It is difficult to reconcile a critical appraisal of the Apple Watch with the product’s commercial success. To examine the most popular watch in the world1 and find it wanting seems wrong; yet as Apple’s bombastic smartwatch kicks off its third year, its history implores ignominy.
The integration of hardware and software is a keystone in Apple’s foundation. Every game-changing product they’ve released over the years has used this as a core advantage over the competition. Yet despite the Cupertino company’s proven track record, the last three years of Apple Watch have demonstrated a consistent struggle to get this right.
Apple has certainly iterated on unsuccessful hardware and software ideas in the past, but never quite so publicly. The Apple Watch feels like a device that was rushed a little too early to market. Apple knew that it had something good, but it didn’t yet know which areas the device would really excel in.
One of the most interesting pieces of this product’s story is that all signs point to Apple having gotten the hardware of the Apple Watch exactly right, at least in terms of its direction. The original Apple Watch was underpowered and lacking some technology that Apple simply couldn’t fit into it at the time, but the idea was there. In subsequent hardware iterations Apple has significantly increased the processing power, added vital new sensors, improved battery life, and shipped LTE. In this time the case design has remained unchanged (other than growing slightly thicker), and the input methods have persisted exactly. It may have taken until the latest Series 3 release for Apple to fulfill its initial vision for the Apple Watch hardware, but that vision has remained unshaken since the beginning.
The same cannot be said for the Apple Watch software.
Apple’s smartwatch operating system has had a rocky first few years. watchOS 1 was fundamentally broken in several ways, and probably should never have shipped. watchOS 2 was an attempt to shore up and replace the poor foundations under the hood, but it left the substandard user interface to fester in production for over a year. With last year’s release of watchOS 3, Apple took its best shot at rethinking cardinal pieces of that interface.
watchOS 3 was a huge improvement over the blunders that came before it. As I wrote in my watchOS 3 review last year, Apple did great work with the update to cut away the excess and hone the OS to something simpler and more straightforward. It was a significant course correction which set a far better trajectory, but it didn’t get us all the way there.
In a lot of ways it feels like watchOS 3 was the true watchOS 1. Where Apple left off with the smartwatch operating system last year was really the point where it should have started. Nothing was complete, but almost every piece felt primed for improvement rather than necessitating reinvention. In the wake of that update, Apple has been at a crossroads. With the foundations of watchOS finally feeling solid, Apple could either continue to drive the platform forward, or leave it on a slow-moving autopilot.
Yesterday marked the release of watchOS 4 — our first opportunity to see the hope kindled by watchOS 3 borne out — and I’m pleased to report that Apple has succeeded in maintaining the platform’s momentum. Every area that this year’s update focuses on has seen fantastic improvements, and I’ve found myself interacting with my Apple Watch more than ever before. My only disappointment is that the scope of watchOS 4 isn’t quite as far-reaching as last year’s update.
The big themes of watchOS 4 are fitness and music, and Apple has done some excellent work in these departments. New activity goals, completely overhauled Workout and Music apps, auto-launch of audio apps, a Now Playing Complication, and more are all excellent upgrades. As always there is still room for improvement, but many of these features are making the leap for the first time from options on my Apple Watch which I mostly ignore to real features which I find consistently useful in my daily life.
There’s a lot to dig into here with the choices made and the new features added. Let’s dive in and find out what Apple has in store for the next year of Apple Watch.
Table of Contents
Apple’s concentration on fitness for watchOS 4 has produced a flood of interesting improvements to the related aspects of the operating system. I’ve never been a big fitness buff, but in testing these features I was taken by surprise by how effective they are.
I’m still not a fitness buff by any definition of the term, but I truly have found myself thinking more about exercise in my daily life since installing watchOS 4. The new Activity goals and reminders have done their job by keeping me from forgetting that my Activity rings exist, and the speed and ease of starting a new workout have broken the barrier of being too much work for me to bother starting workouts when I am active.
I recently moved from the very driving-centric town of Tucson, Arizona to the much more walking-centric town of Minneapolis, Minnesota. My lifestyle has been inherently a bit more active since the move than it was previously, so the new fitness features of watchOS 4 came at a convenient time for me. It’s hard to say whether I would have become as involved with them if I were still living in Tucson, but I was certainly continuing to ignore the fitness features of watchOS 3 for the first few months here before the watchOS 4 beta was released.
If your lifestyle is not at all conducive to being active, I’m doubtful that these new features will be very impactful for you. They’re probably not going to inspire massive changes to the way you live. That said, if you’re on the border of starting to exercise, or if you’ve felt mostly ambivalent but not directly apposed to the Apple Watch’s fitness features in the past, watchOS 4’s new fitness improvements just might push you over the edge.
Apple didn’t make significant changes to the Activity app itself in watchOS 4, but it did add a series of proactive notifications designed to help motivate you toward completing your activity goals or finishing your daily rings. The first of these notifications are for what Apple is calling “daily inspiration,” and they consist of a variety of different messages which keep you updated on the state of your long or short term activity goals. For instance, you may see a daily inspiration notification informing you that you’re only some number of days away from completing a new streak for one or all of your activity rings.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many variations of these proactive messages you could see, because they seem to be fairly random about picking metrics to try to motivate you for. Another example I’ve seen is a notification encouraging me to “make it happen today” when I failed to close all three of my rings the day before.
The best news about these notifications is that they’re inconsistent. The exact frequency and composition is ambiguous because they’re generated by some sort of “AI” technique, and the end result is that I’ve never once felt annoyed by them being sent too often. Unlike the hourly “Time to Stand!” or frequent “Time to Breathe!” notifications, both of which I eventually had to turn off, daily inspiration notifications have been effective for me. The fact that they’re different every time helps to keep me interested in reading them and avoid getting sick of them.
Another type of watchOS 4 activity notification is the “evening push.” These messages will pick one of your activity rings which you’re at least somewhat close to completing and let you know exactly what you need to do to finish it out. I’ve seen some of these recommending that I stand up a few more times by the end of the night, as well as a few mentioning specifics like “a brisk 15 minute walk will complete your Move ring for today.” Evening push notifications have more immediately actionable information than daily inspiration ones, but I often feel like they send too late at night. There’s no set schedule for these either (other than the general term “evening”), so I have no idea how they choose when to send, but it definitely varies pretty dramatically. Personally, when it’s 10:30 at night and my Watch tells me I need to go take a 40-minute walk to complete my Move ring, I tend to let that slide. If you’re more religious about completing your rings then maybe that’s information that you want to know no matter what time it is.
Finally there are the “monthly challenge” notifications. These are rarer pop-ups which recommend or update you on a particular goal to pursue throughout the entire next month. If you successfully complete a monthly goal then you unlock a software achievement medal for that month in the Activity app on your iPhone. In my experience these have only come through about two or three times each month — first toward the beginning to set a monthly goal for me to pursue and then one or two times throughout the month to update me on my progress. If you’re someone who really centers their workout life around the Apple Watch then these prompts could certainly be a good way for you to find some new ideas for goals. For me these have been the least effective activity notifications.
Overall, the new Activity notifications in watchOS 4 are designed with a clear goal in mind: making the Apple Watch’s activity tracking features a lifestyle. If you’re already someone who strictly pursues their Activity rings then these will be welcome additions. That said, I think these new notifications might end up having the greatest impact on people who are more on the fence about really getting into the habit of trying to complete those rings. My problem with the Apple Watch activity rings in the past is that I forgot about them throughout the day. For those who feel similarly, these new notifications can serve as a simple, low-friction way to keep activity in mind over time.
Lastly, if your lifestyle just really doesn’t fit with Apple’s views on being active, or if you read the above and can’t imagine these notification being helpful, then you can turn some or all of them off in the Activity section of the Watch app on your iPhone.
