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Streaming Music On The Apple Watch May Not Be Perfect, But It’s Still A Boon For Runners

Apple says it’ll turn on the service to owners of the cellular-connected Watch by the end of October.

Streaming Music On The Apple Watch May Not Be Perfect, But It’s Still A Boon For Runners
[Photo: Crew/Unsplash]

I talked to Apple’s Kevin Lynch just after the announcement of the third Apple Watch in September, and I remember him saying that the new Watch–the first with cellular connectivity–is “really the start” of the product’s life. The first couple of Watches, the ones with no internet connection of their own, were just the prelims.

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And streaming music could turn out to be the connected Watch’s killer app. I’ve been previewing the service for the past few days, and despite a few performance glitches, I’ve been been having a lot of fun leaving my phone behind and still having full access to my music collection.

I argued a few weeks ago that the internet connectivity really supports the “Watch as fitness device” thesis that Apple began promoting with the second Apple Watch. The cellular connection makes the most difference during workouts, when you may want to stay connected to the web but without having to drag along your phone (the Watch’s usual means of connecting to the web).

The streaming music service makes that argument a far stronger one. With just your Watch and your AirPods (or some other earphones), you have access to all your music in the cloud, the Apple Music catalogue, and live “radio” streams like Beats 1.

The Basics

All this content is grouped inside the Music app on the iPhone, but on the Watch the live and curated radio streams are controlled with a separate Radio app. The Radio app builds Pandora-style radio streams out of any genre, artist, album, or song you like. It’s also where you access Apple’s Beats 1 radio stations and a bunch of other station streams, some from popular broadcast stations.

The Music app is where you find your full cloud music library as well as everything in the Apple Music catalog. That’s a lot of music. You can call up your own playlists (like Purchased Music, Recently Played, or Mark’s 80’s Hair Metal Freakout) or call up curated playlists made by human musicologists at Apple. (The Heavy Rotation, New Music Mix, Favorites Mix, and Chill Mix can be set to automatically sync to the Watch when it’s on its charger.)

During my tests, I noticed on a number of occasions that there was a significant delay between calling up a stream with Siri or the touchscreen and the music actually playing. I’m fairly sure the delay happens when the Watch is having trouble connecting to the music servers in the cloud via its cellular connection (in my case, AT&T). This isn’t surprising, but the streams seemed especially susceptible to less-than-perfect cellular conditions.

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Siri And Music

I also had less-than-perfect results trying to call up music using Siri. But this usually happened outdoors with traffic noise and wind gusts, so it may have been a Siri problem or an AirPods problem, and not a Music streaming problem. Apple points out that Watch 3 wearers can say “Hey Siri play me a Beyonce mix,” or “play something I like,” or “DJ for me,” or “play some new music,” or “play me some hip-hop.”

Factoid: Lots of this curation intelligence was developed for use with Apple’s forthcoming ambient voice speaker, the HomePod. The Watch gets the benefit of it, too.

Two Apps Now

As for the decoupling of the radio service from the Music app, it has its ups and downs. It makes some sense because radio streams are a low-touch, passive experience, which can be good because actively controlling the music by tapping on the Watch’s small screen or talking to Siri can interrupt workouts.

On the other hand this UX design choice creates a little friction if you want to switch from a Radio stream to the Music app for some specialized psyche-up or God-help-me-get-through-this workout music from your music library.

For instance, if you’re listening to Beats 1 and you want to move to one of your own playlists you’ll have to switch apps. If you say “Hey Siri, play my Indoor Workout playlist” you’ll see a message on the watch screen informing you that you have to have the Music app open to do that. But when you’re listening to the Pink record in Music and you say “Hey Siri play me some new music,” it will pop right over to the Radio app and start the stream. Actually, it wasn’t completely intuitive to me which requests would be handled by the Music app and which would be handled by the Radio app. Your results may vary.

What It Can’t Do

While the new streaming service gives you greatly increased music powers, there are a few things you can’t do. You can’t search the Apple Music library like you can on the phone. You can’t build playlists on the fly using only the Watch. And you can’t create a custom radio station from the Watch.

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You also can’t listen to podcasts. That’s a big one, and one that Apple said it’s working on. One company rep told me the music team wanted to get the music streaming and radio parts up and running well first, then turn on podcasts later. How much later they’re not saying. When the time comes, it seems likely that Apple will give podcasts its own little Watch app.

Apple says the new Apple Music streaming service will become available to Watch Series 3 LTE owners via an over-the-air software update by the end of the month.