Stepping Back from the Bleeding Edge

With the arrival of Apple pre-order day, I ended up doing the complete opposite of my prediction of standing pat with the iPhone 7 Plus and ordering an Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE. When the moment of truth came, I preordered an iPhone 8 Plus and didn’t order a new watch (for now).

This is an interesting upgrade cycle for me. I have the original “Series 0” Apple Watch. I wear it nearly all of the time (including when I’m sleeping), but I use it for the basics:

  • Timekeeping
  • Exercise tracking
  • Sleep tracking
  • Lightweight Siri requests (e.g., setting timers)
  • Notifications

I really love it for these things, but as many have noted, the app experience on the watch (both Apple native and third party) is still abysmal. The faster performance and LTE capabilities of the Series 3 will likely take the Apple Watch to a new level of utility, but it’s going to take some time for the app ecosystem to catch up to the immediate gains of untethered phone calls and Apple Music streaming.

For example, one glaring gap on day one is the inability to play podcasts on an untethered watch. Overcast developer Marco Arment added local watch playback briefly, but then backed it out last month after running into watchOS software limitations. On the latest episode of Accidental Tech Podcast, he said that he’s going to take another run at it, but he was very transparent about the fact that timing and probability of success are still very unclear.

The iPhone X looks like a winner, but it introduces a number of radical changes, including the removal of the home button, the addition of Face ID, first-time use of OLED screens, and the controversial “notch” that app developers will need to accommodate in their user interface designs.

Being an early adopter of Apple products is fun, but it often comes with awkward app transition periods. Examples I’ve experienced include:

  • Native iPad apps vs. (awkwardly) scaled iPhone apps on the original iPad
  • Retina support on the iPhone 4
  • Optimization for the 4-inch screen introduced with the iPhone 5
  • Optimization for the 5.5-inch “Plus” model iPhones (still far from complete)
  • Optimization for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (still far from complete)

Living without these optimizations for some period on your shiny new Apple device is the very definition of a first-world problem. But if you’re the type of person who cares enough about the finer details to be an early adopter of Apple products, these things grate on you – sometimes for years.

This time, I’ve decided not to play. The iPhone 8 Plus will give me some excellent incremental updates like a faster performance, a nicer camera, a better display, and wireless charging. But by stopping short of the iPhone X, I won’t spend the next year waiting impatiently for my favorite apps to “embrace the notch” or change gestures to eliminate conflicts with iOS on iPhone X.

I’m in the Apple iPhone Upgrade Program, so I’m not giving up the new hotness forever. I’m just picking a year of mental serenity over a year of very expensive imperfection.

With the watch, I’m taking more of a wait-and-see approach. Upgrading from the Series 0 to the Series 3 would immediately bring me noticeably better performance and a better Siri interaction model. But until the Series 3 proves that it can deliver an excellent all-around experience untethered from the iPhone, the upgrade cost and $10 mobile plan tax are not worth the hit to me.

Before upgrading, I’ll be looking for:

  • Reports from the real world on battery life while using the phone and Apple Music on a stand-alone basis
  • Evidence that the improved Siri implementation is truly useful without a large screen and keyboard
  • A good way to play podcasts locally on the watch (even if I have to switch podcast apps)
  • Stretch goal: local playback of Audible audiobooks

If there are positive developments in these areas between now and the end of the year, I’ll likely upgrade. If it takes longer, I’ll probably give it another year.

I’ll conclude by saying that while I’m not running to the bleeding edge this year, I actually really like how Apple approached this product upgrade cycle. Customers have more than old vs. new to choose from, and Apple’s design ambitions aren’t constrained by what the average user is ready to jump at.

Doug Lane @douglane