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Hands-on with a (working) Apple Watch

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After months of anticipation, we've finally gotten to play with a working Apple Watch. The hardware is virtually the same as we saw back in September: a rounded rectangle that looks like nothing so much as a tiny first-gen iPhone, wrapped up in three different cases and held on to your wrist with a huge number of bands. But that's the physical stuff — we'll get to that. What matters today is the software, what it can do, and how it works. And it turns out it's actually pretty complicated.

First things first: it is really confusing to have both the Digital Crown and the communications button next to each other on the side. As I tried to navigate the Watch interface, I found myself pressing one or both several times, without knowing which one would take me to the home screen, back out of an app, or launch a feature. Coming from the traditional iOS paradigm of a single home button that always takes you home, it's a notable difference. I'm sure tech nerds will quickly categorize the buttons into types of actions, but for everyone else, it's just two buttons that aren't particularly well differentiated.

There are basically two main ways of using the Watch

There are basically two main ways of using the Watch: pressing the Digital Crown to go to the home screen and picking an app, or swiping up from the bottom on a watch face to access the Glances, which are basically quick views into all the apps you've got loaded. Apple had several apps loaded onto the demo unit I played with: Uber, the SPG hotels app, Shazam, and a few others. What's interesting is that Glances clearly aren't the apps themselves — when you click on a button in a Glance, you get kicked out to a loading screen and then into that screen in the app. So clicking "unlock door" in the SPG Glance actually opened the SPG app, and showed me the button again. And then I wasn't on the Glances screen anymore. It's not a major thing, but it took me a few seconds to understand what was going on.

Update: Read our Apple Watch review.

Pressing the communications button (which, confusingly, looks and feels like the sleep / wake button on an iPhone) takes you to the contacts screen, where you can quickly send a note, drawing, or heartbeat to a friend using what Apple calls Digital Touch. It's neat, but it's another set of new UI ideas: a single finger to draw, hold down two fingers to send a heartbeat, a single tap to... tap. Again, it's not rocket science, but it's also not anything familiar, or anything repeated across the rest of the Watch interface. You just have to learn it.

That feeling of not knowing exactly where you are or what's going to happen is pretty disorienting for an Apple product — the steady iterative updates of iOS and OS X mean that it's traditionally been quite easy to pick up a new iPhone or MacBook and understand how to use it. But the Watch is really different, in ways big and small. To customize a watch face, you Force Touch on the screen, and then regular tap on various elements, which Apple calls "complications." But then you don't drag on the screen to change them as you would on an iPhone, you move to the Digital Crown and scroll. Nothing prompts you to do that, you just have to know. Does this sound complicated? It is. It makes sense over time — it gets your fingers off the tiny screen — but it's not immediately intuitive.

it's not immediately intuitive

I will say that my major concern about the Digital Crown turned out to be nothing, however — I've got big fingers and a large wrist, and I was worried that getting my fingers around the crown would be hard. But you don't have to do that at all, actually; it's way easier to just put your fingertip on top of the crown and roll it back and forth. I'm still not entirely sold on the need for an entirely new interface paradigm here, but it's definitely nicer to use than I expected.

That's sort of the defining theme of the Apple Watch so far: it's nicer than I expected and I'm sure the confusing interface settles down into a familiar pattern after you use it for a while, but I'm still not sure why you'd want to put this thing on your wrist all the time. Apple's big task at this event was convincing people that a use case for the Watch exists, and at this moment it still feels like an awful lot of interesting ideas without a unifying theme. We'll have to wait until we get review units in hand and spend way more time with one to really understand the value of the Apple Watch.

an awful lot of interesting ideas without a unifying theme

The Apple Watch comes in two sizes and three versions: 38mm and 42mm across Sport, Edition, and um, regular. 38mm is really small, entirely too small for my wrists. (When I went to try one on, the Apple PR people stopped me, saying it would look silly.) The 42mm is fine, what I would call average size for a larger watch. Neither is particularly thick.

The Sport models are the cheapest, starting at $349 with an aluminum body and a glass watch face, while the main Apple Watch version has a stainless steel body and a sapphire watch face from $599 up. The Edition is 18-karat gold, and insanely expensive: it starts at $10,000. The stainless is really nice, but it's a fingerprint magnet, while the aluminum model is pretty, well, aluminum. It's nice; I'd bet it sells by far the most. As for the gold Edition, we haven't gotten to play with them yet, but it sounds like we'll get a chance a little later on.

See all of the Apple "Spring Forward" news right here

Apple Watch hands-on photos