A Fitness-Centric Review of watchOS 3 and iOS 10

It’s fair to say that the Apple Watch was released as a beta product. Then again it is fair to say that pretty much every first generation product is a beta product. When you think about it, all technology exists in a state of perpetual beta. Technology, to borrow from Walt Disney’s famous quote about his theme park, will never be completed.

Still, the Apple Watch felt different. Apple is normally great at telling you why a product exists. Think of the iPad, which was introduced by Steve Jobs sitting at a couch leaning back and consuming content.1 But the watch felt confused. Was it a fitness tracker, a wrist computer, a communication device? The first watchOS had no answer to this question. Nor did the follow up watchOS 2. It tried, but largely failed, to fix the performance problems that ended up dwarfing the confused messaging.

This time though, with watchOS 3, not only has the performance problem been addressed much more successfully, if imperfectly, but we now have an answer to why the Apple Watch. For everything else it can do, it is first and foremost a fitness device.

This is great news for me because that is the main reason I have used it ever since launch day. I have never missed a single day of closing all three activity rings. I have tried numerous run tracking apps, some more successful than others, and I even started using it while sleeping thanks to watchOS 2’s ability for sleep trackers to function.2

It is true that iOS 10 will touch far more people than watchOS 3. Smartphones, and to a much lesser extent tablets, dwarf the sales of smartwatches, which remain a niche, if growing category. But iOS has had the fitness bug too for a few years now. And when paired with watchOS 3, a very advanced health and wellness platform emerges.

This will be the focus of my review. I am not going to try to be exhaustive and cover every aspect of these updates. MacStories will do a far better job than I. This is about how I use the Apple Watch, and how that works with the iPhone. I will cover some of the more notable non-fitness features of iOS and watchOS later on, but first and foremost this is a fitness centric review.

I also should point out that this review is being posted a few days before the new Apple Watch Series 2 is available. I have preordered one and it should arrive Friday. The built in GPS function may well be a game changer. For now this review will not take this into consideration as it is too soon to know how this will actually play out. I’ll certainly have an update once I am able to use it for a while.

Activity Watch Faces

One of the more notable ways in which the Apple Watch has diverged from other smart watches is in the the inability to add custom watch faces. Pebble and Android Wear both offer developers a way to create and distribute additional faces. Apple has resisted calls to do the same, and aside from special products like the Hermes watch, which includes its own exclusive face, we more or less have what we started with.

This has not changed in watchOS 3, but in keeping with the theme of fitness first, there are two new fitness centric watch faces (in addition to one more simple face that does nothing for me personally). Basically the activity rings are elevated from mere complication to the focus of the face itself. Available in both an analog and digital face, these new additions make it much easier to see exactly where you are in your daily health routine at a glance.

The digital fitness face is the most utilitarian face on the watch, even more than the modular face. The analog version is a little nicer in my opinion, offering a choice of the rings as concentric circles, comprising the majority of the screen, or as three separate rings with numerical stats. Both offer two small complications at the top and one larger one at the bottom. The analog face, if you use the three separate circles, can also show the date. Annoying the date will still be hidden for a few minutes every hour by the minute hand passing over it. If fitness is your thing but you still want more of a traditional wrist watch look, the analog fitness face is probably the one you will use most frequently.

The activity faces are bold, and they will certainly not be appropriate for all situations. I remember the furor over watchOS 2’s changing of the activity rings from monochrome to color on the Utility face. These faces are even more bright (some would say garish). The difference with watchOS 3 is that Apple seems to now be aware that watch faces are meant to be swapped in and out. A simple swipe gesture now lets you easily move from face to face. The iPhone app now has the ability to change the order of your watch faces, a very welcome addition to the app.

Personally I have ended up using the activity faces most of the time. The only time I switch away are for more formal occasions or at night. Speaking of which…

Sleep Tracking

Sleep tracking has been one of the core functions of other fitness trackers such as Fitbit, Jawbone, and Withings for some time now. Apple has offered sleep stats inside the Health app since it launched, but has never offered their own method to actually track sleep, until iOS 10 anyway. While the feature remains elusive on watchOS as a built in function, a few third parties have made some rather excellent sleep tracking apps. My favorite of these is one of the first to be released for watchOS 2, Sleep++ from the prolific developer @_davidsmith.

