watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

What new features are coming to the Apple Watch? Here's the lowdown
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Apple watchOS 8 is now live – and you can now download it to your Apple Watch device.

The follow-up to watchOS 7 is set to improve how you communicate with others via the Apple Watch, how you can look back over photos you've snapped on your iPhone and even spend more mindful time with your smartwatch.

Read on for everything you need to know and our favorite features.

Which Apple Watches will get watchOS 8?

Apple's watchOS 8 is compatible with Apple Watch Series 3 and later. Every generation up to the newest Apple Watch Series 7 will get the update, including the Apple Watch SE.

That means pretty much every Apple Watch user out there will benefit from all these new features.

How to upgrade to watchOS 8:

To get watchOS 8, you'll first need to download iOS 15 on your iPhone. So head to Settings > General > Update and deal with that.

Once that's done, you can head to your Apple Watch app on the iPhone.

In General > Software Update you can check to see if watchOS 8 is available to you. If it's not then install any updates that are available, and or restart your Apple Watch.

If watchOS 8 is available then install it, and agree to the necessary legal stuff. To install the update your Apple Watch must be more than 50% charged AND connected to the charger.

Apple watchOS 8 new features:

Portrait watch faces

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

According to Apple, photo watch faces are the most popular choice for Apple Watch users. Personally, we've always thought the flat pictures were a bit naff, but it's added a way to make these even better.

Portrait watch faces enable you to use portrait mode snaps captured on your iPhone, and optimise them for use as a watch face. And we have to say, we're totally sold.

Unlike normal watch faces, these need to be added within the Watch app on your iPhone. You can select up to five portraits, which will rotate on the Apple Watch to keep things fresh.

You can customise how and where you see the time, and you can add a singular complication underneath.

And Apple works a little magic on the portrait picture by separating the subject from the background, and placing them alluringly over the clock face. It's really nice, and makes the Apple Watch even more personal.

New Mindfulness app

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

The all-new Mindfulness app on watchOS 8 replaces the Breathe app from previous generations – and expands the feature set of the Apple Watch to be more focussed on mental health and well-being,

Guided breathing is still a core part of the app, and you can start a session from within Mindfulness, just like before.

However, that's been joined by the new Reflect session. This plays a psychedelic visualisation on the Apple Watch for one minute, to give you time to reflect and take some downtime from whatever you're doing.

For Fitness+ subscribers, there's another feature available. The new Guided Meditations are available in the Mindfulness app as audio only. They can be listened to straight from the Apple Watch, and you can also opt to do this as part of a workout session – such as a walk, in case you find it hard to sit still to meditate.

Better cycling features

Cycling has got a lot of love in watchOS 8. The Workout app will now autodetect if you're out cycling and ask you if you want to track it as a workout – so you won't miss vital minutes of a session.

That feature is only available on Series 6/7/SE, although all watchOS 8 devices will get auto pause for cycling workouts, so you don't need to remember to press pause/resume if you stop for lunch on your ride.

What's more, Apple has added fall detection for cycling – which will land in a future update to watchOS 8.

Do more from your Apple Wallet

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

The Wallet app is already a big part of iOS – and Apple Pay is one of our favorite Apple Watch features. But now it's set to do more than payments.

That means that items such as flight tickets, sporting event passes, and even things like COVID 19 passports and vaccination certificates will appear within the Wallet, and can be scanned from the wrist.

In addition, watchOS 8 can use Ultra Wideband technology to act as keys for compatible cars, smart locks and even hotel room entry.

You will be able to add ID cards such as drivers licenses to the Apple Watch, and apparently selected TSA checkpoints in the US will accept digital ID.

New Photos app

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

In addition to making it easier to put faces on your watch faces, Apple is redesigning its Photos app to make it more useful to use on the Watch,

So you'll be able to scroll through memories and multiple photos and share photos through Messages and Mail apps making it a vastly improved experience to spend some time looking through snaps on your wrist.

New Home app

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

During Apple's segment on improvements to its smart home platform, it also revealed that it's introducing the ability to view when someone rings your doorbell out front via a HomeKit-enabled camera and it's also bringing an intercom feature as two more ways to make its Watch more fully integrated into its smart home experience. You'll also be able to broadcast messages over Apple's HomePod and HomePod Mini speakers.

