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Apple

Careful Tech 088: Praise for the Watchsmith app

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Apple

Careful Tech 087: What would make me buy a cellular Apple Watch?

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Apple

“And you can preorder it… today!”

With both the Apple Watch Series 5 and the AirPods Pro, Apple offered preorders on the very same day they introduced the product.

With a turnaround that short, customers face a dilemma. You can preorder the device, but you have no guarantee that the bauble will live up to Apple’s hype. There are no third-party reviews to guide your decision. Questions about the device’s capabilities inevitably linger. You’re literally buying sight unseen.

On the other hand, if you wait to order, there’s a decent chance the product will sell out and that you won’t get it on Day 1. Case in point: the AirPods Pro currently have a two-to-three week back order.

I wonder: how did Apple decide that these devices would be available for preorder immediately? Why not a few days later, as with the new iPhones? Here’s a cynical theory: maybe less expensive items (like the AirPods or the Watch) are more likely to be impulse buys. The customer doesn’t get a chance to weigh her purchase carefully. Instead, she acquiesces to the lizard-brain desire that Apple’s marketing engenders.

If that was Apple’s strategy, it worked—at least on me. ■

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Apple

Does the Series 5 have worse battery life than every previous Apple Watch?

Siegler’s right. I wouldn’t give up the Series 5’s always-on display, but it comes at a high price: significantly worse battery life than its predecessors. I didn’t buy the original (“Series 0”) Apple Watch, but I’ve owned the Series 1, 3, 4 and 5. The S5 is easily the poorest battery performer of that bunch.

Case in point: it’s currently 8 PM, and my Series 5 Watch has fallen “into the red”—18% charge left. Now, to be fair, I haven’t charged the Watch since last night (I wear it as a sleep tracker). And, thanks to the time change here in the U.S., this day has been an hour longer than normal. But I’m still disappointed to be skating so close to “power reserve mode” each evening.

For now, the Series 5’s battery life is… adequate. But I’m not sure that will be true two or three years from now, after a thousand charge cycles. Those are big charge cycles, too; fully depleting the battery day after day will take a toll on battery health.

How much better does Apple Watch battery life need to be? With the Series 3, I could expect 50–60% battery life at the end of an average day. That seems just about right—that extra juice helped the device last through more demanding days. It also left some headroom for the inevitable battery degradation endemic to lithium-ion technology.

Let’s hope that Apple can clear that bar again someday, with some future Watch hardware iteration.

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Apple

Mindless: the sorry state of meditation apps on the Apple Watch

When the Apple Watch first launched in 2015, it wasn’t clear exactly what the device was for. Was it a mini-iPhone, intended to replicate its big brother’s features on your wrist? Or was it a tool for informal communications, punctuated by scribbles and heart beats?

Eventually, the device’s purpose become more clear. Apple sells the Watch as a fitness and wellness tracker with some convenient peripheral functions (e.g. notifications and quick replies).

Given this emphasis on well-being, it’s surprising to me that there seem to be no great meditation apps for the Apple Watch. Oh, these apps exist; they’re just really bad.

Breathe

Well, not all of them, I guess. Apple’s first-party Breathe app is well-designed and fun to use for quick hits of mindfulness. But it’s not really designed to serve as a full-featured interval timer. For that, I’ve turned (without much success) to a variety of third-party apps:

Headspace

Take Headspace, for example. It’s the king in the mindfulness space, raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. You’d think they’d have the resources to deliver decent Watch app; the company has two dozen open engineer positions at the moment.

But, no, Headspace’s Apple Watch app is pretty sad. Even though its iPhone app is whimsical and well-designed, on the Watch, it’s ugly and weirdly spartan. It boasts two underbaked features: a “Touch” exercise that doesn’t quite work and “SOS”, a single guided meditation for emergencies (e.g. panic attacks).

In an ideal world, Headspace offer its rich library of guided sessions on your wrist; at the very least, I wish I could continue a meditation series from where I left off last time.

Insight Timer

Like Headspace, Insight Timer offers its own diverse library of guided courses, but I prefer to set up my own meditation sessions using its interval timer. I love being able to assign different bells to different stages of my meditation practice: high tones for preparation, deeper chimes for focused breathing, and even a gong to round out the exercise.

On the Watch, Insight Timer offers none of these features. I wish I could launch my preprogrammed sets of bell-marked intervals. Instead, the app offers generic timers for meditation and yoga, alongside a shortcut to launch their guided, seven-day introduction to meditation.

