After seven years, the Apple Watch experience still is a mess

Seven years ago, in 2015, the Apple Watch was released and quickly switched focus from a personal communication device with some fitness support to a personal fitness device with anciliary functionality.

Every year since then, Apple released a new version of its watchOS operating system, adding some new features, but most of the time, what was added felt like how Software and Hardware development was done up until the early 2000s where features were made to fill bullets lists, not to actually be used.

To this day, the Apple Watch is a device that nearly gets there but even the basic functionality is hampered by bugs, inconsistencies and features which exist on paper but just plain don’t work in reality.

I am a heavy user of the Apple Watch, and daily I stumble over some 100% reproducible issue that I don’t expect to stumble over in an Apple product, much less one with such a pinpoint focus on a specific use case.

My “user story” matches exactly what the Watch was designed for: I’m wearing the watch all-day to know the time, to get silent notifications and the silent alarm clock. And once a day, I’m going on a running workout while listening to podcasts without taking my phone with me.

I’m a nerd, so I tend to be hung up in a case of XKCD 1172, but none of this user-story feels off what the watch was designed for.

But now, let me guide you through my day of 100% reproducible annoyances which have been present since the respective feature was added to the Watch (multiple years ago) and which to this day have not been addressed and which start to drive me up the wall to the point that I’m now sitting down and writing a long-form article.

First, let me give you context about the Apps and Hardware involved in my setup:

  • I’m using Overcast as my Podcast app. It has a hard-time syncing podcasts due to 3rd party API restrictions, but it’s still better than the built-in Podcasts app because that one cannot even sync the playback order of playlists (native podcasts was a feature added to the watch in 2018) and most of the time, syncing episodes did not work, worked only partially (some episodes downloaded, some not), or appeared to work (progress bar shown in the watch app on the phone but not moving). Streaming over LTE works (at the understandable huge cost of battery life), but even then, I have to manually select the next episode to play because it does not sync playback order of playlists (called “Station” in Apple Podcasts terms)
  • I’m using AirPods Pro as my headphones.
  • I’m tracking my runs using the built-in Workouts app (because that one is more equal than others with regards to what features it can have compared to third-parties) not because it’s better in general.

That’s all.

The trouble starts before I start my workout: Sometimes I want to add a specific podcast to the playlist I’m listening to. Because Overcast (see above for the reasoning why Overcast) only allows to sync one playlist, this means it will have to download that episode.

So I open Overcast and watch it start downloading.

Which is very slow because watchOS decides to use my phone as a proxy over a Bluetooth connection (this was the case since 2015).

I have WiFi enabled, but the Watch doesn’t auto-join my UniFi based Wifi (it works at home, but not at the COVID-related “home-office” location). All other Apple devices join fine. Wifi is a Watch feature since 2015.

But even if I manually join the WiFi (which works fine), watchOS will not stop using Bluetooth, so that won’t improve download speeds (this too was the case since 2015).

Also, because I switched to the settings app, Overcast was force-quit by the OS due to resource constraints, so when I go back to it, the download will be marked as “Failed” and I have to start it again.

So my daily routine before a run when I want to listen to a specific episode of a podcast that has not yet been downloaded for whatever reason, is as follows:

  • go into settings
  • disable bluetooth
  • manually join wifi
  • open Overcast and start the download.
  • Continously tap the screen in order to make sure the app is not terminated while the download is ongoing

You could list this as Overcast’s fault, but other Podcast players on the platform, most notable Apple’s native one also have similar to identical problems (with Apple’s offering being spectacularly bad in that it doesn’t work right even aside of the connectivity problems).

OK. Now I’m ready to run. So I select my episode on Overcast and hit play. But all I get is a prompt to chose an output device. Of course I forgot to re-enable Bluetooth which I fix and after a very long wait time, finally, one the AirPod in my right ear connects to the watch and starts playing the podcast. The left one remains silent until I take it out of my ear and put it back in (this doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen regularly enough for me to write it down here).

As I sit down again at my office chair to put on my running shoes, I accidentally bump the table which causes the mouse to move and the computer to wake up again. Thanks to automatic device switching (a feature added in 2020), the mac immediately grabs the AirPods back from my Watch to play the silence it’s currently playing (this one happens every. single. time).

