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.

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Concept

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Concept

We're very likely 3 short months from seeing what Apple has in store for the next major version of watchOS, and as has become tradition for me, I wanted to take this chance to go through some of the things I hope to see in this next update to the platform I love so much. watchOS 6 is likely to be a smaller update, as the odd numbered watchOS versions has tended to be bigger, while the even numbered ones have been more iterative. With that in mind, most of my suggestions are enhancements to things that already exist and not major game-changers.

I hope you find things here that you'd enjoy as well. If I missed anything, I am more than willing to keep this as a living document and update it with more ideas, so let me know on Twitter if you think there's something awesome I missed.

New Siri Watch Face

The Siri watch face was one of my favorite additions to watchOS 4 and it remains one of my go-to faces in watchOS 5. But I think it's time for an update to this watch face's UI to make it a little cleaner and a little more useful.

This new version of the watch face keeps the same card metaphor as today, but instead of using the blue/purple cards that many people don't love the look of, instead this should use the new modular infograph complication style. This will let apps show more customized UIs on this page, as well as remove a lot of the color that turns people away from the current version.

Sleep Tracking and Well Being Rings

Sleep tracking is one of those things the Apple Watch does quite well, but as my friend Mark Miller has lamented, the apps that track your sleep don't do a great job of turning that sleep data into easily-parsable information. My mockup doesn't do much in this regard either, but this seems like the sort of thing that Apple could do and likely will tackle.

I expect this to either be a totally separate thing from the activity rings we all know and love. It may be a bit of a reach, but I would not be surprised to see Apple create new "Well Being" rings that includes sleep information as well as meditation. They've had the Breathe app for a couple years and the addition of sleep might give them a reason to include it in this new ring. People are addicted to "filling their rings" and getting people to sleep more and meditate even for a bit more than today is not a bad thing at all. Excluding it from the current activity rings also means you don't have to feel like you're missing out on something if this new tracking isn't something you're interested in.

Grid Layout for the Dock

I’ve never been fully satisfied with the dock on the Apple Watch. I liked the original variant when it was a horizontally scrolling list, and felt it was a slight regression to go to the vertical card system we have today. I get that vertical scrolling makes more sense on the watch, but it’s such an inefficient use of space.

My proposal is to convert the dock to a grid system, at least on the Series 4 and newer models. The 44mm model especially has more room than ever, and those pixels could more effectively be used to show full previews of your recently used apps and let you get into them with bigger touch targets.

In my mockups, I was able to get 4 apps on screen at a time and still easily make out the contents of the app and tap into it with ease. The list should still scroll, of course, and your last 8-12 apps should show here.

This change would also take us back to the original idea of the dock. It was supposed to be a place to quickly get info from your favorite apps without actually launching them. With this change, the ability to see the contents of these apps would get that back to us, all the while making it a better app switcher for people who prefer to use it like that.

New Watch Faces

This is kind of a given, but I hope to see more focus put on adding new watch faces, as well as updating the existing watch faces Apple already has. Most of the watch faces we have in watchOS 5 are the same, or slightly modified versions of what we had in the very first version of watchOS in 2015. Now that we have larger watch faces and new design elements, I think it’s time for Apple to spruce up the classics.

But let’s not stop at updates to the current watch faces, let’s get some new blood in there too. We got 2 new faces exclusive to the Series 4 watches, and both of those are very data-dense. I hope to see some new watch faces that are more about looking nice than getting as much data on screen as possible. I know this is very vague, but last year’s infograph watch faces showed Apple is still happy to experiment with design here.

iPhone Continuity and Companion Apps

Audio players and workout apps already have this, but I’d love to see the concept of keeping your iPhone and Apple Watch in sync be able to grow out a bit. For example, when I open the camera app on my iPhone, either open the companion app automatically on my watch, or add a one-tap button that takes me to it when I raise my wrist. Similarly, if I start a stopwatch on my iPhone, start the same one on the watch so I can keep track of it there as well.

This really speaks to the idea of the iPhone and Apple watch behaving more as a unit and not individual products that have their own things going on. My favorite moments with the Apple Watch are when it seems to know what I want before I even ask for it, and something like this would make those moments more frequent.

Better Data Transfers for 3rd Party Apps

One of the major pain points of watchOS is getting data from your phone to the watch. Sometimes it’s pretty good, with say a podcast syncing over in a minute or so, but often it is terrible, with sync taking many minutes, hours, or simply not working at all. This inconsistency is frustrating and makes you trust the feature less. I have a WiFi-only Apple Watch and I hardly ever bother to try and sync things like podcasts or music to it because I don’t trust that it’s going to get the job done. This means all of my workouts involve me taking my iPhone with me even though I’d much rather leave it at home.

The best I can tell this seems to be something to do with transferring data over Bluetooth and not WiFi, and watchOS makes weird decisions on which one to use at times. WiFi is supposed to be faster but use up more battery, which is why it often switches to Bluetooth, but here’s my thing: just use the damn WiFi all the time. Any battery advantages Bluetooth has must be somewhat offset by a shorter transfer, not to mention people actually using the freaking feature because it no longer feels like using a 56k modem to load The Verge.

The Little Stuff

As I have asked for over the past few years, please bring always-on watch faces to the watchOS. I’ll accept this as an opt-in feature and will check a box that says “I know this will make my battery life worse.” I just want to be able to see the time 100% of the time when I want to, not 95%.

Another repeat request is the ability for third party developers to make their own watch faces. I would even accept a super-strict approval process from Apple where they only accept faces they deem acceptable, but we need to get more designers working on digital watch faces. Here’s my idea from last year and I still think it looks nice.

Improvements to auto-workout detection is a must. The watch does a good job of guessing when I’m done with a workout and asking me if I want to stop it, but I still end up with 3 hour strength staining workouts from time to time when I miss that notification and it goes “well, I guess I’ll keep this going forever then.” Especially when it’s a walk/run/bike workout and I haven’t moved in 10 minutes, just close out the workout.

Let me see my iPhone’s battery life from the Apple Watch.

Let me read full articles in Apple News.

