The Apple Watch’s awkward blend of tech and fashion

I’m a fan of my new Apple Watch Series 8, but it packs too much computer on the wrist. Thanks to WatchOS’s increasingly busy UI and burgeoning case size, it’s becoming a harder sell as a fashion accessory.

There was a time when Apple felt like they were making a genuine fashion play with the Watch; worn accessories project someone’s sense of style in a way a phone or tablet never could. The venerable tech company tried to market high-end “edition” watches from pricey materials, and the strategy flopped.

Since then, it feels like stereotypical Silicon Valley executives have overtaken Apple Watch’s design sensibility. These are decision makers drunk with the power of having everything a tap away and losing sight of what makes a watch distinctive and fashionable. They’ve copied the strategy for iPhone and iPad as they blew up in size: more icons, more widgets, more glanceable information. Complications overload the Apple Watch’s default watch face configurations. Symbols and text are everywhere, manifesting in more distraction than an aid.

A distillation of this maximalist problem is how the Activity and Weather complications have evolved. On my old Series 2, stuck on an older version of WatchOS, Activity was just the three circles, and Weather was a single numeric temperature or weather condition icon. The complications had good visual detail: enough to hint at the basics, with more available a tap away. With Series 8, Apple took the extra screen real estate on Activity and squeezed in the numeric values of move calories, exercise minutes, and stand hours. At the same time, Weather added a band and dot combo to convey where current conditions compare to the day’s high and low temperatures.

I wouldn’t consider myself fashionable, and UI preferences can be incredibly personal. That said, the device’s subtlety is one of its best strengths, a customizable watch with powerful functionality under the hood, hidden by default.

Stress the words “by default.” When I’m in workout mode, reading a long message from a friend, or looking into an extended weather forecast, I appreciate the watch’s real estate and extra detail. In those moments, I want to supercharge the “smart” in my smartwatch and make it that glanceable iPhone on my wrist. But most of the time, my Apple Watch’s screen is a practical, customizable timepiece.

Speaking of fashion concessions, the mild creep up in case size is slightly annoying. Comparing my new Series 8 45mm case size to any of my old watches, Apple’s width is narrower, while the height is noticeably taller. It’s not tall enough to make the case look ridiculous (I have standard male wrists at just shy of seven inches), but we’re getting to the edge of credulity. Granted, the Apple Watch does “wear small” compared to traditional watches, given its minimal bezel and chrome, but the Series 8 is ‘chonky’ in a way that none of my previous watches were. I considered a downsize to 41mm, but that felt too small. It looked ridiculous for any watch face with a circular border, whose diameter fell well shy of 30mm and looked minuscule on the wrist.

I understand the case size bump has benefits. A bigger case allows for bigger screens, providing more space for UI symbols and text. Also, it’s not like customization isn’t available. Swapping bands and watch faces are effortless and make the watch feel different in a way none of my traditional watches could. There are more smart-looking first and third-party bands in the Series 2 era than six years ago. I also can edit my watch faces and complications to cut back to a more minimalist vibe most of the time.

I’m still worried. Years from now, when I consider upgrading to the latest Apple Watch, will technological advances push the device in a slim and understated direction? Or are we forever destined for more bling, icons, and larger hardware?