With watchOS 4, the Apple Watch is slicker and more enjoyable to use than ever. Apple has found new ways to reduce the time you need to spend tapping, swiping and scrolling, which is a good thing. Some features, like GymKit, are still to come, but more concerning are the ones that won’t work on the original Apple Watch; there’s now a divide with the early adopters. But overall we’re glad with the changes Apple has made here. Now we just need some more apps.
- Navigation is better
- New Siri watch face
- New workout features
- Lack of essential apps
- Siri voice detection needs to be better
- Peer-to-peer payments, music, GymKit still missing
With the new Apple Watch Series 3 comes a fresh new operating system: watchOS 4. It’s bigger, it’s better, it makes a lot more sense.
And yes, it features the cast of Toy Story.
While not as radical a change as the jump between watchOS 2 and 3, it tweaks and improves the Apple Watch in ways that make it more enjoyable to use, and making more of that added cellular connection should you pick up the new smartwatch.
Whichever version of the Apple Watch you’re using, you’ll be able to get the update, although the experience will vary a little. We’ve found the software runs faster on the Series 3 than Series 2, and if you’re still using the very first Apple Watch, you won’t be able to use the new heart rate monitoring features. Boo.
But with new faces, new apps, and new ways to get around, how dramatically does watchOS 4 improve the Apple Watch experience? Here’s the verdict.
Round round get around, I get around
Let’s talk cosmetic upgrades, and navigation is a biggy; Apple has gradually but fundamentally changed the way we use the Watch since 2015. That side button has proven particularly tricky to figure out, beginning as a shortcut to the digital touch messaging feature (RIP) before Apple turned it into a dock of your favorite apps. In watchOS 4 it’s still a dock, but now orientated vertically to make scrolling with the digital crown feel more natural, as opposed to being horizontally aligned like before.
A tap of the crown will still take you to the honeycomb grid of all your apps, but you can now change this too. With a push of force touch you can now turn it to the grid view, which arranges all of your apps into an alphabetical list. Again this feels much better when scrolling with the crown, although some people may still prefer the way the honeycomb grid packs more apps on the screen at once.
watchOS 4 also adds a flashlight icon to the control center, illuminating your wrist with either a white or red light. If you’re rocking the new Series 3, you’ll also see the little antenna icon which lights up green when you’re using the cellular connection.
Not a lot has changed with notifications, but the Watch will now combine notifications from different apps together if they come in at the same time, which makes it less likely you’ll want to throw your Apple Watch at a passing car when the WhatsApp group chat heats up.
There are three big new faces in watchOS 4. The most useful, and our favorite, is the new Siri face. It’s only got one complication slot, which is best used for quick access to Siri if you plan on using her.
That’s mostly alright though, because the Siri watch face is proactive about what it’s doing. It shows you little of things that might be important to you. For example, it could show you your next calendar appointment or what time the sun is going to set. It could remind you to breathe or stand, or that you’ve got music playing. It’s very Google Now.
Flicking the Digital Crown will let you see even more about what’s going in the future. So you’ll get a news report in between a weather report. Or how that stock you’re keeping track of went down at the end of the day. All of this is useful, rivaling the classic Modular face for amount of things it can show you, but it definitely needs some time to tune. The more you use it, the better it is about showing you things that actually matter.
The other two faces are a little more fun. The Kaleidoscope face is pretty, tossing out trippy images that you can make from pictures in your photo library.
Finally, there are the Toy Story faces. There are four variations of these, and they all come with one complication spot at the bottom. You’ll get to choose between Woody, Buzz and Jessie, or you can choose a mode that cycles through all of them. Unlike the Mickey and Minnie faces, these don’t talk, so sadly you won’t hear a “There’s a snake in my boot!” on command.
Overall, the new watch faces are good additions, but it’s that Siri face that most dramatically changes the Watch experience for the better. We reckon it’s going to be pretty popular.
Health and fitness that’s more personal
Apple continues to build the Watch out as a better health and fitness device, and in watchOS 4 it’s introducing a smattering of new features. The big one here is the new heart rate monitoring as Apple is giving you more detailed insights into your heart rate through the day, displaying your resting heart rate, walking average heart rate and recovery heart rate.
These are important because resting heart rate is a good indicator of your overall fitness. Walking heart rate is an interesting new idea which, as you might have guessed, finds an average rate for times in the day you’re walking but not pushing yourself harder, so the needle should be a bit above your resting rate, which the watch calculates from sedentary moments through the day. Ideally you’d capture RHR at the very start of the day, but often people aren’t going to be wearing their Apple Watch then because chances are you’re charging it.
The final thing Apple has added here is an elevated heart rate warning. We’ve heard a few stories over the years of people who realized their heart rate was shooting up only because their wearable told them, and Apple wants to take advantage of this. In watchOS4 you can turn this feature on and set a minimum heart rate level, and should it go above it you’ll get a notification. If you suffer from a heart condition, this could be one of the watchOS 4’s more essential features.
Workouts are improved now too. You can now quick-start all of the different workouts, and your most-frequented ones will default to the top of the list. But perhaps even better is the support for multiple types of workout in one session. You can now add a new exercise without having to manually stop your current workout; instead the app will just end your workout when the next begins. Again, it all just makes everything that little bit faster and means less time tapping the watch, more time working out.
