Hands on: WatchOS 3 is the OS Apple always intended
IT & Systems Management

Hands on: WatchOS 3 is the OS Apple always intended

Apple's watchOS 3 marks the company's third attempt to provide a satisfying user experience for a wrist-based screen. This version, which was unveiled at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June and released on Tuesday, addresses long-standing issues that have marred the Apple Watch experience since the wearable arrived last year -- including slow app launch times (especially third-party apps), obsolete Complications data, odd interface choices and inaccurate heart rate data for certain workouts

Those issues in watchOS 1 and 2 didn't stop Apple from becoming second only to Rolex in worldwide sales (which Apple CEO Tim Cook was only too happy to note during Apple's Sept. 7th launch event). But watchOS 3 should make current users much happier -- there are noticeable across-the-board speed improvements, new fitness profiles, a new SOS emergency notification and response system, and a revised interface that feels more aligned with what's found on Apple's other devices.

In particular, watchOS 3 has more emphasis on fitness and activities, something Cook and others repeatedly highlighted at the event. That, and numerous other changes, should have been in place from the start.

That said, watchOS 3 is so improved over versions 1 and 2 that it finally makes the Watch feel like a coherent part of the Apple family.

Getting started

To install the new operating system, you open the Watch app found on the iPhone (which must be running iOS 10). Tap General > Software Update and then follow the on-screen prompts. (For the update to begin, the Watch needs to be near the iPhone, have over 50% battery life and be connected to its charger.) The new OS will download and then transfer to the Watch, which will update itself.

Then go make some coffee, or watch a movie -- this update is going to take some time. (Updating my Watch too me an hour and 10 minutes from start to finish. Depending on your download speeds, the process could take even longer.)

Once your Watch restarts and the update is done, you're ready to explore.

What you'll notice first

In watchOS 3, everything feels smoother and more responsive. Apps and data load faster and poorly thought-out interface decisions have been rethought. Three parts of the new interface stand out.

  • The Favorites side button is now a Dock button (more about this later); instead of showing a ring of Contacts, it displays your ten favorite and recent apps, all of them already running in memory for faster access.
  • The old Glances feature has been eliminated, its functionality replaced by live previews of the apps in the Dock.
  • The Control Center, working in concert with the new Dock, is accessed by swiping from the bottom of the screen -- just as on the iPhone or iPad -- effectively mimicking the way you access information on other Apple devices.

Let's examine those features -- and others -- in more detail.

Introducing the Dock

There are only two physical buttons on the Watch: The Digital Crown, which remains functionally the same, and the former Favorites button that now calls up the Dock. The new Dock in watchOS 3 functions like the Dock in macOS or iOS -- it's a repository for frequently accessed apps.

Your favorite apps are added by using the redesigned Watch app found on the iPhone (under the Dock section). The apps stored in the Dock sit active in memory, so it's a good idea to choose only those apps you're likely to access often.

watch3 dock

Apps residing in the Dock display more up-to-date information than before.

Since they're already running, apps residing in the Dock launch much faster than before and display more up-to-date information. Because they update in the background many times a day instead of when they're launched, there's less time waiting on data to load; the latest data is available at a glance, which is how it should have always been. (More frequent background refreshes will require developers to rewrite their apps to take advantage of the feature.)

How does switching the button's functionality work in real life? Every user's needs will vary, but for me, I've used this button more since installing watchOS 3 than I did during the year-plus of running watchOS 1 and 2. As a matter of fact, before watchOS 3, I thought the extra button redundant and useless. But as a way to access the Dock for quick app launches and glanceable data, the side button works really well.

In short: Changing the function of that button has literally given it a reason to exist.

Calling all emergency services

But calling up the Dock isn't the only function for the side button. Holding it down for three seconds brings up a list of options: Power Off, Medical ID and Emergency SOS. Medical ID displays your stats for emergency services, including name, birthday, weight, height, blood type and whether you're an organ donor. But it's Emergency SOS that I want to highlight; this is a feature that will help save lives.

SOS can be activated by either holding the Watch's side button for three seconds and then swiping the Emergency SOS option, or by keeping the side button pressed for six seconds. After the initial three seconds, the display will initiate a three-second countdown; at that point, Emergency SOS contacts emergency services, either through a cellular connection via an iPhone or, if connected to a known network, the Watch will reach out over Wi-Fi.


Emergency SOS contacts emergency services, either through the iPhone's cellular connection or over Wi-Fi.

