Reviews

Apple Watch Family Setup Review: Kids LOVE it, but it needs more telco choice

I have three kids, aged 9, 10 and 13. The eldest has a smartphone, we can call and text him, and we use Life360 to check on each other’s location. But for the 9 and 10 year old there’s still a missing level of “independence” that comes from having your own phone. Thus, a perfect testing ground for the new Apple Watch Family Setup.

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Buying an Apple Watch for your kids has been a futile exercise unless you are also getting them an iPhone, but in our household Year 7 (High School) is the tipping point for that decision.

But for a child with a good head on their shoulders and a touch of independent desire, years 4, 5 and 6 are years where they might be a touch kept back from those walks to the shops alone, or walking home because we can’t check on their every move. Yes, it’s different to the good ‘ol days, but that’s just life in 2020 and beyond.

So, not wanting to budge from our “Smartphones in High School” rule, we’ve tried a few “kids” watches, and this is where Apple is dipping its toe and it’s perhaps right now a more competitive and challenging market for them than any other category they’re entering or in – save perhaps for the Smart Speaker market.

There’s Moochies, Spacetalk, TCL Movetime and I’m sure many more. These all allow you to insert a nano SIM into the watch, install an app and from there call, text and locate your children.

How then does Apple compete, what does it bring to the table.

Well, if the scream of excitement – that I have no doubt could be heard from neighbouring homes – which came from my daughter when I showed her the Apple Watch is anything to go by, there’s Brand and pure appeal.

Put all the kids watches available on the market in front of any child and 99.9% will choose the Apple Watch.

Give that choice to parents and they’ll choose anything but the Apple Watch because at $429 it’s at least $200 more than anything else on the market. And here you all were complaining that AirPods Max were expensive!

Which begs the question:

Why choose Apple Watch with Family Setup for your kids?

I think in reality there’s two main reasons to choose Apple Watch with Family Setup for your kids.

Firstly, there’s the Ecosystem. Using Apple Watch means you simply open Find My allows you to see not just all your Apple Devices in one screen, but also all your family members too. Managing the settings is done within existing apps like Watch and Screen Time settings.

Secondly and most critically – School Time. The School Time function sets a Do Not Disturb mode on the watch. But more than that is changes the watch face to a bright yellow circle, clearly visible from across the room. Why? Because then teachers can see that if your child is looking at their watch its just to see the time, not to check an app.

We sent a note into school for the class teachers to let them know about this feature and their reaction was very positive. It’s this level of smarts, working with educators that sets them apart.

How do you setup an Apple Watch for kids using Family Setup?

The process is almost identical to your traditional Apple Watch for yourself, at the start at least.

Have a new Watch near your phone and it will pop up suggesting the pairing process.

Once you’re in you choose to setup a new watch for a family member, not yourself and then you are asked which family member.

Critically, your child has to have an iTunes account of their own, and be part of your Family Sharing group.

Early in the process, you’re asked if you want to setup a mobile account – why you would buy an Apple Watch and NOT do this baffles me, so this is a given for all buyers.

You don’t have much choice here though, the big telcos are not on board yet with the individual eSIM choice, so the only option is TRUPHONE. This is a network that has provided eSIM data services on tablets here, and does so around the world.

You’ll sign up to a $9.90 monthly plan, and get a phone number unique to your child’s watch.

That means you can save their number in your phone, share it with their siblings and grandparents.

The setup continues with things like health and activity tracking, with younger kids set time based goals not kJ based.

You then choose if you want to manage their contacts, and onto School Time settings to choose the hours they’re at school. This is deeply customisable which is fantastic.

How many Apple Watches can you have on your Family Account?

An Apple “Family” is a maximum of six accounts, Mum, Dad and four kids. If you’ve got five kids I don’t know what you do – but my thoughts are with you:)

How does School Time work on Apple Watch?

During setup the parent sets up school hours, this can be one set of times for the week, or you can add things like sport training time, leave breaks for lunch – whatever you need.

At this time when indicated, the watch goes into Do Not Disturb Mode

This is very similar to your phone, meaning urgent messages can be delivered, as can repeat phone calls – but those are settings you can turn off also.

Critically that big yellow screen means everyone knows they’re just looking at the time.