There should be more “domestic” style workouts. Snow shoveling, lawn mowing, yard raking, construction, and furniture building are all physically taxing, but can’t be tracked easily. I don’t need anything crazy like “pounds of snow moved” or anything, but some way to track this besides “other’ would be nice.

Finally, this is more a note, but I think we’re getting very close to the Apple Watch being able to operate entirely on its own. Much like iOS 5 let you finally set up and manage an iPhone entirely without a PC involved, we feel like we’re getting to a similar point with the Apple Watch. There’s still too much that would need to be decoupled from the phone, but the idea of an Apple Watch being set up and used entirely without pairing it to an iPhone seems like something Apple could make happen in the next year or two. I don’t know if they want to do this, as the Apple Watch helps keep people from switching to Android, but if Apple finds a good reason to want these to sell to more than just iPhone users, then this could be something we see relatively soon.

Conclusion

I think watchOS 7 next year will be about time for Apple to introduce some more fundamental changes to the Apple Watch, but for now I think the changes above will help make the Apple Watch more useful to those who already have it and entice more people to jump on board and get one for the first time.

We don’t know what Apple is going to show off at WWDC this June, but regardless of how close they adhere to my hopes and dreams, I just hope they still feel like they are treating watchOS as a priority and grow it beyond where it is today.

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

Every year since 2015 Apple has released a collection of Apple Watches, each with a standout hardware feature. The Series 2 brought GPS, Series 3 had LTE, and this year’s Series 4 has a vastly improved screen. The question on everyone’s mind this year is whether that screen makes this a worthwhile upgrade.

Jumping to the end, I think the Series 4 is a very good upgrade to the Apple Watch lineup, and for a lot of people it seems to be the Apple Watch update they’ve been waiting for. But that said, the Series 3 this is replacing was not exactly in desperate need of a revamp, at least in my opinion.

Let’s jump into it.

That Screen

This year’s update is really all about that new screen. It’s a little over 30% larger and has a slightly higher pixel density1. What this means is that everything looks notably bigger than it did on the previous Apple Watch models. Outside of the 2 new watch faces2, Infograph and Infograph Modular, very little in the operating system takes the opportunity to show more information than before. Individual notifications still take up all of the screen, workouts display one at a time, and the dock still has the card system that only shows you half an app at a time.

I find this a little disappointing because I was really hoping to get more data at a time. Maybe my eyes are good enough that I like smaller text (I have my iPhone’s dynamic text set to the smallest value), but I feel like most of watchOS was simply zoomed to 130% scale rather than leaving the UI the same size and showing more stuff.

For many people this is likely the right thing to do, but I am disappointed that there is no option like there is on the iPhone Plus/Max models that lets you choose whether to zoom content or show more content. For some examples, here are some screens from a Series 3 and 4:

Now all that said, the screen itself looks more amazing than ever. Because everything is bigger and it’s displayed on a higher resolution screen, everything looks a little sharper than it ever has on the watch. Everything looks absolutely beautiful, at at 1,000 nits, the screen is always legible, even outside on the sunniest days.

In my limited experience with Android Wear (wearOS?) and Galaxy watches, the Apple Watch has always seemed to have a nicer screen than anything else on the market. With this year’s models, Apple pushes even further ahead.

Design

For the first time since the Apple Watch’s debut, we finally have a physical redesign. As I expected, Apple is sticking with the rectangular form factor, and simply enhanced it. The new watch is both wider, taller, and thinner than the models it replaces. I got the 44mm option and was worried the additional height would be a big deal, but I hardly noticed a change on my wrist, and I’m someone who has worn a 42mm Apple Watch every day since April 2015. I can clearly see the difference when they’re side-by-side, but it’s so slight on the wrist that it’s hard to tell at all.

One of the reasons the added height and width are hard to notice is that the watch is now thinner than it was before. They’ve reduced the thickness of the watch by about 9% and I think this combines with the 8% increase in surface area to basically cancel out. Your sensitivity may vary, but I am very happy I stuck with the larger model instead of going down a size.

In addition to the size differences, they also changed the shape of the body. The Apple Watch Series 4 is more rounded than ever, and that change actually stood out to me more than the size difference. It’s still clearly an Apple Watch and it’s very much a rectangular face, but it’s a little softer. To put it in web developer terms, if the old Apple Watch had a border radius of 8px, then the new ones have a border radius of 12px. I personally like this, and it makes my Series 3 look a little blocky in comparison.

It’s worth noting here that even though the sizes have changed, all old Apple Watch bands will continue to work with the Series 4 sizes. 38mm bands work with the 40mm model and 42mm bands work with the 44mm model. The fit is pretty darn perfect too. The above photo is a band made for the 42mm watch used with the new 44mm Series 4.

Then there’s the back side of the watch. The heart rate sensor has gotten a redesign, but it’s not a big deal as it’s not something you ever look at for more than a second or two. The bigger change here is the fully ceramic back, which makes the watch feel a little more premium, especially on the base aluminum model that I got. I’m not good at measuring this sort of thing, but it also does feel like the sensor pokes out a tiny bit less than it did before. That might be a placebo, but looking at it now, it does appear a little less pronounced.

And finally, there is the side button and Digital Crown. The side button is similar to how it’s been since the start, but it now sits flush with the side of the watch body. I like that this makes the watch look a little more like it’s one piece of metal, but it makes it so I’m a bit less confident I’m pressing it every time.

The Digital Crown got a more notable update. The crown itself sticks out a tiny, tiny bit less than before, and the pronounced red dot from last year’s LTE models has been toned down to being a red ring around the border of the crown. I got the non-LTE model this year and that model also has a glossy ring around the border, but it’s black and basically invisible unless you really look closely.

The bigger change to the Digital Crown is that it now has haptic feedback when you use it almost anywhere in watchOS. It’s supposed to simulate a click for each item on screen, and for the most part it does just that. The feedback does manage to feel localized around the crown and it does not just feel like another buzz on the wrist. It’s quite impressive. My biggest complaint is that it’s inconsistent. On the Siri watch face and Workouts app, the haptics clearly indicate each item as I scroll through the list, but when I go to notifications, there seems to be no relationship at all as to when the haptics trigger. It’s not a huge deal, but it doesn’t feel like they totally implemented this yet.