The Workout app for Apple Watch has received a significant overhaul in watchOS 4, and the changes made here are excellent across the board. Apple has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what users want from a wrist-worn app for tracking workouts, and I think they’ve gotten it right.
If no workout is active then upon first opening the new Workout app you’ll be presented with a simple card view showing every available workout type. Each workout has its own large card, and you can scroll vertically to move through the list. Along with all the workouts which were previously available, Apple’s Workout team has also added a few new options. High Intensity Interval Training will use a new model for tracking your heart rate and motion in order to better calculate calorie burn for interval workouts. The updated Pool Swim workout will automatically track sets and rests, including the pace of each set and the distance for each stroke type.
Once you’ve identified the workout that you’d like to start, a single tap will activate it and start a countdown from 3 to when the Watch will start tracking. This interface is simple, fast, and gets you exactly what you want if you’ve chosen to open this app. The Workout app exemplifies the design direction in which Apple has been taking all of its first-party apps since watchOS 3. These apps are perfectly simplified: honed down to the exact minimum amount of complexity they possibly can be while still fulfilling what the user wants from them.
The only additional aspect of the pre-workout view in the new Workout app is that each card also includes a small button in the top right corner. Tapping this button will let you set a particular metric goal before beginning the workout. The four options are Open, Calories, Distance, and Time. Workouts default to Open if you just tap on them, but if you hit the top button and pick one of these other options then you’ll be taken to an additional interface where you can customize the exact goal that you’re looking for. Distance goals will ask you to specify a particular number of miles that you’re planning to travel, Calories will ask for a number of calories you want to burn, and Time will ask the time you’d like your workout to continue for. Each option will display your previous best for the particular metric to help you decide what goal to set for the current workout. Lastly, each of these options has a specific color, and this color will be the highlight color shown in the workout interface once you’ve hit the start button — including the color of the countdown numbers and exercise animation that will be shown.
It’s worth noting that if you tap on the countdown interface after activating a workout, it will skip the countdown and start the workout immediately. This is a nice addition, although I don’t like how hidden it is. Since I discovered this I’ve skipped the countdown on almost all of my workouts — it’s only three seconds but I’m usually only starting a workout at the exact moment that I plan to begin moving anyway. Another use for this is if you accidentally tap the wrong workout. I think that they should just add a Cancel button on the countdown interface, but barring that you can tap to skip the countdown and then swipe right and hit the End button. If you hit End directly after starting a workout then it will not show up as having happened when you review your workouts later.
Once your workout has begun, the app transitions to a three-page interface. The central page shows your active workout data, including a set of live statistics which varies depending on which workout you choose (generally calories burned will be there, and often distance traveled and heart rate as well). This page also includes some fun new animations which are specific to each work out, such as a figure walking, running, cycling, or swimming.
In an astounding case of poor discoverability, there is actually a hidden action while you’re on this interface. If you want to split your workout into segments without affecting the overall time tracking (the key use for this is of course tracking individual laps during a multi-lap workout), then you need to double tap anywhere in the interface to trigger the end of a segment. This will briefly bring up a view with your statistics for that individual segment before auto-dismissing it after a few moments. Double tapping is conveniently fast to access this feature once you know about it, but a double tap is not a standard convention used anywhere else in the operating system. I discovered this on accident and had no idea what had happened at first, or even how to make it happen again. I think a decent compromise here would be to add a small button to the interface which would trigger a lap, but also continue to allow the double tap. That kind of gesture should be a shortcut rather than the only way to access an important feature.
The last tidbit on the statistics view is that if you spin the Digital Crown you will alter which individual statistic is highlighted. I haven’t used this much myself, but I can see how it could be useful if you are concentrating on a particular metric and want to make it visually distinct from the others for easy glancing. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this highlight doesn’t actually do anything other than make a subtle visual change.
Swiping over to the page on the left in the Workout app will reveal a set of four buttons: Lock, New, End, and Pause. The End and Pause buttons are self-explanatory, and will both immediately End or Pause your workout without further interaction. The Lock button shows an icon of a water droplet, and this is because its purpose is to prevent errant touches from registering on the Watch face if it gets wet from sweat, rain, or water. This option can be a bit confusing if you don’t know what it does because it will also prevent any purposeful touches from registering until you unlock it.
To unlock your Apple Watch after locking it you actually need to activate the screen and then spin the Digital Crown a few times. As you begin to spin the crown you’ll see the water droplet icon appear on the screen and then expand and burst once you’ve done enough spins. At that point your Apple Watch will perform its water ejection dance, in which it emits several loud beeps to clear any water from its speaker. This will happen every time you unlock the Watch from this special Workout lock mode, regardless of whether there is actually water in the speaker.
I’m not a big fan regarding that last bit. I think putting the Watch into a state where you are unable to unlock it without making loud noises is obnoxious and, while unlikely, could even be dangerous. If you’re out exercising and something bad happens, it’s not unreasonable to imagine ending up in a situation where you need to have access to your Apple Watch without it making loud beeping noises — particularly with the new Apple Watch Series 3. The Series 3’s LTE capabilities make it that much more likely that wearers might be leaving home with no other means of communication. I think there should either be an on-screen option to prevent the beeping which shows up when you start spinning the crown, or the process should be split into two steps: press the Digital Crown to unlock the device and then spin it to clear the water, if necessary.
Also, if you’re playing music sourced from your Apple Watch through paired Bluetooth headphones when you spin the crown to unlock from this mode, your playback will be stopped for about 7 seconds while the watch blares noises through its speakers. That’s just annoying.
While we’re on the subject of potentially dangerous unwanted noises, I think it’s especially ridiculous that there’s no way to stop the piercing alarm from sounding on the Apple Watch when you hold the Side Button to call emergency services. This feature was introduced last year, and remains unchanged in watchOS 4. If you are actively attempting to contact emergency services then I think the chance are pretty decent that you might not want your Apple Watch to emit loud noises. While I understand that the noise is there to prevent users from triggering this functionality on accident, the fact that there’s no way to make this call without the noise feels like a huge oversight to me. Requiring some sort of secondary validation in order to prevent the noise — such as pressing the Digital Crown once while holding the Side Button — could be an effective way to mitigate this. Honestly though, I feel like Apple could design a better way to make this option available to users which does not require sounding the alarm to make sure it isn’t triggered accidentally.
It’s worth noting that the emergency services shortcut does remain active while your Apple Watch is in water lock mode. Holding the Side Button will first show the water drop icon alongside instructions telling you to turn the Digital Crown to unlock your watch, but after a couple of seconds this will transition to a red emergency services icon. Continue holding for another second to get the countdown from 3. Be warned though: in this mode the emergency services alarm will blare three times, once for each second on the countdown. When the Apple Watch is not in water lock mode you only hear the siren blare during the second second of the countdown.
Surprisingly, if you force-reboot your Apple Watch while it’s in water lock mode, it will actually remain in water lock mode when it returns to being active, and you’ll have to dismiss that before you can put in your passcode. The workout you were in the middle of will still be active as well. These facts both seem wrong to me — a hard reboot should put an end to both a workout and a water lock.
Returning to the Workout app interface, the final button on the left hand screen during an active workout is the New button. Tapping this will bring up the same card view of workouts that you started from originally, and tapping a card in that list will automatically end your current workout and immediately transition into starting the one you tapped. This functionality will be vital to triathletes, but also can be useful to anybody who switches between several types of activities in a row. As an example, I ride my bike across town once a week to play ultimate frisbee with some friends. When I leave home each week I start a cycling workout for the ride, then use the New button to immediately transition to a running workout once I arrive.
Small gripe here, but double tapping in the leftmost page’s button interface will trigger a new lap segment just like double tapping in the main view will; yet that double tap will not stop the interface from triggering whichever button you happened to perform it on. This means that if you want to trigger a new segment, but you happen to double tap on the End button, your workout will be over when the segment view is dismissed. Another example would be double tapping on the Lock button at the end of a lap. The interface will still show the lap stats so everything will seem fine, but when you get around the track the next time you will miss your next lap because the screen has actually been locked. This makes little sense to me. Apple should either disable double tapping in that area of the interface, or ignore the initial button press if a second tap is registered.
