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Apple

Apple Watch as shower speaker?

Back in September, I upgraded from the Apple Watch Series 1 to the Series 3. Honestly, the user experience didn’t change all that much, but I’ve enjoyed one improvement in particular: the Series 3’s better waterproofing. It’s nice to be able to hop in the shower before work and still keep an eye on the time.[1]

A few weeks ago, I thought of another reason that a water-resistant wrist computer might be useful. I had finished a workout and needed to wash up, but I didn’t want to put down the podcast I was listening to. I had an epiphany: why not redirect that audio to the Watch’s speaker while I showered?[2]

To my dismay, I quickly discovered that this is impossible in the current version of watchOS.

Based on some lazy Googling, third-party apps have technically been able to implement this since watchOS 2, way back in 2015. But very few developers seem to have added the feature—perhaps because of WatchKit’s awful audio APIs.

Regardless, what I really want wouldn’t require developer support at all: Apple should surface the Watch as a system-wide audio target. It would show up just like standalone Bluetooth speakers or headphones do—just hotswap your playback device to the Watch using AirPlay. While we’re at it, let me force touch on the Watch’s Now Playing screen to redirect the currently-playing audio to the Watch itself.

Here we might comment on the sad state of my attention span. Why do I feel the need to distract myself during one of the few gadget-free moments of my day? Fair point.

But I want my stories in the shower, dang it! ■


  1. Yes, a $25 analog watch could serve this purpose. Why you gotta hate?  ↩
  2. You might be thinking that that tiny, tinny, waterlogged speaker would sound terrible. Maybe, but I’m not listening to high-fidelity music here; I want my spoken-word content: podcasts, the NPR news briefing, or the Penguins radio broadcast. Any of these would be perfectly listenable through the Watch.  ↩

Categories
Apple

Why hasn’t Apple prioritized podcasts on the Apple Watch?

Nearly two months after my Apple Watch Series 3 review, my main complaint still stands: it remains prohibitively difficult to play back podcasts from the device.

The native iOS Podcasts app has no equivalent on the Watch, and the “big player” third-party clients don’t support transferring podcast episodes to the wearable device. Overcast removed this feature in the run-up to watchOS 4, citing critical APIs that Apple had removed.

There are several smaller podcast clients that try to work around WatchKit’s hamstrung audio APIs. I’ve tried both Watchcast and Watch Player. The latter app has made some strides recently by allowing direct podcast browsing and downloading on the Watch itself, but the entire process is very clunky. It’s a bad sign when an app’s first-launch experience includes a twelve-page tutorial packed with caveats and disclaimers. During a recent test, I was able to successfully download an episode, but actually listening to the show proved impossible; I would tap the play button, but nothing would happen.

Users shouldn’t blame third-party developers for the Watch’s podcast unfriendliness. The real question here? In the two-and-a-half years since the Watch first launched, why hasn’t Apple prioritized podcasts? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The Apple Watch is too resource-constrained to support podcast playback. It’s true; the original, “Series 0” Apple Watch was severely limited in both speed and battery life. But that’s no longer the case with the Series 3. In six weeks of daily Watch use, including frequent workouts, my battery hasn’t dipped below 50%—let alone dwindled anywhere near a complete discharge. And given how snappily the new model launches apps, it seems unlikely that CPU speed remains a concern.
  • Podcasts aren’t popular enough. Once upon a time, podcasts were a niche medium, beloved by nerds but foreign to everyday users. That’s not the case now. Podcast audiences continue to grow, and runaway hits like Serial prove the format’s broad appeal.
  • A related guess: Apple is simply engineering-constrained, and podcasts were low on the punch list. We’ve heard rumors that Apple shuffles engineers between projects to hit its deadlines. And many projects’ engineering teams are surprisingly small. Given these limited skilled resources, it seems possible (even likely?) that Apple simply hasn’t gotten around to building a legit podcast app (and/or serviceable public APIs) yet.

