watchOS 8 review: Letting you accomplish more from your wrist

Apple Watch SE using Reflect in watchOS 8
(Image: © Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

watchOS 8 with Portraits watch face (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

After using an Apple Watch for the past few years, I've come to realize that it may be the most important device I own. I feel pretty naked without it on my wrist. It keeps me on time for appointments and meetings, helps me sleep, track my workouts, and does all the great things that a great Apple Watch does. This is why watchOS has become the software news out of WWDC that I pay the most attention to, and I eagerly await to get my hands on the beta software every year.

watchOS 8 feels less ambitious and grandiose than its predecessor, but oddly enough, just as helpful. A lot of the features and improvements this time around are small but improve the usefulness of your Apple Watch. Plus, some of the new features allow you to accomplish more from your wrist than ever before, turning your Apple Watch Series 6 or any other Apple Watch you own into a bit more of a "command hub" for your device.

watchOS 8: Availability

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You can download and install watchOS 8 right now for free, and it's compatible with every Apple Watch after the Apple Watch Series 3. Here's a quick list of compatible devices.

  • Apple Watch Series 3
  • Apple Watch Series 4
  • Apple Watch Series 5
  • Apple Watch Series 6
  • Apple Watch Series 7
  • Apple Watch SE

Remember that in order to install watchOS 8, you need an iPhone running iOS 15. Once you've made sure you're iPhone is compatible with iOS 15 and downloaded the software, you can download watchOS 8 through the Watch app on your phone. And, if you were on the beta software of watchOS 8, you can always move to the official release.

Of course, before you install the new software, we strongly urge you to back up your Apple Watch to ensure if anything goes wonky during the process, you don't lose all your data, settings, and the like.

watchOS8: What's new

Focus is likely the most prominent feature to come to watchOS 8, and yet, it feels more like an iOS 15 feature that Apple also decided to put on Apple Watch. It kind of feels like an app that has an Apple Watch companion app. The companion app can't do nearly as many functions as the iOS app, but it offers most functionality. Still, Focus is the best way to control your notification settings for multiple different circumstances, and with just a tap on your wrist, you can change all your devices to the same Focus.

Looking at Photos on your Apple Watch hasn't always been the best experience. Often it just looks like a huge grid of all the photos you have synced over from your iPhone. The good news is watchOS 8 has made the Photos app look more like what you're used to seeing on the iPhone. You can even sync Memories over automatically and have them displayed in a beautiful mosaic grid layout, making it easier to comb through those pictures at a glance.

In watchOS 8, the Mindfulness app has taken over the Breathe app. Don't worry; the Breathe feature is still there. You'll just see it in the Mindfulness app instead of on its own. Part of the reason for the rebranding is because Mindfulness also houses a new feature called Reflect. Reflect offers another way for you to use your Apple Watch and take a moment to yourself. I've been slightly disappointed by the Mindfulness, but more on that later.

Lastly, the Home app became way more useful on Apple Watch thanks to watchOS 8. It's now a much more helpful hub for all your connected devices, and it makes controlling all your devices from your wrist a lot easier.

watchOS 8: First things to do

Once you have watchOS 8 up and running on your Apple Watch SE or other Apple Watch, I would first suggest getting acquainted with Focus. You'll want to set up Focus on your iPhone first because once you do, you'll have all those custom Focus settings on your wrist with the tap of a button. Learning to use Focus on Apple Watch likely won't take you long, but once you do, your Apple Watch will likely become your favorite way to set the proper Focus for your whatever the situation.

Next, I would highly suggest you take a look at the Photos app. See the new layout, look at all the beautiful memories you have collected over the years, and ensure that you have the correct folder you want to sync to your Apple Watch. This is important because you can now share photos from your Apple Watch. You can easily send pictures via messages or email with anybody in your contact list right from your wrist.

Of course, every new version of watchOS comes with new faces. watchOS 8 has the Portrait face, which can better use Portrait Mode photos now by turning them into watch faces. They don't offer many complications, just one, but they are a very striking look — especially if you love snapping shots in Portrait mode on your iPhone that has Portrait Mode, which is most of them these days. The neatest part is the ability to use the Digital Crown to "scroll" through the photo. Since the Apple Watch can recognize the foreground and background, it lets you zoom in onto the subject giving the photos a three-dimensional feel. It's a bit of a gimmick, but a cool one nonetheless. So take your favorite Portrait Mode photos and give them a try right away.

watchOS 8: Focus

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Focus is the most significant addition to the Apple Watch, but at the same time, it's also much more an iOS 15 feature than it is an Apple Watch feature. Don't get me wrong, Focus itself is an excellent feature, but it's only so useful on the Apple Watch.

