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5 things we love about WatchOS 8, and 1 that has us baffled

Apple has released WatchOS 8, the latest software for its Apple Watch smartwatch, and I’ve been trying it out on both the Apple Watch Series 3 and the Apple Watch Series 6. (Naturally it will also come preinstalled on the new Apple Watch Series 7.) This is a modest update in terms of new features, but there are still plenty of things to try out. Here’s what has impressed so far, along with one feature that’s not what we want at all.

The two new watch faces are great

There are two new watch faces included with WatchOS 8, Portraits and World Time. Portraits is going to get all the attention, but World Time is the one I’ve stuck with. Portraits suffers because it’s a bit of a pain to set up. You need to choose and add Portrait photos through the Watch app on your phone, rather than from the Watch itself, and if you add more than one photo — 24 in total can be selected — then the Watch face just cycles through them, or you can tap the screen to change the photo.

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World Time watch face in WatchOS 8.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you twist the Digital Crown the photo zooms in slightly, but this is not a permanent effect and it reverts to the standard view after a few seconds. I like the choice of layouts for the time, plus the option to add a complication is very welcome. But I find the auto swapping of the photo distracting, and the need to do everything through the Watch app confusing.

Portrait Watch Face in WatchOS 8
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Instead, I’ve stuck with the new World Time watch face. It’s a neat spin on the GMT watch face, showing multiple city names on the outer bezel and the local time on the inner bezel. Sunrise and sunset are also shown, and a tap on the screen animates the map which moves to your current location. I like the little details like the red arrow on the outer bezel pointing to your city, and the option to add four different complications, plus a choice of analog or digital time. It’s definitely one of the more attractive of Apple’s busier faces, and a great addition to the existing GMT and Chronograph Pro faces.

Sleep tracking keeps getting better

Sleep tracking was introduced to the Apple Watch in WatchOS 7, and it has improved in WatchOS 8, but there is a new way of activating it you need to know about. You don’t use a Bed icon in Control Center as in WatchOS 7 anymore, but instead, sleep mode is found under the new Do Not Disturb menu in the Control Center. Alternatively, you can set a standard sleep schedule in the Sleep app for automatic activation.

WatchOS 8 sleep mode.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The big change in the latest software is Respiratory Rate has been added as a metric. It uses the accelerometer and the Watch’s other sensors to work out the number of breaths you take per minute and can be used to inform about certain sleep conditions. However, Apple does point out it’s not intended for medical use. To see the data, you have to visit the Health app on your phone, rather than view it as a complication.

WatchOS 8 Respiratory Rate data.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

To do this, go to the Health app, then Browse, and Respiratory, where it collects and displays all related data. I used the Apple Watch Series 3 to track sleep and it captured my Respiratory Rate without a problem, and it used about 10% battery over seven hours. The Series 6 used a little more energy and took about 15% overnight for approximately the same sleep time.

Try AssistiveTouch

A new feature designed to increase accessibility is AssistiveTouch, which lets you interact with the Watch without touching the screen. It really shows off Apple’s impressive gesture recognition, which uses the accelerometer and other sensors to recognize movement. It’s activated under the Accessibility menu in the Watch app on your phone, and uses pinches and fist clenches to move through the Watch’s menu.

This is AssistiveTouch in #watchOS8, and accessibility feature that will help more people interact with the smartwatch. It takes a few minutes to learn the gestures, but once you have it's incredibly accurate, and my exaggerated movements here aren't required to make it work.

— Andy Boxall (@AndyBoxall) September 21, 2021

Setting it up takes just a moment, and you need a few minutes to learn the gestures. Once you have it’s easy to move fluidly through the menus. What’s most impressive is the accuracy, as the Watch obviously doesn’t use a camera to see your movements. It doesn’t seem to get it wrong at all, and if it’s unsure it just ignores the input until you do it again.

