Apple released WatchOS 8 for the Apple Watch on September 20, alongside iOS 15 for the iPhone. While the latest Apple Watch software isn’t quite as feature-packed as its iPhone and iPad counterparts, it adds some significant quality of life improvements that promise to make the experience of Apple’s wearable even smoother, while helping you stay more relaxed, maintain focus, and keep in shape.
WatchOS 8 takes the long-standing Breathe app that’s been around since WatchOS 3 and expands it into a broader Mindfulness app. This adds a new Reflect section to help folks take some time to sit back and think happy thoughts.
The new Mindfulness app also still includes the features of the previous Breathe app, which has remained basically unchanged since its debut five years ago. According to Apple, however, Breathe has gotten more popular — which really isn’t surprising considering the year we’ve all had.
While Breathe still prompts you to just relax and take deep breaths, the new Reflect mode will prompt you to think about certain things, such as “something you love to do and why it brings you joy.” This will be followed by a gentle animation for a few minutes to help you focus and take your mind off whatever is stressing you out. These little breaks will also be recorded in the Apple Health app as “Mindful Minutes.”
Other health and fitness improvements
WatchOS 8 also makes a small but useful improvement to the Sleep Tracking feature that was unveiled last year, monitoring your respiratory rate while you sleep in addition to your heart rate and hours of sleep. Since your respiratory rate should be pretty consistent while you’re sleeping, any changes could be indicative of a problem. The data will be stored in the Health app, and you’ll also get a notification if a significant change is detected.
The WatchOS 8 Workouts app adds new Tai Chi and pilates workouts as well. In the Fitness+ app, there are also seven new high-intensity workout plans from fitness trainer Jeanette Jenkins. There is also a new Artist Spotlight series in Fitness+ with motivational musical playlists from some big names, including Lady Gaga.
WatchOS 8 makes some very nice usability tweaks to the Messages app. You can now use Scribble to not only compose messages, but also edit text in-line by tapping to place the cursor or select a word. You can also now finally add emojis to scribbled and dictated messages, so you’ll no longer need to send another message just to get a smiley face in.
The app shelf from the iPhone Message app also comes to WatchOS 8, letting you drop in Memoji stickers, GIFs, audio messages, heartbeats, or send money via Apple Pay Cash.
Portrait Watch Face
Every update, Apple adds a few new watch faces, and WatchOS 8 is no exception. This time around, we’re getting a new Portraits face that lets you pull Portrait Mode shots right out of your iPhone photo library and display them with some cool new effects. You can select up to 24 portrait photos that the watch face will automatically cycle through and choose one of three different styles for the clock.
The new WatchOS 8 face will intelligently decide where to put the clock in each of your photos, sometimes even layering it slightly behind your subjects for greater depth. A quick twist of the Digital Crown zooms in slightly on the subjects while still maintaining perspective. It’s an especially neat effect when the clock is in the background.
The Photos app gets a long overdue redesign, with new cards that provide access to the selected Memory and Featured photos of the day in addition to your Favorites album.
Photos in any of these sections can be selected and scrolled through on the screen as before, but if you stop on any single photo, you’ll see a new share button in the bottom left corner that lets you send the photo out via the Mail or Messages apps.
WatchOS 8 fills in another big gap in the Apple Watch experience with a new Contacts app that lets you browse your contact list directly. Although your contacts were available before in apps like Phone, Messages, Mail, and Maps — and of course you could place calls and send messages with Siri — there was no easy way to just view your contact list or look up detailed information on a contact such as their phone number or street address.
Contacts in WatchOS 8 provides all the same key information as your iPhone contacts app, including notes and the person’s location if they’re sharing it with you. You can also share contacts via Messages or Mail and even edit contact info or add a new contact directly from your wrist, filling in all the usual fields using either dictation, Scribble, or the new on-screen keyboard on the Apple Watch Series 7.
Find Items and Devices
When Apple consolidated its Find My apps in iOS 13, the Apple Watch was left out. Find My Friends became known as Find People, so you could still find folks who had shared their location with you, but there was no way to locate your Apple devices the way that you could from your iPhone.
Fortunately,WatchOS 8 finally brings these features to the Apple Watch with the ability to find people, devices, and even items such as Apple’s AirTags. To keep things from getting too cluttered on the smaller screen, WatchOS 8 still divides these into three separate apps, rather than consolidating them into the single Find My app found on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. However, the individual Find People, Find Devices, and Find Items provide most of the same features as their corresponding sections in the iPhone app. You can even get notifications on your wrist now when you leave your AirPods behind.
For years, the built-in Clock and Timers apps on Apple’s mobile devices have only let you run a single countdown timer at once, and although iOS 15 hasn’t done anything about that on the iPhone, the good news is that WatchOS 8 finally brings support for multiple timers to your wrist.
You can set multiple timers directly in the Timers app or simply make your requests using Siri. A back arrow in the top left corner of an active timer screen lets you return to the main timers list, where you can start another timer. Timers will be sorted based on time remaining, and if you’re using a timer complication on your watch face, it will show you whichever timer is about to run out first. It’s a welcome addition for busy home chefs and anybody who has more than one thing going on at the same time.
Other new features
WatchOS 8 features a handful of other smaller quality-of-life improvements:
- The Music app gets a nice redesign that includes the ability to share songs, albums, and playlists directly from the Apple Watch.
- The Weather app will now show severe weather notifications and next-hour precipitation alerts. More weather complications are also now available for your watch faces.
- The Noise app will now measure audio volume exposure for headphones in real time, so you’ll know if your listening levels are too high before you risk longer-term hearing damage.
- All of the new Focus Modes from iOS 15 also apply to the Apple Watch and can be activated and deactivated from the WatchOS control center.
- The Home app is now faster and improves support for accessories like doorbell cameras with two-way audio, so you’ll now be able to talk to whoever is at your front door. When responding to notifications, you’ll also see related accessories, such as your front porch lighting when viewing your doorbell camera.
- The Always-on Display on the Apple Watch Series 5, Series 6, and Series 7 will now work with more Apple apps, such as the stopwatch, alarm, Now Playing, and Apple Maps. Third-party developers will be able to make use of it in their own apps too.
- With iOS 15.1 and WatchOS 8.1, you can now store your proof of COVID-19 vaccination in the Wallet app, complete with the QR code for quick scanning.
What else is coming?
WatchOS 8 promises to deliver support for digital keys and digital ID cards, paving the way for a day when you can someday leave your wallet behind entirely. As far as we know, the underlying features for this are already in place, so the ball is in the court of state governments and digital lock makers to add the missing pieces.
Unlike the iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 point releases, the WatchOS 8.x updates don’t appear to add much in the way of new features. As of this writing, WatchOS 8.3 is currently in beta (for reasons unknown, Apple seems to be skipping WatchOS 8.2), and there’s every indication it’s little more than a maintenance release.
Which watches can get WatchOS 8?
You can install WatchOS 8 on every model of Apple Watch that’s capable of running WatchOS 7, although you’ll also need to be using an iPhone 6s or later, updated to iOS 15.
- Apple Watch Series 3
- Apple Watch Series 4
- Apple Watch Series 5
- Apple Watch Series 6
- Apple Watch Series 7
- Apple Watch SE
Apple notes that not all features will be available on older models, although the distinctions here aren’t as significant as they are for the iPhone. For the most part, the omissions are based on standard hardware differences, such as the always-on display (Series 5, 6, and 7 only), ECG and Fall Detection Sensors (Series 4 and later), or Ultra Wideband technology for advanced digital car keys (Series 6 and 7 only).
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