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‘Is the Apple Watch a game-changer?’ It depends which UPBs you’re after…

There are a lot of Apple Watch reviews out there. This is about what the Watch means for someone who relies on mobile devices professionally and personally in equal measure. If you’re interested in the Watch’s hardware, try the ifixit teardown. If you’re interested in more general reviews covering a range of issues, try Engadget’s collation of critics and user reviews.

I was one of the first wave of people receiving watches, so I’ve been wearing mine pretty much constantly for just over three weeks. VentureBeat published some clickbait about the Watch not living up to expectations a few days ago: ’30 days later, I’m returning my Apple Watch’. I say it’s clickbait because it is, but I also have a lot of respect for someone deciding the Watch simply isn’t for them. Sometimes peer pressure encourages us to purchase and be seen to be using tech that doesn’t really offer much utility.* So is the Watch worth it? Can it be a game-changer for some users, even if it is cost:benefit neutral for most users (the cost in £$€ excepted)?

Although there are some obvious places where I can already see Watch 2.0 developments slotting in to improve the Watch’s utility, based on my experience, I think the Watch actually manages to deliver two key unique ‘perceived benefits’ for wearers:

  • A well-spec’ed wearable with perfect iPhone and Health sync
  • A more efficient method for engaging with your calendar/email/messages/Passbook/Apple pay

The Watch as a fitness wearable

I thought I would be sceptical about wearing the Watch, as eighteen months ago I deliberately chose one of the few wearables that wasn’t worn on the arm (the FitBit One), but I find it pretty easy wearing. I wrote about my expectations for the Watch replacing my FitBit a few days before the former came out, but the Watch has already replaced by FitBit completely.

The Watch offers two apps for fitness: Workout, and Activity.

Workout is a pared back offering, with a small number of pre-set exercise types, the option to set a goal (time, distance, calories), and a timer. Activating Workout also ups the frequency of heart-rate monitoring. I use it for runs, and it seems to do a fairly good job of accurately determining the distance, even when I’m not running with my iPhone. The latter is infrequent, though, as the Watch doesn’t offer GPS tracking, so I still use RunKeeper for this purpose.

The snug fit of the Watch makes it ideal for all activities, including yoga, when other wearables might slip up and down the arm. Although I’m slightly sceptical about the calorie-burn calculations, I find the ability to track heart rate during activities like yoga and weights quite interesting. Previously, I owned an iHealth oximeter, which would give heart-rate readings, but hadn’t gone so far as to invest in a heart-rate monitor for running with. Now I don’t have to.

Activity is the shinier of the two apps, and involves the circular gauges for “move” (calorie burn), “exercise” (activity above a certain threshold), and “stand” (regular movement throughout the day).

I appreciate the different focuses here, on weight-management (even though avid calorie-counting is baloney…), exercise, and activity. Trying to fill all three circles every day encourages a multi-pronged approach to fitness that it’s nice to see amongst all of the fads and ‘one simple trick’s. The app is usefully visual (unlike Health, which remains abominable in some of its data-presentation), offering a clear snapshot image of how your day, week, and month has been going. I value the “stand” section most of all: it offers a useful reminder once an hour that I should take a break, move away from the computer/desk, and notice what time it is.

The one thing the Watch cannot do that my FitBit did is sleep tracking. Initially, I kept wearing my FitBit during the night, but having two wearables that I had to think about wasn’t very productive, and I didn’t see the point in keeping the FitBit app around just for the sleep data, which I looked at quite rarely anyway.

The teardown suggests that there might be more health features to come, too, so it’s a case of watch-this-space.

The Watch as an efficiency tool

I am all about efficiency. As much as I can procrastinate like a pro, at heart I love ticking things off the list and feeling that I’ve accomplished something, without any waste of time and energy, and am ready for the next challenge.

Anything that streamlines the process of interacting with apps, particularly email, messages, and calendars, is going to attract my attention, and the Watch is all about processing notifications. I can delete or flag emails quickly, building my to-do list and staying at inbox zero (yes, I am one of the few people who actually lives in that enchanted place). I can tick things off said to-do list (in the Wunderlist app), mark activities as completed (in the Timeful app), and get an overview of the rest of the day’s calendar without going to the effort of using my phone. Once Apple Pay is rolled out here in Blighty, I’ll also be able to go out to get lunch without my wallet, meaning one fewer thing to carry.

Matt Gemmell blogged about how the Watch actually decreases tech-distractions, and I think he’s right, although he gives the Watch slightly too little credit as a means to interaction with notifications. Dictating messages is a little clunky, but it focuses the mind. For important people, I get my phone out. For the less important (or the more casual exchange), the Watch and I can muddle along just fine.

I was initially frustrated by the lack of readable content. The Guardian and Twitter apps are available, but they offer very little by way of interest. Which, after my initial irritation, I decided was a good thing. I can easily lose an hour reading Twitter on my iPhone. Now, I have to make a more active decision to do that, rather than being sucked into it by having the iPhone ready-to-hand.

There is more to come here, too, I think. The Watch’s best feature is that it foregrounds notifications and should — assuming app developers get their acts together — offer a way to interact with them swiftly. A few weeks ago, Anish Acharya wrote about the increasingly privileged status of notifications on mobile devices, moving away from “pull” activities (Google searches, etc.) and towards a range of “pushed” content or services (prompts based on geolocation, etc.). Customisability becomes key when so many more apps are based on pinging the user for attention, and the Watch offers a way to streamline those interactions without needing to take out one’s phone or clear a backlog that prevents you seeing the wood from the trees.

