Can you use an Apple Watch without an iPhone? I tried it to find out.

I Tried to Wear an Apple Watch Without Touching My iPhone. It Was Infuriating.

I Tried to Wear an Apple Watch Without Touching My iPhone. It Was Infuriating.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 15 2015 5:59 PM

I Double-Apple Dare You

I tried to wear an Apple Watch without touching my iPhone. It was infuriating.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

As Apple Watches sprout on wrists across the land—finally appearing in stores, arriving in mailboxes at last—I’ve begun to note a new phenomenon I’ll term the “double Apple.” The double Apple occurs when a person thumbs an Apple iPhone while he wears an Apple Watch. The mere sight of a double Apple makes me retch a little.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

On sheer aesthetic grounds, the double Apple is way too matchy-matchy—like sporting a Ralph Lauren horse on both your baseball hat and your breast pocket. Mild allegiance to a brand is fine, sure. But allowing a brand to completely define your visual presence is awfully dorky. Unless you’re a professional athlete draped headband to sock in your sponsor’s logo, it’s a look best avoided.

The double Apple also defeats Apple’s plan to position the Watch as a cool fashion product for cool fashion people. Because there’s very little that’s cool about using multiple computers at the same time. Functional, maybe. Productive, fine. Cool? Nope.

Advertisement

Besides, I’d thought the very purpose of the Watch—fashion aside—was that you’d rarely need to pull your phone out of your pocket anymore. Why buy the Watch otherwise? I’m loath to add yet another gadget to my routine (a gadget I must recharge every single day) for no real reason. I’m not in need of a watch qua watch. I’m not pining for another random screen to stare at all the time. This device would only be useful to me to the extent that it improves my mobile life—mostly by letting me stow my phone away in my pocket where I can forget about it.

The double Appling I’ve witnessed suggests the Watch won’t help me make my no-phone vision a reality. But perhaps those double Applers have been doing it wrong. So I decided to find out for myself. I obtained an Apple Watch and then, over a period of a week, tried to excise my iPhone from my life. I’d be allowed to look at my phone while in my apartment, or while sitting at my desk at work, but otherwise I’d abandon it in my pants. Could I go a full week without committing any double Apples in public?

At first it wasn’t tough. The Watch notified me when I had a new email, a text from a friend, or a Slack message from a co-worker. An occasional glance at my wrist (or, in some cases, a pleasant haptic tap from the Watch to my skin) alerted me to incoming missives, and I could read them and then quickly dismiss them when I saw they weren’t pressing. So far, so good: phone safely tucked in pocket, Seth safely updated on the state of his inbox.

Meanwhile, there was a lot of fun to be had with the Watch. I got the $400 version, with aluminum casing and a rubbery “sport” band. (It has the same functionality as the $17,000 model made with 18-karat gold.) The design is clever and responsive, shrinking the iPhone interface to a screen the size of a 50-cent piece. You can choose your own watch face options, ranging from traditional to modern looks, and then customize with different modules—outdoor temperature, moon phase, calendar updates, and so forth, all visible on the Watch’s main screen.  

Advertisement

Some of the functions embedded in the device feel positively futuristic. For instance, you can make a phone call from your wrist—though I wonder how often you’ll actually want to do that. The Watch employs a little speakerphone instead of an earpiece, so out on a street corner anyone can hear your amplified conversation. Not much privacy there. Also, it feels awkward to speak into your raised wrist with your elbow cocked. Perhaps this wrist-talking posture will, over time, seem less tragically dorky. For now it’s dorky times four.

I enjoyed the Watch’s ability to measure my heartbeat. But this soon got boring. With each similar reading, I’d think to myself, “Yup, that’s another reading within a few BPMs of my standard resting pulse rate. Way to go, heart.”

I also liked when the Watch prodded me to stand up after I’d been sitting down too long and then congratulated me with a gentle haptic tap once I got to my feet. But when it’s measuring things like steps walked or flights of stairs climbed, the Watch is really just a glorified, radically more expensive Fitbit.

In the end, it’s the ability to see notifications on the Watch, without resorting to looking at your phone, that holds the most utility for its user. And for a time, I experienced Watch notifications as a delightful release from my usual phone dependence. Brief fiddling with the Watch felt more discreet than reaching into my pants and pulling out a big rectangle to cradle in my palm. I especially appreciated this during leisure activities. For instance, I played hooky to fit in a round of golf one afternoon and was able to leave my iPhone in my golf bag the entire time. It felt as though an encumbrance had been lifted. My pants pocket was blissfully empty as I played, yet the Watch still made sure I wasn’t missing important work stuff. I even loaded in a golf app to check my distances to the greens just by looking at my wrist.

