My Apple Dumbwatch

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Back in 2015, I purchased an Apple Watch to replace both my previous analog watch and the latest in a string of fitness trackers. The watch’s activity tracking functionality has worked well for me.1 While I’ve always tried to keep fit, closing the rings for calories burned (“Move”), active minutes (“Exercise”), and standing (“Stand”) has provided added motivation each day. Earning badges for streaks and other achievements has provided a fun, if rather inane, incentive to be more active.

Early last month, the Apple Watch issued an “October Challenge”. This was an individually tailored goal, one which seemed to be based on recent activity. I screwed myself by spending the summer ramping up for a marathon, which led my watch to require that I hit 3,347 minutes of exercise in October to complete this challenge. An average of nearly 108 minutes of activity every single day for a month struck me as a bit much, even if it would earn me the electronic equivalent of a “A+ Patient” sticker from the pediatrician.

Despite the fact that my marathon training was nearly complete and I was tapering down my runs, I wasn’t smart enough to dismiss the challenge outright. I figured I’d see how things went throughout the month, knowing that my race was in mid-October, and that I had a half-marathon before that as well. Every few days I checked in on my progress with the Activity app on my phone, and each time I found that I wasn’t too far off the necessary pace. With some extra effort each day, it was actually possible I could meet the objective.

Even so, it wasn’t until the last few days of the month that it became clear that this ridiculous goal was attainable. It required me to get moving even more than I already was, but the weather looked nice, it was good for my health, and THE ANGRY WATCH GOD MUST BE APPEASED.

So it was that just before 6 PM on October 30th, I checked my phone and saw that I was only 155 minutes shy of the target. With a busy day planned for the 31st, I felt good enough to grab a screenshot to mark my progress.

A first screenshot showing 3192 minutes earned.
1804 minutes left in the month, but only 155 of them needed to be active.

The next day, I tracked the exercise counter on the watch itself as it climbed throughout my day of activity. I was going to make it, and I was foolishly pleased by this asinine little achievement. The device’s expectations for me had been stupidly aggressive, but I was going to enjoy showing an inanimate electronic device what was what. I knew that this would likely raise its expectations still higher for the next month, but that was November Paul’s problem.

However, in the late afternoon of the 31st, I made what seems to have been a key error in judgement. Specifically, I updated my phone to iOS 11.1 and my watch to WatchOS 4.1. I didn’t really think anything of this as I did it, though not for the first time I found myself annoyed by how long the watch took to update. Once it finally finished, I strapped the watch back on and went about my day.

By Halloween night, I had completed almost three hours of activity for the day, and I knew I was set. Just before 11 PM, I opened the Activity app on the phone to gaze upon my newly won badge for the first time. This is what I saw instead:

A later screenshot showing 3064 minutes earned.
29 hours later, I’d somehow lost time.

Well that’s…not right. That’s not even possible! How exactly did I manage to do negative 128 minutes of activity since the previous day? I quickly found myself in the first two stages of grief, denial (“What the hell?”) and anger (“What the hell!”).

With just 77 minutes left in the month, the watch now claimed I was almost 300 minutes short of the prescribed goal. Even if I literally ran out the rest of the month it wouldn’t change anything. As such, I quickly jumped to the last stage of grief, acceptance (“What the hell.”). I figured that if nothing else, this ought to lower the watch’s demands for the future.

I spent the dwindling minutes of October pondering what in the world had happened. The OS updates had likely affected things somehow, but had they changed the way past activity was calculated? I scanned through each day’s readings and punched the daily recorded activity into a quick spreadsheet. This was the result:

Spreadsheet showing a total of 3369 minutes
That just raises further questions!2

Ultimately, the problem here seems to be with the Apple Watch’s addition skills. That’s pretty bad, as proper math is rather essential for a usable computing device. Alternately, I suppose the problem could be that Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet application can’t do simple calculations. That would certainly be even more shocking. Perhaps the two products are even in some sort of cahoots, the exact nature of which I’ve yet to ascertain.

Either way, I’m trying to maintain a Zen attitude about this. The only thing stupider than spending an entire month overexerting myself to earn a meaningless digital badge would be getting upset when said badge is denied due to some sort of bug. All we are is dust in the wind, and all this is is pixels in the ether. Still, I do think it would be nice if my watch could count.

Update (November 2nd, 2017): It seems that yesterday afternoon, my watch finally got done performing a recount, and awarded me my badge. Read more here.


  1. One particularly nice thing is that the Apple Watch tracks calories burned directly, rather than the rather imperfect stand-in “steps” used by earlier trackers I’d tried. It was always clear that something was off when running five miles earned the same number of steps as walking about half as far. ↩︎

  2. The relevant video clip is archived here. ↩︎

If you enjoyed this post, get updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.