The Painful Process of Replacing a Damaged Apple Watch

Earlier this week, my Apple Watch met an unfortunate end when I dropped it onto the kitchen floor. Sod’s law was in full effect as it landed face-down, shattering the glass instantly. This was less than a week after reading about Stephen Hackett’s own Apple Watch coming to a similar end.

Unlike Stephen, I (for reasons I still cannot fathom) had not purchased AppleCare+ for it. This meant replacing it at the Genius Bar would cost $199. Considering that the Series 1 starts at just $269 and is much faster, I decided to pay a little more and bought the Series 1 Space Gray 42mm at the West 14th Street Apple Store–this time with AppleCare.

Replacing an Apple Watch is, in theory, no different than transferring an Apple Watch from one iPhone to another. It should have been simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, and what is becoming a trend at Apple, that wasn’t the case. The process should have been as follows:

  1. Unpair the old Apple Watch from your iPhone, creating a backup in the process
  2. Pair the new Apple Watch to the iPhone
  3. When prompted, select the backup to restore from

What I actually had to do was reminiscent of a usability issue that once plagued iOS. A backup can only be restored to an Apple Watch that is running the same version OS (or earlier). While that isn’t necessarily an issue in itself, the way this is handled by the Watch app is kind of ridiculous.

Once I unpaired my damaged Apple Watch, I began the pairing process with the new one. When prompted to select a backup to restore from, the only options I had were a backup from September and one from last year. The backup from my just-unpaired Apple Watch was nowhere to be seen. Without any context, it simply appeared that the backup didn’t happen. Perhaps something had gone wrong during the unpairing process that prevented a backup from being made?

After a few expletive-filled minutes, I realized that this must be because my old watch was running watchOS 3.1, whereas the new one from the Apple Store was still running 3.0. I tested this by setting up my old watch again and restoring it from backup to see what options I had. As I had hoped, the recent backup did appear.

This backup ambiguity used to be a common issue in iOS and one that resulted in many headaches. If you backed up a device running a version of iOS that’s newer than the new device to restore to, you couldn’t restore a backup. Instead, you’d have to set up the device as new, update it, then restore it and try again. This isn’t the case anymore as it was finally fixed earlier this year and iOS now offers to update your device before doing anything else if it detects the backup was made with a newer version of iOS.

Alas, this doesn’t apply to the process of setting up an Apple Watch. In fact, there’s no information at all that you might need to update the watch before you can restore a newer backup. As far as the Watch app was concerned, I could either set up my watch as new or restore from one of the two older backups. Only after performing the following steps was I able to restore the recent backup to my new watch:

  1. Unpair the old Apple Watch from your iPhone, creating a backup in the process
  2. Pair the new Apple Watch to the iPhone
  3. Set up the watch as a new Apple Watch
  4. Go through all of the various confirmation screens
  5. Perform a software update
  6. Unpair the watch
  7. Pair the watch again, this time being able to restore from the recent backup

I worry about how many people have not been able to restore a recent backup to a new watch because their replacement watch wasn’t running the same software as the previous one. I only knew about this workaround because I’d experienced it before with iOS–and I’m an Apple nerd.

The watch is essentially a companion to the iPhone so there isn’t much data that the watch itself contains, but being able to restore from a backup is the best way to keep the disruption to a minimum. Considering how long it takes to set up, update, or unpair a watch, the whole process was an experience almost as painful as smashing the watch in the first place.

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