What Apple Watch Can Do Without its iPhone

As 2018 was ending, I  dropped my iPhone 6S Plus face down on a marble floor. Thankfully I had a tempered glass screen protector that absorbed the impact.  

Well, not really.  The extra glass did shatter to absorb the impact and prevented the screen from breaking.  Unfortunately the unit only had a minimalist side bumper without any frontal protrusions — the drop pretty much killed it.  Even though there’s no apparent external physical damage.

The screen won’t turn on. The backside of the phone became very hot which I assumed to cause depletion of the battery in the following hour. Strangely it was still connected to the watch.  Recharging it seemed successful as shown by bluetooth activity, but it runs very hot — and didn’t last very long either.

Then I’ve brought the iPhone to a repair shop, a 3rd party one.  It became apparent that the logic board was affected as well by the drop. That is, replacing the screen won’t be sufficient.  The “backlight chip” (so the repair guy said) was affected since with a replacement screen displays about a quarter dark patch on the screen.  Moreover the main processor gets really hot when powered, thus won’t be sustainable for daily use any longer.  All in all, it’s destined for the recycling bin.

Therefore I was without an iPhone for about a week. However I still have my Apple watch on.  It is the 3rd generation WiFi+GPS model with watchOS 5 installed. Here’s my real-life story about what watchOS can do without an iPhone.

Apple Watch showing Calndar

First and foremost, timekeeping still works (yay..). As long as you don’t cross time zones.  Without the tethered iPhone getting time zone information from its cellular network, Apple Watch won’t change time zones as well.  What’s worse is that there is no way to change time zones without the iPhone.  Connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi did not correct the time zone.  I’ve even tried wearing the watch outdoors for an hour or so, hoping that the GPS would get a location fix and correct the watch’s time zone information automatically.  Alas it won’t update time zone via actual GPS location.  I found out about this when I flew from Jakarta to Singapore (about 1000 km away, and a time zone switch from GMT+7 to GMT+8).

Strangely e-mail was half-working.  I was able to send e-mail using jus the Apple Watch, but not receive it.  It’s not just temporary Wi-Fi connection glitch, but I stopped receiving new e-mail ever since its connected iPhone gets shut down.  Strange, I must say.

Calendar appointments stopped updating.  I have some of my calendars hosted in iCloud which are synchronized to my Mac and the iPhone, hence the watch.  Using the Mac to add a near-future appointment doesn’t doesn’t make it appear on the watch — even with strong WiFi connection.   Similarly, to-do items stops syncing as well.  Once I ticked off a to-do item on my watch but the change did not appear in my Mac.

Some 3rd party apps may also stop functioning.  Specifically I had a Reddit client installed on the watch, an app called “nano”.  It was specifically designed for browsing Reddit on the watch.  Unfortunately without its counterpart running on the iPhone, the watch app becomes pretty much useless.

On the plus side Apple Music works well — even better, if I might add.  Music streaming is much more reliable without the iPhone connected.  Usually the watch is so stubborn in using Bluetooth to connect to the iPhone in order to stream music — even when the iPhone is not in a good range for streaming.  Hence playing music on the watch often involved waiting for long periods of silence as these 3-8MB audio files are being downloaded through a patchy Bluetooth connection.  With the iPhone offline, the watch goes directly to the Internet using its own WiFi connection and playback was as smooth as streaming Apple Music on any other device.

FaceTime Audio and iMessage continues to work as it used to – as long as there’s WiFi connection. Although it’s a bit awkward to type messages on the watch.

Last but not least, activity recording was uninterrupted.  The watch kept recording my steps and heart rate which still gets synchronized to the new iPhone after I’ve restored the latter from a backup.  I looked at the history in Apple health for the time period when the iPhone was destroyed and saw that there was no gap in the activity recording and step counts.

So that’s approximately what Apple Watch can do without being tethered to an iPhone. Still quite limited for a device having processing power that’s roughly equivalent to an iPhone 4.  Cellular models would likely suffer similar limitations should its tethered iPhone gets powered off.  But cellular watches can connect to its respective iPhone hosts via the Internet, hence these shortcomings may not be so apparent as long as the host is still active.

Apple provides more details on what functionalities that are still available on the watch when the iPhone is not around.  However I found that it’s not quite accurate.  These are the differences that I un-intentionally discovered due to premature death of my iPhone:

  • Set reminders.  Sure, ticking off a to-do item works. But without synchronization, I still get prompted on other devices.
  • See the time. But if you travel between time zones then the time shown by the watch is no longer accurate.
  • Send mail.  Apple doesn’t say that the e-mail functionality would still work without an iPhone. However the watch was able to send e-mail without receiving them.

That’s all for now. Take care.

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