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Ihnatko: A dozen true things about smartwatches

If you’ve been waiting for me to review the Apple Watch, it won’t be much longer.

Why has it taken me so long, when I’ve been wearing it daily since mid-May? “Lack of immediate urgency” is one reason — it wasn’t even available in stores for a month or two after its public release — plus, a friend turned me on to “House of Cards” on Netflix at the start of the summer, which has impacted office productivity.

Mostly, my desire for a longer soak and a deeper marination of my thoughts is due to the nature of the device. The Apple Watch is a subtle beastie that makes fools of anyone forced to offer quick judgments. The slow-cook approach is necessary and the extra couple of months I’ve taken have left me quite certain that I can argue the validity of my conclusions with the ideal level of confidence and arrogance.

Before I put it on for the first time, I’d been wearing an Android Wear watch (the Moto 360) fulltime for several months. I thought all of that experience would leave me well-prepared for Apple Watch. In truth, my experiences forced me to refine my existing understanding of smartwatches in some ways, and it helped to bring my thoughts about other devices into sharper focus.

And before the Moto 360, I wore a Pebble for a couple of months. Before that, I was a Google Glass user. I’ve seen some stuff, man. So before I begin what’s going to be a multi-part, in-depth Apple Watch review, I thought it’d be valuable to write down all of the fundamental observations that I believe to be true of all wearables, as of August 2015.

1) Your opinions on (Device X) are completely without value until you’ve been wearing it for at least two weeks.

And you probably need to have at least a month’s experience with the device before you can be sure that your conclusions are for real and will stand until the next major hardware or OS update.

There can be no greater disconnect between a user’s expectations of a device and the reality. Wearables, in their modern forms, are the first truly new category of computing to come along in at least 10 years. The iPhone was truly revolutionary. But it built on the work of Microsoft, Blackberry, Nokia and Palm, and was introduced into a world where about 75 percent of American adults already owned a cellphone.

Thus, the expectations all smartwatch users (except for freaks like me) are based on what they imagine the experience is going to be, and comparing it to things they’re familiar with. You might complain about how clumsy and slow this creature walks, because you heard it bark and thought it was going to be similar to a dog. But it’s a seal. Its raison d’etre isn’t clear until you see it in the ocean.

A smartwatch might bark like a phone, but it isn’t a phone.

Furthermore, you’re going to have to learn a user interface that falls somewhere in the uncanny valley of design. It’s new enough to be confusing, but similar enough to something you know well to make the sensation of mental disconnect feel even worse.

You’ll be learning stuff as you go. Learning is fine. Let it happen.

It’s going to take a good long while — minimum two weeks — for you to learn enough about this thing to make any judgments about it on its own terms.

2) A smartwatch is a custom-fit experience.

Out of the box, the experience is likely going to suck mightily. It’s always buzzing and distracting you with junk you don’t care about. Certain behaviors are stupid. It’s so cluttered that finding the apps, features and contacts you want on the device is an ungodly chore.

Indeed, yes. Which is why you should expect to spend your first couple of weeks teaching the smartwatch about the things you care about. Remove all of the apps that your phone automatically populated onto the watch, except the ones you keep using. Arrange your contacts so that your Top 10 is always within reach.

You must also (stiff drink, please) read the documentation. You’ll find that most of the little quirks you initially hate about a smartwatch are actually just default options that can be adjusted or eliminated.

Take these first two observations to heart. I maintained an Evernote doc of all of my observations about Apple Watch from my first minute onward. It’s in chronological order, naturally, and the first page or two are all cranky complaints. Almost all of these, it turned out, were the result of my expecting it to work like another device or because of a legitimately dumb (to me) default setting that I was able to change once I read the user guide and started poking around the menus.

3) Oddly enough, these things are useful as wristwatches.

This was the main surprise of the eight months I spent wearing a Moto 360. I imagined that it would be like the other digital watches I’ve worn, where its presence as a timepiece would be almost an incidental sidebar to its way-cool beep-boop functions.

But no: I loved it as a watch. If it’s well-designed — and the Moto 360 emphatically is — you will enjoy putting it on your wrist every morning and looking at it intermittently throughout the day.

I also fell in love with Android Wear’s huge library of watch face designs. My daily dial is something called “Space And Time“, in which a little Apollo-style command and service module orbits a planet. It’s all colorful and fun, and I enjoy looking at it. Other dials sometimes enter the rotation when I need to change things up, and I often find myself on watchface repositories like FaceRepo, looking for cool new ones.

I came to understand that this aspect was one of the reasons why I never warmed to the Pebble. Its whizzy functions were just fine, but it never charmed me as a piece of jewelry.

4) Extended battery life isn’t a significant feature.

This is a signature feature of the Pebble: the battery lasts almost a whole week. That’s swell, but it’s overkill. I’m going to take the watch off and put it on a bedside table every night, no matter what. It’s no trouble to take the extra step of clicking it into charger on that table.

