Many of the stock system apps installed with iOS are designed to meet the needs of most people, but they rarely satisfy everyone. Apple leaves it to third-party developers to fill in the gaps. That comes with the risk of being ‘Sherlocked’ in the future, but it’s also an opportunity for developers to attract users who want more than Apple provides.
Medical ID Record is a perfect example of such an app. It takes a feature of the Health app and extends it. The depth of functionality in Medical ID Record may not be needed by everyone, but it’s an excellent option for anyone who has felt constrained by the Health app’s Medical ID feature.
One lesser known improvement to the Health app in iOS 11 was the addition of Heart Rate Variability data, which can be obtained in a variety of ways, including via the Apple Watch. According to Apple's description in the Health app:
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in the time interval between heart beats. Apple Watch calculates HRV by using the standard deviation of these beat-to-beat intervals measured by the heart rate sensor (also known as SDNN).
While that offers a basic explanation of this data type, Serenity Caldwell of iMore just completed a deep dive into exactly what HRV is, how tracking it can be beneficial, and Apple's current methods of tracking it. She writes:
Apple currently records HRV averages in your iPhone's Health app through Apple Watch readings (as well as any third-party apps that have chosen to write data to the repository). When you first put your Apple Watch on for the day, you'll trigger an HRV morning reading; the wearable monitors your heartbeat steadily for one minute, then uses under-the-hood calculations* to come up with your HRV average, displayed as ms (milliseconds) in the Health app for iPhone.
Caldwell also shares recommendations for different apps that can be paired with additional tracking methods – such as third-party heart monitors or even just your iPhone's camera – to obtain more extensive data than the Apple Watch provides with its daily readings.
If you're interested at all in Heart Rate Variability, and what your iPhone or Apple Watch can do to track it, Caldwell's write-up is a fantastic resource.
Every year soon after WWDC, I install the beta of the upcoming version of iOS on my devices and embark on an experiment: I try to use Apple's stock apps and services as much as possible for three months, then evaluate which ones have to be replaced with third-party alternatives after September. My reasoning for going through these repetitive stages on an annual basis is simple: to me, it's the only way to build the first-hand knowledge necessary for my iOS reviews.
I also spent the past couple of years testing and switching back and forth between non-Apple hardware and services. I think every Apple-focused writer should try to expose themselves to different tech products to avoid the perilous traps of preconceptions. Plus, besides the research-driven nature of my experiments, I often preferred third-party offerings to Apple's as I felt like they provided me with something Apple was not delivering.
Since the end of last year, however, I've been witnessing a gradual shift that made me realize my relationship with Apple's hardware and software has changed. I've progressively gotten deeper in the Apple ecosystem and I don't feel like I'm being underserved by some aspects of it anymore.
Probably for the first time since I started MacStories nine years ago, I feel comfortable using Apple's services and hardware extensively not because I've given up on searching for third-party products, but because I've tried them all. And ultimately, none of them made me happier with my tech habits. It took me years of experiments (and a lot of money spent on gadgets and subscriptions) to notice how, for a variety of reasons, I found a healthy tech balance by consciously deciding to embrace the Apple ecosystem.
Sleep++, developed by _David Smith, was one of the first apps to experiment with the idea of using the Apple Watch as a sleep tracker. Using physical movement data collected by the Watch overnight, Sleep++ allowed you to keep track of time spent sleeping without having to buy a separate device (funnily enough, exactly what Apple itself acquired).
I love this concept by 9to5Mac's Michael Steeber, who imagined how Apple's Health app could become a friendly, useful motivational tool instead of being just a pretty collection of charts and data points:
The majority of people using iPhones and Apple Watches to track their health have the simple wish to reach their goals and monitor their wellness. While today’s Health app is rich with data points and charts, it takes valuable time to dive in and parse the information. Even more challenging is drawing accurate and informed conclusions from the data without a medical background.
The Health app of the future could be a dashboard for your body, filled with daily insights into your wellness. Helpful tips for living a better life could be drawn from the treasure trove of data synced from your Apple Watch and connected apps, tailored to your specific health history and needs. Rather than just a data aggregator, Health could become a proactive and motivational tool.
Not only is Michael exactly right about the features missing from the Health app – his mockups are beautiful, and I could see the card-style UI fitting nicely within Health.
