Apple Watch In-Depth: Everything You Need to Know

The Apple, Inc. (AAPL) Watch wearable was covered in gory detail today by its maker at a special press event.  Here’s what you need to know.

When does it launch?

The Apple watch is already arriving in stores.  Most editions will be avaiable starting April 10 for in store previews.  Pre-orders start April 10.  The watch will ship to customers on April 24.

Initial availability is limited to nine countries:

  • North America
  • Canada
  • United States
  • Europe
  • United Kingdom
  • Australia
  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan

Other countries should follow in coming months.

Is it one product? What’s with all the different models?

Apple CEO Timothy Cook fields this one, stating at the press event:

We’ve curated Apple Watch into three collections.
Those collections are the Apple Watch Sport, the Apple Watch, and the Apple Watch Edition.  The Watch Sport is the entry level/plasticky model.  The Apple Watch is the everyday style model, with plastic, steel, and leather band options.  On the high end is the Watch Edition, an insanely priced status symbol.

[Image Source: Apple via WatchRepairNY]
Each watch within these collections is distinguished by the face size (either 38 or 42 mm), body material, and the band kind.  The 38 mm face measures 38.6 × 33.3 × 10.5 mm (1.52 × 1.31 × 0.41 in), while the 42 mm face measures 42 × 35.9 × 10.5 mm (1.65 × 1.41 × 0.41 in).

Case varieties include:

  • Aluminum
    • Silver
    • Space Grey
  • Stainless Steel
    • (standard)
    • Space Black
  • 18 karat jeweler’s gold
    • Rose
    • Yellow

There’s a broad variety of band styles.  The cheapest feature a simple pin style clipping mechanism.  More exotic designs feature gold or stainless steel “classic buckles” or “modern buckles”.  These pieces can be combined with traditional pin-style fastening or with exotic magnetic fasteners (which included outer layers of stretch resistant polymer, which Apple claims is stronger than Kevlar).

Here’s a roundup of the major variants Apple was showing off:

[Image Source: Apple/Global Tech News/TechRadar]
As you can see there’s a lot of variations.

What’s the price?

The cheapest version — the 38 mm Sport Band retails for $349 USD.  A slightly larger, higher resolution 42 mm face is $50 more ($399 USD).

The cheapest style-Apple Watch (non-sport/regular version) retails for $549, while the most expensive commands $1,099 USD.  Here’s the Watch prices, based on the band you select:

  • Sport band $549/$599
  • Classic Buckle $649/$699
  • Milanese Loop $649/$699
  • Modern Buckle $749 (38mm only)
  • Leather Loop $699 (42mm only)
  • Stainless steel link bracelet $949/$999
  • Space Black stainless steel link $1049/$1099

The Apple Watch: Gold Edition will truly break the bank with prices at $10,000 to $17,000 USD.

What’s the body made out of?

The Watch Sport variant is constructed from a special aluminum alloy — 7000 series aluminum (aluminum doped with zinc and magnesium to increase strength).  This alloy is similar to the kind used in competition racing bicycles, but Apple says it has its own unique riff on it.

The resulting alloy weighs about as much as pure aluminum — and only a third the density of stainless steel — while having a 60 percent higher strength than standard aluminum.  In strength it is closer in strength to stainless steel, but it’s only a third as dense.  It’s extruded, then machined, then polished.  Next it’s coated by micro-beads of zirconia and baked in a special kiln to ensure proper grain.  As 7 Series aluminum can be relatively sensitive to corrosion, a critical final step is anodizing the entire design, sealing it against with a clearcoat.  In addition to protecting against corrosion, that coat acts as a barrier to scratches.

The body of the Apple Watch (mid-range model) is made of cold-forged stainless steel.  The special process makes the frame 80 percent harder.

The Apple Watch Edition — the pricey gold version — is cast molten 18 karat jeweler’s gold frame that’s undergone milling and compression to deliver a low porosity, smooth finish.

What’s the band made out of?