The battery only needs to last a whole day, with enough left over to get you through one of those freakishly long days. Like, you fell asleep on the couch and don’t have time to charge your watch before you have to leave for work. Once, while wearing the Moto 360, I had to check out of my San Francisco hotel at 5 a.m. so I could get to San Jose for breakfast with a friend, followed by a meeting, and then I returned to San Francisco for a day of revels before I boarded a 10 p.m. redeye home. I wasn’t back at my house (and able to drop the Moto into a charger) until 8 the next morning.

That sort of stuff. So, yes, 24 hours on one charge plus another six to 12 “just in case” is plenty.

(A fitness band is a different story. It does its best work for you when you wear it 24/7, including while you’re sleeping.)

5) The most valuable, life-affirming role of a smartwatch is to defend the user from his or her phone.

The phone is a distraction engine. It’s the enemy of peace and focus. It is the participant in a reality show who is strongly motivated against behaving in any kind of a mellow or thoughtful way. It wants to be the focus of attention and gets increasingly peevish if ignored.

Further, smartphones wrap the quick thing you want to do inside 10 to 30 seconds of unrelated actions. First, take the phone out of your pocket. Then, unlock it. Get distracted by unrelated notifications. Find an app. Launch an app. Bring up a menu to expose a feature. Tap a button. Do that thing you wanted to do. Then duck and dodge another handful of notifications and re-pocket the phone.

A well-designed wearable offers salvation. I was first introduced to this glorious effect by Google Glass. I’d picked mine up at the Google offices in New York, and then I went on a long walk. An idea occurred to me in Central Park.

“OK Glass,” I said. “Take a note.” And then I spoke the thing I wanted Glass to jot down for me. Glass obediently converted my speech into text and the text into an Evernote. I didn’t have to launch anything, confirm anything, or give the device any further guidance or interaction.

All wearables have this power. The wearable teleports you through the phone’s malarkey and through the app’s malarkey and delivers you right at the specific function you want, at any given moment. In this way, it operates at a higher level of sociological sophistication than even the $1,500 MacBook with which I’m writing this column.

A phone is a damn distraction engine. A wearable, done well, can be a sword and shield, and a deliverer of some greater kind of peace.

A wearable, done badly, shirks this great potential. It becomes nothing more than a tendril to your wrist, through which your phone can keep right on annoying you and interfering with your higher brain functions even when it’s trapped in Pocket Jail.

6) There’s a shot clock running on almost all positive interactions with a smartwatch.

A 1.5-inch screen is a terrible canvas for an app. It just is. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Nothing good can come from forcing a user to stare at that tiny spoonful of pixels for even a second longer than they absolutely have to.

Whatever it is that the user wants to accomplish with the watch should be accomplished 10 seconds after the screen lights up. Every second past that doubles the sensations of clumsiness and frustration that can’t possibly be separated from a tactile interaction with a 1.5-inch screen that must be operated one-handed. With the user’s arm raised and wrist cocked at a slightly uncomfortable angle. You see what I mean about the need to wrap things up quickly.

The frustration doubles with each five additional seconds until the smartwatch is thrown against a wall, ideally but not necessarily after it’s been removed from the wrist.

As such, a watch app that attempts to fulfill a whole suite of functions, instead of a single operation that’s specifically relevant to a smartwatch, seems like a sign of design-cluelessness. And operations that are broken into a long sequence of steps seem like an act of hostility against the user.

If you are a developer and you believe a user wants to perform a complex operation on a watch, or that he or she wants to spend more than five or 10 seconds looking at that screen, you are a dope.

I’m certain that there are exceptions to that last observation. Developers who recognize themselves in the preceding paragraph should at least be aware that I will jump to that conclusion about you until you’ve shown me evidence to the contrary. Maybe let me have a look at the playlists on your phone, I dunno.

7) Voice is, by far, the most useful and satisfying interface for a smartwatch.

No. 5 and No. 6 are biggies. Which is why all of the best interactions I’ve ever had with smartwatches have begun with “OK, Google” or “Hey, Siri.” I ask for something to happen and then, by gadfrey, it happens. It’s way better than using a smartphone for the same task. And I didn’t have to fiddle with buttons that are too small for my fingers on a screen that’s too small to easily read. Compare “Hey, Siri. Set a timer for 10 minutes” with pressing a button, picking an app out of a constellation of icons, exposing a “set timer button,” dialing in a duration….

It’s a great expression of the unique potential of wearables. “This is what I want to achieve. Device, you go and figure out how to make that happen. That’s your job, not mine.”

8) Clicky buttons are a tough sell.

I won’t make a blanket statement against mechanical buttons or digital crowns. But a developer of hardware or software who’s considering using clicky buttons should imagine themselves carrying a bowl of super-hot soup across a room. You can do this successfully but there is no potential for a small kind of disaster.

This one explains my negative reaction to the Pebble. Its interface was 100 percent clicky buttons. Thus, navigating its interface and working with its apps rarely felt preferable to just taking my phone out of my pocket.

9) Great smartwatches anticipate need and can deliver value without any interaction from the user.