Constant turning of the Digital Crown will allow the child to unlock school time, but after the watch screen goes off again it’s right back into School Time automatically.

Oh, and in the Apple Watch app, you can see how many times the kids are unlocking their watch. Mine were doing so at Recess and Lunch, at my request to check on battery life. More on that soon.

Can anyone contact my child using their phone number on Apple Watch?

No. In the Screen Time settings of your phone, you can manage the call settings for Apple Watch. This allows you to ensure that only their contacts can contact them by phone or SMS. This is critical and any kids watch without them is a dangerous thing on their wrist.

Issues we had with Apple Watch Family Setup

You know when an innovative startup comes up with a new product and then you realise that the second generation is going to be way better? For the first time in a long time – that’s how I feel about the Apple Watch Family Setup.

This was the toughest and most complex review I’ve done all year I reckon. In part because I wanted to be sure the issues we were seeing were not of our own doing, and also because I’m not the one using the devices.

Contact Syncing

My kids are all lucky enough to have iPod Touches and or iPad Minis. This means they have iTunes accounts and have contacts already. Contacts must be in the iCloud for the best result including parents managing contacts on the Apple Watch. For one child I could simply never get it to take the new contacts I was adding.

I Suspect it’s because he had a jumbled up contact list already, and we need to wipe all that, and start from scratch. Perhaps a challenge for the holidays.

Walkie Talkie Setup

I never have used the Walkie Talkie function on Apple Watch before, but i’ve also never wanted to more than with these Apple Watches.

We got it working on two of the three, but my eldest couldn’t add me and wasn’t getting my requests. Again, I think this is related to contacts, and I need to clean up my contact list and personal contacts to make this work.

Battery Life

By far the biggest issue though is getting through the day. On our first day all three were dead by lunch. A software update later, and things got better, but not great.

Every day for two weeks my kids have exited School Time at Recess and Lunch to let me know via iMessage their battery level.

The battery drain is roughly 10-20% per hour. On a good day, putting the watch on at 8am allows them to get to 3.30pm. Frankly, not ideal.

However, on the weekend, things were better. So, is it School Time draining the battery?

Nope. After extensive testing, during which we realised that Harri (9) was getting through the day, yet Victoria (10) was getting to lunch time at best, we swapped watches.

To rule out the setup, settings, or profile of one individual, Harri wore Victoria’s watch, and vice versa.

And it worked, Victoria’s watch on Harri’s wrist got through the day.

For my mind, the problem is quite simple. Mobile coverage.

Our Schools (both the Primary School and Jackson’s High School) aren’t near each other, but both have crappy levels of Vodafone coverage. One bar at best. And guess which network Truphone is on? Yep – Vodafone.

Which means these tiny little Apple watches are constantly trying to push for service, probably flicking between 3G, 4G and no coverage non stop.

The reason I am convinced of this is that on the weekend Battery life was good! Because at home, and where we were there was ample Vodafone coverage.

So why did Harri have a better result that Victoria at the same school? Easy – his classroom is a demountable on next to the School Oval. Victoria’s classroom is more like a lower ground floor class in a two story building of classrooms.

Should you buy the Apple Watch for your kids?

If you have outstanding Vodafone coverage at school – sure, it’s cool.

Until the big telcos upgrade their systems to allow their users to install a brand new independent eSIM on a watch that is probably going to be billed to their current mobile account, and is all done via the Apple Watch app not in store – we’re not going to truely see the power – or complete testing frankly, of the Apple Watch for kids.

As of today though, this is very Generation One. It feels to me like Apple rushed this out with Truphone just to put the pressure on the telcos. Dragging their feet like the banks did with Apple Pay – rest assured they would have launched their own bank back then if regulation allowed it.

At $429 it’s a pricey fitness tracker, when kids seem super enthused about Fitbit or Garmin, as well as the other kids watches on the market.

And it should be noted, the mobile coverage issues causing battery drain is not exclusive to Apple – we’ve experienced that with every single one we’ve tested.

If you’re looking to upgrade to a Series 6 from a Series 4 or 5, then the old one can be a hand me down for the kids – that’s the smartest move out there, rather than buying a brand new SE or Series 6 for the kids.

Apple Watch Family Setup Review: Kids LOVE it, but it needs more telco choice
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