Performance

A big change we can expect every year from the Apple Watch is performance. Apple has been making these tiny computers for just the last few years, and the tech they can cram in there is growing very quickly. Last year’s Series 3 was what I called a turning point in the Apple Watch in terms of performance:

The Series 0 felt like it didn’t have the hardware resources it needed to do basically everything. Sometimes it would be quick, but that was the exception, not the rule. The Series 1 was notably faster, but it felt like it was barely hanging on for dear life. Some things went fast, while others remained slow. The Series 3 just feels fast all the time.

That watch represented a 70% increase in speed over the previous model, and a year later, I still felt like that was the case. The Series 3 remains a plenty capable watch and I rarely experienced slowdowns that hindered my use in any way. Now the Series 4 and S4 chipset claims 50% more performance over that.

Without getting into any speed tests, I will say that the Series 4 is clearly the fastest Apple Watch yet. Duh, I guess, but considering I thought last year’s Series 3 was still pretty zippy, this didn’t land with me the same way as it may have for others. I can see the differences here and there, but my watch doesn’t feel much different to use day to day. This isn’t a complaint, but a compliment to the Series 3, which is still a great deal.

Workout Tracking

What’s an Apple Watch review without a little discussion of workout tracking? Happily there isn’t much to say here. The Series 4 does about the same as the previous Apple Watches in terms of being a workout companion. Basically, if you were happy with it before, you’ll be happy with it now.

I’ve seen a few people say that they have experienced better heart rate tracking than they ever did with the Series 3, but that has not been my experience. Here are the last 3 workouts (runs and walks) I did with the Series 3, and the 3 first workouts I did with the Series 4:

The tracking looks essentially the same to me and I’m getting very comparable cretic for the same workouts as I did with the Series 3. For my money, it’s working exactly the same as before.

The X-Factors

When you have the screen off, the size difference is hardly noticeable, but it becomes much more apparent when the screen is on, especially with the old watch faces. I had gotten used to things like Utility and Modular being certain sizes, and the difference in size is very noticeable there. You also really notice it in things like Maps where the UI actually takes up the entire screen.

The haptics feel ever so slightly different than last year’s model. They’re a little more delicate, but not in a way that makes them harder to notice, just different.

I think Apple missed an opportunity to revamp their whole watch face lineup this year. The 2 new faces are the only ones that get to use the new complication types, which make me far less likely to use anything else. The other watch faces feel old now and I feel like I’m compromising the new stuff when I use them. Hopefully watchOS 6 will address this, but it’s a let down this year.

Speaking of complications, I really like the new style that Apple has introduced this year. The colorful bar graphs are a great way to visualize data. I like them a lot for temperature and I love them for the timer. I would very much like for devs to be able to indicate a direction on the line as well. For example, being able to show which direction the temperature is heading. I’d also like to be able to set these to use monochrome colors since the wild rainbow of colors is not to everyone’s liking.

Battery life is not something I can say much about since it's only been 11 days, but I'm still getting well into a second day with it. That said, I have noticed the charge being a little lower than I'm used to at certain points, but not by much and not in any way that would make me get less than the advertised 18 hours of battery life, even with 2 hours of workouts tracked. I also moved from the cellular model to a non-cellular, so that's another variable that's hard for me to track.

The ECG functionality is exciting, but as of this review was not available, so I have not been able to try that out yet.

Finally, I need to mention the price. All the aluminum models cost $100 more than they did last year. That means that I spent $429 on my Series 3 with LTE Watch last year, but this year that same $429 bought me the non-LTE Series 4. It’s not the end of the world and I’ll be fine, but I was a little upset that we had a 20-25% increase in cost from year to year. I loved having LTE on my Apple Watch, but apparently the proposition of saving $100 up front and then $180 over the course of the year to T-Mobile was enough for me to downgrade.

Wrap Up

This is where I’m supposed to tell you whether or not the Apple Watch Series 4 is worth the money. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Series 4 is the best watch Apple has ever made (duh) and if you are in the market for a new watch, this is a great product. It’s the best of the best and warrants the praise it has received from basically every tech outlet.

That said, the Apple Watch Series 3 now starts at $279, a full $120 less than the Series 4. That’s a significant price difference and I think it’s still a great buy for most people. If you must have the latest and greatest, then the Series 4 will make you happy, but if $400 is a hard pill to swallow, then I think the Series 3 is a good place to test the waters on if an Apple Watch is right for you.

I think that if you really love the Apple Watch already and you aren’t scared off by the upgrade cost, then by all means, the Series 4 is a worthwhile upgrade from any previous Apple Watch model, including the Series 3. But if you are a first time buyer or are upgrading from a Series 0, 1, or 2, then I would seriously look at the Series 3 to see if that would work for you. No, it’s not the latest and greatest, and it may get one year fewer watchOS updates (until watchOS 7 in 2020 would be my guess), but it’s a fast, high quality Apple Watch as well.


  1. Incidentally, at 326ppi, the Apple Watch now has the same resolution as the upcoming iPhone XR and all previous non Plus or X iPhones in the “retina age.” 
  2. And to a lesser extent, the new material-based watch faces, which mostly just show off the smaller bezels. 

First Impressions of the Apple Watch Series 4

I got the new Series 4 Apple Watch today and I really couldn’t resist sharing a few first impressions.

First, we have to talk about the size. I got all hyped up by a few watch people who had me convinced the difference between 42mm and 44mm watches was significant. Maybe for some people it is, but I personally don’t find the 44mm watch to feel any bigger on my wrist than the old 42mm ones. Yes, it looks a bit different, but I find the new shape to be far more noticeable than the extra 2mm in vertical height. I waffled back and forth about whether to get the 40 or 44mm models this year, and I’m supremely happy to have gone with the bigger one again.

Let’s take a look at these two sizes side-by-side:

The next big thing I noticed, and this is a small thing, was the side button is now flush with the side of the watch.

It’s likely not a big deal, and I may grow to like it, but it feels unnatural to me right now.

But then there’s that screen. OH BOY THAT SCREEN. The new screen is stunning! The Apple Watch already had a very nice display, but the addition of more screen area plus a higher res panel, and rounded corners make this a whole new beast.

