Apple Watch update adds streaming music and radio: hands-on

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Apple Music gets its streaming on. Sarah Tew/CNET

I used to wear an iPod Nano on my wrist. It stored songs, it had an FM radio and it told me the time.

Years later, the Apple Watch is finally living up to the promise of being an iPod on my wrist again — a little voice-activated streaming music player, in fact. The upgraded features come courtesy of the WatchOS 4.1 software update that adds music streaming via a new Radio app. That’s above and beyond the music improvements like Apple Music album and playlist syncing that arrived last month.

I’ve been using an early version of WatchOS 4.1 for the past few days on a cellular-enabled Apple Watch Series 3. So far, it’s worked pretty well. But you have to get used to juggling two apps — Radio and Music — and you have to get cozy with Siri.

 

Music app: Now has your whole library

When a Watch is paired to your iPhone, your iCloud Music Library can be browsed in its entirety with WatchOS 4.1. Previously, you’d only get albums and playlists that are synced from the iPhone. But you need to know how to get there: The library button has browsable playlists, artist, album and song tabs. The digital crown can accelerate through the list like an old iPod scroll wheel.

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The whole cloud library shows up to scroll through. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also access Apple Music’s catalog over Wi-Fi or — on Apple Watch Series 3– an LTE cellular connection, but that requires Siri searching. Apple hasn’t included any way to type or search for content on-watch. You could request “Hey Siri, play They Might be Giants’ Apollo 18” or “Play John Williams,” but your mileage may vary by how well Siri understands you. Or doesn’t understand you.

You can also search by moods, genres, and make other requests like Siri on the iPhone: “Play something I like.” “Shuffle everything.” “Play sad music.” “Play 80s hits.” New music can be streamed, but can’t be directly downloaded to Apple Watch when it’s not paired to your iPhone.

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Radio stations include plenty of music playlists, Beats One, and ESPN, NPR, and CBS News Radio. Sarah Tew/CNET

Radio: A separate streaming app

The curveball is that Apple Watch adds another app, called Radio, that holds other streaming music. This has Beats One, three live radio stations (ESPN, CBS Radio and NPR), and dozens of Apple Music radio stations matching what’s on the iPhone Apple Music app. (Note that CBS Radio, like CNET, is currently a division of CBS, but it’s in the process of spinning off.) My own personalized radio station, specific artist or song-based stations, or curated stations can all show up here. Also, oddly, if you request music through Siri, it plays in Radio, not the Music app. So, keep that in mind. (I’ll get back to that in a second.)

Radio stations sometimes take a few seconds to play, depending on LTE signal strength, but they worked and worked well for me. It was nice to tune into ESPN on a walk, or NPR while in the backyard. Songs in radio stations can be starred or added to your music library, fueling future recommendations.

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Notice the two complications on the top? The left icon is Music. The right icon is Radio. Scott Stein/CNET

Juggling two apps means two watch shortcuts

The downside to having two apps is that I want two shortcuts on hand at any time to make sure I can get to what I need. On Apple Watch’s watch faces, that means assigning two complications. And, as a result, having one fewer slot for something else (weather, activity, or anything else). I’d much prefer one app with all this included.

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e challenges of voice search. Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPod is back on my wrist

Siri-only navigation for new music is a drawback for easy discovery. It’s fine for casual listening, though, and I still had plenty to browse and listen to. It really feels like an iPod’s landed back on my wrist. Music streaming does take a toll on battery life, though. Apple hasn’t posted its estimates yet, but I found a solid day of streaming off and on while unpaired from the iPhone drained battery life by dinnertime. Apple expects, basically, that a half hour of streaming music and exercise with heart rate and GPS can still be done on a day’s charge.

WatchOS 4.1 arrives later this month. You’ll need Apple Music and LTE to get the most out of music streaming, but there are still things to try if you’re just using Wi-Fi, too.

Apple Watch Series 3, the review: All you need to know about Apple’s cellular watch

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