More always on apps

The Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6 brought an always-on display, that dims to a power saving watch face when not in use. However, it can be heavily disruptive, when the screen dims when using an app, and you can no longer see the information you need.

In watchOS 8, Apple had enabled more apps to get a minimal option on the powered down screen.

Maps, Mindfulness, Now Playing, Phone, Podcasts, Stopwatch, Timers, Voice Memos, to name a few, will play nicer with the always-on display.

Respiratory rate data during sleep

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

Apple finally launched its first native Sleep app in watchOS 7, and now it's bolstering its skills to track your bed time with the ability to track respiratory rate.

It's not a new metric to smartwatches, but it does mean you can now track breaths per minute, which could offer an insight into your current wellness. While Apple does say this isn't designed as a medical feature, increased breathing rate can be an early warning system of respiratory illness.

You'll be able to view trends over time and while capturing and syncing that data to Apple Health, will send a notification to your phone if there's sudden trends in your respiration rate.

New Workout modes

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

Apple went pretty big on adding new workout modes in watchOS 7, and now it's decided to bolster the ranks by adding dedicated modes for Tai Chi and Pilates.

Apple says the new modes use validated custom-built heart rate and motion algorithms to provide users with accurate metrics for these two new workout types. However, we're unsure whether there will be specific metrics, or whether it simply means that calorie burn and HR estimates will be more accurate.

Set multiple Apple Watch timers

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

Users of Apple Watch timers rejoice, as you can now set multiple tagged timers simultaneously via Siri on the Apple Watch.

The new update to timers means you can say, for example "set 10 minute potato timer" but also "set a 20 minute laundry timer". When the timer goes off you'll be notified of which is which.

Messaging support gets richer

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

If you spend a lot of time responding to messages on your Watch, Apple is improving the way you can respond to those messages and what you can send in those responses too.

Firstly, you now get the Contacts app on watchOS – and about time too. That will make it easier to select contacts to message from the wrist.

In watchOS 8 users can mix dictation and scribbles to compose and edit messages before they're sent. And you can now add emojis while in scribble view, and even send Gifs if you prefer communicate in images and symbols as opposed to hammering out big paragraphs. And let's face it, communicating via Gif is the most effective way to chat.

Focus modes

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

Apple's watchOS 8 will work in conjunction with the new Focus tools being introduced to iOS 15.

It's a feature designed to stop Watch wearers from being distracted when using certain features on their smartwatch by filtering what notifications are received during different scenarios.

So when you're about to workout with the Watch, the Fitness focus profile will be suggested to help you focus on that exercise time with minimal distractions.

AssistiveTouch gestures

Last month we covered some very cool gesture control for Apple Watch, that's designed for users with upper limb differences. And those are landing in watchOS 8.

That includes clenching the fist, pinching fingers, and incredibly, shaking the wrist to summon a cursor, which can be controlled by tilting the Apple Watch.
It looks a lot of fun and we'll be trying them out with interest – although that's not to detract from the serious potential, allowing people who struggle to use the smartwatch for physical reasons to enjoy its best features.

Other exciting new watchOS 8 features

watchOS 8: What's new for your Apple Watch

As is always the case, Apple doesn't talk about everything it's going to bring in its new watchOS update but did flash up a useful screen to give us an idea of what else is coming. Here's of some of those additional new features:

  • Find items app to locate tagged items using Find My network
  • More third party Apple Watch apps can make use of the Always-On display mode
  • New Music app will let you share songs, albums and playlists through Messages and Mail
  • New Weather apps will support severe weather notifications and next-hour precipitation
  • Live headphone audio exposure
  • Fitness+ to get picture in picture support

So, plenty to look forward to and we're sure one the beta version of watchOS 8 start rolling out we might even find there's more in store for the Apple Watch when it lands later this year.

How we test

James Stables


James is the co-founder of Wareable, and he has been a technology journalist for 15 years.

He started his career at Future Publishing, James became the features editor of T3 Magazine and and was a regular contributor to TechRadar – before leaving Future Publishing to found Wareable in 2014.

James has been at the helm of Wareable since 2014 and has become one of the leading experts in wearable technologies globally. He has reviewed, tested, and covered pretty much every wearable on the market, and is passionate about the evolving industry, and wearables helping people achieve healthier and happier lives.

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