The old Apple Watch had a 390x312px (303 ppi) screen, and the new model has a 448x368px (326 ppi) screen that looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s a small increase in pixel density, but for a thing you look at many times per day, it’s a noticeable change.

Then there’s the reduced bezels. watchOS does a good job of hiding the bezels most of the time, so you don’t really think about how big they are, but the new screen really makes you feel like there is now an ocean of space on your wrist. I am a little let down that rather than add more content to the screen, most apps simply show everything bigger than before. This can certainly be good for people who strained to see the old watch, but I do wish there was a bit more on screen. I’ll definitely explore this more and have more to say in the coming days.

What I can say now is that some UI elements have been redesigned to look better on the larger screens. For example, the default buttons are more round than they were before:

Similarly, buttons that already got redesigned in watchOS 5 got another look in this version of the watch.

In terms of performance, the watch feels slightly faster than the Series 3, but not by much. I recently tweeted about how I think the Series 3 does basically everything instantly. The Series 4 also does everything basically instantly, so I shall have to do some testing to see how much faster it actually is. The processor got a big upgrade, so I’m hoping I’ll notice it more as time goes on.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the “black” sport loop that comes with the Series 4 watch is not exactly pitch black. It does look black-ish, but it’s definitely got some color in there. I love it, but if you want that black-on-black look, then this might be a bit of a surprise.

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

Every September since Apple released the Apple Watch, we’ve seen a brand new version of watchOS come out that improves the experience. Here’s a brief recap:

Which brings us to this September and watchOS 5. This isn't as big an update as watchOS 3, but it’s probably the next biggest update watchOS has received to date. It combines everything great about the platform and makes most elements of it better, while adding a number of key features that people have been asking for. Oh yeah, and they had to spend a non-insignificant amount of time adjusting the whole OS to work on the new Apple Watch Series 4.

The Apple Watch journey has been all about figuring out what people like to do on their smart watches and optimizing watchOS to match. Those categories seem to have settled on activity tracking, listening to audio, handling notifications, communicating with others, and getting general information quickly. watchOS 5 addresses all of those categories and almost all changes are for the better. The worst thing I can say is that a good number of these updates require third party app developers to update their apps to use them. Given how much better this makes the watch experience1, I’d expect to see updates very soon that include these changes.

There are a lot of changes to activity tracking and workouts, including things that FitBit users used to be able to lord over the Apple Watch. Automatic workout detection is only the tip of the iceberg here, there's much more. The Siri watch face, my favorite new feature from last year, got the best update it possibly could: third party app integrations. This means that all your favorite apps, not just Apple’s, will be shown on your watch face. Podcast and audiobook apps can now make honest-to-goodness amazing apps on the watch, and they can even download content and play in the background. And if you don’t want to use a third party app, Apple’s brand new Podcasts app for the Apple Watch is quite nice.

There is so much more to talk about, so let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

The Little Things

watchOS lives and dies on the little things. Small interactions that create delight or frustration define how much people enjoy the Apple Watch, so let’s kick off with some small changes in watchOS 5.

watchOS 5 drops support for the original Apple Watch. This isn't so much a fun update, but it's worth noting up front that this update will only run on the Series 1 and newer models of the Apple Watch. While it is sad that the original model won't get any of these benefits, many of the changes listed below were only possible because Apple no longer needed to make everything work on the original model anymore.

Bold text mode is less bold than before. Not everyone will notice this because using bold text appears to be a relatively niche thing, but I personally love bold text and think it makes everything on the watch more legible. It's not a horrible change, but it's definitely one that I noticed right away.

“Hey Siri” is now optional. This is mostly cool, as I can just raise my watch to my face and say “remind me to XYZ.” This somehow feels less nerdy than prefacing every request with “Hey Siri.” On the other hard, this feature has been triggered accidentally quite a few times in my testing. I was stretching during a meeting at work once, and it thought I was talking to it, only to reply audibly to the room. It was annoying for me, but lead to a minute of “oh Siri, you’re so dumb,” comments from the room. This happened a number of other times outside of meetings, and while it was never as horrible as that one time, it’s always obnoxious.

Series 3 and 4 users can change how loud Siri’s voice is. I love this myself, as I always want Siri to respond at full volume. Others can use a lower volume if they’d prefer, though. If you are using a Series 1 or 2 watch, Siri still will not be able to speak back.

Walkie Talkie is here, and it’s good for very specific uses. You have to set a status for walkie talkie, and people can only reach you when you are set to available. This is necessary since you really don’t want to have people sending you real time audio messages just whenever. I’ve only used this a few times, but I got my wife on the beta late in the game and used it to talk to her when she was coming home from work so I could meet her by the car right when she got home. The voice message was in real time, and was a lot easier to notice than a basic text message, and required less interaction than a phone call. I get that many people won’t see the value in it, but every once in a while it has been something I enjoy having2.

You can quickly access the Now Playing screen from the watch face. Like Workouts before, Now Playing will appear on the watch face as a red icon whenever media is playing on your iPhone. Tapping it takes you to the Now Playing app, or the app for whatever is playing audio (Overcast, Castro, Audible, etc). This is way more convenient than the previous method of opening the app honeycomb and finding the app icon.

App developers can put the Now Playing screen in their own apps. This is big for workout apps, as they will now be able to show the now playing interface inline in their app, instead of having to build their own media controls, which were never as good as the stock option. Developers also have the option to style the widget with their own colors for a consistent experience with their app.

Non-Apple apps can now change the volume with the digital crown. This is the reason why I always deleted the Overcast/Pocket Casts/Castro apps on my Apple Watch before. I need to have auto controls on my watch and now that third parties can do what the Now Playing screen has always done, these apps will be able to come back to my watch.

Transferring files to your watch is faster and easier to track. Transferring things from your phone to your Apple Watch was a major pain before for 2 main reasons. First, it took forever; so long that it actually felt broken most of the time. Transferring an hour long podcast to your watch could take well over an hour to finish. Second, and to make that process even worse, there was no way to see the progress of that transfer, so you never knew if it was still going, how much longer until it was done, or anything to even confirm it’s working.