Apple Watch Sport bands are made from a fluoroelastomer plastic compound (PVC-free).  The Sport comes with two bands to fit different sizes of wrist, the rest of the pack come with only one band.

Pricier bands are made of either cured leather or a special stainless steel alloy that’s corrosion-resistant, 80 percent harder than standard stainless steel, and scratch-resistant.

Some of the aluminum steel bands are blackened with carbon for special “gray” or “black” tones.

What’s the display like?

The watch comes with a Retina display.  The 38 mm (1.3-inch) model has a 272 x 340 pixel readout, while the 42 mm (1.5-inch) model has a 312 x 390 pixel unit.  That works out to roughly 290 and 293 ppi (pixels per inch), for the 38 and 42 mm versions, respectively.  Both sizes are 5:4 aspect ratio displays.

Apple has designed a special font set for optimum readability on these low-pixel displays.

The displays in the Watch Edition are protected with Ion-X glass face overlay.  Apple claims its Ion-X branded toughened glass is five times as strong as traditional soda glass.  The Watch and Watch Edition (gold) models are protected by a sapphire crystal overlay.

Sapphire is a trigonal (hexagonal scalenohedral) crystalline lattice formed from the elements aluminum and oxygen (Al2O3).  Sapphire is one of the densest transparent materials, with a density of 4.02 g/cm3.  It’s extremely temperature resistant, with a melting point of 2,044 °C (~3,711 °F).

The sapphire glass in the Apple Watch is extremely hard, but will have to be watched for shatterability if it accumulates smaller scratches.
The latter crystal is very hard.  In fact, only a handful of materials — diamond, borides, silicon carbide, and titanium carbide are harder.  Apple has to resort to exotic means to produce it. Namely it cuts blocks of lab-grown sapphire with diamond-encrusted wire and polishes the resulting display with diamond-covered pellets.

Is it worth it?

That question requires you to consider the alternative hardened glass technology, Ion-X (which interestingly the Sport Edition uses).  Ionized glass, is generally produced by Corning Inc. (GLW) under the trade-name “Gorilla Glass”.  Glass is mostly silicon oxide (SiO2).  In the case of Gorilla Glass, this base material is doped by aluminum.  It then undergoes potassium enrichment via a hot salt bath during manufacturing process.

On the Moh’s hardness scale Gorilla Glass is only around 6 to 6.5, while sapphire crystal is a 9.  That means that the sapphire crystal will have much more resistance to large “macroscratches”.

That said, it’s brittle and can accumulate smaller microscratches more easy that Gorilla Glass.  Combined with its lack of elasticity, this can cause a sapphire crystal to shatter over time.  Corning may be a bit of a biased party, but its testing shows that a 1.0 mm thick sample of Gorilla Glass with small scratches can sustain 436 lbs of force without shattering, where as a sample of scratched sapphire crystal of similar size shattered at only 161 lb.

It should be interesting to see Apple’s sapphire-equipped Apple Watch see use in sports scenarios, via the Sports Band.  This could lead to some nasty breaking incidents and correspondingly nasty injuries.  And there’s the little bit about sapphire crystal being 10 times more expensive than toughened glass [source].

If you want a nice visual summary of all this, here it is in infographic form, courtesy of the Visual Capitalist.

[Image Source: The Visual Capitalist]
As Patently Apple states, the ultimate solution might be to use a lab-grown sapphire with implanted ions. Indeed, that’s precisely what Apple has filed a patent on.  Apple has also filed for patents on laser cutting of these crystals, which in theory would be a lot cheaper than disposable diamond saws.

Apple is currently in a bitter dispute with sapphire glass startup GT Advanced.  GT Advanced claimed that Apple deceived it with a tricky contract and then proceeded to drive it into bankruptcy so it could seize its assets including production plants.  Of course there’s two sides to every story.  Apple contends the bankruptcy was due to GT Advanced’s own mistakes and says it merely acted to recover what it could from the failed investment.  The case is ongoing.

What about the controls?

Control is a mixture of motion, pressure-sensitive multi-touch, and use of the crown.

