Apple Music Streaming on the Apple Watch is a Mixed Bag

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Before diving into the details, I will say right off the bat that Apple Music streaming on the new LTE-enabled version of the Apple Watch Series 3 works. The music sounded the same over my AirPods that it would if I were using my iPhone or iPad, which is good. Searches with Siri were performed quickly. I never had any issues with tracks skipping, even though I only had two “dots” of LTE where I was doing my testing. So functionally, it works fine and is a welcome addition to the Apple Watch. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that this feature is still in beta, so things could change a little here or there before full release.

However, when I also say that streaming Apple Music on the Watch is a mixed bag right now, I’m not kidding around. It is functional in the way that the original Apple Watch was- useful and novel, but also scattered and confusing at times. The interface and experience are spread out over two different apps, a leftover from watchOS 1, and Siri. At the end of the day, I am glad to have it, since it extends the Watch beyond the bounds of the old iPad Nano and Shuffle as a mobile music player. However, Apple Music integration doesn’t come without its share of growing pains.

The Spirit of Radio

When you install the latest watchOS 4 beta, you will get a new Radio app as part of the deal. This new app serves a few different functions, most of which relate to Apple Music. At the top of the interface under the Now Playing tab, you have good old Beats 1, which any LTE-enabled Watch owner is free to stream anytime they choose to.

Underneath that, you have a link to a listing of several different genre and decade-based streaming radio stations. I appreciate that Apple gave us a pretty comprehensive list for searching on the Watch, so you don’t necessarily have to use Siri to start the ball rolling if you prefer not to.

Below the Stations link, you have an collection of custom stations that you have created and listened to in the past.

Similar to synced playlists and albums in the Music app, these are represented by album covers that can be swiped through, or navigated with the Digital Crown.

The new Radio app works just fine in and of itself. However, the fact that it is separated off from the main Music app with no meaningful link between them is a little strange. I guess I understand the impetus to try and cut down on interface clutter by segregating these different listening experiences. However, this brings in a certain level of confusion when different music requests end up in different places. More on this in a minute.

Where Are Those Millions of Songs?

I’ll tell you where they aren’t. They will not be on found on your Watch, at least not unless you have put them in your music library at some point. I realize that I’m knocking over a straw man here, because it would be completely unrealistic to expect the capability to search all of Apple Music from a Watch interface. However, what does that leave us? You guessed it- our old friend Siri.

To be fair, Siri actually handles Music requests pretty well. As long as I’m in a place where I can speak up and there isn’t too much background noise, the accuracy is very good. Also, with the enhancements coming to HomePod, this should only get better, so being locked to Siri isn’t a terrible.

In my opinion, the biggest limitation is going to be location and situation. Voice searches just aren’t acceptable in all situations and even when they are, they can still be awkward in public. I would appreciate it if Apple would add a Scribble text search interface for the Watch’s Music app for such occasions, but Siri is it for now.

If you want to limit your reliance on voice commands, your best bet is to set up radio stations and playlists with the content from Apple Music that you are most interested in. Between this and the stations in the Radio app, you should have enough to make it without hitting Siri up too often. Also, even with the ability to stream, it still pays to sync some of your favorite albums and playlists over to local storage on the Watch, which will really save you on both data usage and battery life in the long run.

What Goes Where?

This is the point where we get to the confusion with using Apple Music. I did a little bit of testing and found that similar requests may actually take you in different directions. For example, I asked Siri verbatim to “Play Rush Greatest Hits.” I was taken to the Music app and I got a selection of what I would consider to be some of their greatest hits.

However, since they don’t have a single greatest hits album or set, I’m not sure why the particular album it chose was the one selected. I half expected to end up in the Radio app, because this is exactly the kind of general music request that a custom station is designed to handle. Conversely, if you ask Siri to just play music from a particular artist without any qualifiers, you do end up in the Radio app with a new custom station.

Then we get to another level of confusion, because the Now Playing interfaces are different between the Music and Radio apps. The Music app has traditional playback controls, as well as a handy button that reveals a track listing.

In this case, I am looking at an Apple Music playlist that I save a while back. Since it is curated based on a genre, I like the fact that I can easily pull up the track list and see what’s ahead.

The Radio app’s Now Playing interface omits the back button for a star icon that allows you to tell Apple to play more or less music like the current selection.

The link to the track list is replaced with a + button that allows you add the current song to your library. While I understand that this fits the concept of discovering new music through the Radio feature, this is where I would really like to see the upcoming track list and get an idea of what’s ahead. I can see what’s next up on deck on the iPhone, but the Watch’s interface is definitely more limiting.

While I do understand that these are important features for the Radio app, it would be great if Apple could figure out a way to consolidate all of this into a single unified Now Playing interface. The fact that I basically got the same song selection with my two Rush requests, but ended up in two different apps with two different interfaces is just a bit strange and kludgy.

Leftovers

Since we are on the subject of the way that Apple has chopped up the Music experience on the Watch, now is a good time to talk about Now Playing. Not the Now Playing in Music or Radio that I already mentioned. The Now Playing that still lives in limbo on the Watch. Confused? So was I at first.

As already discussed, both the Music and Radio apps have a dedicated Now Playing section that are completely separate from each other. If you are playing a song in one app, the Now Playing in the other app falls silent and still displays the last track that was played there. I guess this makes sense because the apps don’t have any connections between each other that I can perceive.

What is really strange is that we have a leftover bit of watchOS 1 that is still hanging around in watchOS 4. There is a stand-alone Now Playing “app” that is separate from the Now Playing inside each of the Music and Radio apps. You may have noticed it in the past, and that you could add it to the Apple Watch’s Dock separately from the full Music app. I believe that this interface element is a throwback to the Glances system that was replaced with the Dock in watchOS 3 last year.

