Living with Apple Watch Series 4

It feels like a long time ago now, but it was only 2015 when I bought the original Apple Watch Sport. I wrote about my experiences with it two weeks after it arrived in the post, and then one year on I wrote a retrospective of what it was like to live with long term.

It’s fair to say that my impressions were mixed. There was a lot to like about the fledgling device: it helped me to better manage my constant wave of notifications, it helped me to be more aware of my health, and more than a few times it’s helped me to find my iPhone hiding down the back of my sofa. All that said, the Series 0 felt under-powered and half-baked.

Apple have completely upended the software and overhauled the hardware in the three years since. Jumping several hardware generations, I recently upgraded from the Series 0 to the Series 4; so I thought I’d share some new thoughts on how things have changed and how they haven’t.

Hardware that’s hard to complain about

This hardware fixes almost everything that irritated me about my Series 0 device. You would expect that: the company has had 3 years to refine the watch. Either way, there are some noticeable pain points that have just disappeared. From a hardware perspective, the device is – not to be too melodramatic – almost entirely uncompromised.

Battery life

Battery panic was a real and constant feeling with the Series 0. What started as “all day battery life” back on day one, quickly turned into “most-of-the-day battery life” as the hardware aged and the software got more demanding. The new Apple Watch Series 4 though just goes on, and on, and on.

Where my original device struggled to last until bed time, this model can last more than 2 full days without needing to even graze past a charger. When the device does need charging, it also appears to charge more quickly than the original model. I now find myself able to wear the device all day, wear it through the night (hello sleep tracking!) and simply top up the battery whilst I get ready in the morning.

I am still charging it every day though. I said in my original blog post that having a device that goes more multiple days can introduce its own kind of battery panic. Even though this device can go multiple days, it’s always less stressful for me to charge it when I know I don’t desperately need to than to risk it running flat in the middle of ‘day 3’ of use.

Customisation

Apple came up with an impossibly simple mechanism for changing the straps on Apple Watch when it was released. I’ve said before that I love it. It’s the kind of thing that, when you see it, you shout angrily about why the watch industry didn’t think of it a hundred years prior. The same mechanism is present here: you click a button on the underside and slide the strap out, and then you just slide a new one in. It makes the device entirely customisable to whatever style you want.

I bought a range of watch straps for my original device in the last 3 years thanks to both Apple’s own offerings and a vibrant third-party market. Given how the company excels at market segmentation and extracting a surplus from its customers, I fully expected I’d need to replace every single one of those straps. To my surprise, though, I don’t. All my old 42mm straps work with this new 44mm watch.

Screen

The new devices have 2mm larger diagonal footprints than the previous iterations of Apple Watch. The 38mm device has been stretched out to 40mm, and the 42mm device to 44mm. To look at the device without the screen on, it’s barely noticeable. Turn the screen on though, and it’s a whole new ball game.

Whilst the devices have gotten only very slightly larger, the screens have gotten significantly bigger. My new device has a screen 30% larger than my old one.

The device now has a full, edge-to-rounded-edge screen. Whilst part of this change is undoubtedly aesthetic (who really needs rounded corners on a screen, after all?) it also serves a practical purpose. The interface has been redesigned for either greater information density or simply to make onscreen elements bigger and easier to use.

The screen wasn’t really something I even thought about or mentioned when I wrote my previous commentary: it’s a stand out hardware feature of these new models.

Device speed

Perhaps the biggest complaint I had with my first Apple Watch was the device’s speed. Everything from touching software buttons to transcribing text with Siri took about 5 seconds longer than you wanted. In 2015 I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt: first generation Apple hardware is always wildly ambitious and ever-so-slightly under-powered. As time when on though, the lag was so bad it actively put me off using the Series 0 for even basic tasks.

That’s all changed now. The new device feels as responsive as my iPhone does. It is worlds apart from the Series 0. The only real limit on the speed of the device at this point is the speed of my internet connection.

Like with the original model, that is still a problem though. The device still relies on an active connection to an iPhone and the internet for most of its processing, most of the time. Siri still can’t process queries or transcribe text on device which — if you have flakey WiFi or mobile signal — still results in infrequent but annoying scenarios where Siri tells you “I’ll tap you when I’m ready” rather than instantly dealing with your request.

Much of this speed increase is down to hardware improvements — which is to be expected after 3 years of improvements — but part of it is undoubtedly also down to the software.

Software

I want to dwell on the software, because whilst the hardware is important, the software is where most of the frustration of Apple Watch still remains.

