This week Apple released watchOS 5, the fifth major update to the Apple Watch. While Apple spent the first few watchOS versions working out the optimal Apple Watch user experience, last year’s release of watchOS 4 saw the beginning of a more evolutionary approach to the Apple Watch, building on the stable foundation established by watchOS 3 and making some minor refinements to the overall user experience. This year’s release of watchOS 5 largely leaves the overall UI alone, focusing instead on adding new features and improvements within the core apps.
Installing the Update
As with prior watchOS updates, you’ll need to start the update process from the Watch app on your iPhone, and you’ll need to already have iOS 12 installed to do so. You can check for new updates by opening the Watch app and choosing General, Software Update.
As usual, 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. This one seems to be considerably faster than last year’s watchOS 4 update, although your mileage will vary based on what model of Apple Watch you’re using.
There is a catch this year, however; for the first time in a watchOS update, Apple has kicked an older model the curb — you’ll need at least an Apple Watch Series 1 to install watchOS 5, and like last year’s release of watchOS 4, the requirement for the paired iPhone to be running iOS 12 means you’ll need to be using an iPhone 5s or later.
As we’ve already mentioned, there are relatively few system-wide changes in watchOS 5 compared to prior releases. While Apple played with a few different user interfaces up to watchOS 3, and added a few refinements to the Dock and App Launcher in watchOS 4, the most signficant change in watchOS 5 is the ability to reorganize the layout of the buttons in the Control Centre.
An “Edit” button now appears at the bottom of the Control Center, which you can tap on to enter an editing mode that allows you to drag and drop any of the Control Centre buttons to any other position. Unlike editing the Control Center on an iPhone or iPad, you won’t actually be able to remove any of the buttons, but you can place them anywhere you want, leaving the ones you rarely or never use down at the bottom. Also note that there’s no option to revert to the default layout.
You can also now join Wi-Fi networks directly from the Apple Watch Settings app, entering a password — if necessary — using the Scribble interface, although Siri dictation doesn’t appear to be supported here. However, joining captive networks like those found in places like Starbucks is not supported, despite the new ability to view rich web content in Messages and Mail.
As usual, with a major watchOS update comes a new set of Watch Faces. While watchOS 5 doesn’t offer quite the same unique collection as last year’s Siri Face and Toy Story Faces, it does add a new Breathe watch face — in three styles — along with three new motion faces — Fire & Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor.
The Breathe Watch Face, which is available in Classic, Calm, and Focus styles, is designed to provide the ability to do breathing/mindfulness exercises simply by raising your wrist, with the ebb and flow of the image synchronized with breathing. Tapping on the Watch Face takes you directly into the Breathe app. Even if you’re not into the breathing exercises, the Breathe Watch Face has a certain calming, zen-like quality that we think many will appreciate.
The Fire & Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor Faces are variations on the same theme of motion watch faces, and can be configured in various single color styles, or to cycle through all of them. Fire & Water of course lets you choose between “fire” and “water” styles, while Liquid Metal is availble in silver, gold, and black, and vapor in blue/green, black/white, or pink/orange. Conceptually all of the styles are the same, feature an analog clock in a round circle in which the fire, water, liquid metal, or vapors all ebb and flow. All of the new Watch Faces provide room for three complications, similar to the other analog Watch Faces.
The Photos Watch Face also gains support for displaying photos from a recent memory in the iOS Photos app, although there seems to be no way to choose a specific memory.
As the Apple Watch has evolved, the Activity app has probably become the core feature for most Apple Watch users, and while Activity has allowed you to share your activity metrics with your friends, this year Apple is taking it up a notch to allow you to actually challenge your friends to competitions, building on the personal challenges added last year in watchOS 4.
With watchOS 5, you’ll be able to invite any other Apple Watch user to compete in a seven-day Activity competition where you’ll both earn points for closing Activity Rings — one point for every percent added to the rings each day. Additional personalized notifcations help encourage you and keep you on track just like with individual Activity prompts.
