Design Contrast: Is The Apple Watch Better Than Wear?
Over the past couple of days, a lot of Apple Watch information hit the internet. Colorful reviews, videos, comments and a lot of discussion ensued, and now we have a better look at Apple’s wearable competitor. The Apple Watch has been expected for a few years now, and analysts predicted that it would be the wearable to put the smartwatch market’s mass-adoption in motion. Apple has climbed to the top-tier of the tech world through design decisions that make their products intuitive, easily approachable, and adaptable. Apple’s latest seemingly abandoned many of these things.
I’ve been an Android Wear owner for 9 months now, yet I can’t say the smartwatch platform is an integral part of my life. I can say, however, that it has become an integral part of my routine, and on the days that I’m left without my Gear Live I feel like my wrist is missing something. I have not yet had the opportunity to try out an Apple Watch hands-on, so this feature will focus on the design decisions that affect the user experience, not the ultimate user experience itself, and how they compare to those behind Android Wear. The discussion here is on the abstraction of the Apple Watch and how its elements work together to provide a user experience, and not how that user experience turns out to be.
As a Time Piece
Android Wear’s watch capabilities are currently the best out of any smartwatch for a single reason: options. The platform allows you to have unlimited possibilities due to the fact that anyone can develop their own watchface with their own design, quirks or even features. For those that are not able to develop a watchface themselves, there also exist watchface editors such as Facer that streamline the process with a GUI so that anyone willing to invest the time can make their creations come true. While developing watchfaces has become much easier, it was always possible and early on we had great watchfaces come out.
The Apple Watch, as of now, features none of that. The Apple Watch comes with many watchfaces pre-installed, ranging from a Mickey Mouse to a Moon that adapts to the time and date. The watchfaces also allow you to customize certain elements to certain degrees. Other than that, however, you are stuck with whatever comes pre-installed. The Apple Watch does, however, feature “Complications” which are widget-like side elements to glance at information on your watchface hub. This is an addition that can prove interesting, but Android Wear watchfaces can already be customized to display plenty of data as well.
The real weakness behind the Apple Watch’s timepiece capabilities is the fact that it does not have an always-on display, not even in a dimmed state like Wear offers. This means that you must move your wrist to check the time, which makes it inconvenient for many situations. The early reviews out right now also emphasize two annoyances in Apple Watch usage: first, the watch doesn’t sense the wrist movements appropriately, which sometimes makes the wearer need to exaggerate his or her motions. And second, there seems to be a long delay (and longer than Wear’s) for the screen to turn on after said motion. This means that there are additional time for simply looking the time in virtually every situation. Waiting for your Watch to tell you the time should never be a thing.
Android Wear does not require any buttons, as seen in the LG G Watch. Most Wear watches feature a side button, but even then they are only used to wake the device or turn off the screen. In the newer versions, there’s also shortcut capabilities such as double-tapping to enter and exit Theatre mode. The user interface, however, relies on simple swipes, taps and voice controls.
The Apple Watch features many more control options, but options is a misleading term as they are not optional. The Apple Watch has a crown wheel that acts as a slider for scrolling and zooming and can also be pressed as a button. There’s also a side button, and then you can tap, swipe and force touch (which is different from a long press). Voice controls are also present here. The Apple Watch’s approach is not inherently bad, but it does present a less cohesive approach to controlling a device that should be as simple to use as possible. Early reviews say that the Apple Watch is exclusively a two-handed watch, and while the same is mostly true for Wear, the Apple Watch’s operation is much more of a hassle.
Android Wear’s notifications are arguably the core of the UX. Google’s smartwatches are designed to be phone extensions and not separate entity in themselves, and their main purpose is viewing and responding to notifications. When you get them, the device vibrates and the screen lights up with a contact or app preview in the background and the information in a small card. These are arranged in a neat card-stack that one can swipe vertically, and then horizontal swipes allow you to access options for the notification displayed on the screen. This way you can reply, view a chat history, mute an app, etc. If the notification is not presented in its entirety, a tap will show you the full contents (on supported apps). It works neatly except for the fact that the notifications are not intelligently arranged in a hierarchy of priority.
The Apple Watch’s approach is entirely different. The Apple Watch does not typically vibrate, but instead uses a “taptic” engine that mimics the app’s beeps with gentle taps which can be adjusted to feel more like an actual vibration (this taptic engine seems wonderful and is getting a lot of praise). The screen, however, does not light up with the notification displayed meaning you must lift your wrist and wait for the device to detect the motion and the screen to light up – both things which are a clunky and slow process on the Apple Watch.
