Eight weeks with Apple Watch

I had my doubts that I wanted to become a smartwatch wearer, but I also love shiny new tech and can’t resist a bargain. So when I joined Vitality’s healthcare plan before Christmas last year it was perhaps inevitable that I would take advantage of their reward programme for a heavily subsidised Apple Watch. It’s now been long enough that I feel like I’ve figured a few things out and settled into something of a smartwatch routine, so I thought I’d share my findings.

The Vitality reward offering is pretty simple on its face: for a 42mm 4th-generation Apple Watch you pay £99 up front (UK RRP £400), and enter into a 24-month variable contract to pay off the rest. If you do enough qualifying tracked exercise, the payment each month can drop as low as £0, maxing out at £12.50 if you do no exercise, with a few gradations in between.

I wanted to talk mostly about the general experience of using Apple Watch, but a lot of what I learned concerns the nuances of the Vitality programme – some of which is non-obvious enough to potentially be of some interest.

Having signed up as a VitalityHealth customer, I ordered the watch on December 8th and despite being given a 3-4 week delivery estimate, it arrived via UPS less than a week later on December 14th – impressive considering the proximity to Christmas. The package appeared to be shipped directly from Apple in China, and there was nothing Vitality-specific about the setup process other than ensuring I had their iOS app installed in order to begin receiving data from the watch. The watch setup takes place almost entirely from the phone and was a smooth if slightly protracted exercise.

Many of the apps I had installed on my iPhone had companion apps for Apple Watch and it was interesting exploring these – the quality definitely varies, with some being almost useless, but there are some stand-out examples like Strava, Overcast and Dark Sky, that I use daily. You quickly get a sense of what is and isn’t feasible for developers on watchOS but the best apps implement one or two key functions in a simple interface and delegate the rest to their full-fat counterparts on iOS.

Given the watch’s key use-case as a notification device, I wanted to try to avoid being swamped by notifications and being constantly encouraged to look at my wrist, so I spent some time tuning what would and wouldn’t be displayed on the watch. This can be done proactively through the Watch app on iOS or by force-touching any notification on the watch, and it’s possible to disable them entirely or “deliver quietly” which adds them to the notification list on the watch without tapping you or lighting up the screen. I found that disabling Mail and Instagram watch notifications in particular was helpful in keeping the noise down.

Getting an effective process established for workout tracking took me some time, as it turns out that there are conditions around what activity data Vitality will accept, and they don’t go out of their way to publicise these. The key thing is that to try to eliminate the possibility of users faking workouts, Vitality will currently only accept data from the Apple Workouts app, Garmin Connect (under some circumstances I have not yet determined) and Fitbit. I use Strava to track all my cycling and running activities, and while Strava can send data to Apple’s Activity and Health apps, it’s marked as coming from a third-party source (the bars in the activity graphs appear gray) and Vitality will not recognise this data as contributing to your activity points.

This presented some issues for me as I wanted to be able to continue using Strava to track all my running and cycling. I attempted to use Tapirik to sync Strava data into Garmin in the hope this would then be picked up by Vitality, but was unable to get this pipeline established, and gave up.

The process I eventually settled on is a little squirrelly, but it works. For long bike rides I use a Garmin device, which syncs to Strava as well as being picked up by Vitality (the Activity app will also pick up that I’m doing exercise without my having to start a workout). For shorter rides and runs, I start a workout on the Workout app on the watch, then start Strava on the watch. While using two apps adds complexity, this seems to be the only way to record to Strava from the watch while simultaneously recording valid workout data in Apple Activity which Vitality will process, since Strava data isn’t currently accepted, and Apple Activity won’t sync to Strava.

The only caveat is that due to limitations of watchOS4, if one of the apps is paused mid-activity (e.g. stopping for coffee), the other will lose access to sensor data and the activity will need to be finished and a new one started. In previous watchOS versions it wasn’t possible to run two workout tracking apps simultaneously at all, and it seems this is the improved compromise in watchOS4. If I’m starting a ride where an interruption is likely to happen, I will usually use Strava on my iPhone to track it, and Workouts on the watch, in order to work around this limitation at the cost of missing heart rate data on Strava for that ride (and potentially having lower quality GPS data from the phone).

If unlike me you’re not too bothered about capturing everything in Strava, you can just use Workouts and Vitality will process that data just fine.