Tapping the crown (watch dial) is commonly used as a confirm.

Twisting it allows you to scroll quickly through lists.  

The primary input is the multi-touch screen.  The touchscreen packs “Force Touch”, which sees not only the touch location but how hard you’re pressing.  Hard presses and soft presses trigger different effects (generally hard pressing is equivalent to right clicking, while a tap is equivalent to left clicking).

The camera and accelerometer determine when you’re looking at the device and for how long.  This allows different reactions, e.g. show the notification for a quick glance, but if you keep looking at the message, offer the interface to craft a reply.

What’s the battery life?

Apple claims the watch has an “all day” battery life.  But it admits battery life will vary wildly among the usage scenarios.  Overall, it sounds relatively similar to Android smartwatches.

In a minimalist scenario where you use no smartwatch features and only check the time 5 times an hour, on average, the watch will last 48 hours (2 days) on a charge.  There is a “Power Reserve” mode that can limit use and preserve battery life, extending the battery for as long as 72 hours on a full charge.

[Image Source: Forbes]
In more power intensive modes the watch can last a little over a fourth of a day on a charge.  Workout mode, for example, has a 7 hour battery life.  Audio playback offers a 6.5 hour battery life.  Talk time, meanwhile, for when you use the phone as a tiny speakerphone extension, will rapidly drain the batttery offering only 3 hours of talktime.

Apple tried to estimate what a “real world” daily use scenario might look like.  Its resulting benchmark was based on:

  • 90 time checks, 90 notifications
  • 45 minutes of app use
  • A 30 minute workout with simultaneous music playback via Bluetooth

That scenario yielded an 18 hour battery life estimate, which is where Apple got its “full day” battery estimate from.

Of course those are Apple’s numbers, so we’ll have to wait for the real world testing. Apple cryptically hints that the 42 mm edition may have a longer battery life, writing:
Apple Watch battery performance claims are based on test results from the 38mm Apple Watch. A 42mm Apple Watch typically experiences longer battery life.
Given that the displaced volume is only ~13 percent bigger though (19.3 ml vs. 17.1 ml), don’t expect too much of a shift.  At best this indicates that the 42 mm version might pack a 10-20 percent bigger battery, which should scale battery life accordingly.

What’s that weird chargers?

The watch uses a magsafe charger, which affixes to the back face of the watch.  This circular magnetized dock can charge the device fully in 2.5 hours or achieve an 80 percent charge in 1.5 hours.  Replacement MagSafe chargers for the Apple Watch will retail for $29 USD for the 38 mm model and $39 USD for the 42 mm model.

What other hardware is onboard?

Most of the hardware, including computing cores, GPU cores, RAM, and NAND flash, as well as wireless processing (Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n) are handled by the Apple S1, a tiny circuitboard packed in module.  The design is both protected and obfuscated by its resin filler, hence little is known about it at present.

At the heart of the Apple Watch is the S1, a circuitboard encased in resin packaging.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
However, Chipworks analysis claimed that Broadcom Corp. (BRCM) communications integrated circuit pads (specifically, pads for a BCM4334 chip) are spotted in the pinout of the resin-stripped chip.  That’s the same connectivity chip that’s found in the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) Galaxy S3 (2012), among other nifty devices.  Notably that Broadcom chip also includes an FM tuner, but Apple hasn’t mentioned anything about FM radio support, so it’s possible that the reception chain isn’t plugged in on this device.

Digitimes reported in January that Samsung Electronics had won a contract to produce this “system in a package” (SiP), including fabricating its processor, making the NAND/DRAM, and assembling the finished board in resin.  Digitimes asserts that Samsung is fulfilling processor demand for the device by producing 3,000 to 4,000 12-inch wafers monthly.  This report is of questionable accuracy, though, so we’ll have to wait for teardowns to known the full truth for sure.

Suppliers have reportedly stated that there’s 512 MB of RAM memory and 4 GB of NAND flash storage lurking inside the package, according to PhoneArena.

