TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Apple Watch has been one of the most highly anticipated devices of the decade. Billed as Apple's latest revolutionary product, the watch is a screen on your wrist with its own operating system and software. And as our technology correspondent Alexis Madrigal explains, it just might steal back some of your time from the attention hogging phone in your pocket.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, BYLINE: The Apple Watch is not what I expected. Yes, it's beautiful. You can stand in the shower and watch water bounce off the screen as if it were a lotus leaf. The details of the hardware can be stunning like that. But most of the features that really excited me when the watch was introduced have turned out to be disappointments. As a physical activity tracker, it's mediocre. The messaging system, which Apple seemingly lavished attention on, is no better than regular old texting. The hyped crown scroll wheel for navigation is a rarely used flourish. And yet, I still love the watch. I never want to take it off. It's a secondary device, a powerful extension of what your phone can do. And so you must have an iPhone to use an Apple Watch. The watch uses the phone's data network to do any and everything. With a glance, I can see the time, the date, my next calendar appointment, the temperature, my day's physical activity and the watches battery level.
So why do I love it? It lets me do the business of communicating without the temptations that come with my phone. That was Apple's pitch in the weeks leading up to the launch in late April - that this would be a device that gives you back time and even focused attention. I was skeptical, given that its primary function is to notify you that stuff is going on on your phone, and yet, it does work. Before I got the watch, every text message or notification was an opportunity for prolonged distraction. I had to pull out my phone, and once it was out, what was there to prevent me from checking my Facebook page or Twitter or Instagram or maybe all of them? With the watch, the message comes in and I can deal solely with it without those other icons tempting me. And the watch parses incoming messages, anticipates my response, and provides a few contextual answers, like I'm on my way if someone says are you there yet, or yes and no when it detects that kind of incoming question. The computer's textual interpretation is not that deep, but it doesn't have to be to give genuinely useful options. Between the auto-responses and using voice-to-text, I find I don't need to type anything for most of the exchanges that I have during the day. The voice-to-text feature is particularly impressive. As long as the answer isn't too complex, the watch handles most text message level communications with ease.
When you sync your watch and phone, watch apps that correspond to your phone apps just appear. And the genius of the watch is that its apps work differently from the ones on your mobile device. Each tends to deliver a single function through the watch. If it's Uber, that function is to call a car. If it's Trulia, it's to look for home listings right around you. If it's ESPN, it's to give you scores for your favorite teams. Bloated apps get stripped down to their essential utility.
The single-serving app is a radical idea, and it doesn't always work well. The Twitter app lets you read the five most recent tweets in your feed. It feels silly. Instagram's app, on the other hand, is almost a recreation of its phone app, and it feels bulky. While many people worried about the watch's battery life, I can say that it's good enough to easily make it through a day, maybe two with light use, and charging is rapid. But what I did not anticipate was how much of a drain the watch would be on my phone. I still have an iPhone 5S, a phone that's a little over a year old, and it hasn't made it a full day since I got the watch, even on days when I'm not using it heavily. One night, I went to bed with the watch on and my phone next to me at 100 percent charge. When I woke up seven hours later, despite not having touched my phone or my watch, my phone's battery life had dropped to 69 percent. That's a lot of battery to lose for a night's worth of idle chatter between my watch and phone.
In fact, the watch has taken such a toll on my phone's battery that I bought one of those cases that contains an extra battery. If you've got an older phone model, expect similar problems.
Unlike the smartphone, which transformed the way I did just about everything, the Apple Watch slid into my life seamlessly. Within days, it had become an essential part of how I communicate with others and parse my days. The watch is not the revolution that the iPhone was. Rather, it's a reaction to the power and addictiveness of our phones, a helpful supplementary tool to manage my own psychology. And for me, at least, that's been worth the price.
GROSS: Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and is the editor-in-chief of the Fusion cable and digital network.
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