Apple Watch Series 2 and WatchOS 3

I didn’t fully grasp Apple Watch at first. I didn’t feel right about my initial review, and effectively took another crack at it three weeks later. My unsettled feeling over the initial review was correct; the review doesn’t hold up. My second review, though, is better. After noting several similarities between the Apple Watch and Roger Moore’s Seiko digital watches during the prime years of his run as James Bond, I wrote:

This is what Apple Watch is: an ambitious modern take on the digital watch.

I don’t feel bad about not quite getting Apple Watch at first, though. Apple didn’t get it either.

When the iPhone was unveiled at Macworld Expo in January 2007, Steve Jobs famously described it as three products in one: “The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.”

Tim Cook did much the same at the unveiling of Apple Watch in September 2014: “In addition to being a beautiful object, Apple Watch is the most advanced timepiece ever created, it’s a revolutionary new way to connect with others, and it’s a comprehensive health and fitness companion.”

The difference is, Apple’s conception of the original iPhone was exactly right. The original iPhone was all three of those things. In the long run, it turned out to be a camera, too, and of course an app platform for the mobile age. But in 2007, Apple knew exactly what they had.

Not so with Apple Watch in 2014. Two out of three were accurate. Apple Watch is a fine timepiece. Much like the “phone” in iPhone, though, the “watch” in Apple Watch isn’t really its purpose for being. They’re listed as tentpole features because they’re familiar traditional devices.

You already have a cell phone and it sucks. The iPhone is a cell phone that doesn’t suck.

You know what a watch is. It’s boring. Apple Watch is a watch that does cool stuff.

But there’s a difference between the iPhone as a phone and the Apple Watch as a watch. The iPhone really was a revolutionary mobile phone. Visual voicemail, easy conference calling — the iPhone put a well-designed interface on features that other cell phones did not have. But as a watch, the Apple Watch had serious flaws. It was perfectly accurate at keeping time,1 but because the screen wasn’t always on, it was worse for glancing at to check the time. As a long-time wristwatch wearer, I still prefer a mechanical watch for glancing at the time. Cook’s phrasing oversold the Apple Watch as a watch.

The Apple Watch’s other two debut tentpole features make for an interesting contrast. “A comprehensive health and fitness companion” could not be more spot-on, describing what makes Apple Watch a compelling product. “A revolutionary new way to connect with others” could not have been more wrong.

Apple clearly thought they had something there with the “revolutionary new way to connect with others”, dedicating the single-press of the side button to invoking the feature where you’d send heartbeats, doodles, and emoji to your closest friends and family. I bought into it too.

That turned out to be a huge distraction. Nobody used that stuff. The best way to text someone from Apple Watch wasn’t to use that button, it was to use Siri. Apple Watch had one button, and the single-press feature associated with it was for something no one used. This miscalculation not only wasted the single-press of the button, it resulted in the entire system’s UI being convoluted. This was made even worse by the fact that WatchOS was way too slow. Because it was slow, Apple created “Glances”, which were effectively static screenshots from actual apps, showing data that was periodically updated.

Here’s what Apple got right with the original Apple Watch:

  • “A comprehensive health and fitness companion.” Apple Watch served that purpose from the start. And, it proved to be something that people wanted.

  • It looked good. Watch design is highly subjective, but I think time has shown that most people find Apple Watch — both the hardware and software — aesthetically pleasing, especially compared to other smartwatches and fitness trackers.

  • It offered enough customization. Two sizes. Aluminum and steel finishes. An array of watch bands. A selection of watch faces that varied in color and information density, both analog and digital, all of which looked like part of the same brand.

  • Easily swappable bands.

  • Useful notifications and alerts.

Here’s what Apple Watch got wrong:

  • The “revolutionary new way to connect with others” was a complete bust. It wasted the dedicated hardware button and convoluted the user interface.

  • WatchOS was way too slow. At the time, it could have been argued that the Apple Watch hardware was too slow, but with the eye-opening performance improvements in WatchOS 3, we now know it was the software. This further convoluted the user interface, because Glances existed solely because apps were so slow to launch. Glances didn’t actually solve this problem, though, because Glances were so infrequently refreshed with up-to-date data.

  • The screen was too dim. Even at maximum brightness I couldn’t read it in bright sunlight.

  • Battery life was adequate, but not good.

  • The best thing about Apple Watch was the fitness tracking, but too many of the fitness tracking features required interaction with the touch screen, but touch screens don’t work well with wet skin, and exercising makes you sweat. Many times I found myself unable to pause, resume, or stop a running workout because I couldn’t get the screen to register taps or force touches with my sweaty finger. Even worse was when I couldn’t even see if I had successfully paused, resumed, or stopped a run because I couldn’t read the display because of the aforementioned problem that the display wasn’t bright enough. It’s angering when you lose credit for a few miles of a run because you thought you successfully resumed after a pause but it didn’t take.

