Apple has released watchOS 4, the latest version of the company’s wrist-based operating system. I’ve been using it for some time now, and while it works well and is worth upgrading to, it’s not world-changing.
watchOS 4 requires iOS 11, so you’ll need to upgrade your iPhone first. The only catch there is that Apple won’t let you install iOS 11 on an iPhone 5 or 5c. If you’re using one of those iPhones with your Apple Watch, you’ll need to stick with watchOS 3.
When you’re ready to upgrade, remember that your Apple Watch needs to be charged to at least 50 percent and in its charger, and your iPhone needs to be within Bluetooth range of the watch and connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi. Make sure you won’t want to use the watch or your iPhone for an hour or two because watchOS upgrades take a surprisingly long time to download and install. Some people have reported even longer installation times.
The release notes Apple provides when you upgrade do a good job of listing all the changes, and I recommend you read through them (we always take screenshots to make them easy to refer to later, given that Apple isn’t always good about providing the information for reference). That said, not all of watchOS 4’s new features are entirely successful.
Shortly after the initial publication of this article, Josh and I started talking about the role of reviews in today’s world. Historically, technology reviews were designed to help readers decide whether or not to make a purchase, and to an extent, they still serve that purpose with hardware.
But what about free operating systems, particularly those you can’t (or shouldn’t) avoid getting due to necessary security improvements? In that situation, we’re thinking that the utility of a review is to help set reader expectations. According to Apple’s marketing team, everything the company does is fabulous. But in the real world, we all know that some features, and some operating system versions, are better than others.
So we’re going to do a little evaluation in this article and others, both of individual features and the release as a whole. As with our reader surveys, we’ll use a five-point scale, which we’ll translate into stars embedded in the title and headings:
⭐ Avoid it
⭐⭐ Works, but has flaws
⭐⭐⭐ Solid performer
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Very good
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Can’t live without it
Siri Watch Face Isn’t Great ⭐⭐️ -- I was most intrigued by watchOS 4’s new Siri watch face, which promises to “intelligently update information based on time of day, location, and daily routines.” While it’s not terrible, I didn’t find it compelling. I do like the way it pops up the Now Playing interface when I have audio playing on my iPhone. The problem is that Siri has relatively few data sources, which you can thankfully control in the Watch app on the iPhone (tap the Siri face under My Faces).
When I look at my wrist, I generally see Up Next cards detailing my next event or two, an upcoming reminder, the sunrise and sunset times, a news headline, and the latest S&P 500 stock ticker. Getting to all those requires scrolling on the screen or with the digital crown, and it always ends with Tomorrow cards showing how many events I have tomorrow and tomorrow’s weather. You can also scroll up for All-Day, which shows unscheduled events, past reminders, and current weather conditions.
The problem is that I don’t care about sunrise and sunset times (the sun will do what the sun will do), I’m uninterested in the stock market’s intraday movements (we invest for the long term, rather than day trading), and I actively avoid news headlines because they make my stomach hurt. When I turn off the News and Stocks data sources (the sunrise and sunset times come from the Weather app, and I do like the current and future weather data), Siri replaces those cards with photos that my eyes aren’t good enough to see on the tiny Apple Watch screen. When I turn off the Photos data source, I’m down to calendars and weather, and that I can get on the Modular watch face. And while there are data sources for Breathe and Workouts, my autonomic nervous system has the whole breathing thing down, and I use a far more capable Garmin Forerunner 620 as my sports watch for enabling and tracking workouts.
I could keep going — the News source ignores my preferred publications in News (enabling Settings > News > Restrict Stories in For You and following specific channels may fix this); the Siri face has space for only two tiny complications; when it runs out of data, it resorts to chirpy “Have a nice day, Adam!” messages; and it doesn’t look like Apple will allow independent apps to appear as data sources, so there’s no chance you could use it as a custom dashboard. It’s easy to switch faces, so I’ll see if the Siri face improves, but for now I’m going back to the Modular face with a set of complications that provides my next event, weather, date and time, and access to the stopwatch and timer.
If you prefer form over function, watchOS 4 also features a trippy Kaleidoscope face that you can speed up with the digital crown (best viewed when high, I presume) and a Toy Story face with Licensed Characters™.
Fixing the Icon Cloud ⭐⭐⭐ -- One of Apple’s most egregious user interface mistakes with watchOS has been the app icon cloud. Putting oodles of circular app icons in a single scrollable screen may have sounded good, but it was almost completely unusable. The icons are too small, too similar, and lack text to differentiate among, for instance, the four nearly identical orange icons corresponding to Timer, Stopwatch, Alarms, and World Clock. It might have been usable if you had the eagle eyes and tiny fingers of a ten-year-old, but for adults, particularly anyone over the age of 40, it was worthless.
watchOS 4 doesn’t eliminate the icon cloud — grid view, as Apple calls it — but when you press hard on the screen while it’s showing, you can now switch to list view. As you might expect, it lists your apps alphabetically, showing each app’s icon and name. Not exactly innovative, but far, far better user interface design. We can hope Apple drops the inscrutable icon cloud in the future.
The watchOS 4 Dock Stands Up ⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- Speaking of sensible design changes, watchOS 4’s Dock (press the side button) now scrolls vertically instead of horizontally. That fits better with using the digital crown to scroll, and it includes an All Apps button at the bottom that switches you to the app screen.
Another notable change related to the Dock is that you can now decide whether you want the Dock to work like a dock or like an app switcher. In the Watch app on the iPhone, in the Dock settings, select either Recents or Favorites. With Recents selected, the watchOS Dock acts just like the iOS app switcher, showing the apps you’ve used, most recent first and working backward. With Favorites selected, the Dock works like it did before, showing the apps you’ve specified and letting you add new ones that you’ve launched.