Once you’ve finished your workout — or all of your consecutive workouts — and hit the End button in the Workout app, you’ll be presented with a list of statistics from each workout shown individually. You can review your results here, or hit Done and take a look at them in the Activity app on your iPhone at a later date.
The End button will also deactivate Do Not Disturb mode if you have the new Workout Do Not Disturb option activated. This is off by default, but can be enabled in the Watch app for iOS via General ⇾ Do Not Disturb ⇾ Workout Do Not Disturb. The setting will automatically activate Do Not Disturb mode while you have a workout active, and deactivate it afterward. If you’re someone who really needs to get in the zone and avoid distractions while working out then this could be a great option.
While we’re briefly in the iOS Watch app, there are a couple new settings for Workout that I will touch on. A new Power Saving Mode option will disable the built-in heart rate sensor during walking and running workouts to save battery life. If you’re really interested in precisely tracking your heart rate data then you may want to disable this one. Secondly, a new Workout Playlist option will let you designate one of your playlists from the Music app to have playback started automatically when you begin a workout. This will only occur if you have headphones connected and aren’t already listening to something else.
Returning to the Apple Watch, the final view in the new Workout app is the one on the right side of the screen while you have an active workout going. This view is a modified Now Playing screen, and it’s a great addition to the app. I never exercise without a podcast or some music playing, and the lack of easy access to these controls during a workout has been a big pain point in the past. In watchOS 4 a quick swipe to the side will get you to the controls, and from there you can change the volume using the Digital Crown or skip forward or backward. If you need to interact directly with the app controlling playback then you can tap on the name of whatever you’re listening to to open the source app.
This may not seem like that significant a difference, but one of the biggest annoyances in watchOS 3 and prior was how difficult it was to access playback controls. If you’re exercising and want to control playback from your Watch, it shouldn’t require several button presses and navigating through different interfaces to get there. Particularly for workouts such as cycling, which require much more focus on exactly what you’re doing at any point, it’s extremely valuable to not have to mess around with software interfaces if you just need to bump your volume up or down a bit.
The new Workout app in watchOS 4 is a complete overhaul of last year’s offering, and Apple has done an excellent job with it. The decisions made throughout this interface evince a true understanding of how real users will be interacting with the app. There’s a lot of complexity packed in, but Apple has compiled it into a cohesive and easily navigable model. With the small exception of the double tapping issue, it’s very difficult to make a mistake in the Workout app. That’s the ideal of every good user interface, and I expect this iteration will remain the app’s foundation for years to come.
Now Playing and Auto-Launching
The Now Playing section of the Workout app is only one of the audio-related changes in watchOS 4. Apple has also overhauled the watchOS Music app (we’ll get to that later), added a new feature which automatically launches the source apps for audio that is playing, and granted us a Complication to open the Now Playing screen.
watchOS has an unusual history with the Now Playing screen, mainly due to the fact that, in my opinion, it is one of the few items which Apple got right in watchOS 1 only to later change for the worse in watchOS 3. Now Playing was originally a Glance (remember those?), meaning it was accessible by a single swipe up from the bottom of the watch face, and possibly a few extra swipes sideways if it wasn’t the last Glance you had used. Since third-party Glances were an effectively nonfunctional paradigm back then, I never navigated between any Glances other than System Controls and Now Playing, leaving both of those a maximum of two swipes away at any given time.
With watchOS 3 last year, Apple replaced Glances entirely with the singular Control Center screen. Basically this was an improved version of the old System Controls Glance, and the Now Playing screen was transitioned to a card in the Dock. Here’s what I wrote about this in my watchOS 3 review last year:
No matter which way I look at this, I continue to be confused by Apple’s decision to move Now Playing to the Dock. On iOS, where the Control Center idea came from, audio playback controls have always been a part of the interface. In iOS 10 these controls have been moved to a separate pane that is to the side of the system controls part of Control Center. In watchOS 2, audio playback controls already existed as its own Glance, separate from the system controls Glance, but available via a sideways swipe between the two. I don’t get why Apple didn’t leave the Now Playing screen exactly where it was, alongside the system controls, for the new watchOS Control Center.
The reason that this discrepancy bothers me so much is because of how much I loved the Now Playing screen in watchOS 2. The screen was the only Glance I ever used, so it was always the first thing available when I swiped up. In watchOS 3, I would love to have it permanently tied to the swipe up, in which case I would use Control Center all the time. Instead, Now Playing exists as a weird non-app in the Dock, where its ease of access is reduced since the Dock may be navigated to any particular app at any given time you open it, requiring swiping around to get back to Now Playing.
Throughout the last year of using watchOS 3, my feelings about this change have only grown stronger. I still can’t figure out why Apple has divorced Now Playing from Control Center, and I’m sad to report that there is no change on that front in watchOS 4. Thankfully though, Apple has chosen to add a Now Playing Complication in this year’s update, which enables access to the interface via a single tap.
The Now Playing Complication has effectively solved this issue for me, but one major aspect of the change really bothers me: the new Now Playing Complication is only available for large Complication size classes. In other words, depending on which watch face you’re using, there’s a good chance that you can’t take advantage of it at all.
If you use Modular then of course you’re good to go, and Utility — my watch face of choice — can snag Now Playing in the Complication at the bottom. The same goes for Activity, Motion, Photos, and several others. But if you use Simple, Color, Chronograph, the new Siri face, or a few others, then you’re out of luck. For a reason which I cannot understand, Apple is not offering the Now Playing Complication as a small icon which could be tapped to launch the interface.
To me, a simple icon version would actually be a better option in general. The large version of the Now Playing Complication struggles with the case in which no audio is active at all: it just displays the text “TAP TO OPEN.” (Why they didn’t go with “NOW PLAYING” there, I’m not sure. Tap to open what?) If audio is playing then the Complication will show its title and a small sound bar animation, but these titles are often cut off due to lack of space.
To be fair, Apple is trying to solve this problem in other ways. Namely, in the iOS 11 Watch app for iPhone there’s a new setting, on by default, called “Auto-launch Audio Apps.” True to its name, when enabled this will cause an Apple Watch running watchOS 4 to automatically keep open whichever app is associated with the current audio source. Whenever you look at your Apple Watch while playing audio, you’ll see the audio source’s app shown rather than your watch face.
If you’re listening to music from the Music app on your iPhone or Apple Watch then this works pretty well. During playback when you raise your wrist to look at your watch, you’ll see the Now Playing screen displayed. This gives you instant access to the volume and playback controls without requiring any preliminary swipes or taps at all. In practice I’ve found this is what I want a good amount of the time.
Unfortunately, this new change may fall apart if you’re listening to any audio source other than Apple’s Music app. If the source app includes a watchOS app of its own then instead of opening the Now Playing screen the Apple Watch will open that third-party app. If the app’s interface happens to have playback and volume controls then this may be alright, but lots of them don’t. For me, the vast majority of audio I listen to is coming from Overcast, and the Overcast watchOS app does not support volume control.2 Since volume control is one of the most common actions I want to take when using the playback controls on my Apple Watch, the auto-launching of the Overcast app is more of a hindrance than a help.
The good news is that we have some options here. First off, if the app controlling playback does not support volume control and you require this like I do, you can just uninstall that app’s watchOS app. If no watchOS app is installed then the Apple Watch will default back to the actual Now Playing screen when you play audio from that app on your iPhone. If you don’t ever use the watchOS app version of your audio app then this solution could work for you.
The second option is to just disable the auto-launch feature altogether. You can do this from the Watch app on your iPhone via General ⇾ Wake Screen ⇾ Auto-launch Audio Apps. If you have a watch face that you can put the Now Playing Complication on, this may be a worthwhile option. Complications have special privileges which keep them active and in memory longer than other apps, so the Now Playing screen should respond pretty quickly whenever you access it by tapping the Complication.
