Hands on: Apple’s Watch changes everything. Or does it?

To see one smartwatch is to see them all: rectangular, chunky, too-big, plasticky. Why the heck would I wear that, much less plunk down a few hundred bucks for it?

Apple’s new family of smartwatches are both the exact same thing and something completely different.

No, they aren’t round, nor do they wrap around or curve or flex or look like any of the countless fan-boy drawings you’ve drooled over for the past three years, hoping and praying that Apple would transform this space once and for all. Instead, Apple’s entries – Apple Watch, Apple Watch Sport, and Apple Watch Edition – are rectangles that look at first blush exactly like every other watch from LG or Google or Asus.

But that’s from a distance; get closer and you’ll see that Apple’s Watch (And why isn’t it the iWatch? Come on, Tim!) is substantially smaller than, for example, the Samsung Gear Live I’ve been wearing around for the past week – mostly to howls of derision. The Watch Apple showed off at its Tuesday event at the Flint Center in Cupertino was 1.5 inches, compared with the 1.63-inch screen on the Live.

A 1.65 inch version is almost the exact same size as the Gear Live, however, and a perfect match to the newly released LG G Watch. Sure, it’s from Apple. But it’s also hardly the stunning work of art some had hoped for. Truthfully, the just-released Moto 360 wins on looks.

Sure, it’s from Apple. But it’s also hardly the stunning work of art some had hoped for.

I didn’t see the larger version of the Watch in the brief demo I was allowed at the event, but the 1.5 inch model did feel very smart on my wrist. I tried on three different bands, of the six available. The plastic band on the Apple Watch felt nice against the wrist, while the Leather Loop version clicked securely together with magnets. Sure, the bands are nicely designed, down to the clasps. And the Watch felt far lighter overall than I expected. I’ve gotten used to having a chunk of whatever on my wrist; Apple’s model felt similar, though a touch smaller and slicker – was that just because I never saw the larger, 1.65-inch model?

It’s in the interface that the real differences come out, of course. The interface consists of a dial and a button, a sparseness that calls to mind the stripped down controls on the original iPod and iPhones. The dial, called a “digital crown” after the technical term for the wheel on an analog watch, turns smoothly and lets you navigate the software on screen, whether that’s launching apps or setting menus.

It all looked impressive enough, but Apple didn’t allow anyone to touch the watches themselves. The versions I wore were set to demo mode – I could feel buzzes when simulated friends sent me simulated messages, but heaven forbid I send one myself. I watched several Apple reps step through the software, which appeared smooth and fairly intuitive. Push the digital crown in, for example, and you’re carried back to a homescreen, just as the button on the iPad does – welcome relief for those mixed up by menus, no doubt.

Apple Watch hands on 13

But what’s it actually like? Who knows? I wasn’t even allowed to open the clasp on most of the watches, though one rep did surreptitiously allow me to push the two tabs together to detach the Watch from my wrist. Spoiler: It opens fine.

Apple announced a wonderfully smart and complete package for the Watch family, including the ability to make payments at a variety of stores with the watch alone, and a beautiful interface to health functionality. And the Watch seems packed with innovations, including a new type of sensor to detect the pressure of your finger. Again, I couldn’t test this or even touch the screen. I’ll reserve my final judgment until we get a model that we can actually touch. With a release date in “early 2015,” that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

For now, let’s wait and see what other manufacturers can come up with. Like a poker player watching the action from a seat in the corner, Apple’s shadow has loomed over this market. Now that the company has shown its cards, will the Watch prove an ace? Time will tell.

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