Apple Watch SE Impressions

Background

For the past 3 weeks, I’ve been rocking an Apple Watch SE that I finally decided to pull the trigger on. I had been thinking about snagging a watch for the past year or so. On one hand, it seemed like a terrific companion device for someone already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem considering I have an iPhone, two iPads, and an M1 MacBook Pro for work. On the other hand, I’m ultimately an introvert who frequently gets irritated when his phone buzzes, so the idea of that buzzing being strapped on my wrist seemed potentially problematic.

I eventually decided to pull the trigger, though, and I opted to purchase a baseline Apple Watch SE. The timing was potentially horrible since there was a new watched announced at this week’s Apple Event. Fortunately for me, though, the Apple Watch Series 6 has more bells and whistles than I felt like I would need for my first smart watch, just as I felt when comparing the Series 5 to the SE. I know there are those out there who think the SE is dumb to buy when you could just get the Series 4 instead, but I still think I made the right decision.

The immediate choice facing me was the size, since Apple Watches come in 40 mm and 44 mm varieties. Given that I’m not exactly a bulky human, I had originally been leaning toward the 40 mm version, but after trying on my friend’s 44 mm watch, I knew that was the way to go; just 4 mm makes a surprising difference, and I really feel that the 40 mm watch would’ve just been too small. Just to clarify, this is simply a matter of appearance rather than screen real-estate, and I don’t think the new Series 6, with smaller bezels and a more screen-to-the-edge appearance, would change my outlook. To accompany the watch, I also went with the “Cyprus Green” sport band for something that I thought looked good and would hold up well, though the band can obviously changed at any time if I decide to pull the trigger on something different.

Thoughts – Pros

My main thought in buying an Apple Watch was that it would allow me to interact with notifications a bit more without having to constantly pull my phone out of my pocket to decide if an iMessage, email, IM, etc. was worth dealing with right now or later. From that perspective, it works great. If I’m out walking, in the elevator, or even sitting in traffic, I’ve already found it extremely useful to be able to glance at my wrist and see the gist of a message. For iMessage in particular, it’s great to either select from a litany of quick replies or to even physically write out the letters of a quick reply on the face of the watch itself. It may sound clunky, but it can be handy for a quick “lol” or something along those lines. The real benefit, though, is being able to just see the message when my hands are full or any other reason why using my phone would be overly annoying.

I also thought the watch may be useful as a step counter, and in that regard it’s also been terrific. The activity rings seen in the image above are absurdly motivating. I don’t know what it is about them, but closing those rings is something I find myself wanting to do, and if I have to walk up 9 flights of stairs to the office when I’m coming back from lunch instead of taking the elevator, then I’m going to do it. On the flip side, it can also work well as a sleep tracker, helping me stay on top of how I’m sleeping, how often I wake up throughout the night, and just how erratic my sleep schedule actually is. It’s been common for me to think my sleep has been half decent only to look at a graph of how much sleep I actually got for the past week and realize it’s abysmal.

In addition to those uses, there have also been some surprises that I never really thought of. One is media control. When streaming Apple Music from my phone, for example, it’s been shockingly handy to be able to pause my tunes or skip to the next track just from the watch. MFA was another silver lining that I hadn’t thought about prior to buying the device. I use the Microsoft Authenticator app for all of my MFA. While it doesn’t help for services which require me to look at and type in a 6-digit code, Microsoft services like Outlook.com and Office 365 that allow me to simply tap a notification to activate a second factor can be triggered purely from the watch. Doing this does require a little setup between the watch and the app on my phone, but it took less than a minute and has been insanely useful. Nothing was more irritating than sitting on my deck to work while my phone was inside and seeing a dreaded MFA prompt that would’ve previously forced me to get up and run inside.

The final surprise for me was navigation. If I know I need navigation when I start driving, I’m just going to plug my phone up and use CarPlay. However, if I’m not navigating off the bat then my phone is typically in my pocket while I drive. As a result, it’s that much worse when there’s an unexpected road closure due to construction or an accident. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to just use Siri to fire up navigation on my watch when I’m stuck in a pinch rather than trying to fish my phone out of my pocket. The watch will even vibrate when there’s an upcoming action I need to take, such as making a turn, which means that I’m not stuck trying to stare at my wrist while I drive; I can just glance at which turn to take whenever I feel the vibration.

