While other reviewers have focussed on enhancements to the latest version of Apple’s wearable, Ian Macrae continues to be blown away by its usability and the level of access to information it brings to disabled people.
There’s a line somewhere in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy along the lines that humans had reached the point where they thought a digital watch was a pretty neat idea. And while The Hitchhiker’s Guide developed into a whole raft of multi-platform media content, the humble digital watch has grown from modest beginnings into something which allows you to access and communicate with a whole world of media and content from right there on your wrist. The latest incarnation of this is the Apple Watch Series 2.
During a long career in disability media I’ve seen any number of self-proclaimed life-changing, life-enhancing or life-affirming access technology gizmos. But as I said to someone on the day that I was introduced for the first time to Apple Watch Series 2, I have never fallen so immediately, so heavily and so completely for anything else. Indeed, so concerned was I that my love for the product had blinded me to any faults and that this review would end up being worthlessly biased that I consulted someone I knew to be a leading Apple sceptic.
As a seller of Android phones and their access technology solutions, Steve Nutt has a massive preference for that operating system over Apple’s IOS. But even he acknowledges that Apple Watch is the only accessible smart watch in the arena. His only complaint is that it doesn’t have an hourly time announcement feature.
My enthusiasm for the watch thus undiminished, I turn to “mainstream” reviewers. In general they tend to show one or more of three reactions. They cling to the notion that so-called “Wearables” are largely still gimmicky, a bit naff and not really up to much; they focus on those very gimmicks such as the added Mini Mouse watch face or the fact that the waterproof feature allegedly expels jets of water when it is turned off (not so) or they focus heavily on the additional fitness applications.
Meanwhile, what I’m still marvelling at is the overall accessibility of Watch Series 2, its capacity for customisation and the access options which this brings into play.
Let’s start with what a watch is basically for: telling the time. On the new Apple watch it’s possible to do this by sight – more on the choice of readable watch faces in a moment – by listening with the Apple screen reader Voiceover delivering the time via the Daniel voice now familiar from other Apple products and by touch. Double tapping the watch face causes it to vibrate and deliver the hours and minutes in a choice of 3 different modes. This and other haptic feedback is likely to make the watch of particular interest to people with both sight and hearing impairments.
For those who prefer to get the time by sight the first piece of good news is that the screen on Watch Series 2 is significantly brighter than on its first generation predecessor. But you can also choose from a whole variety of faces and have them in any number of different colour ways. These include a “Simple” very clear analogue face, an “Extra large” digital display which occupies almost the entire area of the screen and is extremely easy to see and a more detailed “Utility” analogue face which has clear hands and numerals.
You can then choose to have as many of these faces set up on your watch as you like and moving through and setting them is very simple. But what’s even more exciting in terms of bringing more access to more information to your wrist is the fact that each face can itself be customised to carry up to five elements of additional information at different points on the screen and drawn from applications on the watch. So you can have a watch which in addition to the time will show you current weather conditions, the current date, time of sunrise or sunset and battery level. You can also add things like shortcuts to the timer or the activity app which tells you how much exercise you’ve had during the day.
The watch can also be instructed verbally to perform tasks via Siri, activated either by a long press of the digital crown or by “Hey Siri” activated by speaking those words at the watch.
Texts and other notifications which are sent to your iPhone automatically appear on your watch, and texts can be replied to either by using the dictation button on the screen or by choosing from a number of preset fixed replies such as “Thanks”, “OK” or “On my way”. You also have the option of using “Scribble” to scribble a quick hand-written reply or you can choose from the wide selection of emojis.
One function which I haven’t yet had an opportunity to explore is the ability to choose a walking route in either Apple’s own Maps app or in Google maps on your iPhone and then be given turn-by-turn instructions while walking that route. These are delivered either as spoken instructions from the voiceover screen reader or as haptic prompts.
There are going to be disabled users who will welcome having more of an active relationship with the fitness apps on Apple Watch Series 2 than the one I have. There are also likely to be people who will welcome being able to take advantage of the new 50-metre water resistant rating who will want to wear it while swimming. It should be noted though that if the water lock is turned on then pretty much all of the functionality which relies on using Voiceover is cancelled. This is for the obvious reason that the touch sensitivity of the screen has to be turned off in order for the action of the water not to cause incidental or accidental operation.
A number of reviewers have taken issue with the price and, of course, in a community whose members may be on fixed and limited income this has to be a consideration. With the cheapest model having a retail price of £369 what is undoubtedly a powerful piece of access technology will be out of reach for many people who might benefit most from having it. Even the less costly option of a previous generation watch with the Watch 3 operating system will be beyond the pockets of many disabled would-be users.