One year of using an Apple Watch Ultra as a phone replacement

Apple Watch Ultra

I bought the 1st generation Apple Watch Ultra last year in March, and I've been using it as a full-time phone replacement since then. There have definitely been some interesting pros and cons with this experiment, but long story short, this setup has been working phenomenally and I have no plans on switching back. If you're interested in this approach to fight back in the war for your attention, you can read on for the specifics of my setup and experiences.

Background #

Over the last several years I became uncomfortable with how my phone was quickly filling my spare time with mindless scrolling on sites like Reddit or YouTube. I think many people are familiar with the reflex of reaching for their phone anytime they are bored throughout the day. A commonly suggested solution to this problem is to delete specific apps, which I tried but didn't find that effective, as I would just look for a different app to fill the time (in the end, you can always just browse the web). For me, I actually don't think the issue is mindless scrolling itself - the issue is that we are carrying a device in our pocket 24/7 that's optimized to relentlessly promote mindless scrolling at all times. To use an analogy - I don't think sugar is inherently bad, but too much sugar is obviously bad for your health, and it can be an addictive substance. So it would be insane to carry a giant bag full of chocolates everywhere you go 24 hours a day.

So my solution to this problem is to never carry a smartphone with me, and replace it with a different device for essential tasks like messaging. One possibility is to use a dumb phone that can be used for texting and calling but not much else, but it seems far from ideal. Basically you're left with a device that is usually really bad at texting, has poor call quality, and doesn't have GPS navigation, which is one feature that I don't want to give up. My goal is to keep all the utility of a smart phone without the addictive features. A smart watch seemed like a good solution, as there are cellular models that can work without being tethered to a phone. But up until recently, the battery life wasn't nearly good enough to work as a phone replacement.

All that changed with the release of the Apple Watch Ultra. Nearly all of its features seems tailor-made for my use case as a phone replacement. Multi-day battery life. Built like a tank but with lightweight materials. Highest quality GPS. Highest quality for phone calls. All of this does come with hefty price tag - $799 USD for the watch, plus around $10/month to use the smartwatch cellular feature on most phone plans. And it can't be set up without an iPhone, which is an extra cost if you don't already own one. This seems crazy expensive, until you compare it with the cost of the higher end iPhones, which are over $1000 USD. Because the goal is to not use the phone itself on a daily basis, you can get away with buying the cheapest iPhone you can find that supports the latest iOS. At the time of this writing, it's possible to get a refurbished 1st generation Apple Watch Ultra for around $500 and a refurbished iPhone 11 for around $200. So this entire setup costs a lot less than a high-end iPhone, and I would honestly pay more money to have a setup like this that can curb internet addiction.

The setup #

I have a 1st generation Apple Watch Ultra paired with a hand-me-down iPhone 11. I wear my Apple Watch all day, and charge it every night when I go to bed. I keep the iPhone at home under my desk 99% of the time. When I am working at home, I use my 14-inch MacBook Pro laptop for anything internet related, with Handoff set up so I can answer texts and phone calls from my MacBook itself. If I'm at home not near my laptop, I can respond to text messages or phone calls directly from my watch.

You might think that using the internet on a laptop isn't that much different than using the internet on a phone, but I've found the difference to be profound. If you want to simplify it, a phone is optimized for consumption (with a touch-based interface), and a laptop is optimized for creation (with a keyboard-based interface). While you certainly can consume media on a laptop, it isn't designed to steal every moment of your attention the way a phone is. If you go to the bathroom, you won't take your laptop with you to watch a couple of quick videos. That example alone should give you an idea of how different the two devices are in this regard.

When I leave the house, the phone stays at home, the watch switches to cellular. On cellular, I can use my watch to take phone calls and text messages, check email, receive Slack notifications, use Apple Maps for directions, and listen to music or podcasts (I have my AirPod Pros on my keychain so I access to anything audio related when I'm out). It's worth noting that even though the cellular watch works untethered from a phone, you still need to have your phone on for certain features to work. This includes sending and receiving texts, as well as notifications from apps that don't have a watchOS app like Slack (read more here).

According to Apple, the Apple Watch Ultra has a 36 hour battery life with typical use (connected to an iPhone via Bluetooth 28 out of the 36 hours). If it's not connected to an iPhone at all, the watch runs on cellular which has an 18 hour battery life. Either way this is good enough to last all day if you charge it every night. I work from home full time, but if you work at an office I would suggest taking your phone with you to work (but keep it tucked away somewhere you won't use it). Your watch will tether to your phone during the day, leaving plenty of battery for the evening if you go out. I almost never use more than 50% of the battery on a daily basis, which means I never need to worry about running out of battery and finding a charger. That alone is kind of a game changer.

