How Does the Apple Watch Avoid Screen Burn In?

How Does the Apple Watch Avoid Screen Burn In?

I was looking at my Pixel 4 (like you do) and I noticed something I don’t often think about with the always-on screen: it moves.

This isn’t new, as basically all smartphones with this feature do this, and have for years. It’s done to avoid burn in, and usually manifests in the phone moving the always-on content a few pixels left, right, up, and down every minute. But what got me thinking is that the Apple Watch, another product that is always on, doesn’t do this at all.

Assuming there are not going to be massive burn in problems with Series 5 Apple Watches in a few months, I wonder why they’re able to do this while others are not.

The Apple Watch is also giving this mode more work than most phones. Most phones use the proximity sensor to turn off the always-on screen when it’s in a pocket or laying face down on your desk. The Pixel 4 even uses a radar system to sense when no one is around it so that it turns off then as well. Meanwhile the Apple Watch has its screen on 100% of the time it’s on your wrist, only turning off when it’s off your wrist.

Anyway, this post is really just me asking what the deal is.

The “First” to Move Past the App Paradigm

Above Avalon: AirPods Are Becoming a Platform

The Apple Watch was the first device to genuinely begin questioning the current app paradigm. The Siri watch face on Apple Watch is all about providing the wearer glanceable amounts of information, data, and context in the form of cards chosen by a digital assistant. These cards are personalized to the wearer based on the time of day and schedule. In essence, we are moving away from pulling data from various apps to receiving a curated feed of data that is dynamic - always changing and tailored to our needs.

Far be it from me to push back on Apple Watch enthusiasm, but this paragraph rubbed me the wrong way. Android Wear (now Wear OS) did something very much like what the Siri watch face does today, but it did it first. Was it great? No. Was it adopted by millions of people? No. But this isn’t about being best or most popular, it’s about who was “first” and I think it’s misleading to frame the Siri watch face to be the first platform, even the first wrist-based platform, to do this.

Go ahead and ask the few Android Wear lovers why they preferred it to the Apple Watch for years.

Product Management and the Apple Watch

In 2015 smart watches were not a new thing, and some commentators at the time even said that if Apple didn’t release a smart watch within a year that the whole company would go under. Even in April 2015 there were smart watches with always-on displays. Yet, the Apple Watch shipped without it.

Between April 2015 and now, the Apple Watch differentiated itself from other smart watches on the market and has come to truly dominate the space. Not only in unit sales either, but in quality. There is no serious reviewer out there today who is going to tell you that Wear OS from Google is better than watchOS. You might get some Samsung Stans tell you the Galaxy watches are better, but I’ve used those too and oof, it’s not even close.

So in 2019 when Apple released the Apple Watch Series 5 with an always-on display and some reviewers roll their eyes when they say “Apple should have had this from the start, I mean Android watches have had this forever,” because what this shows is not how out of touch Apple is, but how well their product managers prioritized the right things in the right order.

We celebrate designers and developers all the time, and rightfully so, but so much credit for product success should go to the product managers guiding these teams to do the right things.

Apple Watch Series 5 Review: One Major Feature and One Major Question Mark

The newest Apple Watch is an odd duck when it comes to updates for Apple’s “more personal device ever.” Depending on your measurement, it’s either the most or least significant update to the hardware Apple has ever put out, and that just makes it a funky product to review. For some history, these are what I’d consider the highlights of previous Apple Watch updates.

So what does the Series 5 bring to the table?

  • Series 5 adds an always-on screen

Yeah, that’s basically it, but let’s jump into what exactly that means for this product.

What Stayed the Same

Before we hit the always on screen, let’s talk about what stayed the same from the Series 4. The Series 5 has effectively the same processor1 as the 4, right down to clock speeds, so there is no upgrade in performance this year. This is fine for me, as I’ve never thought the Apple Watch is slow for a couple years now, and this is really a compliment to the silicon team at Apple for being so far ahead of anyone else out there.

The screen (outside of the always on trick) is exactly the same as well, sporting a 448x368 LTPO OLED display in the 44mm model2. It still has the same screen-to-body ratio as last year and looks great on the wrist.

The haptics remain unchanged as well, and they still feel very good across the board.

The aluminum models look the same, have the same color options, and and indistinguishable from last year’s models. There are new finishes in the Edition line, with titanium and ceramic options, but I didn’t spring for those this year and can’t speak to them. All I will say is the ceramic one looks hot and I wish I could justify the cost for it.

Always On Everything

But like I said, the one significant new feature in the Series 5 is the new always on display. I have two things to say about this before we get into more detail:

  1. For some people this will be reason enough to upgrade from any Apple Watch, even the Series 4. For many others, it will finally convince them to jump on the Apple Watch train for the first time.
  2. Apple is doing the feature way better that what other smartwatches are doing with always on screens.

Why This is a Big Deal

I’ve never had a very hard time seeing the time on my Apple Watch. From the very beginning I’ve been mostly accepting of the “raise to wake” gesture since it was mostly easy to do, and in the 3.5 years I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch, I’ve gotten used to it to the point I rarely thought about it as a limitation. That said, those rare times it didn’t work, like when I was in bed or when I was in a meeting and tried to subtly look at the time, it was indeed a bit frustrating.

Now that the Series 5 always shows the time, my success rate at seeing the time on my watch has gone from 98% to 100%, and that last 2% is very satisfying.

Another reason this is a big deal is that it makes watch face choices mean a hell of a lot more than they used to. Previously, your watch face was really just for you. The rest of the world only saw the black slab of the Apple Watch’s off screen, but when you raised it to your face you personally got to see the face. Now that the screen is always on, your watch face is visible to the outside world at all times, and it made me think more about the watch as a fashion item. Not only does my watch face need to give me the time, information, and look good to me, I want one that gives off the right feeling to the rest of the world. Maybe that’s silly, but fashion matters to everyone, even if you don’t really want to admit it.