Using the Apple Watch as a sleep tracker does require a little more planning than normal use, although not as much as you might think. The biggest barrier to using the watch as a sleep tracker is that its battery is only capable of about 18 or so hours of use. More than enough to get through the day, but not enough to make it through the day and the night. The reason this is less an issue than you may think is because the watch will charge itself relatively quickly. So my usage routine is this: When I wake up I immediately put the watch on the charger and leave it there until I head out for work. Then I wear it through the day. When I get home I let it charge for about an hour or so before bed, then use it at night as a sleep tracker. This has worked great for me, and I have yet to see the battery even come close to depleting.

By tracking my sleep with the watch, I also get a fuller picture of my health by using apps like HeartWatch, which will compile both sleep and heart rate data. A common complaint about sleep trackers is that they really only offer data with little to no context or useful action. But an irregular heart rate can be something to be concerned about. It’s not yet at the point of being a little medical station on your wrist, but we keep taking steps there.

Sleep++ stores data in Health, which makes it available to most other iOS fitness apps. Another nice benefit is that I can use my watch as my alarm clock. And this ties into a new feature of iOS 10 that Apple didn’t really talk about, but that I find extremely useful. The Clock app on the iPhone is now a sleep tracker. A very basic one, but a sleep tracker nonetheless.

Inside the Clock app is a new tab called Bedtime. The idea is twofold. First, it reminds you when to head to sleep in order to get a full night’s rest. Simple as that sounds, a shocking number of people I know, myself included, very often don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes by pretty dramatic amounts. Having that little reminder is a nice way to get yourself into a better routine, even if you don’t follow it perfectly. The second function is as an actual sleep tracker. The Clock app will record how long you sleep, and includes an alarm function to wake you in the morning. This alarm is not a blaring alarm, but more of a soothing, wake slowly type. This is where the watch comes back in. Since I am wearing it, I don’t hear the alarm at all. Instead the watch vibrates to wake me. Personally I feel this is a better way to wake up than a loud blaring siren. It also has the benefit of not waking my husband, who still has a few more hours to sleep before he needs to wake. The Clock app will store your sleep in Health if you like, though I have disabled this since Sleep++ does a better job. It’s very simple sleep tracking, all you get is bedtime through waking up. It is not capable of tracking how often you wake at night, nor light vs deep sleep. Still, its nice to see Apple offer a built in option. And I do use it now as my primary alarm.

Thanks to the quick watch face switching, I now use the Sleep++ complication to start and stop sleep sessions. My nighttime watch face also includes a few other complications that are useful to glance at if I wake in the middle of the night. It’s the only time I actually use the battery complication.

Activity App

The Activity app on the iPhone is an interesting one. It is technically “installed” by default, but it does not appear unless you have an Apple Watch paired with your phone. Its existence as a mere accessory to the watch has been apparent since the beginning. Activity tracked on the watch would appear here, but activities tracked on the phone would not. When watchOS 2 launched, watch apps could write workout data here and sync it over, but phone apps, even if they were the same app, were frozen out. This has changed in iOS 10, and it is one of the most welcome additions from my perspective.

With iOS 10, any app that stores workout data in HealthKit will now also be reflected in the Workout section of the Activity app, even if the watch was not involved at all. My new favorite run tracking app, iSmoothRun, has a watch app, but it currently does not actually write workout data from the watch all directly. It merely controls the iPhone app, which handles saving data and writing it out to Health. With this new update, that distinction no longer matters, as iSmoothRun data appears right along side activities tracked from the watch directly.

This may seems like a subtle change, but it completely alters the way I handle workouts. Previously I was tracking in two places. One was the built in workout app on the watch, the other was iSmoothRun on my iPhone. This was to make sure workouts appears in the Activity app, while still sending data off to RunKeeper and the other platforms I use.3

This also allows for apps that do not have a watch component at all to contribute to Activity. I use GymHero for strength training, something the watch has never really tracked, which now is also included in my daily activity summary.

This alleviates the need to even care where and how my activities are tracked. It seemed strange that Apple was holding this data in a central place (HealthKit) but not utilizing it themselves in their other product. It’s likely to go unnoticed, but for a fitness tracking junkie like me, it is very welcome.

