watchOS 3 review: Why Apple’s smartwatch refresh is a ringing success

WatchOS3 was first announced at Apple’s developer conference, but it’s only now that regular Apple Watch owners are getting the chance to experience it first hand. The question is, with so much that’s different, is it a change for the better, or a step backwards?

Whatever your opinion of it, there’s no doubt watchOS 3 constitutes a dramatic overhaul change. Apple has thrown out Glances in favour of a new App Dock, brought in a new Control Centre, now allows designated apps to pull data from your phone in the background and introduces a host of other new features that transform the way you interact with your Apple Watch.

I’ve been using watchOS 3 beta 42mm Apple Watch since the announcement, and on the new Apple Watch Series 2, and there’s no need to worry. It’s a big step forward.

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watchOS 3: Control Centre and App Dock

One of the most noticeable new features in watchOS 3 is the new Control Centre. This brings continuity to the Apple Watch UI and replaces watchOS 2’s Glances. Swipe up from the bottom of the display, and instead of snapshots of various bits of app data, you’re faced with a number of toggles, plus the status of the Apple Watch’s battery.

Essentially, Control Centre bundles up the quick settings and battery-status Glance screens from watchOS 2 and it’s the one new feature I find myself using the most in watchOS 3. Want to check your battery life, this makes it easy. Want to silence it or activate Do not disturb? Again, one swipe and one tap does it. It’s a great improvement over the previous method.


^ The Control Centre (left), App Dock (centre and right)

If you were a fan of Glances, there’s no need to despair, though. They haven’t disappeared completely. Instead, they’ve been moved. The App Dock, which replaces the Friends feature, is now accessible via a press of the Apple Watch’s side button, and it’s a much more sensible and intuitive place to put the information previously supplied by Glances.

It also means you can get to your most recently used apps from wherever you happen to be in the Apple Watch UI, where before you had to go back to your watch face and swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

The way the App Dock works is a big improvement on Glances, too. By default, you see your most recently used apps in the dock – there’s space for up to ten – but it’s also possible to pin apps here by pressing the Keep In Dock button, and remove them with a simple swipe upwards.

watchOS 3: Background app refresh

This brings me to the other big step forward in watchOS 3: background app refresh. Effectively, when you pin an app in the dock, the Apple Watch will keep its status stored in memory so it can be launched again quickly, without you having to wait while it accesses data from your iPhone.

That’s a positive step forward, but Apple takes it a step further by enabling apps in the dock to grab data in the background. This means those apps will always be up to date, and apps in the dock show live data, so you can quickly see what’s changed since you last checked in.

As usual, this is a feature developers need specifically to enable within their apps, so it will be a while until all your favourites work this way, but when they do get around to it, it will make the Apple Watch a much more usable, responsive wearable.

watchOS 3: Messaging and scribble

The Apple Watch will also be a more powerful communications device this time next year, because Apple – just as Google has recently – is adding the ability to respond to messages directly, by scribbling characters directly onto the watch’s screen.

There’s no keyboard here, so longer messages are a little cumbersome to compose, but if you want to write a quick three- or four-word reply that isn’t in the list of supplied suggestions (and you don’t want to dig your phone out of your bag), it works pretty well, even recognising my spidery scrawls with remarkable reliability.


watchOS 3: New watch faces

It wouldn’t be an Apple Watch update without new watch faces, and although Apple still hasn’t given us the ability to install third-party designs, there is a selection of new ones to choose from in watchOS 3 – and a new way of switching between them as well.

My favourite is the minimalist Numerals face, which simply displays a set of watch hands and the hour in large type, plus one complication. There’s also a pair of new Activity watch faces – Analog and Digital – and a cute Minnie Mouse face to go with the much-loved Mickey Mouse one that’s been in place since the start.

And once you’ve picked your favourites, you can now switch between them with a quick edge-to-edge swipe to the left or the right. You still have to press into the screen to get to the customisation option, however.


watchOS 3: Breathe

One further update to the core capabilities of the Apple Watch is a companion to the Stand app. It’s called Breathe, and it encourages you to destress by concentrating for a minute on regular, slow and deep breathing.

It’s a simple enough idea. At regular intervals throughout your day, the app will buzz and suggest you take a minute or more (the duration can be adjusted up to five minutes) to concentrate on taking slow, regular breaths. At this point the Breathe app will, quite literally, guide you through the process, tickling your wrist using the watch’s haptic feedback engine as you go, displaying a steadily expanding and shrinking circular graphic onscreen to indicate when and how long to breathe in and out for.

After following the Apple Watch’s recommendations over the past few months, do I feel less stressed? Well, no, but if all it does is encourage people to take regular breaks, that can’t hurt at all.


watchOS 3: Updated core apps and other abilities

As is Apple’s modus operandi, watchOS is littered with other small changes beyond the big announcements. A lot of these are updates and improvements to the various core apps, including a boost to the activity app, where you can now share your fitness data with other Apple Watch owners, and there’s now improved wheelchair motion tracking.

The Timer app gets a mild update with a bunch of presets to help you get started quicker (but you still can’t set multiple timers to run concurrently). And third-party fitness apps will be able to record your heart rate continuously, rather than simply spot-check it.

watchOS 3: First impressions

I like the new watchOS 3. It’s not only a huge update, but I can see the sense behind every decision Apple has made. The UI makes is cleaner and more logically arranged than before, and it it’s a good deal more friendly and easy to use.

The one caveat is that, since the official release of watchOS 3, my original Apple Watch has experience slowdowns more frequently than before the release. Most of the time it’s fine, but occasionally it’ll take a second or two to respond.

That’s annoying, but not a deal-breaker, and certainly not something that should put you off installing it. The new features and UI overhaul make the Apple Watch, whichever version you own, even more of a pleasure to use.

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