But it’s not just fashion, it’s a great step in adding some diversity to the Apple Watches you see in the wild. We all know what an Apple Watch looks like, and people have tons of band options to personalize their watch to their liking, but the watch itself always looks the same. Now everyone will be able to have their own look from the screen to the band, and I think that’s pretty great.

This Ain’t Your Father’s Always On Screen

Always on screens are nothing new to smartwatches, as most Wear OS and Samsung watches support this feature. These watches usually blank out the display and then flash up a new watch face that’s a minimized version of whatever watch face you’re using. From what I’ve used, this means just the time remains, and all on-screen complications disappear.

Instead, the Apple Watch Series 5 smoothly dims the screen from normal to always-on mode, and then brings up the brightness smoothly when you tap the screen or raise your wrist. It gets it to the point where I often can’t even tell if the screen is in its normal mode or always on mode. When you see them one after the other you can definitely tell, but when you just glance at your wrist, I never really know what version I’m looking at, and that’s probably the point.

Inconsistent Behavior

My biggest problem with the always on screen is how watchOS handles it in software. Here’s what’s good:

  1. If you’re on the watch face, the screen fades out to the always on watch face and looks great.
  2. If you’re in an app and smack your palm on the screen to turn it off, you go straight back to the watch face (because you’re gesturing you want to close the app).
  3. If you are in a workout, your data stays on screen and updates once per second.

But there are other times when the always on screen doesn’t work that well.

  1. When using navigation, the directions should always be displayed. Instead the watch goes into a “semi-on” mode that blurs the navigation until you raise your wrist. This should be like workouts and show you the next move at all times.
  2. The Now Playing app (or the app for whatever app is playing audio) makes the watch face go away and you get the blurred version of the media controls. This is not useful and means for hours each day I get the blurred clock screen, not my actual watch face.
  3. Notifications come in, I glance at them, and lower my wrist, and the notification stays on the always on screen (in the blurred view) for a minute or two.

Basically, I don’t like the “blur the running app and show the time in the upper right” view and every time I see it I feel like the watch isn’t doing the right thing. Maybe for the first issue above Apple would say you shouldn’t be looking at your watch while driving, but why do they have navigation there in the first place if that was their feeling? Similarly, why not do that if I have walking or transit directions and am not driving a vehicle?

Here are my solutions to the 3 issues I have:

  1. Treat Maps like Workouts. If I’m currently navigating, show me the current directions on the always on screen. Updating every second is completely fine for navigation just like workouts.
  2. Either make the Now Playing app show on the always on display or preferably, just show my watch face on the always on screen and if I raise my wrist show me the media controls.
  3. Notifications if I lower my wrist while a notification is displayed, wait like 5 seconds and then go back to the watch face. If I’ve looked at it and didn’t do anything, the vast majority of times I’m done with it and don’t need to see it again in 30 seconds when I go to check the time.

This isn’t a disaster by any means and I still enjoy having the always on screen, but this first implementation has some behavior quirks I don’t agree with.

Battery Life

If I was writing this review in a vacuum this is where I would say that the battery life on the Apple Watch Series 5 is excellent and is right in line with what I have been getting from my Series 4 over the past year. I usually charge up my watch before I go to bed and wear it while I sleep (using Autosleep to track my sleep). I then wear it all day and night and put it on the charger for 30-60 minutes before I go to sleep. I even wore both watches for most of a day to see if they were any different and the results were…almost exactly the same with the Series 5 doing slightly better.

In my time with the Series 5 this behavior has been the same, and the watch has always been in the 30-40% battery range after 23 hours off the charger. Extrapolating out to 0%, I’ve always been on pace to get 36-48 hours out of this watch.

But I’m not writing this in a bubble, and the experience above is not universal. I wrote an explainer about what’s going on, but the short version is that some people are experiencing terrible battery life, often like 12 hours total. The problem seems to be almost exclusively with people who have the cellular model.

There is an update to watchOS coming soon that apparently solves this problem, but it is not out yet and it’s unclear how much it will help everyone with this issue.

This part of the review remains up in the air for now. I can tell you that I am very happy with the battery life and it has not changed my usage of the watch at all, but that’s not a universal experience right now. I’ll update this part of the review once watchOS 6.1 is out and we have better data on if it solves the battery issues others are having.

The Compass

The Apple Watch now has a compass built in. This was actually news to me as I kind of assumed it always had one, but apparently not. Anyway, some apps you’ll probably never use can take advantage of this, as will Maps, but you’d like the compass in your iPhone was already mostly handling this.

Anyway, this is a very minor change and the only reason it gets a shout out in this review is because it’s one of two changes to the product.

Buying Recommendations

If I’ve done my job as a reviewer you should already know whether this is a buy for you or not. But in case you skipped to the bottom or I just didn’t communicate as effectively as I’d like, here are my recommendations.

If you have never owned an Apple Watch before, this is a great time to jump on board. The always on screen makes this feel like a traditional watch more than ever and I think it makes the product fundamentally more useful. That said, if you are still unsure if a smartwatch is right for you, the Series 3 currently goes for $199, and will likely be closer to $129-149 over the holidays, and that’s still a damn good Apple Watch, so it’s a lower risk entry point into the ecosystem.

