The Chainlink

Product Review: Apple Watch Sport, 42mm

By Brett Ratner

As one of the most anticipated new tech devices to come out recently, there's already a bevvy of Apple Watch product reviews and product overviews hitting the virtual news stands.

For example, The Oatmeal posted this smart, concise (and funny) piece. In my opinion, it really covers the bases in terms of the Apple Watch's general functionality as a device. And since The Oatmeal's creator is an avid runner, it also touches upon Apple Watch's usefulness for recreational and competitive running. If that's not enough technical detail for you, this Gizmodo article tells you more than you'd ever need to know. In addition, these "Guided Tour" videos on the Apple site are a must-see if you're interested in learning how Apple Watch works.

Since there's not a lot I can add to what these resources provide (and since this is a bicycle-related website), I figured I'd instead focus on how I view the Apple Watch strictly from a cyclist's perspective.

For starters, I've been wearing the Apple Watch Sport in "Space Gray Aluminum" in the (larger) 42mm size. The Sport has the same electronics as the other Apple Watch models. The difference is that it features a 60 percent stronger alloy case, plastic bands and a slightly lower price tag.

The Apple Watch comes standard with bike-related fitness features.

There's a lot to go over here, so if you want the "CliffsNotes" version, I'll get straight to the point:

The Good: If you're an iPhone user who commutes by bike, uses your bike for daily transportation, rides for fun, or rides for exercise, I think the Apple Watch is nothing short of a revelation. It's also a superb fitness tracker.

The Bad: If you're a competitive cyclist, ride centuries or go on long bicycle tours, in my opinion, you're gonna want to hold onto your Garmin Edge and/or Forerunner.

If you'd like to know why, here's the breakdown:

Why the Apple Watch is Amazing for Everyday Cycling:

Like many people, I stopped wearing a watch somewhere around 2007 (roughly the time the original iPhone came out).

When walking around, it's not that big of a deal to pull an iPhone out of my pocket any time I need to know the time or date, see who just texted me, check the weather, or (when using the map function) find out when my next turn is coming up. On a bike, however, it can be a bit of a pain.

So over time I developed some coping mechanisms. I learned where all the clocks were located on my bike commute (arriving at my Metra train stop on time was an important daily challenge). I also got pretty good at whipping out my phone and entering my security code in a single motion, allowing me to get the info I needed before a stoplight turned green. Still, I knew there had to be a better way. The Apple Watch IS that better way.

In a nutshell, Apple Watch is an extension of your iPhone, providing all the vital "at a glance" info that otherwise you'd have to fish your phone out for. When riding a bicycle, this is a really convenient thing to have.

Since the Apple Watch only requires a security code when you first attach it to your arm, you activate the screen simply by angling your wrist toward your face (it has a built-in accelerometer and presumably has the ability to learn your movements so it knows when to activate the display).

So, with just a flick of the wrist, I have time, date, temperature and whatever else I want to configure the screen to give me. If someone texts me, sends me a Facebook message, or even calls me, in a moment I can see it on my wrist and pedal on.

If I happen to be riding for exercise and I'd like to track my mileage and such, I simply open Apple Watch's proprietary "Workout" app, select "Outdoor Cycle" and hit the Start button. Then I can see speed, distance, elapsed time, calories burned and heart rate. When finished, I can save the ride, and also it credits my efforts toward my daily goals in Apple Watch's fitness app (which tracks your daily calories burned, and minutes of exercise).

The standard workout app lets you see stuff like speed, distance and calories burned in real time.

With regard to the Workout app, I must admit I was expecting spotty speed and distance data. Much to my pleasant surprise, the GPS seems nearly spot on (I'm basing this on side-by-side tests with a Garmin as well as by double checking ride distances on Google Maps).

The reason this is shocking to me is that in the past I've experienced really sketchy results using the Strava app on my iPhone, and similar inaccuracy using the Wahoo Fitness app using my iPhone linked to Wahoo's RFLKT (which I reviewed here). The Apple Watch uses the phone's GPS, just like the RFLKT and the Strava app do, so I assumed it would be plagued by similar accuracy problems.

