SAN JOSE—Just three years after the release of the first Apple Watch, Apple announced the fifth iteration of its wearable operating system at WWDC 2018.
Unlike iOS updates, most watchOS updates haven’t brought drastic changes to Apple’s device in terms of look and feel. WatchOS 5 doesn’t radically alter the experience of using an Apple Watch, but it does add a number of helpful features across different use categories like fitness, communication, and general life organization. We spent some time demoing the software update to learn more about the changes.
Workouts and Activity
My colleague Samuel Axon and I were immediately excited by the announcement of workout auto detection. (Auto detection allows the Apple Watch to know when you’ve been working out even if you haven’t officially started a workout on the watch.)
To begin tracking a workout, you normally tap on the type of workout you want to record; doing so immediately launches a three-second countdown timer that ushers you into your workout. Previously, if you didn’t select a workout to track before you began, the Apple Watch wouldn’t record the exercise at all. In watchOS 5, though, even if you start exercising before consulting your Apple Watch, the device will detect your movement and nudge you after three minutes of activity. This haptic feedback prompts you to tap the screen to officially start that workout. When you do, the watch switches into workout tracking mode—and even includes the amount of time it missed before you pressed start.
Plenty of other wearables, including those from Fitbit and Garmin, have some form of auto detection. Like those other devices, the Apple Watch can only auto detect certain exercises: walking, indoor and outdoor running, pool and open water swimming, rowing, and elliptical training. This is likely due to the fact that these exercises have recognizable arm motions. (The only anomaly is walking, which has a 15-minute recognition threshold to account for people who do short spurts of walking regularly, such as during their commute.)
Auto detection can sense the end of a workout, too. I’ve often finished a strength-training session at the gym, hopped in my car, and drove home, only to realize that I never “ended” the workout. Within three minutes of ending your session, auto detect should stop its workout tracking.
While I was hoping to see auto exercise recognition or rep counting introduced in watchOS 5, auto detection nudges the fitness part of the OS forward in a positive way. Auto detection is standard on most other mid- to top-tier wearables made by big manufacturers, and it makes the smartwatch easier to use. Many of us forget to start tracking a workout on our watches before exercising, and it’s a terrible feeling to work out but not have it “count.” Auto recognition should prevent that from happening, at least with its eight current workout profiles.
Apple has also added two new workout profiles to its long list of trackable activities: yoga and hiking. Both of these used to be labels under the “other” category in the Workout app, but now they have their own widgets. With the widgets comes more accurate data, including better caloric expenditure estimates. Both the yoga and hiking workout profiles take heart rate into account when determining calories burned; hiking takes elevation into account as well. Much like when tracking outdoor runs and walks, tracking a hike will produce an elevation change metric and a map of your route when finished.
The Activity app on the Watch remains dominated by your three rings, representative of how much you moved, exercised, and stood throughout the day. But Apple expanded upon its Activity Sharing feature by adding Competitions to the mix. These are one-on-one challenges that users can do with their friends, and they make completing your rings more of a sport. Users can challenge any friend to a competition; that friend has 48 hours to accept or decline. Competitions last for a week, so they don’t get too drawn out. Each user earns points by closing their rings; for each percentage point that you close a ring, you’ll get one point in the competition. Closing all three rings gets you 300 points for the day, and you can get even more points by surpassing your goals.
We saw a demo of Competitions on the WWDC stage, and it fits in nicely with the Activity Sharing controls on the Watch in the Activity app. All of your current competitions appear at the top of the screen, and you can scroll down to see the rest of your Activity Sharing contacts and stats.
Arguably the feature that stole the watchOS 5 demo at the keynote was Walkie Talkie. This essentially lets Apple Watch users communicate with each other using short voice messages sent over Wi-Fi or LTE. It’s akin to a wearable version of Amazon’s Drop-In feature on Echo devices, but less creepy.
In the private demo we received, watchOS 5 shows a small orange circle at the top of your watch face to indicate your Walkie Talkie status—available or unavailable. Walkie Talkie will accommodate any of the new Do Not Disturb features you set in iOS 12, as well as its own Do Not Disturb preferences (you can be unavailable for Walkie-Talkie communication for an hour, while you’re in a certain location, etc).
