Hands on with the Apple Watch’s smart new skin
Apple has taken the wraps off watchOS 4, revealing a new look for the Apple Watch and dropping a few hints at what we can expect to see on the Watch Series 3 later this year.
You won’t be able to get watchOS 4 until around the same time, but it’ll be rolling out to all versions of the smartwatch – that’s Series 0, Series 1, Series 2 and, presuming it does in fact happen, the Series 3. It’s possible there will no public beta before then, so you’ll have to wait until September unless you download the developer beta – which we strongly recommend against.
Seriously, not only will you have to update your iPhone to the iOS 11 preview beforehand (which is unstable and only reversible with a lot of faffing around), but the Watch can only be rolled back to watchOS 3 by taking it to an Apple store.
You’ve been warned.
But it’s ok, because we’ve had a play with the update to save you the trouble. It’s obviously buggy right now, prone to crashes and all sorts of bizarre behavior – hey, it’s a beta, what do you expect? It’s also missing a few things right now, but in terms of features it’s 75% there. So… what do we think of it thus far?
New ways to get around
When it comes to navigating the Apple Watch, I’ve always felt it’s been a mixture of “How lovely” and “Jony Ive, what the hell, man?” Apple’s been listening: in watchOS 3 it introduced the dock, serving up a new way to quickly access your most-used apps and reducing time spent looking at endless spinning wheels.
The dock has been rotated in watchOS 4 so you now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. The first thing I noticed was how much more natural this feels with the Digital Crown, and it seems obvious that Apple’s done it for this very reason. It’s intuitive to put a finger to the screen when you have to swipe side to side, but when going the other way the Digital Crown makes much more sense.
I’m still not someone who uses the dock much, and I don’t think this enhancement will change that, but I think it functions better. I’m also a fan of the new way to navigate when you’re looking at the app grid, which you access by tapping the crown. Using force touch you can now switch between the honeycomb grid and a list view which – again – works more naturally with the crown. And again this feels a bit more sensible when you’ve got such meagre screen real estate anyway. I don’t think the honeycomb view is terrible, but to me it’s never quite sit right, as nice as it looks.
Let’s be honest, it’s all about the Siri face
It is with a heavy heart I must announce I have no Toy Story watch faces to show you. Sadly, they’re not yet ready for public viewing. But the new kaleidoscope and Siri faces are up and running, and it’s the latter that I reckon will be the success story. Apple has finally realized Google Now is pretty neat, and while it’s been enhancing the iPhone with similar features for some time, the Siri face brings those contextual updates to the forefront of the watch.
The new face serves us a list of upcoming events and updates that Siri thinks you’ll be interested in – traffic, weather warnings, calendar events – and you can use the crown to scroll through the sequence. It’s already my favorite aspect of the update, and while it’s a little bare-boned for now I’m looking forward to seeing how helpful it proves to be over time. By default there’s a shortcut complication on this face for opening the smart assistant, but you can change that if you wish.
The kaleidoscope face is pretty trippy, letting you mix up different photos and facets that move and groove, and again you can roll the crown to fast forward through the movements. It’s fun to play with, and I’m sure it will be another popular choice.
Speaking of Apple Watch faces, I noticed another nifty feature on the iPhone when playing with iOS 11. Now when you tap the share icon on a picture there’s a ‘Create Watch Face’ option, which makes both a regular photo face and a kaleidoscope face from the image for you to choose from.
There are some new complications too: Now Playing and Apple News. The former is a little buggy right now but the idea is that it will give you quicker access to your tunes when out and about.
Back to that Siri face – while you can only add a couple other complications to the screen, that’s ok, because Siri should serve things like the weather forecast and news updates into the feed. It also gave me an update to say I should go walking for another 30 minutes to close my Activity rings before the end of play. I prefer having this show up on a feed I can glance at if I wish, rather than a taptic update.
New ways to move
Apple’s all about fitness right now, so it’s no surprise that watchOS 4 brings enhancements in this domain. A big one is support for high intensity interval training. While the Apple Watch heart rate tracking is generally very good, and surprisingly accurate in interval performance (where many wearables fall down), it’s in hitting target HR in shorter intervals where the Series 2 has struggled. The addition of HIIT in watchOS 4 comes with promise of new motion and heart rate algorithms for better accuracy, but we’re checking with Apple to see if this is yet active before putting it to to the test. There are auto-sets for pool swims too, and we’ve spotted that VO2 Max tracking is on its way.
As you can see above, the Workout app has been given a facelift to be a little less neon-yellow-take-your-eye-out. I much prefer this design, and while the stats screen during a workout hasn’t changed, you can now swipe right for easy access to your music settings. Also cool is that I can easily jump to a different workout by swiping left and tapping the ‘New’ icon and choosing another activity. Triathletes rejoice!
There’s still more we need to check out. The redesigned music app looks great in pictures but we’ve been having troubles getting it working. We’ll be updating this article with more of our thoughts as we get more familiar watchOS 4 and more and (hopefully) as Apple updates the beta. For now, it’s another promising refinement of Apple’s smartwatch experience – just a shame we have to wait so long to get it.