Living with watchOS 5: Early impressions of the new Apple Watch beta

The story so far…

As is tradition, Apple revealed its new Apple Watch software at its annual WWDC conference, this year's smartwatch update being watchOS 5. It also made the update immediately available to developers in beta.

Unlike iOS 12 on iPhone, which you can now download in public beta (beware if you do: there are bugs), watchOS 5 isn't available for everyone. You'll need a developer account, or access to one, if you want it early. And even if you do install it, you can't revert back to the previous software without taking it into an Apple Store. You've been warned.

Tried and tested: The best Apple Watch apps

We've been using the beta – now in its third iteration – for a few weeks now, and although it's been relatively stable for us, it's certainly got its fair share of bugs. We'd recommend waiting for the full release this September, and in the meantime you can read our thoughts on watchOS 5 and its new features below. We'll be updating this piece as we go too, as the betas roll on and stabilise.

So, here's what we're loving about watchOS 5 so far.

Notifications are much better

Living with watchOS 5: Early impressions of the new Apple Watch beta

For me personally, this was always going to be the big one. I hate the way iOS has dealt with notifications until now, piling them on top of one another endlessly, and it's been the same on the Apple Watch. It's something Android has done a better job with, but with iOS 12 Apple has finally turned on grouped notifications, which is already making my iPhone experience better. Also great: grouped notifications are on the Watch too.

With watchOS 5 you'll still see different notification types separated in the tray when you swipe down, but if you have multiple notifications from the same app they'll be stacked on top of one another. Tap on a stack and it will unpack all of the notifications on that pile, while using Force Touch will still let you clear all of your notifications at once. Trust me, it's so much better.

Walkie Talkie is fun, but I'm not yet sure how people will use it

One of the few "brand new" features in watchOS 5 is Walkie Talkie, a communications app that lets you and your Apple Watch buddies (who will also need to be running watchOS 5) send each another voice messages. You need to add someone in your contacts and have them accept that request in order to create a connection – you can't just start firing out offensive soundbites to all your pals – but once you have, it's simply a case of holding down the digital button, recording your message, and letting go. The message will then be sent to their Watch and this can be done over Wi-Fi or on cellular. Sound quality isn't bad either, although we need to do more stress testing of this over LTE.

Overall it's pretty slick. If the app is closed and someone sends you a voice message, it will automatically open and start playing. You can stop this happening by scrolling down when the app is open to the availability toggle, and moving it to off.

I'm not convinced this is going to get me speaking into my Apple Watch on the regular, but I do find it more appealing when I have my headphones connected. If I'm out on a run without my phone and want to get in contact with a friend, I could make a call over the LTE, but Walkie Talkie is a more straightforward and enjoyable way to do it. It reminds me of when I used to send Digital Touch sketches to friends, until Apple folded the feature into the less convenient messaging app.

Podcasts – get in my ears

Living with watchOS 5: Early impressions of the new Apple Watch beta

With the Series 3 came LTE and the ability to cut the tether with your iPhone. Yet it made the absence of Apple's podcast app all the more noticeable. Now we have one – and it's great. Everything is synced from your iPhone and browsing your library of saved shows is a breeze. Streaming works over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi too.

We also like that you can now use the Apple Watch to control podcast playback happening on your iPhone, like you can with Apple Music. As someone who loves the Apple Podcast app on iPhone, I've enjoyed having it on my watch, although it's a bit buggy right now. You even get the artwork on the screen, and as with Apple Music, as soon as you choose a podcast to play you'll be prompted to choose which headphones you want it to play from.

Automatic workout detection – a step in the right direction

We were thrilled to see Apple adding automatic workout detection to watchOS 5. With the update, the Watch will now monitor your movements, and should it detect you're in a workout, it will ask you if you want to start recording.

Now, this is probably the most glitch-ridden feature in the beta, so it's been hard to test it. But on occasions it has worked, and the Watch has brought up a notification asking me if I'm on a walk or run, offering a button to confirm so it can start tracking. If you do start a workout when prompted the Watch will also account for the exercise done before the prompt, so you won't be robbed of those precious burned calories. Likewise, when it detected I had slowed my pace as I reached home after one run, it asked me if I wanted to end the workout. Some workouts, like stair stepper, don't work with auto-detect, but the major ones will.

Talking of workouts, there are two new ones here: hiking and yoga. The hiking exercise adds elevation to the workout screen, along with total distance travelled, while yoga gives you your active calories, total calories and heart rate. By having these as proper activities – not just having you choose "other" from the menu - Apple can give you more accurate data.

The Siri watch face is smarter

Living with watchOS 5: Early impressions of the new Apple Watch beta

One of the big things that arrived in watchOS 4 was the Siri watch face, but to be honest it didn't stick as much as I predicted it would when I was trying that beta this time last year. So I'm going to bet again, as Apple is making it smarter by more closely observing your habits as well as integrating third-party apps. I haven't been able to get the most out of this yet due to limits with the beta, but there have been a few cases where it's given more personalised suggestions.

For example, after I'd finished a run one day, Siri displayed a card with my recovery heart rate data. It also seems to have noticed that I tend to exercise after work, as that's when I'll see the exercise card appear. When watchOS is made publicly available, you'll be able to see info from apps like CityMapper, which will pop up at the end of your work day with a route home.

Also, did I mention you can now change the Siri face from blue to grey? Well, you can.

Some other things I'm loving…

Here are some more minor improvements I'm also appreciating right now.

You can now connect to Wi-Fi independently to your iPhone

It's not something Apple has made a big deal about, but with watchOS 5 you can now login into Wi-Fi networks without needing your iPhone. Now when you select a Wi-Fi access point through the settings menu, you have the choice to use the scribble keyboard to enter the password. It's another way Apple is untethering its smartwatch from the phone.

You can see notifications in any app

In watchOS 4 you can only swipe down your notifications tray from the watch face, but with watchOS 5 you can see them when in any app. To do so you need to hold a finger on the top of the screen for half a second, causing the tray to pop out. Then simply drag your finger down as you normally would.

The new music indicator

Now when you're playing music, you'll see a little red music icon at the top of your watch face. This is new, and it's a shortcut that, when tapped, will take you to the Now Playing screen. Super handy.

Pace alerts and cadence

When in the activities app, tap the options button on Outdoor Run and you'll be able to set a pace alert, which will warn you if you're falling behind, or getting ahead. You can set your exact pace and then set a rolling or average pace alert. watchOS 5 has cadence too for indoor and outdoor walks and runs.

Rearrange your Control Center buttons

Much like you can rearrange your apps, watchOS 5 now lets you rearrange the icons in Control Center. You'll now see an Edit button at the bottom of the Control Center. Tap it and the icons will start to shake, signifying that you can start dragging them around.

Final thoughts (for now)…

We've just scratched the surface of what watchOS 5 has to offer, partly because a lot of it is hard to test in this early beta stage. But watchOS 5 definitely feels like an update filled with copious small improvements and refinements, rather than being a dramatic overhaul. Apple has learned a lot about how people use the Watch, and it's feeding those learnings back into its wearable.

My biggest feeling right now is that a lot of watchOS 5 is building on the foundation laid by Series 3 by moving the Apple Watch further away from the iPhone. Even just small changes, like letting you connect to Wi-Fi independently, makes the Apple Watch more of a standalone device. Hopefully once watchOS 5 rolls out in full, it will feel a lot smarter too.

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