For me, the worst part about running in cold weather isn’t the freezing wind, the black ice, or the fact that my face feels like it’s been stabbed by a thousand needles. It’s the 10 seconds spent shivering as my icy fingers navigate menus to start 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 thrilled with the Apple Watch Ultra and one of its key new features: the action button.
The action button is a programmable physical button exclusive to the Ultra. Unlike the digital crown or side button, it’s not hard-coded to do anything. Instead, you can program it to do whatever you want. Kind of.
Apple placed the button on the side of the Watch opposite the Digital Crown, right next to the speaker grill. 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 should stand out and is for adventurous people.
In my case, I configured the action button to automatically initiate a custom interval of 3.5 miles. It’s a small addition to the watch, but it made a noticeable difference. For example, last weekend, I decided to prepare and race despite the bad weather. While it was technically 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the rain and wind made it feel like at least 10 degrees cooler. The action button is a big reason I didn’t turn it off as soon as I walked through the door. Because hitting 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 stayed on track with my training. After all, I have 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 a pleasure to use. It sits flush with the case and doesn’t protrude much. This is very good, as it limits accidental presses, and a groove in the center of the button makes it easier to find the touch. When you press it, there’s a satisfying click. Normally, I would have to slow down or veer to the side of the road to properly break a run, skip an interval, or score a segment. I didn’t have to do it with the action button, and it was a refreshing change of pace.
More importantly, I can use the action button while wearing racing gloves. Although my gloves are touchscreen compatible, they aren’t very reliable when trying to interact with a smartwatch screen mid-run. Touchscreens are fine for everyday use, but they’re easily thwarted by gloves or sweaty fingers. Physical buttons work no matter what gear you’re wearing – a big reason athletes tend to be card-carrying members of Team Button. For the Ultra to be a versatile fitness watch, another physical button needed to be added.
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 awesome!) What’s intriguing about the action button is that you can program your own actions outside of the presets via Apple’s hotkey automations. For example, one of the example options is a shortcut to let everyone in your next meeting know that you’re running late. I doubt most users will make the effort, but it does hint that the action button could one day be highly personalized outside of fitness and adventure tracking.
This hints that the action button could one day be used outside of fitness and adventure
Unfortunately, this is also where the action button falls short. Not only can programming shortcuts be tedious, using them with the action button isn’t as intuitive as it could be. Personally, I’d love for the action button to be able to start a five-minute timer, but I don’t have the patience or willpower to try to create a shortcut for that. I’d also love it if the action button did different things depending on your focus mode. Imagine the action button switching seamlessly between dropping waypoints in a hiking focus and starting timers in the cooking focus. It seems like an obvious and natural extension of the focus modes and action button, but you can’t do it. (Still.)
It would also be nice to see more third-party apps using the action button. There are a handful that do, but right now you’re mostly limited to the options provided by Apple. Even so, the action button is still useful enough not to be reserved for the Ultra. It should be added to 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 is not a home button, nor a back button. Frankly, it has nothing to do with navigating the menu options. On other smartwatches, hotkeys are often the secondary function of a button. Conversely, that’s the sole purpose of the action button – and for the most part it’s easy to program and doesn’t require memorizing multiple button combinations. 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 with not having to shiver from the cold.
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