Advertisement

Of course, there did eventually arrive a few messages that I couldn’t ignore, which was OK—at least when it came to texts. The Watch lets you answer texts with preprogrammed, canned replies. Or you can use its voice recorder to dictate responses. The voice recognition software is excellent and will pretty faithfully transcribe your spoken words into written messages. Easy peasy, no phone. (Though again, the act of talking to a watch doesn’t quite feel natural. At one point I refrained from dictating a text message while sitting in a restaurant because I didn’t want the nearby table of attractive women to see me mumbling into my fist.)

Problems set in when it came to email. The Watch lets you read it but doesn’t allow you to respond in any way. A must-answer email will send you scrambling to your pocket for your phone so you can peck out an answer. (Double Apple!) I was once forced to violate the terms of my experiment when I got an email that couldn’t wait for a reply until I got back to my desk.

Other limitations began to appear, as well. On the subway, I like to read books or full news articles on the big screen of an iPhone 6 Plus. The Watch doesn’t let you read books at all (its screen is probably too small for that to be a pleasant experience, anyway). And as for news, the New York Times and CNN Watch apps are indicative: Instead of full stories, they show you headlines and a couple of sentences. For true reading nourishment—be it a novel or an in-depth newspaper feature—you’ll need to trot out your phone once again. Likewise, the Twitter app on the Watch shows only a couple of tweets at a time, and you can’t click on any links, as the Watch has no Web browser. This, for me, eliminates the purpose of Twitter.

Which points to a general feeling I had as I attempted to use only the Watch: I was making myself stupider. Reading headlines instead of stories. Reading tweets instead of links. Not reading books at all. Even my text message replies were getting dumber because I was dictating instead of typing them and couldn’t edit them once the voice recognition had taken its stab. (I was better off just deleting and starting over.) I ended up keeping my texts very short and simple to save myself hassle. I’m normally a verbose text banterer who carefully crafts and revises witty text replies to friends. The Watch made me sound curt and unimaginative.

Advertisement

More disquieting: After a few days, that stream of notifications that I’d enjoyed at first—thinking they’d unbound me from the tyranny of the phone—began to feel oppressive. The Watch became a leash. With my phone, if I want to take a break from my mobile life, I can always leave it in my pocket. But the Watch is sitting right there, already out in the open, tempting you. It takes discipline not to swipe and see what you’re missing. And yes, I could have turned off the Watch’s notifications. But then I’d just have, like, a watch.

I wouldn’t bet against Apple. I’m sure future apps and hardware advancements will make the Watch a far more useful device. There are some basic problems with this initial product that will no doubt be improved. For instance, the Watch is designed to sleep when your wrist is lowered to save battery life, but it doesn’t always manage to wake when you tilt the screen up to your eyes. Few things are less useful than a pricey watch that has no face. I looked particularly chumpy on occasions when I was, say, standing on a subway platform, and was forced to herky-jerk-pronate my forearm several times in a row before I could summon the Watch to life.

But that’s a relatively straightforward fix. The bigger question is whether there are fatal limitations to this form. Will there ever be a watch screen on which I will want to read a book? Will it ever not look dorky when I talk into my sleeve? Where will we settle on the continuum of notification—will we really want to receive a gentle tap on the wrist every time somebody wants to reach us? Or will that soon seem more like an annoying yank at our coat sleeves?

In the end, the Watch—in its current iteration—is fundamentally unnecessary. You don’t need to subject it to a phoneless stunt to see that. It’s a failed fashion accessory that, in my view, will never be as aesthetically pleasing as a classic mechanical wristwatch. The Watch does almost nothing your phone can’t already do and, crucially, doesn’t obviate the need to look at your phone even as you’re wearing the watch on your wrist. To avoid double Appling, I had to refrain from answering important emails until I got to a desk. I was forced to risk looking like a dope by talking into my ulna. I needed to forgo reading books and news articles while in transit.

I confess it was a relief when I ended the experiment at the end of the week and was free to pull my phone back out of my pocket without guilt—settling in to read an entertaining book on the subway with my phone’s expansive screen, or carefully crafting a typed text message that might make a friend chuckle. Even though I still have the Watch and could put it on if I wanted to, I’ve stopped wearing it entirely. Unstrapping it from my wrist kind of felt like unshackling a handcuff.