Aside

Navigating European small towns with an Apple Watch

A little before I started my recent walk-about in Europe, I invested in a Series 2 Apple Watch. I had not worn a watch in over a decade – I used to carry a pocket watch until smart phones made that extraneous. I thought I'd try it as a replacement to my twice-worn-out-fitbit since it had compelling features as a fitness tracker: The obvious step counter, and also the heart-rate monitoring along with nice integration to encourage activity and exercise. I started "closing the rings" as they say, and along with more frequent access (and visits) to the gym, it's been tremendously successful for me. Most importantly to my earliest concerns, I haven't destroyed it by being a klutz and smashing my wrist into walls and door frames as I was wont to do a decade or two ago.

The surprise win was how amazingly effective it is for helping to navigate with directions from Apple's Maps IOS app. When we were traveling about some of the smaller towns, navigating from the train station to our B&B or hotel was a common need. The hardest days were when we switched countries and were dealing with a different language, different customs for sign placement, and generally trying to learn what to listen for as the languages changed. I kept my cell phone active with a data roaming plan just for this – I knew I'd need help to find my way.

The surprise was in how subtle and effective the combination of haptic feedback and slight sounds emitted from the watch helped with navigation. One of the things that I found myself constantly failing was interpreting reasonable scale from maps (digital or paper) to the physical reality of streets in the smaller European towns. We stayed and wandered through amazing locations, and not only are the streets much smaller, the organic nature of street layout and smaller streets really lead to our confusion. What my US trained senses thought was another 100 yards was maybe only 20 away, and early navigation had frequent back-tracking or circling around as we tried to get used to the differences.

I found when I was walking/navigating through some distance (this really shone while walking in Utrecht), the "make a left" or "make a right" haptic signals that came through the watch were brilliantly timed with my walking pace. The tone of the two "blips" goes up for an upcoming right, down for a left. I still did a periodic double-take, or hunted for the name of the street to make sure I wasn't veering down some strange side path, but it was immensely effective.

The other complete win is that getting direction feedback from the watch is subtle.

I don't mind standing out periodically like a tourist newb, but not all the time. I didn't want to constantly paint a tourist-target sign on myself if I could help it. As I got comfortable with watch providing muted and haptic feedback, I wasn't doing the "spin in a circle with my iPhone" routine to figure out where I was and needed to go. The pattern that I ended up developing was selecting my target destination in my phone, getting the directions active, and then dropping it in my pocket. From there, the watch displayed the "next step" in the directions nicely, and had provisions for scanning backward (or looking ahead) – and while I was walking it was easy to glance at my wrist – as though I were looking at the time – and see a short note like "turn left in 300 feet". Possibly the best thing was the quality of the maps was outstanding and with my phone safely tucked away I spent far more time looking at my surroundings, getting familiar with whatever location, and just generally being more aware of my surroundings than I otherwise would "tracking with a phone".

The only place where Apple's Map IOS app and directions didn't shine was when I needed to use a combination of public transit and walking in some of these smaller towns. More than once, Google Maps gave better transit directions – or any transit directions in some cases – where Apple's Map application just didn't have the detail. Larger cities like Copenhagen, Berlin, and Paris weren't any problem – but some of the bus or trams in the Netherlands or Belgium just didn't seem to get covered consistently.