Since the initial release of the Apple Watch in 2015, much has changed. Now with Series 3 running watchOS 4, this great wearable device has become faster, waterproof and more capable, with numerous apps and functions that can operate independently. Most crucially, it now runs on cellular (mobile) networks, meaning that in many cases, you can actually leave your iPhone at home. Of course, you still need an iPhone, but the convenience factor has increased significantly. Since hearing a recent episode of podcast App Stories, which focused on various use cases of the Apple Watch, I was inspired to write my own account of the device. I wore the first generation all day, every day, but now that I have had time to live with the Series 3, I feel that I can give an appropriate account of what it is like to use.
I received my pre-ordered first-generation Apple Watch on launch day over two years ago and instantly fell in love with it, using it predominately for notifications, activity-tracking and messaging. To say that it was transformative would be an understatement; with its haptic feedback, it sent my phone into a permanent state of silence (no more alert and ringtones!). I could effectively and subtly manage the once infuriating number of notifications, which once led me to pull my phone out of my pocket constantly. I could even act on them.
During this year’s launch event for the Series 3 and iPhone X at the Steve Jobs Theatre, I was ecstatic to see that the watch was finally gaining cellular capability. I was determined to get it. While the iPhone X announcement was very impressive, the watch was far more compelling to me. The notion of leaving my phone at home was tantalising. Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPhone, but every single day, especially on my commute and at lunchtime around Sydney, I observe people who are unable to separate themselves from their devices. Their faces are glued to smartphone displays, often scrolling aimlessly through social feeds.
Perhaps the clearest use case of the new cellular model is independent phone calls, messages and notifications. With seamless number-sharing (connecting and sharing data with your existing mobile plan), the Apple Watch attaches automatically to your network when it detects that it is out of iPhone Bluetooth range. This is indicated in Control Centre, as well as on the Explorer watch face with four dots as an indicator (if you use it). I was impressed that (for once) Australia had reasonable plan rates for sharing phone numbers; it only costs me an extra $5 per month to share data with my Apple Watch on Optus.
Most tech journalists and reviewers mainly tout the new Apple Watch’s cellular connection as a great emergency option, enabling you to exercise without having to carry a phone. This is true, but it is often pushed as the only appealing real-world context when you would leave your iPhone behind. My aim with the Series 3 has been to separate myself from the iPhone in a range of situations, in order to remain free from useless distraction. When I go for my lunch break at work, I always leave my phone in the office and go for a walk. Do I need to check emails? Do I need to look at another screen for an hour? When I go out for dinner with friends and family, I now often leave my iPhone at home. When I go for a coffee on my home-office day, I walk through my suburb to a local café without my iPhone. Not to mention, having Apple Pay on my wrist means that I can go to the coffee shop without even needing to take my wallet. The Series 3 enables me to travel lighter and even distance myself from superfluous technology.
Prior to the smartphone era, mobile phones were shrinking in size — this was the selling point. Nowadays, we see bigger and bigger designs for enhanced entertainment and productivity. The only antidote — as much as I love my iPhone 7 Plus — is to reduce or altogether remove bezels. The Apple Watch fulfils that need for a smaller, simpler communications device, the way that older feature phones once did.
Regarding exercise, however, I do use it for working out and love being able to track my routes during walks and runs. Tech journalists are right to highlight this feature so frequently. It is also brilliant to have an independent Maps app on the wrist for finding points of interest, with taps on the wrist for turn-by-turn navigation.
Whilst not a compulsory purchase, the Series 3 becomes even more compelling when paired with AirPods. These fantastic wireless earphones gained much praise when they were released last year (although low in supply for some time), and rightly so. Beyond music playback, they are the ultimate companion for phone calls, Siri and other general audio through the Apple Watch. While I enjoy using the watch ‘Dick-Tracy-style’ for calls with the speaker, the AirPods facilitate more private conversations.
The addition of a ‘Now Playing’ app, which pops up automatically when playing audio, and can be added to the dock, is also a brilliant addition in watchOS 4. It is much more useful than the previous ‘Glance’ version and is great for quick access to controls when streaming Apple Music directly to the wrist.
On music, you can easily load music from preferred playlists and artists on your Apple Watch for local playback when it’s docked and connected to Wi-Fi, but I have so far loved requesting music through Siri on my AirPods, streaming directly from the Apple Music server without even needing my iPhone.
Apple no doubt understands the significance of this pairing, as they do not break out revenue for the Apple Watch and AirPods in their quarterly earnings calls. Instead, they refer to both products under the category of ‘wearables’. This is smart for a number of reasons. Not only does it obscure revenue and important data from competitors, it also bolsters the wearable category, reinforcing the value of interconnected devices that revolve around the iPhone. They are established as items of convenience and feature extension in separate, defined category.
Using AirPods with my Series 3 has dramatically enhanced the watch experience, transforming it from a handy, wrist-worn notification machine into an essential communications device. It feels more meaningful than it ever was before.
Now, this brings me to more detail on Siri.
In the face of great competition from Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortona, Siri has faced increased scrutiny and criticism. Amazon’s Alexa, in the United States particularly, has gained a great response for its predictable and reliable voice commands for variety of functions. My experience with Siri on the watch, contrary to others’ opinions, has been nothing short of stellar. I find her to be reliable and accurate most of the time and a great enhancement to my occasionally phone-free life.
