When Apple's annual instalment of iOS rolls around, the story is usually about what's new, what's been added; but with watchOS right now it seems to be just as much about stripping away and refining, with a company still trying to figure out how people use this device.
WatchOS debuted with a lot of ideas. Some were good, some felt like they had potential, and some felt surprisingly unintuitive. With watchOS 3 Apple both giveth and taketh away, and for the most part I feel like it's pushing the Watch in a better direction - with some personal exceptions.
I'm currently using OS 3 on an original (or is that Series 0 now?) Watch Sport, meaning I don't get the faster processor of Apple Watch Series 2, but still zippier speeds - more caching! - alongside plenty of new ways to use the Watch. Apple is gearing Watch more towards health and fitness, while modifying and paring down the user interface.
Let's take the best example: access to apps. The dreaded spinning 'wheel of doom' has become a rarer sight. That it was ever a problem in the first place, in a device designed to stop you reaching for your phone, boggles my mind - and it's still not been solved completely. But on the whole watchOS 3 is a smoother experience, and the new Instant Launch dock avoids any hang time on your most-loved apps by keeping them running in the background.
Problem is, this comes at the expense of Glances, the boxes of 'glanceable' information you used to access by swiping up - a trade-off I'm not yet convinced by.
Instant Launch is great news if you're the type of person who actually uses a handful of apps on their Watch on a daily basis. But I tend to fall in the camp of people who use the Watch as more a passive, notification-based device, more for complications and easily glanceable info with little interaction.
Which is why I find the death of Glances somewhat lamentable, and why, in my first week of using OS 3, I haven't touched the Instant Launch as much as I thought I might. Glances weren't perfect - they could be sluggish, and sometimes didn't update, which would defeat the purpose - but they were a quick and easy way to sneak a look at information I wanted the most, like my heart rate or the weather forecast.
My most common use for Glances was controlling my music, something that now requires me to open Instant Launch, and, if it's not my last used app, scroll along to reach it.
These might sound like paltry complaints, but I felt like Glances had a lot more to give. I suppose Apple saw it as an interim solution to an experience where apps could be booted up with greater brevity. And if you are using apps like Uber on your Watch regularly, Instant Launch is a much better solution than what came before. Ideally, I'd have both Glances and Instant Launch available, with the latter taking the place of the main app menus (the collection of circles) that you're unlikely to be using much from now on anyway.
More on the Apple Watch
With watchOS 3 come new faces to play with, and new ways to play with existing favourites. Unfortunately Apple still isn't letting third-party faces through the door, but it has made its own offerings more customisable.
There are new complications to add (like Home, which arrives in iOS 10), and new colours to choose from, including seven variants of blue alone - Jony Ive is firing on all cylinders.
There are also two new faces based on the Activity app - digital and analogue styles - which display your daily progress at all times, keeping in step with Apple's push to make the Watch a device more focused on health and fitness.
What I really like is the new ability to simply swipe left and right between my different custom faces. I find myself switching between faces a lot: The new Numerals face provides an elegant minimalist display, but during work hours I want more information at a glance. Sometimes I'm just in a Mickey Mouse kind of mood (and Minnie Mouse now joins him on OS 3).
Again, this isn't something that's going to make a significant difference to your day, but it's a small, welcome change about making the experience simpler.
Remember the Apple Watch's 'Time to stand' feature? We had a swift relationship - after I grew tired of disobeying it I switched it off entirely. But there's a new reminder in town with watchOS 3: 'Time to breathe'. Apple now wants you to take some minutes out of your day to focus on your breathing and de-stress.
And I've actually been using it quite a bit. I don't know whether it's something I'll keep at, but taking just a couple of minutes here and there to take a deep breath and relax certainly has its effect. You can read more about the science behind Apple's breathing and mindfulness push here.
Speaking of health, Apple's opening up the Activity app to friends, meaning you can now share workouts with others. Despite my concerns that this would get annoying it's actually proving a good tool for encouraging me towards those daily goals. Again, time will tell if this ends up being more of an annoyance than a use, but I see the benefits for the more competitive folks.
Also proving useful already is the addition of 'auto pause', which now automatically pauses a workout when you come to a standstill. Again, it removes another unnecessary interaction with the Watch, and that can only be a good thing.
However, there's another change that I'm less pleased about, even if it will go unnoticed by many. Ask any of my friends who own an Apple Watch and they'll attest to how annoying I can be with my overuse of Digital Touch. Look, I get that it's a bit of a novelty, but I also think the ability to send silly drawings, taps and even heartbeats is one of the Watch's most charming features.
But with the side button now dedicated to Instant Launch, the Friends Circle is nowhere to be found, with Digital Touch now migrated to the Messages app.
Merging the two might seem a sensible way to make way for the Instant Launcher, but it's actually made it more fiddly to send friends a fun little prod. I loved the simplicity of the Friends Circle and Digital Touch, and since the update I've barely sent any sketches or taps at all - probably to the rejoice of my friends.
I've also barely touched the Scribble feature, which lets you write out messages one letter at a time. You're better off dictating to Siri.
Better, but still a way to go
On the whole, the Watch still feels like a learning experience for Apple; OS 3 is very different to how this all started, and mostly for the better. The interface is now faster and more geared towards health and fitness, giving the Watch more of a purpose - but I wonder if there's purpose beyond this.
I might have a few niggles with it, but the new update is a much-needed overhaul that tackles many of the criticisms of the original Watch, particularly when it comes to speed. Paired with the Series 2, this is much closer to the Watch it should have been when it launched in April 2015.
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