I’ve waffled back and forth over the last few months trying to decide which of these options I prefer. In the end, my decision was actually unrelated to the best way to access volume controls. The auto-launch audio apps feature just ended up annoying me so much that I disabled it.
If you’re someone who listens to audio fairly irregularly then the auto-launch setting will probably be great. Personally, I have audio (usually podcasts) playing almost constantly when I’m not actively engaged in something. With the auto-launch setting enabled, my watch face felt like it had basically become the Now Playing screen.
In most situations watchOS will dismiss an open app and return to the watch face after two minutes. With auto-launch enabled, an audio app or the Now Playing screen will be active on your watch display at all times while audio is playing. With as much audio as I listen to, I grew tired of my Apple Watch never showing me my watch face.
As nice as it is to have immediate access to playback controls whenever you could possibly want them, that also comes with the tradeoff of not having access to your watch face whenever you want it. This is a tradeoff that Apple thinks is worthwhile, and I’m sure many people will probably agree. The decision will be different for everyone because it depends entirely on how you personally interact with your Apple Watch. For me, I’m much more content keeping Now Playing as a Complication and disabling auto-launch. My playback controls are still a quick single tap away, but I also get to see my watch face whenever I want to check the time or see my Activity rings.
Regardless of my discontent in a few specifics, as a whole I’m extremely pleased that we finally have options in this area. With watchOS 3 there was legitimately no fast or consistent way to access the Now Playing screen. In watchOS 4 there are several, and even though I think they could each be better individually, the fact that we have them at all is a huge step forward.
For the most part the watchOS 4 interface has not strayed from the path set by watchOS 3, but there are a few notable changes that are worth a mention. Namely, the entire pairing interface on both the Apple Watch and the iPhone have been revamped, the Dock has been redesigned, and they’ve finally provided an option to replace the honeycomb home screen.
In watchOS 4 Apple has implemented a completely new UI for the initial pairing of an Apple Watch and iPhone. This begins with the communication between the two devices, where Apple seems to have borrowed heavily from whatever secret sauce they baked into the Bluetooth connection of AirPods. After turning on an unpaired Apple Watch, just hold it close to your iPhone to see a popup slide in from the bottom of the screen informing you of the nearby watch that is ready to pair. The watch, for its part, will show a screen with an animation of an iPhone moving close to an Apple Watch, and will rotate between languages every few seconds translating the phrase “Bring iPhone near Apple Watch.”
If you hit the Pair button on the popup on your iPhone it will launch the iOS Watch app and begin the pairing process. Alternatively, you can hit the small info button at the bottom right of your Apple Watch’s screen to pick a particular language and region before reaching a screen that directs you to manually open the Watch app on your iPhone. Once you’ve done so, tap the Start Pairing button on the watch to see the familiar particle ball visual that Apple Watches have always used for pairing. Point your iPhone camera at it and within a few moments the devices will be connected.
Once you’ve started this process your iPhone will show a screen requesting that you pick between restoring the watch from any old backups that may exist or setting it up as new. Following that are a few screens of logistics to get through. The main items are choosing a passcode for the watch, setting up Apple Pay, entering your Apple ID to enable Activation Lock, and reading about the Emergency SOS feature. After that, you’ll get the “Apple Watch Is Syncing” screen which informs you that you can continue using your phone and that you’ll get an alert when the sync is complete.
This is the point in previous versions of watchOS where the device would display a large, slowly filling progress circle, and you’d have to leave it alone for a while. In watchOS 4, Apple has really improved this portion of the process. You still get the progress circle, but it has now been shrunk down to take up less than a quarter of the screen. Underneath it is an interface titled “Apple Watch Basics,” and you can scroll down while the watch restores to see three different buttons labeled Display, Digital Crown, and Side Button.
Each of these three buttons can be tapped to start walking through instructions on how to operate the Apple Watch interface. The Display section shows an animation of horizontally scrolling cards, along with the instructions “Tap to select. Swipe to scroll and move.” (Emphasis Apple’s.) Swiping horizontally here moves to a second page which explain Force Touch with an animation, accompanied by the sentence “Press Firmly for more options or to change the watch face.” A Done button in the top left corner will return you to the main interface.
I won’t bore you with the details of the next two sections. They’re identical interfaces to the one described above, but they walk through the various functions of the device’s two hardware buttons. Overall, I’m impressed with this interface, and I love that Apple has figured out a way to turn the excruciating waiting period while a new Apple Watch goes through the initial pairing process into an interactive walkthrough on how to use the device. I think brand new users will get a lot out of this change. Restoring a new device from scratch is one of the only times in software where there is literally nothing else to do with that device — a perfect moment to capitalize on to make sure people aren’t missing any of the features that Apple has worked hard to implement.
Once you’ve paired an Apple Watch you’ll be presented with the passcode interface each time you strap it onto your wrist. Apple has changed this interface for the third consecutive year, and thankfully it is continuing to move in a good direction. The tap targets, which last year were made bigger than their original implementation, have now been inflated even further. The delete button has been tweaked to a bright red color and shrunk down smaller than the rest of the buttons, although the tap target for it is the same size as the others.
Tapping each button will cause it to temporarily inflate, which is a good way to help you identify visually that you hit the right button while your finger is still on it. I’m not sure how well this would work as a design pattern in other parts of the Apple Watch UI, but it does strike me as an interesting idea. The small size of the Apple Watch screen makes it inherently difficult to know that you’re tapping what you think you are, and perhaps this brief expansion animation for tapped elements could be useful beyond the lock screen. In their current location these animations are particularly helpful if you catch yourself missing a tap target, as you can slide your finger around the screen to change your tap before lifting. Previously this wouldn’t have helped much because it was still hard to see what your finger was on, but with the expanding buttons under your touch you can get a much better sense of what you’re doing and make sure to release at the right point.
In watchOS 3 Apple introduced the Dock: a selection of up to 10 apps which would be easily accessible via the hardware Side Button and would also be kept in memory longer. The Dock replaced the old Friends interface, and thus finally provided a good reason for that second hardware button to exist at all. In watchOS 4 the Dock is still around, but Apple has made a few key changes.
The biggest change involves the apps that are present in the Dock. Where watchOS 3 required specific user interaction to add new apps into this privileged list, watchOS 4 has relegated that to an option which is off by default. Instead, when you first install watchOS 4, your Dock will contain a list of the last ten apps that you accessed on your Apple Watch. It’s basically the same idea as the multitasking interface on iOS, minus being able to force quit apps from it.
Personally, I have switched my Dock back from showing most recent apps to showing favorites, and I think that most people interested enough to be reading this review should strongly consider doing the same. The reason that the multitasking switcher works so well on iOS is because the operating system has other convenient avenues for opening an app that has not been recently used. You can quickly access the home screen and open most of your frequently used apps in a matter of moments. If you’re looking for something buried in a folder then it’s also fairly quick and easy to just slide down the Spotlight view and type the name to look the app up. watchOS has none of these conveniences. The only good ways to make an app easily accessible on watchOS are to either add it as a Complication on your watch face (if you have an open slot and app supports a Complication in the correct size), add it as one of the few apps clustered directly around the watch face icon on the honeycomb home screen, or add it to your Dock. With so few methods for quickly accessing apps, changing the Dock so that it only includes recently used apps cuts off a major option here.
