Wearable Woes: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
For the past year, we’ve been using various activity-tracking apps for iPhone to see how they interact with HealthKit, and to assess how well they actually work. Lots of fitness-oriented 3rd-party apps are out there, with great features: Argus runs in the background and turns my iPhone 5 into a pedometer, making it easy to obsess over getting 10,000 steps a day.
MapMyWalk includes “yard work” as an activity option, giving me a much better estimate of how many calzones I can eat after a grueling day in the dirt.
And Strava lets me compete with other cyclists for the best time on my favorite bike routes. Best of all, these 3rd-party apps can all automatically write data to Apple’s HealthKit ecosystem, giving me a big picture view of all my activity.
Naturally, I was excited to see how all of this would play out on the Apple Watch – instead of making sure I’m wearing something with pockets, or otherwise affixing my phone to my body, could I instead leave the phone in a patch of shade, and let the Apple Watch track my activity? Could I look at my watch and see how many steps I’ve taken using the Argus app? I assumed that would be the case.
Alas! We’re sorely disappointed. Here, in no particular order, are our gripes with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
Differing accounts of activity
One issue we noticed almost immediately with the Apple Watch is that it doesn’t seem to get an accurate read on activity. I went for a quick spin around the neighborhood on my mountain bike with Strava running on my phone, while also logging an outdoor bike ride on the Watch’s native “Workout” app. For the sake of comparison, I also brought along my Garmin bike computer, which uses a combination of GPS, a wheel sensor, and a barometric altimeter. Trust but verify, right?
Garmin and Strava were in almost perfect agreement, clocking me at a little over 12 mph on average. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, recorded my average speed as 6.2 mph (barely fast enough to stay upright.) This may be due, in part, to the full two minutes I spent trying to end the workout on the Apple Watch. Did I mention the touchscreen is not very responsive? Or what a pain it is (not to mention dangerous) to try to jab at the watchface, while riding a bicycle?
The problem with 3rd-party apps on Apple Watch
Currently, 3rd-party apps like Argus and Strava can’t see the Apple Watch’s accelerometer, heart rate sensors, or other hardware features, like the “digital crown” (that’s the little knob that looks like it should wind the watch, but instead is used for navigation).
So for now at least, 3rd-party apps have to rely on the phone for their data, and the Watch is just a mirroring device.
Here’s what that looks like in practice: If I put down my phone and walk around, Argus can’t count my steps – only the Watch’s native Activity app does. But in Apple’s ecosystem, the number of steps isn’t visible on the watch itself — only in the Health app on the connected iPhone, and even then they’re not updated in real-time as they are with Argus.
The 3rd-party apps would be a lot more useful if their developers had full access to Apple’s Watch API (Application Programming Interface) before the watch started shipping.
However, developers are evidently getting access. On June 8th, Apple previewed the second edition of WatchOS , finally granting developers access to the various sensors embedded in the watch. The new OS will roll out sometime this fall, so don’t count on seeing better functionality in time for Century Season and summer hiking trips.
But we can hold out hope that someday the Apple Watch might play nicer with 3rd-party apps.
Apple’s apps take priority
For me, the most frustrating thing is that Apple Watch’s native apps automatically overwrite the data from other apps in HealthKit – so when I logged 200 calories burned during a 45-minute bike ride on Strava using my phone, and the Apple Watch calculated the ride as 0 minutes of activity and 53 calories, guess which version got recorded in the Health app? Same goes for that ride where the Watch cut my average speed in half, plus that full day of yard work that resulted in 0 active minutes.
This is not likely to go over well with anyone who cares enough to track their activity — let alone competitive athletes, for whom activity tracking can become a compulsion. (Just ask us.)
On the bright side, because the Apple Watch calculates motion while strapped to your wrist, it’s fairly easy to make up the difference while eating, drinking, or even sleeping (I wore the watch to bed one night and it didn’t track my sleep, but it did log 54 steps.)
In a nutshell
As a fitness device, the Apple Watch isn’t good for much more than reminding you to stand up and move around every once in a while. (Even when you’re driving, and using the watch for navigation!)
We sincerely hope that the Apple Watch will get better as 3rd-party developers finally get their hands on the tools they need to develop compelling apps for it.
As it stands currently, the Apple Watch still feels like a beta test and pales in comparison to other, less expensive activity trackers – and what’s worse, it completely throws a wrench into the HealthKit ecosystem by automatically overwriting the data from other apps.
Every time I attempt to track a workout on the Apple Watch, I can’t help but feel like Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave. But at least he’s getting activity points for it!
For part one of our Apple Watch series, click here.
Apple Watch First Impressions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
We jumped on the bandwagon recently and ordered an Apple Watch for the lab. Here are our first impressions after a couple weeks with the device – check back for an in-depth review of the Watch’s potential as a fitness tracker, and also a medical device.
Useful in certain (indoor) settings
The Apple Watch uses Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with the iPhone, which means you can only get about 30 feet away from your phone before losing the connection. This also means that using the Apple Watch will drain your phone battery before lunch. Taking the Apple Watch out for a day of hiking? Don’t forget your phone, and a portable charger (or two).
Things are a bit better at home, when the Apple Watch can use a known WiFi network to improve its range slightly. This means that when your phone connects automatically to your home WiFi network, it can send signals to the Apple Watch over that network instead of Bluetooth. For practical purposes, this means I can leave my phone charging in the house while I’m out tending the garden; as long as I stay within WiFi range I can take calls from my watch.
Perhaps the most useful thing about the Apple Watch is that it can page your missing phone (as long as it’s within Bluetooth range). Of course, it’s just as easy to do this from any Apple device using “Find my iPhone,” so it probably doesn’t justify dropping $500 on a watch for that feature alone.
Too tethered to the iPhone; not really useful as a timepiece
The Watch has little functionality when the phone is out of range, or locked. All too often I look at my wrist to see this:
As a timepiece, the Apple Watch is hardly useful, because the screen goes black after a few seconds. There’s no discreetly checking the time during that meeting that you didn’t think was going to go so long on an Apple Watch – it requires an almost dramatic twist of the wrist (and sometimes a poke with the other hand) to wake up the screen.
Twice the alerts
While it’s handy to be able to answer calls on the watch when your phone is out of reach, I found it incredibly stressful to have two devices ringing whenever a call came in. And I started wondering: Are we really without our phones often enough to justify such a cacophony of alerts every time? I can only imagine how this will play out in office buildings and movie theaters.
Too many noises; not enough context
For me, the defining moment with the Apple Watch came shortly after I strapped it on my wrist and headed down the interstate. I started navigation from my phone, and the Watch picked it up and started making turn signal noises every time I approached a turn. The layering of sound effects over my own turn signal, coupled with the verbal directions on my phone, was irritating to say the least — and even though the Watch displayed the next turn on its screen, the small size made it difficult to see while driving.
And then, it got worse. While hurtling down I-25 at 75 mph, I felt a buzz on my wrist and glanced at the watch:
Maybe I expected too much from the Apple Watch, but I think a device that a) is giving me directions down the freeway and b) contains an accelerometer, ought to know better than to cheerfully remind me to stand up at that particular moment.
Next time: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
We’ll need to devote a whole other post to this topic, because let’s face it – there are a lot of problems here, and snark can be fun. With all the excitement about HealthKit and the Apple Watch, we hoped for a device that would seamlessly measure and record data from all our activities.
This isn’t that device. Instead, the Watch is basically a glorified pedometer that won’t register a 10 mile bike ride as exercise, but will award me fitness points for an hour of drinking wine. Stay tuned!