By John Gruber
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One of the numerous lamentable aspects of product introductions in the coronavirus era is the lack of any sort of post-keynote hands-on access to the products. Apple’s product photography is nonpareil, but there are some things you need to see in person. Color is one. And for how things feel, well, you obviously need to have whatever it is in hand — or in this case, on wrist.
With this week’s new products, the ones I was most interested in seeing, feeling, and trying in person were: the Graphite stainless steel Series 6 Apple Watch (how dark is it? how polished?), the new Solo Loop and Braided Solo Loop bands (how stretchy are they? how comfortable? better than the regular Sport Bands or just different?), and the new Leather Link strap (how’s it compare to the Leather Loop?).
Apple sent me the following products for review, which arrived early Wednesday morning — without having asked me if I had any specific requests:
The advantage, perhaps, of having boring but very consistent taste is that I’m very easy to predict. While what Apple sent wasn’t an exact match for my personal “what I’m most interested in” list, it was remarkably close, and sending the Milanese Loop instead of the Leather Loop is better for the single biggest question on my mind — evaluating the Graphite stainless steel finish.
But that’s not all. Part of the thing with the Solo Loops is that they’re rather precisely sized — they stretch to take on and off, but they’re meant to fit your wrist in their unstretched state. Going by Apple’s print-and-cut-out DIY sizing PDF, the difference between each size is less than 6.6 mm. According to Apple’s paper tool, I should take a size 7, but I’m closer to an 8 than a 6.
They sent me each of the Solo Loops in two sizes: 7 and 8.
And, indeed, the size 7 fits me perfectly. The size 8 straps fit OK, but they’re loose — not little-kid-wearing-their-dad’s-watch loose, more like someone-who-prefers-a-slightly-wiggly-fit loose.
Whoever on the Apple’s Watch team decided which sizes to send me absolutely nailed it. It’s uncanny. I checked with a few of my fellow hacks and Apple sent them the exact right sizes too. Nobody was asked to measure their wrists, nobody was asked which hole they use in the regular Sport Bands. I can’t get over this. I feel like I just lost $5 to a carnival barker who correctly guessed my age to the exact year, and I want to get back in line to bet another $5 to see if he can guess my weight.
In addition to the wrist-size guessers, I would like to nominate the color-naming team at Apple for a nice bonus this year. They do good work.1
Graphite is an excellent name for this stainless steel finish. It is darker, but it is not nearly black. Describing where Graphite lies on the spectrum compared to the other dark metallic finishes in Apple’s product line really does require words, not photographs. I mean, compare Apple’s product photography for the Space Black Series 6 in stainless steel (only available in Hermès models this year) with Graphite Series 6 in stainless steel. Apple’s photos make them look indistinguishable. For posterity, I’ve saved copies of Apple’s product shots of the Series 6 in Graphite, Space Black Hermès, and Space Black Titanium (which I very much like, but which really ought to be called Space Gray, because it’s definitely not black).
In real life, the difference is very clear. Apple’s photography captures Graphite very accurately, but makes Space Black look much lighter than it actually is, to accentuate its polished surface in comparison to Space Gray aluminum and Space Black titanium. (I don’t have access to a new Series 6 in Space Black, but I do own Space Black Series 3 and Series 0 watches, and Apple’s Space Black is the same across Apple Watches old and new.) Apple’s Space Black DLC finish for stainless steel is truly jet black — it’s the polished glossy black of Darth Vader’s helmet. Graphite is more like a darker shade of silver — it is definitely darker than regular “silver” stainless steel, but just as definitely not black.
Another good comparison is to last year’s Space Gray iPhone 11 Pro, which is also stainless steel, dark gray, and highly polished. My Space Gray iPhone 11 Pro is definitely darker than the new Graphite Apple Watch. To my eyes, Apple’s Space Gray steel (as seen on iPhones) plays as black or near-black, unless you put it against something truly black. Graphite never looks black.
Apple’s dark gray stainless steel finishes, on a spectrum:
Outdoors in daylight, my Space Gray iPhone 11 Pro looks closer to Graphite than to Space Black; indoors at night, it looks closer to Space Black than to Graphite.