It may seem like this doesn’t matter if you, like most people, really only use a small subset of apps. That may be true for the most part, but if you only use a small subset then isn’t it nicer to position those yourself in the Dock and know that they will always be there when you need them? When the Dock is populated with your most recent apps and you need to access an app that you haven’t used in a long time, there are two options. First, you can open the Dock and scroll down to the bottom searching for it, then retreat to the clunky home screen interface if it’s not present. Second, you can skip the Dock altogether and just start the home screen search immediately, which will be much slower if the app actually was hanging around in the Dock somewhere. On the other hand, if your Dock is full of favorites, you will either automatically know that the app you want is in the Dock and exactly where it is in the lineup, or you will know that it isn’t there and you can start swiping around through the home screen sooner and get that over with.3
Furthermore, when you have the Dock set to the favorites option, it will display the last most recently used app which is not already a favorite at the very top of the interface, above the first docked item. That gives you a maximum of 11 apps to hold in the interface, and means that there’s always a shortcut to the most recent app if you ever need to temporarily switch back and forth with one that isn’t marked as favorite. Apple also includes an “Add to Dock” button at the bottom of this recent app’s card, so if you decide a new app deserves favorite status then you can add it quickly and easily from your watch (this button isn’t present if your favorites list is full).
Keeping the above advantages in mind, I really do think that populating the Dock with a list of most recently used apps is a better option for most users. This is because I’d bet that the vast majority of users never once took the time to manually organize their Apple Watch Docks in watchOS 3. By populating the Dock automatically, these users can get some use out of the interface without needing to put any time or thought into it.
Ultimately, I think Apple’s mistake here was diverging the Dock into two distinct choices rather than merging the ideas together. The watchOS Dock would be better if it were modeled after the new iPad Dock in iOS 11. The front part should be a list of a few favorites that the user can specifically choose, and the back part should be a list of most recently used apps. By default there could then be no favorites, so the Dock would just show recent apps in the same manner it defaults to in watchOS 4. However, users would also be free to set their favorite apps in stone directly from the Dock interface, if they ever felt the need to. This combination would leave the Dock the same for the majority of users, but allow those who actually want to to set favorites to do so without losing the definite convenience of still having access to a few recently used apps.
Apple is usually the company that figures out the best option and makes these kinds of decisions for us. Instead, they’re forcing us to choose strictly between two useful features rather than designing a better interface that incorporates both concepts. I’m hoping this changes in future versions.
Another part of the Dock interface that has been changed is the visual design and layout. In watchOS 3 the Dock was a horizontal list which unintuitively could be scrolled sideways using the Digital Crown — if you found that more convenient than swiping with your fingers. This interface definitely had its drawbacks — mainly that navigating from one side to the other required a lot of consecutive swipes and always felt imprecise. With watchOS 4 Apple has redesigned the interface to be a vertical-scrolling list of cards. The cards overlap so that more than one can be shown on screen at a time (again taking cues from the iOS multitasking interface), and the fact that they scroll vertically makes it much more intuitive to navigate the list using the Digital Crown. Each card can be swiped to the left to reveal a red “Remove” button which won’t force quit the app, but will simply remove it from the list. If you’re using the “most recent apps” Dock setting then a removed app will return to the list the next time you open it, but if you’re using the favorites option then you will just free up another space.
Beneath all of the cards is a button labeled “All Apps,” which exists so that when you scroll through your list and fail to find the app you’re looking for, you can then easily open your watch’s home screen to start the search there. This is a great shortcut which shows that Apple knows exactly how people will be interacting with this interface, although it also goes to show that Apple knows people will be searching their most recents list for apps that aren’t going to be present.
Overall, I like the new Dock a lot. The one visual complaint I have is that with so many apps having a dark theme, it can be a little difficult to differentiate between the beginning and ending of different cards, and I've accidentally tapped the wrong app on several occasions. That’s a minor issue though, and with the favorites option enabled I’m actually very happy with the Dock in watchOS 4. In the future I would love to see them unify the favorites and most recents options, if only because it makes me nervous to be relying on a non-default setting for a core part of how I use my Apple Watch. As long as that stays around, at least there’s an option for people who want to take more control over how they use their Apple Watch.
watchOS 4 brings with it Apple’s first crack at a rethinking of the disaster honeycomb home screen interface. This revolutionary new design is... a list. It’s also off by default.
That’s right — after three years the best idea that Apple has been able to come up with for an improved home screen interface for the Apple Watch is an alphabetical list of apps that you can scroll through from the top to find what you’re looking for. The saddest part is that I find this list significantly more effective than the honeycomb home screen ever was.
While the honeycomb interface is undoubtedly beautiful, usability-wise it is a train wreck. In my experience, if I want to open an app that isn’t positioned directly adjacent to the watch face icon, I end up in a frustrating game of app-themed Where’s Waldo? which often results in me giving up and using my iPhone instead. The Apple Watch home screen interface is simply not good.
Despite that, it remains the default in watchOS 4, which is particularly unfortunate now that they changed the default Dock interface so that most users won’t have shortcuts to get to their most-used apps. Thankfully, this time Apple has at least given us an alternative: Force Touch on the honeycomb home screen interface to expand the options to change between Grid View (honeycomb) and the new List View.
You can scroll through the list view by swiping or by using the Digital Crown, and while it may not be fast to get to an app that is lower down in the alphabet, at least you will have an immediate understanding of how far you need to scroll to find it.
There isn’t much more to say about the list view. It is a significant usability improvement over the honeycomb interface, but it’s still not great. This is by no means a simple problem for Apple to solve, but after all of the extraordinary user interfaces that Apple has designed over the years, I think that they can do better.
Maybe next year will bring the design improvement that I’m hoping for here. For now, at least we can take solace in a simple list.
Control Center has seen some nice functionality improvements in watchOS 4. The interface itself is the same, but there is now a new flashlight button available, as well as a new location icon. The icon shows up in the top right corner, and indicates when an app is currently, or has recently used your location. Just like on the iOS Location Services page, a filled in icon means currently in use while an outline means recently used.
The new flashlight button is actually pretty awesome. If you recall from last year’s Apple Watch Series 2 announcement, one of the new features on the updated watch was that its screen could increase to a brightness of 1000 nits (really bright). With watchOS 4, Apple is taking advantage of this to enable using your watch as a flashlight.
Flashlight mode is enabled from Control Center by tapping the button with the picture of a flashlight on it. This will cause a pure white window to expand from the bottom of the display. At the top of this window is a downward-facing arrow with the word “Dismiss” above it, instructing you to swipe down to disable the mode. After a few moments, the window will slide up further to conceal the Dismiss button so that the entire screen of the watch is white.
Here’s the kicker: when then flashlight is activated the white display is actually pretty dim, but if you turn the watch to face away from you — as you will very likely be doing to use it as a flashlight — the screen will then increase to full brightness. Although this feature works on Series 1 Apple Watches as well, it’s even more effective on the super-bright Series 2 or Series 3 models.
Flashlight mode has three different settings, as indicated by the three faint page dots that can be seen toward the bottom. You can swipe the screen horizontally to switch between these modes. The first is the standard flashlight mode, which is nothing but a bright white screen. The second is a bright white screen which flashes. This is meant to be used by runners or other nighttime exercisers as a way to make yourself more visible to passing vehicles. The final option is a bright red display, which I think is supposed to be useful to draw people to you in an emergency situation.
I really like the new flashlight mode, particularly because of the cool way that Apple incorporated turning your wrist. This is yet another example of the company understanding how people are going to be using a feature, and building it to work best in those situations.
New Watch Faces
A watchOS update would not be complete without at least a few new watch faces for us to play around with. This year brings three: Kaleidoscope, Toy Story, and Siri.
The Kaleidoscope watch face was widely dismissed out of hand during the initial watchOS 4 announcement, and to be fair I think these are entirely valid criticisms based on how Apple has marketed it. The Kaleidoscope faces that Apple is actively advertising are in a similar vein to the following:
These kaleidoscope effects may seem intriguing at first, but they’re way too busy for my tastes. The colors are constantly shifting around but the watch hands are always white, so depending on when you look it may be extremely difficult to actually read the time. Also, since you can pick any source picture from which to create the kaleidoscope effect, there’s nothing at all stopping your from creating a travesty like these:
I’m so sorry.
