Out of all the new software Apple revealed at WWDC 2021, I was most excited for watchOS 8. While I wasn't an early adopter of the device, my Apple Watch has become my favorite Apple device I own in recent years — 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 the best Apple Watch does, and call me selfish, but I always want my Apple Watch to do even more. That's why my opinion on watchOS 8 is a bit of a mixed bag.
Last year, watchOS 7 added some huge new features, like Sleep, and some significant changes/upgrades to Siri, complications, and other established features. In comparison, 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 do improve the quality of life of your Apple Watch and make using your Apple Watch a better experience.
Focus is likely the biggest feature to come to watchOS 8, and yet, it really 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.
Don't get me wrong, Focus itself is a cool feature. If you need a bit of context, Focus is now the new umbrella 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. 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.
You see, you can set Focus to function across all of your devices at once (including your Mac with macOS Monterey), meaning if you want to block out unwanted notifications, you can do so across your Apple devices just from your iPhone. Basically, your watchOS 8 follows whatever your iPhone Focus your iPhone has active. You can turn on any Focus mode you have created by swiping up your Home screen to bring up the Apple Watch Control Center and then tapping the Do Not Disturb button. From there, you can select any of the focuses you have created and turn them on with a couple of options. When you do this, you can also have it mirror across all your devices, meaning you can set a focus right from your wrist, and you're Mac and iPhone will follow. What you can't do that on Apple Watch is create a new Focus. You can set new schedules for your existing focuses, but you can't create a new one altogether. I would have liked to see that ability included in the feature, but it's really not a big deal at the end of the day.
Will you use Focus a lot? That likely depends on how useful you find it for your situation. Still, it certainly makes the Do Not Disturb into a more full-fledged notification management feature, which is a welcomed addition in my book.
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 sync 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.
All these minor improvements aren't groundbreaking in any way, but they do make viewing and using Photos a little easier. Heck, you can even share photos via Messages by tapping the share button when you're looking at a photo. This is an improvement to the photos app and messaging, which Ill take more about in a bit.
What's more? watchOS 8 can make better use of Portrait Mode photos now by turning them into watch faces. They don't offer a lot of complications, just one, but they are a very striking look — especially if you love snapping shots in Portrait mode on your iPhone 12 or any iPhone that has Portrait Mode, which is most of them these days.
You can add multiple photos to the Portraits watch face, and with a tap on the screen, you can swap through them. The time will even move around to the top or the bottom of the screen depending on where the photo's focus point is, so it doesn't block any faces or subjects. 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 sort of zoom in onto the subject giving the photos a three-dimensional feel. It's a bit of a gimmick, but a cool one nonetheless.
When talking about Photos, I mentioned that messaging has some improvements, and keeping in with watchOS 8's theme, it's a small quality of life improvement. You can now use Scribble, Dictation, and emoji all in the same message, making it a lot easier to send messages.
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.
It's nice to know that texting from your Apple Watch doesn't have to mean that people are going to be able to tell you're typing from your Apple Watch.
The Breathe app got a tiny makeover and has now become the Mindfulness app, which still houses the Breathe feature, but it's also where you find the new Reflect feature. This might be the feature I love and hate the most in watchOS 8.
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.
Again, 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 watchOS 8 brought some new and exciting mental health features to the Apple Watch. Reflect, and the new Mindfulness app as a whole, weren't quite what I was hoping for, but I still use the feature a lot, for what it's worth. I'm hoping Apple builds on it in the future because the more tools people have to help with their mental health, the better.
AssistiveTouch, Wallet, and Home
Although I have been using the watchOS 8 developer beta for a month now, some features I haven't been fully able to explore as of yet, but are still worth mentioning what's new.
I'm always excited for more accessibility features because I'm a huge fan of making technology as accessible as possible. AssistiveTouch uses the sensors in the Apple Watch to let people interact with Apple Watch without touching the display, but with hand gestures. Gestures like clenching your hand together to answer calls or pinching your index and thumb together to select things on the screen. It appears that the developer beta just got this feature recently, so I haven't been able to dive into it fully, but I'm super excited to try it out. I'm happy to see Apple making its technology as accessible as possible.
If you find yourself using Wallet a lot, watchOS 8 is going to have even more use cases for it. Not only can you store all the payment cards that you've been used to, now you can even store a digital Home key in the Wallet app on Apple Watch. Not only that, but it will also allow you to share digital keys with other people, so if you have guests coming over, you don't need to leave a key under the mat for your smart locks. On top of that, if you have a Apple Watch Series 6, you can take advantage of its U1 chip to unlock your vehicle with a digital car key as you approach your car.
The Home app is getting a facelift and some more functionality, so if you have smart home devices, your Apple Watch is going to be a better tool for controlling them.
You can access all your security cameras in the new Camera room, which has various supported aspect ratios and even let you talk through cameras that support two-way audio. 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 your status symbols are now displayed at the top of the screen in the Home app, so you can tell what devices are on at a glance.
Some final thoughts
All in all, watchOS 8 isn't a massive update that comes with loads of cool new features, but rather a bunch of small improvements that make using your Apple Watch more pleasant, and that certainly isn't a bad thing. Improving the quality of life is always something new software should aim to do. Not every software update needs to change the way we use our Apple Watch fundamentally.
Sure, there are new features like Reflect and Focus, but in reality, those mostly feel like extensions or add-ons to existing features and not fully-fledged new features.
In my experience covering Apple, the company usually follows an OS like this one that packs a little more oomph. Like how iOS 13 was a bit of a clunker, but then iOS 14 came out swinging for the fences. So, for now, enjoy watchOS 8 for what it is a quality of life update to your favorite Apple Watch.