Which is why I think so highly of Android Wear. Most of the time, I don’t need to interact with it at all. More often than not, when I raise my wrist, I find that Google Now has already placed the information I wanted to see, or even the button I wanted to push, on the screen.

A great smartwatch doesn’t force me to launch apps every time I want something to happen. “Glance once” will always beat “push lots of buttons.”

10) Smartwatch apps kind of suck.

I no longer install a new Apple Watch or Android Wear app with any expectation that it’s going to work well, or that I’ll keep on using it after my first 10 minutes of curiosity. I’m confident that this will change, as developers become more experienced and the APIs become more robust.

But as of today, I stand by this statement. It is backed by overwhelming empirical evidence and scant exceptions.

11) In 2015, most of a smartwatch’s useful and delightful functions are bone-simple and available from all manufacturers.

Notifications from your phone; fitness tracking…

(I swear, I thought the list was longer. Hang on.)

Well, there’s …. Oh, right, I already talked about voice commands.

Nope, I guess that’s really it. The simple fact that you can get an answer to the questions “Who’s calling?” and “Why does my phone want my attention right now?” without unpocketing and unlocking the device is a huge win. For many people, it’s worth the whole cost of admission: it immediately improves your life and changes your relationship with your phone. It’s also nice that you can even tap a button and perform an action upon that notification right from the device.

And fitness tracking is a big deal. It’s an immensely helpful window on your daily activity.

For sure, not all wearables have the same features, nor do they perform their shared features equally well. But in my experience, none of these devices do notifications and fitness tracking so much better that they make the others look silly.

And some cost a fraction of the others. The original Pebble is now just $99. I’m only suggesting that you should ask yourself if you actually want an ambitious, full-on color touchscreen Apple Watch or Android Wear device. Maybe you’re like me, and you do. But is it possible that you just want notifications and fitness tracking, and you don’t care how they’re delivered, so long as it’s done well?

A Garmin Vivosmart ($130 street price) is a swell fitness band that does notifications. It even has a touchscreen that responds to swipes and taps. It’s an inexpensive way to test the waters while Android and Apple continue to improve and develop products that (let’s not forget) are still in their infancies.

(Also, Vivosmart “reads” on your wrist as a slim, black fitness band. Unlike an Apple Watch, Moto 360, or Pebble, it leaves your other wrist free for the heirloom you’ve been wearing every day since your father or mother died. Just sayin’.)

This isn’t an academic observation. I’ve been wearing both the Apple Watch and a Vivosmart on my wrists every day for about a month. When my phone throws out a notification, I read it on the Vivosmart. It’s always about a second or two ahead, and the Apple Watch isn’t so much better at this task that I care to wait. Vivosmart covers it well enough for me.

12) A smartwatch also works well as a “second screen” for a phone.

Particularly when an ongoing process is active, and there’s obviously some button or piece of data from the phone app that the user will want to keep handy. When I’m listening to music, I want a play/pause button to be right there so I don’t have to fumble around once I get to the head of the checkout line at the market. If I’ve hailed an Uber, or set a countdown timer, I should see that amount of time remaining without doing anything except turning my wrist. Et cetera.

It’s a useful approach for a watch app, with daily rewards for the user. But it requires a developer who has the self control to stifle the creative urge to carve Michelangelo’s David and just focus on building a kick-ass nose. It also requires a watch OS whose center of gravity is “functions” and not “apps.”

Smartwatches slouching toward Bethlehem

I believe all of these things to be true about smartwatches. As of August 2015, at any rate. Soon, Apple will release a new version of Watch OS, and there’ll be new editions of Android Wear and, for all I know, some of these principles will be tossed on their heads.

I bet the list will remain as it is through the end of the year, though. Wearables, despite the amount of money the big players are throwing into marketing, are still covered with amniotic fluid and bits of straw, and are struggling to stand. The major players aren’t so much perfecting what they’ve made so much as they’re simply trying to figure out what the hell this thing is going to be. What happens to ”form follows function” if there’s not any clear consensus on the function of a smartwatch?

What I’ve presented here, therefore, isn’t a yardstick against which current watches should be measured. They’re kind of a blueprint for evolution, a proposed shape for future devices.

It’s an exciting time. Like any newborn, this product category is made of nothing but potential. We’re all hoping that the smartwatch causes us to fundamentally redefine computing, and that it’ll have the same positive, transformative effect on society as the smartphone. But it’s also possible that companies’ desire to make a commercially successful product right now yields nothing more than a sparkly gadget that holds our attention for a couple of years before descending to the sea bottom, coming to rest alongside piles of 3D televisions and the belief that consequence-free online anonymity is an actual thing.

You’ve been kind enough to read all the way to the end, so I’ll offer some advice. If a certain smartwatch intrigues you, or if you simply think it’s a cool wristwatch, go ahead and buy it. If not, don’t worry you’ll be missing out on anything by waiting to see what becomes available by next summer.

After all, you probably weren’t one of the first people to buy an iPhone and you managed to come out from that pretty much OK. Your dog is still excited to see you when you come home, right?