There is only one downside. For activities I previously tracked on both the watch and the phone, I am now seeing duplicate data. Not a huge deal, and I will take it rather than how things were, but I do hope that they can build in some intelligence in the future to de-duplicate these things. The import from HealthKit is retroactive, so old workouts will appear. This may compound the duplication problem, but I still think that is better than ignoring that data completely.

Health App

Health is a great app that has been sitting on the sidelines for a very long time. It launched with iOS 8, but a last minute bug prevented anything from actually working with it on that date. The update that fixed it ended up disabling people’s phones entirely. Not a great start.

Following that it kind of just sat there, dutifully pulling in data. But I don’t think a lot of people actually used it, or even opened it. Part of the issue may have been the interface itself. It was…fine. But the first screen you saw was empty. You had to actively add data to the main dashboard. It wasn’t always clear that this data was being captured at all, even if some of it was coming directly from your phone’s own sensor.

With iOS 10, the first launch no longer shows you a blank screen commanding you to add data, it now shows you a bright layout of the kind of data that can be, and has been, added. It is now much clearer which data you have collected, and which you haven’t. The Today tab automatically adds cards for any data collected today. If you didn’t cycle today, you won’t see a blank entry anymore. The whole experience flows much better. It leads to less tapping around looking for entries. Its a summary of all the data you have collected in one place.4 Health has never been about taking over the job of these apps, even if Apple’s hardware has made a separate pedometer pretty much superfluous. It is about seeing all of that data in one simple, clean, unified interface.

Prior to iOS 10 I didn’t open Health all that often. It was mostly there as a sync system so that data entered in one app was available to another. Now I am much more likely to open it on a day to day basis as I can very quickly get a visually appealing summary of the day. I don’t expect a whole lot to change in how developers interact with HealthKit in iOS 10, aside from some new data points such as time awake in sleep records, but I do think users of iOS are far more likely to actually open this app now. Maybe enough to move it out of people’s junk drawers.5

Third Party Apps

Remember the first iPhone? There was no app store. There were no apps beyond the ones Apple included. Well, aside from web apps, which back then were little more than novelty websites. The first time Apple added a new app, it wasn’t even aligned to the left of the screen. Then we got the App Store. And ever since it has been apps everywhere, all the time.

The Apple Watch was an app platform right from the start…sort of. The “apps” for watchOS 1 were little more than displays for the iPhone app to which they were attached. With watchOS 2, apps could run independently. But both versions featured one enormous problem. They were slow. Slow to the point of unusable. Every launch was a waiting game while staring at spinning dots. Sometime it finally launched, sometimes it didn’t. A few apps found a way to work within these constraints, but for the most part users gradually soured on even trying, and many developers stopped trying.

In watchOS 3 things are better. Much better. At least when it comes to apps in the dock. This new feature replaces the old side button communication feature.6 Essentially, Apple now allows users control of which apps get to be important. If you put an app in the dock, or add it via a complication on the watch face, you are telling watchOS that this app is something you will be using frequently.

This actually brings a level of strategy to watchOS we have not seen before. RAM and battery are limited on the Apple Watch, so you can’t just let everything run all the time. But due to the constraints of the hardware, having everything quit and launch from scratch leads to a terrible experience. So pick your favorites. The dock supports up to 10 apps, but I found that filling it caused my watch to slow a bit. It even crashed a few times during the beta, although that seems to have been resolved in the final release. Still, I think we have proven with this platform that less is more, and the dock is no different.

Here is an example of this in action. When I would start a run with iSmoothRun I previously had to launch the app way in advance since it would take some time for it to even start up. In some cases it took over a minute for the app to launch and communicate back to the phone. Too long if I am truing to time a run. On watchOS 3, opening it from the dock took under a second to launch. The difference really is amazing. Try an app that isn’t in this privileged list though and its still the same old spinning (though now the app icon is presented instead of generic dots).

The old honeycomb app screen is still there. It needs to be for the apps that you don’t put into the dock. In reality, I pretty much never use this screen anymore as all apps I use can either be a complication or have a place in the dock. Clearly Apple is deemphasizing this as well. You won’t find a single product screenshot on the site now that shows it.

There is really only one downside to this change. Glances have been removed entirely (swiping up now leads to Control Center only). Glances we’re not great with one exception. The “Now Playing” glance was extremely useful for music and other audio playback. And it was the glance that I always left active so it was always a swipe away. Not so in watchOS 3. The solution is to put the Now Playing app first in the dock. It’s still an extra tap, but at least it is still easy to get to.

