Four years of ambient computing

It’s been four years since the Apple Watch was released, and I’ve worn a variant of the miniature device pretty much every day of my life for most of this time. You see them everywhere now, but in 2015, wearing a smart watch was a novel idea. I’ve always been interested in gadgets, owning my first “smartwatch”, as Casio Databank, when I was in secondary school. I remember the sum of £40 seeming like a huge amount when I bought the Casio watch, and to be fair, for a 12 year old in 1997, it was.  I would marvel with amazement that a Casio Databank watch could store and entire 50 names and phone numbers, schedule alarms way off into the future, and knew how many days were in each month (no need to manually skip over the date for shorter months). The idea of walking around with all that information and potential on my wrist was both mysterious and exciting. How exactly did such a small device know to sound an alarm at precisely the time I’d chosen? Where exactly did all those names and number go when I entered them? I studied computer science and got a job as a software developer and so now it’s much less of a mystery to me how it all works, but my curiosity for these kind of smart devices never went away.  

A UNIX Box on every wrist

Maybe it’s just because I’m now in my early thirties and relatively old, but it seems to me quite fantastical that the smart watches, especially the Apple Watch, are now mainstream. That it’s actually considered normal for someone to walk around with an always-on, UNIX-based computer strapped to their wrist – a computer far more powerful than any of the computers I grew up with back in the late nineties and early 2000s. 

I find this especially interesting because these days, other consumer hardwire such as smartphones and laptops (or tablets) just aren’t that interesting. Phones don’t really do anything new anymore. Nicer screens, easier ways to log in, slightly better cameras – incremental updates that make the experience a little bit nicer. Smart watches on the other hand are vastly more compelling from a geek’s point of view.

First, there is room for a variety of styles: some of the designs released by LG and Fossil look genuinely beautiful, though Apple Watch is in a league of its own on that front.

Secondly, there is plenty of potential for new sensor input on the wrist. At the moment we have heart rate, accelerometer, and now ECG sensors with the latest Apple Watch, and there is so much more potential for a device that’s always on, and always being worn. Will the smart watch eventually displace the smartphone, just as the wrist watch displaced the pocket watch? I don’t think it will be as clear cut but I think they will eventually surpass mobile phone usage for many tasks. I certainly find that I need my phone less when wearing a smart watch – I just prefer to use it for certain tasks, mainly idling time reading the news or Facebook, or using the camera – the former is something I want to cut down on anyway.

Yes, I'm pretty proud of that time!

Despite my initial skepticism, I’m now hooked on the Apple Watch.  My home is strangely devoid of clocks. Apart from various computing devices, and my microwave, I have no clocks that I can easily glance at (partly due to finding ticking annoying!).  Apart from making daylight saving days less of an event, it does mean I rely on a watch or smartphone to keep me on track during the morning. Outside of just telling the time, I’ve found the Apple Watch useful for using Siri to do things like set timers and reminders. This means I have no need for a dedicated smart assistant like Amazon Echo, a smart watch beats a stationary cylinder in many respects because it’s always with me. It’s now second nature to dictate reminders into my wrist. Those reminders can always be location based (“At work”, “when I leave my car” etc.), unlike an Echo or equivalent.  Admittedly, I’m not going to listen to music on the watch’s speaker, and the inability to easily control Sonos via the watch is disappointing (there are 3rd party apps, but they’re pretty clunky). Apart from this, I do occasionally reply to text messages and emails I receive while at home, more often though I’ll initiate a text via the watch using Siri to dictate.  Initially I thought I’d use the remote control ability for Apple TV more than I do, partly because there’s no volume control for the TV on the watch, nor the ability to send Siri input to the TV (for example to search for something), and so I end up usually needing the Apple TV remote anyway.

Wearing a fitness tracker like the Apple Watch has also helped motivate me to keep active. I was an occasional runner before I owned an Apple Watch, but since, I’ve really progressed in part due to the ability to easily measure my pace and exertion using the GPS and heart rate sensor. The built in activity app is pretty minimal, and so I find exporting to Strava useful to get some more useful insights into my progress. The ability to go for a run with just a watch and some headphones, and still have access to music, podcasts and statistics while I run is truly amazing.

