watchOS 7: After Five Years, The Apple Watch Is Hitting Its Stride, but at What Expense?

It’s hard to believe that the Apple Watch has been a product now for over five years. It still seems like yesterday that I drove home from the Apple Store with the fancy new gadget in my bag, excited to see what it could do. That was June 2015. Over the past five years the product has evolved so gradually that if you’ve been paying close attention to each release, it would be difficult to pin down what exactly changed and when. However, just like seeing an infant relative for the first time in months and noticing how much they’ve grown, if you were to compare the current generation Apple Watch and its latest operating system to the original, it’s clear that the product released in 2015 and the product Apple sells today is vastly different.

When Apple announced the Apple Watch in 2014, it was billed as three things:

  1. A highly accurate and customisable timepiece
  2. An intimate communications device
  3. A comprehensive health and fitness device.

At the time I felt they were trying too hard to mimic Steve Job’s famous introduction to the iPhone where he initially sold the audience on the fact he was introducing three products (A widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device.) – but the joke was on them, it was of course a single device.

Whilst that framing helped consumers understand the iPhone, for the Apple Watch, it only seemed to add confusion. An accurate and customisable timepiece? Swatch watches are highly accurate and come in every possible combination of colours imaginable. Accurate? Some people pay thousands of pounds for less accurate mechanical watches. What does an intimate communication device even do that my phone can’t already? Health and fitness however. Oh… now I get it.

As the years went on, the watch became more and more focused on fitness – with the addition of GPS and waterproofing, and health, with fall detection, irregular heart rhythm detection and now the ability to measure blood oxygen levels. The operating system has also evolved to become more focused. The ability to set pace alerts when running, and see your current speed when cycling were obvious features missing from the original release that are present now. What hasn’t happened yet though, as many predicted, is the watch replacing our phones. While it can technically do the job of a smartphone: maps, directions, messaging, phone calls – the combination of a small screen and still terrible battery life mean it’s still not a viable phone replacement for most people.

Now after five years of the Apple Watch, it’s time for watchOS 7. I installed it the day after its release, eager to check out its new features

Installation

Let’s get the bad out of the way. Upon installing watchOS 7 my battery life became atrocious. On the second day, my battery was dead by 9PM, and that’s having charged the watch fully at 1PM. In addition, the watch stopped being able to track workouts using GPS. It was if I’d disabled location services, but I hadn’t.

If you Google anything to do with Apple devices having poor battery life after an update you’ll often find a common folktale that puts it down to “Indexing” – yes apparently after 13 years of software updates, Apple still runs a battery draining process to do “Indexing” after every update. This is most likely BS, as what is there to index on a watch anyway? After trying all of the obvious fixes, and with a watch that couldn’t log workouts or last the day, I ended up wiping the watch and reinstalling watchOS. Thankfully, this seemed to solve both the issues and was now back in business.

Sleep Tracking

The headline feature of watchOS 7 is of course sleep tracking. I’ve tried various sleep tracking apps in the past, and I’ve never really found them that useful. I just find that I don’t need an app to tell me whether or not I’ve had a good night’s sleep – it’s pretty obvious. Maybe I’m missing the point, but having to micromanage my device by charging it at the right time, and having to wear a chunky watch to bed seems like too much hassle for very little gain. Needless to say, I haven’t tried the new sleep tracking features. The addition of sleep tracking does mean that the wakeup alarm is now shared between the phone and watch. The end result is my watch telling me its set to wake me up with a vibration alert, even though my phone is actually what goes off – presumably because I’m not wearing the watch during sleep. I like this feature, but it does add complexity. In fact, to even set a wake alarm I was pushed into a long wizard that had me setting up a ‘sleep schedule’ complete with reminders to charge the watch and other things. It all felt a bit too complicated and onerous for a part of my life that’s supposed to be relaxing. It also smacks of technocratic solutionism – the idea that by defining a ‘sleep schedule’ on my phone, and with some pretty graphics and notifications, I will be on my way to a life of blissful nights of full and restful sleep. If anything, I imagine switching off my smartwatch and smartphone a few hours before bed would do a better job of helping me sleep than defining a ‘sleep schedule’ and monitoring my every move at night.

Fitness

The Activity app has been renamed Fitness. It’s a subtle change, but reveals a lot about where the engineers at Apple see the device fitting into people’s lives. The word ‘Activity’ implied passive measurement of one’s movements, whereas the word ‘Fitness’ is full of aspiration to become better, stronger and fitter. Not everyone who buys an Apple Watch will be a fitness enthusiast, even if that is what Apple would have us believe in their advertisements which are full of good looking, trendy people who live in gyms. I wonder how this change will affect people who know they aren’t fit, or who perhaps struggle with physical exercise. For a company that strives for inclusiveness, I do worry whether Apple can be a bit self indulgent sometimes, designing products that are perhaps a bit too focused on rich Silicon Valley 20-somethings, and not the population in general (except when those outsiders fit into neat boxes, e.g. old people who are likely to fall over). Perhaps that’s unfair, but it’s a concern I have all the same.