  • It relied on its paired iPhone for location services. That meant anyone who wanted to bike, run, or walk and track their route had to take their iPhone with them. There are a lot of cyclists, in particular, who’ve been buying Garmin GPS wearables just for GPS tracking. They don’t use them as watches and they don’t use them for anything else.

  • The 18-karat gold Edition models, which were priced from $10,000 to 20,000, sold in very low quantities (I think), and arguably inflicted some small amount of damage to the company’s brand, making Apple look out of touch and elitist.

  • Unlike almost all traditional watches, whether analog or digital, Apple Watch’s display is off most of the time, to preserve battery life. With a regular watch you can glance at the time instantly. With Apple Watch you must raise or twist your wrist first, which creates a pause, however brief, before you can see the time.

  • Did I mention that Apple Watch was slow?


WatchOS 3 fixes most of Apple Watch’s problems listed above. The Series 2 hardware fixes nearly all the rest (the off-by-default display will need at least one more leap in battery life and/or display technology). It is clear that Apple recognized what was wrong — not just the obvious issues like slowness, but the abstract ones like the user interface’s conceptual mushiness — and addressed them.

WatchOS 3 fixes:

  • Performance. Everything is faster. More stuff is cached in RAM. At WWDC Apple admitted that the original software was far more stingy with memory use than was necessary. The original hardware was more capable than the software team expected, which led them to write software that resulted in the hardware feeling less capable. I’ve been running WatchOS 3 betas all summer on my original Apple Watch. So much better. Original Apple Watch owners do not need to buy a new Series 2 watch to get a faster watch. They just need to upgrade to WatchOS 3.

  • The doodles, heartbeats, and emoji are still there, but rather than being part of the root level of the system itself, they’re part of the Messages app, where they belong. If you use them, you’ll do so most of the time while responding to a notification.

  • Single-pressing the side button has thereby been freed up for a new purpose: to show the Dock. The Dock is a new side-scrolling list of your favorite apps. The apps are represented by their actual interfaces, not their icons. Glances are gone, but the Dock is Glances done right. For an app that you just want to check the status of something with — say, to see a sporting event score — you tap the side button, scroll to it, glance at it, and then just drop your wrist. There’s no need to tap on it to launch it. But if you do want to launch it, it’s right there. Tap and hold to rearrange their order. Swipe up to remove an app from the Dock. To add a new app, launch it, then invoke the Dock, and drag it into the Dock from the rightmost “most recent app” position.

  • WatchOS 3 makes better use of the watch’s hardware controls for workout controls. You can pause and resume a workout by pressing the side button and digital crown at the same time.2 Unlike the touchscreen, these buttons work just fine with wet skin. If you do use the screen, you don’t use force touch to bring up the workout controls anymore. Instead you swipe the screen. This too works better with wet skin. And the controls are no longer monochrome — Pause/Resume is yellow, End is red, and the Lock button for swimming workouts on Series 2 watches is blue. These colors are much easier to see and understand while in motion.

  • Even better, WatchOS 3 makes use of the watch’s motion sensors to offer a Running Auto Pause feature. Turn this on in the Workout section of your iPhone’s Apple Watch app, and runs will pause and resume when you stop moving and resume running. As a city dweller, it always bothered me when I’d be forced to stop at a red light. It was too much hassle to force press — excuse me, to firmly press the display, tap pause, wait, resume running, firmly press again while running, and poke at the Resume button and hope I hit it. So I’d just wait for the green light while the workout kept going, knowing the pace my watch was recording was off. Running Auto Pause works great for me. It even provides taptic feedback to let you know when it detects that you’ve stopped and resumed. This feature exemplifies the “smart” in “smartwatch”.

An original Apple Watch upgraded to WatchOS 3 provides a much better experience for everyone.

Apple Watch Series 2 hardware fixes even more shortcomings:

  • The screen brightness has doubled (1,000 nits vs. 450 nits). The difference is dramatic. In very bright mid-day sunlight, I can now read the watch face well enough. It’s not great, but I can read it. With my original Apple Watch, I couldn’t read the screen in bright sunlight. This is my single favorite hardware improvement to Series 2.

  • Battery life is better. (I’m wearing a 42 mm stainless steel Series 2 model. I can’t say whether this is improved on the 38 mm models as well, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be.)

  • Series 2 now has built-in GPS. It works very well in my testing here in Philadelphia. There’s no warm-up time. Apple Watch just seems to know when it’s out of communication distance from its paired iPhone, and it gets a GPS signal without you telling it to. You don’t need to turn it on, you don’t need to turn it off. The watch simply picks up the Location Services preferences from the iPhone (Settings → Privacy → Location Services). So if I go for a run with my Apple Watch, without my iPhone, I don’t have to do anything to get my path tracked. It just happens. There’s nothing I need to do to make it track my path. And if I do have my phone with me, the Workout app will let the iPhone do the GPS because it’s the bigger-batteried device.