If you’re available, you can select an Apple Watch user in the Walkie Talkie app. Only Apple Watch users will come up in your suggested contacts at first, and you can choose select people to use Walkie Talkie with as well. Pressing the orange “talk” circle on the display lets you record a message to send to that user. The recipient will get a special haptic alert when they receive the message for the first time, allowing them to turn their wrist upward to listen or cover the watch with their hand to dismiss it.
Despite watchOS 5 still being in beta, the Walkie Talkie feature worked surprisingly well. The Apple Watches received recorded messages quickly (within a few seconds of being sent) and messages played back on the Watch were clear and crisp. It also conveniently works over Wi-Fi, so it’s not limited to Apple Watch Series 3 and LTE users.
Siri and everything else
The Siri watch face introduced with watchOS 4 gets much more useful in watchOS 5 and with iOS 12. Apple added more information, meaning you can see things like sports scores, maps, and heart rate insights directly on the watch face itself. Depending on your habits, Siri can come up with timely reminders as well, like telling you to order coffee from your favorite cafe at the same time each morning.
That ability extends to third-party apps as well. In watchOS 5, Siri can display information from third-party apps in addition to all of Apple’s native apps. Route directions from CityMapper appear alongside Weather forecasts and News headlines, as do reminders to log your breakfast food in the Lose It! app.
The Siri watch face has been held back by the limitations of Apple’s virtual assistant and by Apple’s general unwillingness to open up parts of its platform to developers. Third-party app info in the watch face will undoubtably make it more useful for users who don’t live entirely in Apple’s ecosystem.
Also, it will get smarter when Siri gets smarter in iOS 12—the new Shortcuts you can make on iOS 12 will be available on Siri on the Apple Watch. Shortcuts let you group actions together, assigning them a voice command that initiates that group. For example, saying, “Hey Siri, take me home,” might make your iPhone bring up Maps directions to get home from work, turn on your HomeKit-connected living room lights, set your smart thermostat to 73 degrees, and begin playing a podcast from the Apple Podcast app. Shortcuts can only be customized on an iOS device, but Siri on the Apple Watch will know them. That way you can evoke a Shortcut without having your iPhone or iPad nearby.
While the Siri watch face gets a lot of love in watchOS 5, third-party watch faces do not. Most other smartwatch makers allow third-party developers to make watch faces for the community to download and use, but Apple still isn’t giving developers this ability. The company is notorious for keeping its operating systems closed-off to developer tinkering, particularly when it comes to UI and appearances, and there’s no telling if or when we could see third-party watch face support come to the Apple Watch.
But Apple threw a bone to podcast lovers everywhere—the Apple Podcasts app comes to the Watch in watchOS 5, and it looks much like the Apple Music app. Podcast artwork of your subscribed shows fills the tiny screen, which you can then scroll through to pick the episode you want to hear. You can download and listen to podcast episodes on the wearable, and it will automatically sync your latest episodes for quick listening. The Now Playing UI still appears when you’re playing an episode from your iPhone, but otherwise the Podcast app will be the main podcast control center in watchOS 5.
Other improvements coming to watchOS 5 include the ability for third-party apps to play background audio, the ability to customize the order of icons in the Control Center, WebKit support in Mail and Messages, and interactive notifications. The final two of those features are particularly interesting. WebKit support lets you pull up linked webpages in the Mail and Messages app or their notifications. The Apple Watch’s display isn’t the best for Web browsing, but sometimes you want to take a look at a link immediately when it comes in an important message or email. Interactive notifications let developers program quick actions into their app’s wearable alerts. This means you’ll be able to rate a ride-sharing service within its Apple Watch notification or edit the number of people in a restaurant reservation when a reminder of that date gets pushed to your wrist.
WatchOS 5 will be available this fall to Series 1 and later Apple Watch users who are running iOS 12 on an iPhone 5S or later. This marks the first time an Apple Watch model will not be compatible with a new operating system, as the original Apple Watch will not work with watchOS 5.