The Apple Watch Ultra’s Action Button teases smartwatch automation

For me, the worst part about running in cold weather isn’t the freezing wind, black ice, or the fact that my face feels like it’s been stabbed with one thousand needles. It’s the 10 seconds spent shivering as my icicle fingers navigate through menus to launch an Apple Watch workout. Ten seconds isn’t much, but it’s enough for the cold to seep into your bones because you’re not moving. That’s why I was stoked for the Apple Watch Ultra and one of its key new features: the Action Button.

The Action Button is a programmable physical button that’s exclusive to the Ultra. Unlike the digital crown or side button, it isn’t hard-coded to do any one thing. Instead, you can program it to do anything you want. Sort of.

Apple placed the button on the side of the watch opposite the digital crown, right next to the speaker grille. And it’s designed to be hard to miss: it’s incredibly orange. Not just any orange, either — it’s international orange, which is used by the aerospace industry to visually distinguish objects from their surroundings. It’s a choice that suggests the button ought to stand out and is meant for adventurous people.

In my case, I set up the Action Button to automatically launch a custom 3.5-mile interval run. It’s a small addition to the watch, but it’s made a noticeable difference. For instance, this past weekend I decided to buck up and run despite the miserable weather. While it was technically 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the rain and wind made it feel like it was at least 10 degrees colder. The Action Button is a big reason why I didn’t call it quits as soon as I walked out the door. Because pressing the Action Button immediately starts a workout, I didn’t have an extra 10 seconds to list all the reasons why I should go another day. It wasn’t exactly a fun time, but I was relieved that I’d stayed on track with my training. After all, I’ve got a race coming up, and they don’t cancel races because of a little rain.

Not only do I appreciate that the Action Button solved a very specific problem of mine, but it’s also pleasant to use. It lies flush with the case and doesn’t stick out much. That’s great, since it limits accidental presses, and a groove in the center of the button makes it easier to find by touch. When you do press it, there’s a satisfying click. Normally, I’d have to slow down or veer to the side of the road to properly pause a run, skip an interval, or mark a segment. I don’t have to do that with the Action Button, and it’s been a refreshing change of pace.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Most importantly, I can use the Action Button while wearing running gloves. While my gloves are touchscreen-compatible, they’re not super reliable when I’m trying to interact with a smartwatch display mid-run. Touchscreens are fine for everyday use, but they’re easily foiled by gloves or sweaty fingers. Physical buttons work regardless of what gear you’re wearing — a major reason why athletes tend to be card-carrying members of Team Button. For the Ultra to be a versatile fitness watch, it needed to add another physical button.

That said, it’s not like the Action Button is revolutionary. Physical buttons have been on smartwatches (and analog watches) for a long, long time. Garmins, Polars, Fitbits, and Samsung smartwatches all have a button (or buttons) for navigating menus and programmable hotkeys. (They’re great!) What’s intriguing about the Action Button is that you can program your own actions outside of presets via Apple’s Shortcuts automations. For instance, one of the example options is a shortcut to notify everyone at your next meeting that you’re running late. I doubt most users will put in the effort, but it hints the Action Button could one day be highly personalized outside of fitness tracking and adventuring.

It hints the Action Button could one day be used outside of fitness and adventuring

Unfortunately, this is also where the Action Button falls short. Not only can programming shortcuts be tedious, but using them with the Action Button isn’t as intuitive as it could be. Personally, I’d love it if the Action Button could start a five-minute timer, but I don’t have the patience or will to attempt building a shortcut for it. I’d also be thrilled if the Action Button did different things depending on your Focus Mode. Imagine the Action Button seamlessly switching between dropping waypoints during a Hiking Focus and starting timers in Cooking Focus. This seems like an obvious, natural extension of both Focus Modes and Action Button, but you can’t do that. (Yet.)

It’d also be nice to see more third-party apps make use of the Action Button. There’s a handful that do, but right now you’re mostly limited to the options Apple provides. Even so, the Action Button is still useful enough that it shouldn’t be gatekept to the Ultra. It should be added to the Apple Watch Series 9 and the next-gen SE, especially if Apple adds more non-fitness options.

Even without all that, the Action Button is still a unique take on physical button controls for smartwatches. It’s not a home button, nor is it a back button. Frankly, it has nothing to do with navigating through menu options. On other smartwatches, hotkeys are often a button’s secondary function. Conversely, that’s the Action Button’s sole purpose — and for the most part, it’s easy to program and doesn’t require memorizing several button combos. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s the kind that can be quickly changed or adapted to best suit your needs. Of course, I hope Apple adds more customizable options down the line. But for now, I’m content that I don’t have to shiver in the cold.

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