I finally got around to writing my review of the Apple Watch and its accessibility features. When I first got it, I deliberately held off, figuring that anyone could write an article saying that the Apple Watch rules. I wanted to write something more thoughtful. After two months wearing the watch, my opinion has not changed, and I should have just written it then. Apple has described it as their most personal device and I agree. They have created the first accessible wearable and I love it.
When Apple first announced that they would come out with a watch, the blind community immediately became interested. Would it have accessibility like all of their other products? Some said yes. A few said no. Others said maybe not at first, but eventually. In October of last year Apple released WatchKit as part of iOS 8.2. I wrote an article showing that WatchKit contains methods to set accessibility attributes. In March of this year I gave a talk at Philly Cocoa summing up what we knew then. Apple still had not released any details about VoiceOver, and the blind still made an anxious noise. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, when the watch did come out it had a full version of VoiceOver much like that on the iPhone.
On April 13, the Monday after the Apple Watch became available to preorder, I went to the Walnut Street Apple Store, a place with which I have become familiar. They setup an individual session with me in the briefing room. Sadly, at the time they only had demo units which did not have VoiceOver enabled. They just ran a dumb demo loop over and over. The Apple employees tried everything they could think of to give me access, including opening the precious safe to check the Apple Watch Edition. I felt a little bummed out that I couldn’t try VoiceOver, but it did give me a chance to try them on so at least I could order one. I kept coming back to the 38 mm Apple Watch Collection with the milanese loop. The metal mesh has an intricate feel, and it makes a clever use of a magnet. I ordered it as soon as I got home. My friend at the Apple Store said that Apple wanted to under promise and over deliver.
Even though I ordered the watch I still wanted to try it, so emailed a friend in Apple accessibility. She told me that the Apple Store would have fully functional units for accessibility testing in two weeks. Sure enough they did, so two weeks later I returned. VoiceOver worked exactly as I had read and thought, borrowing the one and two finger gestures from the iPhone and adding in a few more. Now I really wanted mine to arrive.
Another customer had a demo in the briefing room at the same time, and I couldn’t help but overhear that they would get the Apple Watch Edition out of the precious safe. I asked if I could try it on and they said yes, even though I made it clear that I did not make enough money doing accessibility work to afford the $17,000 price tag. It felt just like the stainless steel Apple Watch Collection which I ordered, except slightly heavier. Honestly as a blind user I had to laugh, I just didn’t see the point. It has the same internals! It does come with a classy leather jewelry box with an inductive charger built into it and a beautiful tactile Apple logo on the top. Maybe one day.
On May 6 I got a notification that UPS would deliver my package. Time slowed to a crawl as I waited for something to happen. Nothing did. At some point in the early evening I checked one last time. UPS claimed they made a delivery attempt. I felt enraged. I had waited all day. As it turns out they had a problem getting into the building, and left the delivery slip. I got my Mom to help me print out and fill out the form on Apple’s site to sign for the delivery, and we put it where they’d hopefully find it. I began having flashbacks to my iPad 2 delivery.
I had nothing to worry about. It arrived the next day as I made dinner. I didn’t care, I set it up immediately and sent my Mom a text. Everything worked out of the box. I had my Apple Watch!
At first I worried about the battery level. It reached 10% close to the end of the first day. Then I read some tips to save battery, many of which also apply to iOS. Turn the screen brightness down to 0%, turn on screen curtain, turn on the reduce motion and grey scale settings in Accessibility. Now my battery usually goes down to a little under 50% at the end of a day.
People ask if it replaces my iPhone and I say no. I use it for doing quick tasks such as checking a notification, or quickly replying to a text with “Ok.” or a simple dictation. Sometimes I will take a quick phone call and feel like I’ve entered the future. I often check the stocks or weather. I also use Siri a lot more on my watch than on my iPhone, since you kind of have to. It also feels cool to open the Uber app, hitting the single “Request” button, and having a car pull up in a few minutes that I ordered from my watch.
I enjoy tracking my workouts. I do yoga, as well as the workouts from BlindAlive. The watch tracks my calorie count and heart rate. I also have my activity right on my watch face, and seeing “Exercise, 0%” often goads me into action. I do which they’d allow setting the hour at which the day begins. Currently I work out and go about my day, but then at midnight it magically resets like Cinderella’s pumpkin turning into a coach. I feel pretty certain a few Apple employees have stayed up past midnight. I recall stories of them wearing shirts that said “80 Hours a Week and Loving It” in the Steve Jobs era.
I really like the haptic feedback. In Apple Maps, you can get directions right on your watch. This works very well for the blind, since we don’t have to keep getting out our phone and fumbling around while walking. When I tried it, it did have some issues syncing with the phone, but that has nothing to do with accessibility.
Using the first edition of the Apple Watch reminds me a lot of using the first iPad. It works well enough and proves the concept. Sometimes it lags or gets confused, but over all it works. When the iPad first came out a lot of people felt unsure about its purpose. Some made crude jokes. Then when the iPad 2 came out, it had a thinner design and snappier performance. No one laughed. I think the same will happen with the Apple watch.
Someone might wonder why you’d need a watch when you could easily take a small phone out of your pocket. For some reason having something worn really does make a difference. It does feel very personal, and this extends to accessibility. For example, when you earn a workout achievement, it actually says “A shining achievement award rotating into view.” When meeting for my demo I said that Apple has created the first accessible wearable. “You know, when you say it like that it sounds really big.” said an employee. “It IS really big!” I exclaimed. Nobody else has made an accessible wearable, but Apple has, and it works beautifully. I love my Apple Watch!