dotunderscore by Brian Hough

watchOS 2 Notes & Impressions

A key theme between both iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 “El Cap”, the two of Apple’s more established platforms, is refinement over reinvention. But then there’s this year’s version of Apple’s other, younger mobile platform – the watchOS, as found on the Apple Watch. Not yet even a year old, the Apple Watch isn’t yet eligible for reinvention. Instead, watchOS 2 focuses on precisely two things - filling in places where the original watchOS fell down, and native applications.

In my pre-WWDC predictions post, I speculated that this year’s update to watchOS could be called watchOS 1.1, and frankly that’s more or less indicative of how watchOS 2 feels. Native third party applications and the introduction of third party complications are, frankly, the two biggest things to write home about, and the both feel like things that perhaps should have (but maybe couldn’t have) been present on launch.

They’re also, unfortunately, the only two things that I have yet to be able to test on my Apple Watch running the watchOS 2.0 Developer Preview, so there’s unfortunately not too much I can say on that front. But if implemented correctly, both have the opportunity to completely change the way I use my Apple Watch, extending its functionality and usefulness in ways not possible today. Whether or not things pan out this way depends almost entirely on developer enthusiasm of the platform – and, given how similar writing watchOS apps are to writing iOS apps, I would say the odds are good we’ll see some pretty impressive stuff pretty fast.

The other features are largely niceties that have yet to really change the way I use (or, in some cases, don’t use) my Watch. You can now compose e-mails right from the Watch using voice dictations, something that I have yet to want to use. Still, the seemingly many users clamoring for this over the last few months should be appeased. There are some new watch faces – Timelapse, which shows beautiful landscapes with the lighting changing to reflect the time of day – and Photo Album, which lets you pick a photo to use as the background. Neither of these support complications, and thus neither of these are even remotely useful to me.

The new Wallet application is exactly what it is on iOS 9 – a rebranded Passbook, despite the new icon – and is still one of my most used applications on the Apple Watch. Wallet can automatically tell you when you’re in a movie theater and push you a notification that acts as a shortcut to your movie ticket, which you can just flash at the scanner and be on your way. It’s damn well the fastest way to get into a movie, or pay for a coffee at Dunks, or check into your flight, or… well, you get the idea, and you already know how fantastic it is if you’ve been using Passbook on your Watch.

But perhaps one of the most interesting feature is Time Travel, which I almost can’t believe I lived without on my Watch at the start., What this does is lets you spin the digital crown on the watch face to see upcoming data presented by complications. So, for example, if you’re like me and have the weather complication on your watch face, you can spin the digital crown to see what the weather is going to be like at any time of the day – spin it to 2:00 AM, and the weather complication will present the forecast for 2:00 AM. Nearly all of the built In complications now supports Time Travel, and I can see this being especially useful once third party complications become the norm as well.

There are also a jubilee of other, smaller tweaks and improvements that work together to make a tangible difference to the Watch experience. Nightstand mode turns your Watch into a mini alarm clock when plugged in and turned to its side, and it’s genuinely excellent. AirPlay is now front and center in that first Glance, which is nice, but I find myself still mostly reaching for my phone instead. The Modular watch face has gotten a new, more colorful color option which makes the whole thing much more readable. And there are a handful of improvements to Watch to Watch communication, too, such as the ability to send multicolored drawings to other Watch users, and add more friends to the Friends Carousel that pops up when you press the device’s only physical button.

This may seem in writing unimpressive, but one of the neatest and most useful mini tweaks in watchOS 2 appears to have been added in the most recent Developer Preview. A frequent use case of the Watch for me is using the hands-free “Hey Siri” function to dictate short text messages – for example, “Hey Siri, text Mom ‘I’ll call you soon.’” Previously, this required that I initiate sending the message by pressing a “Send” button on the screen after the Watch finished processing the dictation.

A one tap process may be great, but when you’re using the Watch every single second counts, and Apple has managed to dramatically improve this by making this a no-tap process. Once your Watch processes the dictation, it’ll instead pop up with a screen that says “Okay, I’ll send this text message to Mom: I’ll call you soon.” with a single button labeled “Don’t Send.” If the text message looks good to you, you don’t need to do anything – the Watch will wait a teeny tiny amount of time to allow you to press that Don’t Send button, and then off the message goes. It’s extraordinarily convenient and makes using Siri to send text messages and absolute blast.

Yes, watchOS 2 confirms this year’s trend instead of bucking it – it is a relatively minor release, one with few new user facing features that focuses on smoothing out the rough edges, just like iOS 9 (at least on the iPhone) and OS X 10.11 “El Cap” – and, frankly, just like Google’s new Android “M” release, as far as I’ve seen. You won’t be using your Apple devices in radically new ways this year, but you will notice them to be faster, smarter, and more reliable. This is a blessing, not a curse – a slightly less interesting, slightly understated blessing.

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