Luke Andrews

A reluctant Apple Watch user’s review

18 January 2021

I've spent years avoiding the Apple Watch.

Like the rest of civilization born in the 20th century, I wore a watch growing up. I owned various digital watches. Sometime in the 1980s, I coveted my cousin's calculator watch. I owned various cheap but tasteful analogue watches. I had a Swatch for awhile, and at some point I definitely gave a Swatch to my girlfriend. At some point, I had a watch so unbelievably cool it had a case shaped like an electric guitar.

Like the rest of civilization, the watch-wearing habit faded away once I got a smartphone. The electric guitar case started to seem less cool. The battery in my last watch died at some point, as they do, and then my laziness exceeded my desire to see the time on my wrist. It was a watch I'd bought a few years earlier in a British airport—one of those svelte titanium Skagen situations with a mesh band. I think I bought my first iPhone in 2008, and I don't think I sported that watch again after that. I still own it but it sits in a drawer, still powerless and still neglected.

When the Apple Watch was first introduced in 2014, I realized that for the first time, rather than feeling excited about some new gadget, I felt apprehensive. I already spent too much of my life trying to check the time but instead getting pulled into notifications and Twitter. The idea of reproducing all that on my wrist too seemed dubious. And once people started wearing Apple Watches in public, the apprehensiveness hardened into a sort of mild loathing. It seemed like nothing more than an advertisement of wealth and privilege to sport a very expensive, featureless black square on your wrist all the time.

Around the same time, an offhand comment from a friend about mechanical watches got me thinking: maybe rather than succumb to an Apple Watch, I should reconsider wearing a Regular Watch. Maybe I needed a mechanical watch in fact: the un-Apple watch. A timepiece on my wrist without notifications, without a charging cable, without a battery even.

So began what has become a ludicrous but addictive hobby: thinking about, occasionally obsessing over, and owning mechanical watches. Because I am me, a value-concerned individual, I initially managed to constrain my interest to a couple affordable specimens. But that's not saying much. One could buy at least 5 calculator watches for even a lower-end mechanical watch, and 100 of them for even the cheapest Omega. Still, if one is going to advertise wealth and privilege on the wrist, why sport a very expensive, featureless black square when one can sport a very expensive, fine-featured, elegant circle?

Needless to say, mechanical watches are a strange thing to care about in this century. Quartz watches are much cheaper and keep more accurate time. But some small subset of humanity cares a great deal. Stumbling into watch geek forums and mechanical watch review sites is a bit like discovering a new religion, whose articles of faith are full of strange new and re-purposed vocabulary. Terms like "super luminova", "co-axial escapement", "crown guard" and "lug to lug" are assumed knowledge. Watch aficionados often recognize each other anonymously in person from tell-tale signs of baptism such as pairing a dive watch with a NATO strap, or indeed, wearing an analogue watch of any kind, especially one that doesn't count your steps, measure your heart rate, track you via GPS, or tap you insistently when you have a new message.

(Anecdotally, I feel like analogue watches have made a bit of a societal comeback, perhaps due to the Apple Watch making people think about watches again, or perhaps because Mad Men and all the period shows and movies that followed it have lovingly obsessed over their characters’ vintage watches. Casio digital watches also seem weirdly popular lately, albeit with people who were mostly not yet born in the 1980s when they were popular the first time around.)

I eventually settled on a "daily diver", known affectionately to fellow watch geeks as the Seiko Turtle. Most days it's what I wear, and I've enjoyed glancing at it to see the time and that I can wear it at the beach and swim with it and that it’s an occasional conversation starter. For a recent birthday milestone, I was given a not-beach-safe Nomos Tangente, a watch it's safe to say counts as the first piece of "luxury jewellery" I have ever owned. Its simplicity belies its elegance and it’s one of those things that looks nicer in person. You can just kind of tell it’s a nice watch, in an understated way. A few years back, Gary Shteyngart wrote memorably about the (mainly financial) perils of becoming a mechanical watch collector. Not long after, I met him at a book-signing event for Lake Success, a novel in which the dubious main character obsesses over very expensive watches, including at least one Nomos. While he signed the book, I struck up a friendly if brief conversation based purely on the geek-cred of the Turtle. It felt like a moment of belonging.

Thus it was with great irony that a few months ago I decided that I should probably get an Apple Watch after all. I've been running for exercise for the past few years (not unrelated to that same birthday milestone), and like any sensible 21st-century athlete who works in tech, I enjoy "tracking" my "activities" so I know how far and how fast I've run. It keeps me accountable. I also like to listen to music while I run, and so for both tracking and music-playing purposes, I've been carrying my iPhone with me on nearly every run. And I don't love it. It's the mildest of nuisances to be sure, but especially when it's hot out, I started to find myself wishing I could run without my phone—it's cumbersome! it jostles! it's kind of dense!—but still somehow be able to listen to music and track all the things.

There are many wrist-occupying devices for such purposes, but inevitably if you research these things as I did, you will realize that the Apple Watch is the nicest of the bunch, and if you want to do something like listen to music without fussing with syncing offline playlists and tracking data in your spare time, the options are surprisingly limited. And so, now I own an Apple Watch SE in Space Grey. I can go for a run, listen to my favourite playlist on Spotify, be kept up to date with my distance and pace, and the stats and a map of where I ran magically appear on my phone as soon as I'm home to see it. (I use Runkeeper to track my running, which I recommend.) So it turns out to work really well for that one reason I bought the device.

To my general dismay, it also turns out to be a pretty great device for other things too, and now I'm starting to wonder if and when I will be wearing my trusted Turtle again. To be sure, the endless, repetitive tap tap taps on your wrist are just as much of a modern hellscape as I imagined. And it's more difficult than it ought to be to turn all those notifications off if you add any app. But once you do, it's… a really slick watch.

The customizable watch faces are quite striking. Mechanical watches are said to have "complications" like the date, or a stopwatch, or an alarm. Apple borrowed the term for those things and all the other bits of information one can add and tweak to the watch faces, and it's much more compelling than I might have imagined. I like that you can set up many different faces and swipe between them, so I can choose whether I want to see a super-minimalist analogue watch, a sundial, an info-dense notification centre with my next calendar event, the current wind speed and direction, the temperature and current weather conditions, the phase of the moon, the compass direction, GPS coordinates, the current rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun, etc, etc. It's like having many different watches! An homage to watch collectors, so to speak.

Don't ask me why, but talking to Siri on my wrist feels more natural and enjoyable than it ever did on the phone. And during a time when it's hard to find reasons to get up or do anything much other than stare at screens, reminders to stand up once in awhile, or even just to breathe, are actually quite welcome. Finally, I'll just say it: making a phone call from your wrist without a phone in your pocket is super dorky, but it's just close enough to a Star Trek communicator badge to feel futuristically cool.

My original intent was to have the Apple Watch and only wear it for fitness. But it's hard to convince myself not to wear it most days. Perhaps that feeling will pass once normal life resumes and I become slightly more interested in fashion again. I still find the featureless blackness a bit off-putting and it may indeed be "too SQUARE", as one friend complained, but it's a very thoughtfully-designed and pleasing square that is deceptively useful.