While only a little more than a year old, the Apple Watch is about to embark on its third major operating system update in the form of watchOS 3, announced earlier this week at Apple’s WWDC, and now available as a Developer Preview for registered developers. In this Inside the betas installment, we’re taking a closer look at what’s coming in the new version of Apple’s wearable operating system, which promises significant speed improvements and makes some interesting UI changes to the device.
Faster App Launching
Kevin Lynch, Apple’s VP of Technology, led off his watchOS 3 presentation by addressing an issue that every Apple Watch user has probably complained about — the speed of launching apps. If you’ve ever used an Apple Watch, the scenario is likely a familiar one: You launch an app, and are confronted by a spinning status indicator while you awkwardly hold your wrist up, waiting for something to happen and wondering if it wouldn’t have been faster to just pull your iPhone out of your pocket or purse.
According to Lynch, watchOS 3 increases app launch times by sevenfold or more, and from our own look at the first beta of watchOS 3, he’s not exaggerating. We’re not sure what magic stuff Apple has up its sleeve here, but we were shocked by the difference, particularly considering it’s not only running on the same hardware that seemed so sluggish before, but that it’s also a first beta, which is usually sluggish at the best of times courtesy of the prominent debug code.
While Lynch glossed over it somewhat in his presentation, there is a catch to this performance boost: It only applies to apps that are kept in the Dock.
watchOS 3 introduces a new user interface construct which Apple now calls the Dock. It’s sort of a hybrid between the iOS App Switcher and the macOS Dock, providing a place to keep frequently accessed apps.
The Dock is accessed by pressing the side button, replacing the Friends feature (which appears to have vanished completely in watchOS 3). The user interface in the Dock is similar to the one used for switching Watch faces, but it instead presents a list of apps that have been specifically added to the dock, as well as those that have been opened recently. You can navigate the Dock by swiping left and right, or using the Digital Crown; tapping on an app opens it and swiping up removes it from the Dock. Recently opened apps also appear here, and can be added to the Dock by tapping the “Keep in Dock” button which appears below the app preview.
Glances are Gone
The Dock also replaces the Glances feature found in prior watchOS versions. Since the Dock provides a view of actual app screens, all of which are live previews, Apple clearly feels that it’s a more effective way of glancing at information, and we’d tend to agree considering that Glances needed to be designed and coded for specifically in each app, and were therefore often poorly implemented or completely unavailable.
Swiping down now 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 accessed from the home screen or placed in the Dock like any other app.
Messages, Scribbles, and Digital Touch
The Messages app in watchOS 3 has also received an overhaul, improving the ability to respond to messages quickly and integrating the Digital Touch features previously found in the Friends app.
Notifications of new messages now present reply options directly on the notification, requiring one less tap in order to send a response (previously you had to tap “reply” first). The downside, however, is that if you simply want to dismiss a notification, you’ll now need to scroll through all of the canned responses to find the “Dismiss” button down at the very bottom. Of course, you can also simply swipe the notification away or press the Digital Crown, which will get the notification out of the way without marking it as read.
watchOS 3 also adds Scribbles, a new feature that lets you write your own response with your finger by drawing one letter at a time. It’s arguably not as quick as simply dictating a response with Siri, but can be useful for short replies in situations where you can’t use your voice. The feature works surprisingly well, but most users will probably still only want to use it for very short responses — we can’t see ourselves scribbling out long sentences in this manner. Right now, Message notifications show a “Scribble” button to access the feature directly, but when you’re viewing messages in the Messages app, you’ll instead see three buttons for sending emoticons, text responses, and Digital Touch; the middle text response button will take you to the list of canned responses with a Scribble and dictation button at the bottom.
As we mentioned earlier, watchOS 3 seems to have done away with Friends entirely, and the Digital Touch features have been moved over into Messages. With Messages in iOS 10 now also supporting Digital Touch, this will open up these features to a much wider audience — users who don’t have friends who are Apple Watch users can now send Digital Touch messages and Scribbles to anybody with an iPhone — as long as it’s running iOS 10 or later. The feature otherwise works in much the same way as it did before, except that the resulting Digital Touch or Heartbeat messages are sent via iMessage.
No watchOS update would be complete without adding extra Watch Faces, and watchOS 3 will give us four new ones to play with, while making it easier to switch between them, as well.
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).
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.
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.
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.
watchOS 3 will also add the ability to 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 use something more casual on the weekends.