Apple fixed both of those things in watchOS 5. Transfers are now much faster: I was able to transfer this week’s 87 minute episode of Upgrade to my Apple Watch in under 3 minutes. Not only that, I was able to see the exact progress of the transfer all the way through.

Timers and alarms have slightly different interfaces. These new apps have had their contrast boosted, a few buttons rearranged, and a few quick actions made easier. Here are a few comparisons.

Your favorite timers are easier to set than before. Now, instead of just having the pre-suggested timers of 1/3/5/10/15/30/60/120 minute timers, you will also see up to 4 of your previously used custom timers when opening the Timer app. This will be particularly useful for those of us who use similar timers over and over again.

You can load full websites in Messages. Here’s what it looks like in practice.

This only works in Messages and websites don’t look great in this view, but it is nice to have in a pinch. This is a full HTML web browser, so this is indeed a real website and not just a “screenshot” of the page that’s been rendered out for the watch. Yes, you can tap links and see things styled as they are intended.

There are of course limitations. One notable limit is that web fonts are not supported, meaning most websites (including this one) will not look exactly correct. Also missing are videos and service workers.

But the biggest hurdle is that websites just aren’t coded to look good on screens less than 320 pixels wide3. Apple’s solution is to display most pages in reader mode first, which will just render text and not the full styled page. In cases where this doesn’t make sense or the user overrides to the full page view, then it uses a logical pixel width of 156px and attempts to scale the content to resemble the site’s 320px width view as much as possible.

This is more or less successful in many cases, although I would never suggest browsing the web this way. It’s just a good way to see a little more content from your watch than you could before.

Mail can show HTML-formatted emails. Along the same lines, Apple Mail can now render HTML emails instead of just the text from them like it did previously. I actually found this to be more useful more often, as emails come in throughout the day and seeing them with a little more context is nice to see.

Control Center can be rearranged. This is a minor change, but one that you will probably use once and then never again. At the bottom of Control Center is an “Edit” button that allows you to shift these buttons around however you’d like.

I used this to move sound, theater mode, and battery status higher on the page since I interact with these the most.

Updates will install overnight. This is not something I’ve been able to test in the beta, but watchOS 5 will give you the option to let the whole update process take place overnight while the watch is on its charger. This avoids the pain of waiting for the watch to update, which by the way is still as long as it has ever been, even on the Series 3 model.

There are some new watch faces that don't totally suck! The new ones are Breath, Fire and Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor. The 3 latter ones have multiple color options, and you can have them randomly cycle through their variants or choose over version you'll see every time. These will go edge-to-edge on the Series 4, but they display in a smaller circle on the Series 1, 2, and 3 watches, presumably to not make it so obvious how big the bezels are on that device.

Check them out running on a Series 3 below.

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1040972426509733894

And then there are all those Series 4 enhancements, none of which I can include in this review, unfortunately. The recently announced Apple Watch Series 4 will include many changes to the user interface, and I'll certainly take a look at those when I get my hands on this new device later in the week. Oh yeah, and there is this rad new watch face:

Activity Updates

Apple put a lot of effort this year into Activity updates. As this is one of the major selling points of the Apple Watch, that just makes a lot of sense from Apple’s perspective. What does watchOS 5 bring to the table that will get people excited about the Apple Watch? Let’s take a look.

A New Workouts API for Developers (and Apple)

Trust me, this is a little nerdy but you care about this one! Previously, Apple had a workout API that third party developers could use, but it wasn’t super easy to use, was a little flaky, and was not what Apple themselves used for their own Workout app. This changes in watchOS 5, as not only has Apple created a new API for third party developers to use, but they have rewritten their own app to use it as well.

What does this mean for you, the end user? It means that third party apps like RunKeeper, Nike Run Club, Strava, and more can use the same data Apple uses. This is good because that data is easier to process so you are more likely to get better workout data from these apps.

Apple has also done something cool with how workout data is collected. To make sure that you never lose your workout data because of an app crash, they have updated the data collection this year so that even if your workout app crashes, the workout data is not lost. If you are in the middle of a run in RunKeeper and Runkeeper crashes, watchOS 5 will detect that, relaunch the RunKeeper app automatically, and feed it back the workout data so that it can pick up where it left off. It’s a really cool solution and one that workout apps get basically for free, so you can feel comfortable using whatever app you’d like now, not just Apple’s own.

Competitions

While the enhanced workout API is a great technical enhancement, the biggest user-facing update in my eyes is competitions, which lets people compete with one another to see who can be more active over a 7 day stretch. You can compete with anyone your have set up as a friend in the Activity app, and the competition is based on a point system, not your raw calories, active minutes, or steps taken. Essentially, points are the percentage of your daily move, exercise, and stand goals that you achieve. So if you do 120% of your move goal, 90% of your activity goal, and 100% of your stand goal, you’ll get 310 points (120 + 90 + 100 = 310). This acts as a good leveler so that the score is based on how you push past your own goals, not just who takes more steps. So if you want to challenge your marathon-running friend to a competition, you can stand a fighting chance, even if you associate the word "marathon" with Netflix more than running.

Inviting someone to a competition is easy enough, as you just need to tap their name in the Activity app on your iPhone and select the new “Compete with XYZ” button. The other person gets a notification on their watch that someone wants to compete with them and they can accept or reject the offer. If they accept, the game is afoot and the competition starts the day after they accept. Keep this in mind, as I once asked to compete with someone, saw they accepted, and went for a 10k run, only to find out that my epic run, which left my legs useless for a couple days, would not count in our contest.

For the 7 days that the competition is running, you can check your progress in the Activity app on the iPhone. Somewhat humorously, Apple gives you an option to remove friends from Activity sharing right from the competition screen. So if someone is really trouncing you, you can…uh…cut them out of your life???

You will get notifications throughout the week to let you know how you’re doing compared to your competitor, and at the end there are awards to be handed out. You will always receive a badge for completing a competition, whether you win or lose, but the winner will get a second badge called “Victory over XYZ”. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there are quite a few people who have a “Victory over Matt” badge in their collection today.