If you own a Series 4 then there is no reason to get this except the always on screen. If you have been waiting for this feature since the Series 0 and lost your mind when you saw Apple announce this feature on stage, then maybe this is worth it for you. As of writing, you can sell your Series 4 for about $300 on Swappa, which might make the upgrade not horribly painful. But seriously, that is the only difference, so you have to ask how important that difference is to you3.

If you own a Series 3 then I think this is a solid, if not essential update. The Series 3 is still quite fast and gets good battery life, so you’re really upgrading for the always on screen as well as all of the physical upgrades the Series 4 got last year. This is more a software thing, but you also get access to a ton more watch faces, as Apple seems to really only be adding watch faces to the Series 4/5 at this point.

If you own a Series 1 or 2 then this is a no-brainer update in my book. The performance updates are enormous and they will change how you use your watch, and the new physical design will make you go “whoa, this is nice.” You’re also likely not getting any more software updates after watchOS 6, so if you want to keep up with new functionality and improvements this is the time to jump onto a newer model.

And finally, if you have an original Apple Watch then I’m impressed you made it this long and this is going to be a huge update for you. Not only will it have nicer hardware, a battery battery, and tons more watch faces, it’s also going to jump you up from watchOS 4, which was the last update the original watch got.


  1. Only differences from the S4 to the S5 chip is stuff to handle the variable refresh display and the compass. 
  2. And slightly smaller, but just as sharp, in the 40mm model. 
  3. And again, there is no performance upgrade over the Series 4. The S5 chip is exactly as fast as the S4 and all the changes are around managing the variable refresh rate screen and compass functionality. 

The Apple Watch Series 5 Battery: The Situation and My Experience

The last week has been weird for the Apple Watch. The new hardware is out and outside of people loving the always on screen, the only thing I see in my timeline are people complaining about battery life in the Series 5 Apple Watch.

My question is what the hell is going on? If I wasn’t on Twitter, I’d assume this watch was right in line with the best battery on any Apple Watch to date. Last Saturday I wore both watches for most of a day and got similar results to the Series 4. A week went by and I didn’t have any issues, and this Saturday I tracked my battery life over the 24 hours I wore it (11PM Friday through 11PM Saturday). Based on my testing, I could probably get 36 hours out of my watch.

And this has been with the always on screen…on (including overnight when it’s technically serving no value at all), bluetooth is on, ambient noise detection is on, and I did over 2 hours of GPS workouts. I’m doing literally nothing to try and get more juice out of this thing.

Oh, and I’m running watchOS 6.0, the same firmware the watch shipped with; there’s no beta magic happening here.

But there are plenty of people who are having issues, not only popular tech folks like Marques Brownlee and Casey Liss, but also a number of regular folks as well. They’re reporting truly miserable battery, and I don’t blame them for expressing severe disappointment; this battery life is atrocious.

Here’s the deal: The vast majority of reports of shitty battery life has been from people with the cellular Apple Watch. I’ve heard one person mention issues with the GPS-only model, but most people (like me) seem to be saying that one is fine. I’ve also seen people say that the watchOS 6.1 beta fixes their issues. Finally, it seems people who have turned off the always on display on the cellular model have kept having battery issues.

I hope this is indeed entirely a software issue on the cellular Series 5 lineup and it’s resolved in 6.1. If that’s the case we’ll all be happy in a few days/weeks, but this is a really bad look for the Apple Watch and I feel bad for all those who feel like they’re getting a serious downgrade from their last Apple Watch.

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

The Apple Watch has grown up quite a bit in the past 4 years, evolving from a piece of hardware that was woefully underpowered and software that was barely ready, to a very capable smart watch with very solid hardware and software. Even from its humble beginnings, watchOS has been the best smart watch platform by a mile, and with watchOS 6 Apple extends that lead over the competition.

watchOS 6 is not a massive update to the platform, and you will likely use your watch in largely the same way you always have, but there are some new apps, nice usability updates, no real regressions, and frameworks that will allow third party apps to get better in the future. Basically, it won’t all change your life, but there is probably at least one or two things that you’ll really enjoy in this new update.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of watchOS 6.

Health

As always, Apple has put an emphasis on health-related features this year. For my money there are four really notable changes:

  1. Apple Research
  2. Activity trends
  3. Cycle tracking
  4. Noise tracking

Apple Research

Apple partnered with Stanford a few years ago on the Apple Heart Study, which took heart data from over 400,000 participants and looked into atrial fibrillation. From Stanford’s summary of the report:

“The results of the Apple Heart Study highlight the potential role that innovative digital technology can play in creating more predictive and preventive health care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Atrial fibrillation is just the beginning, as this study opens the door to further research into wearable technologies and how they might be used to prevent disease before it strikes — a key goal of precision health.”

This year we see Apple take this to the next level with an upcoming Apple Research app which they will be able to use as a platform for future studies. And given the Apple Watch’s massive, and engaged user base, these will hopefully see even more enrollment. There will be 3 studies:

  • Apple Hearing Study being lead by the University of Michigan
  • Apple Women’s Health Study lead by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Apple Heart & Movement Study lead by the American Heart Association and Brigham Health’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital

These are coming later this year and I plan on enrolling in the two of them that I’m eligible for.

Activity Trends

The Apple Watch and Activity app have done a great job of giving you a look at your activity over the course of a single day, but it never did much in the way of showing you how you were doing over time. They had streaks which were nice, but didn’t mean a ton, especially if you took a day off regularly (like I do), and they also let you look at a calendar view and go “wow, look at all those rings,” but that was really it.

