It was June 3, 2015, when I thought my life on Earth would change forever.
For on that sun-filled day, the nearly $500 Apple (AAPL - Get Report) Watch Sport I ordered several months prior during a calculated trip to a New York City Apple store finally arrived at the office. To say that the wait for the alleged holy grail of smartwatches--which was my first crack at wearing a digital timepiece--was chock full of nervous anticipation would be a gross understatement. There was the daily checking of the delivery status of my watch from an email Apple had sent the day I placed the order. It felt as if the status indicator would never change to "shipped." Remember, when the Apple Watch first launched the wait list was huge thanks in large part to hipster tech geeks and blog review sites sucking up all of the early slots. Damn hipsters, you ruin everything.
Anyway, there the Apple Watch Sport sat glistening on my desk in all her glory--a masterful smooth black rubbery band with a shiny bezel that in no way resembled any watch I have ever used in over 30 years alive. After marveling at Apple's dramatic packaging, I quickly dove into trying to learn all of the features of this foreign-made digital device. That included everything from using Starbucks' (SBUX - Get Report) new mobile payment function (scan wrist at the register) to making a phone call to mom to brag about Jetson-like technology finally existing. Those first few days of being an Apple Watch owner were full of discovery and possibilities.
"What if I can order a stretch limo from my Apple Watch in 2016," I wondered internally. "Very soon I will be able to park my car with this Apple Watch, so excited," I beamed to my editor who also was an early Apple Watch adopter. Unfortunately since those first five days of profound thoughts, I haven't used most any of the Apple Watch's functions. And obviously, the Apple Watch still can't park my red Dodge Challenger or hail a stretch limo.
Apple Watch ownership, over a year in
In short, I have grown to secretly hate my Apple Watch while still begrudgingly wearing it to work each day. It's limiting in what it does even after recent software updates by Apple. Why can't I type real messages in it like a big boy? (You can type on the Samsung Gear.) It's annoying for all the alerts it wants to send me while interviewing a CEO on-camera. (Hey, it's my job.) The apps are still stupid slow to upload. Hell, I generally don't care if any apps show up on the watch to begin with, I don't use them at all.
The bands easily get dirty and don't come off as easily--because you can't wear the same watch band every day--as Apple promised. I am still not sure what cleaning solution I should apply to get the band looking as good as new. For some reason, I am still unable to pay for my $5 Starbucks iced coffee with the watch app, though my co-workers do it with ease.
The best part of the Apple Watch, believe it or not, has turned out to be the battery life. After over a year of ownership, the Apple Watch lasts about a day and a half on a single charge. That's not exactly amazing, especially compared to newer smartwatches on the market, such as the Samsung Gear, but I am cool charging each night before bed. It just has to get me through an entire day of meeting people from sun-up to sundown.
So with Christmas approaching, I have set off on a mission to find a new smartwatch. There has to be life beyond the Apple Watch. Granted, I only know the Apple Watch and its quirks, and how seamlessly it just works with my iPhone 6s. But certainly better smartwatches exist out there, no? Apple can't possibly have cracked the code on smartwatches, could they have? I don't know, but I want to find out because being shackled to the Apple Watch for another year would for lack of choicer words, suck.
Here is the first watch up to bat on my pursuit of something better. I would like to thank Apple for making this exercise absurdly difficult--all of the smartwatches tested, and still being tested, are Android Wear- or Samsung-based. Hence, many of the functions of the watch--such as voice calling--don't work as described due to my iPhone ownership. Can't all these tech guys get along?
The Garmin's screen quality needs a little work
Garmin Vivoactive HR
Pros: battery refuses to die; waterproof; seemingly indestructible construction; strong health-tracking data app; GPS equipped
Cons: sub-par screen quality; profound notification buzzer; small screen
I was particularly enthused about receiving the Garmin Vivoactive HR. The fitness smartwatch looked kind of bad-ass on Garmin's website--the screen's colors seemed extra bright and the overall device was manly, but soft enough to wear with a dress shirt to work. And it has GPS, which is perfect for bringing up a yardage-to-the-pin estimate while in the middle of a par 5 at the local golf course.
But there was ultimately a letdown factor with the Vivoactive HR that almost happened straight out of the box. In order to get the watch to last about eight days on a single charge, Garmin sacrificed on the screen's resolution. In turn, that makes the screen hard to read under most lighting conditions. Increasing the strength of the back-light doesn't help the reading experience much, either. All of this was too bad as the smartwatch excelled at what it's supposed to do.
The resting heart-rate screen was a great addition, as was a range of fitness tracking apps such as running, swimming, walking and playing golf. As for the Garmin Connect app, it's a treasure trove of data ranging from calorie counting to a body mass index reading to a live golf scorecard (thanks to the GPS). Great app layout, and it all worked rather well with a watch that is both waterproof and a stunner on battery life length.
In the end, it was too hard to get beyond the sub-par screen. For me to give up on the Apple Watch, the replacement device has to have a great screen--can't compromise on that given all of the alerts I read (and occasional emails) from it daily. The Garmin Vivoactive HR reminds me of that second car you buy to drive to the train station. It runs perfectly well, does what it's supposed to do, and you are OK with beating it up. A stronger fitness-focused watch relative to ones from Fitbit (FIT - Get Report) ? Absolutely, it's worth paying the premium to own the Vivoactive HR if in the market for a fitness-centric smartwatch. But an Apple Watch replacement? No, unfortunately.
Real-time heart-rate tracking was great--didn't have to press a button