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Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of watchOS 3
By Jesse Hollington | 09.15.16

Announced two years ago, Apple’s wearable device has only been available for a little more than a year, and it’s already moving into its third major software iteration in the form of watchOS 3, released earlier this week alongside iOS 10. watchOS 3 is an update that makes some interesting and significant changes to the Apple Watch experience, and it also delivers a significant speed boost.

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Unlike the more mature iPhone and iPad platforms, the Apple Watch remains in its fledgling stages, and it’s clear from watchOS 3 that Apple is still working to refine the experience, and not shying away from shaking up the user interface to do so. The new watchOS 3 update makes a number of small but significant changes to how users interact with the wearable device, mostly for the better.

Installing the Update

As with prior watchOS updates, you’ll need to start the update process from the Watch app on an iPhone, and you’ll need to already have iOS 10 installed. You can check for new updates by opening the Watch app and choosing General, Software Update.

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The installation process will first download the update to the Apple Watch, and then — providing your Apple Watch has at least a 50 percent charge and is connected to power — proceed to install the update from there. Note that this one takes a while — in our experience it was about a 45 minute install, and some users have reported it taking even longer than that, likely depending on how busy Apple’s servers are.

Performance

When Kevin Lynch, Apple’s VP of Technology, unveiled watchOS 3 in June, he led off his presentation right away by demonstrating the performance boost that watchOS 3 brings to even the first-generation Apple Watch. It’s a familiar scenario for anybody who has used an Apple Watch: You launch an app, and then awkwardly hold your wrist up, watching a spinning status indicator and wondering if it wouldn’t have been faster to just pull your iPhone out of your pocket or purse.

The good news is that watchOS 3 gains absolutely staggering performance improvements — Apple promises app launch time increases of sevenfold or more, and in our experience it’s like having a whole new Apple Watch. Recent reports have suggested that Apple’s watchOS software team was far too conservative when the Apple Watch was being built, and didn’t work closely enough with the hardware team to take advantage of the performance available to it. This has clearly been rectified in watchOS 3.

There is a slight catch, however. While all apps launch noticeably faster, you’ll get the biggest performance increase for those apps that you’ve decided to keep in The Dock — a new watchOS 3 feature that replaces Glances to provide persistent access to commonly-used apps.

The Dock

The Dock is a sort of hybrid between the iOS App Switcher and the macOS Dock, providing you with a place to keep up to 10 frequently-accessed apps so that they stay open — and even update — in the background.

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You can bring up the Dock by a single press of the side button. This replaces the Friends feature from prior watchOS versions, which Apple has done away with completely. The Dock presents a user interface that is similar to switching Watch faces, presenting a list of apps that have been specifically added to the dock or recently opened. You can swipe left or right or use the Digital Crown to navigate the Dock, and tap on an app to open it. Swiping up on an app will remove it from the Dock, and recently opened apps can be added to the Dock by tapping the Keep in Dock button which appears below the app.

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You can also add, remove, and change the order of apps in the Dock by using the Watch app on your iPhone.

Glances and Control Center

With the addition of the Dock, the Glances from prior watchOS versions are gone. Swiping down instead reveals only the Control Center, which has been redesigned to provide buttons and indicators for Battery, Airplane Mode, Silence, Do Not Disturb, iPhone ping, lock, and audio output. Tapping on the battery percentage indicator opens the view that used to be the Battery glance, and Heart Rate has been moved to its own standalone app that can be access from the home screen or placed in the Dock like any other app. Now Playing can now be found in the Dock, although you can also add the Music app to the dock as well.

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Since the Dock provides live previews of the actual screens from your apps, it’s a much more effective way of glancing at information, and saves developers the effort of specifically creating Glances — many of which were poorly implemented or completely unavilable in apps; by contrast, any watchOS app can be placed in the Dock and will show a live preview of its normal screen.

Messages, Scribbles, and Digital Touch

In watchOS 3, Apple has done away with the Friends feature entirely, replacing the side button press with the Dock, and moving the previously watch-only communications features like Digital Touch over into the Messages app, where watchOS users can now use them to communicate with any other watchOS 3 or iOS 10 user. This not only seems more logical in terms of these features themselves, but opens up sending heartbeats and digital gesture drawings to anybody with an iPhone, not only your friends who also have Apple Watches.

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The addition of Digital Touch, however, is only part of a larger overhaul of the Apple Watch Messages app, which also improves the ability to respond to messages quickly through more contextual quick response options and a new Scribbles feature.

New messge notifications now show reply options directly in the notification, meaning it will take you one less tap to send a quick response. There are a lot of options, however as you scroll down into the quick responses, a Dismiss button will hover below the notification to allow you to quickly dismiss it, rather than making you scroll all the way down. You can also simply swipe downward to dismiss the notification and mark it as read, or press the Digital Crown to return to your watch face without marking it as read.