One big miss with this feature is that you can’t do larger competitions. My favorite Fitbit competitions were where we had 8-10 people competing together. It was more fun than a one-on-one battle because you didn’t have to beat everyone to feel like you were doing well. With one-on-one competitions, you either win or lose, which isn’t as exciting to me.

I also wish you could configure your competitions more. Right now it’s always a 7 day competition with points as the metric. I’d like to be able to do one day competitions or even one month ones. I’d also like to be able to choose what metrics we’re competing on. How about something weird like a stand competition? Or just a competition on how many active minutes we can have, or an old-fashioned steps battle?

Auto Workout Detection

This is a really cool feature that I would have loved to see Apple prioritize earlier, but I’m happy it’s here now. The watch will now detect when it thinks you’re working out and will prompt you to start a workout. In my experience, it does a pretty good job of figuring out what type of workout I’m doing. Whether I’m walking or running, it seems to get it right every time. I also do strength training workouts and it has never detected those, so I’ve had to start those manually. Considering that workout is under the “other” category, I’m not really surprised it doesn’t figure it out.

Usually it just takes a few minutes of working out for it to notice that you’re doing something and present the notification. The good news is that it gives you credit for the entire workout, not just from when you confirm you are indeed working out. So when it asks you 5 minutes into a run if you are indeed in a workout, you get credit for the time, distance, and calories burned for those 5 minutes. It’s pretty slick.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Apple Watch will detect when you’re done working out. This is a little less magical, as it takes longer than I’d like to notice that I've stopped. Usually it takes 5 minutes or so from when I actually stop a workout to when the watch asks if I’m done. Additionally, when I tell it that I was done, it counts the workout as done when I tapped the confirmation, not when I actually stopped working out. I get that they probably don’t want to accidentally guess wrong and delete some of your actual workout time, but a little interface to choose how long ago I stopped working out would have been nice. This is really only a problem with getting an accurate pace for a run.

This is absolutely a win overall, though. The auto-start means that I no longer lose workout data when I forget to start one, and auto-stop means I no longer have accidental 3 hour walks in my history when I forget to stop them.

The Small Stuff

There are some smaller updates to Activity that might be notable. First, there are 2 new workouts, yoga and hiking. I don’t do yoga, and I don’t hike, so I’m not the target audience for these. Hiking is like an outdoor walking workout, but it also tracks elevation changes. Yoga acts basically like a generic workout (time and calories).

One feature I really enjoy is the recovery heart rate tracking, which will show you how your heart rate changed in the 2 minutes after your workout ended. It's interesting to see how quickly my body recovers from a hard workout. This will show up automatically on the Siri watch face once the data is collected, and it will be saved to the activty itself so you can always view it in the Activity app on your iPhone.

There are updates to running workouts as well. You can now show your cadence (steps per minute) during the workout, which is important to some runners, and you can also show your rolling mile (or km) time.

https://youtu.be/cdoDpltB9j4

There are new workout and activity animations throughout the watch apps. There are new details in the stick figures that animate while you’re doing a workout, and there are new variants of the “you filled your move ring” notifications when you achieve 200% or more of those goals. They’re cool and unexpected, and I love them. Apple is definitely into particle effects, because they’ve got all of them cranked to 11 for this release. I could not capture these on video for the review, so you should go out and crush your move goal to see these.

And finally, the awards page in the Activity apps got a small update. The page is much better laid out, with all of your badges organized by type. Your most recent ones are at the top, but then you have ones you earned from competitions, limited editions, monthly challenges, and the like. The page also shows you when you earned a specific badge, while “personal best” ones will show you what your best actually was (ex: 300% of your move goal).

Siri Watch Face

The Siri watch face was one of my favorite additions to watchOS last year, and I’m extremely happy to see that they addressed a bunch of my issues with that version in watchOS 5.

New Look

The classic Siri color scheme is cool, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. To combat that, Apple has added a grayscale theme for the face, allowing you to have a more subtle look. It's not a huge change, but it might get a few more people to feel okay about using this very cool watch face.

Sports

This is kind of a weird one, but I’m happy to see cards about my favorite sports teams appear on the Siri watch face. It’s weird because your favorite teams are set up in the…TV app. You’d think this might be in the main settings app or something, but yeah, any teams you have set as favorites in the TV app will show on your Siri watch face when they have games going on.

You will get cards that show when the next game is. It was baseball season during the beta, and because I told the TV app that I like the Cubs, I got cards showing when and who they were playing almost every day of the summer (because baseball’s crazy like that).

If you turn the digital crown to see further into the future, you can see upcoming games as well, which I find more useful now that the NFL season is upon us and I constantly ask “who are the Packers playing this weekend?” Siri can also tell me this, but it’s not always convenient to ask Siri a question, so having it easily accessible is nice.

Finally, and kind of the coolest feature, is that if my team is in the middle of a game, I’ll have a card near the top of the “pile” that shows the current score and time remaining. This isn’t a totally live score, as the card seems to update every 5-10 minutes or so. If you want to know what happens every moment, this won’t be good enough, but it’s perfectly fine for keeping tabs on a game. Fortunately, the card tells you how many minutes ago it was refreshed, so you always know how close to real time you are.

Third Party Support

This is the real winner here, and it’s exactly what I was hoping for when I reviewed watchOS 4 last year:

To be truly useful to everyone, Siri is going to need to start supporting non-Apple apps. During this beta I have moved more of my workflow to Apple apps so that I can get more value from the Siri watch face, but I shouldn’t have to change how I work to get the most out of this feature. It seems like we’re on the cusp of Apple opening Siri up to more and more app types on iOS, and I can only hope that will be followed in suit by Siri on the Watch. [...] Having calendar events and todo items appear here as needed has been fantastic, but I crave more.

Happily, Apple felt the same way and has opened up the Siri watch face to basically any app that wants to use it. Even before the official launch of watchOS 5, I’ve seen over a dozen apps show up in the “data sources” section of the watch app on my iPhone. These range from OmniFocus, Facebook, Jira, Overcast, Shortcuts, WhatApp, and more. App developers still need to do some work to actually make their stuff show up there, but it seems pretty trivial to do so. Developers can’t force things to show up on the watch face, but they can tell the system “hey, I have something the user might want to see around 3PM” and watchOS will decide whether that thing is worthy compared to what every other app wants to show at that time.