Whatever Apple’s reasoning, I hope the Watch’s podcast situation gets remedied soon. I’m tired of strapping on an iPhone fanny pack every time I go running. ■

Categories
Apple

The maddening glitch in the “Breathe” app on Apple Watch

Last year, Apple added ‘Breathe’ to watchOS 3. This simple app invites the user to pause for mindful meditation, bringing attention to the breath for a few minutes at a time. The exercise is accompanied by a slick little animation: translucent teal circles that expand and contract along with your breathing’s steady rhythm.

Animation start and end frames
The first and last frames of the Breathe app’s animation. I’ve bumped up the contrast here to make the difference easier to see.

I like Breathe, but the animation has an annoying little hiccup. At the very end of every breath, the graphic resets to prep for the next inhale/exhale cycle. Watch the contracted circles at that point, and you’ll notice the glitch: a jarring ‘jump cut’ from one gradient fill to another.

Yes, it’s a subtle niggle. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. After all, we’re talking about an app that requires you to focus intently; any distraction, no matter how small, is magnified by close attention. I notice the cut with every breath. It’s a distraction that undermines the very focus the app is designed to foster. It as if the air catches in my lungs.

It wouldn’t take much to fix this; even a linear fade between the last frame and the first would ease the animated transition. But, so far, there’s been no sign that Apple has even noticed the problem; the choppy cut’s still there in watchOS 4. ■

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Apple

Why the Apple Watch could replace the iPhone

As Horace Dediu recently observed, in its early days, the iPhone was effectively an accessory to the Mac / PC. But as backup and app management shifted onto the phone itself, desktop tethering grew unnecessary.

In the same way, recent Watch upgrades (specifically, the Series 3’s faster processor and cellular connectivity) could be Apple’s first steps towards detaching the Watch from its tether, the iPhone. And as it grows more capable, the Watch has started to usurp the phone’s role in our lives. Dediu writes,

The Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

Phoneless computing

The Watch will inevitably continue along this trajectory. It’s not difficult to imagine the iPhone being “eaten alive,” its role absorbed by devices at either end of the size spectrum: the iPad on the large side, the Watch on the small.

To some extent, the Watch and iPad are already capable of shouldering the phone aside. The Watch handles many mobile tasks that previously required my phone: on-the-go notifications, fitness tracking, navigation, and light reading. And increasingly, the iPad can handle the “heavy lifting” tasks: long-form text entry, video and audio editing, and email triage.[1]

Why would anyone want this?

Shifting power computing tasks from the iPhone to the iPad would be fairly painless; the tablet’s larger screen actually makes many jobs easier.

But moving the other direction—shifting casual and mobile computing to the Watch—is trickier. That change comes with some downsides: the Watch’s processor is slower, its battery less capable, and its screen relatively tiny. Why sign up for all those downgrades?

Well, first, there’s the convenience factor. Tracking, carrying, and charging one device is easier than caring for two. And as the use cases for the Watch and the iPhone increasingly overlap, it will feel more and more redundant to keep both of them with you at all times.

Relatedly, the Watch has a major advantage over the phone as a portable device: it’s far less accident-prone. Phones can (and often do) slip out of hands and flop out of pockets, but a device that’s strapped to your body isn’t going anywhere. Also, because the Watch is so small, Apple can build it out of more durable materials (e.g. the scratch-resistant sapphire screen of the stainless steel models).

There’s a final reason that I’d like to see the Watch usurp the iPhone—one that’s more philosophical than pragmatic. Eliminating the pocket computer would help restore our attention to the people and places around us. As miraculous as smartphones have proved, too often we use them to distract us from being present here and now. The moment we even sniff a bit of boredom, we slip out our phones and snort greedily at Facebook or Instagram.[2]

The Watch’s form factor eliminates the temptation to pursue such soul-sapping dead ends. Its screen is too small to browse social media feeds. Its battery life is too limited and the processor too underpowered to watch video or play games. And because I have to lift my arm to view its screen, the Watch discourages extended use; fatigue sets in after just a few seconds.

As a hardware device, then, the Watch is designed to request my attention momentarily, then immediately release it, returning me to return to my surroundings.


