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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple Watch Face Off: Astronomical faces

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

An Earth view from the Astronomy face.

When I was a kid I was obsessed with astronomy. I got astronomy magazines. We had a telescope. I memorized facts about the planets and their satellites. On a starry night I could point out most of the constellations and even name many of the stars in those constellations. I’m no longer quite so obsessed, though I do still follow a bunch of astronomers on Twitter and read a few astronomy blogs.

So how exciting it was to discover that Apple planned to ship not one but two astronomy-themed faces with the Apple Watch! Timekeeping and astronomy have historically gone hand in hand, since the passage of time is so often demarcated by astronomical events, whether it’s the rising and setting of the sun, the procession of the seasons, or the phases of the Moon.

These two faces, Astronomy and Solar, are beautiful, well-designed creations, and the Astronomy face really is a stunning demonstration of the Apple Watch’s computing power and the high quality of the display.

And I never use either of them.

(Update: When I wrote this story, my Solar face was not functioning properly. I tried a restart, and it still didn’t work. Once I posted the story, people reported that they were seeing a much more functional Solar than I was. My watch finally did show it properly, and the review’s been updated to reflect the more functional Solar I see today. I also heard from some people who say the same thing has happened to them—which makes me think that, while some of my initial criticisms of Solar were invalid, I need to add bugginess to the negative side of the ledger.)

How they tell time: Both Astronomy and Solar display the current time digitally in the upper right corner of the screen. The day and date appear in the top left corner. There are no options.

Solar didn’t work for me (left), but eventually—after a restart and a couple of hours of waiting—it started to function properly (right).

Of course, the digital time is an afterthought to both of these faces. The point of them is their visual display of the passage of time.

In Solar, it’s a simple solar chart, where a circle (the sun) moves along a path from below a horizon line (night) to above it, and then back below it at sunset. When it’s night, the sun is a black circle with a white outline a la a solar eclipse; when it’s day, it’s a brightly glowing white circle. In a nice touch, at sunrise and sunset the face displays some red on the horizon, emulating the sky at that time of day.

A simulated Solar sunset.

When you spin the Digital Crown, Solar places dots on the sun’s path to indicate sunrise, twilight, and night, and displays the time offset in the lower left corner (and the simulated time in the upper left) just as the Astronomy face does.

The Astronomy face is packed with features, possibly to its detriment. It’s really three different faces in one: One features an image of the Earth, centered on your current location (indicated by a pulsating dot), with day and night regions clearly visible. It looks great, right down to the (fake) wispy clouds1.

If you tap on the Earth, the digital time recedes into the upper right corner and you can spin the globe with your finger. It’s fun to be able to glance and see if it’s after sunset in London. If you lift your finger (or tap), the globe spins back to your current location. Spinning the Digital Crown causes the scene to move forward or backward in time, with the simulated time appearing in the top left corner and the offset (e.g., “+1 Hours”) appearing in the bottom left.

During normal operation, you’ll see two icons representing the other two modes of this face in each of the bottom corners. When the Earth is visible, you’ll see an image of the Moon (it’s subtly animated and moves from light to dark, so it doesn’t display the current Moon phase—a missed opportunity) and a representation of the solar system. Tap on either of them to switch to those modes.

That wizard came from the Moon!

Since we don’t live on the Moon, the Moon face isn’t centered on your current location. Instead, it displays the face of the Moon with its current phase. (And yes, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, it does appear in the proper orientation!) As with the Earth, you can tap and then spin the Moon around, so you can get a glimpse at the dark side.2 If you spin the Digital Crown, you can see past and future Moon phases; the simulated date appears in the top left corner, with the offset and the displayed Moon phase (e.g., “Waning Crescent”) appearing in the bottom left corner.

The third face mode displays the position of the planets in the solar system at the current time. It’s not as visually arresting as the other modes, and as an astronomy nerd I could point out that the orbits of the planets aren’t really circular and of course the sizes of the planets aren’t to scale (because then there’d be nothing to see), and since I’m not a believer in astrology I don’t find the position of the planets especially relevant to my life. It’s still kind of a fun and nerdy decoration, though, and right-thinking people will appreciate that Pluto is nowhere to be found on the face.

Nope, no Pluto.

Tapping on the face in this mode will cause the time to recede, as it does on the Earth and Moon modes, but you can’t swipe around in the solar system. Using the Digital Crown will let you watch the dance of the planets around our sun, with the simulated date appearing in the top left corner and the time offset in the bottom left. Conjunction with Venus in 84 days!

I’ve heard some users complain that it’s too easy to jog the Digital Crown and move the Astronomy or Solar faces out of displaying the current time. I haven’t noticed that in my usage, but both faces make it a point to always display the current time in the top right corner.

Complication areas: None, on either face. I don’t overburden my most-used face with complications, but I’m a big believer in the power that complications provide. When I look at a mechanical watch these days, the first thing I think is how they won’t offer any complications that tell me what’s going on right now somewhere else on the Internet.

Astronomy is a face that’s just so packed with functionality that there’s little room for complications, though some could be eked out if the day-and-date section was turned into a complication and an additional slot was added in the top right corner just above the time. Solar has plenty of room for complications, but none are offered.

In short, it feels like these faces weren’t developed on the same track as many of the Apple Watch’s other faces. Most faces offer at least some amount of customization, but not these. You take them or leave them, and while they have some appeal, most of it is sapped away by the lack of complications and customizability.

Final verdict: Astronomy feels simultaneously overstuffed and unfinished. It’s attractive and impressive, but the addition of a few customization options would be welcome.

Solar is pretty, and I’m glad—once the bugs I experienced disappeared—that it show sunrise and sunset information when scrolling with the Digital Crown. It still needs more customization options, most particularly support for complications.

Both of these are pretty faces, but… shouldn’t we all aspire to being more than just another pretty face? More customization, please!

  1. It would be awesome if the cloud images were based on live satellite data, but it’s impractical—especially given that you can scroll into the future. 
  2. There’s no dark side of the Moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark. 

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