Complications on More Faces
The team here at iLounge pretty much unanimously prefers the Modular face simply due to the large number of complications available, but it’s also fair to say that complication options across the various Watch faces have been somewhat limited. In fact, photo and timelapse faces offer no support for any complications at all.
watchOS 3 will change this, bringing 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 information on the screen. In addition, the position of the time can 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).
watchOS 3 will also add more Complications for 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.
iPhone Watch App (iOS 10)
Apple appears to be working on improvements to the Watch app in iOS 10, which will allow users to configure Watch faces from the iPhone, as well as viewing a face gallery of all of the possible options.
A list of “My Faces” is now shown at the top of the My Watch screen, which displays all of the faces that are currently set up. An “Edit” button allows faces to be re-ordered or removed, and tapping on an individual face will bring up a screen to further customize it, including setting colors and complications.
The Face Gallery shows a list of all available Watch faces, with a “New in watchOS” section at the top, and groupings by category 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.
The design of the Face Gallery actually feels like an “App Store for Watch Faces” and got us thinking that Apple may have broader plans here to open this up to third-party developers.
The Watch app also includes other more expected changes relevant to watchOS 3, such as the Glances section being removed in favor of a Dock section, and new options for the new apps included in watchOS 3.
The Reminders app in watchOS 3 will fill this gap, providing access to all of your Reminders lists, including your list of Scheduled reminders, and the ability to check them off from your wrist. Right now 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.
Find My Friends
Find My Friends will also make its wristbound debut in watchOS 3. It’s there as of the first beta, but doesn’t yet appear to be fully functional, presenting only a message to verify network connectivity. Apple has also promised that Find My Friends will update in the background, which should speed things up when try to meet up with your friends.
The Timer app now provides four pre-sets to for commonly-used timer intervals — 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, and 10 minutes. Tapping these immediately starts the timer for that duration. There doesn’t yet appear to be any way to customize these presets.
Apple’s own HomeKit app from iOS 10 will also be making an appearance in watchOS 3, basically mirroring the same favorite scenes and accessories as found in the new iOS 10 Control Center.
Scenes and accessories are presented in a vertical list that can be scrolled through with the Digital Crown or by swiping up and down, and can be activated simply by tapping. A button in the top-right corner will provide more detailed accessory control, such as setting the intensity of lights.
The Activity app in watchOS 3 gains a few new enhancements, including the ability to share your activity rings with other Apple Watch users, along with Messages integration to send fitness-specific cheers and jeers. This naturally requires all users to be running watchOS 3 and iOS 10 — the latter is required to initiate activity sharing, as this is done from the Activity app on the iPhone.
As a result of the new Activity Sharing feature, the layout of the Activity app has also been changed. Shared activity screens are now shown to the right of the main activity screen, rather than the individual rings for each goal. The move, exercise, and stand daily graphs have been moved to the screens found by scrolling down from the main Activity rings view.
Activity also gains the ability to handle tracking specifically for wheelchair users, in which case 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.
With watchOS 3, Apple is also introducing a new Breathe app, which is intended to encourage users to perform deep-breathing exercises to help you relax and reduce stress.
Reminders to breathe appear every so often in the same manner as stand reminders, and you can choose how long you’d like to breathe for and how many deep breaths you’d like to take, at which point the Watch will guide you a series of deep breaths, with visual and haptic feedback.
Several other features were revealed during the watchOS 3 presentation earlier this week that are clearly still works in progress or will require third-party developer support.
SOS on the Watch
This is a new built-in feature designed to allow users to automatically place a call to the appropriate emergency services (e.g. 911) in the event of an emergency, as well as sending the user’s location and medical ID card to specified emergency contacts.
The feature doesn’t appear to be present in this initial beta, although notably the power-off screen accessed by holding down the side button does now show a slider for Medical ID below the Power Off slider. Lock and Power Reserve options have also been removed from this screen. The emergency contact phone numbers in the Medical ID card are also tappable and will initiate a call to the appropriate contact — provided the user’s iPhone is in range, of course.
A number of other watchOS 3 features are aimed at enhancing what developers can do with the wearable device, and will require updated third-party apps before we really see them come to fruition. This includes things like Apple Pay support for in-app purchses, the ability for third-party workout apps to run in the background, and an improved graphics engine. Developers will also now be able to get native event support from the Digital Crown and touch gestures in their apps, as well as integration with Game Center and CloudKit.
watchOS 3 is currently in closed developer beta, and is expected to be released in the fall. Unlike iOS 10 and macOS Sierra, Apple has not indicated any plans to release a watchOS 3 public beta.
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