During the course of my testing expedition of the Apple Watch Ultra, I ran into two issues that I would really like to see improved upon in a future software update.
Overall, watchOS 9 is very solid and holds up well against use in the field, but as the Ultra pushes out the viable use cases of this device I hit a couple situations where there is some room for improvement.
The Action button should always perform the secondary action when pressed during an active workout, and never end an active workout.
On the third day of the testing trip I set out to push myself and the Ultra from an endurance perspective. I hiked 26.2 miles along the West Highland Way.1 For this test I was recording my route using the built-in Apple Workouts app. Around 17 or so miles into my hike I looked down and saw a surprising sight on my wrist, my walk was no longer being tracked by the Workouts app. Instead it was being tracked by the hiking app I’ve been working on, and stated I’d been walking for less than a mile. It took me a minute to discover what had happened but once I did, I was very frustrated and if I’m being honest a kinda mad.
The Action button of the Ultra can be configured in Settings to a variety of options, including starting a workout in an app of your choice. There is then a secondary action which can be triggered within an app once the first has been performed (in the Workouts app it typically marks a segment/split). For my previous day’s test I had configured my watch to start a workout within my hiking app so that I could test this integration and using the secondary action within the app. What I was surprised to discover, however, was that this meant that pushing the Action button would now instantly end whatever workout I was already doing and immediately start a workout within my app. This swap over occurs without any user confirmation. I believe the hem of my glove pushed into the action button while I was hiking and that triggered the early end of my workout and the start of the workout in the other app.
For me this meant that rather than having the super fun, and personally meaningful 26.2 mile workout in my history…I instead have a split workout, broken into a number of shorter segments.
Personally, I think that the Action button should always perform its secondary action while the user has a workout active, regardless of how you have it configured. This would avoid my situation and also make the user experience much more consistent. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for the user to know what is going to happen. Or at the very least while you have a workout active, pressing it shouldn’t end that workout and start another without some form of confirmation.
In my case the consequence is relatively minor, I’m annoyed I don’t have a cool workout entry in my Health database, but I could imagine scenarios where they result would be much more high consequence. For example, if you were using the Ultra as a scuba diving aid, prematurely ending your workout with a single button press could be potentially quite alarming.
Backtrack should be integrated in the Workouts app and activated for every outdoor workout session.
One of the features added to watchOS 9 is the new Backtrack feature in the Compass app. This lets you lay down a series of virtual breadcrumbs as you move around, which you can then follow to return back to where you began your adventure. The traces can be started manually or (in theory) will automatically start tracking if your watch thinks you are heading out into the backcountry.
I never was able to observe the automatic tracking in action, even though I was far away from civilization for very long stretches of time during my trip. I’d check in the Compass app periodically and it was never laying down a track. Either I don’t understand this feature or the automatic trigger doesn’t work reliably, which is a bit concerning for a feature that potentially has a safety use.
Regardless of the automatic mode’s utility, I don’t think the right place for this feature is within the Compass app. It feels very disjointed from the typical use of the Apple Watch there. It almost feels like it is being hidden away by putting it there. This initial implementation feels very much to me like it is Apple’s first pass at outdoor navigation and mapping, with a lot more to come in the future. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of the features in iOS 17/watchOS 10 is the expansion of Apple Maps into outdoor uses, with topographic maps and trail markings. It seems a logical area for expansion and would fit perfectly with the Backtrack use case.
This feature, though, really makes a lot more sense to me integrated within the Workouts app, as the fourth tab in the UI. I’d expect it to be available and active whenever you have an outdoor workout started and have workout route tracking enabled. This would avoid the need to manually begin the tracking and put the resulting data front and center within the UI where you can easily access it. Right now if you were out for a hike, tracking it with the Workouts app, and then wanted to reference the Backtrack you’d have to keep jumping back and forth with the Compass app which doesn’t make for a particularly ergonomic situation.
I am very confident that both of these features were created with a tremendous amount of thoughtful consideration and planning. The issues I’m highlighting were likely brought up, discussed and ultimately decided against. Nevertheless, I’d love to see them changed.
I really like using the Ultra and think it can be a tremendous companion for outdoor exploration, but in that context I want it to be highly reliable and not at all surprising. These changes are, in the scheme of the utility this device provides, relatively minor, but I think would meaningfully improve it.
Well actually I walked 25.8 miles along my planned route, and reached the path at the banks of Loch Linnhe. Seeing I was so close to walking a full marathon I walked around in a circle for the remaining 0.4 miles, to feel like I had done the job properly. ↩