Sometimes constraints are a good thing. Although the Apple Watch is less flexible and capable than the iPhone in some ways, its hardware constraints provide “bumper rails” that could help me avoid unhealthy and unproductive computing habits. ■


  1. We’re not quite there yet, though. The Watch needs a few basic additions to become a viable primary device. First, from a software perspective (and as mentioned above, Apple must eliminate the requirement that the Watch be tethered to the iPhone. Second, the Watch needs a camera. Yes, cue the Dick Tracy jokes. And yes, we’ll all look ridiculous holding up our wrists to align our Instagram shots. But I can’t leave behind my phone until Apple fits a great image sensor into its wearable. I’ve grown accustomed to having the best camera I’ve ever owned with me at all times.  ↩
  2. Substitute your mobile drug of choice: Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Bejeweled, or Words with Friends.  ↩


Pac-Man vector artwork courtesy of Christian Quiroz. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Categories
Apple

Running on empty: the Apple Watch’s half-baked HIIT feature

When Apple unveiled watchOS 4 at its developer event in June, I was excited to see major upgrades to the Watch’s workouts app. In particular, the inclusion of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) appealed to me as a runner. HIIT alternates short, intense bursts of anaerobic exercise (“I’m going to die”) with periods of recovery (“Gasp. Gasp. Gasp.”). No, it’s not fun, but it is effective; research shows that HIIT can boost cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, and even brain power.

What should a HIIT app do?

A great HIIT app should include a great HIIT timer. You tell the app your interval length goals. How long should the intense intervals be? The rest periods? The warm-up and cool-down?

Then, once you actually start your run, the HIIT app should alert you every time the intensity level changes. “Beep, beep! Thirty seconds of all-out sprint! Go, go, go!” Then, just when you feel like your heart’s going to explode, finally, blessedly, you get another alert: “Beep, beep! Jog for a minute and rest.” And then the whole cycle starts again; you scale your effort up and down, while the app does stopwatch duty. Maybe it even tracks your effort level via heart rate and taunts you if you’re slacking. The app is the coach, barking orders to you, the athlete.

Apple’s HIIT feature

Apple has access to APIs that third-party developers don’t, so I was eager to see how they would implement these HIIT features. As the long summer of Apple Watch developer betas crawled by, I waited impatiently for the opportunity to test the new workout app for myself. Finally, yesterday, I got my first chance, here on vacation at the beach.

I had imagined myself streaking down the sand, like that famous opening scene from Chariots of Fire. Splashing through the foam. Feet pounding the sand. Eyes closed, face lifted skyward, arms outstretched. My Apple Watch would coach me to a lofty runner’s high; it would command me, and I would fly.

Only… as I quickly discovered, that’s not really how the Watch’s HIIT feature works. Inexplicably, the HIIT workout doesn’t actually do any of that. In fact, it doesn’t really seem to do anything. The workout app includes no interval timing functionality whatsoever. You’re apparently expected to track your progress in your head somehow by watching the clock. That’s problematic. You’re left asking, “Did I start this interval at the 5:15 or the 5:30 mark?” Or “How many intervals is that? Have I finished three or four?”

HIIT requires ruthless timekeeping. You need someone (whether a person or a digital companion) to order you around. Run now. Rest now. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Don’t count the ticking seconds. Focus entirely on your effort level. Apple’s “You’re on your own” approach just doesn’t cut it.

Wrap-up

Until Apple adds an interval timer to the workout app, its HIIT feature is pretty useless. Its calorie-counting algorithm may be more accurate than previous workout types, but it does little to help you reap the benefits of high-intensity training. For now, HIIT nerds are better off using a third-party HIIT tracker like Seconds. You’ll lose the official workout app’s perks (like its convenient ‘Now Playing’ pane), but at least you’ll know when to bust your butt and when to take a break. ■


Categories
Apple

Apple Watch Series 3 review: podcast problems undermine the marquee features

Selling my old Watch

Over a week ago, I reluctantly listed my old Apple Watch for sale online. My Series 3 wouldn’t arrive till Friday, and I dreaded going watchless for the better part of a week, but I also hoped to eke out the best return I could, so I posted my space gray Series 1 to Swappa.