On the other hand, since we have the freedom to pick any image to be the background for the Kaleidoscope face, that means we can also pick images which work way better here. There are probably other examples that I haven’t thought of, but I’ve found that images which are pretty much just one or a few solid blocks of color produce a significantly less terrible effect. Consider the following:
These still aren’t among my personal favorite watch faces, but in testing them out I did enjoy the subtle changes of color throughout the day, as well as the ability to fidget with the spinner and see an interesting effect (spinning the Digital Crown on this watch face creates the same effect as twisting a kaleidoscope). Since the color blocks are clearly defined and untextured, they don’t cause excessive visual clutter, and they don’t affect my ability to read the time on my watch. The blue example above also shows how you can just pick a single block of color, maybe with a little bit of texture added, if you just want that as the background color on your watch face.
If you do decide that you want to try a Kaleidoscope watch face out, you can set it up by using the Create Watch Face extension when activating the share sheet for an image on your iPhone. This will let you pick between creating a new Photo watch face or a new Kaleidoscope watch face. After picking Kaleidoscope you’ll see the same interface that you get when setting up a watch face in the Watch app. You can swap between Facet, Radial, and Rosette kaleidoscope effects, and you can also pick which Complications will be shown on the face. Once you're finished, hit the “ADD” button and your Apple Watch will automatically switch to the new face.
Kaleidoscope supports three different Complications, two small ones on the top and one large one along the bottom. This is almost the same setup as the Utility watch face, except that the two small Complications at the top are different styles than those used by Utility. In Apple’s parlance, Utility uses the ‘Utilitarian Small’ Complication class while Kaleidoscope uses ‘Circular Small’. I dislike Circular Small Complications because they are confined to a significantly smaller space than Utilitarian Small just so that they can fit into a circle rather than a square. A couple example results are that the Date Complication shows just a single number with no context, and the World Clock Complication has to make the text so small to fit the region and the time that they’re almost unreadable. Since I use both of these on my watch face, Kaleidoscope is ruled out for me on those grounds alone. The good news is that it can hold the Now Playing Complication along the bottom, so if you don’t have a problem with the top two then this could potentially be a new contender for you.
All things considered, I think the Kaleidoscope watch face has more potential than anybody expected. It’s not going to be for everyone, but there are some viable options for it that will look decent. The original reaction to this watch face may have judged it a bit prematurely.
There’s not too much to say about the Toy Story watch face, as it’s pretty much what you’d expect. When you set this face up you can choose between four options: Woody, Buzz, Jessie, or Toy Box. The latter will randomly shuffle between a variety of characters from the movies, including the aforementioned three as well as Rex, Hamm, and Bullseye.
Once the face is active, each time you raise your wrist it will show a brief cutscene involving your chosen character, or a randomly selected character if you’re using Toy Box. Some of these are as simple as the character waving, tipping their hat, or pointing at the time in the top right. Other times it can be a bit more in depth, such as Rex running around balancing on top of a ball, or Woody flying a hang glider around. They don’t usually last more than 5 seconds, and you can actually tap on the watch face at any time to manually start another scene. As a small but nice touch, the highlight color on your active Complications will change based on which character is on screen: yellow for Woody, green for Rex, Purple for Buzz, and more.
This watch face includes two editable Complications. At the top, above the time, is a Utilitarian Small Complication which defaults to the current date. At the bottom is a Utilitarian Large Complication which defaults to being off. The Now Playing Complication’s ‘TAP TO OPEN’ text looks especially out of place to me on this watch face since tapping the face itself actually triggers a different action, but I digress.
At the very least the Toy Story watch face is an excellent new option for kids to enjoy, but I wouldn’t judge an adult for picking this one either. There’s no doubt that tapping the face to see these beloved characters run around a bit is fun. If you’re a fan of Toy Story (and come on, who isn’t?) then it’s probably worth taking this watch face out for a spin.
The Siri watch face is one of Apple’s headlining features for watchOS 4. It’s being advertised as an intelligent watch face which will show you the things you need to see when you need to see them. I really like where Apple is going with this, and I think that there’s a lot of potential for it to grow and improve. Unfortunately, in this initial version, I don’t think Apple has succeeded in fully realizing its vision for this watch face.
The Siri watch face is made up of a series of cards stacked on top of each other, and scrolling the Digital Crown or swiping on the screen will navigate the list up or down. Each of these cards comes from a different first-party app, and they will show items such as upcoming events in your schedule, Reminders that are due soon, news stories, activity prompts, and more. At the top of the interface you’ll find the time as well as two Complications — a Modular Small and a Utilitarian Small.4 By default the Siri watch face places the new Siri Complication in the Modular Small space, and the current date in the Utilitarian Small space. I left these defaults in my tests, as I feel like they fit the watch face pretty well. The Siri Complication is just a single-tap shortcut to activate Siri on your Apple Watch. If I were to stick with this watch face more permanently I would probably swap that one out since the device already has a couple just-barely-less-convenient options for activating Siri.
I really like the ideas behind the Siri watch face. Proactively figuring out and displaying the information that I want, when I want it, sounds like a perfect fit on a device that is all about glanceable information. If I could look at my Apple Watch and have it show me useful information that I need to know without me tapping the screen at all, that would be an unbelievably powerful feature. That’s what the Siri watch face is purporting to do, but at this time it just hasn’t quite gotten there.
For starters, the Siri watch face can currently only show cards from first-party apps. That immediately cuts off a majority of the apps that I use regularly from being able to supply any information to me. Worse than that, the cards that the Siri watch face chooses to show are consistently not at all useful to me. When the cards are useless, the utility of this watch face crumbles.
The best example I can give is the cards for the Breathe app. I have the Breathe reminders on still because, while I ignore most of them, every once in a while one will pop up when I’m in a mood where I could benefit from a quick break to just breathe. In theory my Apple Watch should be well aware that I almost never utilize these notifications, and yet my “intelligent” Siri watch face constantly displays a “Take a moment to breathe!” card among the top two cards in the interface. Since you can only see the top two cards without scrolling, 50% of the glanceable information for me is frequently wasted by this useless reminder. Eventually the Breathe card was showing up so often that I disabled it completely in the settings for this watch face (we’ll get to those in a moment).
Other examples of “relevant” cards that I consistently see: Apple’s stock price changes (I don’t own Apple stock and I don’t remember the last time I opened the Stocks app), random “Memories” from the Photos app, and the weather forecast for Cupertino ( I live in Minneapolis). I eventually figured out that I apparently needed to open the Weather app on my Apple Watch in order to make it sync up with the default location on my iPhone, but I still think the point stands. Regardless of what my default is, if this watch face is truly going to be advertised as intelligent, it should be able to figure out that when I glance at my watch throughout a standard day in Minneapolis, the current weather in a different city is probably not the most immediately relevant information.
The Photos card is a bit of a different case from the Breathe, Stocks, or Weather cards. I have on several occasions tapped on these and enjoyed seeing a random memory from a few years ago. That said, I think that this watch face should be smart enough to place cards like that one further down in the list. At any given time when I glance at my watch my most likely next action is to just lower my wrist again. This watch face should be optimized for that situation more than any other: give me the sort of glanceable information that I could most plausibly benefit from when I briefly look at my watch. Calendar events, reminders, and more can fit into that mold just fine. Photo memories, however, probably cannot. Instead, Photos and stocks and other non-actionable information5 should be shown lower down in the card list. If I’m already interacting with my watch by scrolling that list then there are far better chances that an old memory will catch my interest and I’ll take a moment to look at it.