I think this is a good change for Apple’s “dark” stainless steel watches. Space Black made more sense with the original Series 0–3 form factor, where the displays were sharp-cornered rectangles and had larger bezels. The Space Black finish effectively blurred the seam between the display sapphire and the steel case, and helped disguise the fact that the displays had awkwardly large bezels. The watch as a whole looked like a shiny black monolithic capsule. With the Series 4 redesign that carries through to this year’s Series 6, that sort of disguise isn’t necessary, because the displays are larger and have round corners. Also, Graphite looks more obviously like polished steel than Space Black — they might well be equally polished and glossy, but because Graphite is lighter-colored it has a mirror-like effect that Space Black doesn’t. It’s more glanceably premium-looking. It’s shiny.
That shininess carries through to the Graphite Milanese Loop, which definitely looks darker than the regular Silver stainless steel Milanese Loop, but just as definitely is not black. Again, Apple’s product photography for Graphite is very true to life to my eyes.
My Space Black Link Bracelet — from my original Apple Watch back in 2015, still in pristine condition thanks to the near-imperviousness of the DLC finish — looks fine with the Graphite Series 6 watch. It’s definitely not an exact color match, but on the wrist, it plays. The mirror-like finish of Graphite stainless steel helps it pick up the color of whatever band you pair it with. (Apple still sells the Link Bracelets, in Silver and Space Black stainless steel, and the Space Black one still costs $100 extra — $450 vs. $350.)
Why do the dark Hermès models still use Space Black instead of Graphite? I think that’s to precisely color-match the existing Space Black hardware of Hermès watch bands. But who knows? It really does seem a bit curious that Apple’s dark stainless steel Series 6 models are only available in Graphite, and Hermès’s dark ones are only available in Space Black. [Update: Here’s the Series 6 in Space Black at Hermès’s website. These are slightly different photos, and maybe make the Space Black look more black than the photos on Apple’s site? The hardware elements of the strap certainly do.]
I know not every Apple Watch owner has a Sport Band, but I assume a general familiarity with it as the canonical, iconic Apple Watch band. Visually, the new Solo Loop looks like the Sport Band on the wrist. But it feels quite different.
For one thing, the Solo Loops are half the weight of the Sport Bands. My regular Sport Bands (42/44mm width, S/M length) all weigh about 25 grams according to my kitchen scale.2 The new rubber Solo Loop weighs only 13 grams and the Braided Solo Loop just 11 grams. (Apple’s velcro Sport Loop bands remain the lightweight kings, at just 9 grams. Personally I’m just not a velcro guy, but I see tons of people wearing these straps.)
In addition to the weight difference, they also feel quite different because they’re more supple. If you hold a Sport Band by the connector and stick it out horizontally, it only droops a little, like a diving board in need of repair. If you hold one of the new Solo Loops by the connector, it droops straight down. It seems axiomatic that stretchiness and suppleness go hand-in-hand, but on the wrist you can really feel it, especially comparing the rubber Solo Loop to a regular fluoroelastomer Sport Band. It’s like baby’s-butt-cheek soft and supple.
In terms of getting them on and off the wrist, I’d say they’re both clearly in “just right” range on the Goldilocks scale. If they were stretchier, they might be a bit easier to get on and off, but I think they’d then be too loosey-goosey on the wrist. Once on your wrist, the Solo Loop bands are very secure. And though Apple has a footnote on its Solo Loop web page stating “Band may increase in length over time”, I suspect they’re a little less stretchy than they could be to make them more durable.
Here’s how Apple describes the Braided Solo Loop fabric:
Made from 100 percent recycled materials, the 16,000 polyester yarn filaments in each band are interwoven with thin silicone threads using advanced braiding machinery then laser cut to an exact length. The 300D construction offers a soft, textured feel and is both sweat-resistant and water-resistant.
(“300D” is the type of polyester — thinner and lighter than 600D.) I can’t do better than Apple’s own description: it does feel soft and textured, and it does seem water-resistant for a fabric band. I soaked mine under a faucet, and it’s not magic — it does get wet. But if you’ve ever worn a NATO-style watch strap, or one of Apple’s old Nylon Woven Bands, or one of my personal favorites for mechanical watches, an Erika’s Original MN strap, you know that these sort of nylon/polyester straps dry fairly quickly even after swimming.
I really like both of these straps, and will probably wind up wearing one or the other with my Apple Watch for the foreseeable future. I hope both prove popular enough to become perennial mainstays in Apple’s band lineup.
Have you seen how many named colors there are when you customize watch faces in WatchOS nowadays? It’s arguably too many choices from a user interface perspective, but the names for these colors are just chef’s kiss spot-on. ↩︎