My wife and I have a relative with a severe case of atrial fibrillation, and it had recently gotten so bad she had to have surgery to correct it. Unfortunately, after the surgery, she still had heart flutters, which the doctor said were normal and should pass with time.
I know from personal experience how stressful it is to worry about your heart rate and rhythm. I’m not an Apple Watch zealot, but it is comforting to perform a quick ECG and see that things are more or less normal (see “I’m a Paramedic: Here’s How the Apple Watch Series 4 Will and Won’t Save Lives,” 3 October 2018). I had long been considering giving our relative an Apple Watch to help monitor her atrial fibrillation, but the surgery finally pushed me to do it. It also didn’t hurt that there are currently some excellent sales on the Apple Watch Series 5, which is more than sufficient for ECG tracking.
The main concern, though, was the worry that I would be giving her a box of headaches. This person isn’t a geek, though she has more technical aptitude than many of her peers. We also checked in advance to make sure her iPhone would work with the Apple Watch Series 5. She has an iPhone 6s, the bare minimum iPhone required to support the Apple Watch.
Unfortunately, my gift did indeed turn into a box of headaches, at least for me. I was able to resolve all the problems in the end, but the road to success was longer and bumpier than it should have been.
The Brick in the Road
I surprised her with the Apple Watch, gave her a brief overview of how to set it up, and left her to it. Typically, I would have sat there and helped her set it up, but we’re still maintaining social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, the Apple Watch setup is straightforward: scan the star pattern with your iPhone and you’re off to the races. Or so I thought.
She called me via FaceTime a couple of days later because she was having problems setting up the Apple Watch. After some troubleshooting, I directed her to Settings > General > About to learn what version of iOS she was running. She was still on iOS 11. Oh, dear.
Next, I guided her through updating to iOS 14, crossing my fingers that nothing would explode in the process. But in Settings > General > Software Update, no Install Now option appeared. Here’s something for a future Bad Apple column. The text informing her that she did not have enough free space to install the update was not only minuscule, but it was darkish gray on a light gray background. She’s older and couldn’t even see it! I could just barely make it out over FaceTime. For a company that touts its accessibility advantages, bad Apple!
The iOS 14 update required about 4 GB of free space, and this was a 16 GB iPhone. Even though she doesn’t use her iPhone that much, it was still full. I walked her through Settings > General > iPhone Storage and had her turn on all the suggestions, like offloading unused apps, deleting old conversations, etc. I had her delete the Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps, which have a habit of bloating in size. I also verified that iCloud Photo Library was enabled in Settings > Photos and that Optimize iPhone Storage was turned on.
Unfortunately, those efforts reclaimed only about 3 GB of space, and I was hesitant to have her start deleting pictures and videos. I decided the best course of action was to have her drop off the iPhone and Apple Watch so I could take care of the rest.
Once I had the iPhone, my plan was to update through iTunes (my iMac still runs macOS 10.14 Mojave), which Apple suggested would let me update the iPhone without clearing more space. I first made sure there was an iCloud backup, and then I also backed up with iTunes. That was the smartest move I made in this entire story. Always make backups before embarking on efforts like this!
That’s because the update halted halfway through with the dreaded “unknown error” message. The iPhone’s screen went dark, and I began to panic.
Fixing the Brick
I break my own stuff all the time, which doesn’t bother me much because I have spares, I keep backups, I usually have the knowledge to fix things, and hey, it’s my stuff and I’ll break it if I want to. But messing up someone else’s iPhone, just to get an Apple Watch working that they never asked for, well, that’s more stressful.
I tried an iTunes update. I tried a restore. I thought maybe the problem was between iTunes in Mojave and iOS 14, so I connected the iPhone to my MacBook Pro running 10.15 Catalina. That meant downloading iOS 14 yet again, and the experience is even worse in Catalina’s Finder than it is in iTunes because there is no progress bar, just an anxiety-inducing and completely unhelpful spinning gear.
At one point, I considered calling Apple support or making the long trip to Nashville and braving a plague-filled mall so I could hand the iPhone off to the Apple Store’s Genius Bar. I couldn’t even put the iPhone into recovery mode; all I saw was an Apple logo and then a blank screen. But Catalina could still see the iPhone, so I tried to maintain my composure and kept at it.
After numerous tries, the Restore option eventually worked, such that I was able to install iOS 14 successfully and get the iPhone to boot. Next, I had to set the iPhone up and hope I could recover from one of the backups I’d made.
