Product design is something that has fascinated me since I was a child. Though back then I didn’t know what it was or anything about the field, I knew what I liked. Watches and cameras and gadgets were my passion. I loved to take things apart and try and figure out how they worked.
I will never forget my first digital watch. I got it for my tenth birthday. We were in France. Compared to today’s watches, it was unbearably primitive. It had red glowing digits for the time. That was it. No date, stopwatch, or any other features. I don’t think it even had an alarm. You couldn’t even see the time in sunlight.
But it glowed.
I still remember going to school and crowding with my friends under some trees to create shade so I could touch the button to make the time light up. It was fantastic.
I suppose I’ve been searching for that feeling in every gadget I’ve bought since. But it’s a rare thing, that childish wonder, and it doesn’t last long. I’ve felt it only a few times since. My first computer. My Mac II. My first laptop. The original iPod. The first iPhone.
Back then when I dreamed of new gadgets, I did it with zero knowledge of the realities of engineering. I knew what I wanted, but not how to achieve it. (That’s still my problem today, now that I think about it.)
They didn’t have Transformers when I was a kid, but I probably would have been mad for them, because I love the concept. I remember wanting a watch that would let me change its appearance. (I wanted clothes and cars that could change colors and styles at the push of a button, too.)
In high school I discovered calculator watches and that’s all I’ve owned since. Yeah, really geeky, I know. Though I love mechanical watches, I favor the practical over the fashionable, and back then I used that calculator a lot. Today, not so much. In fact, with my iPhone capable of doing just about anything, I really don’t need a watch any more. But I still like the idea.
Recently two things happened to impact my thinking on this issue. The first was that last spring my watch suddenly got stuck in 24-hour time, which I hate. I tried and tried and couldn’t figure out how to switch it back. In desperation, I went on the web and eventually found a PDF version of the original manual on Casio’s website. The instructions were mind-numbingly insane. I’d barely used the watch for anything but the time in a decade and I’d forgotten just how complicated it was to use. This is a watch that stores phone numbers and has lots of gimmicky features, in addition to being a calculator. In other words, it’s useless and obsolete.
More recently the watch’s low-battery indicator went on and I lost some functionality (the light and some features are disabled to save power). I started thinking that maybe it was time I got a new watch and for the first time, I was thinking of not getting a calculator watch. But what would I get? I had no idea.
Then on Tuesday — my birthday — Apple lowers the price on their iPod nanos and shows off the nifty new watch faces.
I was never very impressed with the 1” square nano. It seemed too small to be usable and it was expensive for such a limited device. But using it as a watch is something that has always intrigued me. Apple, seeing that usage, and adding tons of new watch styles, caught my attention and suddenly that form factor seemed ideal.
In an instant you can transform your nano into any watch you’d like. I already knew that bands were sold to turn your nano into a watch, but those bands used to be expensive. They’re cheaper now, too. The whole thing isn’t cheap — in fact it’s the most expensive watch I’ve ever owned — but I got it for myself as a birthday present. A rare treat.
Let met tell you, this is the watch I dreamed of when I was a child. The touch screen interface is gorgeous. I didn’t think much could be done with a 1” square. I figured the nano was a pretty limited device, barely more than a shuffle with a tiny screen.
I was wrong. Look at everything this “iWatch” can do:
There are eighteen different watch faces — including a Mickey Mouse watch! Now a single watch can match your mood or style of the moment. The level of detail in these faces is amazing: one of them shows actual gears that rotate as the watch “ticks.” You can set it to display the clock on wake, so it acts like a real watch. Swipe left and the clock becomes a stopwatch. (A sophisticated one, too: the lap counter can remember a whole list of laps, not just one or two.) Swipe left again and it’s a countdown timer.
This thing has a fantastic FM radio in it. It gets great reception, I don’t know how. It can memorize favorite stations, shows you the names of songs and artists as they play, lets you tag songs for later checking out on iTunes, and can even buffer the station so you can rewind and pause live radio!
There’s a Nike+ fitness app on the thing for tracking your runs and walks. It’s a pedometer.
It can hold your photo library and display slideshows. They’re only one-inch in size and there’s only one level of zoom, but the quality of the display is excellent.
Oh yeah, it’s a real iPod, too. I got the 8GB model and I’ve put 1700 songs on it, which is plenty for me. (I’ll take some music off my iPhone, which will free up space on it.)
I’m also surprised by how customizable Apple has made this: you can pick from various backgrounds, control the order and placement of the “apps” on the home screen, and easily tweak many aspects of how the thing works (i.e. a double-tap on the wake/sleep button can be set to either pause music or skip to the next track). The coolest thing is that you can easily rotate the screen to any orientation you’d like. You just put two fingers on the display and spin! (Have you ever tried to show someone the time on your watch? With this just rotate the watch instead of your arm!)
The interface is actually very impressive. It’s iPhone-like, but different — it’s a slightly new style, tweaked for the size of the nano. It’s incredibly easy to use. Just a few seconds and you’ve mastered it. Most other companies would have tried to adapt or force an existing interface onto the smaller device, but Apple came up with the best interface for such a size. It’s really quite brilliant.
If you’re curious, you can watch a little movie I made of the iPod nano watch in action.
Now I’m not suggesting an “iWatch” is ideal for everyone. It’s a little larger than most watches (about the same as my old calculator watch). It’s not cheap (though cheaper than many luxury watches and way more powerful). But it fits my personality to a T. I love gadgets and the ability to change the watch face to suit my mood is unbelievably awesome. I’m feeling giddy like I did as a kid with my first digital watch!