Hands On with watchOS 2: What's Different

Apple finally released watchOS 2, after a slight delay to fix some last minute bugs, and now everyone can download the update. The companion Watch app that runs on the iPhone takes care of the downloading and installation, but once that is out of the way, the Apple Watch can finally operate independently and run native apps. Existing apps that work as extensions will continue to work that way, but over time look for app developers to release standalone Apple Watch apps that don't require an iPhone. I've been using beta versions of watchOS 2 for several weeks now, as a developer, but now I can finally write about it!

watchOS 2

Some websites are already compiling "Best Apple Watch Apps" lists but it's way too early for that. Those lists pretty much amount to republishing the 25 or so Apple Watch apps for watchOS 2 that Apple has featured in the App Store. It won't be fair to judge the "best" ones until there is more competition. Still, some of the notable ones include Citymapper, StarWalk, and iTranslate. These apps do a good job of demonstrating what can be done locally on the Apple Watch with watchOS 2.


One of the new features that Apple Watch owners will want to leverage is Nightstand Mode which can be turned on in Settings > General > Nightstand Mode on the Apple Watch. Nightstand Mode recognizes when the Apple Watch is set down to charge in landscape (wide) mode. It displays a friendly digital clock and the sleep button can act as a wake/snooze bar. It's cute, and convenient. However, the display only stays on for a few seconds. Since the watch is charging, I would like the option to keep the display on, as a night-light. Also, it only works at a few proper angles, otherwise it thinks the watch is in portrait mode. This means it won't activate with some of the docking stations that were developed before the announcement of Nightstand Mode. The weight of your watch band can have an impact on Nightstand Mode, too. I've had good luck with the Griffin Watch Stand and the Watch Bobine from FuseChicken, even with the Milanese Loop, but some heavier metal bands may cause trouble.

general Nightstand Setting wake

As far as battery life, I have been pleased with the beta versions and never ran out of battery life at the end of the day. In fact, my watch battery has often been half full after a full day. It's a bit early to form any quantitative analysis of the official version of watchOS 2, but social media is not abuzz with any battery life complaints, so that's good. With watchOS 2, the Apple Watch can try to connect to open Wi-Fi networks when the iPhone is not available, so that could put a bigger drain on battery life. As more Apple Watch owners use native apps and do so without their iPhone, this is something to pay attention to in the future.

Since I've never had a problem with battery life, I went ahead and set my Apple Watch to keep the screen on longer when activated. The default is 15 seconds but I changed that to 70 seconds. It seems like there ought to be an option in the middle, but so be it. To access these settings, on the Apple Watch, open the Settings app, then select General, then Wake Screen and scroll all the way to the bottom.

Complications get more... complicated for lack of a better word. Complications is the official watchmaker term for the day of the week, date, phase of the moon, and other such add-ons to a watch face. Developers can now add their own complications with watchOS 2. I'm glad I sprung for the larger 42 mm model as the Apple Watch face is starting to get crowded. In the past, I've suggested that Apple have a "Movie Mode" to disable the stand up reminders. Fortunately, Apple has enabled a 'Mute for Today' option that turns that off. Other apps that notify you often, like Periscope, can be muted for three hours for example. If you want to know what your future self will be doing, the Apple Watch now offers "Time Travel" whereby you can rotate the Digital Crown to skip ahead (or back) in your schedule. This is a nice touch and demonstrates the value of this new interface.

Many of the end user benefits of watchOS 2 won't be realized until more apps take advantage of the new features. Native apps, access to the microphone, Digital Crown and other sensors will all result in more sophisticated apps. The best part is that these enhancements will be available to early adopters, making last year's purchase even more justifiable in years to come.

Top image credit: Giuseppe Costantino / Shutterstock.com

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Author Details

Todd Bernhard's picture

Author Details

Todd Bernhard

Todd Bernhard is a bestselling (6+ million downloads) award-winning (AARP, About.com, BestAppEver.com, Digital Hollywood, and Verizon) developer and founder of NoTie.NET, an app developer specializing in Talking Ringtone apps including AutoRingtone. And his profile photo is of the last known sighting of Mr. Bernhard wearing a tie, circa 2007!

An iPhone is almost always attached to his hip or in his pocket, but over the years, Mr. Bernhard has owned an Apple Newton, a Motorola Marco, an HP 95LX, a Compaq iPaq, a Palm Treo, and a Nokia e62. In addition to writing for iPhone Life, Mr. Bernhard has written for its sister publications, PocketPC Magazine and The HP Palmtop Paper.