Apple Watch apps: The need for speed

I'd like to stare at my watch less, not more. What the Apple Watch needs next is a second wave of even more efficient apps.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's extremely early days for the Apple Watch, and there are already 3,000 plus apps on the App Store. These apps span nearly every territory and category, and many big-name brands. It's an amazing launch effort for a new smartwatch. And yet, many of these apps that I've tried (60 or so, admittedly, not 3,000) have a common problem: they're not fast enough.

Why? It could be a number of issues. Third-party Apple Watch apps -- all but the 17 or so that Apple has authored -- load as extensions to their iPhone counterparts. They're limited, too: they can't work without your iPhone being on and connected, they can't use onboard sensors like the microphone (unless it's for dictation using Apple's own voice services) or the accelerometer, or the heart-rate monitor. They're mainly simple dashboards or interfaces that are meant to be there until you get back to your iPhone.

14 third-party Apple Watch apps we like (pictures)

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I want to keep my phone in my pocket

These apps all take more time to load, on average, than I expected: 5 seconds, or 10, or more. A little spinning-wheel type icon made of white circles has been a familiar sight. Maybe my phone's data, or the apps on my iPhone, created bottlenecks. I can't tell. But the Apple Watch was designed for quick-glance ease of use: 5 seconds, 10 seconds at most.

These apps aren't quick enough for me. Anything over 15 seconds, and I'm reaching for my iPhone. And after a few weeks using the Apple Watch, I do want to browse the watch from time to time...but mostly, I want quick, simple access.

By contrast, Apple's own apps work quickly. They do things very well. They're mostly easy to understand. They load fast. They don't try to give you too much at once.

Some of the third-party apps I've seen are brilliantly simple: Evernote just shows recent notes and invites you to dictate new ones. TV Guide (which is developed by CNET's fellow CBS-owned subsidiary, tvguide.com) shows trending shows on that day. Baseball app MLB shows the score, who's on base, and even where pitches have come over the plate. Overcast is an excellent launchpad and remote for podcasts, with full controls.

Other third-party apps are a lot less fun. They're not intuitive. They have too many buttons and sub-menus. I'm scrolling and tapping. I can't get to what I need right away.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The App Grid: Beautiful but way too small

Another problem I have: getting to apps in the first place. Apple's iconic grid of circular apps, the ones that bubble up and fill the screen like little jewels, makes for an attractive and already iconic sight. But it's not easy to navigate. First you need to press in on the digital crown on the side to get there, and then you have to swipe around and find an app. None of the apps are labeled, and they're tiny. After installing 60 or so apps, the process becomes trial and error.

There's another far better way to get to apps: Glances, those quick-access cards that appear when you swipe up on the watch face. It's a great little dock for your favorite apps. Swipe up and they're there to help. Tap a card and you launch the app. That makes sense.

But not all apps have Glances. And your Glance limit on the Apple Watch is capped at 20. You probably won't hit that limit, or if you do that swappable list of Glances will seem a lot less convenient. It's a better tool when you have just five or six options to pick from.

Sooner or later, you have to go to the App Grid.

I'd like a short list of favorite apps, or a way to access most-used apps. Or folders. Or a way to bring up a dock full of app-launch shortcuts. Something I can customize. Somewhere between the quick-swipe ease of Glances and the rest of the apps on Apple Watch, everything suddenly slows down and takes too much time.

'Native' apps: Future potential for real killer apps

Apple's planning to allow fuller-fledged apps onto the Apple Watch later this year, ones that really live on the watch full time and could even work without the iPhone. Calculators, or other fitness trackers, or specialized clocks, or voice memo recorders. Maybe these apps could offer stand-alone functions that make the Apple Watch a more interesting gadget. Maybe they'll help apps run faster and do more.

I don't mind launching an app on a watch if it does something that feels worth waiting for. For quicker-access functions, I'd prefer to glance or see a bit of data instead.

I agree with Apple: I'd like to spend 5 to 10 seconds at a time looking at the Apple Watch, having it help me instantly and easily. With a few more strides in the Watch's app ecosystem, hopefully, it can get there.

(Watch faces, too)

I'll throw in one more thought here: watch faces. Apple's set of 10 look great and can incorporate some at-a-glance data (calendar appointments, fitness, battery life), but third-party watch faces or ones that knit in extra data like sports scores or tweets, or anything else, could help the watch feel more efficient, too. Apple hasn't announced any plans for a watch face store or extra watch face features yet, but down the road watch faces could end up being an even bigger game-changer than the apps.