* I have a persistent gripe about FaceTime, which has taken over as the primary means of communication amongst my family members, although it’s glitchy even when one is sitting still using home broadband, never mind wandering around the city on 3G…

Cover image an homage to all the hairy-armed Watch bearers following launch day!


Life with the Fitbit, seven weeks on

By way of background: for Christmas last year, I got a Fitbit One, about which I’ve already written an initial review. I’ve been using it daily now for seven weeks, and I thought I’d write something more detailed about how it has affected the way I think about my health and lifestyle, tracking devices, and the idea of a Quantified Self. I’ve also written before about my hesitance about society’s general willingness to abdicate responsibility for self-awareness and owning decision-making about health and well-being to doctors.

The QS movement aims to bring about greater understanding of one’s self and one’s health as a result of data, data, data. The most “traditional” type of self-tracking is dieting, of course, and at its core, the Fitbit is based on this model: it is interested in how much you move, how many calories you are burning, and how many calories you are eating. The sleep tracker moves a step beyond this, looking at data relevant to mental health and wellbeing, energy levels, etc. The Fitbit website allows one to track moods (and allergies!), as well as heart-rate, BP and blood glucose levels (provided you have the appropriate kit at home), but the app does not, limiting the flexibility and responsiveness of the tracking experience that the Fitbit offers.

Tracking one’s diet is quite valuable, I think. Although the protein/carb/fat mix of your daily intake is important, the more critical thing to track seems to me to be the levels of vitamins and minerals you eat on a daily basis, and the food databases within these sorts of apps (the Fitbit’s, MyFitnessPal, etc.) are patchy at best at giving this information. Even if they do, what sort of accuracy can there be, really, when using these average figures? The same goes for the calories in your food, even assuming that you can accurately measure everything, even assuming that calories-in-versus-calories-out is meaningful (it’s a very blunt instrument). (There’s a nice LifeHacker post about this issue and how best to go about keeping track of weight/body measurements, but it remains imperfect.)

I think this basis of generalisation is a real problem for the sort of low-level self-tracking that the Fitbit represents. Even one’s weight is not fixed. It will vary throughout the day, and throughout the month (for both men and women!) as hormone levels vary. So when do you weigh yourself in order to say that you have lost weight or not? Most of the mechanisms that we have available to measure lean-mass versus fat (e.g. weighing scales or skin-fold callipers) are also liable to a relatively high degree of inaccuracy. The closest I think that one can get is actually measuring the body with a measuring tape, although it’s easy for there to be random errors here, too, by holding the tape slightly tighter one time versus the next, or slightly further down one’s chest/waist/thigh.

So given these frustrations, what’s the point?

Well, there is a certain attractiveness to merely having the data. It can act as further motivation — whether your weight/measurement/body fat rises or falls — and it can help to maintain a focus on health that might otherwise get lost in the maelstrom of day-to-day life. It is nice to feel that you’ve done the best that you can on a certain day, and be able to identify where you might improve for another, provided the data does not become ‘law’, affecting beyond reason how you think about yourself.

I’m going to keep using my Fitibt (along with the MyFitnessPal and Sleep Cycle apps), and I’m toying with the idea of paying the £40 pa in order to access Fitbit Premium, which gives you more data that can be compared with the large number other Fitbit users. This element of big data is attractive, and might be worth it, but I haven’t quite decided yet. If I do go for it, rest assured that I’ll be writing about it here!

Fitbit One — initial review

Well, the excited waiting is over! My Fitbit One arrived at Christmas and has been pressed into service. So far, so good.

I’m mainly using the Fitbit with my iPhone at the moment, rather than via the Fitbit website. I’m using the app in conjunction with the My Fitness Pal app (I have never used that one online) because the Fitbit’s food database might as well be non-existent. That is the one disappointment so far. In reality, I’ve actually now got three apps, as for some reason there is no function in the app to record one’s pulse. I can see why as it’s done using the phone’s camera and not with the One itself, but it would be a useful add-on, I think, particularly given that the option exists on the website. In any event, the Fitbit app has an attractive interface that is easy to use.

The pedometer is pretty standard, and the altimeter giving the number of floors climbed is a curiosity but not a huge interest. The recording of active minutes is quite useful, though. For example, it’s interesting to see when wandering around the shops is or is not ‘activity’. The weekly email summary that Fitbit sends is also quite useful, so that one can see the data in the round. It is far more startling to be told that you have eaten more than 3,000 calories than you were meant to (*ahem* it was Christmas, and I don’t really believe in calories anyway, but one has to start somewhere…).

The function that I’ve found most informative so far is the sleep tracker. As far as I can tell, it is much more sensitive than the app I was previously using on my iPhone (Sleep Cycle), which detected movements in the mattress. Sleep Cycle fell down because it only gave the amount of time the app had been running, essentially, rather than the amount of time one was actually asleep. The FitBit corrects this by judging when you were awake and ‘restless’ and omitting these from the sleep time calculated. The arm bracelet for the One is comfortable, and it is easy to remember to use it if you are already wearing the One on your clothes, although I can see that it could be easily forgotten otherwise.

Over the next few weeks I am going to try to use the website a little more in order to take advantage of the more detailed tracking it offers.

Fitness devices

No, I don’t mean those silly Slendertone things!

I’ve written before about the Quantified Self movement and smartphone tracking apps that I’ve used so far, and I’ve finally decided to get a specialist device (for Christmas).
I spent a long time looking at the various options from FitBit, Jawbone and Nike. I was really taken with the Jawbone Up because it lets you track your mood, but I was put off by the bracelet style (which reportedly throws off the movement tracker) and the various moans online about the model dying after a few months. I decided instead to try the FitBit One, which is mostly worn as a clip-on. I’m actually quite excited for Christmas now!