  • You can officially swim with it, and it has swimming workouts. (The clever feature where the speaker itself ejects water at the end of a swim is fun. The only way the speaker can move to eject the water is to make sound, so it actually beeps after you turn the digital crown to end the swim.)

  • The new Edition model is made of gorgeous white ceramic. Priced starting at $1,250, it feels like Apple now has a handle on where Apple Watch fits in the luxury market. It also seems like they’re working with a material that could be relevant to other product lines.

A few other observations:

  • Series 2 watches are 1 mm thicker than the originals and the new Series 1 watch. That’s unfortunate, but on my wrist, I honestly don’t feel the difference. I think I can see the difference, but it’s so negligible that I wouldn’t want to bet on my ability to tell which was which while on the wrist.

  • I think the taptics are improved on this steel watch. I’m convinced that the original Apple Watch taptic engine works much better on the original aluminum Sport watches than it does on the steel ones. Taps are much more like crisp taps on the Apple Watch Sport; on the steel original Apple Watch, they’re more like fuzzy vibrations. Whether the better taptic feedback I’m feeling is a genuine improvement to the taptic engine, or just an isolated case, I don’t know. But I do know that the Series 2 steel watch on my wrist has much better taptic feedback than the steel original Apple Watch on my desk.

  • WatchOS 3 de-emphasizes force touch system-wide. For example, you no longer need to use force touch to switch watch faces. You can just swipe side-to-side, starting the swipe from the left or right edge of the display. (They require you to start from the edge to avoid inadvertent face-switching while you’re trying to tap complications. Smart.) Force touch is still there, of course, but more things can be done by regular swipes and taps that used to require force taps. And looking at Apple’s marketing material, there isn’t much mention of it. I think this is a good thing. There’s too much guessing involved with force touch. It’s good for shortcuts (see: iPhone), but not good for primary UI discovery.

    In fact, looking at Apple’s marketing material, they don’t even call it “force touch” any more. It’s “pressing firmly”. They don’t call it “3D Touch” either — Apple only uses that term to describe the pressure sensitive features on iPhone.

  • The app home screen — the honeycomb of app icons you see when you press the digital crown from your watch face — hasn’t changed. This is now one of the weaker links in WatchOS. I find it hard to organize, hard to visually scan, and the tap targets too small to hit. This should be redesigned from the bottom up for WatchOS 4.

  • Series 2 does not attempt to address the off-by-default display problem, but it does seem like wrist detection is more accurate and faster.

Conclusion

I think WatchOS 3 and Apple Watch Series 2 are a very simple story. Apple Watch had clear strengths but equally clear weaknesses. Apple identified what was flawed and went back to the drawing board. They identified what people liked best — health and fitness tracking — and made them even better.

What Apple has done with WatchOS in particular strikes me a sign that the company’s internal culture is healthy. The conceptual flaws in the original Apple Watch provided a test. You need to put ego aside to admit that the whole “revolutionary new way to connect with others” wasn’t revolutionary at all, but instead a mistake at the very conceptual root of the UI. (And while we are talking about admitting mistakes, allow me to repeat that I bought into this feature hook, line, and sinker in my initial Apple Watch review.)

I’m not saying it was “easy” in any way for Apple to go from, say, the iPhone 6S to the 7. But they didn’t need to swallow any pride. They did with WatchOS 3, and that’s a good sign. The way to be right all the time is not to be right all the time, because that never happens. If you’re pushing the boundaries of any endeavor, mistakes are inevitable. If you convince yourself that you’re right all the time, you’ll slip into denial regarding your mistakes. Then the problems compound. The way to be right all the time is to be smart enough to be right most of the time, and humble enough to recognize your mistakes and address them.

That’s what Apple did with Series 2 and (especially) WatchOS 3.

Here’s what I propose as the triumvirate of tentpole functions for Apple Watch: a stylish timepiece, a notification display and quick response extension of your iPhone, and a comprehensive health and fitness companion. That’s where Apple Watch should have been focused from the start, and that’s where it is, correctly, focused now.


  1. Have you ever noticed that all Apple Watches are perfectly in sync with each other? Right down to an imperceptible fraction of a second. It’s quite a thing to see holding two of them side-by-side. It’s downright mesmerizing when you see a dozen of them together in an Apple store. ↩︎

  2. Pressing the crown and side button at the same time used to take a screenshot. In WatchOS 3, screenshots are not enabled by default. You can turn them on in the General section of the iPhone Apple Watch app. If you do, when you press both buttons to pause or resume a workout, it will work, but you’ll snap a screenshot too. Such is the price we pay for a device with only two buttons. ↩︎︎

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