The only third party app I’ve been able to use that does this already is OmniFocus, which just so happens to be the task management app I use already, and its integration is everything I wanted. If I have a task due soon, it appears on my watch face, complete with the name of the task and when it’s due. I can tap straight into the task from the watch face and mark it cleared quickly.

Apps can also make themselves appear based on your location. For example, Starbucks can have its card appear when I'm close to one of their locations and allow me to pay quickly. Siri Shortcuts work with this too, and I have seen my "At Work" custom shortcut appear when I pull into the lot at work in the morning. It's super slick.

Enhanced Functionality

Previously, tapping a card on the Siri watch face would launch the corresponding app. Now that Siri has “intents” and “actions” developers can streamline this process even more.

Cards can still take you into the app, but if at all possible, Apple is suggesting apps allow you to simply tap the card on the watch face and then perform the action. This lets you do things like toggling your "Good Morning" HomeKit scene when you wake up with a single tap on the watch face. Similarly, task managers could display a task that's due and then allow you to tap it once to mark it as complete.

Actions that involve things you may not want to do on accident can display a confirmation message on screen that shows you a little more detail and lets you approve the action. For example, you could have a Starbucks card that says “Order your normal coffee.” When you tap this, you probably want to confirm the order, so Starbucks can have a pop up that shows a picture of the drink you're ordering, some text describing the specific drink and size, and buttons to approve or cancel the order. When you approve, the pop up simply drops out of view and you’re back on the watch face.

Podcasts

Apple added some really nice features for apps that deal with “long form audio” in watchOS 5. Part of this is Apple is finally bringing their own Podcasts app to the Apple Watch, but they’re giving all developers the tools they need to make truly top-class apps themselves.

Native App

The big news for most people is that the native Podcasts app, which is by far the most popular app in the world for listening to podcasts, is now installed on the Apple Watch. The good news: it works great!

The Podcasts app is my 4th favorite podcast app for iOS (behind Castro, Overcast, and Pocket Casts, in that order) but using its Apple Watch companion over the past few months has been almost uniformly excellent.

If you have used the Apple Music app for watchOS then you know what you’re in for here. Like Apple Music, you can browse your collection (of podcasts, in this case) and easily pick a recent episode to listen to. iOS and watchOS will coordinate while you’re on WiFi to sync episodes over to the watch so you don’t have issues if you lose internet access. The sync is not immediate, and as with all iPhone-to-Watch communication, this takes a long time.

The good news is that the Podcasts app for Apple Watch has full internet access and can stream episodes if you have not synced them already. This is nice on the standard Apple Watch, but it’s amazing on the cellular model. I have taken up the habit of going fo runs with just my Apple Watch and AirPods. I don’t worry about syncing first or anything, I just know that my current queue of shows will be there. If they haven’t synced yet, no problem, they’ll just stream over LTE and I won’t even notice the difference.

In addition to shows you have already subscribed to, you can also ask Siri to play any episode you’d like from the iTunes Podcast library4. Just like on the iPhone, it’s hard to get a specific episode to play besides the most recent episode, but I have found I have almost always been able to play whatever I wanted with Siri.

In terms of controls, Podcasts really only lets you change the playback speed in the app. Chapters and episode notes are nowhere to be found. I get that notes aren’t there, but I really wish there was a way to skip to the next chapter with a tap or two. Hopefully third party apps will get updates to support some more advanced podcast features for people like me.

For most people, this new app will solve the podcast problem with the Apple Watch. It’s not perfect, but it’s good to see Apple’s first effort here turn out quite well.

Third Parties Can Actually Make Good Podcasts Apps!

As mentioned above, Apple has also added hooks for developers to use to build their own first-class podcast apps. There are a few keys here:

First, apps can now play background audio and know that the system will not kill them a few moments after the user’s screen turns off. It will also let these apps access the standard watchOS system process of playing audio. That sounds a little weird, but the gist of it is that your favorite non-Apple podcast apps can now make apps that work great when your iPhone is not around.

Transferring data between the iPhone and Apple Watch has traditionally been terribly slow. It was slow for smaller files, but it was excruciatingly slow for larger files like podcast episodes. There were apps that let you sync audio files to the watch, but the process was so incredibly slow, and the user never knew how far along the sync process was. You basically saw when the transfer started and then when it ended. The problem is that these transfers took upwards of 30 minutes sometimes, and it was impossible to know if it was still going or if it was stuck.

As mentioned in the "little things" section of this review, transfer speeds are much faster than before. Because of that, I'm now able to sync an hour long podcast to my watch in a few minutes rather than an hour or more. Overcast, the popular podcast app, takes advantage of this improved speed and also displays the transfer progress so you know exactly how far along your sync is.

Overcast had syncing to the Apple Watch for a few months last year and the feature was removed because users hated it and there was nothing the developer could do to make it better. Syncing now works far better and I think users who were let down by the feature the last time it was added to Overcast will be very happy with this implementation.

Finally, podcast apps now have better media control options and they can even control system volume with the Digital Crown. This is far better than the previous custom playback controls apps had to make, all of which were too limited and slow for most people. Now, developers will be able to make better media controls. Or if they’d prefer, simply drop in the system Now Playing screen into their own apps and let Apple handle everything. I used to uninstall all podcast apps from my watch because the apps lacked volume control and were slower than the standard Now Playing app. Now I'm using the native apps and they're working great for me. Playback controls are just as fast as the Now Playing app and volume controls are just as easy to use.

Notifications

Many of the updates that notifications got in iOS 12 have also been applied to watchOS 5. Grouped messages, muting, do not disturb, it’s all here, as well as a few watch-only bonuses.

Grouped Notifications

Notifications from the same app will now have their notifications grouped to save you space and improve the overall organization of what’s coming into your watch. I like this feature a lot, especially when it comes to things like Twitter, Activity, and Messages notifications, which tend to come in quite fast sometimes. Having each type of notification grouped together means I can more easily find what I’m looking for instead of scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and…

Another related improvement is that when you are looking at a notification and another one for that app comes in, the new notification will be appended to the one you’re already looking at. This is more noticeable in messaging apps where I can be looking at the last message someone sent me, a new message can come in, and it’s just added below what I'm reading. Previously, this would take over the entire screen as a new notification, making it hard to read in some cases. Apple's Messages app did this before, and now all messaging apps can do it as well.