Selling it proved harder than I expected. Days passed, and no serious buyer even nibbled. I dropped my price: $180. $170. $160. Still, no takers. Finally, at $150, a Swappa user bit; I netted about $128 after subtracting the listing fee and my shipping costs. That’s about $100 less than I spent when I bought the device last December. I’m not thrilled with its steep depreciation, but $0.37 per day seems pretty reasonable to lease a device with the Watch’s feature set.

The Series 3 arrives

I didn’t buy the LTE model (see my earlier post. Even if I had wanted that feature, I didn’t have enough cash set aside to afford its $80 price premium. (I save for these purchases very intentionally!)[1]

My 42mm, space gray, non-cellular model arrived via UPS on Friday. As a quick aside, I’m amazed at the logistics required to deliver a state-of-the-art gadget to my rural doorstep on the first day of its worldwide availability. We live in a little log cabin in the remote mountains of West Virginia, an hour from the nearest big box retailer and nearly three hours from the closest Apple retail store. Yet when I finished work on Friday and stepped out onto my porch, there it was: a long cardboard box, fresh off the plane from China.

First impressions

Over the course of my nine months with the Series 1, I grew bored with my black sport band. It looked okay, but it didn’t have a lot of character. This time around, I opted for gray. I know, I know; that’s not very flashy, either, but it was the only other option.

In short, I like the new band; its shade includes a hint of brown, and it’s a bit brighter than the Watch’s aluminum case, but the two pair well. Hopefully, this sport band wears better than the last, which had started to flake by the time I sold it last week.

Based on my earlier comparison, I had worried that the Series 3 would feel significantly thicker than my old Series 1. But I’m happy to report that I haven’t noticed a major difference—it feels identical on my wrist, and I don’t notice its added bulk when I glance down. Now, that doesn’t mean that this Watch’s thickness is “ideal”; it’s a little chunky, and I hope Apple can break the 10mm barrier in the not-too-distant future.

New (to me) features

Compared to the Series 1, watchOS 4 feels snappier on the newer device. Apple claims 70% better performance; for me, the gains are just enough to make third-party apps feel consistently responsive. Dumping the honeycomb (a new option in watchOS 4) helps tremendously. Whereas finding and launching an app could take thirty seconds or more before, now it takes just a few seconds.

I’ve been enjoying the Series 3’s improved water resistance (versus the Series 1, which was splash-proof but couldn’t be immersed). I don’t really want to wear my smartwatch in the shower, but I love being able to rinse off the Watch every time I wash my hands. A clean device is a happy device, right?

Another improvement: the Series 3 screen apparently gets far brighter than that of the Series 1. But I never found the Series 1 to be too dim, and I keep my brightness level too low for this to matter much to me.

Then there are the location-based features; the Series 3, like the Series 2, includes standalone GPS. In addition, it boasts a barometric altimeter for tracking elevation. As a runner, these features appeal to me. But there’s a problem.

Podcasts: the Apple Watch’s Achilles heel

Stated succinctly: the inability to play podcasts from the Watch severely limits its utility. For whatever reason, Apple has declined to build an official Apple Watch podcasts app, and the dearth of audio-related, developer-facing APIs in WatchKit means that third party apps can’t fill the gap. Even the workaround that some podcast apps leveraged in watchOS 3 has been deprecated.

When I run, I listen to podcasts. I don’t have a commute, so that half-hour of exercise is often my only chance to catch up on my favorite shows. A great episode of ATP or Upgrade transforms my workout from a boring slog to a tolerable jaunt. Yes, if I listened to music on my runs instead of podcasts, the Watch could work as a playback device. But that’s not my thing. Podcasts are my thing.

So I’m forced to bring the iPhone, slung into its fanny pack, along for the ride. I feel the its dense heft with every stride, and the running belt somewhat restricts my breathing. Together, these irritating sensations serve as a constant reminder that I’ve got a $700 computer jostling around at my waist.