The Activity app, paired with watchOS 6 allows you to more easily see how you’re doing not just today, not just this month, but for the past year. If you go to the new Trends tab in the Activity app, you’ll see up to 8 metrics on how you’re doing over the past 30 days and how that compares to your previous behavior. These metrics are:

  • Calories burned
  • Minutes active
  • Stand hours
  • Stand minutes
  • Distance travelled
  • Walking pace
  • Running pace
  • Cardio fitness

The app will tell you if you’re doing better, worse, or about the same as you have over the past year. It’s worth noting that you won’t have trends for stand minutes and cardio fitness, as both of those are new in watchOS 6 and therefore don’t have any historical data to look at. You need at least 6 months of data for each stat for it to show up as a trend.

You can tap into any of these stats to see a chart for how you have done over the past year, which helps you see longer term trends. I dig this, and it let me see things like how much more active I am in the summer, as well as how much more I’ve walked since getting a dog at the end of 2018. This is all cool stuff and it’s not useful everyday, but I’ve incorporated it into a monthly review I do for myself and it’s been very rewarding to have what feels like actionable information when I check this out.

Workouts

As of watchOS 6 there are 77 total workout types, which is the same as last year1, but none of the ones I’ve been asking for years for! I am still waiting for things like snow shoveling, lawn mowing, leaf raking, and dog walking to be added The full list of workouts is below.

  1. American Football
  2. Archery
  3. Australian Football
  4. Badminton
  5. Barre
  6. Baseball
  7. Basketball
  8. Bowling
  9. Boxing
  10. Climbing
  11. Core Training
  12. Cricket
  13. Cross Country Skiing
  14. Cross Training
  15. Curling
  16. Dance
  17. Disc Sports
  18. Downhill Skiing
  19. Elliptical
  20. Equestrian Sports
  21. Fencing
  22. Fishing
  23. Fitness Gaming
  24. Flexibility
  25. Functional Training
  26. Golf
  27. Gymnastics
  28. Hand Cycling
  29. Handball
  30. High Intensity Interval Training
  31. Hiking
  32. Hockey
  33. Hunting
  34. Indoor Cycle
  35. Indoor Run
  36. Indoor Walk
  37. Jump Rope
  38. Kickboxing
  39. Lacrosse
  40. Martial Arts
  41. Mind & Body
  42. Mixed Cardio
  43. Open Water Swim
  44. Other
  45. Outdoor Cycle
  46. Outdoor Run
  47. Outdoor Walk
  48. Paddline
  49. Pilates
  50. Play
  51. Pool Swim
  52. Raquetball
  53. Rolling
  54. Rower
  55. Rugby
  56. Sailing
  57. Skating
  58. Snow Sports
  59. Snowboarding
  60. Soccer
  61. Softball
  62. Squash
  63. Stair Stepper
  64. Stairs
  65. Step Training
  66. Strength Training
  67. Surfing
  68. Table Tennis
  69. Tai Chi
  70. Tennis
  71. Track & Field
  72. Volleyball
  73. Water Fitness
  74. Water Polo
  75. Water Sports
  76. Wrestling
  77. Yoga

Cycle Tracking

Now obviously I’m not the target market for this feature, so I deferred to my wife who gave this feature a quick once-over. Her review basically boils down to: this looks fine, but I’ve been using other apps for years and I don’t see a good reason to switch over.

The only thing I’ll add here is that there may be people out there who prefer to keep this information with Apple vs some of the other companies who make apps for this.

Noise

I didn’t think I’d have much use for this app, but it turns out I’m fascinated by how noisy certain things are. I went to a concert and confirmed that while it was indeed louder than is ideal, I wasn’t going to ruin my hearing immediately2. I also realized just how much ambient noise there is all the time. I could sit in what felt like a very quiet room and still see 35-40db going on. This was a little distressing until I remembered that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and that actually what we consider “quiet” still usually has quite a bit of ambience.

I didn’t use the app that much, but instead opted to use the complication that works on most watch faces. Seeing a live noise meter whenever I raised my wrist was oddly addicting and I still have it on a few of my watch faces for fun.

New Watch Faces

Apple still didn’t give us third party watch faces this year, but they did their best to fill the gap by adding more new watch faces than they have any year since watchOS 1.0. Depending on your Apple Watch model, you’ll have more or less new watch faces. If you have a Series 1, 2, or 3 then you’ll get:

  • Numerals Mono
  • Numerals Duo

These are nice watch faces, and I use the Numerals Duo face on weekends, but these aren’t that exciting. The real excitement is for Series 4 and 5 owners. They also get:

  • California
  • Modular Compact
  • Solar Dial
  • Gradient
  • Meridian

You can use the screenshots to decide for yourself which ones you like best, but what I think makes these really nice is how much they can be customized. For example, here are just some of the variants of the California watch face. There are 6 colors, 6 numeral, and 2 shape choices, adding up to 72 combos before you even start looking at complications. Similarly, the gradient has 6 variants, Numerals Mono has 8, and Numerals Duo has 9 (plus all the color options watchOS offers). Modular Compact has fewer options and Solar Dial has basically nothing to customize, but overall this set of watch faces is the most flexible Apple has created yet.

And what have I landed on, you might ask? I’ve become partial to California with the circular watch face and 5 total complications. I also like Modular Compact, but I still prefer the Infograph Modular since it has 2 extra complication spots. For weekends, I’ve been using the California in full screen mode, as well as the Numerals Duo which I think has a fun, sporty style.

Series 5 owners will have the added benefit of getting all of these watch faces, as well as all the existing watch faces in always-on varieties. I’m writing this before I have hands on with a Series 5 watch, but what I have seen encourages me that Apple is doing this well and the watch faces will be very “complete” in even when they are in the power-saving mode, showing even the complications on your watch face.