Not all Apple Watch apps work on cellular. Apple's default apps generally work - Mail, Calendar, Reminders, Maps, Music, and Podcasts all work great in my experience. I never used Apple Mail or Calendar before starting this experiment, all my work stuff is on Google accounts. But I was able to sync everything up to Apple Mail and Calendar, which has worked without major issues (more details below). I used to rely on Google Maps for navigation, but switching to Apple Maps has been a pleasant surprise. The quality of navigation directions has been equal to or better than Google Maps (although I heard it does depend on whether or not you live in a major city), and the Apple Maps interface on the Apple Watch is really good considering its small screen size.

Potential dealbreakers #

There are certain apps that don't work on cellular at all. Probably the most notable is the lack of ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft (both of which used to have Apple Watch apps but are no longer supported). My workaround is to simply take my phone with me when I'm going anywhere I think I'll need a ride-share. I definitely carry my phone in my pocket if I'm traveling out of town, but other than that I personally don't need a ride-share that often. There are other workarounds as well. You can keep the phone number to a taxi company handy. More recently, Uber offers a service for seniors to request an Uber by making a phone call, without using an app (I haven't tried this, but it certainly seems like a viable option).

The other big thing you'll be missing without your phone is a camera. I personally don't take a lot of photos, so this doesn't really affect me, but I can understand how it can be a dealbreaker for a lot of people. One workaround is to carry a separate camera, whether it's a compact point-and-shoot, maybe an analog camera for some old-school charm, or a modern vlogging camera like the DJI Osmo Pocket 3 (which is in some ways superior to the best iPhones for stabilized video). Basically, if photography is important to you, this can be a way to explore the hobby beyond the phone. But as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you, so you'd have to make a commitment to carrying a separate device on a regular basis.

Another issue with not having a camera when you're out and about is QR codes. Lots of restaurants have adopted using QR codes instead of physical menus. In general, I haven't found this to be a deal breaker, since I'm usually with other people in those situations. Also lots of restaurants will provide a physical menu if you ask for one. You can also try to use Siri to search for the restaurant's menu online, but this is pretty hit-or-miss. Overall, not a deal breaker for me, but definitely worth noting.

Finally, there are other apps you might use that don't offer an Apple Watch app at all. Slack is the biggest one for me. This isn't as big an issue as you might think, since you can still receive watch notifications for new Slack messages, and you can respond to messages in a notification. What you can't do is read prior messages or send a new message. For me, I don't need to do those things when I'm away from my computer, but I can definitely see this potentially being a problem for others.

The result #

Despite the limitations mentioned above, I've been living without a phone for over a year and have no intentions of going back. This setup absolutely solved the problem of filling empty moments in my day with mindless scrolling. I am now aware of the feeling of boredom in these moments, which allows me to be more present to observe my surroundings or just let my mind wander. The difference wasn't immediately noticeable - I wouldn't say I've changed in a profoundly spiritual way. But in the last couple of months I've been writing and coding more, and I would definitely attribute that to allowing my mind to be bored and inspired to do creative things.

I do want to stress again that I still spend a good amount of time mindlessly scrolling on sites like Reddit and YouTube - it's just taking place on my laptop instead of my phone. What ends up happening is that time is now contained, through no particular planning on my part. I'll do some mindless scrolling on my laptop first thing in the morning, then I'll start working. It's weird, but when I use my laptop, it's as if my work distracts me from my mindless scrolling, instead of it being the other way around. I never thought too much about how the form factor of a phone makes such a difference. Because a phone lacks a dedicated physical keyboard, doing prolonged work on it is almost impossible. So once you start mindlessly scrolling on a phone, there's nothing productive to distract you from that behavior.

I still use my phone in specific circumstances. As I mentioned above, if I'm heading out by myself and I know there isn't a good public transit option to get back home, I'll take my phone with me to be able to use an Uber or Lyft. If I'm out of town on vacation, I definitely take my phone with me, both for ride-share options as well as having access to more features on Maps (searching for nearby places, reviews, offline maps, etc). Occasionally I'll need the camera to scan a document. Basically I use the phone as a tool, not an entertainment device. To keep this distinction clear, I would recommend keeping the phone somewhere where you won't be tempted to use it. The hardest habit to break was mindless scrolling at night to help me fall asleep, so I think ideally you should keep it somewhere far from your bed. This allows your phone to become a tool that is used only when needed.

I don't know if I would recommend this Apple Watch Ultra setup for everyone. It works best if you are already deep in the Apple ecosystem and the potential dealbreakers I described above aren't dealbreakers for you. There are lots of alternative approaches that can work. Android users can find an LTE smartwatch that is compatible with that ecosystem. You can get a smart watch without cellular, and keep your phone near you but in a place that is harder to access. You can get a dumb phone to use for messaging and phone calls only. At the time I started this experiment, the dumb phone options seemed very limited, but I do think it's a growing space and there will be new devices that sit between a dumb phone and a smart phone. I think conversations around internet addiction and the war on our attention are becoming mainstream enough for a market to emerge that allows different people to address this issue in different ways that work best.

Detailed notes #

If case you want to try my specific approach of using the Apple Watch Ultra as a phone replacement, I've documented some notes on the apps that I use the most on my watch.