Apple Watch Series 4 ships with watchOS 5. Part of my justification for upgrading my device was because the Series 0 couldn’t get this new version of the operating system. The new OS isn’t that dissimilar from watchOS 4 that I had on the earlier hardware. Credit where credit is due, watchOS 5 is vastly different from the original Watch OS and mostly for the better; it’s just I’d seen most of those differences already.

Despite everything that’s changed with watchOS since 2015 though, the software on these devices still doesn’t quite gel for me. I touched on this in previous blog posts about Apple Watch: the more Apple tries to convince me that the wrist is the place for apps, the more I just don’t get it.

As is previously argued, in order to justify the expense of a smartwatch, the device has to not only do what my other devices can do, it has to do something better than any of my devices can do. Whilst the new device does new things, and improves on old things too, Apple Watch still relies heavily on the concept of discrete and siloed apps.

That brings me to some thoughts on Apple Watch that have been brewing ever since the original.

Smartwatch apps shouldn’t be tiny smartphone apps

As a concept rooted in smartphones, discrete apps continue to translate poorly to this device. Whilst the slow march of OS updates is gradually eschewing the idea of a grid of icons as your main interface, it still feels like Apple wants you to hop over to a cut-down wrist app, instead of recognising you’re better off using full-blown apps on a phone.

The oldest and best watch app in the world is the watch face. It’s always available and it’s immediately understandable with a quick glance. It should be the same with the software of, and interaction with, a smartwatch.

Using an app on the Apple Watch (or any smartwatch) is too much effort. To open an app, I have to:

  • raise my wrist
  • press the Digital Crown to open the app list or Side Button to open the recent apps list
  • scroll to the app name or screenshot
  • tap to open the app

It’s basically the same process as using a smartphone, but it’s slower and more difficult. It’s less slow than it used to be thanks to the new hardware and tweaks in the software, but it’s still slow.

Many Apple Watch apps — both Apple’s own and third-party apps — just replicate the paradigms of your phone and shrink them for your wrist, and that idea just doesn’t work.1 Smartwatch apps shouldn’t just be shrunken down versions of phone apps. Smartwatch software should be different. It should make affordances to a new form factor, and to different user expectations and needs.

There are hints at a future where apps aren’t the gates of the smartwatch experience that are only enabled on the newer Apple Watch hardware. I have one example of it so far, but it’s a great one: it’s so good that it fills me with hope for our digital future.

“Are you working out?”

Every morning, I walk to the tube station. It’s a 10 to 15 minute walk to my house. I’ve done this walk hundreds, if not thousands of times now; most of them whilst wearing an Apple Watch. Something changed with Series 4 that I didn’t expect: I got asked if I was exercising.

The Watch took the data points it had access too – which I assume was some combination of a changing GPS location and an elevated heart rate – figured out I was walking, and asked me to activate the workout for an “Outdoor walk”. This never happened on my Series 0 device. It wasn’t capable of the computation and didn’t have the same hardware load-out.

Now, every day, I can just tap the “Start workout” button when it realises I’m on the move. When I get on the tube, it notices I’ve stopped walking and asks me to stop. It doesn’t just track the bit in between those two points either: it tracks backward, having predicted (usually fairly well) when I set off, and trims the fat off the end when I’d have just been stood on a tube platform. It then saves that information in the Activity and Health app on my phone, proactively keeping track of how active I really am, rather than how active I am when I remember to turn the tracking on.

It’s a niche example, but it signals where I hope Apple Watch is headed. Toward a device that blends in by design, and is only ever in the foreground with intent. A device that is at the foothills of what some have called ambient computing.

This is what Apple Watch does do and can do best. Interrupts you when you need to be interrupted, for a specific and actionable purpose.

Wrap Up

The Apple Watch has changed dramatically in 3 years. It has progressed far more rapidly in terms of design and usability than the iPhone or iPad did in the same period. On only the 4th iteration, this device is has the potential to last for years.

Beyond the hardware though, Apple Watch is still struggling to find coherence. Whilst significantly faster, the operating system is still confused and confusing. Are the software failings enough of a ding to make me think I wasted money on this new device? Absolutely not. I just want the future to arrive a little bit quicker.

  1. Sidebar: It’s the same kind of issue that Microsoft faced with Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile failed, in large part, because the software simply tried to shrink the desktop computer onto a 3-inch screen. It didn’t adapt or make affordances to an entirely different hardware form factor or the needs of users. Windows Mobile forced you to manage apps like you did on Windows XP. On touchscreen devices, it forced you to use a tiny stylus to tap out messages on an even tinier on-screen keyboard. Contrast that with iPhone OS; it was designed for small screens and designed for touch. It was design for and adapted to the hardware, and – most importantly – the user.