Another new response method, Scribbles, allows you to write your own response with your finger by drawing one letter at a time. Although it’s arguably not as quick as dictating a response with Siri, it can still be useful for short replies, especially in situations where you can’t use your voice. Scribbles work surprisingly well, although we imagine most users will probably still only want to use the feature only for very short responses; we really can’t see ourselves scribbling out long sentences in this manner.

The watchOS Messages app also gains support for new iOS 10 features such as sending and receiving tapbacks and viewing full-screen effects. Sending a tapback involves tapping and holding (not force pressing) your finger on a message, at which point the series of tapback bubbles will appear and you can tap to add one to the current message.

Watch Faces

No watchOS update would be complete without adding extra Watch Faces, and watchOS 3 gives you four new ones to play with, and makes it easier to switch between them as well, by swiping left or right from the edge of the screen.

Minnie Mouse

The classic Mickey Mouse Watch Face can be set to a Minnie Mouse face, and Minnie’s outfit can be set to a variety of colors to match the various Sport Watch Bands (Mickey is still limited to the classic black-and-white and red colors).

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Numerals Face

Three completely new faces are also included. Numerals is a minimalist Watch face that provides an analog clock display with the hour of the day shown in the top right corner in a choice of seven different type faces. It includes a spot in the bottom-left corner for a single Complication that can be used to show the date or any of the other smaller Complications, and the entire face can be set to one of 17 different colors.

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Activity Faces

The other two new faces are Activity Analog and Activity Digital, both designed to allow users to focus on their Activity rings — handy for those who want a face geared primarily toward workouts and fitness.

Activity Analog combines the Activity rings with an analog clock view, with the ability to display them either as concentric circles within the clock face, or three smaller circles similar to what you might find on an analog watch. The clock dial color can also be customized, and three Complications are available, set to heart rate monitoring, workouts, and weather by default.

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Activity Digital gives you the activity rings with just the numbers. The time can be displayed with or without a seconds component, and you can customize the color of the time display and setup the same three Complications as you can for the analog version.

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Switching Faces

In watchOS 3 you can also quickly switch between Watch faces by swiping from the left or right edge of the screen to move through the faces — a handy feature for those users who might like to change up their faces between work or home, or for those who like to use something more casual on the weekends.

Complications on More Faces

Here at iLounge we pretty much unanimously prefer the Modular face due to the large number of complications available, however it’s also fair to say that complication options on the other Watch faces have been somewhat limited, with photo and timelapse faces previously providing no support for any complications at all.

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Fortunately for those who like to use image-based faces, watchOS 3 brings at least one Complication to every one of the Watch Faces. You’re still not going to be able to build out a whole set like you can on Modular, but it might make you more willing to use a photo Face from time to time while still keeping more useful information on the screen. The position of the time can also be changed on photo Faces between the top and the bottom, which is particularly useful when using pictures that might obscure it (sadly for us lefties, though, the time is still only shown on the right side of the screen, which makes it more difficult to read when wearing long sleeves).

More Complications

watchOS 3 also adds more Complications covering the built-in apps. At this point, most of these appear to only be shortcuts to quickly access those apps, but they include Breathe, Find My Friends, Heart Rate, Home, Mail, Maps, Messages, Music, Phone, Reminders, Remote, and Workout, among others.

Face Gallery

In the iPhone Watch app, a list of “My Faces” is now shown at the top of the My Watch screen, showing all of the faces that are currently set up on your watch. You can tap the Edit button to re-order or remove faces, and tapping on an individual face brings up a screen where you can customize it further, including setting colors and complications.

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The Face Gallery section displays a list of all available Watch faces, with a “New in watchOS” section at the top, followed by category groupings below. Tapping on a face provides more information and configuration options, along with an “Add” button to add the face to your own set once you’ve customized it.

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The design of the Face Gallery actually feels like an “App Store for Watch Faces” and has us wondering if Apple may have broader plans here to open this up to third-party developers in a similar way to the App Store for iMessage.

New + Updated Apps

Activity

The Activity app in watchOS 3 has been slightly redesigned and enhanced with a new Activity Sharing feature, allowing you to share your activity rings with other Apple Watch users and receive notifications when they complete the rings, finish a workout, or earn achievements. Activity also includes integration with Messages to allow you to send fitness-specific cheers and jeers. Naturally, all users participating in activity sharing need to be running watchOS 3 and iOS 10; inviting others to activity sharing needs to be done from the iPhone Watch app.

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To make room for the new Activity Sharing feature, the layout of the Activity app has been modified, with the shared activity screen now to the right of the main screen, rather than showing individual rings for each goal. The move, exercise, and stand daily graphs can now be viewed by scrolling down from the main Activity rings view.