The effect this new app model had for me is that I use apps way more than before, but I also use way fewer. In fact, I uninstalled almost all of the third party apps from my watch. The ones that stayed are mostly fitness apps, as you might have expected by now. The only really notable non-fitness third party app I am still using is Drafts. I do occasionally find it useful to save a quick note via Siri on the watch, and Drafts allows me to do that quickly, then decide later where that text will actually go.

It makes sense really. Not every phone app needs to be a watch app. It isn’t a productivity platform. Your phone will always be better for that. The best thing a developer could do is add actionable notifications to their apps, which the watch will pick up without needing any additional coding. If you want an app on the watch, it needs to be there for a reason. It needs to be fast, and interactions need to be brief. There is certainly room for a vibrant app ecosystem here, even outside of fitness. But simply shrinking a phone app down isn’t the answer. Live by the limitations, or die by them.

Sharing

There is a tendency among Apple analysts to refer to the company as “late to the game”. This often occurs with categories, such as fitness trackers and smartwatches, that are still being defined. In this case though, I do think they really were late to the game. Consider the fact that the Apple Watch, until this release, had a button that was entirely dedicated to communicating with other watch owners. And yet fitness sharing, something that every other fitness platform offered, was absent.

Part of this may be due to Apple’s extreme caution when it comes to privacy. Health data is at the top of their list when it comes to data to be protected. There is no option at all to store any of the Apple Health data in the cloud, and developers are explicitly forbidden from putting this data into iCloud. Health data won’t even backup to iTunes unless it is encrypted.

But with iOS 10 Apple has finally decided to allow at least some sharing. The activity app now allows you to share with, and view the rings of other users. There is no social network to set up here. All you do is send a request to the Apple ID of the person with whom you wish to share (very similar to sharing HomeKit configurations). The app will suggest users in your contacts who own a watch (and are running watchOS 3). Interestingly, you have to initiate this from the phone. There is no way to request sharing from the watch. I guess having to enter an Apple ID on the watch is too tedious. Although simply tapping on a suggested friend should be possible.

Once both parties agree, shared data can be viewed both in the iPhone Activity app, as well as on the watch itself. Gone is the pagination that once separated Move, Exercise, and Stand data. This has all been compiled into one scrollable list in the watch Activity app (an improvement in terms of usability). The single additional page now shows you shared data, although interestingly you must use the phone to make the initial connection. You can send messages to individual users, or to everyone on your “team”.

It is a simple enough addition, but an important one. A little friendly competition really can help motivate people to try harder at reaching their goals. And as I have shown up to this point in the review, this is clearly a motivating factor for Apple. Their health initiatives are not mere features on a checkbox. Clearly the company sees this as important going forward.

Other Features

That about covers the fitness aspects of the new releases. But there are a few additional features, mainly in iOS 10, that are notable. The 800 pound gorilla in the room is Messages. I know this is a huge feature that got a ton of stage time. But I just can’t bring myself to care. Maybe that will change after wide release since my pool of beta users was limited. But I still send messages in full sentences with punctuation. So maybe I am just not the right user for this.

Widgets

Remember widgets? That was a major feature of Mac OS X Tiger. They were bright, bubbly, and they flew in to your desktop. And not too long after that they were forgotten. The Dashboard feature of macOS kept getting push out more and more. Eventually it became a space off to the side, with most of the functionality moving over to the notifications bar. It’s off by default now but, amazingly, it’s still there in macOS Sierra. Perhaps Dashboard will be like Stickies. Never getting an update again, but kicking around in release after release.

But here comes iOS 10, and widgets are back. Okay, it was iOS 8 that brought us “Today” widgets in the notification pulldown. But iOS 10 actually makes them more prominent. Now, just like the moribund Dashboard in macOS, a swipe to the left of the main home screen brings us to our widgets page. The same swipe brings us there in Notification Center as well. The widgets now look like widgets, with defined boarders.

I like the new look of the widgets on the ones updated to support iOS 10. Older widgets look terrible, but I suspect it won’t take long for them to get up to date. Their accessibility from the home screen is no accident. This is a major feature of iOS 10 that simply lifting your phone (if you have the right phone) will display your notifications and widgets. It is a nice summary screen that allows you to get information without having to do a full unlock.