Managing Notification Access

Also new is the ability to manage specific app notification permissions from each individual notification. Simply swipe left on a notification and tap the 3 dots to change its permissions. You can say “deliver quietly” which will make it appear in your notification center on the watch, but it won’t buzz you or make noise when it comes in. Alternatively, you can select “turn off on Apple Watch” which will simply make it so that app never even gets to your wrist. This doesn’t turn it off for your phone as well, so keep that in mind.

Critical Alerts

”Critical Alert” is a new notification type that will do a more prominent buzz to get your attention, and can even make noise even if the watch is silenced. You need to approve each app’s ability to do this, and it’s a separate permission from normal app notifications.

Most apps should not need this, but it can be useful for things like health apps which may want to give you a critical alert when your heart rate starts doing something unexpected. I could even see some task managers using this to really, really let you know that it’s time to do something.

Inline Actions and More Dynamic Content

Apps have always had to include text and some basic images in their notifications, but this year Apple is allowing even more here. Apps can now display interactive content in notifications, including things like buttons that the user can use to execute actions. Previously, doing something like this would send the user to the watch app and the action could actually take place, but this year developers can indicate they just want to perform whatever action the user wanted right from the notification and not launch the app at all.

Additionally, apps can present more elaborate things in their notifications. Instead of just text with an optional header image, there can now be video, dynamic text sizes, custom fonts, and even some interactive UI elements like buttons, payment options, sliders, and gesture recognizers.

These functions were specifically called out by Apple as a reason that watchOS 5 no longer runs on the original Apple Watch models. The computational power needed simply wasn’t there. By knowing they’re only running on newer devices, they were able to blow out notifications a ton.

What’s Missing?

Apple hit most of the big things people were asking for with this release, and I’m struggling to find much to be disappointed about, but there are a few things that I wish we had seen.

As ever, I’d like to see more watch face options, specifically by allowing third parties to build their own. I wish I could freshen up the look of my watch more often.

I also wish that there was some sort of always-on functionality with watch faces. The OLED screen on the Apple Watch is primed for always-on faces and the battery on my Series 3 lasts about 2 full days, and I’d love to be able to use these to see the time even if I don’t turn on the screen.

More workout types would be great too. Moving the lawn and shoveling the driveway seem like ones that could get lots of use, but for now it’s setting a generic workout type for another year.

I wish there was sleep tracking and some sort of “rest day” feature where I could take a day off without breaking my workout streak.

I wish the dock, which shows your recently used apps, would convert to a grid system so I could see more apps at a time. I often have to scroll longer than is convenient to get something I used recently.

These aren’t crazy asks, and some of them have been requests for years. Apple keeps chipping away at what the Apple Watch can do, and I’m happy to see more and more people come to the watch because of that. But it’s not perfect, and it’s not complete yet. We have a long way to go.

Conclusion

watchOS 5 is a strong update for all Apple Watch users5 and no matter what you use your watch for the most, you will almost certainly have numerous updates that make you enjoy wearing this smart watch even more.

I do feel a little like I'm not able to address all of the notable changes to the platform yet since the upcoming Apple Watch Series 4 brings a bunch of changes including a new hugely customizable watch face, a modified UI for all system apps, additional heart and activity tracking features, new complication types, and more. But even without those new features enabled by the new hardware, watchOS 5 is a strong update to a constantly evolving platform.

Personally, I find the enhancements to podcasts to be a game changer. I can finally, finally leave my iPhone at home when I go for a run because I can take my podcasts with me. Even more, the surprising fact that I can stream any podcast in existence over LTE just by asking Siri to play it for me is huge!

Beyond that, the Siri watch face is even better this year, and as a devout user of it already in watchOS 4, the addition of third party apps makes it the only watch face I have eyes for anymore. The updates to activity tracking makes the official Workouts app and all third party apps better, and competitions are a nice way to compete with your friends (even though I wish they would add group competitions badly). And of course, notifications are more powerful and easy to use than ever before.

Apple did nothing to address the “app honeycomb” which remains a less-than-perfect UI and the omission of third party watch face support, but overall I think they did a very nice job of making changes that needed to be made. watchOS 4 was already the most advanced, user friendly wearable operating system out there, and watchOS 5 made notable refinements to extend its lead. Install this update immediately.


Thank you for reading! My annual watchOS review takes more time and effort to create than anything else I do all year for BirchTree. If you are able, it would mean a lot to me if you considered supporting my work on Patreon and sharing it via whatever social networks you enjoy.


  1. And how fast Apple Watch sales seem to be growing. 
  2. Or earlier in the beta season, wish I had. 
  3. Presumably this will be slightly higher on the new Series 4 watches, but I’ll have to learn that when I have the new watch in hand. 
  4. AKA basically ever podcast in existence. 
  5. Except Series 0 owners, in which case watchOS 4 was the end of the road. 

An Apple Watch Jailbreak is Probably the Worst Idea Ever (right now, at least)

 9to5Mac has a good breakdown of what this jailbreak entails, but I will reiterate that you should not even think about finding this jailbreak. One, I don’t think that watchOS is really in need of a jailbreak community to push it forward right now1, but two, this is an incredibly high risk jailbreak!

watchOS doesn’t have a downgrade path, and if you do anything to get off the stand release cycle, you void your warranty. This means that watchOS betas are risky enough, and they come from Apple! Jailbreaking a device almost always results in restoring to factory settings eventually, and with no option to do this on watchOS, you’re basically S.O.L. if something goes wrong…and this is jailbreaking, something will definitely go wrong.

Steer clear of this one.


  1. You may feel free to disagree with me on this point, but I don’t see a hunger there to do the sorts of things jailbreaking would allow. The types of changes we are generally looking for would also require the iPhone to be jailbroken as well…and for app developers to make jailbreak-specific changes to their apps.