This happens no matter where you are, whether in the U.S. or traveling abroad -- activating the emergency function will contact local emergency services, 911 or otherwise. The emergency function also temporarily activates Location Services (even if it has been disabled) to pinpoint your location for emergency crews, as well as to alert hand-picked SOS contacts of your location as well as your need for care. The contacts will continuously receive your location if it changes. (The contacts can be added in the iPhone's Watch app, under General > Emergency SOS.)

Over the past year and a half on the market, there have been several reports of heart attack survivors seeking treatment sooner because of the Apple Watch; I expect this feature to help save many more.

Slow, meet not-so-slow

With the advances in watchOS 3, apps in the Dock load faster (in many cases, instantly) and they refresh in the background more often -- replacing the need for Glances. What about apps that haven't yet been rewritten to take advantage of watchOS 3? Well, in testing, that depends on the app. Some are better than others.

Apple claims a sevenfold increase in launch speed for the apps residing in the Dock. This is a stark change from the launch times seen with the very first watchOS -- some apps were so slow that the display would time out and turn itself off before the app actually launched. Those kinds of issues in watchOS 1 and 2 had me convinced that the Watch was in desperate need of a hardware upgrade before being really useful; watchOS 3 makes me eat my words by breathing new life into a formerly sluggish app experience.

All of the apps I've tried launched within 10 seconds, most within just four or five seconds. Those aren't particularly fast compared to SSD-based laptops or the iPhone and iPad, but they're fast enough that you're less likely to be pulling the phone out of your pocket because the watch is too slow.

New faces and a Control Center

WatchOS 3 adds new faces to choose from, including variations of Minnie (and Mickey) Mouse, Activity Rings (for fitness trackers) and a minimal style called Numerals. Swiping between Watch faces is also easier -- instead of having to press firmly on the watch display before you swipe between faces, all you have to do is swipe. Apple removed a step.

As already noted, another change to the Watch face is the elimination of the Glances feature. (Glances were a quick way to view an app's data, like weather or flight info.) Swiping up from the bottom of the watch face now shows the Control Center, just as it does on every other Apple mobile device.

face gallery2

There are a wide variety of new faces to choose from via the Watch app on your iPhone.

The Control Center gives quick access to several system functions, including the battery life indicator, Airplane mode, silent mode, Do Not Disturb mode, device lock, AirPlay selection, and a button to trigger an audible alert on the iPhone. This last is helpful if you've misplaced your iPhone within range of the watch. Tapping on the battery life indicator also brings up the option to enable Power Reserve mode.

Yet another change to the Watch face screen involves Complications, the little tidbits of info you can turn on and off in different watch faces. In earlier versions of watchOS, Complications weren't always refreshed with the most recent data, so if you were checking to see, for instance, the current temperature, the info might not be accurate -- not exactly helpful for a device that should present accurate data at a glance.

Because apps are now better at refreshing data in the background, Complications -- and apps in the Dock -- will more likely reflect current information. Note: Because of the way apps update, it's possible you'll catch a Complication as it's gathering the latest data -- I've seen that happen with weather information, which showed the temperature change while I was watching.

The iPhone's Watch app

The Watch app on the iPhone gets a significant upgrade, with new options to assign Emergency SOS contacts (under General); toggle on/off background refresh for Watch apps (also under General); and configure how metrics are displayed on a per-workout basis (under the Workout View setting).

There are also numerous changes in the Face Gallery tab. There are now rows upon rows of variations in Watch face categories, designed to illustrate the various options available to Watch users. It's an easy way to take one of the Faces Apple provides and then customize it. Being able to see all of the variations makes choosing a Watch face feel less overwhelming.

And if you're a fan of the Mickey and Minnie watch face, there is now a toggle under Sounds & Haptics that lets Mickey or Minnie announce the time when tapped. It's cute.

New and improved apps

Old apps not only run smoother in watchOS 3, but new ones are available, including Find My Friends, Reminders, and Breathe (which reminds you to slow down and take a breather, literally).

Existing apps have also been updated with new functions. The Timer app now displays buttons for quick countdowns; Maps gives you easy access to directions to work and home as well as Search, My Location and Nearby points of interest; and the Heart Rate Glance has been replaced with a Heart Rate app that pretty much does the same thing.

The Messages app, in particular, gets a big upgrade. It's compatible with the Screen and Bubble effects found on devices running on iOS 10, and messages sent with the effects display properly, including animations. For example, if someone is trying to send you an Invisible Text or a Shooting Star, you'll get the message accurately on the Watch.

Messages gif Michael deAgonia

The updated Messages app offers a number of new special effects -- like the "Lasers" shown here -- you can embed with texts.