As far as the notification content goes, the Apple Watch further slows things down by first showing you what type of notification it is, and then displaying the contents plus the options. This is an extra delay that might get on somebody’s nerves somewhere along the dozens of times they will have to bring up their wrist. The Apple Watch, like Wear, does not prioritize notifications meaning that every useless bit will distract you from a conversation. You can black-list applications like in Wear, but it still remains an all-or-nothing deal. There’s voice dictation, but testimonies say that Siri is still not up to the task. The Apple Watch offers canned replies to make up for that, which sometimes offer useful contextual responses.
The Apple Watch also offers “Glances” (widgets) which you can access for other sorts of updates on whatever data you are interested in. The downside to these is that the updates are not real time, and they get a refresh prompt whenever you pull the menu, meaning it won’t be ready whenever you access them.
Performance & Apps
Android Wear had terrible performance when it first came out, but it got much better with iterative updates. The Apple Watch is reported to have awful performance on every metric, from loading applications to fetching location data and going through menus. This is because there’s no native app support, and the contents are cross-loaded from the host iPhone. Android Wear does cross-load some assets on apps, but for the most part in-app performance is entirely smooth and has been the case since its inception (the real stutters back then were in the system UI). Due to the fact that Wear was on a similar boat, it’d be unfair to say that the Apple Watch is an inferior platform for this reason, but the decision to have so much data transfer between devices is not optimal.
As for the apps hub, both have terrible solutions. Android Wear’s app list can be found buried within settings, as Google intends apps to be triggered by voice commands. Luckily software revisions added shortcuts to the most used apps, but even then there’s alternatives like Wear Mini Launcher to solve this issue. The Apple Watch has a galaxy-like app hub that one must scroll around and zoom with the crown wheel, and it is certainly not something appropriate for a watch.
Hardware design is mostly a subjective affair, but there are some design decisions between both Wear and the Apple Watch that are worth exploring: Android Wear offers many hardware options, and while the internals are mostly the same, the chassis of each watch is different and can appeal to a different consumer. The Apple Watch has many material and size options, but these feature the same design language. There’s also a linear progression which makes the Apple Watch come in tiers, not competing alternatives. The Moto 360 and the G Watch R, for example, are competing alternatives, while the Gold Apple Watch is a superior tier than the much cheaper Steel Apple Watch, and so on. Whether this is good or bad is subjective, but it is worth pointing out.
Android Wear offers hardware that appeals to many different types of consumers with different likes and dislikes. The Moto 360, Watch Urbane and Huawei Watch are currently the more high-end options, and they feature beautiful designs. The Apple Watch has a very futuristic look with exquisite build quality, but as Racked editor Julia Rubin commented for The Verge’s review, it “is not luxury”. Reviewers like re/code put it just as bluntly: “Apple Watch strives for high fashion, but it still looks like a techie watch”. This is not to say it’s not a beautiful watch: it is, but it is neither the fashionable nor luxurious watch that many wished it was, just like no Wear watch out today is despite all their beauty.
Android Wear has virtually no built-in “gimmicks”, but the Apple Watch has a lot of things that are very unlike the esoteric Apple of old. Things like sending doodles (which you can do on Wear with Pinsy, by the way) and your heart-beat are quirky, but the latter is rather useless. Then there’s some weird animated emoticons you can send to other people who are indescribably not-Apple.
I tried to keep this comparison as fair as possible, but it is clear that a lot of decisions within the Apple Watch don’t make sense. We do recognise that Android Wear has a lot of faults too, which we point out across many features and I personally never sugar-coat Google’s mistakes either. But if there is something Google got brilliantly right in their 2014 I/O Keynote is their description of a smartwatch platform focused on short interactions, and not full-blown computers on your wrist.
Some reviewers called the Apple Watch a “quintessentially Apple” product. I dare to disagree, because the decisions behind it make it seem like Apple’s most Samsung product (this is coming from the XDA Portal’s Samsung guy). Their emphasis on intuitive and approachable user experiences is not quite found here, with the clunky controls that do not add much to navigation – especially when Google proved smartwatches can work with nothing but a touchscreen. The “short interactions” approach to smartwatches is not present in the Apple Watch because of all the design choices that add extra lag to every step of the notification process. The lack of customization in the Apple Watch was expected, but without third-party watchfaces the device loses a lot of value, especially without a dimmed state. And then there’s the gimmick features that do not significantly add to the watch at all.
The Apple Watch has good decisions behind it too. The taptic engine is something I cannot wait to try out myself, as the vibrations of Wear can get tiresome and their buzz too noticeable when laying an arm on a surface. The ability to easily put widgets is nice too, even if they don’t update in real-time. But when it comes to the things that matter the most, the user-experience simply doesn’t feel optimized. Some claim it is the “most capable smartwatch”, and “the best you can get”. I did not touch on things like battery life, but the Apple Watch features a much inferior battery life to virtually all Wear watches out right now (and I suspect that the reason why Apple cross-loads needed content updates and has no Glance auto-sync nor dimmed state is to further save battery). At XDA, we give Apple credit where it’s due, but we remain unconvinced.