What makes a smartwatch smart?
There’s all that tiny technology inside that lets you receive notifications on your new Apple Watch. You can even talk into your wrist like Dick Tracy. But it’s the software — the apps — that play a huge part in making these wearables intelligent.
Knowing this, Apple made its WatchKit software development kit available to other companies in November, so they could start designing apps in time for Apple Watch’s April 24th launch. On that day, we’ll see the first crop of apps, and though Apple wouldn’t give a specific figure, the company has said it will be in the thousands.
I’ve been testing about a dozen third-party apps on the Apple Watch over the past week — news apps, social media apps, games and more. They show both the potential and limitations of this new smartwatch. (For more on the Apple Watch’s native apps, like Messages, Maps and Photos, be sure to check out my colleague Lauren Goode’s review of the smartwatch.)
It’s important to note that these apps were in a pre-release stage. They’re still being tested and tweaked before the official launch. Hopefully some of the issues I experienced during my testing will be resolved by then.
Re/code will continue to monitor them after the release, but we wanted to provide a preview of what to expect from Apple Watch apps.
Finding and managing apps
So how and where do you get apps for Apple Watch?
Once you upgrade your newer iPhone to iOS 8.2, you’ll notice a new app called Apple Watch on your phone. Tap that app, and in the bottom toolbar you’ll see an App Store tab. That will take you to a storefront where you can purchase and download watch apps.
So far, I’ve seen prices range from free to $9.99. You may also find that some of the apps you already have on your iPhone are compatible with Apple Watch — for example, The New York Times or Flipboard.
From within this same central app, you can manage all of your software, including how the apps look on the smartwatch, what types of notifications you want, and whether you want to remove apps from the device.
Alternatively, you can re-organize and delete apps from the watch itself. To do so, press the digital crown — known as the winder on “dumb” watches — to get to your constellation of mini apps. Then press down firmly on the screen until the icons start jiggling. As on the iPhone, you can then move them around or tap the X to delete an app.
How the apps work
Like Apple Watch itself, the apps are largely dependent on the iPhone to work, acting as extensions of their iOS counterparts. For now, when you add an app, a version of the software runs locally on the watch, but it requires the phone for a lot of the processing power.
For example, if you’re using the Uber app to hail a car from your Apple Watch, it needs your iPhone’s GPS to get your location, since the watch itself doesn’t have GPS.
Having the iPhone do a lot of the heavy lifting helps conserve battery life on the watch, but it also has its downsides — without the phone, the Apple Watch has very limited capabilities.
Over the weekend, my iPhone 6 ran out of battery before the Apple Watch did, and it was a couple of hours before I could charge my phone again. During that down period, I could only use the Apple Watch to get the time and view existing messages and calendar appointments.
For this first wave of third-party smartwatch apps, Apple also has some strict guidelines in place on what developers can and cannot do, and which Apple Watch features they can access. For example, custom sounds and “taptic” feedback are not allowed, and access to the heart-rate sensor is prohibited. Part of the reason is to provide Apple Watch users with a simple user experience.
Some other things to keep in mind: If an app requires an account, you may need to log into the app on your iPhone first before opening it on the Apple Watch. Also, you won’t receive app notifications on the watch if you’re using your iPhone.
Using the apps
As I mentioned before, none of the apps I tested were final versions, so these descriptions may not reflect what they’ll actually be like on April 24. That said, here’s my experience with a few of the first apps for Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch version of Evernote’s popular note-taking app lets you view recent notes, create and search for notes by voice, and set reminders. The interface is clean and fairly intuitive, and I was able to tick things off my to-do list without issue.
But making new notes using my voice presented some problems. When I dictated, “Write Apple Watch story” (lest I forget!), the watch translated it as “Right Apple Watch story.” I tried it a couple of times with the same results. There isn’t a way to correct this from the watch.
Voice searches also didn’t work, and early on, my notes didn’t show up. The app also mysteriously disappeared from the watch after a couple of days; I was able to quickly add it back using the Apple Watch app.
Twitter’s Apple Watch app lets you view recent tweets and top trends from the social network. From the watch, you can retweet, favorite and reply via voice to individual tweets. But if there’s a link in a tweet, you won’t be able to click and view the related article (not that I would want to anyway on such a small screen).
The small watch face also means there is bit of scrolling and reloading involved if you want to view your entire timeline, so I often found that I pulled out my iPhone to use Twitter.
Citymapper was one of the most useful apps that I tried on the Apple Watch, though its value will depend on where you live. CityMapper provides the nearest public transportation options based on your current location, and gives real-time information about arrival times. You set your home and work addresses on the iPhone app; from the watch, tap a button to navigate to one of those places using public transit.
The app was convenient to use and worked well on Apple Watch. Citymapper is currently available in about 17 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, London and Paris.
This real estate app offers snapshots of homes for sale, including price, photos, square footage, and more, based on your location. It can also alert you to nearby open houses. You should also be able to record notes using the Apple Watch’s built-in microphone, but I wasn’t able to find a way to do this. Even if I did, I’m pretty sure all my notes would sound the same for San Francisco: “They want how much for this place?”
MLB At Bat
Baseball season has officially started, and the MLB At Bat app provides a quick way to keep tabs on your favorite team (Go Orioles!). From the watch, you can view the latest scores and game times, and tap headlines to get a one-sentence summary of the news.
Most times I just want to know the score, so rather than opening the app, I found it more convenient to add it to the Apple Watch’s Glance view. This means you can swipe up from the bottom of the main watch face to see glances of selected information from your apps. This way I can quickly take a look at a game’s outcome and move on.
A fun and challenging puzzle game, Rules is optimized for playing on the Apple Watch’s smaller screen, so I could make my selections with ease. But playing a game on a watch isn’t all that great. After a couple of minutes, I got tired of holding up my wrist up and straining my eyes, so I quit the game (it had nothing to do at all with the fact that I sucked at it).
More to come
In general, I found the local discovery apps like Citymapper and Redfin to be the most useful on the Apple Watch. They provided me with short blips of relevant information — all without having to pull out my phone. To-do list and task management apps like Wunderlist were also handy while grocery shopping and running between meetings.
Later this year, developers will be allowed to create native apps for the Apple Watch. This means the software can exist and run entirely on the watch, and it will open up all kinds of new possibilities.
Just as the app ecosystem has become so vital to the success of iPhone, Apple is hoping that the Watch becomes another portal for this.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.