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watchOS 4 first look: Refinements and smarts paint a bright picture for Apple Watch

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watchOS 4 first look: Refinements and smarts paint a bright picture for Apple Watch

"More intuitive. More intelligent. More you."

This is watchOS 4's marketing tagline, and it's an appropriate one. The fourth software iteration from Apple's watchOS team isn't going to bring blockbuster changes to the Apple Watch when it ships this fall, but it continues the trend of past watchOS releases in helping improve its users' lives.


This is a first look at what watchOS 4 has in store for Apple Watch users this fall. Let's dive in!

Look and feel

Like 2016's iOS 10 release, watchOS 4 is a child of two worlds: It's beginning to embrace the bold look favored by iOS 11, but the operating system isn't quite there yet. Many vestiges of watchOS versions past remain, including the App Carousel (though it's been even further deprecated with changes to the Dock, and the List View option), older stock app designs, and a more limited Siri interface.

But you needn't look farther than the lock screen to see signs of forward movement in watchOS 4. The watch's PIN pad has been enlarged and emboldened, making numerical input more pleasant on even the 38mm watch size. Gone is pretty much every page-based horizontal interaction, with watchOS opting instead for a Digital Crown-controlled vertical view. (Real talk: We never needed horizontal swipes on the watch, anyway.) We're still stuck horizontally swiping between watch faces, but beyond that, the new Flashlight tool, and Workout views, it's card-based scrolling scrolling all the way down.

Redesign city

This is especially obvious in redesigns of the Music app and Workout app, the new News app, the Dock, and the new Siri watch face. Card-based interfaces allow for full-screen viewing of content, and vertical swipes or Digital Crown twists quickly let the user scroll through.

In general, I'm going to support any redesign that makes content easier to see and read on small screens, and iOS's bold and curved card language fits especially well on the curved square interface of the Apple Watch. My only complaint is that it's not universal: While apps like Maps, Music, News, Workout, and Heart Rate have the new look, there are still quite a few apps (Mail and Messages in particular) that are still favoring smaller lettering and thin rectangular tap targets in the main app view over bigger, easier-to-read cards.

That said, I suspect this is something we'll see improve as watchOS continues to grow — the latest iOS design language has taken over two releases to get implemented device-wide, and I won't be surprised if we don't get a fully revamped look until watchOS 5.

I read the news today

I'm unconvinced the News app on watchOS will be better than just getting the occasional iPhone-based push notification from the app, but who knows — if you use News on the iPhone regularly, the watchOS app may recommend appropriate stories that you'd otherwise miss out on reading.

Of course, you can't actually read a story on the Apple Watch. (Or have it read to you.) Instead, you just have the option to save it to the News app on iPhone to read later.

It might be good for news junkies and the Read it Later crowd, but I don't see myself using it regularly.

Keep watching the clock, tick tock

It wouldn't be a watchOS release without a few new watch faces — though, unfortunately, we're still limited to Apple's "sweet" solution of mixing and matching pre-built faces and complications, rather than being able to fully customize our own.

I'm still hoping for a custom watch face store in watchOS 5, but in the meantime, I do have to tip my cap to the new Kaleidoscope face: It's an incredibly delightful face that either remixes one of 6 existing photos into three Kaleidoscope patterns (Facet, Radial, or Rosette), or lets you choose your own. Like the Photo face, Kaleidoscope lets you add up to three complications.

There's also a new feature coming in iOS 11 that lets users turn any photo from their library into a watchOS 4 watch face. It's not as satisfying as a true watch face customization app, but it does greatly simplify the photo-picking process dramatically.

There are also four new Disney faces starring the cast of Toy Story, including the Toy Box, Buzz Lightyear, Woody, or Jessie. These are cute enough, but a two-complication limit make them little more than a fun novelty option.