If you need a bit of context, Focus is now the new overarching term for Do Not Disturb, and it lets you create custom Do Not Disturb modes based on your needs throughout the day. You can set different focuses for a plethora of different uses, scheduling when you want them to turn on automatically, or just having the option to turn them on with a tap of a button on your iPhone or Apple Watch. Of course, you can choose which apps you will see notifications from or which contacts you can receive messages from. So, if you're working but also want to be available to your family for emergency purposes, you can set a Focus to block all notifications except ones from your family members.

Focus on Apple Watch feels a bit like an afterthought

The problem is you have to do all of that setup on your iPhone. The Apple Watch only really acts as an on switch for the Focuses you already have set up. You can't customize a Focus on your Apple Watch. You can't choose which apps can send you notifications during a Focus, all you can do is turn them on and off. It seems odd that Apple doesn't let you customize or create a new Focus right on your Apple Watch. Sure, it's a lot of settings to go through, and doing it on your iPhone or iPad is undoubtedly a little easier, but there's no reason you wouldn't be able to do it on your Apple Watch if Apple let you.

For example, the Sleep app introduced in watchOS 7 has a ton of settings when you set it up, and that is handled from your Apple Watch. You can set a schedule, customize that schedule for each day, and even create, delete, and change Sleep settings. It's roughly the same amount of settings and menus as setting up a Focus, and I've been able to do it on my Apple Watch with no problem.

Being able to control the Focus for all your devices is a nice touch

It's not all bad, though, since once you have all your Focuses set up, the Apple Watch becomes the best place to turn on and off your Focus at your leisure. Plus, you can choose to mirror the Focus from your Apple Watch to all your devices. Your Mac, iPad and iPhone are all silenced with a few taps on your Apple Watch. Forgot to turn on your work Focus for a meeting? A couple of taps on your Apple Watch, and you can activate it pretty discreetly. No more taking out your phone in front of your boss or making a scene, just an easy on/off switch for the feature.

So, while I lament this inability to fully customize Focus from my Apple Watch, I recognize that the Apple Watch becomes the most helpful way to use the feature once you have it set up to your liking.

watchOS 8: Mindfulness

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Let me tell you, I was hoping for more from the Mindfulness app. If you don't know, Mindfulness is a new app that houses two features. Breathe, the same Breathe feature you know and use, and Reflect, a new feature. Although, it's hard to call Reflect a totally new feature since it really feels like the Breathe app just repackaged.

Reflect is mostly a copy of Breathe

Reflect functions similarly to Breathe, but instead of focusing on your breathing for a minute, it has you focus on a question or a thought to try and help you center yourself at the moment and practice mindfulness. It's like micro-meditation, much like the Breathe app, but with a little more focus. When you hit begin, your Apple Watch display will show a beautiful little colored animation, and when the minute is up, it will let you know what your heart rate was during that minute as well.

Mindfulness may be the feature I love and hate the most in watchOS 8. I have been a big advocate of using my Apple Watch to help manage my anxiety, and I was hoping that watchOS 8 would bring some new and exciting mental health features to the Apple Watch. Reflect, and the new Mindfulness app as a whole wasn't quite what I was hoping for and have mostly been a disappointment.

That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate what Apple is trying to do with Mindfulness. Despite Reflect not being my favorite feature, I'm still hopeful Apple will build on this in the future and create more robust tools for mental health on the Apple Watch. It looks like with the addition of guided mediation classes on Apple Fitness+ that Apple isn't shying away from using its premium health tracking device as a way to help people that struggle with their mental health. I just hope that later iterations of watchOS do more.

watchOS 8: Messaging

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Sending messages on your Apple Watch has always been a bit of a cumbersome experience, but luckily watchOS 8 fixes many issues by making a simple but significant change.

You can now use Scribble, Dictation, and emoji all in the same message, making it a lot easier to send messages. You no longer have to struggle with Scribble for the entire message, as you can jump to Dictation with a tap of a button, and you can even finish your message off with the perfect emoji for the situation.