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Activity also gains the ability to handle tracking specifically for wheelchair users. In this mode, the Activity app will change to reflect a “roll” goal instead of a “stand” goal, and exercise and move goals will be calculated based on movements typically performed by wheelchair users.

Workouts

The Workouts app also gains some enhancements to improve the user experience, including a Quick Start feature that lets you get going right away with your most commonly used workouts, and multiple metrics now shown on the workout view that can be customized for each workout type.

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Pausing and resuming workouts can also now be done by pressing the Digital Crown and side button simultaneously, and the pause/resume and end workout buttons are now found by swiping to the left of the main Workout screen, rather than by using Force Touch. Siri also works now for pausing, resuming, and ending workouts, and running workouts will now pause automatically whenever you’re not running — a useful feature for urban runners who frequently have to stop for traffic lights.

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Outdoor workouts also record and store route maps with each workout now — provided you bring your iPhone with you or have a GPS-equipped second-generation Apple Watch.

Breathe

Breathe is a new app introduced in watchOS 3 that is inteneded to encourage users to perform deep-breathing exercises to help relax and reduce stress.

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Reminders to breathe appear at regular intervals in the same manner as stand reminders (this can be customized in the Breathe settings in the iPhone Watch app), and you can choose how long you’d like to breathe for and how many deep breaths you’d like to take. The Breathe app will guide you through a series of deep breaths using visual and haptic feedback.

Camera

The Camera remote app can now control the flash, live photos, HDR, zoom, burst, and switch between front and rear-facing cameras.

Calendar

It’s a minor enhancements, but the Calendar app gains the ability to let you delete events and view different calendars.

Reminders

The Apple Watch originally shipped without a Reminders app of its own — an odd omission for a device like this — and although Reminders would pop up as interactive notifications at the appropriate times, there was no way to actually view a list of Reminders without resorting to a third-party app.

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watchOS 3 fills this gap with a new Reminders app that provides access to all of your Reminders lists, including your list of Scheduled reminders, and the ability to check them off from your wrist. It doesn’t do much more than that — creating Reminders will still need to be done via Siri, or using your iPhone, iPad, or Mac — but we actually think the minimalist approach is best here. It’s a handy way to not only see what’s due, but also do things like create grocery lists that can be checked off from your wrist as you’re walking around a store.

Find My Friends

Find My Friends also makes its wristbound debut in watchOS 3, again with a minimalist approach.

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You can see location names and distances for each of your friends in the list, and tapping on a friend will provide a small map view and buttons for getting directions to that friend’s location or opening a conversation in Messages.

Timer

The Timer app now provides eight presets to for commonly used timer intervals — 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, and 20 minutes and one or two hours. Tapping these immediately starts the timer for that duration, while a Custom button at the bottom still allows you to set a manual timer as before.

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Home

Apple’s Home app from iOS 10 also comes to watchOS 3, allowing you to access the scenes and accessories you’ve designated as your favorites in the iOS app.

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Scenes and accessories are shown in a vertical list that you can scroll through by swiping or using the Digital Crown. Tapping will perform a basic activation, such as toggling a light on or off, while a button in the top right corner provides more granular accessory control, such as setting the intensity of lights. The Home app will also support notifications from IP cameras to display video in rich notifications, for instance, you can see who is at the front door when a doorbell camera rings.

Emergency SOS

While a single press of the side button now brings up the dock, and a double-press still brings up Apple Pay, pressing and holding the side button for a few seconds will intiate a phone call to the appropriate emergency services (e.g. 911) while also notifying your SOS contacts, sharing your location, and displaying your Medical ID information from the iOS Health app.

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A Medical ID slider is also now shown on the power off screen, which can still be accessed by holding the side button down for a couple of seconds, prior to the actual Emergency SOS mode being engaged. The emergency contact phone numbers in the Medical ID card are also tappable and can initiate a call to the appropriate contact — provided the user’s iPhone is in range, of course.

Conclusions

watchOS 3 is a really solid update for Apple’s wearable device — the performance improvements alone are absolutely staggering, and most users will agree after installing watchOS 3 that it basically feels like you’ve got a whole new watch on your wrist. However, it goes beyond that, with improvements to the built-in apps — and the introduction of some very useful new ones — that really enhance the user experience. Further, the UI changes take the Apple Watch in a more evolved direction; the Dock makes a lot more sense than Glances did, and makes far better use of the side button, and the former “Friends” communication features have been moved into the Messages app — a considerably more logical place for them that also lets iPhone users join the party. Enhancements to Activity and Workout apps also push the Apple Watch forward as a more versatile fitness device, and bring a nice social aspect to staying in shape. In our opinion, watchOS 3 is a required update for any Apple Watch user.

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