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Posts tagged with "watchOS Reviews"

watchOS 5: The MacStories Review

watchOS had a bumpy first few years. Some poor decisions and perhaps a premature initial launch forced significant design changes to be in order right away. It wasn't until last year's watchOS 4 release that it finally felt like the waters had calmed. Apple seemed to have solidified the brunt of its focus around fitness and audio, while also debuting a healthy backdrop of first-party apps, new watch faces, and machine learning features. The Siri watch face was the big addition for both of those last two categories, and while its initial introduction was underwhelming, the ideas behind it were intriguing. The redesigned Workout and Music apps along with background audio during workouts were excellent additions to the Apple Watch's core foundation. All things considered, Apple pushed a great update last year, and it only got better as the year progressed.

While it didn't ship in time for watchOS 4's launch in September, streaming from Apple Music was released late the next month in watchOS 4.1. The ability to stream music in the background during workouts freed runners and other athletes from being tied to their phones while they exercised. Paired with the redesigned Workout app – which put live statistics front and center while keeping Now Playing and workout controls just a swipe away – watchOS 4 established a truly better fitness experience for Apple's smartwatch.

The audio story that Apple told last year felt much less complete. Despite receiving a significant amount of attention in Apple's marketing efforts, the Apple Watch's music improvements seemed almost strictly geared toward workouts. Background audio was limited to workout apps and withheld from the platform as a whole, the first-party Now Playing screen continued to monopolize possession of volume controls, and the Music app only gave manual access to preselected songs instead of the full music library on your iPhone1. Audio on the Apple Watch had received some strong improvements, but the scope of those positive consequences felt unnecessarily limited.

Thankfully, Apple seems to agree. This year's watchOS 5 update, released today for all Apple Watches Series 1 and later, fills in the gaps of the watchOS audio feature set. Third-party audio apps can now run in the background, and full audio controls including volume adjustment via the Digital Crown have been made available to them. watchOS 5 also introduces the first-party Podcasts app, which supports automatic syncing of new episodes that you're subscribed to and streaming of any show in the iTunes podcast directory.

Beyond audio, watchOS 5 also builds on the solid fitness foundation with activity competitions, expanded Workout types, automatic workout detection, and advanced running statistics. Siri has continued to receive attention as well, introducing third-party integrations to the Siri watch face and a raise-to-speak feature which truncates the inveterate "Hey Siri" prefix for the first time on any platform. A new Walkie-Talkie app marks the first return to novelty Apple Watch communication methods since Digital Touch, but this time I think Apple might have tapped into a legitimate, albeit niche use case. Top things off with improved notifications, the introduction of web content, and NFC-powered student ID cards and we have a substantial watchOS update on our hands.

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  1. This last decision always felt senselessly arbitrary, and indeed Apple finally reversed it in watchOS 4.3 last March↩︎

watchOS 4: The MacStories Review

It is difficult to reconcile a critical appraisal of the Apple Watch with the product’s commercial success. To examine the most popular watch in the world1 and find it wanting seems wrong; yet as Apple’s bombastic smartwatch kicks off its third year, its history implores ignominy.

The integration of hardware and software is a keystone in Apple’s foundation. Every game-changing product they’ve released over the years has used this as a core advantage over the competition. Yet despite the Cupertino company’s proven track record, the last three years of Apple Watch have demonstrated a consistent struggle to get this right.

Apple has certainly iterated on unsuccessful hardware and software ideas in the past, but never quite so publicly. The Apple Watch feels like a device that was rushed a little too early to market. Apple knew that it had something good, but it didn’t yet know which areas the device would really excel in.

One of the most interesting pieces of this product’s story is that all signs point to Apple having gotten the hardware of the Apple Watch exactly right, at least in terms of its direction. The original Apple Watch was underpowered and lacking some technology that Apple simply couldn’t fit into it at the time, but the idea was there. In subsequent hardware iterations Apple has significantly increased the processing power, added vital new sensors, improved battery life, and shipped LTE. In this time the case design has remained unchanged (other than growing slightly thicker), and the input methods have persisted exactly. It may have taken until the latest Series 3 release for Apple to fulfill its initial vision for the Apple Watch hardware, but that vision has remained unshaken since the beginning.

The same cannot be said for the Apple Watch software.

Apple’s smartwatch operating system has had a rocky first few years. watchOS 1 was fundamentally broken in several ways, and probably should never have shipped. watchOS 2 was an attempt to shore up and replace the poor foundations under the hood, but it left the substandard user interface to fester in production for over a year. With last year’s release of watchOS 3, Apple took its best shot at rethinking cardinal pieces of that interface.

watchOS 3 was a huge improvement over the blunders that came before it. As I wrote in my watchOS 3 review last year, Apple did great work with the update to cut away the excess and hone the OS to something simpler and more straightforward. It was a significant course correction which set a far better trajectory, but it didn’t get us all the way there.

In a lot of ways it feels like watchOS 3 was the true watchOS 1. Where Apple left off with the smartwatch operating system last year was really the point where it should have started. Nothing was complete, but almost every piece felt primed for improvement rather than necessitating reinvention. In the wake of that update, Apple has been at a crossroads. With the foundations of watchOS finally feeling solid, Apple could either continue to drive the platform forward, or leave it on a slow-moving autopilot.