I think this is the case because this stand-alone version of Now Playing is not present in the full App List on the Watch. Whether you look in “Honeycomb” Mode or the new List Mode, it does not show up there.

You can’t launch it directly unless you put it in the Dock or on a Watch Face as a Complication.

However, if you do, it can be used to monitor whatever is playing in either the Music or the Radio apps. It is also capable of showing other media from third party apps playing on the Watch, as well. In fact, this is the “app” that pops up by default on your Watch screen in watchOS 4 when you play music through the Apple Music app on your iPhone. So what is this black magic, exactly?

The Headless Zombie App

The existence of a separate Now Playing app wasn’t as confusing in the past, because there were only two things you could do music-wise on the Watch. You could play music synced to your Watch via a Bluetooth output device, or you could control music playback on your iPhone. I’ve actually been a very big fan of this capability since I first got an Apple Watch. I never cared to dive through menus or search for music to play on my phone with the Watch, but having the playback controls on my wrist at all times is very handy.

It seems like Now Playing May have been reworked after watchOS 1, but was upgraded from a mere Glance (which were nothing but links to apps that displayed some information for quick access) to bridge the gap between what was on the Music app on the Watch and what you were remotely controlling. Again, I never found this setup particularly confusing before, probably because it never got in the way.

All of that has now changed with the latest version of watchOS 4 because of the addition of the Radio app to the mix. Honestly, if the Music and Radio apps just linked out to the stand-alone Now Playing app instead of each having a separate version of its own, there really wouldn’t be much of an issue here. No matter what, all of your currently cued up tracks in both apps and on the phone would be visible in one place, no matter where in the Watch interface you access it from. In fact, if you stick to using the stand-alone Now Playing app, you can avoid a lot of the confusion I am talking about.

As you can see above, it looks exactly like the Now Playing section inside the Radio app except for one detail- the Watch indicator at the top. This lets you know that the media you are listening to is coming from the Watch, rather than your phone.

If you tap the Watch indicator, you get a selection screen where you can switch between controlling music on the Watch or the iPhone.

The only thing missing here is the ability to see what song both the Music or Radio apps have cued up, or link out to either of them. Right now, whichever was used to play music last takes the Apple Watch spot. If I go to the Music app and start a song there, you can see that the result here changes to match.

However, another monkey-wrench comes in if you are using the app with an LTE- enabled Watch disconnected from the iPhone, which is kind of the entire purpose of Apple Music integration with the Watch in the first place. As you can see below, the interface of the stand-alone Now Playing app changes, and an the icon for whichever app on the Watch you are playing from appears in place of Watch or iPhone. This part actually makes sense with the phone no longer being an option for playback.

However, if you tap the Radio icon, you are taken to, you guessed it, the Now Playing inside of the app, which doesn’t link back to the stand-alone Now Playing app. This part DOES NOT make sense. I’m actually chuckling while writing this. I mean, these are straight up Inception-level interface rabbit holes I am coming across here. I REALLY hope that Apple tightens this up before public rollout.

What is going to confuse the hell out of some people is the fact that the stand-alone Now Playing app behaves differently than what they will get if they go to Now Playing inside of Radio or Music on the Watch. The fact that they are so close to each other but have these small differences will drive some users crazy. If Apple will just take the step of unifying around one Now Playing interface, most of the problems above immediately disappear.

No Escape Pod

Podcasts have been with us since early on in the lifecycle of the iPod, but they have absolutely exploded over the last few years. Everyone is getting into the act, including an ever-increasing number of established media outlets and individuals. A stand-alone Podcasts app would seem like a no-brainer for the LTE version of the Watch, as many people prefer to catch up on the spoken word rather than listen to music while exercising. Unfortunately, we don’t have this yet. For whatever reason, Apple has either decided to wait this out, or worse, doesn’t see a need to add it to its iPod replacement. There are a couple of third party apps that we can use to fill the gap for now, but they don’t sync to your existing subscriptions and none that I have tried offers a great user experience at this point.

There is a News and Sports section in the new Radio app, which is a step. However, it still isn’t quite the same, as you get what you get from a streaming content channel. The beauty of podcasts is having everything broken down into tidy installments with descriptions. Due to their popularity elsewhere in the iOS ecosystem, I’m inclined to believe that Apple will be bringing Podcasts to the Apple Watch within the next year. That said though, I have no idea why they have waited this long.

Conclusion

Does Apple Music streaming for the Apple Watch work? Yes. Is it confusing? Yes. Is there room for improvement. YES. I tend to look at it this way- the people who want or need this feature are going to figure it out and use it. They will get past the quirks and confusion and that will be that. I will do the same. None of my criticisms above amount to more than mild irritation and a learning curve, so don’t read too much into any of this.

As with watchOS and the original Apple Music and News apps on the iPhone, I am betting that Apple will quickly go back to the drawing board on this and get it figured out. This seems to be how they handle interface challenges these days. They roll out a first version that I’m sure they know is flawed, they take user data and a little time, and then they make a far better version 2.

I’m not sure that I love the fact that Apple seems to be ok rolling out beta versions of new products without calling them what they really are. All of us Apple users would be a little better served if they could do a little better job of getting closer on the first try, because all of the above: watchOS 1, the original Music and News apps, and now Apple Music on the Watch, have been pretty rough at the outset. There’s no getting around that. However, the way they handled those earlier challenges gives me confidence that Apple Music Streaming on the Apple Watch won’t fall through the cracks. It will get polished up in version 2, and I expect all of this interface confusion to disappear. Until then, what we have works, and I guess that’s fine for now.


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