But as with watchOS apps, less is more. I find that I don’t use most widgets, but the ones I do use I am using more frequently now. It’s only one swipe less from the home screen, but it feels different enough that I do it a lot more often now.

Transit

Oh Maps. Maps, Maps, Maps. Of all the -gates, this was the worst one that Apple suffered. Bendgate was a bust, Antennagate ended up being more molehill than mountain, but Mapsgate was really a mess. Released in iOS 6, Maps was Apple’s answer to Google. They were taking charge of the data, no longer allowing this frenemy, and increasingly an outright adversary, control the information flowing to its own users. If you lived near Apple, it was a great update. If you lived anywhere else…well… I was in London on my honeymoon the day it came out. London is not a city one simply navigates without either living there a while, or with some help. The London Underground even mocked the new Apple Maps. Even here in New York – not exactly a small market – things were really messy. And our city is a freaking grid for crying out loud. Streets were mislabeled, bridges were melting like they were in a Salvador Dali painting, and search would sometimes have you traversing oceans to get to where you wanted to go.

Maps was so bad that it pushed out the man who made iOS in the first place. And the next year we got iOS 7, and everything changed. In a way, we have Maps to thank for this new era of iOS, as well as for the increasing stability of the releases thanks to an opening up of the betas to the public.

But Maps has improved greatly. Search results are better, errors have been fixed, and last year we finally got transit directions. IOS 10 improves on this by making transit a first class citizen.

For example, in iOS 9 when I put on my headphones in the morning I would get an alert about the estimated time to work. This was a great use of machine learning and a cool feature, in theory. The problem was the estimate was based on driving. I don’t even own a car. No matter what I did, nothing could convince my phone that I was public transit person. IOS 10 finally gets me.

Now, because I have transit on, I get notifications based on how long the subway will take to get to work. Not cars. And because it ties in to the MTA’s publicly available alert system, it takes into account train delays.7 In addition, the widget can be set to show alerts for my favorite train lines. Given the number of people now living car-free, this is a very welcome update. I still use Google Maps as my primary map, but that widget has become increasingly useful. Actually, it has become more useful than the Maps app itself.

Home

HomeKit was released as a part of iOS 8, and then…nothing. It sat for what seemed like an eternity before anyone supported it. And the support from Internet of Things (IoT) companies has been a trickle, not a flood. I have several IoT products in my apartment, and only one (Philips Hue) supports HomeKit. The whole thing remains a mess of incompatible standards and systems. No company has even come close to fixing this mess (and survived to tell the tale).

Part of this is Apple’s own doing, as the requirements for being a HomeKit device are pretty strict. At the same time though I cannot blame them. IoT devices have had notorious security problems, and I think Apple was hoping to use its weight to force better practices in that industry. That may have worked if they were a bigger player, but as things stand, many vendors have been fine ignoring it entirely.

Worse was the fact that HomeKit didn’t have an app. Imagine if Health didn’t exist, do you think HealthKit would be as widely used as it is? Probably not. IOS 10 seeks to fix this by finally offering a Home app to complement the HomeKit system. And they are going all in with it, including it as a new page in the redesigned Control Center.

The app is well designed enough, but it has a somewhat odd feel to it. The bright photography background makes it unique among first party offerings. It works just fine with my Hue lights, but I still prefer to command them via my Amazon Echo as it is always on, and much more reliable at understanding what I want to do. And my automation is set up through IFTTT because more of my devices are supported there. The biggest advantage it the Watch app. It performs far better than the vendor watch apps, which have universally been disappointments.

It is nice to see Apple doing anything with HomeKit frankly, but there is a lot more that needs to be done. More support is needed from actual accessories before HomeKit can move up from its current position as the worst of Apple’s -Kit technologies.

Music

I am tempted to call Apple Music under iOS 9 as one of the worst pieces of software Apple released, at least that was widely used. The introduction at WWDC was terrible and confusing. The interface was busy. They tried yet again to shoehorn a social network in. Performance was bad, the app was buggy, and many users (though thankfully not me) had their iTunes library damaged in the process.

