I used to hate the Apple Watch, but I became obsessed after using it as a fitness tracker
Every company from Google to Apple to the now-defunct startup Pebble overpromised and under-delivered on wearables. There wasn't a clear purpose for smartwatches other than they were geeky and kind of handy in certain situations. As I've said with each Apple Watch version I've reviewed, it's a nice thing to have, but not essential like a smartphone.
So I did something different this year when testing the new $399 Apple Watch Series 3. I kept my Apple Watch usage as limited as possible and focused on something most Watch fans seem to think it's the best at: fitness tracking.
And you know what? The Apple Watch did a damn good job.
After a week using the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker, I've done a full 180. I haven't worn an Apple Watch regularly since late 2015, but now I'm addicted to it. It turns out that ignoring a lot of the extra stuff like third-party apps, phone calls, and Siri queries makes the Apple Watch a much more focused and useful gadget. It's how Apple should've started things with the Apple Watch instead of packing in so many features in an effort to make the device everything to everyone.
(A quick side note: The Apple Watch Series 3 has a new non-fitness feature worth mentioning. It's the first Apple Watch with a cellular connection, so you can use it without your phone. Unlike some early testers, I found the cellular connection worked fine, and I was able to receive calls, texts, notifications, and use Siri. But I don't think most people will need the cellular version unless they have a desire to go phone-free a lot. Maybe runners will like it? I don't know. It's not for me. Plus, your carrier will charge you an extra $10 per month.)
I'm pretty good about working out regularly. Not to brag, but I like waking up at 5:30 a.m. and running down to the gym for an hour so I can get my workout out of the way before my day really starts. But there are some days I cheat. I'm too tired, or stayed out too late the night before, or I'd just rather sleep the extra hour.
The Apple Watch's Activity app encouraged me to get moving. When I put the Watch on for the first time each day, I'd get an alert summarizing my activity from the day before and encouraging me to beat what I did the day before. It's that little extra push that convinced me to get off my butt and move. I only missed one workout this week.
You can also share your workouts with other friends who have Apple Watches, nudging them to work out or bragging about your own achievements. I tried this with my colleague Kif, who's also testing the Apple Watch Series 3, and it added a fun, competitive element to my workouts. I'm also happy to say I beat him to closing my activity rings most days. If you're the competitive type and need a little extra encouragement, workout sharing is a great feature on the Apple Watch.
There are a bunch of third-party workout apps for the Apple Watch, but I stuck with the one that Apple ships with the watch. It seems to work pretty well, and has all the standard workouts you'd expect, like elliptical, indoor run, and indoor rowing. The app tracks your pulse and estimates how many calories you burn with each workout. You can also string multiple workouts together if you decide to mix things up in a session.
My only problem is there isn't a weight-lifting workout. Instead, you have to track weight-lifting sessions with the "Other" workout mode, which equates your workout to a brisk walk. I doubt it's the best way to track how many calories you really burn while lifting weights.
All your workout data gets pushed to the iPhone's activity app, so you can get a full summary of what you accomplish each day. It also ties into the Health app on iPhone, which can monitor vitals like your pulse using the Apple Watch's sensors. Over time, you can get a pretty good snapshot of your activity and progress. It made me want to keep the Apple Watch on just so I could track my progress better. That alone is worth it.
All that other smartwatch stuff
Of course, the Apple Watch does so much more than fitness tracking. It can run apps, play music, bring you information from Siri, and a lot of other functions that mimic your smartphone. But the iPhone does all of that, and it does it a lot better than the Apple Watch.
Apps are still the worst part of the Apple Watch. It's tough to use most of them on the tiny screen, and some run painfully slow. It took over a minute for my Lyft app to load the other day. Meanwhile, many developers have realized the Apple Watch just isn't worth it. Twitter, Amazon, Google, and others have all removed their Apple Watch apps. It's a smart move.
The one thing I do like: notifications. The Apple Watch is perfect for calendar alerts and reading incoming text messages on the go. I limited notifications from just about every other app though to save me from insanity with my wrist buzzing every time the president prompts a heart-stopping news alert or someone mentions me on Twitter.
If you want an Apple Watch, I suggest staying as focused as possible. Use it for fitness tracking, limited notifications, and - gasp! - telling the time. Don't install any third-party apps. Apple's biggest mistake was making the Apple Watch do too much before it was ready.
The Apple Watch gives you the foundation of a great gadget, but you also have to do a little work to make it work.
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