The new Fitness app finally lets you change the fitness goals for exercise and stand (the green and blue rings), but stops short of letting you choose different goals for different days of the week. While I love the gamification of meeting my active calorie target, I find that on days when I run 10 miles I tend to nearly triple my target, while on days when I am purposely resting, I struggle to meet 75% of my target (Even a 30 minute walk won’t get me close). In the end, I choose a target that I know is beatable most days with a bit of effort – but I’d much prefer to set either a weekly target, or to be able to designate certain days as ‘rest days’ – something that factors in the realities of real life fitness training. Despite what the Fitness app may recommend, you can’t just keep burning more and more calories each day without also taking rest days and eating the right foods. A more holistic approach to fitness would be welcomed here. The new Fitness app also integrates with the new apple Fitness+ service. The geek in my thinks this is super cool, the fact that my heart rate will be shown on the Apple TV, while the watch triggers haptic feedback that is synchronised to events in the workout video is frankly genius. However, the cynic is me also thinks that $9.99/month for what are essentially pre-recorded fitness videos is an awful lot when compared to a service like Netflix. I will definitely try it when it comes to the UK, but I’m doubtful whether I’ll keep it beyond the free trial.

Family Setup

The other big feature of watchOS 7 is the ability to setup watches that are paired to an iPhone, but can be used by another member of the family who doesn’t own that phone – for example children too young to haven an iPhone. I don’t have children, but I think this is an exciting step towards the Apple Watch not requiring a phone at all. Tellingly, when setup in ‘child mode’ the watch does not try to get children to work towards a calorie burn goal, instead they are given a ‘move time’ goal. Whether this is due to limitations in the calorie-burn algorithms or whether Apple thinks it would be bad for the mental health of children to be even thinking about how many calories they are burning I am not sure, I’m hoping its the latter.

Whether anyone would actually buy their kids an Apple Watch remains to be seen – if the child is old enough to wear a watch that costs nearly £300, then surely they must be old enough for a phone – but if it helps Apple learn how to make an Apple Watch that could work for Android users or without an iPhone, then that can only be a good thing.

Watch Faces

In watchOS 6, Apple finally decided to add some decent analogue watch faces. Before watchOS 6, almost none of the analogue faces had numerals, which coupled with the weirdness of having a circular face on a rectangular screen, made it frustratingly difficult to tell the time. In watchOS 7 Apple have added even more watch faces with actual numerals – three of which are essentially the same face with their own individual built in functionality: GMT lets you track the time in another timezone, Count Up has a built in stopwatch that is shown inline, as does Chronograph Pro – though the data is shown in the style of a traditional chronograph. Interestingly, these built-in applications keep running when you switch watch face and maintain their own state, unlike the original chronograph face from 2015, which simple displays data from the built-in in stopwatch app.

Disappointingly there is no update to the Siri watch face. It still looks like it was designed for the older 38/42mm size watches (Series 3 and before). In iOS 14, Apple gave us home screen widgets and the ability to create a smart stack – a single slot that can be set to show any number of widgets. The system will determine the appropriate widget to show based on your usage and the other data. Ever since 2015 I have wanted this feature on the Apple Watch. It should show me the weather when its about to rain, my cellular signal when the watch is using cellular, the time remaining on a timer when a timer is running, my battery level when its getting low etc.

Until this happens, the Siri face is the closest you can get to this kind of ‘smart complication’, but I don’t use it because it’s frankly ugly and not very customisable. Apple really needs to give it some attention, or if not, build in a ‘smart stack’ like system for complications and let any watch face be smart.

Miscellaneous

The other exciting feature of watchOS 7 is optimised battery charging – this feature means that the watch learns your typical usage patterns, and once placed on the charger for the night, will only charge to 80%. It then waits before charging up to 100% based on when you are expected to start using it again. This means less time with the battery kept at 100%, which means overall greater longevity for the battery. The system is linked to your location and wakeup alarm, so if you’re travelling or have an early start it will default to charging straight to 100%. (It’s also coming to AirPods soon, where due to their even smaller batteries, it is desperately needed).

Force Touch has been removed completely – this is mostly a good thing as it wasn’t a very good idea in hindsight, but it’s a shame they don’t allow watches that still have the hardware use it as a shortcut for pressing and holding – entering the mode to edit watch faces seems a lot slower now and I’ve even triggered it accidentally, which never happened before. Talking of speed, there are no issues on my two year old Series 4. In fact, Apple seems to have made a point of speeding the animations so everything feels much faster.

Many of the built in apps seem more polished. Maps for example now shows both directions and the map at the same time which makes using the watch for walking directions much more intuitive. The Remote app seems more reliable, and the Podcasts app seems to do a better job of syncing between the watch and phone. I can’t say whether this is the result of watchOS 7 or the consequence of wiping and reinstalling watchOS – but I’m happy either way.

In Summary

Overall watchOS 7 is a solid release – it’s faster on the same hardware, and brings with it some much desired new features. If I were Apple, I would be keeping my eye on the additional complexity that is creeping into watchOS. What made the Apple Watch such a joy to use in 2015 was in part its limitations. I understand the juxtaposition Apple is in – they have to be seen be moving the platform forward – but in an age where people are addicted to their smartphones more than ever, the Apple Watch’s sweet spot is being able to help you lead a healthier life by monitoring your activity and vitals, while also helping you lead a happier life by being simple and less addictive than a smartphone. How Apple strikes the balance going forward will be vital to its success.

Update: Apple have acknowledged the bugs described above.

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