Seconds

The Watch app that comes the closest to meeting my needs isn’t actually a “mindfulness” app at all. It’s an interval timer called Seconds. Its target audience is fitness buffs who want to time complex workouts like high-intensity interval training.

But Seconds also supports interval sets for mindfulness sessions. Unlike with the other apps, it allows you to create any number of intervals of arbitrary length and sync the program to your Watch for “playback.”

Unfortunately, it has a few fatal flaws as a meditation timer. First, it really is meant to be a workout app; at the end of the meditation, the app shows the calories burned—hardly a relevant statistic for pillow-sitting. More problematically, custom alert sounds on the Watch seem to be broken. Seconds will play both my custom “Tibetan bell” and a harsh mechanical beep—a dissonant combination that I find distracting.

Closing thoughts

The dearth of Apple Watch meditation apps may be a symptom of a deeper issue. There are plenty of other app categories in which there isn’t a single decent option, and many high-profile companies have removed Apple Watch support altogether. Three and a half years after the device’s initial launch, the Apple Watch app ecosystem may be getting worse, rather than better.

That’s harshing my zen. ■

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Apple

How much should Apple Watch cell service cost?

For me, run prep often feels more exhausting than the workout itself. That’s particularly true in wintertime, when cold weather demands a long list of layers: track pants, long-sleeve T, light jacket, gloves, fleece hat, and neck buff. Predawn runs require that I add a blaze-orange vest and a headlamp, for visibility’s sake.

Then there’s the tech gear: Apple Watch on the wrist, AirPods in the ears, Polar heart rate strap around my chest, and the iPhone, tucked into a “fanny pack” at my hip. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it can take me fifteen or twenty minutes just to get out the door, start-to-finish.

Given this overly complex arsenal, I’m glad for any change that speeds up workout prep or simplifies my running accoutrements. For example, I was thrilled to discover that the Series 4’s heart tracking is good enough to forgo the Polar strap.

Similarly, I’d rather leave behind the heavy iPhone, which bangs against my thigh in its fanny pack. But losing the iPhone’s cell connection has distinct disadvantages; I can’t change my “running soundtrack” on the go, and I’m on my own should I have a heart attack or get clipped by a car.

So why not just pony up for the cellular model? In short, it costs too much! Consider the “real” price:

  • $100 more up front for the cell-capable model (versus the GPS-only edition)
  • $15 extra per month for the AT&T service (once you figure for taxes and fees)1
  • An undetermined amount to change our base data plan. Dumping our grandfathered family package (which doesn’t support the Apple Watch) would require at least another $35 monthly.

All told, sporting a cellular Apple Watch means $50 or $60 more each month than I’m paying now. I’d love the added convenience and peace of mind, but are they worth that much?


Even if you accept the higher device price and ignore our particular data plan problem, you’ve still got that pesky monthly fee. So… what is a reasonable price for an Apple Watch cell connection? I polled my tiny Twitter audience:

Poll time. What’s a fair price for adding an Apple Watch to your cellular plan?

— Matt Hauger (@matthauger) September 18, 2018

Poll results notwithstanding, I don’t expect a free ride from AT&T for the Apple Watch. But $15 feels like too much. Ten bucks seems more reasonable—but that should include taxes and fees. ■


  1. Some carriers do better than AT&T on this. For example, U.S. Cellular (which actually has good coverage in my rural area) lets you add an Apple Watch for free on some cell plans. But their network is small, and their roaming agreements come with pretty severe data use restrictions. ↩︎
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Apple

My one complaint about the Apple Watch Series 4 hardware

There are plenty of things I love about the Apple Watch Series 4’s hardware: its thinner profile, its faster processor, and (especially) its larger screen.

What don’t I like? I really only have one gripe: battery life.

Based on my few weeks of use, the Series 4 has noticeably worse battery life than its predecessor. I rarely cracked the 50% barrier after a full day wearing the Series 3. With the 4, however, I’m often down to 40 or even 30 percent by day’s end.

That anecdotal evidence jives with more measurable figures; according to Apple itself, the larger Series 4 has 16.5% less battery capacity than the comparable Series 3 model. Presumably, Apple shaved away battery volume in order to produce a thinner aluminum enclosure. Honestly, I’m OK with that compromise. After all, the Watch still easily makes it through a busy day.

However, the decreased battery life does degrade my Watch experience in at least one way. In the past, I could set the Watch on its charger when I climbed into bed, and by the time I would get sleepy, it had fully charged. That meant I could slip it onto my wrist before drifting off, use it to track my sleep quality, and still wake to more than 90% charge.

