Review: WatchOS 2 offers timely (and needed) tweaks

Native apps, new watch faces make the Apple Watch more useful

apple watch watchos 2
Credit: Apple

WatchOS 2 is the second version of the operating system that powers the Apple Watch lineup, and it arrives about five months after the wearable's debut -- and five days after it was originally expected. Even though it's been only a few months since supplies caught up with the initial high demand, development of the underlying operating system has continued.

watchos 2.0 update

watchOS 2.0 is downloaded using the Watch app on the iPhone.

The release of the updated watchOS had been timed to coincide with the arrival of iOS 9 -- which makes sense, because the Apple Watch and Apple's iPhones remain intrinsically linked. But a last-minute bug forced Apple to hold off on the release until now. (Note to those updating: You'll need your watch on a charger for the new OS to be installed, and the watch needs to be at least 50% charged.)

Early issues addressed

WatchOS 2 is designed to fix a few of the complaints rightfully aimed at the Apple Watch software and to tweak the feature list to better meet users' needs. These changes should provide faster app launch times, more display-on time so the watch's screen doesn't turn off before an app loads, more comprehensive apps and better standalone functionality.

In fact, I've had my own complaints specifically related to heart rate monitoring when I was using the Workout app for tracking weight-lifting sessions. I was hoping this bug would be squashed in this update. (Spoiler alert: It wasn't.)

One of the main complaints from users has been about app speed. In the first watchOS, most of the app data -- as well as the corresponding extensions that coordinated with the watch -- was stored on the iPhone; only interface elements resided on the watch itself. This led to a lag in launch times while the watch contacted the app on the phone and then waited as data moved from the phone back to the watch.

In watchOS 2, the app extension joins the interface code on the watch itself, bringing speedier launches and better responsiveness. The more code a developer brings over into the now-native watch extension, the more the watch app can accomplish without needing to tether itself to the iPhone.

adjust settings fixed

Now you can adjust the settings so that the display doesn’t turn off when an app loads.

Apple has also fixed another aggravation: The watch would often turn off before app info had loaded. There's now an option under Settings / General / Wake Screen that keeps the display turned on for up to 70 seconds when the watch is awakened with a tap.

Third-party access

WatchOS 2 now gives third-party developers access to the onboard hardware, something that had previously been limited to Apple's own apps. The accessible watch hardware includes the accelerometer (which tracks activity and movement), the heart rate sensor, the tiny speaker, the microphone, the Taptic Engine (used to provide taps and other haptic feedback) and the Digital Crown (which can now be used to control various custom interface elements).

For Apple Watch users wanting more independent operation, the new software allows tetherless Wi-Fi, so that the watch can use Wi-Fi for more tasks on its own rather than relying on the iPhone for data and Internet connection.

Complications (in a good way)

Another addition to watchOS 2 is support for third-party complications (the elements that offer quick access to data in the watch face). According to Apple, the watch will soon be able to display the status of home automation devices, flight times, headlines and other useful bits of data. To add third-party complications, you have to use the Watch app on the iPhone, which has a new category, appropriately called Complications, for managing them.

There are several ways in which developers will be able to keep their complications updated throughout the day, including constant updates through push notifications. For example, sports fans could be able to track their favorite team's game in real time.

The new update also has a Time Travel feature, which lets you use the Digital Crown to move forwards and backwards in time, so that you can see what events, weather data, sports schedules, etc., are coming up next (or occurred in the past). As a result, you can now see what your day will look like in the Calendar app or what the weather will be hours from now. It's very handy. (Note: This doesn't work for viewing the final scores of live games. I tried.)

As useful as these changes will be, developers still have to rewrite their apps to take advantage of the new functions, so it may be a few weeks before your favorite app is updated.

More new features

There's a new Nightstand mode, which is activated when the watch is placed on its charger and turned on its side, with the Digital Crown facing up. In that mode, the watch display takes on the appearance of an alarm clock. You can manually configure alarms in the appropriate app or ask Siri to set the alarm for you.

night stand mode Nomad

The Apple Watch in Night Stand mode. The charging stand, made by Nomad, is designed to keep the watch on its side.

When the wake-up time comes, an audible alarm will sound, like any standard alarm. This mode uses the Digital Crown as a snooze button, while the Favorites button becomes a way to delay or permanently silence the alarm.

WatchOS 2 will also feature new watch faces that were in the original announcement but didn't make the final cut for version 1.x, including time lapse images of several famous locations -- such as Hong Kong, New York and Paris -- and two custom watch faces based on your own photos, called Photos and Photo Album.

Photo Album randomly displays a photo from a selected album whenever the display is turned on, while the Photo option lets you select a particular shot to use as the wallpaper. Even better, Photo supports the new Live Photos feature that comes with the iPhone 6S and 6S+; the photo animates into position, kind of like those magical paintings in Harry Potter.

Existing functions in Siri have been enhanced. Siri can now start workouts, bring up Glances, look up words, calculate tips and find transit information for public transportation (where available, of course).

You can now reply to emails without using the iPhone, and there can be multiple pages for the Friends button on the side of the watch, including a new ability to create Groups. (This is set up through the Watch app on the iPhone.) And you can communicate with your friends in a variety of colors using Digital Touch sketches.

Wallet, the iPhone app that previously stored only boarding passes and debit/credit cards, now can support store cards and loyalty cards. Personally, I can't wait for the Dunkin Donuts Perks card support, but others -- such as Discover and Kohl's charge cards -- will also be supported.

Better security

For the security minded, Apple has introduced the Activation Lock, which is meant to deter thefts. If you ever lose your watch, enable Mark as Missing in the Watch app on the iPhone. Anybody who then tries to pair the watch with an iPhone won't be able to do it without your iCloud Apple ID and password -- even if they find a way to wipe all of the data from the watch and start from scratch.

Also, with the option enabled, you can unlock the watch by authenticating on the iPhone; accessing the Home Screen from the Lock Screen on the iPhone, whether via passcode entry or Touch ID, will automatically unlock the Watch as well, saving a step.

Still room for improvement

Despite all these advances, it's not all good news for Apple Watch owners.

For me, the most disappointing thing about the watch has been its fitness-tracking capabilities. Running, jumping and activities that involve swinging your arms all work well with the watch. Lifting weights? Not so much.

And that hasn't changed. When using the heart rate tracking feature, the watch starts off accurately enough, but within 15 minutes, heart-rate tracking is all over the map. Even after updating to the final version of watchOS 2, I found that for most of my workout, the heart rate readings were still either way off or just stuck on scanning.

Because the watch is unable to accurately track heart rate with this activity, the calories-burned counts are off; that's frustrating when you're trying to track calories and make a goal -- and those interested in the Watch for fitness should take note.

Bottom line

WatchOS 2 brings improvements to the Apple Watch in some useful and surprising ways. While I expected the new version to speed things up and add some needed refinements, I didn't expect Apple to include Nightstand mode or Time Travel.

Of course, watchOS remains a work in progress; I don't see the device truly maturing for a couple more software and hardware generations.

That said, for current watch owners, watchOS 2 improves almost every aspect of the device. And it's worth the price of an upgrade -- which is free.

This story, "Review: WatchOS 2 offers timely (and needed) tweaks" was originally published by Computerworld.