Apple watchOS 4: Hands on with the Apple Watch's smart new skin

Getting our fingers on Apple's new Watch OS
watchOS 4: Our thoughts so far

Apple took the wraps off watchOS 4 back at WWDC, revealing a new look for the Apple Watch and dropping a few hints at what we can expect to see on the Watch Series 3 later this year.

You won't be able to get watchOS 4 until around the same time, but it'll be rolling out to all versions of the smartwatch – that's Series 0, Series 1, Series 2 and, presuming it does in fact happen, the Series 3. It's possible there will be no public beta before then, so you'll have to wait until September unless you download the developer beta – which we strongly recommend you don't.

While there's now a public iOS 11 beta available, watchOS 4 is only available to developers. If you go ahead and do install the beta certificate, it can only be rolled back to watchOS 3 by taking it to an Apple store.

You've been warned.

But it's okay, because we've been playing with the update to save you the trouble. It's obviously buggy right now, prone to crashes and all sorts of bizarre behaviour – but hey, it's a beta, what do you expect? Since initially testing it out Apple has rolled out some updates that have added more functionality and made the whole experience more stable. So… what do we think of it thus far? Here are some thoughts.

New ways to get around

Apple watchOS 4: Hands on with the Apple Watch's smart new skin

When it comes to navigating the Apple Watch, I've always felt it's been a mixture of "How lovely" and "Yo Jony Ive, what the hell?" Apple's been listening: in watchOS 3 it introduced the dock, serving up a new way to quickly access your most-used apps and reducing time spent looking at endless spinning wheels.

Read this: Apple Watch Series 3 – an investigation

The dock has been rotated in watchOS 4 so you now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. The first thing I noticed was how much more natural this feels with the Digital Crown, and it's obvious that Apple's done it for this very reason. It's intuitive to put a finger to the screen when you have to swipe side to side, but when going the other way the Digital Crown makes much more sense – and means you're not obstructing the display.

watchOS 4: First look at the Apple Watch's new skin

I still don't use the dock much, and I don't think this enhancement will change that, but it definitely feels better. I'm also a fan of the new way to navigate the app grid, which you access by tapping the crown. Using force touch you can now switch between the honeycomb grid and a list view which, again, works more naturally with the crown.

It all seems more sensible when you've got such meagre screen real estate. I don't think the honeycomb view is terrible, but to me it's never quite sat right, as nice as it looks.

watchOS 4: First look at the Apple Watch's new skin

Another small but welcome change in watchOS 4 is the new pairing process. No longer do you have to go through the ceremony of aligning the watch with your iPhone's camera – the Watch takes inspiration from the AirPods by popping up a pairing button as soon as it's detected by the iPhone.

It's all about the Siri face

Apple watchOS 4: Hands on with the Apple Watch's smart new skin

It is with great joy in my heart that I can announce the Toy Story watch faces are live and pretty rad, but I still think it's the Siri face that will be the one you'll see most people using. Google was onto something with Now, and the Siri face mirrors Apple's efforts to offer more contextual information on the iPhone.

The new face serves up a list of upcoming events and updates that Siri thinks you'll be interested in – traffic, weather warnings, calendar events – and you can use the crown to scroll through the sequence. It's already my favourite aspect of the update, and over the beta updates it's got even better. I'm now even seeing little photos from Apple News along with other upcoming events in my tiny feed. If you have Breathe reminders on, it will stick those in there too.

It's like having a little diary on your wrist. By default there's a shortcut complication on this face for opening Siri, but you can change that if you wish.

Apple watchOS 4: Hands on with the Apple Watch's smart new skin

As for other new faces, the kaleidoscope face is pretty trippy, letting you mix up different photos and facets that move and groove, and again you can roll the crown to fast forward through the movements. Speaking of Apple Watch faces, I noticed that on iOS 11, when you tap the 'share' icon on a picture, there's now an option to create a Watch face from the picture. This makes both a regular photo face and a kaleidoscope version for you to choose from.

If you like the sound of the Toy Story faces, no doubt a homage to the late Steve Jobs, know that you'll see a random character on the screen, doing some animation, every time you raise your wrist. Note for improvement: too much Buzz and Woody, needs more Hamm.

There are some new complications too: Now Playing, which gives you faster access to your tunes; and Apple News, which breaks down the biggest current stories into bite-sized Watch format. On the subject of music, Apple has sneakily tweaked this so that any time you start playing music from either the watch or iPhone, it will default to the music player when you raise your wrist, saving you a few taps when it's time to skip tracks. It's a small thing, and not something Apple made a point about, but I've found myself using the Watch to control playback a lot more since.

Back to that Siri face – while you can only add a couple of other complications to the screen, that's okay, because Siri should serve things like the weather forecast and news updates into the feed. It also gave me an update to say I should go walking for another 30 minutes to close my Activity rings before the end of play. I prefer having this show up on a feed I can glance at if I wish, rather than a taptic update.

Apple's also added a flashlight feature to the Watch, which can be accessed from the dashboard by swiping up. You've got three versions: a bright white light that gets brighter when you turn it away, as if you were using it as a torch; a strobe light that flashes between white and black, good for running out on roads late at night; and a red light, presumably for emergencies.

New ways to move

watchOS 4: Hands on with the Apple Watch's new skin

Apple's all about fitness right now, so it's no surprise that watchOS 4 brings enhancements in this domain. A big one is support for high intensity interval training. While the Apple Watch heart rate tracking is generally very good, and surprisingly accurate in interval performance (where many wearables fall down), the Series 2 has struggled in hitting target HR in shorter intervals. The addition of HIIT in watchOS 4 comes with the promise of new motion and heart rate algorithms for better accuracy, but we're not certain that these are up and running yet. There are also auto-sets for pool swims, and we've spotted that VO2 Max tracking is on its way.

As you can see above, the Workout app has been given a facelift to be a little less neon-yellow-take-your-eye-out. I much prefer this design, and while the stats screen during a workout hasn't changed, you can now swipe right for easy access to your music settings. Also cool is that I can easily jump to a different workout by swiping left and tapping the 'New' icon then choosing another activity. Triathletes rejoice!

Since we started testing watchOS 4 it's got a lot more stable and fleshed out, and we reckon some of these new features will go down a treat. We'll be updating this article with more of our thoughts as we get more familiar with the update, as Apple continues to update the beta. For now, it's another promising refinement of Apple's smartwatch experience – just a shame we have to wait so long to get it.

1 Comment

  • Bent700 says:

    Would like Apple to make a LG / XL wrist band for iwatch 2.  Have the ML / LG and just fits my writs.  It's so tight the watch band leaves an outline on my wrist after a couple of hours of wearing it..  It a shame, I really like the watch but why Apple didn't make larger bands is beyond me.  Seems like they really dropped the old rotten apple on this one.  

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