Messaging on your Apple Watch has never been better

This is a quality of life improvement I fully support. While I'm sure no one uses their Apple Watch as their primary device to send messages, it certainly helps to be able to send messages using more than one method. It gives you the flexibility to message how you want by using the three main methods of sending. Plus, you can use the Digital Crown to scroll to a spot making it easier to fix typos with either Scribble or Dictation. No more having to send a message with a mistake in it because fixing it would be too annoying ( don't act like you haven't done it before), and that's something that this writer endorses! Plus, all of this not only works in Messages but also in the Mail app. So if you need to send a quick email from your wrist, it's a lot easier than it used to be.

On top of using everything all together, watchOS 8 now lets you send the gifs just like you can on your iPhone using the #images messaging app. It's a fun and simple way of bringing a feature over from the iPhone that feels like it should have been on the Apple Watch all along. Plus, since the upcoming Apple Watch Series 7 has a larger screen, it includes a full QWERTY keyboard that you can use to type or swipe words with, which will undoubtedly make watchOS 8 on the Apple Watch Series 7 even better at handling messages and emails.

watchOS 8: Photos

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Yet another tiny improvement that makes using your Apple Watch much better is the upgrade to the Photos app. In watchOS 8, the Photos app on your Apple Watch looks more like what you're used to seeing on the iPhone, with the photos you've synced displayed in a big tile with a title to keep you organized. You can even sync Memories over automatically and have them displayed in a beautiful mosaic grid layout, making it easier to comb through those pictures at a glance — especially for important life events you want to remember.

Finally! Sending photos on Apple Watch

While serial photo snappers and memory keepers will have a good time with the new Photos layout, the big addition to photos is allowing you to send photos directly from your Apple Watch. You no longer have to pull out your phone when your friend asks you for the photo you took last night; you can easily send it to them on your Apple Watch.

This is one of those updates in watchOS 8 that highlights just how much the new software is about minor updates that make a big impact. It seems silly to think that this wasn't possible on your Apple Watch just a few months ago because it feels like it always should have been there.

Lastly, the Portrait watch face is pretty cool and certainly allows you to use your portrait mode photos in a new way. Being able to use the Digital Crown and "scroll" through the photo is a neat touch, and I love that you can use multiple photos with the watch face so that they will rotate through. The one downside is that the watch face doesn't allow many complications, but it's a striking look that some people will like quite a bit.

watchOS 8: Home app

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If you have several HomeKit devices, then watchOS 8 will be a welcome update for you because the Home app on Apple Watch got a considerable upgrade.

You can access all your security cameras in the new Camera room inside the Home app on Apple Watch. It has various supported aspect ratios and even lets you talk through cameras that support two-way audio. Somebody at your door? See who it is and talk to them directly right on your Apple Watch.

The Home app is just better with watchOS 8

The Home app on Apple Watch is also smarter now, suggesting other devices in context. So if someone rings your doorbell, you may see the Apple Watch suggest unlocking your smart lock. Plus, all status symbols now appear at the top of the screen in the Home app, so you can tell what devices are on at a glance.

Learning how to use the Home app on Apple Watch is pretty straightforward and having the Apple Watch become a true hub for all your HomeKit accessories is immensely helpful to anyone.

watchOS 8: Should you wait?

I've been using watchOS 8 since the first developer beta, and it's been one of the most stable releases of watchOS I have experienced. I see no reason you shouldn't upgrade to iOS 15 and watchOS 8 if you have compatible devices. All the features Apple promised at WWDC are currently in the watchOS 8, and everything is running smoothly.

Even if you think a lot of the new features in watchOS 8 aren't that exciting, I guarantee you there's at least one you will find quite useful even if it doesn't seem like it at the moment. That's the good thing about the quality of life improvements — they are beneficial to everyone at some point.

watchOS 8: The bottom line

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Indeed, watchOS 8 doesn't bring anything wildly different or new to the table, but that doesn't mean it's a bad update. It genuinely makes the Appel Watch much better to use with apps like Photos, Home, and Messages, all while still being the fantastic watchOS we have come to know and love.

Yes, Mindfulness might not be as ambitious as I would have hoped, and Reflect does primarily act as a clone of Breathe; it's still a feature I use on a fairly regular basis. It is useful, even if it isn't the most innovative thing.

At the end of the day, watchOS 8 improves the useability of any Apple Watch you download it on, and that makes it a pretty good software update in my book.

Luke Filipowicz
Staff Writer

Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way. 

Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.