A new Awards screen in the Activity app on iOS 12 replaces the former “Achievements” section, displaying recent awards prominently at the top, followed by awards from Competitions, and then categories for in-progress challenges, limited edition awards, monthly challenges, closing rings, and workouts.
The Workout app gains what may arguably be the most useful feature we’ve yet seen in the form of the ability to automatically detect when you’ve begun a workout, or ended one. While watchOS has been able to pause running workouts automatically for some time, this feature goes a big step beyond that by not only automatically detecting when you’ve begun working out — even something as simple as a walk — but giving you retroactive credit.
For example, after about ten minutes into a brisk walk, the Apple Watch will pop up a notification asking you if you’re working out. Tapping the “Record Workout” button will start the workout to include all of the data from the beginning of your walk. Of course, this is possible because the Apple Watch is always tracking your motion — the Workout app is just a way of actually recording that data. We’ve been using this feature for several months now, and we’ve found it particularly great for keeping a record of more casual exercise like walking, where you may not always think to start a workout when you’re going about your day, although it’s not perfect — we frequently get asked if we want to start an elliptical workout when grinding our coffee in the morning.
watchOS 5 also adds support for yoga and hiking workouts, and expands the workout features for runners with the ability to set a target pace and receive alerts if you fall below that pace, as well as tracking cadence, and providing a rolling mile metric to show the pace for the immediately preceding mile.
With Apple Music coming to the Apple Watch last year with watchOS 4, the addition of Apple Podcasts this year came as little surprise. If you’ve already used the Music app on the Apple Watch, you’ll find that the new Podcasts app works in pretty much the same way.
Your list of subscribed podcasts of course syncs over to the Apple Watch, where you can stream any episode directly over a Wi-Fi or Cellular connection to listen to using Bluetooth headphones. Recent episodes are downloaded to the Apple Watch and will be avilable for offline listening, and from the iPhone Watch app you can choose to simply transfer over your “Listen Now” queue, or select a custom list of podcast episodes to sync. Episodes will be automatically removed from the Apple Watch once played.
Apple has also added a new Podcasts complication, which is basically just a shortcut to the Podcasts app.
Walkie-Talkie is the one brand new feature in watchOS 5, which, as the name implies, turns the Apple Watch into a two-way wrist communicator. While you could talk to your friends before using FaceTime Audio, Walkie-Talkie allows for faster and more casual interactions, allowing you to talk to friends and family at the tap of a button, using whatever internet connetion you have available — direct Wi-Fi, cellular, or via your paired iPhone.
Friends can be added directly from your iOS Contacts list, although, perhaps for privacy reasons, the list isn’t filtered based on who actually has an Apple Watch running watchOS 5, so you can invite anybody, and will only be notified if they don’t have the necssary equipment after attempting to invite them. Walkie-Talkie uses unique sounds and haptics, so you’ll know when somebody is trying to contact you, as opposed to just another routine notification, and there’s a new Walkie-Talkie complication to provide even quicker access from your watch face. You can also set your availability for Walkie-Talkie to avoid being disturbed when you’re busy. Of course, the feature is only useful if you have friends and family members who also have Apple Watches with watchOS 5, but for those who do, it’s a cool way to keep in touch.
Apple introduced a new Siri Watch Face with last year’s release of watchOS 4 which attempted to bring Siri’s proactive assistant features to your wrist by surfacing data such as reminders, calendar appointments, weather, and alarms, but sadly the feature was limited by being restriced to Apple’s own built-in apps.