So I go back to the watch and press play. Another 20s of waiting while the Watch negotiates the handover with my mac and I’m back to my podcast.

Finally it’s time to leave.

I’m in the very privileged position to work right next to where I’m running, so as I start to run, I’m initially going in and out of WiFi range. Every time the watch connects and disconnects of the WiFi, the audio stutters and sometimes breaks off completely (bug present since 2015).

So I stop and disable WiFi.

But now I’m running. Finally.

The workout itself is fine (with the exception of the display issue that if the workout is auto-paused due to me stopping to tie my shoelaces and then resumed, the screen will say “paused” in the top left, but the running animation and timer will still be running – this is a regression in watchOS 8, released in 2021) until the point that I’m getting a notification from a message I want to reply to.

I bought a Series 7 Watch based on their presentation of the new QWERTY keyboard feature for right this purpose.

Unfortunately, the message I got is in German (I live in the german speaking parts of Switzerland after all) and I want to reply in German. The new signature feature of the Series 7 Watch is not available in any language but English though which nobody told me beforehand, so it’s back to either scribble and only being sporadically able to type umlauts or dictation where I can watch the device in real-time bungling my speech into a ridiculous word salad it wants me to send off. The watch is much worse at dictation than the phone.

There’s no reason for the QWERTY keyboard to be Series 7 exclusive but to make more money for Apple which is also why they touted it as a signature feature of this new hardware generation.

They could at least have bothered to make it useable for the majority of the people on this planet (which speak a language other than English).

Anyways – back to the run. It starts to rain and after having had a half-marathon cancelled unbeknownst to me by a wet shirt hitting the touch screen in the past (why not warn me over my headphones if you detect I’m still moving? Ah right. There’s no weather in California, so this problem doesn’t happen), I enable the key lock feature.

After I reach the destination of my run, I want to stop the workout, so I turn to crown to disable the key lock. As that feature was invented for swimming, the loudspeaker of the watch starts playing a sound to eject water that entered the speaker.

All well and good, but also, while playing that sound over the built-in speaker, Bluetooth audio stops. Why? I don’t know, but this misfeature has been present since key lock was introduced in 2016. Sometimes, the audio starts again, sometimes it doesn’t.

But that doesn’t matter anyways, because the moment I’m back in WiFi or Blueooth range with my phone, clearly what needs to happen is that audio needs to stop and Bluetooh needs to be transferred back to my phone which is currently playing… nothing. Also, while transferring audio from phone to the watch takes multiple tens of seconds, the way back is instant.

This always happended here and then before the automatic switching was added in 2020, but since then, it happens every time.

So here you have it. Bug after bug after annoyance every single day. Many of the features I was talking about were added after the initial release of the Watch and were used to coax me into spending money to upgrade to new hardware.

But none of these features work correctly. Some of them just don’t work at all, some of them only work sometimes.

Over the last seven years, the underlying hardware has gotten better and better. The CPU is multiple times faster than it was in 2015. There’s mutliple times more memory available. The battery is larger, there’s more storage available. Marketing has graduated the watch from being a companion of the phone to being a mostly self-sufficient internet-connected device.

Why are apps still being killed after mere milliseconds in the background? Why are apps only awoken rarely to do actions in the background? Apps I have installed manually and I’m using all the time. Why are data transfers from the watch to the phone still basically a crapshoot and if they do work, slow as molasses? Why is Bluetooth audio still hit and miss 6 years after the last iPhone with an audio jack has been released? Why did Series 7 launch with a signature feature only available for a small portion of the planet when there’s no regulatory needs to do so?

The product is supposed to delight and all it does is frustrate me with reproducible and 100% avoidable issues every single day.

This isn’t about wishing for 3rd party apps to have more capabilities. This isn’t about wishing the hardware to do things it’s not advertised to be doing. This isn’t about the frustrating development experience for 3rd parties. This isn’t about sometimes having to reset the watch completely because a feature stopped working suddenly – that happens too, but rarely enough for me to not mind.

This is about first-party features advertized for nearly a decade working only partially or not working at all when all I’m doing is using the product exactly as the marketing copy is telling me I should be using it.

Apple, please allocate the resources the watchOS platform so desperately needs and finally make it so your excellent hardware product can live up to its promise.