The downside of wearing a computer all the time is that it can be difficult to switch off.  Whether it’s BBC News or Strava, companies and apps are desperate for our attention, and the watch can make it easier for them to grab it from us.  I’ll address this in a future post, but I feel the Apple Watch’s fitness goals and achievements are focused on gaining “streaks” and never missing a day. I’d love to see Apple admit that once in a while, disconnecting is also good for your health and reward users for doing so.

Overall though, I’ll admit I’m hooked.

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iPhone SE

I did it. I bought a an iPhone SE. Not just any old iPhone SE, a Rose Gold one.

Why this madness?

iPhone SE, Rose Gold
iPhone SE, Rose Gold

The last phone I bought was an iPhone 5 back in December 2012. I was pleased with the phone and only gave it up last November when I decided to start using my company issued iPhone 6 as my main phone. The reason for switching was mainly because its ageing A6 processor was beginning to start showing its age, and the lack of M-series motion co-processor meant any motion tracking applications needed to keep the entire phone awake when in use, so battery life wasn’t that great for me. The iPhone 6 also has a much better camera. I’d refrained form upgrading my personal phone for so long because the iPhone 6 and the 6S did nothing for me – they don’t look particularly good, and they’re way too expensive for anything but the 16GB model, which I would not recommend to anyone but my worst enemy.

Modern processor niceties aside, I wasn’t too happy with the size of the iPhone 6. It was awkward to use with one hand, and impossible to put in a pocket while running – I needed to strap it to my arm instead. So when Apple announced the iPhone SE a few weeks ago, I knew this was the phone for me. The classic, beautiful iPhone 5 design and more importantly a usable size, but with the far superior camera and processing smarts of the iPhone 6S. I feel like this is a product Apple made just for me.

Upon going back to the smaller size everything felt so much nicer. The phone just sits in the hand much more naturally, and I can reach any part of the screen without using two hands or performing a balancing act in order not to drop it. There is also something particularly cool about using such powerful applications as Pixelmator, iMovie and Numbers on a 4 inch screen – there is a certain elegance in making an app that can do so much with such little screen real estate.

I went for the 64GB mode, which makes this the first iPhone I’ve ever owned with more than16GB of storage space. What a difference it makes. 16GB was fine back in 2009 when I had a 3GS, but in 2012 it made no sense, and it’s worrying that Apple still sells them. I can for the first time actually install apps without needing to delete something else first. Before I had to consciously keep applications installed to a minimum, in order that I could have 2 albums downloaded (for running) and space ready to take photos (usually 500MB or so). Now I don’t have to worry, and I can even install games. If anything, the storage upgrade is more significant than the superior processor and camera.

Finally I went for Rose Gold – why? I just felt like a change. I’ve always had the black iPhone, and Rose Gold was this year’s “new colour”. People can joke that it’s a girly colour, but honestly, I’m confident enough with my own masculinity to use a pink phone and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

Overall I think it’s a brilliant upgrade over the iPhone 6. More usable, nicer camera and much faster. It is missing the barometer (sad face) and the front-facing camera isn’t as good, but that’s a small compromise, there’a also no camera bump.

Apple Watch – First Thoughts

I know that it seems everyone wants to blog about their experience with an Apple Watch, so why would I need to too? Well, I’m not a professional journalist (as if you can’t tell) – just an everyday person with an interest in technology, so perhaps I’ll offer a different perspective.

So after 3 weeks, what does a ‘normal’ technology enthusiast think? Well… I went for the 38mm black ‘Sport’ Model as I figured fitness would be my main usage scenario.

Wearing a watch

I’ve always loved watches. Not for the bling factor – for me something being expensive doesn’t equate to it being stylish or useful. Ever since my Granddad introduced me to a Casio watch at the age of 8 I’ve loved a good gadget watch, and so the Apple Watch was right up my street. I actually have a Casio which I wear at weekends. It’s a radio controlled analogue/digital hybrid. I don’t wear it to work during the week since I’m usually at a computer all day long, it doesn’t really add much utility. So wearing a watch isn’t a habit I’ve had to get back in to.

 

With the classic buckle strap

Needing the phone

So a major factor in anyone’s purchasing decision is going to be ‘do you own an iPhone 5 or newer’ – if you don’t you can’t make much use out of an Apple Watch. My two and a half year old iPhone 5 still does the job (and until Apple increase the base storage from 16GB, I won’t be upgrading), so I was fine.

