The Dock in watchOS 3 was arguably the biggest new feature to hit the Apple Watch at WWDC 2016. It’s a feature that allows you to find and switch to your most used apps. It takes the best of the Glances model from previous versions of watchOS and merges it with an updated and actionable interface.
The Dock promotes using apps in a way that no such feature on the Apple Watch has until now. In my opinion, it breathes new life into the Apple Watch, providing practical functionality that was missing in previous iterations of watchOS. Have a look at our hands-on dive into the Dock as we explore this exciting new feature.
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Out with Friends, in with Dock
In versions of watchOS prior to watchOS 3, the physical Side button that rests below the Digital Crown was used for invoking the Friends carousel. In watchOS 3, the Friends carousel has been supplanted by the Dock. This is a fundamental change in the way the Apple Watch works, and is a surefire sign that Apple is willing to pivot when it comes to features on a platform that’s still fresh and malleable.
Reassigning the Side button to the Dock provides an immense improvement in overall function and practicality. I, for one, never used the Friends interface, and I felt that such a precious hardware button was wasted by using it that way. With watchOS 3, the Side button has been reassigned to a feature that’s truly worthy of a physical hardware button, and that’s speaks volumes considering that there are only two buttons on the Apple Watch.
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In previous versions of watchOS, swiping up from the bottom of the screen while on the watch face revealed a list of Glances — cards that provided quick summaries of information pertaining to apps and system-level details.
Glances have been replaced in watchOS 3, but the overall idea of Glances hasn’t been removed; it’s been improved. And unlike Glances, which were only accessible via the watch face, the Dock can be invoked from anywhere on the watchOS interface.
Virtually everything about Glances is now achievable via the Dock, and provides a more reliable and consistent interface for gleaning quick details about apps, having access to your most recently used app, and launching apps.
The Dock isn’t perfect yet, and there are still some issues that need to be worked out with features like the Now Playing interface, but as the watchOS 3 beta progresses, it should get better over time.
Background App Refresh
All of the apps placed in the Dock are kept in a suspended state in memory and are ready to launch at a user’s request. Once the user settles in on one of the apps in the Dock, it will be automatically resumed, even while it’s still shrunk down in the Dock. In the meantime, a snapshot of its last state is displayed.
This is where the new background app refresh APIs come into play. Background app refresh APIs make it possible to update snapshots, which provide updated information to the user, even if just looking at an app in the Dock without fully switching to it. You can see examples of this with some of Apple’s stock apps. For instance, the Timer app will countdown the amount of time remaining while shrunken in the Dock.
It’s even possible for Dock snapshots to differ from the information provided once a user taps and opens the full associated app. This could be handy for presenting more “glanceable” views while perusing the dock, but providing more detailed information when a user switches to the app in question.
Invoking the Dock
To invoke the Dock in watchOS 3, simply press the Side button. The great thing about having a physical button assigned to the Dock is that it allows you to access it from anywhere: at the watch face, while inside apps, etc.
The Dock features a card interface that represents all of the apps you have stored there, along with the most recent app that you’ve used.
You can use swipe gestures or the Digital Crown to navigate through the Dock. To switch to a particular app in the Dock, tap on the app that you wish to open.
Adding apps to the Dock
The whole point of the Dock is to allow users to add and access frequently used apps. To add an app to the dock, do the following:
Step 1: Open the app that you wish to add
Step 2: Press the Side button to open the Dock
Step 3: Swipe up on the most recent app card, which should be the app you opened in step 1
Step 4: Tap Keep in Dock
Once you add an app to the dock, it will stay there until you remove it. Up to 10 apps can be added to the dock, along with the most recently used app.
Note: You can also manage Dock apps via the Watch app on your paired iPhone.
Removing apps from the Dock
To remove apps from the Dock, perform the following:
Step 1: Press the Side button to open the Dock
Step 2: Navigate to the app card you wish to remove
Step 3: Swipe up on the app card
Step 4: Tap the Remove button
Rearranging apps in the Dock
You can rearrange apps in the dock by tapping and holding (not force touch) and dragging the apps around. This was not working for me at first, until I reboot, so you may need to do the same. Thanks to John in the comments for ensuring me that this works.
As the watchOS 3 beta progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how the Dock is refined and improved. Apple already has an excellent start with the Dock’s initial implementation, but there is room for improvement.
I’d like to see the ability to switch to the Dock and select an app using only hardware buttons. You can already scroll through the list of apps with the Digital Crown, but you have to tap the screen to select an app from the Dock.
I’d also like to see an improved Now Playing interface, perhaps even making it a standalone app.
But even with those opportunities for improvement, the Dock is already far and away my favorite software feature of the Apple Watch. Launching, monitoring, and switching between apps now makes a lot more sense thanks to the Dock in watchOS 3.
Be sure to watch our full watchOS 3 video walkthrough for a look at many more of the new Apple Watch features shown at WWDC 2016.