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I Bought an Apple Watch as a Gift. It Turned into a Tech-Support Setup Nightmare

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.

iPhone unknown error

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.

Unable to confirm location

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.

Notice that afib notifications aren't for people with afib

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
  • Activity
  • Calendar
  • Heart rate
  • ECG
  • 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.

Apple Watch setup for my relative

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.

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Comments About I Bought an Apple Watch as a Gift. It Turned into a Tech-Support Setup Nightmare

Notable Replies

  1. I don’t have ECG on my AW3 but soon after I bought my watch I visited my family doctor who noticed the watch and asked if he could see the heart rate data on my iPhone. It was just for his own interest at the time but useful to know that doctors are aware of these data.

  2. First, my deepest sympathies on what you went through. This kind of experience is far from Apple-like, and Apple needs to do some serious work on the Watch experience to prevent nightmares like this from happening.

    I just want to comment on one thing you said: “There’s a good reason we keep encouraging TidBITS readers to install watchOS updates at night.” That isn’t a guarantee things will go ok. Watch updates frequently time out or just fail during the process, only to find this out in the morning when you wake up. I find they must be monitored closely, so I won’t do mine at night.

    I have a love-hate relationship with the Watch. I love using it but absolutely hate it when it has to be updated.

  3. My response to stories like this is always, “Whatever…”

    If many or most or the vast majority of Apple watch users experienced these issues sales would have dropped to zero by now. But sales continue to rise and the Apple watch dominates the smartwatch market. Yes, outlier stories like this one are sad, stressful tales but are not in any way the “norm”. If the intent of the story was to claim Apple watches are too difficult to operate then it falls short.

  4. The point wasn’t to show that Apple Watches are too difficult to operate, but if you’re considering buying one for a loved one, there are a number of potential headaches that you may not anticipate. Now that the Apple Watch is set up, everything is hunky-dory.

  5. Ah, you were punished alright! Never, ever, touch another’s iPhone (or any iDevice) that Apple designed for individuals. Best prod them to the Apple store and let Genius bar handle it. I’ve been there and yes, good deed it was, horror it ended. (e.g. 9400 images never, ever, backed up…and halfway through, well, some mp4 crashed iTunes on backing up-every time…but by some mysterious force, the images were transferred, and 4 hours later, a new SE 2nd gen was running well and working without a hitch and the user didn’t lose anything. I, however, lost significant timer and energy)

    Also, buying a later generation Apple product, based on “deal” is not a good idea with how storage and updates get applied. We think 16GB is enough, but reality is that, like the old days of a 27" is really 26" means that with Apple’s products, they fail to warn the buyer that, "16GB is really 11.5GB after the original iOS, is free. Then there are apps. And after that, whatever the user stores (texts, images, music, books, movies, contacts, notes, bookmarks and hidden files like cookies, caches, …). And every iOS upgrade has incrementally increased in a GB or more. So even a minimalist user of a 16GB iphone will usually have about 2GB free after 3-4 years. The iOS update will always be more than what is free, if not maintained.
    So the lesson here was that Josh missed that “you need at least an iPhone 6s or later with iOS 13 to paired with an Apple Watch Series 5”. And if the iPhone 6s was not on iOS13, the question is Why Not?… going from 11 to 14 is a MAJOR leap and being you were only thinking of kindness, this is why punishment was the result. (I know it too well that now I just offer verbal advice…take it or leave it).

    @ Elijah Baley : I think his story is valid warning to not getting involved supporting someone-with cavaets, and that Apple’s design and sales of iPhone storage is impractical (by not upgrading every year or two, whether iOS or larger capacity model, will eventually cause headaches).
    (LOL…Josh just responded…)

  6. When I upgraded to an Apple Watch 4, I passed my Apple Watch 2 to my brother-in-law. When I visited him a few weeks later, he complained that the watch would not wake up when he flicked his wrist and that he wasn’t getting any haptics for notifications. (Note: he previously had an original Apple Watch so he was familiar with what should have happened).