Of odd note, the Siri watch face, one of my favorites, appears to have gotten more confusing since last year. You used to be able to go to the watch face configuration page in the Watch app on your iPhone to customize what apps can appear on the face. This is gone in watchOS 6/iOS 13, and had me fooled for a bit (thanks to David Brown for showing me the light). Now you need to go to your iPhone's Watch app and go to "Clock" and scroll to the bottom. There you'll see "Siri Face Data Sources" which you can edit like before. I wonder if this is something Apple saw basically no one used and therefore wanted to tuck it away, because this is not discoverable at all.

New Apps

Apple shipped a few brand new apps with watchOS 6 and each is a pretty good in its own right, although which ones people actually find useful will surely vary from person to person.

Voice Memos

This one has proven surprisingly useful for me. I don’t often use Voice Memos on my iPhone, and I’ve actually recorded more memos this summer on my Apple Watch than I may have ever on my iPhone.

The app doesn’t have much to it, you just open it, tap record, and then stop it whenever you want. The recordings are synced back to your iPhone and appear in the Voice Memos app on all you Apple devices. That’s it, there are no settings and things just kinda work as you’d expect.

What makes this app work for me is how damn easy it is to use. I always feel weird recording with my iPhone because I have to make a show of getting it out and starting a recording. Then I have to leave my phone alone for the whole recording to avoid weird audio dips and noises as I tap out messages that the microphone picks up. With the watch doing the recording, I can just tap my wrist and then do whatever I want when the recording is going on. As long as I don’t bang my wrist on a wall or something, I get a very clean recording that sounds really good.

For example, this was useful while I was in the emergency room with my wife (everything’s fine, don’t worry). The doctor was telling us what we needed to do at home and I was able to record the instructions on my watch and take written notes on my iPhone. The recording was on my iPhone by the time we got home3 and we were able to listen back to the conversation and remind ourselves what was said.

Calculator

Listen, this is a basic calculator and works…fine. It really only does addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but really how often will you do this on your watch? There’s also a tip function that doubles as a bill-splitting function, but again, I would expect most people would use their phone for this. Then again, the watch is better for having this as an option if you ever need it, but I suspect this will not be used by most people.

Books

Books?! On a watch?!?!?!?

Relax, these are not ebooks, but audiobooks, which makes total sense on the Apple Watch and I’m happy to report the app works well. It’s very basic, and is basically just a list of your audiobooks and a now playing screen, but what this really allows is the ability to sync books directly to your watch. So if you want to go for a run without your phone, you can load a book onto your watch and listen to it while you’re far from your phone.

One downside is that you can’t stream books over cellular, so for example if you forget to load your book before a run, then you simply can’t listen to it.

The other downside is really the elephant in the room: Audible. I personally own 3 audiobooks in Apple Books and my most recent one is from like 10 years ago. I, and basically everyone I know, uses either Audible or library-affiliated apps like Libby. If you like to get your audiobooks from Apple Books, good on you, and this update will make you happy, but I suspect this is a pretty small subset of iPhone owners.

Reminders

Reminders isn’t a new app, per say, but it has gotten a pretty substantial update this year to match the changes made in the iOS 13 version of the app. This isn’t a huge change, but the main screen uses the big, colorful icons and everything from iOS and lets you add tasks and mark them done from the watch. It’s easy, simple, and works well for your basic reminders tasks. You’re not going to want to do serious work in the app, but for quick interactions it’s pretty nice.

I still think Things is the best GTD app for the Apple Watch, but Reminders works for a ton of people and they will all find this update to make their workflows a little nicer.

Compass

This app is exclusive to the Series 5 watch and therefore I have not been able to use it yet. Apple showed it on stage and basically it will enable you to see what direction you're facing at all times, which will be doubly useful when using the watch for something like navigation.

You can also plop the compass on your watch face as a complication and see your heading at any point. You probably won't use this often, but I could definitely see this being useful if you were camping or hiking for a day or two and wanted to just have easy access to this at all times.

App Store and Independent Apps

This is something that I think made more than a few people raise an eyebrow during its reveal this summer: the App Store on the Apple Watch. Oh yes, you can indeed search for an app from your wrist, and the App Store even has a Today view like iOS and macOS where there are featured apps Apple really likes. You can of course also search for specific apps with your voice or scribbling out whatever you’re looking for.

The App Store is surprisingly full featured, including every watchOS app out there, as well as reviews, descriptions, release notes, version history, privacy policies, and more. Are you going to use this often? Probably not, but it’s nice to have in a pinch, and is an essential brick in the road to a fully independent Apple Watch.

Speaking of independence, the App Store also allows for something I found difficult to test in this pre-release period: independent watch apps. These are apps that are installed on your watch, from your watch, and may not even have a corresponding iPhone app.

For example, think about the Workouts app as it has existed for the entirety of watchOS’s life: it’s a watch-only app that has no interface at all on the iPhone. Apps like RunKeeper and Strava could do this as well, and even apps like task managers, podcast players, or meditation apps could update their apps to not require anything on the iPhone.

Sign in with Apple

One of the big obstacles for watch-only apps in the past has been authentication. Without an iPhone, how do I sign into my RunKeeper account? Apple has you covered with their new Sign in with Apple feature, which works much like the other single sign on buttons you are likely familiar with from Google and Facebook. This new authentication method will be enabled with iOS 13 and watchOS 6 and will let you sign into whatever apps support it with a single tap.

Time will tell how much traction this authentication method gets, but Apple has said that any app that offers Google or Facebook sign in buttons must add Apple’s option, so I have expectations that this will show up in tons of your favorite apps.

All the Small Things

And then there are all the little things that you’ll notice here and there when using watchOS 6.

