WatchOS 2 review: New Apple update makes an outstanding smart watch even more useful

New faces, complications and apps that run on the Watch make an already hugely varied product yet more diverse

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The Independent Tech

So, what is the Apple Watch for? Six months on since the Watch first appeared, the answers you’ll hear to this question are as varied as ever.

And it is all about to change further as the latest software for the Watch, cunningly called watchOS, has just gone live. I’ve been using it for almost a week and these are the improvements I’ve liked best.

Currently, Notifications, Maps, and fitness monitoring are among the most popular uses of the Apple Watch. But another key feature, this won’t surprise you, is telling the time. The Watch’s accuracy to 50 milliseconds is useful, reassuring even. I’d like to think I’ve been late less often than before, but I may be fooling myself. Still, at least I’ve always known precisely how late I’ve been.

The new software comes with new watch faces, including the chance to put your favourite personal photos on the little Retina display. There are also time-lapse videos from six cities including London and Shanghai. These videos match the time of day as well, so you’ll only see the city-at-night images when darkness falls. These kind of localised city images are nothing new – Samsung used to have elegant animations of London and New York which would automatically switch as you moved from one country to another. But these are higher-quality and more dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Watch face complications – the smaller visual elements that show the date, weather, moon phases and other information – have been enhanced. Many of them now appear in colour on certain faces, so the coloured rings of the Activity app shine out more clearly than ever. And third parties can make their own complications available, such as headlines or sports scores, say.

There are other time-related additions. Connect the wireless charging puck to the back of the Watch then lay it on its side and the screen shows a correctly oriented green digital clock. Touch the Watch during the night and it’ll turn it on again – this feature is called Nightstand.

If you’ve set an alarm, touching the digital crown – the bit that looks like a winder on a regular watch – snoozes the alarm while touching the side button quells it.

And then there’s Time Travel. Okay, that’s the Apple name for it and it doesn’t really turn you into a native of Gallifrey, but it’s pretty cool. Wind the digital crown forward and the displayed time moves forward too, just as if you were adjusting the time on a regular watch.

But as you do, other aspects of the display change, showing upcoming calendar appointments for instance. Wind backwards and you can see the headlines CNN was displaying two hours ago, or see the price of your favourite share yesterday. Sadly, you can’t wind forward to tomorrow’s stock prices. Maybe that’ll be in the next update, Apple?

The new watchOS 2 brings another welcome development: native apps. A frustration in the early days of Apple Watch was that sometimes apps took ages to load. This was because the Watch had to send and receive data to and from the companion iPhone, which slowed things down. Native apps sit more completely on the Watch, so they are more responsive and work even if the companion iPhone isn’t present, just like the time, Activity and Workout apps and heart rate monitor do now.

And since Apple has allowed app developers access to hardware like the heart rate counter, this will lead to apps that are richer as well as nimbler. From today apps like Strava and Runtastic will be working to put the workouts you do in those apps into the Activity rings. No point in not getting credit for all that effort, now is there?

Other features include transit directions in Maps for some cities, including London. I use walking directions a lot, so public transport is a real bonus. The app gives walking directions to the nearest Tube, say, then the train line and destination. It’s still not a match for the mighty Citymapper – which even tells you which carriage of the train to board for a speedy exit at the other end – but surely that will come.

 

Siri can now launch FaceTime Audio calls, as well as regular phone calls. And just as you can reply to texts on the Watch, now you can dictate or send short message replies to emails, too.

There are also, by the way, new straps and two new finishes for the Apple Watch Sport. The gold and rose gold-coloured aluminium used for the case looks tremendous and has specially coloured straps to match.

And there’s a new Watch that’s a real bargain: the Space Black stainless steel, the unsung beauty of the Watch range is the most expensive of the regular Watch collection, £899 or £949 depending on size. That’s partly because of its elegant Space Black link bracelet.

Now, however, it’s also available with the matte black Sport Band for £479/£519. Apple Sport Bands are made of a rich, soft plastic material called fluoroelastomer which is superbly comfortable and luxurious-feeling. The Space Black stainless steel and the matte black strap make this combo the stealthy ninja of Apple Watches.

Updating your Watch software is easy and absolutely should be done. I didn't find it reduced the battery life of the Watch, though as that’s a good day and a bit, this has never been a problem anyway. The new OS adds real extra value to an already outstanding smart watch.

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