Are there apps?

Of course, there’s apps.  First, there’s the buit-ins that come pre-installed on every Apple Watch.  Notable inclusions are Siri (the voice assistant) and Apple Pay.

There’s at least 44 third-party ones that were name-checked at the event.  Most fall under a few categories:

  • Sports
  • Banking
  • Social networking
  • Shopping
  • Travel

9to5Mac‘s Benjamin Mayo has a list of all the apps demoed at the event.

But what’s the coolest app?

Arguably the Apple Pay or Shazam apps are tied for the best use of the wristwatch computer, in my book.  Both are features you often wish you had when your smartphone isn’t within reach, like when you’re on the run or when you’re at a party, hear a hot jam, and realize in horror you left your phone at home.

What about iOS 8.2?

iOS 8.2 is the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone update that adds support for the Apple Watch.  It’s currently rolling out to most iPhone devices and contains a number of general bug fixes in addition to the new watch stuff.

iOS 8.2 in the wild [Image Source: 9to5Mac]
Apple hasn’t said much about what iPad versions will be capable of talking to the Watch, but it has said that you’ll need an iPhone 5 (2012) or newer model to communicate with the Apple Watch.

The Watch relies on the link to the iPhone to get messages, make calls, grab maps, and download new apps.  Much of the data is stored on the phone side to save space.  For example, fitness data is stored in files on your phone, but you can view it at your convenience on the Watch.

It sounds as if you will be able to use some features — like Apple Pay or run tracking — even if your phone isn’t linked.  But most features will require the smartphone.  Apple also allows you to configure your Watch’s settings from the bigger-screen iPhone device.

How do I pair my device?

The Apple Watch, for now, only supports pairing with an iPhone.  An iPhone is more or less a necessity for Apple Watch ownership.  The upside is tighter integration, the downside is that some customers who might want to buy an Apple Watch but have a rival smartphone won’t have an opportunity to fully enjoy the Apple wearable.

[Image Source: 9to5Mac]
Since the iPhone 5, which lacks NFC, is supported, the Apple Watch pairs itself via a QR code, which the iPhone’s camera recognizes.  

[Image Source: 9to5Mac]
It’s possible NFC pairing will be added to later devices, but there’s no official word yet to suggest that.

How do I get Apps?

Apps will be available via a special section of the App Store, which hasn’t yet gone live.  Your iPhone will download them over-the-air (OTA), then push them via Bluetooth to the device.

What sports features are onboard?

Disappointingly there’s no GPS in the Apple Watch.  That omission improves battery life, but also means that position can only be tracked crudely via wireless networks and/or the accelerometer.

The watch does pack other healh-oriented sensors including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a barometer.

The real star of the show in terms of sensors is the heartrate sensor, which uses both infrared and visible light emitting diodes coupled with photodiode measurements, for increased accuracy. This sensor is encased beneath a secondary protective backface layer of sapphire glass.

The biggest fitness functionality is the onboard trainer routines.  It tells you when you’ve been sitting too long and sends you little progress reports every week.  Tim Cook describes:
It’s like having a coach on your wrist.
Of course there’s also a stopwatch onboard for timing splits and such.  The heart rate is also available as a glance at the homescreen.

What communications features are onboard?

Like its Android equivalents the Apple Watch leans heavily on acting as a second screen.  It can act as a bluetooth headset, allowing you to speak into it to carry on a phone call.  It also provides you the ability to read and even reply to messages coming in to your iPhone.  You can even send “heartbeats” or draw symbols (Digital Touch) via the built in “taptic” engine.

The taptic output device is a piezoelectric actuator, also known as a linear resonant actuator.  This produces a unique feel versus a traditional crankshaft style motor, which features a rotating mass.

Is the device durable?

Apple said it was “water and dust resistant”.  The degree of seal is unclear, but more details on this should be forthcoming.

Are replacement/swap-in bands included with the device?

Only the Sport includes multiple bands.  It includes two bands — one Small-Medium for wrists that are 135mm-156mm in circumference, and another Medium-Large designed for wrists that measure 165mm-180mm [source].