    After looking at the watch for several minutes, I realized that the theater mask icon was visible at the top of the watch face. So the problem was that the watch was in Theater Mode. He, of course, had never deliberately played with the Control Center. So, it turned into a nice learning opportunity.

  7. Looking at all the info on the face of the Apple Watch, and how incredibly small all the type and icons are, I wonder how anyone with vision problems (at any age) can read, let alone decipher, everything displayed? I have to use my reading glasses every time I use my iPhone (and that’s using a lot of Accessibility features). How can anyone even see these miniscule-sized icons and abbreviations? Especially someone who is not particularly Apple-savvy?

  8. I found switching from contacts and reading glasses to progressive lenses in my glasses made a world of difference. There is also a setting (in Watch > Accessibility) to make text more bold, which helps a lot.

  9. The legibility of the tiny watch face should be a factor in buying a watch as a surprise present (as well as the heartache of setting it up for them).
    BTW - I recommend that you both see (!) an ophthalmologist as you might be developing cataracts. I had both eyes fixed a few years ago and am delighted to not have to wear multi-focal specs or contacts. And I can read my watch face without having to put on reading glasses (to get back on topic : )

  10. My condolences, if that’s the right term…

    I myself, on the other hand, have had great success gifting an AW 5 to my elderly mother, who turned… 90 two months ago. But then she’s long been interested in ‘iTech’, in fact even refers to her iDevices as ‘iToys’, no joke!

    The difference here, though, is that I was the one who had set up all iterations of her various iToys as well as my father’s, so adding an AW with cellular — after she fainted and took a fall at the local CVS back in January (to which she had driven herself alone :scream:) — seemed only logical.

    What’s more, since she has mitral valve prolapse, the ECG app has come in really handy. Last I checked about three weeks ago, the Health app on her iPhone had recorded 5 AF incidents since May, which info can be shared with her cardiologist readily by email from the phone.

    And as “ace” has suggested, I had also changed the text setting under Settings/Accessibility to largest size and bold — which I had already done on my own AW — so legibility has not been an issue for my mother at all.

    Finally, since she really uses only a handful of apps on the AW (or even on her iPhone), it was very easy to set up the Infograph watch face for her. Aside from the Calendar, ECG, Heart Rate, Phone and Messages complications, she can contact my father and her 2 favorite children directly with one touch. Which affords us kids (as well as our father) considerable peace of mind — especially since she never has her phone on her when working in the garden, for example!

    While I don’t know how ‘typical’ such a setup might be for most families with elderly members, I do know it is a serious commitment. But I do believe such a commitment even more worthwhile in these crazy Covid times, when we must do our utmost to minimize exposure to those with heightened risks.

  11. My wife who almost never wears a watch told me she wanted an Apple Watch for Christmas. Her friend has one and she decided she wanted one also. I told her I wasn’t not very thrilled with the idea because I did not want to become a tech support for her watch. She already has an iPad and iPhone that I have to maintain and all I need is another device. I don’t even have a smart watch myself. Fortunately, it did not take much convincing. She quickly decided she’d rather have some new clothes instead.

  12. I would buy my wife an Apple Watch if she wanted one. We live together, so that’s easier. I pay for her iPhone, so that’s a bit less stressful for me. And, most importantly, I know she keeps her iPhone up to date, so that wouldn’t be an issue. I also insist on getting her iPhones with a bit more storage than she might think she needs. And she had a Series 0 so it wouldn’t be a completely new experience for her.

  13. If only she’d get that Windows laptop instead, life would be so much easier for you!

  14. I gave one to my wife. Never. had any of those problems. Lucky I guess.

  15. It might be more accurate to say that the Apple Watch Is Not A Great Gift for people who need your help setting it up. Josh, you can buy me an Apple Watch any time you like. I guarantee you that you will have no subsequent hassles at all. I’ll take full responsibility. And be grateful for your generosity.

  16. I was half expecting during the iPhone 6S section for you to say something like “…so I gave-up in utter frustration at the lack of storage, caved-in and bought her a new iPhone as well!” haha :smiley:
    But clearly that would have been a rather expensive (and entirely unrealistic) undertaking for most people!

