Why bother with a smartwatch? Because it lets you check the weather, see a map, message your mother, and answer the phone, all of which are hard to do from a naked wrist. The Apple Watch can do all of these things — and quite a bit more — but it is, to say the least, slow. Apps take way too long to launch, and tapping around to set a timer or message a friend can take a while. Such actions are so inefficient that many Apple Watch users have become adept with Siri, but even Siri isn’t always quick to respond.
For those of us who want to control the world from our wrists, the good news is that Apple’s big goal with the just-announced watchOS 3 is improved performance. watchOS 3 will work on all currently available models of the Apple Watch, so all users can look forward to a free upgrade later this year.
watchOS 3 will get faster by keeping your favorite apps in memory, and keeping their data refreshed. If all goes as Apple VP of Technology Kevin Lynch described in his portion of the Apple WWDC keynote, you’ll perceive these apps as launching instantly — and immediately displaying the data that you want to see, like the weather or your map location. These enhancements will work for both Apple apps and third-party apps.
Another performance enhancement for Apple Watch users will be the ability to log in to a Mac running Apple’s just-announced macOS 10.12 Sierra (see ”macOS 10.12 Sierra to Succeed OS X 10.11 El Capitan,” 13 June 2016), simply by having the watch close to the Mac.
Better Screens — watchOS 3 will offer a better set of core screens and a better arrangement of those screens. The Glances screen is gone. Instead, you’ll swipe up from the watch face to access a Control Center screen, which looks a lot like the current Settings glance.
The Glances screen will be replaced by a new Dock screen, which you’ll populate with your favorite apps, and which you’ll access by pressing the side button. Apps in the Dock are live, so you can work with them right in the Dock without the bothersome hunting and pecking in the app cloud as in watchOS 2. You’ll swipe on the Dock screen to switch between apps. Apple did not say where the funky talk-to-your friends screen accessed now by pressing the side button goes; perhaps it will disappear.
Another new screen is the SOS screen, which you bring up by pressing and holding on the side button for some time. (We hope there won’t be too many inadvertent activations!) You won’t use the SOS screen often, but you’ll want to be aware of it, and set it up within the Health app on the iPhone. Once you open it, the SOS screen counts down (Apple’s keynote implied a 3-second countdown), and then the Apple Watch triggers a call to 911 (or whatever the emergency number is in your location, including international locations). The call will be made either via the cellular connection on your iPhone or “directly from the watch if you’re connected to Wi-Fi.” Apple did not specify how this Wi-Fi call would work. Once the call is placed, the watch will also notify any emergency contacts specified in your Medical ID screen in the Health app on your iPhone and send them a map of your current location. Then it will display the Medical ID information that you’ve filled out in the Health app, such as allergies or that you have a pacemaker. This is the same information that appears on the iPhone’s Medical ID screen, accessed by tapping Emergency on the Passcode screen and then Medical ID.
Also coming in watchOS 3 are more watch faces — and more flexibility for adding complications to the faces. For example, I love the animated flower face, but it can’t handle many complications in watchOS 2, like a portal to my calendar or activity rings. I’ll finally be able to add those complications and keep my cheerful flower. For those who love their activity rings, there will even be an entire face centered around them, and you’ll be able to start a workout from that face. watchOS 3 also adds a new, elegant Numerals face and a Minnie Mouse face. Minnie’s outfit can be customized by color, with colors that match Apple’s band colors. Apple did not say whether Mickey will gain any sartorial options. Best of all, if you set up more than one face, you’ll be able to switch between them with a single swipe.
App Changes — When it comes to individual apps, Apple’s Reminders and Find My Friends will come to the wrist with watchOS 3, plus Apple plans to enhance a few apps with new features. Although the new features shown vary widely, Apple emphasized when introducing watchOS 3 that a focus is making the apps faster to get around in, especially when accessing common features. For example, the improved Timer app puts buttons for 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-minute timers front and center, so you don’t have to fiddle around to start them or try to get Siri to do it.
The Messages app will see several changes. You’ll no longer need to tap Reply before answering a message. Instead, you’ll immediately tap a smart-reply button or start dictating. You’ll also be able to create a reply with a new feature, called Scribble, which allows you to handwrite characters in English or Mandarin with your finger tip — you’ll write each letter over the entire screen, so if you were writing “Singapore,” you’d write an S and then write an I over where the S was. The letters will be interpreted, displayed, and sent as normal text, not as a graphical image. As with iOS 10, Messages will also allow users to send and receive iMessages with gewgaws like stickers, oversized emoji, and invisible-ink bubble effects.
Another app Apple upgraded for watchOS 3 is Activity. It’s not yet a full-on fitness app (it compares poorly to apps like Strava, which includes social networking and workout analysis). However, with its addictive rings that measure calories, workouts, and standing, the Activity app acts like a digital friend that’s always with you, cheering you on as you fill your rings each day. Those who don’t use the Apple Watch may find these rings inscrutable, and athletes generally find them silly, but put three Apple Watch users in a room and you’ll hear at least one of them going on about how those rings are life-changing. (Speaking for myself, if I fill my blue ring for a day, my back doesn’t hurt. I never realized before that my standing breaks were too short and too infrequent!) In watchOS 3, Activity will be even more friendly with an added social feature, Activity Sharing, wherein you can share your rings and heart rate with friends and send your friends canned messages offering encouragement or trash talk.
According to Apple, many wheelchair users like the Apple Watch because they can use it while their iPhones are safely stowed away. To better include them in the Activity app’s feature set, Apple is adding a wheelchair mode wherein the blue ring tracks rolling, not standing, and the watch tells users “time to roll,” instead of “time to stand.” To better understand rolling, Apple has studied wheelchair use and taught watchOS 3 to recognize different wheel-turning hand motions, including semicircular, arc, and single loop over, among others. Apple will also add two wheelchair-related sessions to the Workout app.
An intriguing new app, called Breathe, will help watch users enhance their fitness with regard to breath, helping us take breathing breaks and even providing guided breathing routines.
Of course, many third-party fitness apps can run on the Apple Watch, and with watchOS 3, those apps should improve dramatically as their developers take advantage of Apple allowing them to run natively in the background. watchOS 3 should make fitness apps vastly more convenient for users, and it will also give them better access to real-time heart-rate data and to the watch’s gyroscope and accelerometer.
Apple has added several other behind-the-scenes changes for developers, described on the Apple site, including Apple Pay integration and new HomeKit APIs, so we should start seeing more watch apps with in-app Apple Pay and offering home automation features like turning off the lights and locking the doors.
Watching Out for watchOS 3 — The changes that Apple has planned for watchOS 3 are, of course, in software, so they won’t bring cellular connectivity to your wrist or add a GPS chip. What watchOS 3 should do is to address many of the slowdowns and inconveniences that have made the Apple Watch feel like a 1.0 product, and I look forward to a smoother and more enjoyable experience on my wrist later this year. As an early purchaser of an Apple Watch, I’m pleased that I can look forward to a more nimble and nifty watch — without having to pay for new hardware.