The Vitality points system has some nuances too, which took me a while to figure out. The first is that while you can start earning activity points from day one, the Apple Watch discount accrual doesn’t start until the beginning of the second month after your purchase – e.g. for my purchase in December, I didn’t start earning points against the watch until February. This provided a few useful weeks to figure out the points system and get my activity tracking workflow sorted.

On its face, reducing the monthly watch payment to £0 seems quite achievable – you just have to earn 160 Vitality points each month. However, reading the fine print reveals a few extra challenges – points are capped at 40 per week and 8 per day, and only the highest-earning single activity on a given day will earn points. So if you do 10,000 steps (5 points) and a 30-minute exercise with an average HR of ≥70% of your maximum (8 points), you’ll earn 8 points for that day, not 13. This means you really need to be doing exercise every day to be sure of hitting the weekly maximum, and that you can’t make up for a bad week by doing a bigger week elsewhere in the month – you’ve got to hit that 40 points per week, every week, in order to pay nothing further for the watch. A bit trickier!

My daily commute by bike is – annoyingly – a little too short to count, and my heart rate often isn’t over the threshold for long enough, so for now I’ve settled on trying to do a half-hour run (a high-HR activity for me – 8 points) five days a week, which gives me two days off. That makes it easier to catch up if I miss a day. On days when I’m not exercising, my step count often racks up surprisingly quickly, and this can be a route to extra points if needed (7,500 for 3 points, 10,000 for 5 and 12,500 for 8).

The upside to all of this, though, is that literally since the first day of owning the watch exercise has been front of mind for me, and I’ve found the pressure of the Vitality points system an incredibly effective motivator to get me out doing exercise, which is surely the point. I don’t think I’ll be able to maintain a clean sheet for the whole two-year period (I’m writing this on a plane to New Zealand, a 27-hour journey which has really dented my week’s workout plans, for example) but hopefully the extra payments I end up catching will be minimal and I’ll be getting fitter as a result.

As a fitness tracker the Apple Watch works incredibly well – the display is bright and the workout data and progress notifications it displays are very useful – and I’ve found the heart rate tracking to be pretty accurate as long as the strap is fitted tightly. Being able to start and stop workouts right from my wrist is super convenient, and having them sync seamlessly to my iPhone without any extra actions is great. I used to use a Garmin Forerunner with a heart rate strap to track my running, syncing to my laptop via a USB dongle, and this is now predictably gathering dust on a shelf.

In non-workout contexts I’ve found the watch to be a subtly helpful companion to my iPhone and MacBook. Being tapped on the wrist to notify me of something seems to be much more reliable than feeling my phone vibrate in my pocket; it’s great to be able to look at my wrist to see key info without taking my phone out, and so far I haven’t found looking at my wrist to be especially awkward (though I’m careful not to do it too much when in meetings, for example, or in conversation with someone).

Being able to reply to messages directly from the watch is surprisingly effective, with dictation, handwriting recognition and single-emoji reply modes available in most contexts. I’ve also found myself using Siri from the watch quite a bit, though it’s not always reliable when I’m out and about, and will often leave me at “Hang on…” as if there’s some sort of connection issue preventing reliable Siri interpretation. I’ve seen some tips on mitigating this but I haven’t had a chance to try anything yet. At home on wifi, it’s almost always fine.

Battery life on the 4th-generation watch seems to be reliably decent – I charge mine nightly, though I think I could get through two days on one charge if necessary. The magnetic charger is easy to seat on the device, and activates a sort of nightstand mode where the watch displays charging progress and the time, and will light up if you tap on the surface near it. It charges quickly from the provided AC adapter – seemingly a full charge takes less than an hour.

Aesthetically the watch scores highly – I chose the black 42mm model with the standard Sport Band, which is small and subtle enough to disappear into a sleeve when I want it to, and looks good with most outfits. For more formal occasions I’ve been experimenting with wearing two watches – smart analogue on my left wrist and Apple Watch on my right – which so far hasn’t been as ridiculous as it might sound. I’ll usually hide the Apple Watch in my sleeve – a worthwhile bit of subterfuge to keep that activity tracking going.

Overall I’m very pleased with the Apple Watch so far, and as I discover more apps and complications (the term of art for watch face accessories) I’m sure the utility I get from it will continue to improve. On this trip I discovered App In The Air – not the best name, but very handy live flight tracking, boarding gate notifications and other data right on your wrist in its watchOS companion app. And while watchOS has its limitations, it seems very thoughtfully designed and I’m sure future versions will increase the potential for what can be done on this platform. And in just the first two months I’ve found my exercise regime completely transformed – so long may that continue.