Restoring the iPhone
The first wall I hit was Activation Lock, since I hadn’t thought to ask for her Apple ID password. (Admittedly dumb on my part.) Unfortunately, she was at lunch when I encountered it, so I couldn’t contact her immediately. I spent about an hour worrying if she knew the password. By the way, I had not told her I had bricked her iPhone and was unsure if I could restore the data. I saw no need to concern her if I could avoid it—we bought the Apple Watch to help with heart problems, not to cause more! Thankfully, she remembered the password, I used it to get past Activation Lock, and I moved on to the next step.
She also volunteered the passcode to her iPad, and I was glad she did because the next hurdle was two-factor authentication. My stomach did another flip when I saw that screen because I did not have her iPad handy, but I learned a fun fact: if you don’t have a spare Apple device handy, Apple will text the 2FA code to your iPhone and even fill it in automatically. But then iOS asked for the iPad’s passcode, and thankfully I had it.
Here’s where something finally went right. I connected the iPhone to iTunes on my iMac and restored the backup without any issue. After the restore was complete, I checked Mail, Messages, and Photos, and sure enough, everything was where it was supposed to be!
With the iPhone updated to iOS 14, seemingly running fine, and with its data restored, it was finally time to set up the Apple Watch.
Time Flies When You’re Not Having Fun
Needless to say, given that this entire situation was cursed, I hit snags when setting up the Apple Watch. I decided to update the watch to watchOS 7 when prompted, just so that’d be one less thing to do later. If you’ve never updated an Apple Watch, it’s a slow process. The iPhone must first download the update and transfer it to the watch through Bluetooth, and the watch must then install it. There’s a good reason we keep encouraging TidBITS readers to install watchOS updates at night.
I was worried because I encountered numerous problems installing watchOS 7 on my Apple Watch Series 4. It took multiple attempts over the course of an afternoon, evening, and the next morning to get the install to take, and I had to re-download it several times. Even after that, I encountered a serious battery drain issue that forced me to unpair and re-pair the watch. Happily, it’s working well again.
Thankfully, when working with my relative’s Apple Watch Series 5, I did not encounter those specific problems. However, I did have an issue where the Watch app on her iPhone said the update was still installing, while the watch itself was prompting me to set it up from the iPhone. After waiting a while, I force-quit the Watch app and restarted the setup process. The Watch app again informed me that I needed to update the watch, and I dutifully agreed. Fortunately, after a bit of a wait, it realized the watch already had watchOS 7 installed and proceeded with setup.
I quickly managed to configure the basic aspects of the Apple Watch, after which I decided to go all the way by setting up a watch face, enabling ECG, and turning on the heart rate and atrial fibrillation notifications.
Setting up ECG in the iPhone’s Health app was far fussier than necessary. First, it told me it was unable to confirm my location. Due to regulatory issues, the ECG capability is available only in certain countries. I realized that the problem stemmed from the iPhone trying to use the cellular network to verify my location. The clue was that it told me to make sure a working SIM card was installed.
I don’t have cellular service at my house (no thanks to Verizon—you can see why I’m not holding my breath on 5G), so I had to take the iPhone and the Apple Watch, hop in the car, drive five minutes down the road, avoid being hit head-on by a tractor, and park the car at a country store that has cellular coverage. Sure enough, the iPhone immediately passed the location check. Apparently, Wi-Fi and GPS aren’t sufficient to make sure you’re in the correct country. Neither is Wi-Fi Calling, which is what I use for cellular service at my house.
This is nuts. Cellular connectivity should not be required to determine which country I’m in for ECG. I understand that Apple has to do some sort of verification to keep the legal beagles happy, but this information could easily be extracted through Wi-Fi or GPS. The United States is a big country, and absolute precision is not required.
I thought I was done, but Apple Legal threw me another hurdle. The Health app next asked if I’ve ever been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation by a doctor. The person I was setting the watch up for has been, so I answered Yes. That prompted a dialog saying, “These notifications are not designed for people who have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.” There was no error message, but I was not allowed to continue until I selected No. Technically, that wasn’t a lie because at least I have never been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
Once I managed to set up the ECG feature, I drove home to build her watch face with the appropriate complications. She had already told me she preferred analog faces, which nudged me toward the Infograph face introduced with the Apple Watch Series 4. I wanted to set up complications for the following:
- Rain chance percentage
- High and low temperature
- Sunset time
- Heart rate
- Battery percentage
I knew ECG was supposed to be an option because it is on my Apple Watch Series 4, but I didn’t see it in the Watch app! I thought maybe I was looking at the wrong complication slot because not every complication is available in every slot. I then thought that perhaps I had to run an ECG before the complication would appear, which made a certain amount of sense given the weird hurdle around ECG. But no, that didn’t do it either. Finally, I thought to press on the Apple Watch’s screen to edit the watch face there. Sure enough, the ECG complication was available on the watch, but not from the Watch app on the iPhone. I have no explanation for why this might be.