Updates can now install directly on the watch. Previously, you always had to initiate and check for updates to the watch from your iPhone, but watchOS 6 lets all this happen directly on the watch. Just go to Settings, General, and then Software Updates to see any available updates and install them from there. You still need to be over 50% battery, must have the watch on a charger, and they still take longer than makes any sense, but this is a move in the right direction.

Siri has more power than before. There are now fewer questions that will kick you over to the iPhone to see the results, and you can ask Siri to show you a specific website. Maybe you’ll notice these changes or maybe not…I’m guessing not.

There is a new animation when you put the watch on a charger.

Your face and name appear in the Settings app, but they don’t do anything. Why? Who knows, but there you have it.

The list app view looks better than before. It’s a subtle change, but I prefer this new look over the previous list view.

The Now Playing app makes it easier to control devices besides your iPhone. For example, I can easily start controlling my HomePod from my watch with 2 taps while this used to take a very specific, yet mysterious set of moves on your iPhone and watch to get this to work before.

The incoming call screen has a new look. This lets you auto-reply with some canned messages, which is much more discoverable than before (where you had to scroll the page to see replies), but it also makes the decline button smaller and makes me paranoid about hitting the wrong button when I just want to ignore a call. I haven’t yet, so either I’m more nimble than I expect, or they’re doing some “touch targets aren’t exactly as big as the visible buttons” magic. Either way, it’s fine by me.

Maps has an optional visual mode. By default, you still just get basic visual and audio cues on what your next move is, but you can tap “back” after starting navigation to see your real time location on a map on the watch. Rotate the crown to cycle between the upcoming moves, or just watch the first “card” to see yourself move around. I would not recommend this for driving, but it’s actually quite useful when walking. I used this when walking to Summerfest in Milwaukee this summer and it was nicer than trying to guess “how far away in 1000 feet?”

This is a teeny tiny one, but the lock icon is now a lighter, greener blue than before. I know, I know, I saved the best for last!

Conclusion

watchOS continues to grow up, and each year it gets objectively better than the year previous. The team behind this product have done a fantastic job of maintaining its simplicity all while adding on genuinely useful features that don’t always feel like much at the time, but have added up to an improved platform in almost every way.

That said, the techie in me feels like the Apple Watch is kind of in need of a complete rethink. watchOS 1 was the result of a company who didn’t know exactly what that product was and they threw everything against the wall to see what stuck. A few things like activity and workout tracking, watch faces, complications, and communication ended up being the biggest hits, and they’ve evolved those from their initial incarnations very well. But I feel more than ever like we’re getting to the point of diminishing returns and each update is proving less and less impactful on the product as a whole.

While I have written close to 4,000 words about the changes in watchOS 6, and there are still things I didn’t touch on at all, after 3 months of using this update everyday, I can’t say I feel much different about my Apple Watch than I did a year ago. I still use it fundamentally the same and if Apple simply cancelled watchOS 6 and we had watchOS 5 for another year I’m not sure my general satisfaction with my Apple Watch would drop much at all.

Additionally, Apple’s own apps continue to be much better in almost every way than third party apps. This is not due to a lack of trying from other devs, but the fact that Apple doesn’t offer them sufficient tools to make apps that are as good as Apple’s.

I think we’re ready for a big change on the Apple Watch. Apple keeps selling more and more of these things every quarter, and I’m very happy with its success, but I’m slightly worried that the platform is going to stagnate and die off like the iPod if they can’t figure out how to make it a more transformative experience.

I think the Siri watch face back in watchOS 4 was a great step in the right direction, as they dipped their toes into a watch face that dynamically changed based on your current situation, and I’d like to see them continue pulling on that thread. The Apple Watch is at its best when it’s helping you do things quicker than you expect, so I’d love to see a whole UI redesign that focuses on this concept. The current app-centric model has served them well, but I think the platform is ready to do more.

On the other hand, things like the new Apple Research app and studies it will allow, as well as the work Apple continues to put into things like watch bands and new watch face designs makes me think they are putting their efforts into different things. There is even a patent floating around out there about a watch band with sensors in it that will enable god knows what.

I guess what I’m saying is that Apple is moving the Apple Watch forward, but it feels like it’s advancing at a comfortable pace right now, and maybe that’s just a cost of being a successful, 4 year old platform with very little real competition.


  1. I’ve heard some people with watchOS 5 have all of these, and some who don’t have them all, so honestly I’m a little confused by this one. My wife, for example, doesn’t have fitness gaming, not did I on watchOS 5, but some people on Twitter say they see it, so who knows. 
  2. It was outdoors, which surely helped. 
  3. It was probably there sooner, but I wasn’t exactly in full on “watchOS reviewer mode” in that situation. 

The Things That Keep Me Using an Apple Watch

The one feature that keeps me using the Apple Watch – Lee Peterson

Since losing my activity data in this watchOS beta period I’ve come to realise how I use it has altered since owning the original. I’ve also taken a break from it and come back all because of one thing – my calendar.

Lee lost all his activity data after using the watchOS 6 beta, which is really rough, but his point about the calendar being the “one feature” that keeps him on the Apple Watch got me thinking: what feature (or features) keeps me using my Apple Watch?