It’s a really smart, technically impressive, and I imagine extremely helpful mode for many people to enjoy the Apple Watch may not have so easily done so before.

Install WatchOS 8 on your Series 3

Worried your Apple Watch Series 3 doesn’t have the guts to run WatchOS 8? Apple still sells the Series 3 and says it’s compatible with the software, but the update to WatchOS 7 caused some issues for owners, potentially leaving many concerned the same thing would happen again. The good news is that there are no such problems with WatchOS 8 on the Series 3 so far.

I hadn’t used the Watch Series 3 for a few months and had to perform one interim WatchOS 7 update before moving on to WatchOS 8. Both went without a hitch without a need to free up additional space, but did take several hours to complete, so patience is needed. Don’t start the process if you’re not in a position to put the Watch on its charger either.

Patience is needed during startup after updating too, which takes an age on the Series 3, but once going the software is immediately more spritely than WatchOS 7, although some of the animations do still stutter, it’s never in a way that affects use. Updating the Watch Series 3 to WatchOS 8 has noticeably improved the speed of the smartwatch, so it’s worth doing for that alone.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Set up a Separation Alert

This is probably the most helpful addition to the Find My toolkit, as it reminds you if you leave your iPhone behind somewhere. Starting out, I couldn’t get the feature to work, but the day after going though the setup process and making sure Find My’s settings were all correct, it sorted itself out.

It’s activated in the Find My app on your iPhone, where you tap on the device you want to keep track of, then flick the switch under the Notify When Left Behind option. You can add basic locations as exemptions if you prefer not to be alerted when you go outside without your phone while at home. The idea is, when the Apple Watch notices your chosen device is no longer nearby, it sends you an alert so you can retrieve the device before it gets lost.

Initially, my Apple Watch did not tell me when I was separated from my iPhone. I left the phone in my car and walked a considerable distance away — the car became a speck on the horizon — but my Watch stayed silent. I tried again and again, checking different options as I went, but alas, if I had left my iPhone behind somewhere, I wouldn’t have known. However, the next day it suddenly started working, and alerted me when I walked away from my phone to get coffee. I was little more than 10 meters away when the alert showed on the Watch.

It may be that the alterations I made to Find My needed time to “kick in,” and my eagerness to try the new feature was the issue, rather than the feature itself. Provided it continues to work in the way it did, this is a very useful feature, and the 10 meter-plus distance is well-judged and shouldn’t produce too many false alerts.

Don’t talk to me Siri

Not being able to get the Separation Alert working was annoying, but not anywhere near as much as the new Voice Feedback feature in WatchOS 8’s Workout app. The Apple Watch will verbally announce workout milestones while it’s tracking, including time elapsed, distance, and other details. It does this either through connected Bluetooth headphones, or the Watch’s speaker.

I understand the feature can be helpful for cyclists, but it really doesn’t need to be active by default. Out on my walks, those around me don’t need to know any of the details Siri shouts out. If that wasn’t annoying enough, it seems to be an on-or-off feature at the moment. It can be deactivated in the Watch app on your phone, and because it’s a global setting, there’s no way to only have it active for cycling, and not for walking for example.

There are uses for this kind of feature, but I don’t believe it’s for everyone, and certainly not something anyone will want all of the time.

A modest update

WatchOS 8 is a modest update and doesn’t bring with it any major features that will change the way the Apple Watch works for everyone, but features like AssistiveTouch and Respiratory Rate may really alter the way the Apple Watch is used for some, and even potentially open it up for people who haven’t been able to use it at all until now.

It’s also great to find WatchOS 8 working so well on the Apple Watch Series 3, and being easy to install as well, giving the aging smartwatch another year of life. We don’t recommend you go out and buy a Series 3, and suggest the Apple Watch SE instead, but if you already own one the update should hold you over until the Apple Watch Series 8 next year.

WatchOS 8 is available to download now, just ensure you have updated your iPhone to iOS 15 first as otherwise, the update won’t show up.

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