The watch customization screen is largely the same from watchOS 3 (including the much-superior Watch Face Gallery for creating faces on iOS), though there will be a few revised complications available in watchOS 4. The Messages complication now shows your unread message count; the News complication offers a quick ticker; and the Music app now shows an interactive peak meter along with the song title.

Light up the Dock

The Dock has been reinvented yet again for watchOS 4: You still press the side button to access it, but Dock items can now be either Favorite apps or just Recents, and they display in the same card-based rolodex view as some of the system app redesigns. They're much easier to read and tap on than the page-based system, and the All Apps shortcut button at the end of the list allows you to dip into the Carousel (one of the few remnants from the watchOS 1 design graveyard) if you absolutely have to. Here's hoping you do not — but should you have to, you can also make that Carousel easier on the eyes with a Force Touch gesture, which allows you to switch your app view into List mode. Much more functional.

The Apple Watch's Control Center pane hasn't gotten the same redesign as its iOS counterpart — probably for good reason — though I'm still wishing I could manually pick and dictate passwords to a Wi-Fi hotspot, rather than relying on the phone to auto-connect instead.

Control Center does have two new features in watchOS 4, however: A small GPS indicator now displays in the top right corner of the pane when apps are actively using either the watch or the iPhone's GPS, and there's a new Flashlight button.

It works much like the Retina Flash on the iPhone, lighting up the Apple Watch's screen with one of several flashlight styles: solid white, flashing white, or solid red (for easier-on-the-eyes light in dark locations). These panes won't light up a room, but it's a helpful little feature for trying to find a house key in darkness, or reaching into a dark space.

Hello, Dave

Siri's biggest improvement in watchOS 4 doesn't actually have to do with the traditional Siri voice interface at all: It's a new text-based Siri "intelligent" watch face, which uses all of Siri's data detectors and other machine learning goodies to help you throughout your day.

The Siri watch face is an interesting proposal from a company that's focusing more than ever lately on smart, private machine learning. Does it make sense to have a watch face that knows what you want, when you want it, rather than trying to hand-customize your own data-filled watch face?

For reference, the Siri watch face supports the following data detectors:

  • Alarms
  • Breathe
  • Calendar
  • Home
  • Maps
  • News
  • Now Playing
  • Photos
  • Reminders
  • Stocks
  • Stopwatch
  • Timer
  • Wallet
  • Weather
  • Workout

It also has room for a single complication (a Siri trigger by default), though the scroll itself doesn't currently incorporate third-party apps.

By twisting the Digital Crown downward, you can see the current day's weather, past events, and the most recent music you were listening to; otherwise, you're limited to your Up Next queue, which can include things like calendar appointments, the projected sunset time, any impending weather, recommend news stories, Photos memories, a Breathe reminder, and any projected exercise goals, among other things.

So will the Siri watch face make your Apple Watch experience better this fall? I think it'll honestly depend on how you use your Apple Watch. The Siri watch face is great about tracking your calendar appointments and reminders — it's one of the better calendar trackers out there, and certainly the best calendar experience in watchOS 4. But it's less clear how the other data options will work when the operating system launches this fall, or whether third parties will be able to hook in at all down the line. 
More interesting is what it says about Apple's plans for Siri — and the Watch — going forward. Intelligent watch faces and complications may not be perfect for every user by the end of 2017, but it's clear that the company is very interested in making technology work as seamlessly for the end user as possible. The Siri watch face is just one part of that.

Elsewhere, Apple has made Siri-style changes under the hood in watchOS 4 to make its notification system slightly more intelligent, especially when it comes to interacting with apps. For instance, the Music app will now automatically show up as your primary watch screen on wrist raise when you're listening to a song on your iPhone or Watch.

There are also quite a few bits of Siri smarts in Apple's health initiatives: Breathe and stand notifications now hook into the Watch's built-in sensors, allowing the Activity app to avoid pinging you with notifications if it thinks you're driving or otherwise unable to respond to activity prompts. Running a workout will also automatically set your notifications to Do Not Disturb, so you won't get distracted by a text message mid-deadlift.