As I mentioned above, it is possible to turn off individual data sources that the Siri watch face draws from. This can only be done from the Watch app on your iPhone by finding and tapping on one of your configured Siri watch faces. There you’ll find a list labeled ‘Data Sources,’ and you can flip any of them on or off. Since these sources are set on a face-by-face basis, you could in theory use multiple Siri watch faces with different settings for each one, such as configuring a work watch face versus a weekend watch face. That said, it would be even better if your intelligent watch face just knew when you were at work and displayed work information during those times.
I’m sold on the promise of the Siri watch face, but that promise is just not being fulfilled right now. I am optimistic though, and in future watchOS versions I think this watch face is one of the places to keep an eye on. If Apple can ever figure out how to make the data behind this feature actually intelligent then this could be a really great utility on the Apple Watch. I’d love to see support for third-party data sources added as well, but if Apple can’t even get the intelligence down for its own apps then I’m skeptical of how well it will do pulling data from third-parties. I hope that they can eventually pull this off.
Last year’s release of watchOS 3 brought a host of updates and new additions to first-party Apple Watch apps. While watchOS 4 has a few items of note in this area, overall the scope is much smaller this year. The biggest changes on this front are the previously discussed Workout app, the newly introduced News app, and updated Music and Camera apps. There are some miscellaneous tweaks to a few others as well, but nothing else especially noteworthy in the first-party watchOS app space this time around.
Previous iterations of watchOS have surprisingly lacked a smartwatch-sized version of Apple’s News app, but this year the Cupertino company has rectified that. I didn’t expect much from a News app on my Watch, but I’ve actually found myself pleasantly surprised.
The watchOS News app is a superbly simple interface. It consists entirely of five current event news summaries which are chosen and updated automatically for you. Upon opening the app you are taken to the first of these summaries, and can swipe side-to-side to navigate amongst them. Each summary begins with a small background picture with a title overlaid on top of it. From there you scroll down directly into the text, and if you scroll all the way to the bottom you’ll see two buttons: Save for Later and Next Story.
All five of the news summaries relate to bigger, more full-featured stories. Rather than expecting you to read a whole news story on your Apple Watch, Apple has instead provided the Save for Later button at the bottom of each summary. If you finish a summary and are interested enough in the topic that you want to read the whole story, you can hit the Save for Later button and the full story will be sent to the Saved tab in the iOS News app.
The Next Story button is of course just a shortcut to move one space to the right, but I like that they included a button so that people can still read each summary even if they aren’t aware of the swiping gestures. When you get to the last summary in the group this button is not present.
I didn’t expect that I’d use the watchOS News app nearly as much as I have, particularly given that I’ve barely opened the iOS News app at all since it was introduced. The main reason behind this has been the Siri watch face, which frequently includes these news summaries in its list of cards. I think important, breaking news is an excellent contender for the cards that the Siri watch face surfaces, even the top two slots, but these cards would be greatly improved if the watch face deployed them more strategically.
I would love it if the Siri watch face could differentiate news stories at a high enough level that it would only surface them among the top two cards if there was a truly important story going on. As it is, news stories seem to show up pretty arbitrarily wherever the watch face feels like putting them in the list. While sometimes a story will catch my interest and I will appreciate it being surfaced for me, there are also plenty of times in which it seems like a waste of those top spaces.
Regardless of the Siri watch face’s problems, the News app on watchOS 4 is a great addition, and another fantastic example of how to make a good watchOS app. The News app includes Complications for all size classes, so if you aren’t using the Siri watch face I’d say this app is definitely worth considering for a Complication slot.
The Music app in watchOS 4 has been fully redesigned, and updated to automatically sync certain playlists. One of the pain points in watchOS in the past has been downloading music onto your Apple Watch, because it wouldn’t do anything unless you told it to. In this year’s update Apple is attempting to improve that situation.
When you open up the new music app you’ll be presented with another vertical-scrolling list of cards. Each card will show an album cover on it that comes from the album or playlist that it’s associated with. The interface is very Cover Flow-esque, but also fits into the new design decisions that Apple has made throughout the operating system. Tapping on any of these cards will immediately start playing the corresponding album or playlist, the title of which is shown at the very bottom under the cover image.
At first I wasn’t sure whether I liked that tapping these immediately started playback rather than displaying the list of songs like the Music app for iPhone does. After using the app for a few months though, I’ve embraced this wholeheartedly. Similar to the choices made for the Workout and News apps, this is a design decision made specifically to keep the Apple Watch interface as simple and straightforward as possible. If you want to do playlist management or find a very specific song, for the most part you’re probably better off doing this from your iPhone. If you just want to transition from not listening to music to listening to music as quickly as possible, then your Apple Watch is the place to go.
Interestingly, Apple seems to have made the decision with watchOS 4 to divorce the Apple Watch Music app from the iPhone Music app. In previous versions of watchOS you had access to the entire music library from your iPhone, and choosing a song that was not downloaded to your watch would kick off playback from the iPhone instead. In the new update this is no longer supported at all. Instead, your Apple Watch will receive a small subset of playlists and albums as specified by you in the Watch app on your iPhone. These will be the only songs available in the Apple Watch music app.
If you’re an Apple Music subscriber than by default the Apple Watch Music app will get the following playlists synced over: Heavy Rotation, My Chill Mix, My New Music Mix, and My Favorites Mix. The latter three are the familiar playlists from the For You section of the Music app for iOS (My Chill Mix is a new addition here as of this summer). Heavy Rotation is not a playlist itself, but rather a collection of playlists and albums that you listen to frequently. You can see these in the Music app on your iPhone in the Heavy Rotation section, which is mid way down the For You page.
If there are other specific playlists or albums that you want synced to your watch, you can add those from the Watch app on iOS. Open the Music settings page, scroll to the bottom, and use the ‘Add Music...’ button to pick your favorites. Once added these should be kept up to date automatically if you make any changes to the songs within them. You can also disable any of the default synced playlists from this page if you don’t want them on your Apple Watch.
When I first started using the new Music app, my default playlists were not automatically synced over. I had to manually tap the sync buttons and place my Apple Watch on the charger to get all of the data moved. This was annoying, but after I did it the first time the Watch seems to be doing a good job of syncing changes to those playlists automatically and I haven’t had to worry about it again.
Once a playlist has been downloaded onto your Apple Watch, when you start playback it will play with your watch as the source. Sadly, the Music app still does not support playing through the watch’s speakers, but it does support AirPods. If you use AirPods then your Apple Watch will automatically grab their Bluetooth connection when you first start playing Music. You’ll see an interface pop up allowing you to pick a source for the music to play through while it attempts to connect, so if you have a different source available then you can pick that instead.
After the Apple Watch has successfully taken control of your AirPods or another Bluetooth audio source, the source view will dismiss automatically and you’ll be taken to the Music app’s Now Playing screen. This view is slightly different from the external Now Playing screen, because it includes a small list icon in the bottom left corner. Tapping this icon will bring up a similar playlist view to the one you see in the Music app for iPhone. At the top is the playlist artwork and title, with two large shuffle and repeat buttons directly below that. Under those is the list of songs in the playlist or album, and you can scroll through there and pick particular songs if you’d like to skip around.
That’s all there is to the Music app, another great example of building Apple Watch apps which are stripped down to their essentials. This app does exactly what you want it to do in the majority of situations — no more and no less. If you need to perform a task that is too complex for the Music app on your Watch then you should probably be doing it on your iPhone anyway. In watchOS 4 you don’t have any other choice.
The Camera app in watchOS 4 has picked up a pretty significant feature expansion, although it still looks as simple as ever when you first open it. The app will still launch the Camera app on your iPhone and mirror the image on your Watch screen, providing buttons on the watch to take a picture immediately or to take one after a three second countdown. As of watchOS 4, you can now Force Touch the screen to bring up four different options: flipping between the front and rear cameras on your iPhone, activating or deactivating the flash, enabling or disabling HDR mode, and enabling or disabling Live Photos.
