I recently got an Apple Watch 6. I had been using a Fitbit Surge for about four years, so my impressions will be colored by that background.

Apple’s packaging is amazing. Everything is sleek and snug. There’s almost no cellophane, no twist-ties, and almost no plastic. The cardstock is smooth and perfectly printed. The shipping box used cardboard spacers instead of peanuts or airbags. One gets the impression that Apple has a packaging-design lab that is better funded than NASA.

Comfort

Compared to my old Fitbit—which is chunky even as fitness trackers go—the Apple watch is much less obtrusive, more comfortable. I can pretty much forget that I’m wearing it. It sits flatter on my wrist, and the rounded edges seem less prone to catching on things. I got the 44-mm (larger) version. My wrist isn’t that big, but I think it looks right and feels fine.

Battery life

This is a matter of perspective. The Surge, when it was new, could get about five days of battery life if you didn’t use the GPS. If you did use the GPS, you only got about 7 hours. By the time I gave up on it, though, battery life was barely one day. Apple touts 18-hour battery life for its watch, which would suggest that at its best, it’s no better than my Surge was after years of use (setting aside the fact that Apple’s watch has much more ambitious hardware). In fact, I’ve found that battery life can be much better. I wore the Apple watch for 48 hours continuously, and tracked one 60-minute workout (which drains the battery more quickly, as it runs the heart-rate monitor more, and depending on what you’re doing, also runs the GPS) during that time, and by the end of this, the battery still had 16% charge. I think the reason got this result is because I’ve set the screen so that it is off when I’m not looking at it: the big feature with the previous version of this watch was an always-on display, although the screen was simplified and updated much less frequently when you weren’t actively using it. This is the default mode, and I’m sure Apple’s battery tests are based on this default. So far, I don’t mind waking up the screen.

Exercise tracking

I need to give Fitbit some credit here—it would automatically recognize that you were working out and would track that automatically. It would attempt to classify your workout based on some characteristic movements, and it wouldn’t always get it right—it would recognize yardwork as exercise, but didn’t have a category for that, and would always classify it as something weird. It did let me reclassify these. The Apple watch only counts exercise when you fire up the “Workout” app and tell it what activity you’re doing. So it’s not possible to “close your rings” passively through normal activities; there’s the additional cognitive load of starting and stopping a workout. Edit: the watch does notice when I’m going for a walk (for example) and prompts me to confirm that yes, I’m going for a walk. When I do this, it doesn’t “backdate” to the point when I really started walking. It also notices when I’ve stopped walking, and prompts me to either pause or end the activity. So it’s not doing everything in the background—it does still require intervention—but it is trying to be helpful.

Also, I’ve found that Apple’s estimates of calories burned are very low. I’ve got a smart stationary trainer that measures my power output; this is the gold standard for estimating work performed. Work is simply power × time, and due to a mathematical quirk, calories burned are very close to work performed. I’ve found that Apple’s estimates of calories burned during a stationary-bike workout are about 2/3rds my work performed (although Gwen’s experience is different from mine). Its “active calories” figure is even lower. “Active calories” is apparently Apple’s term for total calories burned minus basal metabolic rate, although my BMR is about 67 kCal/hr, but Apple seems to be calculating it as about 80. So I don’t know what’s going on there.

I also work out with a chest-band heart rate monitor. Apple’s watch seems to lag the chest band by a couple of seconds, but that doesn’t concern me.

Display, hardware, software

The screen is really beautiful, but I have to admit that I can’t fully appreciate it. My eyes are 54 years old, and I’m close to needing reading glasses. I’ve got the type size maxed out; the watch faces seem to use two sizes of text–small and smaller. I can make out the small text; the smaller text I really need to concentrate on, which misses the point of a gadget you can glance at quickly.

Apple gives you a huge number of basic watch-face designs, many with variations, most of which you can customize with complications. I think the most elaborate design allows for 8 complications in addition to the watch face itself. As clever as that seems in the abstract, I find that I am unable to take it all in, or even focus on the one piece of information that I’m interested in (possibly if my eyes were sharper, I could). Four complications seems to be about right.

Text display for notifications seems OK. Clear enough for me to read, although I’m not going to read a book on my wrist.

The hardware is really nice. I covered some of that in Comfort above. I’ve got the woven nylon band, nothing special, and it’s completely unobtrusive.

I’m a little mystified by the two hardware controls: there’s a button and a crown (which also acts as a button). Pressing the button brings up a list of recently used apps; pressing the crown brings up the app browser (either as the impenetrable “grid” or as an alphabetical list) if you’re on the watch face, or surfaces you one level (either to the watch face or up in a menu system) if you’re anywhere else. I’m not convinced both modes are worth having; there’s also a “dock” of favorite apps that you access by swiping up from the bottom. The crown also acts as a scroll wheel; there have been a few times where the crown was the only way to manipulate something that I thought I could manipulate using the touchscreen, which confused me at first.

I haven’t figured out how to hide the Cycle Tracking app. I’m not going to need that for myself, and tracking someone else’s cycle would just be creepy.