With and without AirPods, I use Siri on the Apple Watch to dictate and send messages, make phone calls, ask for the weather, ask for information (historical, fact-based, etc.) and perhaps my favourite use case: requesting music in the car. I do not have Bluetooth in my car, so I plug my iPhone into USB with a Lightning cable. While driving, I can safely say ‘Hey, Siri’ without looking at my Apple Watch’s display, and ask for any music stored either locally on my present iPhone or directly from Apple Music. The vast majority of the time, Siri understands me over highway road noise and plays the correct tracks. The only real misunderstandings come from more awkward, non-English artist names or track titles, or if I request a song an alternative or obscure version of a song.I do not deny Siri’s imperfection, but I would dispute much of its criticism.
If there’s one thing that has earned the Apple Watch the most criticism, it is perhaps third-party apps. The watch got off to a slow start with apps, as developers did not have access to the full WatchKit with the first generation. Since then, the Apple Watch has gained the ability to run apps by itself, rather than always handing off to an iPhone. This naturally means that developers can make more powerful apps. I could go on and on, but I’d like to share two of the most meaningful apps that I use without my phone on me. These apps are not necessarily my most used apps, but they are great examples of the power that the watch has for search, beyond the predictable functions for communication.
Since the watch gained Cinema Mode some time ago (‘Theater Mode’ in the United States), I have though differently about how I use my watch at the movies. I no longer have to choose a different face to remain less distracting in the dark; I can now tap a button in Control Centre and avoid my wrist lighting up and disturbing others.
The free app After Credits enables users to check easily if the movie that they are watching features any additional (surprise) content during or after the credits. Having something like this on the wrist, without having to pull a phone out in the dark or wait through the entire credits, may sound niche, but is something that is of tremendous convenience. I certainly enjoy having such information only a tap away.
V for Wikipedia
I love searching for definitions, facts and a range of historical information on sites like Wikipedia. If I am passing a monument, I like to know why it’s there. If I spot an interesting building and want to know when it was constructed, I want to be able to find that easily. If I want to search for the meaning of a word, the iPhone enables me to do that.
Most would assume that the Apple Watch would not be able to fulfil such functions quickly, easily or with adequate detail. The app V for Wikipedia makes all of this possible. On the iPhone, it is a beautifully designed Wikipedia client, transforming the site into a kind of luxurious, digital book. You can search not only for articles in different languages, but also quickly jump through chapter sections, view images in full screen and even see articles about things, places, events or people that are relevant to your location.
The Apple Watch gains a focused, stripped-down version of this app, allowing you to search for articles by voice, scribble or location. I have used the app frequently as a source of information. It is quite satisfying to search all of Wikipedia on your wrist, and you can bet that I have used it to verify facts while in conversation with others. Generally, I am met with expressions of bewilderment at how I answered any given question without a smartphone. Not every developer has mastered user interface design for the watch, but V for Wiki is an example of watchOS app design done well. Across Apple Watch and iPhone, I would rank it as one of my absolute favourite apps.
Beyond these app examples, I do wish for certain improvements. My greatest wish for the Apple Watch, particularly now with cellular models, is a dedicated Apple Podcasts app. Downloading and/or syncing to the watch from an iPhone, as was definitely the case with the Music app, may also be too cumbersome an experience with something like podcasts. At least with today’s watchOS 4, if it were even possible only to stream the latest episode of any given podcast subscription, then I would be a happy chappy. Simply give me a list of my subscriptions, show me the latest episodes, and let me tap ‘play’. Podcaster Marco Arment, creator of popular podcast app Overcast, has gone into great detail on the limitations of audio synchronisation (particularly podcasts) on the watch on show Accidental Tech Podcast. There is still plenty of potential here.
Based on the Series 3’s noticeably faster hardware, it would be fantastic if many developers were to make their apps run more independently. For example, Day One (a digital journal) and Spendee (expenditure- and income-tracking) are two apps that I use frequently on the iPhone. Whilst present on the Apple Watch, they are still dependent on a connection to the phone. I am unsure of the exact technical limitations that may restrict this for developers, but perhaps some way of holding added data in the background would be appropriate, which could then sync to the watch when the connection is reestablished.
Needless to say, the biggest disadvantage of carrying only a watch is the inability to take photos. Mobile photography is now such a big part of our daily lives, and I thought that this would really bother me when being out with family and friends. Interestingly, it hasn’t all that much. It has occurred to me that I already have so many photos, and that not having a camera with me 100 per cent of the time actually allows me to be in the moment, rather than obsessively capturing it all the time. With current battery limitations in a device so small (impressive though the new battery is, lasting for two days if necessary), it would be interesting to see if Apple were to include cameras in future models. No doubt there is a greater case for a FaceTime camera rather than an iSight one, as video-calling on a watch makes more sense that capturing stills with a tiny lens. It is difficult to beat physics in this case as lenses need to be a certain thickness. Samsung’s efforts at adding cameras to their earlier Gear watches were blurred disasters, so I’m not gunning for it.
I’ve worn watches since I was a young child; the act of turning my wrist to check the time is etched into my brain. The Apple Watch obviously fulfils the role of a timepiece, but more than this, it has become a stellar device that has changed the way that I think about interacting with the digital world.
Back when I was studying, I was introduced to the somewhat pompous concept of ‘co-presence’. Quite simply, it refers to the idea of being present in two worlds simultaneously: the physical and the digital. You can be using your phone to check the status of any given social network, for example, while sitting and interacting with friends. The issue, as I see it, is that to many people fail to be really pay attention to the physical world while using their devices. The Apple Watch, I believe, enables such ‘co-presence’. A simple haptic tap, without sound, keeps me plugged in, but not locked into the digital world. Devices should augment and support experiences in the real world, rather than consume them.
All in all, I continue to be impressed by the Apple Watch. With major improvements to hardware, software and now cellular networking, it helps me to focus on the things that are actually important. I cannot wait to see where Apple will take this product category.