With everything finally done, my wife and I delivered the newly updated iPhone and properly configured Apple Watch. Within a couple of minutes, I had walked my relative through taking her pulse and getting an ECG reading. She was absolutely delighted. The Apple Watch is an amazing piece of technology, but the onboarding process can stumble badly in the real world.
Later that night, I received a message saying she’d broken the watch. I quickly figured out that she had merely added a second watch face, and I explained how to switch between them. That’s the sort of tech support I like giving because it means the user is enjoying their technology, playing around with it, and learning how to use it. One thing I love about Apple’s products is that I can usually hand one to someone, and they can explore it without doing any real damage.
I often complain about the constraints Apple puts on its devices, but there is a flip side: those constraints give the less tech-savvy more freedom to explore.
The Apple Watch Is Not a Great Gift
I learned a few things during this experience.
- Gently prompt loved ones to keep their devices up to date, and help them do so if necessary. We’ve said this before in TidBITS, and my fight with upgrading from iOS 11 to iOS 14 hammers it home: the longer you wait to upgrade, the more likely you are to have significant problems in the process (see “Why You Should Upgrade (On Your Own Terms),” 4 September 2015).
- Always make backups, preferably multiple backups. In this case, I could have restored from either iCloud or iTunes, but you never know what might render one or the other of those backups useless.
- Get all the login information before you mess with someone’s device without them present. You will almost always need it for something. Also get passcodes for any of their other devices.
All that said, I doubt I will ever buy an Apple Watch as a gift again, except maybe for my wife. There are just too many questions involved: watch size, their preferred color and material, which band type they would most like and its color and size, do they have the right iPhone, is their iPhone up to date, etc.
For one of the simplest devices in Apple’s lineup, the Apple Watch is one of the most difficult to give as a gift. I’ve given iPads and even iPhones as presents, and although they are far more complex devices, they aren’t nearly as challenging to set up because they stand on their own.
Another relative asked me why the Apple Watch can’t work on its own like any other watch. It’s a reasonable question because, with Wi-Fi and optional cellular connectivity, it would seem that it could work with at least limited functionality without needing a companion iPhone.
Adam and I debated the possibilities for a while, focusing on setup and authentication, but we figured that we should get some expert input. So I posed the question to our friend David Shayer, who worked on the Apple Watch during his time at Apple. The answer, he said, comes down to power consumption. Apple takes every available measure to maximize battery life. The Apple Watch supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (to the iPhone) for accessing the outside world, but Bluetooth uses far less power than Wi-Fi. As a result, watchOS is designed to use Bluetooth to request data from its companion iPhone instead of getting it directly over Wi-Fi whenever possible.
Apple has taken a step toward eliminating the need for a companion iPhone by introducing Family Setup, which lets people set up an Apple Watch for a family member. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that make Family Setup impractical for many people:
- You need a cellular-capable Apple Watch, which is not only more expensive but also requires a monthly fee from your carrier, assuming your carrier supports the Apple Watch. Apple now has a note saying, “A cellular plan isn’t required to set up an Apple Watch for a family member, but is necessary for some features.” The company doesn’t specify which features require cellular access, but it likely includes any that need to use the Internet.
- When you set up an Apple Watch for someone else, these features aren’t available: irregular heart rhythm notifications, ECG, Cycle Tracking, Sleep, Blood Oxygen, Podcasts, Remote, News, Home, and Shortcuts. The first two limitations would have defeated the purpose of buying the Apple Watch for our relative. We suspect these features rely on a directly paired iPhone for storage and display of the personalized data associated with the feature. As it stands, the Health app, for instance, can store and display data only for the iPhone’s primary user. Without multi-user support baked into iOS, these features would need significant reworking.
In the end, as attractive as the Apple Watch is, it’s such a personal item that it simply doesn’t make sense as a surprise present. Perhaps Apple could build an online tool that would help customers gift an Apple Watch to someone within certain limitations and let the recipient personalize it as they want, chipping in the extra amount if they want a more expensive band, for instance.