We’re also really digging the auto sets for swimming, giving you information on distance and pace for each stroke, and has so far it’s detected our stroke types with 100% accuracy. Less good is the fact you still can’t view your workouts on the watch; it feels like the Apple Watch should let us do this, like Garmin’s do.
Another thing watchOS 4 introduces is GymKit, letting you pair the Watch to select gym equipment, although as of right now this isn’t available. When it is, and once connected via NFC, you’ll be able to see stats from the Watch on the equipment’s display instead, while additional workout data will be sent from the equipment to the Watch and saved in your workout. Apple’s wrangled a lot of big gym equipment providers to support this feature, though it might take some time for it all to roll out. Expect GymKit to arrive soon.
As for the day-to-day activity tracking, this doesn’t change dramatically, but Apple’s added more notifications to nudge you off your butt and get you moving. Don’t worry, all of these can be turned off in the app, but you’ll now get personalized reminders to help you push past those goals.
Now in the mornings, you’ll get a notification to tell you how much activity you need to meet the prior day’s amount, and will let you know if you’re close to earning an achievement. You’ll also get an update towards the end of the day to tell you exactly how much further you need to push yourself. Having a specific number thrown at me is more encouraging, but we’ve found that some of the reminders, like Breathe reminders, we quickly switched off.
Running watchOS 4 on OG Apple Watch
Apple is usually pretty good about supporting legacy devices with new software updates. For instance, if you’ve got an Apple Watch Series 2 or 1, you can take part in pretty much all of the new watchOS 4 features.
That’s not the case with the OG Apple Watch, which existed before the Series 1 (remember, the Series 1 was basically a Series 2 without GPS and waterproofing; they house the same specs otherwise, like processor).
Thus far, watchOS 4 on an OG Apple Watch has been… mostly fine, and enough to just about make you forget that you’re running a smartwatch that’s creeping toward three years old. Every once in a while though, performance takes a hit. A lot of it happens when you’re gearing your Watch up after some inactive time, like opening up the News or Music apps after a couple hours. There’s just an extra second or two that gets you right to the border of frustrated. It’s not as bad as it used to be on watchOS 1, but it’s definitely a half-step behind watchOS 3.
Additionally, not having resting heart rate is a bit of a bummer. It’s not a make-or-break feature, but it definitely blunts the first Apple Watch’s ability to keep up with fitness tracking trends. Battery life mostly feels the same, but it’s hard to tell whether the watch we’ve been testing on is losing battery capacity after a couple years or whether watchOS 4 is draining it a little too much. The most likely scenario is probably somewhere in between, as back on watchOS 3 it was quite easy to clear the day with 50% battery life. Now, it’s around 25%
Music and news apps
A good ecosystem is made out of apps, and not many companies are better at building ecosystems than Apple because not many companies have the power of the iPhone and App Store to lean on.
So how’s the app situation on watchOS 4? Well, it’s certainly better than a lot of competing platforms like Android Wear, but it’s still not what you’d call great, especially when you consider the new Watch Series 3 with LTE. There are still too many apps that heavily rely on the iPhone, which means there aren’t many standalone apps built for when that tether is cut.
That will likely change over time as more people get their hands on an LTE-connected watch and developers start building standalone apps that can take advantage of both that and the newer, faster processor.
In the meantime, Apple has taken measures to improve its own app experiences. The two big ones here are Music and News. Music is now a lot less rigid, and instead of just syncing over playlists you can now sync over albums and individual songs. Your recently added section will also sync over, as will music considered on “Heavy Rotation.” You still can’t listen and scroll through your entire library, but that’ll arrive in watchOS 4.1. The promised revamped Music app will allow you to stream your Apple Music or iCloud Music libraries directly from your watch. There’ll also be a new Radio app that allows you to more easily stream content from Beats 1.
Because Music is still rigid, it can get a little frustrating to use. You have to remember to sync things over from the phone, and if you don’t you’re stuck with whatever you recently added to your library. It works, but it feels like a temporary solution. The one cool thing that Music does now is when you’re listening to something – and this includes podcasts, despite watchOS not having a podcast app yet – taking a glance at your watch will cause the controls to automatically pop up. This way, you can easily change tracks and lower and raise the volume without trying to get into your Music app.
The other massive new app of convenience is the News app. This syncs with your News app settings on your phone, and it’ll constantly send you breaking news items. The great thing about the News app is it means you don’t have to worry about installing and setting up notifications for news from individual publications. You can pool news from a variety of sources in a variety of topics.
The notifications are also fairly rich. When you click on one, you’ll get some nice imagery, a bolded intro giving you an overall idea of what’s going on and then a second sentence of text that expands that information a little. If you like it, save the entire article for later. If not, then you dismiss it. The actual app is much like these rich notifications, except that there are five of them you can swipe through. The app is also constantly updating, so every time you look at it there’s something new happening. Plus, there’s a very good complication that keeps rotating new stories. If you’re a news junkie with an Apple Watch, there is no better news app.