We’ve now reached Part IV of the Apple Watch experience, and certainly the one that sets it apart from all other devices—the software. There are plenty of fitness trackers, some of which even tell time. Naturally, you can find watches with lap timers at Dollar Tree. But it’s the ‘other’ things that the Apple Watch can do that elevate it into the category of “smartwatch”. Here, I go over a little bit of what sets the Apple Watch experience apart: Glances, Notification Center, Siri, and Apps. These elements combined are integral to the Apple Watch experience. The main goal of these interaction models and apps on the watch is that they should speed up the interaction experience with technology and let the user get back to whatever he or she was doing, without needing to pull out their iPhone. In some cases the Watch succeeds at this, and in other cases it falters.
But before we move on, check these out first if you missed them:
There are two other interactions available from the clock: Glances and Notifications. Glances provide quick, bite-sized pieces of information, and generally serve as watchOS’s version of widgets. They are accessed by swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen while the clock is displayed. Some do have some buttons (mostly the Apple ones), but the third party ones are helpful too. The only issue with these is that they don’t always update constantly in the background. Sometimes I swipe up to view them and they display outdated information, and I have to wait for it to update. I know this behavior is a battery-saving method, but I’d like to see glances updated at least once an hour in the background. On top of that, updating can at times be a little bit on the slow side. However, once they get up and running, I’ve rarely had issues.
The Music glance, for example, is perfect in design and execution. It shows the song that your iPhone is playing, and the option to skip, play/pause, and adjust the volume. One of the other well-designed glances is very similar to Control Center on iOS. It provides a quick way to toggle options like airplane mode. One third-party glance I use is Dark Sky. It’s great at displaying either the current weather, or the predicted amounts of rainfall for the coming hour. The only key is, at times, patience.
The other interaction available from the clock is the Notification Center. Like on iOS, it is accessed by pulling from the top of the screen and shows a list of truncated notifications that have recently arrived. Tapping on one pulls up the full notification, and a list of corresponding actions (e.g. “Like” for a GroupMe message, or “Delete” for an email). The presence of unread notifications is noted by a red dot at the top of the screen when viewing the clock. To clear all notifications, a force touch is needed to bring up the ‘clear all’ button.
My main issue with notifications in general stems not from the notifications themselves, but the ones that cannot be acted on via the watch (third party ones). This isn’t an element of the watch so much as iOS, and what Apple has allowed third parties to be able to accomplish. For example, if you receive a text message on an iPhone, you can slide down on that notification and hit reply to respond to the message without leaving your current app. However, other messaging applications can’t do that. That restriction is carried over to the watch. This has been glaring for me lately, as at the camp I currently work at, GroupMe is used constantly. It would be nice to be able to respond to some of the messages from the watch, but I know that that capability will come in time.
The App Launcher
Don’t call it a Home Screen, but that is what this view is most reminiscent of. Pressing the digital crown once when at the clock or in an application will bring you to this screen. Panning around is done with a finger. Scrolling the digital crown out will zoom out until all of the icons are the same size, and zooming back in will zoom in on the app in the center of the screen, making the surrounding apps smaller. Scrolling the digital crown in will zoom into the app in the center of the screen, essentially launch the app in the center. Given that clicking the digital crown on the app launcher will center on the clock app, clicking the digital crown, clicking it again to center on the clock icon, and then scrolling in provides a quick and consistent way of getting back to the watch face at any time. Tapping an icon will launch the corresponding application, and tapping and holding will cause everything to start jiggling like on iOS, allowing you to rearrange the screen. (You can also do this via the Apple Watch app on the iPhone, and I highly recommend using the phone to rearrange things.) Glances and Notification Center are not available on this screen. Though the icons are very small, I’ve only very rarely tapped an icon I didn’t mean to press. Unless you have massive fingers, I don’t think you’ll have a problem launching apps.
First Party Apps
Apple’s applications are generally simple, clean, and well-designed for the hardware. I’m not going to go in-depth on each one, but I will provide information about two: Messages and Maps.
It’s safe to say that Messages is my ‘most used’ app. In general, most attachments in a thread can be viewed on the watch, and replies can be made as well. What’s that? You say the keyboard must be tiny? Silly goose, there is no keyboard. This is the future; dictation is used. The quality of dictation is reliant on mainly two things: how close your watch is to your iPhone, and the strength of the iPhone’s signal. If I have a strong 4G (my iPhone doesn’t support LTE on T-Mobile) or Internet signal, then dictation is generally nice and snappy. Annunciation is still important, as is announcing punctuation and other things, but outside of that I haven’t had too many issues. The main issue is that there isn’t a ‘backspace’ button. If your message isn’t transcribed properly, then you have to hit back, and then the microphone button again. It would be nice if there was just a ‘redo’ button somewhere on screen. There is also the option to send either emoji or Apple’s Watch-specific GIFs. I don’t really have an opinion on the Watch-specific ones, other than that some of them look really weird.