Fortunately, Apple has opened this up to third-party developers in watchOS 5, and there are already updates to popular apps showing up on the App Store that will be able to plug into the Siri Watch Face. For instance, Carrot Weather can provide weather information, while Things allows you to see your next upcoming task. In addition, Apple has added support for Maps on the Siri Watch Face which will show directions and ETA to your next calendar appointment, along with heart rate measurements, and live sports scores and upcoming games for favorite teams (as determined by settings from Apple’s TV app). You can choose what data sources to display on the Siri Watch Face from the iPhone Watch app
All in all, the new “cards” on the Siri Watch Face should make the feature much more practical for everyday use, and we’ve already found ourselves using the Siri Watch Face more often.
watchOS 5 gains the new notification management features also found in iOS 12. Notifications can now be automatically grouped together to avoid clutter, and swiping left on a notification displays a new button that allows you to manage the notifications on the watch, including a new “Deliver Quietly” option which will put the notification in the watchOS Notification Center without sounding an alert or haptic vibration.
Third-party app notifications also gain interactive controls that allow you to quickly make choices directly from the notification without having to open the app, for example a notification from a reservation app like Yelp or OpenTable could let you modify the time or change the number of guests right from the notification.
When enabling Do Not Disturb from the Control Centre, you’ll now be prompted to turn it on until the next schedule, or only enable it for one hour, until the end of the current appointment, or until you leave the current location. If you’re mirroring Do Not Disturb with your iPhone, your selection will apply to both devices.
With watchOS 4, Apple added the ability to receive notifications when a user’s heart rate rose above a certain threshold while the user was otherwise inactive. watchOS 5 expands this by allowing users to be alerted when the heart rate falls below a certain threshold. The feature is opt-in; users will be asked whether they want to enable it when opening the Heart Rate app for the first time after updating to watchOS 5. The thresholds can be adjusted from the Heart Rate section of the iPhone Watch app.
As noted earlier, the Siri Watch Face also now includes heart rate measurements, such as resting rate, walking average, and recovery rate.
Mail and Messages
One small but significant improvement in both Mail and Messages is the ability to view rich web content, such as HTML e-mails and links to web pages. Previously, opening an HTML e-mail in the Apple Watch Mail app would show whatever plain text was avilable, accompanied by a note that the rest of the message can’t be read on the Apple Watch. With watchOS 5, the content will be rendered using WebKit. Similarly, tapping on a link in a Messages conversation will now open a mini web-browser to load up the page content, attempting to optimize it for the text, similar in concept to how Safari’s Reading mode works.
For e-mails, how readable this is will depend on the original message, of course — you probably won’t be reading most HTML newsletters on the Apple Watch, but it’s a welcome and useful addition considering how many people send HTML e-mails by default just for otherwise plain text. Opening links in Messages seems to fare better due to Apple’s choice to render the text in a sort of “Reader” mode.
One thing that we were disappointed in that’s worth mentioning is that despite Apple’s push toward Messages in iCloud, watchOS 5 ironically still doesn’t sync up deleted Messages conversations with the iPhone, in either direction.
Odds and Ends
Apple’s built-in Weather, World Clock, and Stocks apps get some small improvements, mostly by allowing you to add cities and stocks directly without having to rely on your paired iPhone. The Weather app also gains metrics for air quality, UV index, and wind speed in supported regions.
You can also now answer FaceTime video calls directly from the Apple Watch — as audio-only calls, and watchOS 5 gains the ability to automatically install software updates overnight, similar to the iPhone.
With watchOS 5, we’re seeing the maturing of Apple’s wearable operating system. After quite a bit of back-and-forth over the first three watchOS updates, Apple appeared to have settled on a final overall UI design with watchOS 4 last year, and now we’ve reached the stage where the company is adding enhancements and features rather than tinkering with the user experience. While there’s no single groundbreaking feature in watchOS 5, there are a lot of little quality-of-life improvements that make the update greater than the sum of its parts, and for the first time with the Apple Watch we think Apple has avoided taking any steps backward with watchOS 5 — everything here adds to the overall experience, without detracting from it by removing features or changing up familiar UI elements. While we can understand that some users may want to take a “wait-and-see” approach to major new OS updates, our experience with watchOS 5 is that it’s been remarkably stable, even during the latter part of the beta cycle, and we really can’t see any reason not to jump on board with the update, especially for users with more recent Apple Watch models that can take advantage of the advanced heart rate and workout features.