Everything You Need to Know About Apple's watchOS

WatchOS 5 serves up new tricks for your wrist

Apple watch series 3
Apple

Much like your computer and smartphone, the Apple Watch has its own operating system — watchOS — that it uses to make calls, receive text messages, and run apps

Since the launch of Apple Watch in 2015, the device has gone through several iterations of watchOS, the most recent being watchOS 5, announced in mid-2018. Here’s a rundown on each of the watchOS versions in reverse chronological order with the features each version added to the Apple Watch experience.

Every watchOS update through watchOS 4 is compatible with all Apple Watches, from the original Apple Watch through Apple Watch Series 3, which is the latest model. That changes with watchOS 5, which isn't supported on the original Apple Watch.

watchOS 5

multiple WatchOS 5 faces
WatchOS 5 offers a variety of enhancements.

 Apple

Many of the updates in WatchOS 5 focus on staying active and new connection features. Specific enhancements with this update include: 

  • A Competitions feature
  • Yoga and hiking workouts
  • Updates to Outdoor Run
  • Walkie-Talkie option
  • A more predictive, proactive Siri
  • Improved notifications
  • Apple Podcasts
  • Student ID cards

More Details

The popular Activity app now has a Competitions feature you can use to challenge your activity-sharing friends. Choose an activity, and as the week goes by, monitor your progress and your friend's progress live on the Apple Watch. 

The OS also introduces a new yoga workout and a hiking workout that takes elevation into consideration. Runners will like the additions to the Outdoor Run, which include pace alert, cadence, and rolling mile stats. If you forget to set a start on an activity, don't worry; Apple Watch now has automatic Start and End alerts for workouts. 

Previous WatchOS versions introduced email, text messages, and phone calls (on cellular-equipped watches). WatchOS 5 goes one step further with its new Walkie-Talkie app. It establishes a one-to-one connection between two Apple Watches. Just push the Walkie-Talkie button and speak. The person at the other end hears your voice and replies with a push on their Walkie-Talkie button. 

The Siri watch face saw a few improvements as well. You can opt to receive live sports scores on your watch or activate the new Shortcuts features that are part of iOS 12.

If you are tired of raising your watch to your mouth and saying "Hey, Siri" to launch the feature, you'll be happy to hear you no longer have to say it. The watch recognizes what you want when you raise the watch and automatically launches Siri.

At last, the Apple Watch can display web content. Previously, you could see an email or message had a link, but you couldn't access it. With watchOS 5, when you receive a link in a message or email, you can view a version of the content that is formatted for the small screen.

If you've been jonesing for your favorite podcasts, you'll appreciate the new Podcast app in watchOS 5. You'll finally be able to listen to podcasts streaming directly from your watch as you participate in activities such as runs, gym sessions, or bike rides.

watchOS 4

Watch OS4
Apple

WatchOS 4 comes packed with new watch faces, including a new Siri watch face that displays info such as how long it will take you to get to your home or work from your current location. Other new faces include a kaleidoscope face, and new Toy Story faces for Buzz, Jesse, and Woody.

If you have HomeKit-connected devices, you can set up the watch to do things like display the power switch for your lights at night, so you don’t have to get out of bed to turn them off. 

The fitness and workout apps also received an upgrade with watchOS 4. The Activity app now offers personal monthly challenges and alerts to notify you when you’re close to meeting your goal for the day or beating yesterday’s numbers. The Workout app makes it easier to start a workout and has improved swimming capabilities.

WatchOS 4 adds a flashlight app to the control center that you can use as, well, a flashlight, or set to blinking mode when you’re running or cycling at night. Apple Pay receives an upgrade with this version, allowing you to send cash to friends using Apple Pay right from your wrist. Music gets an upgrade with personalized recommendations for tunes based on what you typically listen to.

While it's still there, the honeycomb-inspired app picker can be switched out for an alphabetical list, which makes it more logical (and likely faster) to find your installed apps.

watchOS 3

Watch OS3
Apple

With watchOS 3, Apple allows some of the apps you frequently use to stay in the watch’s memory. As a result, they launch faster and don't necessarily need to have a strong connection to your phone to function. For power users of the Apple Watch, this update was huge. It made it possible to run some apps, like those for running, entirely without your phone present. For runners who wanted to leave their phone at home, this was a welcome update.