Alas, that’s not possible anymore. It’s rare that the Series 4 has reached 75% charge by the time I get drowsy. I either have to (a) forgo sleep tracking altogether or (b) don the Watch for sleep and start the new day with handicapped battery life. ■

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Apple

Apple preorder thoughts (2018 edition)

It’s 4:30 in the morning here, and I can’t sleep, so I might as well jot down some thoughts about the Apple Preorder Dance:

  • Preordering jacks up your sleep schedule—especially on the East Coast. It’s not just the interruption of a 3 AM alarm. After all, the order itself took less than five minutes—shorter than a late-night pee break. No, the real problem is that preordering floods my brain with adrenaline. It’s the mad scramble, knowing that any delay could make the difference between having a shiny, new device on Day One or getting it three weeks later. By the time my order actually goes through, I’m wired.
  • My purchase? A Series 4 Apple Watch in space gray. I already own the Series 3, so I certainly don’t need an upgrade. Still, I’m excited about the larger screen, smaller bezels, and improved information density of the new edition.
  • I skipped out on cellular (again). It’s not that I can’t see the utility. I would love to stay connected on my runs—without lugging my phone along. And it would be nice to know I could summon help if I get hit by a car or have a heart attack while exercising. But I just can’t justify the extra cost: $100 more up front, then $15 or so tacked onto my cell phone bill every month, forever. On top of that, to add an Apple Watch to our AT&T family plan, we would have to ditch our grandfathered shared data pool. That would raise our bill at least another $35. It’s would be tough to justify that price hike to the other family members who split the monthly bill.
  • I opted to trade in my Series 3 as part of the purchase. I thought the $175 credit would be automatically deducted from my purchase price, but that didn’t happen. Apparently, I’ll need to wait until Apple’s vendor actually receives my unit. That’s not a big deal, but I might hunt around to see if I can get more for it by reselling through Swappa.
  • One nice perk: Apple’s trade-in program doesn’t force you to return your accessories. I’ll get to keep the gray Sport Band that shipped with the Series 3. Knowing that, I ordered my Series 4 with the nylon Sport Loop instead. I can’t say I’m pumped to try out the “sweat pants of watch bands,” but I am looking forward to a change.
  • I’ll also retain my current Watch charger, which means I’ll have two charging disks for the first time. It’ll be nice to leave the extra charger in my travel bag permanently.
  • After making a fuss about adopting an annual upgrade cycle, I’m holding onto my iPhone X for another year. The Xs just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the outlay. Plus, I haven’t saved enough to buy both a new phone and a new watch, and the Series 4 was by far the most interesting product announced on Wednesday.
  • If Apple had announced new iPad Pros this week, I would have faced a dilemma: new Watch or new iPad? But it’s likely that I would have chosen the Watch (which I wear everyday) over the tablet (I’ve owned three iPads and ended up selling each one).
  • For whatever reason, the shipping address and email associated with my Apple Pay account were incorrect, but I didn’t realize this until after my order was processed. The physical address is close enough that I think it’ll go through, but the email address no longer exists. Hopefully the mistake doesn’t derail my order; if I had to submit a new one, I’d be waiting well into October at this point.

One last thought: as tablets and smartphones inch toward maturity, I see less less and less reason to upgrade annually. I don’t feel much FOMO looking at the Xs vs. last year’s iPhone X. So it might make sense to adopt a longer-term upgrade cycle—say, two years for my phone and three or four for my tablet (if I ever end up buying one again).

But the nascent smartwatch category is still growing by leaps and bounds every year. In 2016, the Watches got significantly faster. In 2017, the device gained standalone cellular capability. This year, the form factor changed radically.

Given that, if I had to choose one device to upgrade annually, it would be the Apple Watch. That’s a testament to the gadget’s utility, considering I didn’t even own one two years ago.  ■

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Apple

Imagining the Apple Watch Series 4

Every year since the Apple Watch’s debut, a new hardware version has been released. The OG Watch dropped in 2015, the Series 1 and 2 hit in 2016, and the Series 3 was released this past fall. Should this pattern hold, the Apple Watch Series 4 will show up later this year.

What hardware improvements could we hope for in the Series 4? Here are the changes I would like to see:

Better heart rate sensor

The Apple Watch may well have the best wrist-based heart rate sensor in the industry. But it’s not good enough. On runs, my Watch often fails to register my pulse at all. Once it does, it’s comically incorrect—either 30 BPM too high or “half off,” as if it’s missing every other heartbeat. I’d almost rather not have a heartrate reading at all than one I can’t trust for adjusting my effort level.