The iPhone is needed for a number of things – most apps require the phone to either be in Bluetooth range or the watch to be on the same WiFi network as the phone. This is fine for me as my office has WiFi throughout the building, so I can easily leave my phone in a draw and walk anywhere in the office (even outside) and receive notifications – pretty cool. Some apps don’t even need your phone, they only need a WiFi connection. Messages is one of those apps – I left my phone in my car at the gym, but was able to send and receive iMessages from the watch no problem. Siri also works like this. Maps didn’t work, although it was able to determine my location (from the WiFi base station, I assume), just not show me the map.

Overall the ‘need’ to be tethered to an iPhone is overstated in my opinion, though one thing to note is that the watch will only connect to a WiFi network your phone has previously connected to. So you can’t just head to a coffeeshop with only your watch and expect to get online.

Apps

Most of the built in apps seem well thought through, though with some annoying limitations. I can reply to text messages, but not emails. Both the BBC News and Guardian apps only show me a paragraph before requesting I take my phone out. I’m sure people can make that choice for themselves, so why not show the whole article?

Battery

If you use it like a watch, the battery will easily last you all day. If you use the Workout app or play with apps a lot, you’re going to struggle to get through the day. My Casio is solar powered, so I’m used to feeling the warm rays beat down on my watch and thinking about all that goodness it’s doing charging the battery, however that’s sadly not the case with the Apple Watch. If anything the heat will kill the battery’s longevity. I do hope Apple add solar charging in future iterations.

Workout

It seems to be pretty accurate (once trained by running outside with your phone’s GPS). I tested it on a treadmill and it was a few percentage points out. I have a tendency to rest on the side of the treadmill for 10 seconds while I switch tracks, it knows I’ve stopped running unlike a treadmill. The ability to leave you phone at home when you go for a run is great, you can play music from the watch via Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately changing a track while running is not easy (it made me pine for my iPod classic). You have to exit the ‘Workout app’ by pressing home, tap the Clock icon and then swipe up to get to glaces, then swipe across to the ‘Now Playing’ glance. You could also open the music app from the home screen, but it’s way too complex and an odd oversight from Apple.

The daily activity goals are good, however the recommendations are a bit basic. For example I had a daily active calorie burn goal of 400 – On 5 out of 7 days in a week I exceeded it, however it took my average calories over the entire week and suggested a new daily goal of 220 (I had a very lazy weekend). It seemed more logical that it would know that a lot of people will have different behavioural patterns on weekends and suggested something a bit more realistic.

Run

 

Style/Cost

I went for the cheapest option, the black Sport model (I went 38mm not for price but because I have skinny wrists). I looks pretty nice, even with the leather buckle. I probably wouldn’t wear it to a  formal occasion such as a wedding, but for business, or social it’s absolutely fine.

Calendar

Notifications

The best thing about notification is I never have to check my phone any more, since I know I will have gotten a tap on the wrist if anything of note has happened. I had to make sure all but the most critical apps were turned off however, I don’t really want to be interrupted because someone followed me on Twitter.

Text Input

The only way to input text is via voice-dictation. This is fine if your a technology journalist who works from home, or an exec who has their own office – but for the average person who works amount other people (this applies to social occasions too), it’s not polite to start dictating messages to your girlfriend in front of other people. I value my privacy, and so unless I’m alone I generally don’t enter text into the watch. What this device really needs is a way to enter text, Microsoft have the right idea, and I’m disappointed Apple haven’t even included this in watchOS version 2. (I guess it did take the iPhone OS 3 iterations to get copy and paste).

 

The Watch

One of the coolest things about the watch is the customisable watch faces. You can add widgets that show the weather, sunset time, battery life, next appointment and more. In this sense, the watch really has utility that makes it worth wearing. I can look down on my wrist and see my next appointment or the current weather conditions.

Watch Face

This is the one I use when I’m not at work – it shows me sunset time (how much time I have left to go out for a walk or run before it gets dark), the battery level,  the day of the week and my activity for the day.

Watch Face

When I’m at work I like to use this face, which gives me the timezone of our other office, in addition to putting the date front and centre.

Overall, I’m impressed and don’t regret the purchase. Plus, future versions of the device can only get better .👍🏻