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Apple watches floating in water showing varying screens Apple watches floating in water showing varying screens

Five Game-Changing Apple Watch Features

Our Five Favorite Things About watchOS 3


Some time has passed since the launch of the Apple Watch Series 2, and while most of the focus has been on the new hardware, there are still a lot of people out there that are using their original Apple Watch. Nearly all users, whether original or Series 2, will upgrade to watchOS 3, and this change is more subtle but nearly as significant as the hardware generation leap.

What's the difference in Apple's third operating system? There are many changes, both large and incremental, but there's a single flow that drives them all and that's a push to make the Apple Watch experience more user-friendly. That means speed and intuitive interaction, along with simplifying and streamlining.

Our verdict on the Apple Watch Series 2 was complimentary though acknowledging of limitations -- if you had to put a score on it, it’d probably be a solid 8 out of 10, a 9 if you were a fitness buff. But as for watchOS 3, we’re very pleased with it, even for people who are still using legacy hardware. While plenty of full reviews are already out there, we’ll skip past that and go more to the five things we liked best about watchOS 3.

#1 Background Caching

Even the most un-tech-savvy person has probably heard of the concept of caching (probably from their corporate IT contact who told them to “clear your cache” to make things run better). We’re guessing that if you’re using an Apple Watch and you’re able to pair it with your iPhone, you probably already know this type of thing, but just in case, here’s a quick overview: caching basically means pro-actively saving data locally rather than downloading it fresh from the Internet. When you revisit your favorite website, it will almost always load faster than a new place, and that’s because all of the images, fonts, and data have been stored from your previous visit, and only new content is downloaded.

watchOS 3 takes this same concept to the Apple Watch. When paired with your iPhone, your phone will communicate whenever it receives notifications or updates. Rather than merely ping your Apple Watch that there’s a new notification, watchOS 3 launches that application in the background and loads the latest update. That way, it’s ready to view whenever you see the notification and pull it up. Even on the first-generation Apple Watch, it makes things much faster simply by having a smarter allocation of resources. For most people, this means that they’re most heavily used apps -- things like email and news notifications -- will pull up nearly instantly rather than the usual several second wait to launch. Several seconds may not sound like much, but a week of living with watchOS 3 and you’ll notice the difference in how much more efficient your day-to-day experience is.

#2 Watch Faces

If you’re like us, you have a different watch face for different situations. Sometimes you want it to be fun, sometimes you want it to be practical, sometimes you want it to be clean and simple -- and sometimes, the most important thing is the complications configuration. watchOS 3 makes watch face interaction much easier than before, and it’s not just changing faces (though that’s a big part of it).

In fact, let’s start with that feature. Changing watch faces is now extremely simple – just swipe from one edge of the screen to the next. This will allow you to cycle through your faces without any additional legwork (fingerwork?). Think of it as the equivalent of one-click release for your watch bands, which brings up another point about this feature. If you like to swap your bands in and out based on the context of the day -- say, work vs. working out vs. an evening out -- then you’ll probably want to update your watch face as well. Now it’s faster and easier than ever before.

But it’s not just swapping the watch faces. In addition to a slew of new faces to pick from, Apple’s developers have added in one very cool feature, and that’s adding complications to faces that don’t natively support them. Even if you’re using a custom photo watch face, you can still add slots for complications. This customizes the Apple Watch experience even further, all while adding functionality that -- similar to the caching noted above -- makes the whole thing much more efficient.

Apple Watches showing the varying watch faces for users.

#3 Dock

You’d be hard pressed to find someone that was in love with the Apple Watch’s Friend carousel. It was functional, sure, but it was cumbersome and not elegant at all -- which is opposite of the typical Apple design philosophy. With watchOS 3 we usher in the era of Dock and say farewell to Friend. With Dock, you get the best of the previous Glances mode but with much-needed functionality and interaction. Dock more or less changes the entire Apple Watch user experience.

One of the previous issues with the Apple Watch was the overall cumbersome nature of its interaction. Everything took place on a very small screen, so it’s not like navigating through a carousel was a quick and easy thing. Dock is now mapped to the side button. Have a list of your most-accessed apps? Now you can make them part of the Dock screen, along with the default of having your most-recent app on the Dock list. Dock apps tend to load quickly, almost instantaneously, so access both functionally and load-time-wise is more efficient. In addition, Dock management can be done via a paired iPhone, so it’s not necessary to try and navigate the small Apple Watch screen when tweaking your settings.

Apple watches showing apps loading on to a users dock screen.

These benefits are huge, but best of all, it’s a fundamental shift in user interface that shows that Apple is listening to its user base. Not only is this an extremely smart design decision, it demonstrates forward thinking, and Apple Watch users have to be encouraged by this pivot.

#4 A Window, Not an Engine

In the original Apple Watch operating system, the whole experience acted as an extension of the iPhone, sometimes too much. Under previous watchOS iterations, notifications would come through but loading the app required launching it from scratch and/or navigating through a somewhat cumbersome interface on a small screen. This made the Apple Watch often feel like its own experience rather than an extension of the paired iPhone -- and you'll find few people that want this out of such a small screen on a wrist.

Apple Watch screens showing new interactive features for iMessage

Based on the features listed above, it's clear that Apple's developers really focused on streamlining the experience. This ultimately accomplishes the goal of making the Apple Watch a true extension, a window to notifications and communication rather than its own engine. This is achieved through a true effective ecosystem in design: the caching of favorite apps allows for instant viewing rather than the several steps required to launch it; the customization of watch faces displays the notifications you want, even on faces that don't natively support complications; and the Dock quickly enables access to the items you want to see -- your custom-selected apps and the most recently used app.

#5 Controls at a Swipe

Nobody enjoys navigating through menus, particularly when trying to find configuration settings. The iOS experience had these quickly available at the bottom of the screen. watchOS didn't mimic this philosophy to start, but watchOS 3 absorbs this into the wearable philosophy. With Glances gone, changing your settings is as simple as swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen.

This new feature, dubbed the Control Center, isn't just about the nitty gritty configurations. Control Center gives you access to the immediate things you'll need to deal with for adapting to situations. For example, if you were waiting for a flight to depart and you couldn't remember which carry-on bag you put your iPhone in, you could bring up the Control Center, set your Apple Watch to airplane mode, then ping the paired iPhone. Other Control Center features include controlling iCloud music, checking battery levels, and activating Do Not Disturb mode.

watchOS 3: The Verdict

watchOS 3 makes the Apple Watch experience seem brand new. Smoother, faster, and more intuitive. It’s a remarkable upgrade from what was available at the launch of the first generation. In many ways, this feels like the true Apple Watch experience, the user interface that was meant to happen, as if the launch was a tech demo and watchOS 3 is the true product. Best of all, you get these upgrades regardless of hardware generation.


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