  1. Calendar. Like Lee, having my work calendar on my wrist, especially with the Siri watch face, has been a game changer for me at work.
  2. OmniFocus has a good Watch app and on days where I have a lot to do, getting it on my watch face is monumentally useful for me, and ticking things off from my wrist with haptic feedback and everything is very satisfying.
  3. Weather checks are easier on my watch than my phone.
  4. Notification filtering, especially around emails is major for me. I get a notification for every email and when one comes in I either (a) archive it if I don’t need it, (b) read it immediately on my phone, or (c) save it for later so I can deal with it later. Ultimately, this means when I sit down to work on my email, only things I actually need to address are in my inbox. It’s the best tool I have for maintaining inbox zero at all times.
  5. Workout tracking, of course.
  6. Taps on my wrist for driving navigation.
  7. Siri on my wrist for when I’m out of the house.
  8. Morning alarms that don’t wake up my wife, they just tap me on the wrist.
  9. Media playback controls, which are mostly useful when on a walk or run.
  10. Apple Pay with a tap.
  11. Remote camera control, which I have used 3 times this summer for different family photos we’ve taken.
  12. Voice memos, such as when you’re with a doctor and they’re giving instructions you need to remember.
  13. This isn’t software, but I also love the ability to customize my watch with the vast array of watch bands out there.

I think that’s it for now, but it would appear that I am far from giving up my Apple Watch anytime soon.

How I Use the Apple Watch to Achieve "Inbox Zero"

I was listening to the A Slab of Glass podcast today and Chris Lawley talked about how getting rid of his Apple Watch was part of a process he was going through that lead to many changes in his life, one of them b being achieving "inbox zero" for the first time in basically forever. I've had the opposite experience and wanted to talk about it here.

Disclaimer here that this works for me, but is certainly not a thing everyone can do.

Step one of my system is allowing all email notifications come to my Apple Watch. This sounds insane, but for someone like me who gets a couple dozen emails a day, it works. Basically, I get a buzz on my wrist every time a message arrives and I can choose what to do with it right then and there.

  • If it's an important email, I open my phone and act on it right away.
  • If it's an email I want to look at, but not now, I just ignore it and go on with my day.
  • If it's an email that I don't care about, I archive it right away.

That's it, that's the system. This basically means that I never spend time in my inbox just wading through junk to find the gems. Because I've filtered out the crap as it comes in, my inbox is not a place I dread going, it's a happier place. Some of it is "remember to pay this bill," which is not super fun, but most of it is personal emails and newsletters like Sidebar or CSS Weekly which bring me joy.

Like I said in the disclaimer above, this is not something that will work for everyone, and there are tons of variables that could make this less compelling for you, but it's been a life changer for me and has meant I've been able to live right around inbox zero for years.

BYOD Podcast: A Rivalry I'm Taking Very Seriously

I had the great pleasure of guesting with Greg and Nati on their always fun BYOD podcast this weekend. I was on to talk all about the Apple Watch, what we expect from WWDC, and why Apple currently has nothing to fear from the Android-based smartwatches out there today.

I also unseated Apple rumor rockstar Gui Rambo as the show’s BFF, which I'm very proud of 😊

Check it out!

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: An Apple Watch Fan’s Sorta-Review

Before we get going, let me just say that I picked up this watch 4 days ago and have used for 3 full days as I write these words. I normally would wait to pass judgement and write a full review, but I simply can’t use this watch anymore and need to return it before it fills me with even more…”rage” isn’t the right word…hmm…let’s just say this filled me with massive disappointment that no tech product has made me feel in recent memory.

Let’s go.

Design

This watch looks cheap and generally unattractive. I got the silver model and I might think better of it if I got the black one, but I was not proud to wear this on my wrist. Other people feel this way about the Apple Watch, so I get if people will disagree with this, but I personally almost wanted to wear long sleeves to cover this up.

The buttons on the side are nearly flush, but not quite with the body and are inexplicably different colors. They’re not bold colors either, just subtly different for no apparent reason. They do at least feel good to press. And the band it comes with is kind of like the Sport Band the Apple Watch uses, but has a metal clasp that again, is not very appealing to me.

The good news is that this uses a standard 20mm connector, so there are lots of regular watch bands you can buy to use with this.

First Impressions

Setup was seemingly simple, but my phone locked up and I had to wait about 10 minutes for it to reboot itself as the buttons and screen were completely unresponsive. Then setup was easy and kind of “just worked” like you would expect from a smart watch.

But then I saw this gem.

What the hell does this even mean? I'm pretty tech savvy and this confuses the hell out of me, so I can't imagine what less advanced users think. Anyway, I agreed to it since I kind of assume lots of stuff wouldn't work if I don't allow this.

Bixby

“Hi Bixby, what's the weather?”

Well, I don't know how I expected that to go 🤦‍♂️

Bixby is the only voice assistant you can use on this device; Google Assistant is not an option. I'll also note here that none of Google’s apps work with the watch either. Notifications work (more on these later), but they feel very much siloed off from your watch.

Watch Faces

The watch face is the most important part of a smart watch’s software and this watch has a collection of faces that I simply don’t like. The best watch face is called Breath, and is very similar to the watch face with the same title on the Apple Watch. Here’s the thing though, this is the best face on the Active and it’s one of the more ho-hum faces on the Apple Watch.

Here are all of the watch faces that come installed on the device out of the box:

None of these look good to me, with most of them being frankly unacceptable.

Not only do I think these look bad, but they are also shocking sparse on content. If you want your watch face to give you more than the time and the current temp, then these are going to let you down. Complications are sort of here, but most watch faces only let you change their colors to one of three options.

And then we need to talk about the third party faces. These are more of a dumpster fire than I ever expected. I strongly believe that the iOS development community can make some very nice faces for the Apple Watch, but the watch faces I see available for the Samsung line of watches makes me question that belief. This is the most popular free watch face on the Galaxy Store tonight:

And this ugliness is not alone, here are the featured collections of faces:

These are all basically the same ugly-ass style and I think they look abysmal. I don’t say that lightly and I hate to say that about something other people really enjoy, but these are rough and I would never be caught dead with these on my wrist. Watch faces should embrace their digital nature, not emulate $20 Timexes.

