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The new Apple Watch features: From audiobooks to period tracking

NOTED logo NOTED 9/06/2019 Peter Griffin
a close up of a watch: There are new watch faces and straps for the Apple Watch, as well as a new operating system. © Bauer Media There are new watch faces and straps for the Apple Watch, as well as a new operating system.

The Apple Watch will get its own dedicated app store and a slew of new health tracking features as it seeks to gain an edge against rivals such as Fitbit and make its watch more of a stand-alone device.

At its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, Apple unveiled watchOS 6, the new operating system for the Apple Watch, which priced at $699 for the latest and greatest Series 4 version, sits at the top end of the smartwatch market.

The Apple Watch didn’t start with a health tracking focus, but has added extensive features in recent years. Its health tracking feature is visualised by the three coloured rings on the Apple Watch’s face that indicate a user’s activity status. But it has often lagged behind other watchmakers, including Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung in its overall range of tracking features and the insights it draws from all of that monitoring of vital signs and fitness activity.

Healthier options

The free upgrade to watchOS 6 will be available in September for apple Watches Series 1 or later, paired with iPhone 6s or later running iOS 13 or later. It attempts to plug gaps in health monitoring, adding menstrual cycle tracking, an app to let you know when background noise may be harmful to your ears, and VO2 max monitoring.

The latter feature calculates the maximum rate at which your body can deliver oxygen to your muscles during exercise and is considered a good measure of overall fitness. It is already available on several rival fitness trackers.

The menstrual cycle tracking app will require women to manually enter details via the watch or associated iPhone Health app to allow an algorithm to predict timing for upcoming period and fertile windows. That ability also came to the Fitbit Versa last year. The Apple Watch app was developed in conjunction with Apple’s in-house physicians.

Data entered into the app would stay encrypted on the iPhone. The Noise app was aimed at prompting Watch wearers to prevent damage to their hearing. It uses the Apple Watch microphone to measure background sound levels, such as at concerts or in noisy work environments. The app would glow green when the background noise was safe for hearing, but would spike red and alert the user when the sound level reached a potentially dangerous level.

Apple followed the World Health Organization’s guidance on exactly what that level was – 90 decibels, about as loud as a lawn mower, for three minutes or longer. Exposure to sound at that level can start to damage hearing over time.

But the noise app won’t address an arguably bigger issue – the damage being done to the hearing of young music listeners wearing headphones for extended periods. Scientists have expressed alarm at the hearing loss New Zealand children are experiencing due to prolonged headphone use. While most smartphones will issue a prompt asking users to confirm increasing headphone volume significantly, most users swipe past that warning.

The iPhone will tell you the decibel level of sound emitted through its headphones, and a range of compatible third-party headphones, but won’t issue warnings when the music gets dangerously loud. The WHO’s guidelines applied equally for headphone listening.

a black watch on a cellphone: A new feature of the Apple Watch is the menstrual cycle tracking app. © Bauer Media A new feature of the Apple Watch is the menstrual cycle tracking app.

No rhythm...yet

There was no update however, on the local availability of an Apple Watch health feature that debuted with the Apple Watch Series 4 – the electrocardiogram (ECG).

By touching the digital crown of the Apple Watch, a user can monitor  the electric signals that make up their heart beat. Doctors can use this to identify heart irregularities. The feature is available in the US, but hasn’t been released in New Zealand and Australia where it is still awaiting medical regulatory approval.

A new Trends section of the Activity app on the iPhone brings together key fitness measures in one place for the first time. You can compare metrics such as walking and running pace, or your cardio fitness level, comparing the last 90 day period to the previous year. If you are trending down, Apple will send you some tips for how get back on track.

The last remaining omission from the Apple Watch is sleep tracking. While it is available via third party apps on the iPhone, Apple has yet to release a native app for it. That’s because the Apple Watch is designed to sit on its cradle charging overnight. You can’t wear it to bed as well, though an hour-long charge before bedtime will get you through the next day.

There’s no movement on sleep tracking with watchOS 6, though with the necessary hardware to monitor sleep in the Apple Watch, it may appear in future.

An app store for the watch

But Apple is certainly keen for people to get more out of their watch when they are away from their iPhone. Watch and phone were designed to be paired together, with the phone providing network connectivity to the watch.

But the debut this week of a dedicated app store for the Apple Watch changes that, with a range of apps being featured that will work independently of the iPhone. They include an Audiobooks app, which will allow audiobooks purchased through Apple Books to be played directly from the watch. 

Streaming radio, music and podcast applications are also being supported on the Apple Watch, though they will require a model that has a mobile phone connection, for real-time network access.

But the app that got the biggest cheer when it was revealed at WWDC, was relatively lo-fi in comparison – the new Calculator app to help with tip calculations and splitting the bill at a restaurant.

The dedicated space for third party apps should encourage Apple’s developer community to dream up new uses for the Apple Watch. This is where Apple has the advantage – no other smartwatch maker has as extensive a developer community behind it.

Peter Griffin attended the Worldwide Developers Conference as a guest of Apple.

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