Apple Watch Owners: How do you rely on this thing?

August 03, 2022

After wearing an Apple Watch nearly 24/7 for the last 6 months I switched back to my Fitbit because I kept missing important text messages.

It took me a few months to realize this, but Apple approaches smartwatch design completely differently than the other smartwatch brands. While Fitbit and others treat the smartwatch as a supplement to the smartphone, Apple treats the smartwatch as a replacement to the smartphone.

This approach manifested itself most critically in the way Apple Watch handles notifications. Prior to Apple Watch, I relied very heavily on the visual notification cue of the phone, relying on the screen illuminating when a new text message arrives. For example, I always keep my phone in view when I’m working at my desk which provides an excellent cue that a notification has arrived, even with the phone silenced.

When notifications are enabled on Apple Watch, iPhone no longer illuminates the screen and no longer plays an audio cue when a text message arrives. The user is forced to rely solely on the watch.

This became problematic in instances when relying on text messaging to know that food was ready from a food truck, or a table was ready at a restaurant. In these noisy environments my iPhone sits on the bar so that I can visually see that message come in. Without the visual cue from the phone I started missing these messages because I couldn’t hear the watch, didn’t feel the watch vibrate, and didn’t see it illuminate. Of course, Apple doesn’t provide any options to get the full notification experience on both devices. It’s one or the other.

Eventually I started missing important messages from my wife simply by sitting at my desk. There seems to be some logic where the watch determines the user is in some sort of focus mode (is it listening for keyboard activity?) and doesn’t give a haptic or audio cue that a message has arrived. Maybe I’m that focused on my work and simply oblivious, but I’d like to think I know myself better than that. The final straw was a missed message from Merredith related to car trouble.

The other downside to Apple Watch taking over notification duty is the lack of variety in notification sounds. When relying on the iPhone, I knew what types of notifications I was getting simply based on sound. Apple Watch only has a single sound for all notifications. No customization in that space either. A step backward from the iPhone experience.

Notifications aside, from a health tracking perspective I was getting way less movement with Apple Watch. Fitbit prompts the user to achieve 250 steps an hour. That got me away from my desk on a regular basis which resulted in more steps and much needed mental breaks. Apple Watch prompts the user to stand, but doesn't require a step count. I could stand at my desk for 1-2 minutes and I met the goal. Apple Watch also doesn't highlight step count in any way. They leave that up to 3rd party apps. Light fitness tracking and movement is definitely secondary for Apple.

Fitbit isn't all roses. While I can go 4 days without a charge (vs. charging every other day with Apple Watch), the app ecosystem is non-existant. In the 6 months I was away, Fitbit appeard to only release one new watch face. They rely much more heavily on the development community to provide watch faces and their standards are low. Most faces are visual monstrosities that require additional purchases.

These are downsides I'm willing to live with if it means no longer missing important messages.