The other styles only come with a single band.  Bands range from $49 USD for a replacement Sport band, up to $449 USD for a replacement chainlink-style steel band.

Who assembles the Apple Watch?

The Apple Watch’s final assembler is believed to be Taiwan’s Quanta Computer Inc. (TPE:2382).  Assembly occurs in factories in China and Taiwan, with components produced in South Korea, the U.S., China, and Taiwan.

How many watches does Apple hope to sell?

Reportedly Apple has placed orders for between 5 and 6 million units, which it hopes will cover the next quarter.  However, that report suggested that up to half the watches would be the Apple Watch Edition gold model.  That’d be somewhat surprising, given that it’d be challenging to move 3 million watches priced at $10,000 USD and up — even if you’re Apple.

What Android Wear watches might make attractive alternatives?

The Moto 360 from the Lenovo Group Ltd. (HKG:0992) is another solid choice.  It’s very popular in the watchface modding scene and on Reddit.  It starts at $249.99 USD and has the backing of Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Android Wear in all its glory.

Lenovo’s Moto 360 is perhaps the most popular Android Wear watch.
With a Wear Lollipop update waiting in the wings, last year’s best-selling Wear watch still looks very compeititive with the new Apple Watch.

Others like LG Electronics Inc.’s (KRX:066570)(KRX:066575) Watch Urbane or Sony Corp.’s (TYO:6758) SmartWatch 3 are worth a look as well, although they’ve had some past issues.

LG Electronics Watch Urbane
Sony Smartwatch 3
Overall there’s little that the Apple Watch can do that these watches can’t.  In fact, most of them pack GPS, which means they should be better at fitness tracking than the Apple Watch (in theory, at least).

What other (non-Android) watches should I consider?

Kickstarter-backed Pebble is perhaps the cheapest smartwatch, but its functionality and battery life seems very competitive with Apple’s.  Its Pebble Steel model resembles the Apple Watch or Watch Edition variants, with a premium look.

The Pebble Steel is one viable alternative to the Apple Watch. 
The big upside is that it retails for only $199.99 — which may be anywhere from a third to a fifth of the price of a given Apple Watch.  Note, though, things aren’t quite that lopsided as the Pebble price does not include the band.

Further there are other downsides; the materials may not be quite as exotic/durable.  Also the Pebble appstore (which can be previewed here) is expected to be surpassed in short order by the iTunes Watch Store.

And then there’s the Gear S from Samsung. While Apple fans might shudder at the thought of buying a Samsung device, the Gear S has a full blown cellular modem allowing you to surf the web or make calls without tethering via Bluetooth to a smartphone.

The Gear S
It’s not the prettiest smartwatch out there, and the price is a bit high ($200 w/ contract or ~$350 for the unlocked version).  But if you’re looking for a mature design with a diverse feature set, the Gear S is probably the most flexible option.

Why pick the Apple Watch over those rival designs?

It’s really up to your personal preference.  Price might be one strike against Apple’s watches, but the prices for the Sport Edition are fairly reasonable.  On the flip side it seems like Apple has put a lot of thought and investment into the materials side of the watch, which may pay off in a variety of ways.

Further, Apple has made a much more cohesive push to try to sell its developers on the smartwatch form factor.  By contrast Google’s Android Wear campaign for developers was more ad hoc.  As a result Apple may quickly overtake Android Wear in the short term, although in the long run both paltforms should have similar amounts of apps.

Perhaps the strongest selling point is the iPhone-linked feature set, particularly when you consider user familiarity with the apps/inteface.  If you have an iPhone, you’re used to Apple apps.  And you have a device that will sync optimally with the Apple Watch, making the wearable a better overall choice.  Conversely if you have an Android smartphone and are used to Android core apps, the Apple Watch isn’t nearly as attractive a choice.

The devil is in the details, as they say.  It’s really impossibly to tell you a priori which watch is better for you.  You have the facts — now make an educated decision.