For all its under-the-hood improvements in watchOS 4, I'm still sorely missing offline dictation support, and queued Siri queries if you end up asking a question while offline. (Especially considering that Siri now supports dictating Notes in watchOS 4.)

I'm guessing it's largely a hardware limitation, however, not software: It's hard to offer a feature if your hardware's chipset can't support it, and given that watchOS 4 is available for S1, S1P and S2 chipped watches, offline dictation may be impossible to provide without destroying performance or battery life. Maybe next year.

Sweat the details

Apple has revamped a number of features in its Health suite of apps for watchOS 4: Fitness is clearly a motivating factor for many Apple Watch purchases, and it's smart business to continue to improve in that arena. The biggest changes here are watchOS's new Workout app and improved Activity notifications, though the Heart Rate app also has a new 24-hour scatterplot graph to get a quick glance at your heart rate throughout the day.

Let's get moving

The Workout app now sports watchOS 4's vertical cards-based interface in displaying workouts, making them both easier to read and start. Continuing in Apple's quest to track more exercise types, the app also offers a new HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) exercise, and has improved Pool Swim tracking with sets and rests, pace for each set, and distance for stroke types.

The HIIT option uses the accelerometer and heart sensor in tandem to try and track exercises (like burpees) that the Other workout option didn't always catch accurately. It remains to be seen how accurate the HIIT workout option will be — I did a brief test and was pleased with the results, but won't be publishing numbers until the fall when the operating system is out of beta.

But there's a reason why Apple takes its time in rolling out new exercise types. The company wants to get its health data correct the first time, and it likely isn't going to add an exercise type unless the results are within range of those from top-tier health measurement systems.

There are a few more perks in the Workout app in watchOS 4:

  • You can switch exercise types on the fly during an active workout, letting you swap between running, HIIT, cycling, swimming, and more
  • You can change your music's volume and tracks within the Workout app
  • If you're working out at a gym with compatible (read: new and fancy) equipment, you'll be able to wirelessly pair your Apple Watch with the machine to sync up your fitness data and get credit for that awful treadmill run

Make me a life coach

Okay, so the Activity app's Siri-based coaching notifications aren't quite "life coach" material, but they definitely want to help you improve your day-to-day experience.

In watchOS 4, rather than receiving stock notifications about your exercise goals and streaks, the Activity app will attempt to customize notifications to encourage you personally. It'll use accelerometer and time-based data to predict when you're most receptive to things like Breathe notifications and taking walks, and celebrating the achievements you hit. I'm most excited about end-of-day activity challenges, which give you a specific goal to get your achievements (i.e. "Take a 15 minute walk to hit your goal today"). And when you hit your goals and streaks, the Activity team has added neat little full-screen animations to make it more fun. It's a little touch, but a nice one.

The watch will also provide personalized monthly challenges depending on your activity level — so someone who crushes a 700cal Move goal every day will get a different challenge than someone still struggling to hit 200cal/daily.

More detailed tracking

In the vein of third-party apps like Cardiogram, Apple has added a new feature to the Heart Rate app on the Apple Watch: A 24-hour scatterplot graph of your recent heart fluctuations.

For me, this almost falls into the area of "too much health information" for my awful hypochondriac self. That said, I appreciate the subtle nature of the graph — there's no red highlighting or alerts if your heart rate gets too low or high, just a simple white-dotted graph that notes your highs and lows for the last 24 hours. It's something I can imagine proving very useful for patients who need to monitor their heart rate fluctuations at a glance without more complicated software.

Dance it out

Though there isn't (yet) a native Podcasts app on the Apple Watch, we're still getting some audio improvements in watchOS 4, largely inside of the Music app.

