watchOS 3 beta : Our first impressions

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Back at WWDC 2016, Apple announced watchOS 3, the third major revision of its smartwatch operating system, which could land with the Apple Watch 2.

For all the success enjoyed by the Apple Watch (haters back down, it’s the number one selling smartwatch by a country mile) the user experience was sorely lacking in parts. watchOS was slow, confusing to use and apps were prone to crashes. What’s more, it was missing key features. Fitness and workout features were half-baked and the app choices felt stagnant.

Plenty to be cracking on with for Apple, then.

Well, we’ve now spent a couple of weeks using the beta of watchOS 3. But is it the game-changing experience a lot of people are hoping for? Read our thoughts below, although we must stress that currently watchOS3 is in beta, and everything could change between now and September. We’ll keep updating our thoughts as things develop.

All new watch faces

Let’s start with the easy stuff. The first change is the appearance of new watch faces, which is a welcome upgrade. While watchOS 2 brought the gimmicky Photos and Timelapse watch faces, the new beta brings more comprehensive changes. There are multiple options for Chronograph as well as Minnie Mouse, Activity Digital/Analogue and a new way of adding them through the Watch app, which is actually a great addition.

It’s a decent upgrade of the Apple Watch look and good to see core new faces added to the experience. There still could be more. Android Wear has the benefit of thousands of third party options, and the selection here still feels a tad limited, given the similarity between faces like Chronograph, Colour, Simple and Utility.

Death of Glances, rise of Instant Launch

For me, this is the big change and the most controversial. The Instant Launch dock was a headline change from the WWDC event, but I didn’t realise at the time that it would come at the cost of Glances.

Instead of swiping up from the bottom to access easy “glanceable” information (that’s now dedicated to quick settings), you can now quickly find your favourite app by pressing the main button. The app dock then appears, showing up to ten pre-loaded choices, which open far more snappily than before.

This is a kind of double edged sword. Launching apps in watchOS 2 was painful, and it meant that I rarely visited the home screen of my Apple Watch. However, the information from Glances was a handy shortcut, getting travel disruption updates from CityMapper or the like. That said, the Glances were just quick-fire information. You would then need to fire up the proper app to do anything.

But Glances felt like a good platform to build on, with its remit of bringing information to you. I can’t say we’re fully supportive of its demise, but we can see the new Instant Launch dock being a well-used feature of watchOS 3, and could unlock the potential of using apps on the Apple Watch.

We are fully supportive of the demise of Digital Touch however. While it’s still accessible through the Messages app, it’s lost the prestige of owning the single button press option – which was one of the more bizarre UI choices made by Apple in the design of the original Apple Watch.

Improved performance?

One of the big additions of watchOS 3 was its focus on improved performance. Apple Watch apps are notoriously sluggish, which impact on usability; no-one wants to wait 20 agonising seconds watching a spinning loading screen on their smartwatch.

Apps placed within the Instant Launch dock are pre-loaded, so there’s not that agonising wait to have them fire up. You can have 10 in the dock and they succeed in loading faster than before.

So job done, then? While getting one of those apps loaded and ready to go is now fairly instantaneous, I wouldn’t go as far to say the Apple Watch is game-changingly faster on the whole.

When there’s a data transfer to/from the iPhone required, things are still too sluggish. What’s more, being early days of the beta, third party apps aren’t really optimised yet, so there are still question marks. The conclusion: watch this space. watchOS 3 is certainly attempting to right some wrongs, and using apps will be less frustrating generally. But until information is fetched faster, there’s still work to be done.

The Breathe app

There are some small improvements to the Activity and Workout apps, although nothing that will terrify the likes of Fitbit and Garmin.

The headline change is the new Breathe app, which prompts you to take some time out and follow some breathing exercises. The app defaults to four hourly reminders, but we had less than one a day – so we’re not sure what that’s about.

The app then guides you to inhaling and exhaling (normal breathing sort of stuff) using the Taptic feedback, which is actually kinda nice. It also defaults to a sedate seven breaths per minute. Does it work? Who knows. Taking time out and breathing deeply is shown to be helpful, so why not?

Early verdict

watchOS 3 continues the slow march towards what the Apple Watch should have been when it launched in April 2015. With a sprinkling of new features, it offers enough to delight existing Apple Watch owners, with improved performance and new watch faces galore.

However, from our time with watchOS 3 it stops short of making the current Apple Watch a better smartwatch. It doesn’t render it any more useful, it doesn’t add any show-stopping features. But that’s not to say it won’t enable great things from the next version of Apple’s wearable.

(wareable.com, http://goo.gl/1lMnzF)

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