This podcast drawback effectively means that I’ll never go anywhere with my Watch without bringing my iPhone, too. The Watch’s GPS and altimeter are superfluous, since I’ll always have a phone that includes the same features. And buying the LTE version wouldn’t have made sense (why pay for another cellular connection, when my phone is always in my pocket?).


If Apple ever fixes the podcast problem, everything would change. I could leave the phone at home, and the Watch would suddenly be the perfect running companion. It’s maddening that that Apple is so close here and yet has gone another year without closing the gap. ■


  1. Saving for a potential Apple Watch Series 4 starts now.  ↩

Categories
Apple

Apple Watch, “Round Edition”?

I took a bit of time this morning to play with the concept of a round Apple Watch. Some notes:

  • Converting watchOS to work with a round display would be a massive design effort. Everything would need to be rebuilt from the ground up, since most of the platform’s UI elements are rectangular. My proposal solves… almost none of these challenges. It’s literally the easiest screen to mock up.
  • I’ve moved the side button to the other side of the display, mainly for symmetry’s sake. This creates some problems, though, since I use the buttonless side of the Watch to brace against when I’m pressing the button or the crown. On the other hand, this change would make the “hold both buttons” gesture far easier.
  • The bezels here are the same size as on the current watch. A bezel-less round design would look sick, though—better than on the rectangular watch, since you wouldn’t have to deal with fitting square elements into the case’s rounded corners. ■

Image credits


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Apple

A watch watcher reviews the Apple Watch Series 3

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee reviews the Apple Watch Series 3.

As he writes,

One of the most amusing things about doing what I do for a living – writing about and working with mechanical watches – is the reaction that other watch guys expect me, or really any other reasonable watch person, to have about the Apple Watch. They think we should hate it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch, nor should anyone else. If anything, the build quality versus price ratio on the Apple Watch is so embarrassing for the Swiss that I genuinely think it will push mechanical watchmakers to be better.

Even this small insight, this peek into the world of Swiss manufacturing and watch aficionados, is worth the click.


Clymer’s review adds something unique to the online conversation about the Series 3 Watch. Tech blog reviews too often follow the same boring pattern; I can only read about watchOS 4’s new workout app so many times before my eyes glaze over. As a mechanical watch expert, however, Clymer deftly surfaces a new, thought-provoking set of expectations, delights, and complaints.

For example, the reviewer discusses the “incredible tolerances and smooth corners” on the packaging for the Apple Watch Edition, then compares it to boxes from the luxury watchmakers. He also weighs the Watch Edition’s ceramic case against similar materials on far more expensive mechanical watches. Clymer’s able to provide context that the average tech expert just can’t.

Even his less esoteric thoughts prove fascinating; he lists his daily carry items in the wake of acquiring the Series 3: the Watch, a wallet, house keys, and a single AirPod (!). That last detail took me by surprise, as a gadget nerd (“What about stereo music?!”). But it’s a great example of how different priorities (e.g. valuing fashion over technological utility) lead to a different way of using a digital device.

We need more tech reviews like this! Give me a iPhone X review from a doctor doing her rounds. A HomePod review from a concert violinist. An Apple Watch review from a professional athlete in off-season training. An Amazon Echo review from an elderly retiree. As Clymer’s article proves, getting outside the tech bubble could help us view our gadgets in an entirely new light. ■


  1. One quibble: Clymer confuses the first-generation Watch (the “Series 0”) with the 2016 Series 1. It’s a mistake that an expert in smart wearables probably wouldn’t make. But why be pedantic? Clymer’s review is fascinating not because of what he doesn’t know, but because of what he does.


Categories
Apple

AirPods quibbles

Yesterday, I explained how much I enjoy my AirPods, both for their convenience and for the fun little tactile habits they build.