These were a massive disappointment and are one of the main reasons I can’t wait to get this off my wrist.

A Round Watch Face

I had little interest in a round Apple Watch before, and now I have zero interest in a round watch from Apple. I wrote this way back in 2015 about how round watches are wrong for digital watches and that they were just a fad. I underestimated how long this style would last on the Android side, but I think I was completely right about round being a bad shape.

The bottom line here is that none of the things I’m looking at on my watch are round. Text messages, Slacks, emails, news, and the rest are all much better displayed on a rectangular screen. I think Samsung knows this too because all content displays in a thin rectangle in the center of the screen. They do this to minimize the content that is cut off by the rounded screen, but it also means that everything takes up a ton of vertical space. Short headlines in my Inoreader notifications required me to scroll to see everything, and even further to see the actions I could take on that notification. The two below screens could effectively display the same amount of content that the Gear Active can:

This screen shape usually means tons of empty black space that takes up room on my wrist but provides zero value.

About the only things that are built with the round screen in mind are the native Samsung apps, most of which have some UI that wraps around the edge of the screen. These are fine and relatively well made, but most of them would work just was well on a square screen.

Performance

Let’s talk about something good to break up the bad stuff. Performance on this thing is actually quite good! Everything happens pretty quick and I almost never felt like I was waiting on the watch to do something. Considering where we started in 2014/15 with the first smart watches, this is very welcome.

I really have nothing else to say here other than I’m happy to see Samsung build an operating system around the hardware at hand and not throwing too much at this teeny tiny computer.

Workout Tracking

Another pretty good note is workout tracking itself, which is the main reason you should get this watch. Workouts start fast and there are tons of them available. My testing of this was quite limited due to my short time with the watch, but the app launches instantly and it does an incredibly good job of auto-pausing workouts when you stop for a minute. It paused a few seconds after I stopped walking during a dog walk, and started up almost immediately after I started walking again. This was fantastic.

They of course also have Samsung Health, which has you “fill your heart” instead of your rings, with goals for calories burned, minutes active, and hours standing.

The watch will also yell at you for sitting too long, but unlike the Apple Watch it will ask you to do a quick arm workout at your desk instead of making you stand up. It’s pretty cool, although not something I’ll probably do again.

Battery Life

Battery life has been good, with me getting almost 2 days with the screen off all the time (like the Apple Watch) and then a little less than 24 hours when I enabled the alway-on display. Neither of these are super exciting, but they definitely get the job done.

As for charging, it takes well over an hour to charge this thing up. I don't know the exact time, but it's slower than I expected. As a cool trick for those with a Galaxy S10, I love the ability to charge straight from my phone.

https://youtu.be/b4f1E12jXtY

It's worth noting that while it charges from the Galaxy S10, it does not work with any of my Qi wireless chargers, so it appears to pick and choose what devices may charge it, just like the Apple Watch.

Notifications

Hot damn, this is what made me quit this thing. This is the newest Galaxy Watch and I’m using it with Samsung’s newest phone, the S10e. By all accounts, I should be Samsung’s ideal customer and am using the optimal combination for this product.

I say that because the experience I had with the “smart” things this watch does feels terrible and almost acts like they’re products not really meant to work together.

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1105535909871665152

There is no way to authenticate yourself on the watch (no pin, not pattern, and no biometrics) and it behaves exactly the same whether it’s on your wrist or sitting loose on a table. This is convenient for YouTubers recording videos, but it’s possibly the worst software decision in this entire product.

Since the watch can never trust that it is indeed me who is asking it to do something (without authentication how can it know someone didn’t just steal it off my wrist and is now sending nasty texts in my name?), it needs to confirm every single action I take on notifications by asking me to use my phone to authenticate the request. Pardon my French, but how in the Sam hell is this acceptable behavior for a smart watch? The point of the watch is to let me do things without the phone! Even mundane things like archiving emails resulted in a message on the phone that said “check your phone” and the action would not take place until I authenticated with my face of fingerprint.

Seriously…

It was at that moment, after asking my watch to archive an email and confirming it on my phone that I decided to return this thing.

On the plus side, there is a cool feature you can turn on (off by default) that makes it so that if a notification comes in, you raise your wrist to look at it, and then unlock your phone, the phone will open up to the content of that notification. This is clever in that the feeling of “oh, this is something I should handle on my phone” is a relatively common experience when using a smart watch, and being able to instantly get you into the thing you were alerted by is clever. I would love to see this added to the Apple Watch.

Conclusion

There is probably more to say and I likely didn’t cover everything about this watch, but if you’ve made it this far in the review I suspect you are not planning on getting this watch. If you are, please know that it’s going to be better for a workout tracker than a full on smart watch. If that’s what you’re looking for, then this might be a decent solution. It’s $199, runs well, has pretty good health tracking tools, and works with Android and iOS. It also supports Samsung Pay so you can make payments with NFC from the watch, which you won’t get on most fitness-focused bands.

On the other hand, if you are using iOS I simply can not recommend this when the Apple Watch exists. Best Buy currently has the Apple Watch Series 3 for $199 which eliminates the price difference, and even at the normal $279 price point, I truly think the additional functionality would be worth the extra cost to just about everyone.

My “review” has certainly not been comprehensive, but hopefully you at least understand my feelings towards this device. I truly dislike it at a very core level. I went in with high hopes and had them dashed in fantastic fashion. This watch might be right for some people, and I hope they do enjoy it greatly, but it is certainly not for me, and I think if you are used to the Apple Watch’s form, functionality, and attention to detail, you will feel the same.