Forbidden Fruit: Testing the New Apple Watch Series 3

Apple’s third-generation digital connectivity wearable has been with us for several months now, and it’s proven itself moderately desirable, moderately useful, and, one imagines, moderately frustrating for the folks in Cupertino. Apple has addressed every issue users brought to their attention—did their best to fix every problem, real and perceived. Yet its utility is being challenged by “hearable” assistants, like Google’s Alexa, and although sales are very respectable, well…

There are some who say the Apple Watch’s most notable accomplishment has been replacing the rudeness of checking your phone while someone’s talking to you with the more traditional rudeness of looking at your watch while someone is talking to you. That’s absolutely unfair, because whatever its cultural niche, this latest version of the device is a technical marvel, and should be acknowledged as such. To be clear: It’s the first mass-market smartwatch that’s so good that it’s possible to top asking whether or not it’s capable and start asking whether or not it’s desirable. And that’s an intriguing question.

Because what the Apple Watch does, it now does very well indeed. The battery-life issue has been addressed, and a full charge will see you clear for a couple days’ worth of normal use, even in the honeymoon stage when you’re texting people from your wrist with the thrill of novelty once felt only by phoning people from the plane. Voice assistant Siri is now more or less seamlessly integrated, meaning that if works for you on your phone it’ll work for you here. And the slow, stuttering interface has been remedied with new, faster processors, so response to input is now instant. On the main screen, as you roll through the array of app icons with a careful finger, the tiny symbols move so smoothly it’s like they’re suspended in oil. It’s a very pleasant GUI-based illusion, and reinforces the feeling of deep quality that carries through the entire experience; even the haptic feedback is well-considered, with the watch responding to your taps and long presses with crisp, sharp little raps of its own, not the wheezing, asthmatic whirr of some competing devices.

Even the added capabilities function well—within the limits of current technologies, at any rate. The 3’s biggest hype point has been its ability to break free of phone tethering, allowing the owner to knock about town without a phone ruining the line of their slacks—more likely, their running togs, if we’re being honest—but also without the terrible social risks of breaking connectivity. All the basic phone functions are present on the Watch 3’s LTE connection, which is surprisingly strong and easy to set up; we experienced no appreciable loss of signal or function whether in Downtown L.A. or a Wisconsin state forest. Generally speaking, we found that if the iPhone shows a couple of bars, your watch will work, allowing you to get texts and make calls right on your wrist, if you wind up liking that kind of thing. (More about that later.)

As it stands, though, the aforementioned limits of current technologies come right to the forefront when you realize how much battery power you’re burning when the Watch 3 is off on its own. You’ll have to toss it back on the charger after a freewheeling outing of any reasonable length of time. Potentially bad news for runners, a group Apple has targeted particularly hard: You’ll most likely want to have a full charge before tackling anything more than 10 miles, assuming you’re tracking progress, getting messages, and listening to music over Bluetooth, which is a safe assumption because why wouldn’t you? And once you’re back from this unusually sybaritic jog, the watch will most likely go right back on the charger.

But of course battery technology will improve, though so far it stubbornly refuses to obey anything like Moore’s Law of huge advances in short periods of time. And the platform is evolving; big news for devotees is that a Spotify app is coming this summer, which will allow users to opt out of at least a part of the Apple ecosystem. In short, the watch just keeps getting better. In fact, it works so well that it’s finally lifted the smartwatch from the status of interesting toy to that of possible tool.

“There’s a social hurdle, one aided and abetted by Apple itself. For many people, the smartphone replaced the wristwatch. Now the company wants us to buy a wristwatch to enhance the smartphone experience.”

That may be somewhat of a problem, or at least a situation. Here’s the thing: It took a while for people to adjust to taking phone calls in public, and some people still can’t do so within the bounds of the etiquette that evolved to fit the new social reality. The same thing happened with Bluetooth calling: Walking down the street talking into your phone was one thing, but walking down the street talking to nothing visible was quite another. Now we have the Dick Tracy option to speak into our wrist, which you will, because although the watch can interpret letters drawn on its screen, using voice-to-text is still the best way to respond to text messages, and we couldn’t find a Bluetooth device that worked anywhere near as well for that as speaking directly into the watch itself. And there’s the looking-at-your-watch thing again.

There’s another social hurdle to overcome, one aided and abetted by Apple itself. For many people, the smartphone replaced the wristwatch; now Apple wants us to buy a wristwatch to enhance the smartphone experience. Okay.

As beautifully and seamlessly as it works, the Apple Watch’s looks have always been somewhat less than beautiful. Because it’s locked into the brand’s minimalist, function-over-form design language, it’s basically a thick rectangular lozenge with a crown on the side. This is without a doubt the best—perhaps the only—choice for a touchscreen-based digital assistant, maximizing tactile real estate without metastasizing into an embarrassing digital lump. It’s a brilliant lozenge, as lozenges go, with the proportions carefully considered, the edges radiused just so, the single knob of the Digital Crown proportioned precisely and set in exactly the right place, the strap disappearing into the body of the watch so cleanly that you won’t notice it unless you make a point of looking. And isn’t there a long tradition of rectangular watches, from the Cartier Tank on down, for Apple to buy into?

Sure. But those are wristwatches. They have mystique. They tick and wind down and mark time whether you’re looking at them or not; to their users, they have a complex inner life, and if you doubt this you’re ignoring the long tradition of windows allowing you to view the movements and complications. People like to see their watches move, to literally see what makes them tick. But when you’re not using it, or receiving a notification, the Apple Watch simply goes blank. This robs the user of some of its best design, the digital watch faces, some of which are well-executed versions of standard dials, some of which are entertainingly weird, and all of which, sadly, disappear after a few seconds of inactivity. It’s a battery issue again, and it’s one the engineers have to get cracking on now, because having the Watch go blank is possibly a bigger problem for the watch as a product than the limited LTE connectivity.

One of the reasons early LED watches haven’t really caught on as classic collectibles, despite marking an interesting chapter in horology, is that unless the button was pressed to display the time, they were inert hunks of expensive billet. When LCD watches hit the market, with their lower power consumption allowing the time to be displayed constantly, designers found that incorporating some sort of motion made their gadgets much more desirable, which is why the colon flashes once a second on your vintage Casio. That it marks the passing seconds is, well, secondary—the fact is, people like the blinking “tick.” It’s the visible complication of the late 20th century.

Apple, on the other hand, from its computers to its phones to this watch, is notorious about concealing any sort of complications from the user. They most certainly do not want you to see what makes their stuff tick. That may work for media players and phones, but it ignores a large part of what the experience of luxury watch ownership is about. Whenever you look at it, or even happen to glance at it, or catch it in your peripheral vision, a traditional watch is dynamic by design; something is moving, a spinning tourbillon or sweeping second hand, or that flashing separator, but something. The Apple Watch is glossy, black, empty. It looks sleek in photos; in person, it suffers from a near-complete lack of presence. It’s one thing for Siri to be silent until you need her. But the Watch, when not actively telling you something, doesn’t do anything at all. It just looks… not dead, exactly, but certainly lifeless.

Those with a use for it, the hyper-connected and the hyper-fit, will like it, because it makes sense as a tool for those who run the world and those who just run. Those who don’t need it, though, will continue to have a hard time wanting it. That’s a shame, because the Apple Watch 3 is an exceptional wearable. And just a tick shy of being a brilliant watch.