AirPods are finally here and early customers who can find stock seem to be largely happy with the purchase. Setup is nearly instant, sound quality is better than expected, and totally wireless earbuds that switch between all your devices is super convenient.
Apple’s new W1 chip makes setup and switching so easy that a lot of Apple Watch wearers are probably pairing earphones to the watch for the first time. It happens automatically over iCloud after you pair with another device using your account so some people may not even realize it’s happening.
When you do realize you can play content directly from the Apple Watch to AirPods without relying on your iPhone, finding something to play and knowing how to play it can be rather cumbersome. AirPods really emphasize the Apple Watch’s need to improve at the basics like syncing Apple Music, podcasts, and other audio…
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Syncing music to the Apple Watch is officially supported, but it’s a slow process that requires a lot of thought beforehand. watchOS also has a few questionable limitations that don’t help here.
If you want audio to be saved locally to the Apple Watch, you first need to make sure that audio is available in the Music app on the iPhone. Then use the Watch app’s Music section to tell the watch what music to sync.
You can select any playlist whether it’s one you created or one you added from Apple Music. If you want to add everything from a certain artist or add a specific album, it has to go on a playlist.
My advice? Make a new playlist in the Music app called Apple Watch, then add all the music you want to sync to that playlist and select it. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you can also select one of the For You playlists (My Favorites Mix and My New Music Mix) that the service creates and have updated music available weekly.
Don’t expect this process to be quick though. Your Apple Watch has to be charging to sync music from your iPhone, and the music needs to be downloaded on your iPhone before the files can be handed over. It’s just not fast.
This is an area where having a cellular connection in the Apple Watch could help. Ideally, you could go for a run with just the Apple Watch and a set of AirPods and have full access to your Apple Music library over streaming without syncing or bringing your iPhone.
There’s also a weird storage limit for syncing music. You can adjust the limit by up to 250 songs or up to 2GB (which is about 250 songs) in the Apple Watch Music settings.
Apple Watch has 8GB storage internally, 5.7GB available with the operating system in place, and storage set aside for up to 500 photos. The rest is for … apps?
I have the most amount of music synced, the most amount of photos synced, and about a dozen third-party apps installed with 3.5GB of free storage that I wish could be used for more audio.
One more oddity: the watchOS Music app regularly defaults to showing you music from the iPhone even if you always choose to play music from the Apple Watch. This is probably an easy bug to fix, but currently the source mode is not preserved. If you only play from Apple Watch, you have to regularly tap to that mode.
Music syncing and playback isn’t perfect, but at least it’s featured on the Apple Watch. Other audio apps like Podcasts and iBooks Audiobooks are not included on watchOS yet. I listen to music when I run, but I prefer a podcast episode when I walk or cycle.
One of my first thoughts when trying AirPods is that the Apple Watch really needs an official way to sync podcasts episodes for playback without the iPhone.
Just like with music it would only work with local files when offline, but streaming could be possible over Wi-Fi and syncing episodes on the fly or overnight would be better than nothing.
There are extra layers of complexity with podcast playback that music doesn’t have. You want to be able to sync episode progress and have access to new episodes as they become available, but subscription playlists show that Apple Watch can handle updating playlists.
I really hope the Podcasts/watchOS/Apple Watch team at Apple agrees and podcast support makes it into iOS 10.3/watchOS 3.2 or iOS 11/watchOS 4.
That extra storage space could also be used for syncing audiobooks. CarPlay now features a dedicated iBooks app for playing audiobooks purchased from Apple. Those same books could be made available for offline playback from the Apple Watch too. CarPlay is really just a projection of the iPhone whereas an Apple Watch app would be a separate experience, but the iPhone and Apple Watch are regularly connected so sync progress could be worked out.
Aside from syncing Apple Music better and adding support for other audio formats, Apple Watch could also do a better job at presenting playback controls that AirPods do not have direct access to without Siri.
watchOS 1 and 2 featured a ‘glance’ for Now Playing controls similar to Control Center on iOS. Swipe up to play/plause, skip, and control volume with the Digital Crown. watchOS 3 brings Control Center to the Apple Watch but moves the Now Playing screen to the Dock which is located behind a button click, a screen tap, and usually a few swipes.
iOS 10 divides Control Center in multiple parts: screen control, audio control, and HomeKit control. watchOS could ignore the HomeKit control (and it has a Home app) and just segment Control Center as we have today and add a new screen for Now Playing one swipe over.
Settings and Now Playing glances; Control Center and Now Playing via Dock
These watchOS media issues were present before AirPods; you could already pair Bluetooth headphones and speakers to the Apple Watch for audio playback without the iPhone. What has changed with AirPods is how easy it is to pair a set of earphones to the Apple Watch; the W1 chip extends the same convenience to Beats Powerbeats3, Solo3, and upcoming BeatsX.
You can’t play music directly from the Apple Watch without AirPods (or something like them), and AirPods can’t play audio without a source device. With that in mind, hopefully watchOS updates in the future to better take advantage of how well the two connect.