RECaf is a brand-new caffeine-tracking app by Joe Cieplinski. The app does a remarkable job wringing the friction out of tracking caffeine, making it an excellent example of the benefits of using a narrowly-focused utility to get the best possible user experience.
Tracking anything is hard. It’s easy to forget to do and an interruption of the thing you’re trying to track. As a result, entering data is often sporadic or abandoned entirely. Cieplinski gets this and has built an app that is unusually sticky.
There are a lot of habit trackers on iOS, but Streaks was one of the first and remains the gold standard against which I measure all other trackers. Even as Crunchy Bagel has added new features and customization options, Streaks’ simple, elegant design has remained at the center of its user experience. That’s important because habit tracking only works if it’s easy to log events. Even the slightest friction makes it too easy to abandon your efforts.
I’ve reviewed Streaks 2 and last summer’s major 3.0 update before, so I won’t cover that ground again here. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s new: an all-new iPad app, timed tasks, improved health tasks, and Siri shortcuts.
Last fall, Apple launched the free Heart Study app in partnership with Stanford University. The study, which was closed to new participants in August and has begun to end for some early participants, was available to US residents over 22 years old with an Apple Watch Series 1 and newer. The app used the Apple Watch to monitor the user’s heart rate for atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke.
Over the course of the Stanford study, stories have surfaced of instances where it discovered dangerous Afib conditions that were undiagnosed before. One such recent story comes from ZDNet writer Jason Perlow. A self-described Apple critic, Perlow purchased a refurbished Series 2 Nike+ Apple Watch earlier this year to test it.
Skeptical about whether the device would be something he would use much, Perlow nonetheless signed up for the Heart Study. Within a few days, Perlow received a notification asking him to contact a doctor at Stanford. The Heart Study app had detected signs of previously-undiagnosed atrial fibrillation. Perlow had the condition treated by a team of heart specialists, but as he concludes:
I owe my life to my Apple Watch. Because it started this whole machine rolling. And I was very lucky to have my Afib caught during the last three months of public enrollment in the Heart Study, which ended in early August.
I participated in the Heart Study too. Like Perlow, I forgot about it for long stretches. I’m fortunate that I didn’t receive the sort of alert Perlow did, but in September, Stanford sent me a notification that my participation in the study was ending. It turns out that over the course of 188 days, Stanford collected 1,743 heart measurements from me. Multiply that by the thousands of people in the study, and the potential the Apple Watch has for medical research is remarkable, while at the same time helping individuals like Perlow one at a time.
Over the last year it's become far too common to hear about a popular app dropping support for the Apple Watch – fortunately, today the opposite is happening: Nike Training Club has added an Apple Watch app for the first time.
Nike Training Club is a workout app containing over 180 different training sessions to choose from. The app offers guided instructions to help you complete your workout, along with activity data to see your exercise track record. It's a really solid, well designed app that gives you the tools needed to hit your workout goals.
The new Apple Watch app for Nike Training Club is merely a companion to the iOS app. You can't start workouts directly from the Watch, so despite the Series 3 model's cellular capabilities, you'll need to have your phone nearby at all times.
Despite its limitations, the Watch app can still be very useful during workouts. During a yoga session, for example, the Watch will show you which pose to take with a countdown for how long to hold it; you'll also see your heart rate and calories burned. Swipe over in the app to see the total length of your workout and an option to pause or end the session.
If you're a heavy Nike Training Club user, the new Watch app provides a much more convenient way to keep track of your workout's progress. I really hope some day the app becomes completely independent of the iPhone, but this is a nice first step.
Nike Training Club is available on the App Store.
"There's something in your latest scan that we need to double check."
Here's what I've learned about cancer as a survivor: even once you're past it, and despite doctors' reassurances that you should go back to your normal life, it never truly leaves you. It clings to the back of your mind and sits there, quietly. If you're lucky, it doesn't consume you, but it makes you more aware of your existence. The thought of it is like a fresh scar – a constant reminder of what happened. And even a simple sentence spoken with purposeful vagueness such as "We need to double check something" can cause that dreadful background presence to put your life on hold again.
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).