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Apple Watch Hands-on: Smartwatch to Beat But Pricey

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

SAN FRANCISCO - The Apple Watch finally has a release date, April 24th, and today Apple let reporters try the watch on for themselves to experience the design, features and some of the first third-party apps. Starting at $349, the Apple Watch is pricey compared to Android Wear devices like the Moto 360, but, based on my hands-on impressions, it will be the smartwatch to beat.

Design

The Apple Watch I tried on is the Apple Watch Edition, which is made of 18 karat gold. It certainly looked and felt like a luxurious piece of jewelry, but not $10,000 good. I would probably opt for the cheaper $349 Apple Watch Sport. My demo unit came with a fluoroelastomer sport band that was fairly easy to put on using a pin mechanism.

The digital crown on the Apple Watch was silky smooth to use, allowing me to zoom in to apps or in and out of a photo collection. It's a nice combo with the touchscreen.

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

MORE: Apple Watch Pricing - How Much Will It Cost?

Speaking of screens, the 38mm version of the Apple Watch felt too small on my wrist, and I don't have big wrists. I would probably opt for the larger 42mm version. The difference in screen size is only 1.5 to 1.65 inches, but the latter just felt more natural and substantial.

Interface

The cluster of apps on the Apple Watch home screen still looks confusing to me compared to other smart watches, but I like how easy it is to pull up Glances (another word for notifications and mini apps). You just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to see your next meeting, stocks or fire up the fitness apps.

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

Long-pressing the digital crown activates Siri, which lets you look up the weather, dictate messages get directions and more via voice commands. I like the fact that you can use the Apple Watch's built-in mic and speaker to hold a conversation with someone else, as well as quickly reply to messages. Android Wear doesn't let you make calls from your wrist. However, you can't dictate emails with the Apple Watch, something I'd like to see added.

MORE: Apple Watch: Top Features

Fitness Features

I have to admit I was bummed when I heard that the Apple Watch wouldn't have GPS built in; after all, the $199 Microsoft Band has it, as does the latest Sony Smartwatch 3. But, you can still go for a run with the Apple Watch and get approximations of your distance and pace -- without bringing the iPhone along for the ride. We'll have to see how accurate it is.

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

Apple's circular graphics for its Activity app give you a quick snapshot of your progress for the day, and the watch is smart enough to set new fitness goals for you based on your behavior. However, I'd like to perform more testing with the heart rate sensor before I'd use this as my everyday fitness tracker; the Moto 360, for example, requires a very tight fit to the wrist to work.

New Ways to Communicate

It's probably the most transparent ploy to sell two smartwatches at once yet. The Apple Watch will let you share little sketches, your heartbeat and emoticons with other wearers. Or you can just tap your watch to get their attention -- wherever they happen to be.

What I like about this feature is that you can use the digital crown to customize the emojiis that you're sending. For instance, when making a smiley face, you can change the expression as you roll the crown up or down.

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

During a demo, an Apple rep showed me how the Apple Watch's communication features work. Press a dedicated button on the right side of the watch to pull up your contacts, then zoom in with the dial and select one contact with with a tap. From there, you can scribble on the screen, tap a few times to buzz the other person or even send your heartbeat (by pressing and holding two fingers).

Apps

So far there doesn't seem to be one killer app for the Apple Watch, but Apple Pay is high on the list. Using a built-in NFC chip, you'll be able to purchase goods at a growing number of retailers without having to whip out your phone.

Another handy Apple app is Passbook, which will enable travelers to check into their flights with a flick of their wrist. Yes, your phone can already do this, but it's a nice perk to have.

Credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Mark Spoonauer / Tom's Guide)

Ultimately, the success or failure of the Apple Watch will depend on third-party apps, and Apple is already off to a good start. For example, with the Uber app, you can call for a cab from your wrist and see the photo of the driver and his license number. With the Alarm.com app, you can open your garage door from across the world. And the W Hotel app will allow travelers to use the Apple Watch as their room key.

Other apps on display included Instagram (you can see photos in your feed and like them) and Shazam for recognizing tracks. Over time, the Apple Watch could slowly start to replace your phone.

Battery Life

One nagging question about the Apple Watch has been battery life, and we finally have an answer. We're looking at 18 hours, which in my experience is better than most Android Wear devices but behind the rated runtime for the color ePaper Pebble Time. You'll probably have to charge the watch every day for extensive use, but it's nice to know that you probably won't have to find an outlet during the day -- which I've had to do with the Moto 360.

Outlook

I don't think the Apple Watch will be a hit on the order of the iPad, but as Apple's first stab at a wearable, it already looks more capable and versatile than Android Wear devices, and I suspect that Apple will soon have a big lead in high-quality apps.

The biggest problem for Apple -- and others -- is that no one really needs a smartwatch. Then there's the cost. If I were buying, I'd opt for the bigger 42 mm version, so I'd be looking at a minimum of $399.

Overall, if you like the idea of owning a device that can serve as a communicator, fitness tracker and smartphone companion in one, the Apple Watch looks like the device to beat. But there's still plenty of room left for lower-cost competitors.

Mark Spoonauer is the editor in chief at Tom's Guide. Follow him at @mspoonauer. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+