watchOS 2 first look: new software, same Apple Watch

Hey Siri, show me something new

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Last week iOS 9, Apple's next-gen mobile software, became available to iPhone and iPad users, bringing with it some of the more notable features we've seen in an Apple software update in awhile (multitasking, anyone?). There was supposed to be another software launch that day, too: watchOS 2 for Apple Watch.

However, a technical bug delayed the launch of watchO2 last week. Apple wouldn't say exactly what this bug was, just that it was minor and that it's likely not something that users of watchOS 2 would have noticed or experienced. Still, the company held off on releasing the software to the public — until today.

This delay, however minor, is noteworthy not just because it's unusual for Apple to suddenly pull back on a new release because of a "bug." There's a lot more at stake for watchOS 2 than there is for iOS 9. The two software releases were aligned for a reason — an Apple Watch wearer has to install iOS 9 on iPhone in order to download watchOS 2 — but iOS 9 powers an already best-selling iPhone, while watchOS 2 is supposed to bring significant improvements to a gadget that many consumers still aren’t convinced they need.

The iPhone has nothing to prove; the Apple Watch does.

Apple WatchOS 2

I’ve been giving watchOS 2 a spin on a new Apple Watch for the past 10 days, having paired it with an iPhone running on iOS 9. One of the most important aspects of this update is speed around loading apps, and in my experience it’s been a mixed bag. I also haven’t been able to test updated third-party apps on the Watch yet — things like Strava, MLB, CNN, Facebook Messenger, and GoPro — because those are just rolling out now for watchOS 2.

And a few of the Watch software updates will seem purely cosmetic in nature, because, well, they are. For example, you can now set a still photo as the watch face, or cycle through a series of favorite photos from a photo album. These are cool, but feel a little obvious, just like you can change your desktop or smartphone wallpaper to a personal image.

If you really want to get fancy, you can set a time-lapse video from a handful of global metropolitan cities — or from Mack Lake, which I can only guess is an Apple executive’s favorite vacation spot — as your default face. For most of last week, in fact, I had my Apple Watch face set to a time-lapse of Hong Kong, a wonderfully unpolluted little video of Hong Kong, even though I don’t live there.

Speaking of movement, watchOS 2 also introduces a new feature called Time Travel. It’s a testament to Apple’s marketing philosophy that it can take an action like "scrolling through my calendar" and name it "Time Travel" like it will wirelessly unlock the DeLorean that has magically appeared in your driveway; but that’s what it is. With certain watch faces — like Modular — you can now use the digital crown to roll forward or backward in time and see corresponding events in your calendar.

Time Travel will work on third-party apps, too, giving those app makers access to the digital crown. If you’re using a sports app, you can see times for upcoming games; if you’re using a news app, you can see news updates from earlier that morning, and so on. Again, I haven't been able to try these third-party applications, but in my limited testing on watch faces, this was a fast, fluid, and useful feature. Everyone wants to see what’s coming up on their calendar. No one wants to have to open a slow app to do it.

Siri also has more functionality. I was able to say things like, "Hey Siri, I want to go for a run," and Siri would open the watch’s native workout app, which meant I didn’t have to fat-finger a bunch of tiny app icons to open the app myself. And since Apple’s Maps app includes public transit directions in iOS 9, I could say to Siri, "Hey Siri, transit directions to San Francisco," and the watch would show transit directions to the city.

Or rather, it was supposed to. Sometimes, Siri pretended not to hear me, stalling on simple dictation.

Apple WatchOS 2

One of the main benefits of the watchOS 2 update is that apps on Apple Watch are supposed to load faster. This is partly due to the fact that the app logic is now happening on the watch itself, rather than everything happening on the iPhone and simply being mirrored on the tiny watch. That’s the theory, but in practice the native apps on watchOS 2 — things like Mail, Maps, and Music — have still been a crapshoot for me.

The Mail app loaded new email in a few seconds or less when I opened it on the watch. And you can now quickly reply to email using voice dictation or preset shortcuts, which might be my favorite feature update in watchOS 2 so far. The Music app, which naturally includes a shortcut to Beats1 radio, also opened and played music in short order.

But when I used Siri to call up Maps, the maps loaded so slowly that I gave up and pulled out my phone. Messages didn’t always sync up with the Messages on my phone. And for some odd reason, declining phone calls from the Watch required multiple firm presses on the red "reject" button, when it worked at all.

It’s clearly the early days of watchOS 2, despite the fact that Apple has been teasing the update since its giant developers conference this past June. The fact that Apple is opening up the sensors and the digital crown to developers still holds great promise. Using the watch’s digital crown to scroll through GoPro settings, placing a little widget ("complication") for your electric car’s battery on the watch face, and monitoring the soft thump of a fetal heart rate on Apple Watch could all add significant value to the watch. But a lot of the cool demos we’ve seen around watchOS 2 were just that: demos.

Until the third-party app experience is fully baked, we’re sort of trapped in the Apple ecosystem of Apple’s own Apple Watch apps. A lot of people would say — and I agree — that this third-party app experience is even more crucial to the watch’s success than the native apps. I’m really looking forward to seeing how health and fitness apps actually patch into the native sensors of the watch (like the heart rate sensor) and whether that improves the overall experience with my favorite third-party fitness apps.

Apple WatchOS 2

Ironically, one of my favorite updates to Apple Watch has nothing to do with software. The aluminum version of Watch — the $349 one — now comes in two new colors, gold (which is really more like pale sand or white gold) and rose gold (not pink, but you know, pink!). I really like the gold.

Aside from the color upgrade, there aren’t any material changes to Apple Watch. Battery life remains the same. After a full day of wear, one that included plenty of notifications and an hour-long workout, I woke up the following morning with just about 10 percent left on the Watch, which is exactly the same percentage I wake up to when I forget to charge the original Watch. On the flipside, I haven’t noticed the battery draining any faster yet, even with the addition of features like a time-lapse watch face.

All of which may lead you to ask: "Will this upgrade be the thing that convinces me to get an Apple Watch?" If you’ve been holding off on getting an Apple Watch because you thought the new software would change everything, the answer to that question is probably "no," at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong, Apple Watch is still very good at what it’s good at: it shows you near-immediate notifications, nudges you to exercise, and carries a certain cachet that few, if any, other pieces of wearable tech can claim. But to put it in perspective, it’s only the first software update on a first-generation product; it doesn’t revolutionize the existing device. If third-party apps end up being truly improved, maybe that’s enough for now.

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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