Mature Platforms Have Flashlights ⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- You know that watchOS has finally arrived because Apple built a flashlight in. That’s right — swipe up on the screen to show Control Center and there’s a new flashlight icon. Tap it and the screen turns white, and either swipe down or press one of the physical buttons to dismiss it. But that’s not all!
Swipe left on the solid white screen and you get a flashing white screen designed to make you more visible while running or biking at night. Swipe left again and you get to a red screen that’s easier on the eyes and that becomes the default when you’re in Theater Mode. Regardless, when you put your wrist down, the light gets brighter, and when you raise your wrist to look at the screen, it dims to avoid shocking your eyes.
Although I haven’t tried it yet, I have to assume that running the flashlight for any amount of time will drain your battery pretty quickly.
More Fitness Encouragement and Options ⭐⭐⭐ -- As a competitive athlete, I’m not really qualified to comment on watchOS 4’s changes to the Activity and Workout apps since I presume they’re aimed at normal people who do normal things for fitness. (I do nutty things like run hill repeats and complicated track workouts, and I keep up with my athletic friends on Strava — none of which Apple’s watch apps can handle.)
That said, the Activity app is reportedly more chatty and will make suggestions in the morning that are supposed to inspire you to work out, although I’ve heard from multiple people who find this condescending. It will also encourage you in the evening if you’re close to closing a ring. And it gets excited if you hit important milestones like closing your rings. It’s good to have the approval of your digital devices.
Apple put effort into making the Workout app easier to use, so you can start a workout with a single tap and even switch to a different workout type in the middle so you get multi-workout analysis at the end. Music controls are readily accessible during the workout too. Those with a Series 1 or later (not the original Apple Watch) can have a playlist start automatically along with a workout.
Swimmers with an Apple Watch Series 2 or 3 can now track sets and rests, pace for each set, and distance for each stroke type. Everyone can use a new High Intensity Interval Training workout type that supposedly has more accurate calorie tracking. In the Watch app, in General > Do Not Disturb, you can flip a switch so you don’t get notifications while in a workout. Users of the cellular-capable Series 3 should enable this option.
Finally, Apple says that the Apple Watch can now connect with some gym equipment like ellipticals and indoor bikes so it and the machine can share data. Look for an NFC icon on the machine, and tap it with your watch. Or so I’m told — I’m a fan of the actual outdoors.
The Heart Rate app is much expanded, with a graph showing your all-day heart rate. If you have a Series 1 or later, there are additional measurements and graphs for resting rate, walking average, workout average and high, recovery time, and sessions in the Breathe app. Apple says that just the resting rate requires a Series 1 or later, but I’m not seeing any of the others with my original Apple Watch either. There’s also a new Heart Rate complication, which shows your most recent heart rate if you put it in a larger slot.
More important, and I recommend that everyone give this a try (I just learned about it) is the option to be notified if your heart rate rises above a specified threshold while you seem to be inactive for a 10-minute period. To do so, go to My Watch > Notifications > Heart Rate in the Watch app and enable Elevated Heart Rate. In other words, is your heart racing for no good reason? I wouldn’t treat its data as gospel, but if it keeps going off, it’s worth asking your doctor about.
Multiple Playlists on Your Wrist ⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- Here’s a big win. Previously, you could sync only a single playlist to your Apple Watch, which was, shall we say, limiting. Now, in the Watch app on your iPhone, in the Music settings, you can select multiple playlists and individual albums to sync. Syncing is still slow, alas.
Apple Music subscribers can also sync their algorithmically created favorites mixes — I have Heavy Rotation, Favorites Mix, and Chill Mix. You’ll be prompted to add these when you open the iOS 11 Music app if your iPhone is signed into Apple Music.
Repeat Timers ⭐⭐⭐⭐ -- I use timers on the Apple Watch a lot while cooking and sometimes while working out, and I’ve often found myself wanting to restart a timer for the same amount of time. That’s now easy with a Repeat button that appears when a timer ends. You can also now more easily create timers for arbitrary numbers of seconds.
It would be nice if you could set timers to repeat automatically, such as for interval sets. There are undoubtedly multiple independent apps for that (and if you have one you like, let me know).
Other Changes ⭐⭐⭐ -- There are other minor changes, most of which probably won’t change your Apple Watch experience.
The News app provides summaries of Top Stories that you can save for later reading on the iPhone. It feels like a feature aimed at interrupting you.
There are supposedly compose and swipe gestures in Mail. I can’t imagine anyone doing anything real with Mail on the Apple Watch, regardless of the gestures.
The Phone app now has a keypad for dialing. Helpful, I suppose, for those Apple Watch Series 3 users who might be separated from their iPhones but are listening to Tommy Tutone in Apple Music and want to see what happens when they dial 867-5309 for Jenny.
There are now watch face complications for Siri, News, Heart Rate, Now Playing, and Messages.
The Calendar app now displays scheduling conflicts.
Maps can display suggested and recent locations.
Smart replies now use contacts and locations.
Those using German as their language now have scribble support. Das ist gut!
Upgrading Questions -- Should you upgrade? Yes. Although not all the changes in watchOS 4 are significant, enough of them improve the overall experience that it’s a worthwhile upgrade for all Apple Watch users. It is interesting to see that the original Apple Watch models can’t take advantage of all features, but the missing capabilities are relatively minor, and I haven’t seen unacceptable performance problems in everyday use on my original Apple Watch.
Should you wait to upgrade? Yes and no. You’ll need iOS 11 first, and it might be worth waiting a few days or so before making that leap, but once you’re running iOS 11 on your Apple Watch’s companion iPhone, there’s no reason to hold off on watchOS 4.
Do you have other questions? If so, ask them in the comments and I’ll see if I can provide answers!