A new dock introduced in watchOS 3 allowed you to pick some of the apps you used most often and give yourself easy access to those. The button on the side of the Apple Watch started to work as an app switcher, rather than just a way to bring up the list of people you designated as friends. This change made using apps on the device much faster and easier.

Speaking of switching, the update added the ability to quickly switch between different Apple Watch faces by swiping across the screen. This new feature made switching watch faces a more reasonable thing to do several times during the week or day.

watchOS 2

Apple Watch OS2
Apple

One of the standout features of watchOS 2 was its addition of native third-party apps. Everything from your favorite fitness app to Facebook can run on your watch and take advantage of some of the Apple Watch’s built-in hardware to create a better user experience. Previously you were limited to using only Apple’s native apps, but watchOS 2 opened the door for developers to start creating apps for the watch.

And open the door it did. After the launch of this version of the operating system, hundreds of apps started to pop up for everything from navigation to shopping. Fitness apps saw a particularly large amount of traction with the update, allowing you do a lot more on the fitness front than you could previously with the device.

Beyond app, watchOS 2 brought a host of other features that in a way transform the Apple Watch into a whole new device. Here are a few of the new features that made the software update worth it:

  • Activation Lock: No one wants to have their Apple Watch stolen. The original version of the Apple Watch software made it so thieves could wipe your Watch without knowing your passcode and go on to sell it with no one being the wiser. With watchOS 2, Apple added an optional Activation Lock that allows you to tie your Apple Watch to your iCloud ID. Once it is connected, someone needs your username and password to wipe the device, something your average street thief won't have. It's a layer of extra security that can add peace of mind should your device go missing.
  • New Watch Faces: watchOS 2 came with a number of new watch faces, which was much-needed at the time. New additions included cool time-lapsed skylines from locations around the world and the ability to use one of your favorite photos (or albums) as your watch face.
  • Time Travel: Admit it: time travel is cool. While your Apple Watch won’t physically take you forward or backward in time, the time travel feature aims to give you a quick look at what’s previously happened or what’s on tap in some of your apps. For things like your calendar or the weather, being able to scroll forward a few hours or a few days, can make things much easier. This feature made it so you could quickly see if you had a meeting coming up today and make plans for the future.
  • Transit Directions: Anyone who lives in or has visited a major city knows how crucial mass transit directions can be. While a recent update to macOS added mass transit directions, watchOS 2.0 brought those directions to your wrist as well. The Maps app is able to not only tell you what bus or train to take, but also give you turn-by-turn directions to the station or stop, so you’ll be able to get where you’re going without running into any snags in the process. Google Maps launched for the Apple Watch around the same time, but it was nice to have both options available, especially when traveling. Delivering directions is one of the Apple Watch's killer features, enabling you to keep your phone in your pocket and navigate through unfamiliar areas.
  • Siri Gets Serious: Siri sees a bit of an upgrade with watchOS 2. Siri is now able to interact with your Glances and some Watch apps like Maps, making her even more useful. Try asking Siri to give you directions to dinner or to start your morning workout.

watchOS

Apple watch OS
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

WatchOS was the first version of Apple’s operating system for the Apple Watch. Looking at what is available today, the first version of the Apple Watch’s OS was bare bones. At launch, it wasn’t able to run non-Apple apps and relied entirely on apps that Apple built for the device.

With the first version of the operating system, you had a few watch face options and could text friends and place calls from your wrist,  assuming your iPhone was nearby. The device offered a drawing and heartbeat mode, so you could send friends custom-drawings or a loved one your heartbeat during the day.

At launch, the watch used Apple Maps, which was less useful than Google’s option at the time. The fitness features in the first version of the Apple Watch’s operating system were exceptionally useful however and offered an easy way to count calories during the day and track your steps and how long you spent sitting, with gentle reminders to get up and move throughout the day.

At the time, the watch's fitness features were unique. While there were devices such as the FitBit on the market that tracked your movement during the day, that movement was typically represented in steps, not broken down by the amount of time you spend exercising versus the amount of time you spent slowly shuffling through your neighborhood.

Future Versions of watchOS

Tim Cook presenting about Apple Watch
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple tends to announce the newest version of the Apple Watch's operating system at its Worldwide Developer Conference, an annual event that traditionally occurs each June. The announcement of the new version of the operating system, along with some of its features, is typically done at the conference, while the actual software doesn't roll out to customers until the fall. The delay gives developers time to tweak their apps and service so they'll work with the update the day it launches. Many developers have access to the update months before the general public.