I first got to wear—and briefly operate—an Apple Watch during a secret preview in January, and for the past four days have tested one extensively on the bike and off, a period that's just enough to provide some idea of whether cyclists will find the device useful or revolutionary, but nowhere near enough to fully understand or benefit from its capabilities.
You need to live with the Watch for awhile. And that's sort of the take-away for me. If you trust that Apple can do for health and fitness what it did for desktop computing, music storage and delivery, and smartphone technology, get a Watch as quick as you can. If not, give the early adopters six months or so to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses and push it in directions and to limits its makers didn't anticipate (a common outcome of real-life market testing), then re-evaluate.
There are going to be all kinds of general reviews and rundowns of the Watch out there. Instead of documenting all the features, let's look at it strictly from the cyclist's point of view.
One of the four things that for me sets the Watch apart from other wrist-based fitness trackers or performance monitors—and that also makes it preferable to just using your iPhone to run Strava or answer a call, text, or email mid-ride—is the factor that takes longest to appreciate and utilize: Its potential to integrate disparate parts of your life in a more seamless use of technology and communication. Here are a few examples that have struck me over the past four days:
Answering texts without using your phone. As with other smart fitness trackers, the Apple Watch notifies you of incoming texts and emails, and allows you to respond to texts with a menu of pre-set phrases such as "What's up?" or "I'm on my way." But with Apple, you can dictate and send a reply (or an animated emoji, if that's your thing). It's one thing to be riding and be able to glance at your watch to see if a text is worth stopping to reply to—but it's a whole new level to, if the road is quiet and unoccupied, also be able to dictate a custom reply as you roll along. (You can read but not compose email from the Watch; Apple's philosophy, at least right now, seems to be that the Watch is intended for quick, easy communications or operations such as texting, and that tasks that require more time, attention, or thought, such as emailing, are best by phone.)
Taking or making phone calls without your phone. On rides, this is so much more convenient with the Apple Watch than text or email that I feel like it might revive what for me has become a pass? mode of communicating—actually talking to people. You can accept or decline a call by tapping the face (or decline it by covering the face with your other hand), or launch a call with a voice command. Volume and clarity are good, but can really degrade depending on wind noise. "Hey, Siri . . ." Call someone. Find the nearest convenience store. Find out exactly how much time you have to get home before sun sets. Controlling your music--if you ride with earbuds (which Bicycling doesn't recommend but also acknowledges is common).
It's not much more of a hassle to pull your phone out of your jersey pocket to do any of these things, but it's the cumulative ease of accomplishing so many small tasks that has me wondering if the Watch is going to feel irreplaceable to me at some point—a little bit like when shifting moved from the down tube to the brake hoods.
The second thing that makes the Apple Watch stand apart is that it's not a closed device; it's a delivery vehicle for all the apps and functionality that will be developed for it. When you buy the Watch you're not stuck with its own integrated workout tracker (which most cyclists will find basic and just okay) or any other software—you're also buying a new way to access Strava (already available in an app that's optimized for wrist use), or Map My Ride (coming soon, the company says), or whatever your favorite app is, as well as all the cycling-oriented apps yet to be conceived. This is where being an Apple believer really comes in.
Third is the playfulness. The animated emoji are fun. So is the functionality that lets me send a sketch to another Watch user by drawing on the screen with my finger, tapping it to deliver little fireworky pops, or transmitting my heartbeat by holding two fingers on the screen (this last feature proving to be not only bizarrely intriguing—hey, here's how I feel after climbing up #&%#! Corning—but also so deeply intimate it's kind of unsettling; you feel the heartbeat from the underside of the watch, tapping out against your own skin).