Wearable Tech

Where the Apple Watch should go next

Apple's second-generation smartwatch is better, but there are obvious things it should still have...and a few that could help it be more of a must-have product.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm about to tell you something you probably already know: Smartwatches aren't a perfected thing yet.

I've been wearing the Apple Watch Series 2 for a couple of weeks, now. The new hardware combined with improved WatchOS 3 software are a winning combination. It's faster, now. It's a better fitness tracker. It's swimproof and has GPS. It's easier to use.

It's now a far more polished product, and something that, if you're an iPhone owner who's looking for something to put on their wrist, is definitely worth considering.

But there are a few key parts the Apple Watch still doesn't have yet that I'd like to see. Many of these could come in a software update. Some would require new hardware. But the Apple Watch has a few areas for improvement that would make it a lot more essential on my wrist.

What could be fixed via software (probably):

A watch face store: Amazingly, the Apple Watch still doesn't have a store for watch faces. There are now a good handful of highly customizable faces to play around with, but if you want something like a New York Jets watch face (hint hint) or a Nintendo one or a Pokemon Go face...you're out of luck. Other smartwatches have watch face stores: Pebble, Android Wear, Samsung Gear S2 (and upcoming S3). Choice is a good thing. What's funny is that special customized watch faces like the Nike+ one, or Hermes, only come with special-edition watches. You can't download them. A deeper selection of unique designer faces would be welcome. I'd buy a bunch.

A better music player. The Apple Watch is absolutely bizarre as a standalone music player. Most people don't even realize the Apple Watch can store music. If you can figure out where in the Watch app you need to go to sync music, you'll discover it can only sync one playlist at a time, up to 2GB of music. And, even then, that music needs to be downloaded to your phone first via Apple Music. No podcasts, and no easy add-to-watch function in the Apple Music app. If the Apple Watch is ever going to be a fitness iPod, syncing needs to be fixed. And ideally, there should be a faster-access way to get to and control music during workouts, too.

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Automatic workout tracking. The Apple Watch still doesn't do something that other trackers are increasingly doing. Run with a Fitbit, or engage in any workout, and the exercise session is recognized and recorded. It can be tagged later, in case you want to define it as weightlifting or an elliptical. Apple Watch workouts have to be started in the Workouts app. More automatic auto-tracking would be welcome.

An always-on watch face option. I'm OK with the Apple Watch just being a lift-to-look watch that has its watch face off by default most of the time, but I'd really prefer an always-on face. It's completely achievable with the sort of OLED display that the Watch already has: in fact, Samsung and Android Wear watches already feature this by default. Then I wouldn't be tapping and lifting my arm so much.

An easier way to find apps (still). I love the new dock in WatchOS 3, a one-button access to find and fast-access most-used apps. But the rest of the apps that end up filling up my Apple Watch get lost in a grid of colored circles...and I never see them again. It's impossible to guess what most of these apps are on-watch. Instead, why not have a list of apps, or even folders or categories? If I have five fitness apps I want to try, why can't I bundle them together? Same with messaging apps, or games?

I still feel like somewhere between Siri as an on-watch tool, the app-access dock, and the various app-shortcut "complications" on the Apple Watch watch faces that the Apple Watch can get confusing to operate. It's far more customizable now, and I find I can get myself to apps and functions a little faster than before. But I still feel like there are odd moments where I want the watch to do something and am hesitant about how to make that happen.

A more seamless way to interact with lots of things, and be a better standalone device. The Watch can function over recognized Wi-Fi to do a good handful of things when I'm at home or at the office, but even now it feels like it's only taking quick excursions away from the mothership that's the iPhone it's paired with. If the Apple Watch became even more aware of other Macs, iPads or iPhones nearby, and could help activate other devices (the Mac-unlocking trick Apple Watch can do via MacOS Sierra is a start), the watch could start feeling more like a magic key. As more little gadgets become connected devices in a homewide network of things, the Apple Watch could be the helpful glue.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

What new hardware could offer:

Better battery life, or power efficiency: The Apple Watch Series 2 already improved on the original Apple Watch battery life. It now lasts around a day and a half to two days on my wrist versus a day before, but it's still a battery-challenged device. Worse, if you're a runner who uses GPS, battery plummets fast. Battery life is tough to achieve on something that's small and powerful...but I'd still like to see it get towards 3 days or more. Maybe it could have a lower-power smartwatch mode. Charging every day, which is what I still basically need to do, isn't great.

Sleep tracking: iOS 10 now has a sleep-reminder function called Bedtime in its Clock app, but the Apple Watch still doesn't log sleep. Third-party apps can serve as workarounds, but integrating real sleep tracking (or sleep logging) into Apple's Activity and Health apps would fill one obvious missing gap in Apple's wellness picture. Most fitness bands include sleep tracking out of the box. Of course, sleep tracking would go hand-in-hand with better battery life: the Watch needs to get to a place where it's not assumed that you're charging it overnight. For this reason, sleep tracking feels like it needs new hardware.

An altimeter. The Apple Watch Series 2 doesn't measure elevation, and neither does Series 1. But other fitness trackers and watches feature barometric altimeters. They're useful for recording stair-climbing stats, among other things. Fitbit's flights-of-stairs-climbed metric is something I've found helpful as a take-the-stairs motivator. The iPhone measures altitude, but Apple Watch does not.

New sensors? Optical heart rate sensors just aren't all that wonderful. No wrist-worn tracker with optical heart rate that I've ever worn has not had some fluctuation, or measurement weirdness, at some point or another. Maybe a more accurate heart rate sensing technology could be an answer. More advanced health-sensing wearable sensors are in the works from Samsung and Alphabet, and perhaps Apple has something up its sleeve too.

LTE? Maybe. I don't need a watch that has its own cellular connection, like Samsung's S2 and S3 watches have, or the LG Watch Urbane LTE. At least, not the way it currently works. Cellular plans still aren't friendly to how wrist gadgets work with cellular -- not for me, at least -- and small watches don't do enough on the network to justify the effort. Watches either need to take a battery hit or get larger to accommodate the longer battery life. I haven't tested the Samsung Gear S3 with LTE, which may have solved the problem of a phone-connected watch...but I'd prefer a watch that finds ways to connect to other gadgets and places better, versus connect to LTE. Unless, of course, someone cracks a way to make LTE-connected service feel more functional or necessary, or affordable.

Maybe some features will come in software updates. Others, well, we may have to wait for Series 3.