But AirPods aren’t perfect. Here’s my list of complaints:

  • The auto-connect feature is amazing—when it works. Too often, I’ll slip in my AirPods and tap play on the iPhone, only to hear the audio buzz out of the phone speaker instead of the headphones. This makes me doubt whether I’m using the AirPods the “right” way. Can I just slip them in? Or am I expected to unlock my phone, crack open the AirPods case, wait for the battery level pop-up, and then pick up the earbuds?
  • Relatedly, AirPods’ audio source switching often doesn’t do what I expect. For example, I’ll be standing in my driveway, ready to head out on a run with just my AirPods and my Apple Watch. I’ll hit play on the Watch, but the audio won’t get pumped through the headphones. Apparently, they’re still connected to my iPhone, sitting on my dresser inside the house. To avoid this, I either have to remember to switch the iPhone into airplane mode before stepping outside, or I have to just start running to escape the iPhone’s Bluetooth range. Eventually, the AirPods get with it and pick up the Watch’s audio playback.
  • This same unwelcome dance happens when I’m in range of my PC. Yesterday, while recording a video on my iPhone using the AirPods’ built-in microphone, I suddenly heard the telltale chime that tells you the AirPods have connected to a new device. For some reason, they thought I would want them to stop feeding recorded audio to my iPhone and instead connect to my Windows laptop, ten yards away through a log wall. I had to scrap that take, run back to my office, and unpair the AirPods from Windows.
  • The AirPods’ carrying case feels great in the hand, but its smooth finish makes it prone to slipping out of my pocket. Occasionally, I’ll reach for my AirPods, only to realize they dropped into the couch cushions when I was watching TV. This bugs me, only because I’m afraid I might lose the pricy little suckers.
  • AirPods get filthy. The case’s interior collects earway and pocket lint, especially in the hinge. Regular cleanings are definitely mandatory (a quick swipe with an isopropyl-soaked Q-tip does the trick for me).
  • The convenience of wireless earbuds is somewhat tempered by the fact that I have to plug them in. Because the batteries last for days, I can sometimes forget to keep the AirPods topped off, and this creates some range anxiety, especially when traveling. And the charging experience itself isn’t great; jacking the AirPods case into Lightning feels a bit janky, and the AirPods don’t chime to tell you that you’ve correctly seated the jack into its port.[1]
  • I’ve experienced some skipping audio when pairing my AirPods to my PC. Now, Apple may not be to blame here; maybe there’s some incompatibility with the Bluetooth stack on Windows?
  • Finally, AirPods don’t fit well under noise protection earmuffs. Yeah, I know, this is totally an edge case. But I like to listen to podcasts while I mow the lawn.[2]

  1. I was excited to hear Apple announce “AirPower” last week—one mat that can wirelessly change the iPhone, the Watch, and the AirPods at the same time. This would help resolve the annoyances of charging AirPods; all I’d need to do to top the off is drop them onto my nightstand before bed.  ↩

  2. There is a hack here; slip the AirPods upside-down and place them into the opposite ear; the antenna stem is just short enough to fit inside the earcup.  ↩


Categories
Apple

Imagining a “bezel-less” Apple Watch

Yesterday, I imagined a thinner Apple Watch, engineering constraints be damned.

Today, another exercise in ignoring technical limitations! The market is trending towards “all-screen” smartphones; what would happen if Apple slimmed down the Watch’s bezels, too?

Some notes on the image above:

  • In shifting pixels closer to the Watch’s edge, the design above suffers for lack of white space (or, rather, “black space”). watchOS was engineered with wide black bezels in mind; because the UI’s default background is also black, the bezels read as “on-screen” margins and give the content some breathing room. Even if the hardware were bezel-less, the OS might still recreate these margins in software. But that wouldn’t have been a very rewarding Photoshop hack job.
  • In a few spots, I’ve taken advantage of the larger screen by adding content. For example, the modular face sports a few more complication slots, and the workout app adds an onscreen altitude metric. For the home screen, I’ve blown up the UI instead of adding more apps; I’ve always thought those icons could stand to be a bit bigger.
  • In order to maintain a rectangular screen shape, I’ve shrunk down the curve radius on each of the four corners. Admittedly, the end result feels a little too “blocky.” ■