The Apple Watch is getting its annual face-lift with WatchOS 8. Expect extra workout modes, more flexible messaging tools and a portrait watch face, among other new features. Apple just released the public beta of WatchOS 8, which gives us a sneak peek at the operating system that will be released in the fall. While there are no big interface surprises in the new OS, Apple has refined the Watch experience to bring many features in line with iOS on the iPhone.
Read more: Apple Watch SE vs Series 6 vs. Series 3: How to choose?
WatchOS 8 will run on all Apple Watches starting with the Series 3 and later. We don’t recommend installing any beta software on your primary device, but if you do want to preview the new features coming to iOS 15 and WatchOS 8, you can find out how to download them here.
Here are the best new Apple Watch features we’ve found so far.
WatchOS 8 puts portrait photos on your wrist
The new Portraits watch face can use any portrait mode photo taken on the iPhone. But rather than displaying a static image, the watch uses segmentation data from the photo to separate the foreground from the background. This means the time appears just behind the head of your subject and if you raise your wrist or like to fidget with the Digital Crown, the subject pops in and out, too.
I’ve found it works best with photos that have a lot of distance between the foreground and background, plus ample headroom above your subject so you can really see the effect. Some complications are also supported, so you can put elements like battery level or heart rate on the watch face as well.
The Photos app itself gets some new tools like surfacing your memories and featured photos, so new content is synced with the Watch daily. Plus you can now share photos straight from the Watch via Messages or the Mail app.
AssistiveTouch is a mind-blowing accessibility feature
Apple announced AssistiveTouch in May along with a range of accessibility features for the iPhone and iPad.
It lets people who have the use of only one arm control the Apple Watch by detecting movement in the hand and wrist, like pinching or clenching actions. So you don’t need to be able to touch the screen to interact with the watch.
It’s difficult to describe how intuitive this feels until you use it. Pinch your thumb and forefinger and the watch will move the focus to navigate through menu options. A double pinch moves back, while a clench is a tap action to select something on the screen. AssistiveTouch is also customizable, so you could set a double-clench action to answer a call or bring up the action menu.
Better messaging tools
When you go to send a message, you’ll now be able to use the scribble tool, the emoji selector or the dictation option all from the same screen. Plus, if you go to dictate a message but find it makes an error in the transcription, you’ll now be able to select the word and use the Digital Crown to make corrections. It’s something I appreciate as my Australian accent often results in some pretty amusing dictation errors.
Just like on the iPhone, you can send a GIF by selecting the magnifying glass icon and either choosing from the trending list or searching for the GIF you want.
New apps coming to WatchOS
The Contacts app is finally available on your wrist so you can edit, add, browse and share without pulling out your phone. Apple has also split its Find My app into two new apps: Find Items and Find Devices. They do exactly what they say on the tin and you can ping items like the AirTag, or find devices signed in with your Apple ID from the Watch.
WatchOS 8 also works in conjunction with the Focus mode on the iPhone, so you can limit distractions coming through or customize modes so only notifications from certain contacts and apps break through. Once you apply the mode on the iPhone it automatically sets it on the Watch as well. It’s also supposed to be smart about Focus suggestions, like prompting you to turn on the mode when you start a workout. I’ll need to spend more time with the beta before it can pick up my usage patterns.
Two new workout options — and Mindfulness
There are two new workout types you can track: Pilates and tai chi. They use customized heart rate and motion algorithms to better determine your effort than if you traced these workouts using the Other option in the workouts app. Apple’s Fitness Plus also gets a picture-in-picture mode, plus additional workout filters.
Apple has also moved the Breathe app into a new Mindfulness app. In addition to animations to help guide your breathing, there’s a Reflect app that gives prompts to help focus your thoughts. I really like the new animations in the Mindfulness app and in the short time I’ve used them, they do help to focus my attention. The time you spend reflecting appears in the Health app on the iPhone (along with your heart rate) after each session.
Sleep tracking also adds respiration rate to the existing sleep metrics like heart rate and time asleep. You can also view trends over time in the Health app on the iPhone.
More features to come in the Wallet app
Apple is hoping you’ll ditch your physical wallet altogether and access everything from your wrist. Later in the year, iOS 15 and WatchOS 8 will be able to store a digital identity card like a driver’s license in the Wallet app. Access keys for hotels and offices can also be held digitally.
You can now digitize and store your driver’s license in Apple’s Wallet app.
The Apple Watch Series 6 will support ultra wideband or UWB for car keys so you can unlock your vehicle or start it remotely, without needing to touch or tap anything on the Apple Watch. It does depend on the vehicle manufacturer and it will also roll out later in the year.
We’ll update this story as we uncover more of the best features in the WatchOS 8 public beta.
The Apple Watch is getting new messaging tools, a Mindfulness app and a new portrait-mode watch face. It’s a preview of the new WatchOS 8 that will be released in the fall.