Evidently, Apple made some recent improvements to the iPhone's GPS software and/or system. In an effort to confirm my suspicion, I did a test ride using the Strava app. Well, unlike my past experiences, I'm now seeing accurate, consistent readings. As such, I'm convinced the iPhone GPS can now provide reliable speed and distance info. In my mind, this makes a big difference in how serious we can take the Apple Watch as a fitness device.

All this aside, the real reason the Apple Watch is great for cycling is the turn by turn directions. Let's say you're heading to an unfamiliar location. Before you start your ride, you simply call up your destination on your iPhone's "Maps" app and start your route (like you've been doing for years). Then you put your phone in your pocket and leave it there.

As you're riding, the Apple Watch display tells you where your next turn is. Then as you reach the turn, an audible warning and a "haptic" alert (vibration) let's you know it's coming up. You can also see a miniature version of the map if you like. It's such an improvement over having to look at your phone.

The turn by turn directions feature (complete with haptic alerts to your upcoming turns) is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Granted, you could just as easily (and more cheaply) buy a handlebar mount for your iPhone. Another method might be listening to the turn by turn directions on an earbud (just not BOTH earbuds). But to me, the Apple Watch offers the most seamless, elegant way to get directions with minimal distractions.

Why the Apple Watch is Not that Awesome for Competitive and Long-Distance Cycling:

For starters, the GPS is in the phone, and not the watch. Therefore, you must have your phone on you. This is fine for recreational rides and training rides, but generally you're not going to have your phone on you during a race. This is a clear nod to a stand-alone GPS bike computer.

While bulkier, less sleek and less intuitive to use, stand-alone GPS bike computers and multisport watches are better suited to competitive and long-distance cycling.

Second, despite what The Oatmeal article says, I believe it burns through its battery quite quickly, particularly if you're using a couple of apps and the heart rate monitor is set to continually check your heart rate (like a normal heart rate monitor does). I've burned through a battery just hanging out once or twice. On a normal day, I burn at least 50% of the battery before I put it on the charger for the night. As such, the battery definitely won't last a long day in the saddle. Utilizing a stand-alone Bluetooth heart rate monitor might help preserve the watch's battery life (I have not verified this), but part of the beauty of the Apple Watch is that it's supposed to simplify things. Having to strap extra gear to your torso in a way seems contradictory to that.

Third, bike computers for competitive cyclists are mounted to the stem. I know from experience playing around with the Apple Watch on a training ride that trying to look at your wrist while in a fast-moving pace line is just asking for trouble. It really needs to be in your field of vision, and doesn't require you to take a hand off the bars. True, Garmin has a bike mount for their Forerunner triathlon/multisport watches that might work for Apple Watch, but mounting Apple Watch to the bars would negate the benefit of the built-in heart rate monitor. In addition, it would be difficult to activate the screen (again, you'd need to take a hand off the bars), and I'm not even sure the band is designed to hold when used in that manner. Also, devices like the Forerunner, Edge and RFLKT are waterproof and the Apple Watch is (according to the specs) merely "splash and water resistant."

Fourth, the standard Apple Watch "Workout" app doesn't provide all the data a full-blown cycling app would. Nor is it (at the present time) compatible with power meters and cadence sensors. Think of it as iMovie compared to Final Cut Pro. For serious bike computer functionality, you'd have to use a third party app.

Fortunately, Wahoo Fitness is one of the first companies to start to support Apple Watch. For now, it's just their heart rate monitor and a non-cycling-specific workout app, but it seems safe to assume more compatible Wahoo products are in the pipeline.

Hopefully the Bluetooth capability will mean that in the future you'll be able to use cadence sensors and power meters and such.

If you're a Strava fan, you'll be happy to know there's already a Strava app available for Apple watch (which I've installed and tested a bit). Assuming you don't mind having your phone on you when you train and race, the Strava app gives you the capability to hook up cadence sensors, power meters and heart rate monitors to your heart's content.