Now, we may be running up against physics here. Like all other wrist-based heart trackers, the Watch uses an optical sensor; green LEDs illuminate the blood flowing through your wrist. Apparently, that’s not a particularly reliable way to measure heart rate.1

But if it’s possible to either a) improve the optical heart rate tech or b) adopt some other, more reliable technology, I’d love to see Apple do it. Right now, I bring both the Apple Watch and my chest strap on runs. That’s annoying.

Always-on screen

It’s right there on the tin. The Apple “Watch” is a “watch”—i.e., a wrist-worn device for telling the time. But compared to every other “dumb” watch on the market, the Watch does worse at performing this basic task.

The Apple Watch manages its power aggressively, switching off the screen after a few seconds of inactivity. If you steal a glance at the device without raising your wrist—say, while you’re typing or reading or eating or driving—you’re greeted by a black, blank screen. If you do flip your wrist, the Watch often fails to register this movement and stays dark.

Given the Series 3’s stellar battery life, I’d like to see Apple loosen the power management reins a bit, in favor of an always-available clock. Just light up enough pixels to show the current time. The Series 4 could still hide its complications (weather, Activity rings, sports scores, etc.) until I raised my wrist; fade them in when you’re sure I’m watching. But at all other moments of the day, show the time in dimly-lit, grayish digits, glanceable from any angle.

Thinner body

The Watch has always seemed a bit chunky, and it’s actually been getting chunkier with each successive generation. It’s time to reverse that trend. My ideal Apple Watch would be about 25% thinner than the Series 3 and would feel less like a nerd-alert badge on my wrist. That may not be possible this year, but I’ll be irked if the Watch gets thicker again.

Slimmer bezels

Because the Apple Watch cleverly blends its bezels with its OLED screen, it’s easy to miss just how wide those bezels are. In the era of “edge-to-edge” phone displays, I’d like to see that tech trickle down to Apple’s wearable devices. Push those corners out just a bit with the next hardware revision.

Longshots: glucose monitor and temperature sensing

Finally, two less-likely hopes for an Apple Watch Series 4:

  • Last year, Apple was rumored to be developing a blood sugar sensor that worked without piercing your skin. This would be a godsend for diabetics, but it could also help non-diabetics get a better handle on healthy eating. I’d be less likely to down a Coke if I could see exactly how high it spikes my glucose levels.
  • Finally, temperature sensors could be fun. What if the Series 4 Watch could detect your body temperature and the ambient air temperature? There are algorithmic challenges here, of course; your wrist’s temperature may not reflect your core heat, and body heat would throw off ambient readings. But maybe Apple could correct for these problems. Imagine a Watch that could detect a fever before other symptoms arise. Or a Watch that could confirm, once and for all, that your favorite restaurant sets its thermostat three degrees too cold. ■

  1. My chest strap heart rate monitor works far better than the Watch, but it has the unfair advantage of sitting literally an inch or two from my heart—from that location, it can detect the electric impulse generated by my ticker itself. 
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Health

Tracking health data for its own sake

For the past few months, I’ve been using my Apple Watch to track my sleep. AutoSleep uses the device’s internal accelerometer to measure both sleep quality and total sleep time.

The app is surprisingly accurate, and it’s fun to peek at my sleep stats each morning. But I don’t actually do much with that data. The numbers don’t factor directly into my bedtime decisions or sleep habits.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my sleep tracking efforts are fruitless. There’s something powerful about knowing where I stand—particularly when it comes to health.

Take food tracking as a example. For the past year or so, I’ve input my consumed food via an app called Lose It. I don’t really adhere to a strict daily limit, but knowing how gluttonous I’ve been earlier in the day is often just enough motivation to resist dessert. Conversely, when I don’t record my meals, I tend to overeat.

Weighing myself each morning has proven similarly useful. Again, I don’t have strict weight loss targets; I simply record my poundage day after day using Vekt for the Apple Watch. This habit populates the Apple Health database with a running tally, giving me a general idea of which direction my weight is trending.

That knowledge leads to better food choices—almost automatically. If my weight drifts too high, I find myself gravitating to healthier options—fruit instead of sweets, salads instead of sandwiches, water rather than Coke. Conversely, when I’m hovering near my ideal weight, I’ll reward myself with an extra treat or two.


All that to say, even if my sleep stats seem inconsequential, I’m going to continue wearing my Apple Watch to bed. I’m hoping that a peripheral awareness of my sleep habits may (subliminally) lead to better sleep decisions. Maybe I’ll skip that Netflix binge in favor of an early bedtime. ■