The new music app in iOS 10 is such a sigh of relief. Connect is gone (or rather, it has been moved into the For You tab, where it is much easier to simply ignore), your music is now the first tab instead of the last, and offline playback is both easier to get to and more reliable. I had a regular problem with the iOS 9 version where in the subway if I got the tiniest hint of cell reception the entire app would white out attempting to connect to the internet, forcing me to force quit. Not in iOS 10.

Your music is now the focus. Downloaded tracks are one tap away, and it is much easier to see music by recently added than before. The “For You” discovery section remains, but no longer tries to hijack the app every time you open it. To be honest, I was using Google Music for a while due to how badly this app performed for me. Now I can actually enjoy using my subscription.

Wishlist

In the spirit of technology never being complete, there is always room for improvement.

  • Now that we can finally remove built in apps on iOS, how about on the watch?
  • Still, still no way to set default apps in iOS. Please, pretty please.
  • I get that Apple wants to be very careful with Health data, but I would love to be able to access this information on my iPad, and more importantly on my Mac. It is still very locked in to the phone. Honestly, if the number of steps I took last week made it out on to the internet, I don’t think I would be all that worried.
  • Switching between watch faces is much easier than before, but I would love to see an option to automate it. Maybe even through GPS. When I work, I want to see my calendar at all times. At home it is less of a concern.
  • This one may get crossed off the list with the Series 2 watch, but I wish that in addition to sharing third party fitness data with the built in workouts that the reverse could be done as well. If the Series 2 is collecting GPS data, there is no reason that couldn’t be sent to RunKeeper, Strava, or any other run tracking app.
  • Biking directions is something that Google Maps still has over Apple.

Conclusion

WatchOS 3 has completely turned things around for me when it comes to the Apple Watch. I went from questioning if I even wanted to keep using it to absolutely loving it again. For the first time I feel like Apple and I are on the same page with this product. The enhancements iOS only further drives home that point.

On the iOS front we are seeing a platform that has clearly matured. The growing pains of the iOS 7 era are long past. We have moved on to refinements, and to thinking about how these devices are actually used in the real world, and designing and developing toward that. I think there was a point where we were expected to work the way the apps wanted us to. But that is over. There are just too many. The winners in the modern app store are the ones that understand their audience and design specifically for them and their uses.

So many Apple commentators have noticed the lack of Mac refreshes lately. It is clear that mobile platform, including on your wrist, are areas of much greater interest. But actually using them has often been a tradeoff. One by one those tradeoffs are being chipped away. I love the Mac and I want to see it continue as a vibrant platform. But iOS has really grown up these last few years. The move to iOS 7 was controversial at the time, but I think that now there can be no doubt that it was the right one.

Reviews of iOS and watchOS can be self serving as you don’t really need to convince people to do it anymore. The updates are free, and the vast majority of the user base will upgrade as soon as it is available. This year may be even faster as the new Messages app has a built in need for everyone to be up to date.

But I do hope that users who have even a passing interest in health and fitness who may have written Apple off will take a second look. The Apple platform has made huge gains in this area, and now that an entire product line is tied to it, I expect the advances to accelerate from here. The Apple Watch is now a product with a purpose. The iPhone is a computer. Actually it is the computer for an increasing number of users. Entire portions of this review were written on one. There have been some shaky releases from Apple in recent years. But the watchOS / iOS update of 2016 has gone a long way at calming my nerves about Apple commitment to software quality. There is a lot of room to improve, but at least we are full steam ahead on that trajectory.

Now pardon me as I put on my running shoes, tap on my watchOS 3 Apple Watch, and get back to marathon training.

  1. Funny to think of this now that iPad is moving ever closer to a full productivity platform
  2. It worked surprisingly well, given the supposed battery limitations of the device
  3. If you were wondering why not just use the RunKeeper app, the answer is I have given up waiting for them to get their act together. Their watch app has been a mess since launch, and the iPhone app has gotten so unstable that it cannot be relied on. Even non-techie friends of mine are asking me what to do.
  4. well apps that share to it anyway, looking at you Fitbit
  5. Or not being removed entirely as iOS 10 allows you to do
  6. Remember the one where you could send heartbeats to your friends, the feature you used twice and then promptly forgot about
  7. But when does that ever happen
A Fitness-Centric Review of watchOS 3 and iOS 10 was last updated September 13th, 2016 by Michael Truskowski