If you're hoping to send animated effects from the Watch -- you can't. But the app has been revamped to offer more than just canned responses, emojis and Siri dictations; it now offers Digital Touch and a new Scribble input method.

If Digital Touch -- which lets you send sketches or a variety of effects from your Watch to a friend's -- doesn't ring a bell, it's okay. The feature was effectively hidden in watchOS 1 and 2 and thus, rarely used.

Digital Touch has been moved from the now-defunct Favorites section to a prominent place beside the Siri and Emojis reply buttons in Messages. I've used this feature more times in the past three months than I did the entire time I was using previous versions of the OS.

Scribble is the name of the newest way to input text on the Watch; with it, you can use your finger to draw letters on the Watch's display to write out quick responses. This is a neat trick when Siri dictation isn't an option and you don't want to pull out your phone. For quick responses, Scribble is quite handy; I think I use this new feature the most.

Two other apps have great potential. The Home app, with HomeKit support, allows you to control home automation devices with taps or with Siri. And just as the Watch encourages standing at least once an hour, and the Activity Rings remind us to be more active, Breathe is there to encourage you to relax.

Every once in a while, depending on the setting, the Watch will tap your wrist and prompt you to take it slow for a minute or two. Once you've agreed to the prompt, the Breathe app walks you through a simple breathing exercise, tapping you on the wrist in distinct patterns to guide you through deep inhales and exhales.

I like that Apple included this; if the Watch is going to monitor activity and well-being, it makes sense that it should be able to tell you to slow down a minute.

Open that lock!

Some of the Watch's best features involve integration with other devices. You can set up your Watch to unlock when you unlock your iPhone, for example. And watchOS 3 now lets your Watch interact with your Mac.

In the past, I've touted MacID as the one third-party app that every Mac-owning Apple Watch user should have. It uses proximity (via Bluetooth) to trigger the desktop screen saver when you leave your Mac, and when you return, it logs you into the Mac before you sit down. Although MacID had some reliability issues, the concept was smart. Apple clearly agreed, because there is similar functionality between watchOS 3 and macOS Sierra -- Apple's new desktop OS that arrives next Tuesday.

On a Mac running Sierra, there is an option to automatically log into your Mac, based on the signal strength of the Watch. Upon waking from sleep or screen saver, if an authenticated Watch is close enough -- say, within a few feet -- the Mac will automatically log you in, bypassing the login screen.

The Mac can't yet tell when you step away like MacID can, but this is a good start.

Fitness and health

Fitness has always been marketed as one of the Watch's tent-pole features. After a year of using watchOS 1 and 2, I came away mightily disappointed because the Watch didn't accurately track my heart rate during weight-lifting workouts. The inaccurate heart sensor and the lack of social features for extra motivation was fairly annoying. (To be clear: I never really had a problem with the heart monitor for tracking outdoor runs, basketball or treadmill sessions, just weight-lifting.)

WatchOS 3 share exercise2

The Workout app offers even more social activity.

I'm happy to say that this issue has been fixed in watchOS 3. Not only is the heart rate sensor more accurate, but the Workout app also features additional profiles for even more activities, including profiles specifically for strength training, basketball, hiking, and other activities. My one major gripe with the Apple Watch has finally been resolved; for that, I'm thrilled.

The Workout app has been updated to allow even more metric details to be displayed at once, and running workouts can be set to pause when you do; the workout resumes when it sees you've started moving again.

There are even basic social features in Activity; in this case, after a workout is completed or an achievement has been earned, people you specify can be alerted. Once alerted, said people can even engage in smack talk, or offer words of encouragement via canned quick responses.

Lastly, but for many most importantly: WatchOS 3 now supports Apple Watch users in wheelchairs, including various pushing techniques to track their movement. And to keep them moving, wheelchair users even get a time-to-roll alert in the place of stand alerts.

Bottom line

In addition to the changes I've highlighted, there are scores of other updates and tweaks in watchOS 3 for users to discover.

What seems obvious is that Apple has paid attention to comments and complaints about earlier versions of the OS and has worked to make this version more coherent, easier to navigate and faster. The result for Watch owners will be a smoother, more satisfying experience.

WatchOS 3 really does breathe new life to this device -- and should work even better on the more powerful Apple Watch Series 2 devices that arrive on Friday. With watchOS 3, my own first-gen Watch doesn't just feel like a new device, it also feels a lot more Apple-like.

If you are an Apple Watch owner, run, don't walk, to install this upgrade. It isn't just recommended, it's an absolute requirement to get the most out of your Watch.

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