Apple Watch brings phone freedom

Apple Watch brings phone freedom

It’s finally here: Paul Carter’s no hands-on review of Apple’s first foray into the wearables market – the Apple Watch.

It may seem strange to have something designed to fit on the wrist reviewed by someone who doesn’t have hands. And you’re right it is, but bear with me. My initial attraction to this device was the promise that it could release me from the shackles of my phone. I use my phone a lot. An awful lot. I’m one of those people that will put it on the table as soon as they sit down. My biggest problem has always been that I can’t use my phone while I’m out and about – I can’t hold something and walk at the same time because of balance issues. The promise of being able to stay in touch with my phone without the need for physically being in touch with it was a big draw.

My intention isn’t to give a full bells and whistles review of the Watch’s full gamut of features. There are hundreds of extremely detailed reviews of those already in existence. My aim is hopefully to explain how those features translate from an accessibility perspective, and how they might work (or not) for disabled people.

A quick note on straps – I got the watch with both a white sport band, and a more expensive leather straps. I have to have the strap fairly tight to ensure it doesn’t just slide off my arm, and the sport band has just a bit more give and doesn’t make me feel like what little arm I have is going to fall off through lack of circulation. The sport band is also sweat-proof, which might be good to know if you are unlike me, the sort who physically exerts themselves a lot.

The model I am using is the larger of the two available – 42mm rather than the 38mm – and the most striking thing on first impressions was how much bigger it looks and feels than those measurements suggest. My biggest initial concern was physically operating the watch itself – ultimately by the very nature of being something you wear on your arm, screen real estate is limited. It soon became apparent though that actual physical interaction with the device itself only need be minimal. Apple were clearly aware that simply shrinking an iPhone onto a watch screen would have been unworkable, and so the watch runs its own operating system, WatchOS.

Much of the watch operation can be done at best hands free, or worst, with a couple of non-intricate taps or swipes. In its default state the Watch is inactive and the screen is off. It only springs to life when you raise your wrist or arm. At first this feels strange and counter-intuitive, but once you get used to it, it works. Once it is active, it’s then available to be used through voice activation by saying “Hey Siri.” I’m not going to lie, I cannot say this in a public place without sounding like a complete plank, so I tend to to use the alternative method of activating Siri, which is used by pressing the weirdly named ‘digital crown’ on the side (more on that later). Once Siri is active, it’s then possible to use most of the features of the watch simply by using voice commands – “open messages” or “direct me to the pub” for example, and the Watch will oblige. If you have physical or dexterity problems, this an extremely handy (pun intended) way of operating it, as it reduces greatly the need for finding extremely small click points on the screen.

An area where you may need to touch the screen is when using ‘glances’. These are one screen summaries of information that you can access straight from the clock-face screen without opening the app itself, and you can configure which and how many glances you want. These are accessed by swiping up once. I have them set up for Citymapper (for next bus/tube), Weather (to tell me the weather) and Maps (for quick access to my immediate location).

One of the watch’s more everyday uses comes from receiving emails and messages. These will essentially be ‘thrown’ from your phone to the watch itself. You will feel a buzz on your wrist/arm to tell you there is a notification. Replying is where it gets interesting. There is no keyboard to type replies – the size of the screen would simply make typing impractical. Instead, there are two options. You can either use one of the several ‘stock’ replies such as ‘I’ll be there in 5’ (you can also configure your own) or you can reply using Siri. On the whole it’s pretty accurate, although again, I do feel incredibly self-conscious using this feature in public, though that’s more down to my own crippling social anxiety and insecurity than any fault of the device.

For blind and visually impaired people, Voiceover is available out of the box. From my brief exploration with it as a sighted person, it seemed to operate well and in the same way as it does on iPhone. Where it really comes into its own is haptics, especially when navigating. These are essentially buzzes that you feel a like a tap on your arm. When navigating, which can be set up by voice, the watch will tap once for left and twice for right when you reach a point on your journey where you need to change direction.

However – there are some drawbacks – and depending on your main use of the watch, they may be a deal-breaker. One of the features I was most looking forward to was being able to make calls directly through Watch itself. Partly because I’ve dreamed of being Knight Rider since I was about six. It is possible, and it was terribly exciting the first time I did it, but it has been a massive let-down ever since. The Bluetooth call connection is simply too patchy for it to be reliable enough to use by default – on at least half of the occasions I’ve attempted to make calls through it there has been an interminable delay, as if I was having a conversation via satellite link to Pyongyang, rather than to my mum in urban Bedfordshire. Hopefully this will be addressed in a coming update, as this could and should be one of the biggest benefits of the Watch, and it’s a real shame that it isn’t up to the mark just yet.

There are still some notable apps missing from the Watch stable at present – notably Facebook and Whatsapp. This means that the watch will only notify you with alerts such as ‘John Smith has posted on your wall’ or ‘you have a message from Jane Doe’ without the ability to actually read or reply to them. This means I still have to go and check my phone, defeating the object of using the watch in the first place. However, Apple has announced that third party apps are coming with the release of WatchOS 2 in the Autumn, so hopefully again this will improve with time.

As I say, the drawbacks, though significant, are not critical to my use and operation of the watch. On the whole, having it in my life has been an extremely liberating experience. On a social level I feel much less addicted to my phone. I no longer feel the need to constantly check for emails and texts because I will know when I receive. In more practical terms it has made many parts of my life much more efficient and straightforward. I can walk to the bus stop without having to stop to rummage around in my bag to retrieve my phone. I can reply to messages on the fly without the constant fear I’m going to drop my phone on the pavement and smash it to pieces.

For now, I feel that the Watch is the first step on the road to something that will at some point be an immensely useful piece of assistive technology for many disabled people. Apple’s commitment to accessibility through Voiceover and other features remains strong and it’s greatly reassuring that these have transferred to their new device. However, there are some flaws that depending on your access needs, might prove a bridge to far just yet meaning Apple’s latest wearable may remain something of a watching brief for some.

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