Apple’s watch faces are slowly improving. Is it time for third-party faces?

The new the always-on display makes watch faces the center of attention.

watchos6 california pair
Jason Snell

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Last year, when Apple unveiled the Apple Watch Series 4, I was surprised that the company didn’t bother to update most of its watch faces, and expressed some hope that the company would place more emphasis on faces in the Series 5.

Thanks to the new always-on display, Apple has definitely made watch faces the center of attention in a way they weren’t before. There’s never been a more on-the-nose Apple marketing campaign than the “The Watch Tells Time” video that Apple unveiled during its special event on September 10. And yet, while I want to report that as of 2019 Apple has prioritized the faces of the Apple Watch, I can’t. Instead, it’s given us a few encouraging new faces—and left a mess everywhere else.

Launched a thousand watches

Let’s start with the good. As it did last year, Apple has introduced new faces into this year’s watchOS update, and I’m encouraged by what has been done. The California face is the most customizable Apple Watch face yet, and it comes close to being my favorite Apple Watch face ever. You can choose numeral styles (Pills, Roman, California, Arabic, Arabic Indic, Devanagari), dial size (full screen, circular), more than 60 accent colors, and either two (on the full-screen dial) or five (on the circular dial) complications.

watchos6 solardial

The watchOS 6 Solar Dial watch face.

Most of Apple’s new faces allow you to fill the screen if you so choose—but you’ll give up some or all of your complications if you do so. The Gradient face offers gorgeous color choices, but can’t display complications in full-screen mode. Two new big, colorful digital faces—Numerals Mono and Numerals Duo—are welcome additions for people who want a readable in-your-face time, but don’t support complications at all.

The new round faces that do support complications, like the new Solar Dial face, generally support four complications at the edges of the display. There’s a new face with support for the extra-large complication banner introduced last year, though: the new Modular Compact allows either a digital or analog face in the corner, along with the banner and two circular complications.

Viewed as a group, these new faces strike me as being pretty solid. They give users plenty of options for look and feel, analog and digital, complications around a circle or a bold full-screen design.

Unfortunately, they’re almost the entire story.

Face the facts

watchos6 modcompact Jason Snell

The watchOS 6 Modular Compact watch face.

WatchOS 6 has brought almost no modifications to existing watch faces, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Utility, my favorite Apple Watch face since the beginning, remains unable to use the larger “modern” complications introduced with watchOS 5. Is it locked in stasis because it can also be used as a face on older models with smaller displays? If so, that’s a shame—users of the Series 4 and Series 5 watches ought to be able to take full advantage of rich complications across as many faces as possible. (I can actually make the new California face a pretty good clone of Utility, which says something about how flexible California is—but there’s no option to let me display complications in color rather than grayscale. Oh well.)

There are also no new complication styles in watchOS 6, after watchOS 5 introduced so many. Perhaps it’s worth taking a year to stabilize complication design, given that app developers had a very short amount of time to react to the new complications when they were introduced with the Series 4 watch last year. But I’m convinced that, along with Siri, complications are a primary way for people to interact with the Apple Watch. They need to keep improving. (I’d love to see dynamic complications that can display different items over time, as well as complications that appear only when they’re active—for a countdown timer, for instance.)

The biggest change, and hope for the future

It’s not fair to say that Apple didn’t change most watch faces this year, because it had to modify every one of them to support the always-on display. Faces used to wink out of existence when the Watch display went to sleep, but now they must stay on—in a power-saving mode with a dramatically reduced frame rate.

That required Apple to remove most animations—most notably, the sweep of a second hand—from faces. Other faces with bright graphics simply dim the graphics away so that only the time is displayed. If you watch a dimmed face long enough, though, you’ll see that there are still animations here and there. The California face completely animates the minute-by-minute tick of the minute hand, even with the second hand silenced. Every single watch face had to be analyzed and updated for the dim mode of the always-on display, and perhaps that’s where Apple invested its face design time this cycle.

I’ve heard some developers use the introduction of the always-on display and its accompanying dimmed-mode faces as proof of why Apple will never allow third-party developers to create watch faces. In fact, I believe the opposite: The coming of the always-on display is such a major change to how watch faces operate that it made no sense to allow anyone outside Apple to build them until that work was done.

Perhaps now that the new, richer complications have had time to settle down, and we’re clear that every watch face needs a bright, animated active mode as well as a subdued dim mode, Apple will be ready to let third-party face developers inside the tent. I’m not sure I’d bet money on the possibility, but it seems more likely now than it did even last year. Having seen some developers mock up their face designs, I’m encouraged that third-party faces would improve the Apple Watch overall.

As long as Apple holds a monopoly on watch-face design, they will deserve all the criticism they get about how slowly they’re moving in this area. The bar’s a lot lower when Apple only has to provide base functionality and can let third-party developers noodle on designs from the grotesque to the gorgeous.

Maybe next year.

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