My last positive remark is regarding the battery. The battery life is extremely good. I’ve been wearing the watch nearly all day while writing this post a little after 9 PM, and right now my battery is at 79%. I’ve taken to just charging it first thing in the morning when I hop in the shower. That brings it back up to a full charge and ready to go for the rest of the day. Obviously getting lots of notifications, using it for navigation, etc. will reduce the battery life; I’ve been working from home all day today with lighter than normal usage. Even during times when I’ve been out for the whole day, though, the battery hasn’t even come close to running out; seeing 50% would make me think it’s getting low at this point.

Thoughts – Cons

Nothing is perfect, and the Apple Watch is no exception. My biggest gripe is easily that if I’m not walking then the device has no clue when I’m standing. For example, if I’m working from home then I spend most mornings working from my laptop while I stand at my bar. I even have a nice Gorilla Grip floor mat to stand on. It’s not at all uncommon, though, for me to be standing for 3 or 4 hours straight and see that my watch has said that I’ve only spent a couple of minutes standing in the day. I understand that determination is probably difficult to make when I’m just standing still and typing, but it’s frustrating regardless.

Another problem is that I can’t actually wear the watch at night to get sleep data from it. The problem isn’t the battery life or an inability to sleep while wearing it. Rather, the skin on my wrist just ends up getting red and irritated if I simply wear the thing for every moment other than when I take a shower. I wore mine at night for about 2 weeks before the irritation started to become a real problem, at which point I started just throwing it on my nightstand when I went to sleep. Leaving it plugged in overnight was overkill and then some, so even when I take it off at night, I’m still only charging it first thing in the morning while I shower.

Siri still has a really nasty habit of chirping up when I didn’t engage with her, and having her listening on my wrist only makes that worse. As I’m on Teams calls throughout the day for work, I regularly notice my watch trying to respond to some unasked question that I have to quickly silence. Fortunately there’s a handy gesture for exactly that – it also works to silence the watch when you want to ignore a phone call – but I remain curious as to what sort of things I say on the regular that sound enough like “Siri” to cause this behavior.

My final – and biggest – complaint is what I was worried about from the very beginning: notifications. I’m part of several group chats in Signal, and when people get chatty it can quickly become very irritating to constantly have notifications from those chats popping across my wrist, especially if I’m busy and not taking part in them myself. That being said, it’s easy enough to throw the watch into silent mode, something I’ve taken to doing at the same time as my phone when I have the rare in-person meeting. Similarly, the watch seems to obey the same notification rules from my phone. So if I mute a particular group chat in Signal or Teams on my phone, for example, that’ll stop the notifications from coming across the watch as well.

The other point of irritation with notifications is that exactly what you can do with them is extremely varied just depending on the work the app developer has put into interoperability with the Apple Watch. For example, iMessage will allow me fully respond to messages straight from the notification on my watch. Microsoft has also done a great job, allowing me to archive or delete new emails from my watch for my work account that’s linked to the Outlook app on my phone. Other apps, however, leave much to be desired. ProtonMail will only allow me to see the subject of an email and then dismiss the message. If the message is going to be instantly deleted because it’s garbage, that’s not something I can triage from the watch; I have to do it from my phone or laptop. This is something that will hopefully only get better with time as the watch gains more and more users, though.

While it doesn’t affect me, I guess it’s also worth mentioning as a con that the watch is very much viewed by Apple as a companion device to an iPhone. Buying a watch while using some type of inferior other phone is going to lead to an expensive brick on your wrist. A friend of mine who – despite having both a MacBook Pro and an iPad Air – still uses a gross Android phone wanted an Apple Watch after seeing mine in action but didn’t have the option. Here’s to hoping she’ll soon switch to a less disgusting, less Google-controlled platform sooner rather than later.

Thoughts – Final

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with my purchase. I was a little concerned since a friend of mine told me on the second day that I owned mine that he simply stopped wearing his Apple Watch because he didn’t think the distractions from it were worth the payoff. I’ve found that with a little forethought into controlling when I want notifications and when I don’t, though, I can sort of achieve the best of both worlds… though it is annoying to be scrambling to mute a Signal group chat in the middle of a work call.