As I was reading Michael's article, I was reminded of something I wrote three years ago in my iPhone health story, after I spent months tracking everything about myself:
What I'm missing, however, is advanced and intelligent connections between the pieces of data I'm tracking about myself. I've spent months logging all I could about my body and daily activity using my iPhone. I'd love to see a smart AI capable of understanding actual patterns about my lifestyle and that could give me more detailed insights about my habits. What happened in the week I ate more vegetables than meat – did I lose weight and sleep better? What are the locations where I tend to walk more and when during the week? I can see how steps taken correlate with sleep quality, but how about something more practical such as, for instance, caffeine and food plotted against sleep?
This was published in March 2015, before I got an Apple Watch. Three years later, the Health app is still largely the same. I think it's time for Apple to consider how data tracked in the Health app could be used in meaningful, practical ways going forward. I hope something similar to Micheal's ideas is in the works.
Slowly but surely, the Series 3 has changed my Apple Watch habits. I abandoned earlier models of the Watch for most tasks other than notifications and workout tracking because, with some notable exceptions, few apps worked well enough to be more convenient than pulling out my iPhone in most circumstances.
The Series 3 Watch is different. Not only is it faster, but the battery life is significantly better. The changes have caused me to rethink how I use my Apple Watch and look for new ways to use it. So when I heard AutoSleep, an app that Federico uses and has reviewed in the past, was getting a big update that includes enhanced Apple Watch functionality, I saw another opportunity to extend how I use my Series 3.
I haven’t been disappointed. AutoSleep 5 is a broad-based update that touches every aspect of the app, but what I like best is its Apple Watch integration, which has begun to give me new insight into my sleep patterns. Although I find the amount of data displayed in AutoSleep overwhelming at times, after spending several days with the app, I plan to stick with it as I try to adjust my schedule to get more rest each week.
Amazing story shared by Scott Killian with 9to5Mac:
Then Killian, who wears his Apple Watch to bed three to four nights a week for sleep tracking, says his Apple Watch woke him up around 1 am with an alert from a third-party app called HeartWatch saying his resting heart rate was elevated while sleeping (Apple recently introduced a built-in feature that can do this with Apple Watch Series 1 and later). Killian experienced mild indigestion which can be a sign of a heart attack, but says he generally didn’t feel sick.
His Apple Watch charted his heart rate at around 121 beats per minute in the middle of the night while data previously captured showed his average resting heart rate at around 49 beats per minute. The data also showed that this was the first time his resting heart rate had reached this level since he began wearing Apple Watch, so he decided to go to the emergency room as a precaution.
I’ve been using HeartWatch since it came out in late 2015 – if you care about heart rate stats monitored by the Apple Watch, I can’t recommend it enough.
Today, Apple launched the Apple Heart Study app. The app lets users contribute heart rate data to a study being conducted in partnership with Stanford Medicine regarding irregular heart rhythms. The app uses the Apple Watch to monitor the user’s heart rate and alert them when they may be experiences atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke. Apple COO Jeff Williams commented that:
“Every week we receive incredible customer letters about how Apple Watch has affected their lives, including learning that they have AFib. These stories inspire us and we're determined to do more to help people understand their health,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s COO. “Working alongside the medical community, not only can we inform people of certain health conditions, we also hope to advance discoveries in heart science.”
If the app detects an irregular heart rhythm, the user receives an alert on their iPhone and Apple Watch, a free consultation with a study doctor, and an electrocardiogram patch for further monitoring. The app is available in the US only on the App Store and users must be 22 or older to participate in the study.
Men’s Health got a behind the scenes look at the fitness lab where Apple fine-tunes the Apple Watch algorithms that track your health and fitness. Like so many things Apple does, the numbers are staggering. According to Jay Blahnik, Apple’s director of fitness for health technologies:
‘Our lab has collected more data on activity and exercise than any other human performance study in history…. Over the past five years, we’ve logged 33,000 sessions with over 66,000 hours of data, involving more than 10,000 unique participants.’ A typical clinical trial enrolls fewer than a hundred participants.
Men’s Health also takes a look at the motivational messages coming to watchOS 4 and talked to Blahnik about the thinking behind the feature:
“We wanted to really make it easier for people to encourage each other, as well as smack-talk when the moment calls for it,” says Blahnik. “That’s why we have phrases like ‘Shazam’ and ‘You’re on fire.’ I share my activity with about 20 people, and whenever I see what someone else has done, it spurs me to train a little harder. It’s also a fun way to stay in touch.”
The refinements that Apple has made to watchOS 4 seem minor in print, but having tried the beta for about a month, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the impact they’ve had, especially with respect to the fitness features of the Watch. Now more than ever, it feels like Apple has figured out what the Watch does best and is putting all its wood behind those arrows.