch the Dawn of the Smartwatch Era. 

You can email David Pogue here