You'll soon be able to sync multiple playlists to your Apple Watch, a large improvement over the single-playlist restriction of past operating systems. Better yet, Apple will automatically sync a few of your most-played playlists and albums while your watch charges if you don't specify custom playlists — ensuring that you'll always have music at the ready should you need to groove on a run.

Like several of the other watchOS 4 apps, Music has been redesigned to incorporate the vertical card-based scroll design, displaying "Heavy Rotation" playlists as a few tappable full-screen cards before viewing your Library and other options as a text-based list. The Now Playing complication also more clearly indicates controls for Music, displaying a small level meter (and the song title, if choosing a larger complication).

There's also a bit of Siri-based smarts in Music and watchOS 4: When you're actively listening to music on your iPhone or Watch, the Music app will automatically display as the dominant app on wrist raise, much like the Maps or Workout apps do when getting directions or running. In my limited testing, this works almost flawlessly, and it's especially useful when you're out walking and want to skip a song or change your volume.

One downside of these smarts: There's no longer a Force Touch control to switch between playing music on the Apple Watch and your iPhone. Instead, your watch automatically attempts to match you with the correct option for the source you'd like to listen to. While I understand trying to make it easier for the end user, I can also see it being a little confusing if you're intentionally trying to see songs you've synced to your watch (you can, of course, view these via the Watch app on iOS, but it's another device and another step).

If you build it, will they come?

So I've written over 2000 words on some of the features and improvements coming to watchOS 4, but I've yet to actually touch on the features I'm most excited to see in action — the ones you didn't hear about in the WWDC opening keynote or on Apple's preview website.

I'm talking about Apple's new developer APIs for third-party apps, and yes, I recognize how un-exciting that sentence sounds to the average human. "APIs! … Um, wait, what?"

So let's break it down in plain English.

Google Maps could get turn-by-turn navigation alerts and haptics

With watchOS 4, Apple is letting third-party apps build in turn-by-turn navigation alerts and haptics — also known as "those awesome Taptic alerts you get in the default Maps app." And not just straight maps apps, either: Transit and tour guide apps have the option of using these, too, so you can enjoy a walking tour of a city without gluing your eyes to your phone's map.

I've been waiting for this since the very first version of watchOS, but always assumed that Apple was going to keep this feature exclusive to its own Maps app. Not so!

Of course, for Google to take advantage, it would have to build a new version of its Google Maps app, which it pulled from the Apple Watch earlier this year after a year of so-so functionality. As exciting as this feature could be for frequent travelers, it requires buy-in from Apple's many developers — and hopefully won't murder my 38mm watch battery when used.

You won't have to weirdly bend your wrist to show people stuff

This is a small nitpick, but one I'm glad Apple is fixing: Third-party apps (and first party apps alike) can now take advantage of an auto-rotate feature for content like payments, language translation, photos, and more; when you flip your watch screen away from your body, apps that incorporate this feature will rotate content 180° to properly display right-side-up to the recipient.

Less iPhone, more Watch

We may not have offline Siri processing in watchOS 4, but we're edging ever closer to an iPhone-less Apple Watch with new developer features that let Apple's smartwatch talk directly to more aspects of an app.

In watchOS 4, apps can get permission for location directly on the Watch, and apps can connect directly to all Bluetooth devices without using an iPhone as a passthrough. This allows hardware like glucose monitors and smart sports equipment to communicate faster and apps to update more quickly.

Bottom line

With watchOS 4, Apple is layering new improvements atop the framework of its predecessors. These features aren't game-changers: watchOS remains watchOS, nitpicks and all. But they will nevertheless sell watches. They'll delight customers. And, if developers take advantage of Apple's latest tools, they'll further improve their onboard app experience for all involved.

Apple doesn't currently offer a watchOS public beta (largely because the process of restoring a bricked watch is a royal pain), but developers can currently test and build apps for watchOS 4; the full release will be out later this fall for all generations of Apple Watch (Series 0-2, and presumably the yet-to-be-announced Series 3 Apple Watch as well.)

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