Yesterday marked the release of watchOS 4 — our first opportunity to see the hope kindled by watchOS 3 borne out — and I’m pleased to report that Apple has succeeded in maintaining the platform’s momentum. Every area that this year’s update focuses on has seen fantastic improvements, and I’ve found myself interacting with my Apple Watch more than ever before. My only disappointment is that the scope of watchOS 4 isn’t quite as far-reaching as last year’s update.

The big themes of watchOS 4 are fitness and music, and Apple has done some excellent work in these departments. New activity goals, completely overhauled Workout and Music apps, auto-launch of audio apps, a Now Playing Complication, and more are all excellent upgrades. As always there is still room for improvement, but many of these features are making the leap for the first time from options on my Apple Watch which I mostly ignore to real features which I find consistently useful in my daily life.

There’s a lot to dig into here with the choices made and the new features added. Let’s dive in and find out what Apple has in store for the next year of Apple Watch.

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  1. That’s watch, not smartwatch. ↩︎

watchOS 3: The MacStories Review

This month will mark the two-year point since the Apple Watch was first unveiled to the world, and nearly a year and a half since the product first made its way into the hands of consumers. Two years is a long time in technology in general, but particularly so for Apple. In this time the Apple Watch has gone from a product developed in secret, deep within Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, to the most popular smartwatch in the world. Millions of units have been sold, and surveys have pegged customer sat as extremely high.

Yet despite these positives, the Apple Watch has spent its first two years of existence as a flawed product. This is not due to the Watch’s hardware, which was beautifully designed, decently powered, and boasts enough battery life to easily last a day. Rather, the Achilles' heel of the Apple Watch has been its software.

watchOS has had problems from the start. Apple shipped its first version in an incomplete state, in which third-party applications were purportedly supported, but unable to run natively on the Watch itself. Instead, the logic of each app was executed on the connected iPhone, and the Watch was used as a dumb display for the results. This method was astoundingly slow in practice, not to mention that it rendered the Watch incapable of nearly anything beyond telling the time when disconnected from its iPhone.

It’s not surprising then, that only two months after the Watch’s release to consumers in April 2015, Apple introduced the first iteration on its operating system, watchOS 2. As I discussed in my review of watchOS 2 last year, version 2 did not significantly change any visual designs or interfaces. Rather, it was a foundational update meant to create the base of a more mature operating system, establishing important building blocks that could be iterated upon in the future.

The foundation created by watchOS 2 seems to be paying off, as this year’s major update to the system, watchOS 3, does indeed build up from that base. However, many of the other aspects of watchOS 2 turned out to be failures, and a year in the wild has proved the update unable to fulfill many of the promises Apple made about it.

There were two standout watchOS 2 features which did not hold true. First, the data surfaced by watchOS 2 apps was supposed to be updated more frequently in the background so as to keep them consistently relevant. Second, the move from running app logic on the iPhone to running it on the Watch itself was supposed to make watchOS apps more responsive and fast.

Perhaps when compared to the incomplete and unacceptable performance of watchOS 1, it could be argued that these goals succeeded, but I would disagree. After a year of using watchOS 2 with my Apple Watch strapped to my wrist nearly every single day, I can say unequivocally that apps were not fast enough to cross the threshold of “useable”, nor was data ever updated consistently enough for me to trust that it was not stale.

In lieu of these and other letdowns in watchOS 2, and after over a year of Apple Watches being in consumers’ hands, the next update to Apple’s smartwatch operating system had a lot riding on its shoulders. Would it double down on the sins of its predecessors, adding more interfaces like the spinning circles of friends and the whimsical yet impractical honeycomb Home screen? Would Apple try even harder to achieve the impossible goal (for current hardware, at least) of all apps running as smoothly as iOS apps and updating consistently?

Thankfully, while the rest of us spent the last year debating Apple’s intentions, Apple spent it hard at work.

For this year’s update, Apple took a hard look at the state of its smartwatch operating system, and it found many features wanting. Showing an uplifting ability to admit when they were wrong, Apple did not shy away from tearing out anything that wasn’t working, including features that were emphasized and promoted in announcements and marketing just last year.

watchOS 3 is still the same watchOS that you know, but its changes have cut deeply and ruthlessly at its origins. Apple is stripping away the cruft and honing watchOS down to a purer form. The strong system foundation of watchOS 2 and general design language of watchOS 1 are still present, but this year’s improvements have made both far more effective.

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    watchOS 2: The MacStories Review

    On September 9th, 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino. This was the very same stage on which, 30 years earlier, a young Steve Jobs had introduced the original Macintosh to the world. The Apple of 2014 was a very different company. Loved and hated, famous and infamous, indomitable and doomed. The only statement about the tech giant that might avoid contestation was that it could not be ignored.

    The 9th would be a rubicon for Tim Cook. The late Steve Jobs had helmed the company through every one of its unparalleled series of epochal products. This was the day on which Cook would announce the first new product to come out of Apple since Jobs' passing. A product that media pundits everywhere were sure to use as a scapegoat to prove or disprove the quality of his leadership.

    The words "One More Thing..." overtook the screen, met by raucous applause from the expectant audience. Uncontrolled excitement burst through Cook's normally calm demeanor as he presented the introduction to his hard work. "It is the next chapter in Apple's story," Cook boldly stated before leaving the stage. The ensuing video gave the world its first look at the Apple Watch.

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