The Strava app for Apple Watch is pretty cool but has a few bugs to be worked out (either that or I need to do a better job figuring out how it works).

The Strava Apple Watch app performs well overall but seems to have a few kinks to be worked out. Primarily, when the watch screen goes black mid ride, you can't just flick your wrist to open it back up. Unless there's a setting I can't find (and trust me I've looked), you have to locate the app in the menu and then reopen it every time you want to look at your real time speed and distance display. I also find the controls unintuitive to the point that it's easier for me to manipulate the app from the iPhone. I feel confident, though, that these sorts of things will improve over time with new versions.

If you're going the Strava app/iPhone route for cycling, however, the Wahoo Fitness RFLKT might be the better option, which also is Strava compatible and mounts to your handlebars. In this scenario, I'd choose the RFLKT/iPhone/Strava app combo for cycling and the Apple Watch/iPhone/Strava app combo for running.

If you want to use an iPhone-based Strava setup for serious cycling, a Wahoo Fitness RFLKT is a better solution than the Apple Watch for viewing ride data in real time (see "External Display" at bottom of photo). The Apple Watch is great for running, however.

Why the Apple Watch is an Awesome Fitness Tracker:

When it comes down to it, I prefer to use my Garmin for actual training and racing and use a fitness tracker for everyday stuff like getting my "10,000 steps." The Apple watch fits perfectly in this construct, I think.

Those bug-eyed looking things are part of the heart rate monitor. It shines a green light on your wrist when it scans. Based on side-by-side tests it seems to measure as accurately as a Garmin unit that straps to your chest, and is way more comfortable.

I've owned a Fitbit and a Jawbone fitness tracker. Both did cool stuff, but both gave me dubious readings of my "steps," and (worse) both died after a few months of use. It goes without saying that the Apple watch is a significantly more sophisticated device. And I don't expect it to die any time soon.

For starters, Apple Watch seems to really know the difference between actual steps and fake ones, and thus keeps me honest with regard to how much I'm moving around. In other words, gone are the days when I unintentionally earn part of my 10,000 steps by playing an acoustic guitar with the Fitbit on my strumming hand.

The other amazing thing about Apple Watch is that over the last few weeks, it seems to be "learning" when I'm riding a bicycle. This could be my imagination, but my first rides wearing the watch (on a rocky, bumpy mountain bike trail no less) barely registered as activity on the fitness tracker. Now it seems I can hop on for a quick ride down a smooth street and it shows up as "exercise." Maybe it has to do with me playing with settings on the heart rate monitor, or maybe Apple Watch really is that sophisticated. Either way, considering that it presumably has no real way of knowing when I'm pedaling a bike, I'm impressed. But this leads me to my final point.

Having attended CES and seen dozens of fitness trackers, the thing that surprised me is that they all lack what (to me at least) seems a logical feature.

Let's say your typical day consists of a bike commute, followed by routine walking around your office, to lunch, etc. Apple Watch will definitely know when you're on your feet and walking around, but if you didn't physically record an "Outdoor Cycling" workout during your commute, those miles you rode are probably not recorded accurately.

Lots of people bike commute then walk around throughout their day. So why not make Apple Watch's fitness tracker app compatible with a Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor that you can place on your bicycle, or maybe a foot pod you put on your cycling shoe. Something that automatically registers in the fitness app the moment you start pedaling, and counts each pedal stroke as a "step." Something that lets you seamlessly track your activity (on and off the bike) without needing to think about it or open an app. I might be the only person who thinks so, but if Apple watch could do THAT, it would be darn near perfect.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Brett Ratner on June 24, 2015 at 8:45pm

Thank you, Tony! How are you liking it now that you've had a chance to play with it more?

Comment by Tony L on June 19, 2015 at 1:16pm

Awesome write up of the Apple Watch. I have had mine for only four days and am just beginning to understand it. This write up goes a long way toward raising my skill level. Thanks, Chainlink!

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