Maps is one of those applications that really showcases the benefit of a smartwatch. I’ve used it when driving and walking, and both times it has been great. When navigating, the screen shows only the next direction, and gives a different type of tap when it’s time to make a left or right turn. It’s really cool, and certainly beats walking around, staring bewildered at your phone and then looking at your surroundings, trying to get a handle on where you are in an unfamiliar area. Due to the small screen, there isn’t much else it could really display. You certainly won’t be doing too much browsing for shops on it. Thankfully, using Siri to ask for directions to a location is a seamless experience, and the relevant shop information will show up on screen. I certainly do wish that the whole process was faster at times, but it’s hard to find out where the fault lies: slow Internet, slow bluetooth connection, or slow Maps servers, or a combination of all three.
These seem to run a little slower that Apple’s apps, but that shouldn’t really be a surprise. They also sometimes get tripped up if their parent application hasn’t been opened in a while. For example, I’ll try to start a timer in Due on my watch, they won’t start. If I open Due on my iPhone and close it and then try to start the timers, they’ll respond immediately. Of course, at this point, I may as well use my iPhone in the first place, and that’s where the magic of the Apple Watch starts to break down. Hopefully with third-parties being able to run code on the watch natively this fall, some of these interactions can be sped up.
Also, not all third-party developers have made good Watch apps. One great example is Zipcar’s app. Zipcar is a car-rental service, and the app does the two most important thing I’d want it to do: Provide a quick way to find my car by beeping the horn/remote locking the car, and a quick way to extend my reservation. The Instagram app, on the other hand, is pretty useless. It offers a pared-down experience of the iPhone app: It only shows the 8 most recent photos of your feed. Wait, who wants to look at and comment on photos on a 1-inch screen? Who thought this was a good idea? Instagram is an app that, in my opinion, doesn’t really have a purpose on the watch. The watch’s goal is to speed up certain interactions, and the watch Instagram experience slows it down significantly. The Apple Watch is not an iPhone on your wrist. It is an accessory to it, and a different type of device. Like with the iPhone and iPad, or iPad and Mac, there is some natural overlap, but certain things are better suited to specific devices. Browsing Instagram is not the type of activity that is viable on a smartwatch.
Another issue that I’ve noticed at time is that actions carried out don’t always seem to make it to the iPhone—or at least, not quickly at all. A number of times I’ve “Liked” a GroupMe message, and then gone back to look at that same message on my phone a few minutes later and realized that my Like wasn’t recorded. It’s not a deal breaker, but the fact that I’ve assumed that the action has been carried out and not alerted that it didn’t happen, I worry about other information that may have slipped between the cracks.
Siri is the main way you interact with the watch. Accessible from anywhere via a press and hold of the digital crown, she hangs on your every word. Except that she never actually says anything; only text appears. Though that could be because I always keep my watch on silent. In any event, if she can pull something up on the phone, then she will. However, since there is no web browser on the watch, any questions that can’t be answered in an app result a “You’ll need to check your iPhone for that”. Since I don’t use Siri that much, I haven’t really had that issue.
The Apple Watch App
There’s one more key app for the Apple Watch, and it’s the one loaded on every iPhone running iOS 8.3 or later: the Apple Watch app. This application is what allows you to configure the settings for your Apple Watch. It has four main tabs: My Watch, Explore, Featured, and Search. The My Watch tab looks very similar to the Settings app on iPhone, and allows you to do everything from set up Apple Pay and Notification preferences to determining the order of your Glances. The other three tabs relate to finding applications for the watch via its own section of the App Store. Remember, downloading an Apple Watch also downloads the corresponding app for your phone.
While it takes some time to get used to, navigating the Apple Watch quickly becomes second nature. Accessing Glances and their respective applications is easy, though updating information is usually a slow process. Apple’s apps are generally well designed and thought out, but like with any new piece of technology, there are a few oversights here and there. Third party apps are much more hit-and-miss (though that’s expected). Some really get the watch and the type of interactions that work best for it, while others who try to simply recreate an iPhone app and put in on the Watch are missing the point. As developers get more time with the watch and have access to more APIs, their applications will only get better.
Despite the Apple Watch being in its first generation, there’s already quite a lot it can do on Day One. Though there are some occasional syncing/reliability quirks, the main thing improvement the Watch needs is speed. That will come with hardware updates and further software optimization, but in the meantime there’s still an element of the waiting game. The software (particularly the third-party application/glances experience) is certainly the weakest area of the watch, but the one that is also most likely to improve the most quickly.