The watchOS 4 Camera app also supports other iPhone camera modes for the first time. You can’t switch the mode from the watch itself, but if you swipe on the Camera app on your iPhone the Apple Watch will now switch modes as well. You can record time-lapses, Slo-mo videos, normal videos, or take square photos. The only mode which is still not supported is panorama mode, but I think that is for fairly obvious reasons.
It’s good to see the Camera app improved to support all of these modes. I don’t use this app particularly often, but when I do it’s always a great help. I’m happy to see these artificial limitations removed from it.
The watchOS 4 Phone app finally includes a keypad view, allowing you to initiate phone calls directly from your Apple Watch. While I haven’t personally found much use for this app over the last couple years, the lack of a keypad has always seemed like an odd and somewhat arbitrary omission. The new keypad is also made available while a phone call is active, so now you can use your Apple Watch to navigate a phone tree, buzz people into your building, etc.
The Timer app is saying goodbye to the circular, clock-style picker design for setting custom timers. Instead, this has been replaced with a more iOS-style picker, as seen above. The Timer app will also now show a button to repeat a timer when it goes off, so you can quickly restart it if you are timing some task consecutively.
The Maps app is mostly the same, but has received a small update to the design of the live, turn-based navigation UI. This includes the addition of lane guidance, but unfortunately does not show the current speed limit — another new feature of the iOS 11 Maps app.
The Heart Rate app in watchOS 4 has been updated to show a graph with the last 24 hours of measured heart rate data on it. This graph now takes up the top half of the screen, leaving the bottom half to show the same old heart rate calculating animation and the current heart rate once it has been measured. This is still just a single page app, but Apple has managed to squeeze a lot more data into that page without making it feel too crammed — a solid update.
The Heart Rate app also has an updated Complication which will show your measured heart rate throughout the day when you glance at your watch. This is only on larger style Complication sizes, smaller sizes will still just be a shortcut to the Heart Rate app.
If that 70% speed increase for the Apple Watch Series 3 piqued your interest but you’re not quite ready to upgrade, watchOS 4 has some good news for you. Apple has managed to pull significantly better performance out of older hardware by unifying the processes which control the UI elements and the logic of watchOS apps.
Back in the watchOS 1 days these processes were the main culprits for the incredibly poor performance of apps, because at that time the logic was running on the iPhone while the UI process ran on the Apple Watch. A huge improvement in watchOS 2 was bringing the logic processes over to the Apple Watch itself, but they still ran separately from the UI. This year Apple has managed to merge these processes together into one, and the results really are noticeable. Apps on watchOS 4 launch faster and run smoother.
It seems to me that the unification of these processes marks the end of the low-hanging fruit for watchOS performance improvements. As we move forward I expect the hardware of older models to start being a major limiting factor in the effectiveness of software upgrades in this area. At this point, Apple has already improved performance more than I ever expected they’d be able to without hardware processor changes. If you have an Apple Watch Series 1 or Series 2, performance is probably good enough that you don’t need to upgrade this year for speed advancements alone. If you’re still using an original Series 0 then it’s at least worth considering, but you could probably push it another year too.
We’ve made it through the main features, but there are still a few other miscellaneous improvements that I’ll run through briefly here.
First, watchOS 4 is opening up more categories in which Apple Watch apps are allowed to run in the background. This list now includes workout apps, navigation and public transit apps, audio recording apps, tour guides, and a few others. These apps can execute in the background of watchOS while other things happen and then tap the user with haptics whenever they need renewed attention. In previous versions of watchOS, only audio apps were allowed to run in the background.
Second, you can now spin the Digital Crown upward when your Apple Watch screen is off to manually turn it on. In my experience this method works a bit more reliably than just tapping on the blank screen does, so I’ve mostly adopted this method for when I want to turn on my watch screen without raising my wrist.
Third, your Apple Watch will now wish you a happy birthday. This will come in the form of a special notification which shows balloons floating up across your watch face when you tap it. When I tested this, the notification stayed pinned to the bottom of Notification Center on my watch all day. While this could potentially be annoying, I’ll admit to finding a modicum of enjoyment in being able to procure a flood of balloons on my watch face throughout the entire day. I may have tapped it more times than really necessary for “testing” purposes.
My birthday is an April, so I can’t say for sure how good Apple is at knowing when your birthday is. I was able to trigger this functionality manually by entering a random date in August as the birthday in my personal contact card on my iPhone. Prior to setting that I did not have a birthday set in the contact card at all, so I’m not sure if the Apple Watch would have missed my real birthday completely or if it’s able to draw from other sources to figure that information out. If you’re looking forward to this feature, you might want to save your birthday in your contact card just to make sure your Apple Watch gets it. Consider it an early birthday present to yourself, since you’ll probably forget about this until the notification pops up.
Next, watchOS 4 advertises the introduction of person to person Apple Pay payments. Unfortunately, this feature has not been active during the beta period, and will likely end up being delayed until a point update later this year. We’ll have a post on MacStories about this feature whenever it ends up being released.
Finally, in watchOS 4 developers will be able to access Core Bluetooth, the framework that manages Bluetooth connections to third-party devices from the Apple Watch. Previously all Bluetooth connections besides headphones had to go through the attached iPhone, but now watchOS apps can connect and communicate with third-party Bluetooth devices directly from the Apple Watch itself. This means that a wide variety of hardware sensors can now be used without an iPhone present, which is a huge win for fitness trackers, health-related devices, and more. It’s no coincidence that this change is arriving just in time for the LTE-enabled Apple Watch Series 3, but direct Bluetooth communication will work with non-LTE models as well.
Last year Apple reimagined watchOS in a way that changed its course and set it up for future success. With watchOS 4, Apple has proven that it’s capable of bearing that success out. For the first time ever we’ve seen the results of a watchOS update which can focus on making progress rather than repairing past mistakes, and it really does make the future of the Apple Watch look brighter than ever before.
watchOS 4 is still far from perfect. Low-hanging fruit like a truly replaced home screen, improvements to notifications, and much more still remain. The new “intelligent” features are yet to really feel intelligent at all, and the story around audio controls lacks cohesion. As much as there is to complain about though, this year feels like the first time that there’s even more to praise.
Fitness features on the Apple Watch have never been better. The new Workout app is an excellent upgrade which fits an impressive amount of complexity into an app which still comes off as simple during use. New Activity notifications keep you motivated and aware of the status of your goals, but don’t appear so often as to become an annoyance. While audio controls may be fragmented and unsolved, they’re still significantly improved over what came before. Between the Now Playing Complication and auto-launch, you’ll be able to find a setup that works for you — and it will be a lot more useful than last year’s.
watchOS 4 has also introduced a redesigned Dock, significant performance and background improvements, new watch faces, new and updated first-party apps, and more. Taken altogether this is a significant update with effective new features.
When it comes down to it, the biggest indicator of quality for every operating system is how much you use it. With watchOS 4, I’m using my Apple Watch more than I ever have before, and I’m truly enjoying its conveniences. There’s still a lot more work to be done here — watchOS undoubtedly remains in its infancy — but after this year I feel confident that Apple will be able to handle it.
That’s watch, not smartwatch. ↩︎
This is possibly because it can’t, but that idea seems to be disputed. ↩︎
Siri is of course another option for opening apps, but in my experience the virtual assistant is far too inconsistent on the Apple Watch to be counted on. Maybe this will change if you pick up a Series 3 with LTE, but even then using Siri is not always appropriate depending on the situation you’re in. ↩︎
The “Modular Small” class of Complications are, unsurprisingly, the square Complications that you’ll find several of on the classic Modular watch face. These are a fair amount bigger than the other two classes of “small” Complications, but they are still technically a small size class and do not give you any different app options than you have from other small types. They will give a lot more space for the Complications that are available in the size though, so these are usually easily readable, which I like a lot. ↩︎
If you’re someone who considers stocks to be actionable information, then you are also going to have way more reliable methods of keeping up with the stock market than an “intelligent” watch face. ↩︎
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