    Great story, though.

    I still can’t find a use in my life for an Apple Watch yet. Each year I check them out on their release, but especially right now being stuck at home most of the time (and for the foreseeable future), I don’t really need most of the functionality right now, either. I also don’t like that carriers want to charge extra for using cellular versions (I’d likely want), when I’ve paid for loads of data already. :roll_eyes:

    Similar goings-on with my car, as it It happens… I sold my previous one in Aug last year (2019) thinking I’d get a newer (likely electric) one, now we have fairly decent on-street charging infrastructure (including right outside my home: bonus!).

    But decided to try relying exclusively on public transport and my cheap-ish folding electric bicycle in London for a few months before thinking about a replacement car early in 2020, to see the cost savings vs. usage. Then Covid hit, so was stuck mostly at home anyway, and now with social distancing restrictions in place and cycling lanes being hurriedly built-out, traffic across the city is truly awful (and that’s saying something, given it’s pretty bad in ‘normal’ times, already!). Although I like driving and the convenience for some routes, one thing I quickly leant is that not running your own car saves A LOT of money, for sure – and affordable car clubs exist nearby for quick hire for those times when one is needed (~$10/hr, all in!).

    You can cycle quicker than driving, and longer distances public transport is plenty available – so looks like no car for me until late 2021, at least. Although the rain is fun (not!) – luckily folding bikes like mine are allowed 24/7 on all public transport, so there is that. :wink:

    I should add that I fully appreciate this is simply not an option in many rural places and elsewhere (I used to live in the countryside) – especially across a country the huge size of the US, where large distances are often regularly covered. But for large city dwellers it may be a possibility, to suite ones own personal preference (never mind the ‘green’ aspects).

  17. One of the big selling points from the beginning for an Apple Watch for me was the ability to pay via Apple Pay with just a double tap and flip of my wrist. Where you are, it seems that contactless payments have been widespread for longer than in the States; so it’s even nicer to pay without needing to grab anything from a pocket. With Express Transit Pay, you don’t even need to double tap --just place your wrist over the reader and your designated card will be charged. I found it very handy on using busses the the Underground in London.

  18. @aforkosh - Yes you’re absolutely right, Apple Pay & Express Transit are useful on the Watch. But then both of those are pretty easily available on iPhone too, and I often have my iPhone out doing something anyway. So unless something else attains my interest, I guess it’ll be a while.

    …although, I did see these (bit pricy: US: $180/$250 / UK: £150/£200) Lumos bike helmets on Apple’s website that use the Watch so…maybe, if I can justify the price+watch (£650) vs. just a standard helmet at £30!?

  19. My wife and I got them a year ago as the series 5 was the first one we thought was even close to being worth the expense. We’ve both found them much more useful than we thought they would be…texts, timers, exercise and reminders have made them worth it for us…we were talking yesterday about how much more useful they are than what we thought originally.

  20. Nowadays you want a MIPS helmet. I don’t see that that Lumos is, although they do sell MIPS models. Personally I’d rather have my Garmin Varia radar rather than lights on my helmet. I use a Giro MTB helmet for both road and mountain; MIPS but nothing else fancy.

    I use my Apple Watch 5 primarily for two things in addition to time. The first is glanceable weather. I run the CARROT complication and a wind speed complication, so I can immediately find out what the weather is like now and for the next few hours. The other thing I use a great deal is the Overcast app to control podcast playback on my iPhone (skipping commercials, primarily, but also pause/play). This and anything else requiring using the touch screen becomes more difficult now that winter is coming, with the watch buried under clothing and having to wear gloves. Other uses include Apple Pay, answering calls when my iPhone is hard to get to, occasionally answering texts by dictation. But mostly it’s time, weather, Overcast. I don’t use it for anything fitness related. (You can’t stop it from counting “steps” or heart rate, but you can keep it from nagging you about it.)

  21. Open the Watch app, tap Privacy, and you can turn off fitness tracking and heart rate tracking.

  22. I thought “it just works!”

  23. I have an Apple watch, and I am amazed at its potential, but it is so complicated to set up.

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