Everything You Need To Know About Apple's watchOS

New tricks for your wrist

Apple watch series 3
Apple

Much like your computer and smartphone, the Apple Watch has its own software that helps it do things like make calls, receive text messages, and run apps. For the Apple Watch, that software is called watchOS and it's designed specifically to run on the Apple Watch.

Since the Apple Watch’s launch, the device has gone through a number of different iterations of the operating system. Here’s a rundown on each one (in reverse order, with the most recent first), and what features it added to the Apple Watch experience.

For now, each watchOS update has been compatible with the original Apple Watch all the way through Apple Watch Series 3 (the latest model). If for some reason you're still using an older version of the device's operating system, updating is easy. Here's an explanation of how to make that happen, if you're having trouble.

watchOS 4

Watch OS4
Apple

watchOS 4 (the current version of the operating system) comes packed with a number of new watch faces, including a new Siri watch face that can display info like 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 even set it up to do things like display the power switch for your lights at night, so come bedtime you don’t have to get out of bed to turn them off. 

The fitness and workout apps also got an upgrade with watchOS 4. The Activity app will offer you personal monthly challenges as well as alerts to let you know 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 such as distance and pace trackers, as well as auto sets.

watchOS 4 also 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 also gets an upgrade with this version, allowing you to send cash to friends using Apple Pay right from your wrist. And Music gets an upgrade, with more personalized recommendations for tunes based on what you typically like to listen to.

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

watchOS 3

Watch OS3
Apple

With watchOS 3, Apple started to allow some of the apps that you use more frequently to stay in the watch’s memory. That meant that they launched faster, and didn’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 also 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, that was a very welcome update.

A new dock introduced in watchOS 3 also allowed you to pick some of the apps you used most often, and give yourself easy access to those. And 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 also added the ability to quickly switch between different Apple Watch faces by simply swiping across the screen. It made the process much easier, which in turn made switching watch faces a much 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 ability to allow native third-party apps. That means everything from your favorite fitness app to Facebook can run on your watch and take advantages of some of the Apple Watch’s built-in hardware to create an even better user experience. Previously you were limited to just using Apple’s native apps, but with watchOS 2 it 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 just apps; however, 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 our favorite 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 2.0, Apple added an optional Activation Lock which allows you to tie your Apple Watch to your iCloud ID. Once connected, someone will need to have your username and password in order to wipe the device, something your average street thief will be without. It's a little layer of extra security that can add some 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 face.

Time Travel: Admit it: time travel is cool. While your Apple Watch won’t physically take you forward of backward in time, the time travel feature aimed 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 really 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 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. 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 little bit of an upgrade with watchOS 2 now in addition to her standard features, Siri is 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 very first version of Apple’s operating system for the Apple Watch. Looking at what we have today, the first version of the Apple Watch’s OS was pretty bare bones. At launch, it wasn’t able to run non-Apple apps, and instead relied entirely on apps that Apple had built for the device.

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

At launch, the watch only used Apple Maps, which at the time was far less useful than Google’s option. The fitness features in the first version of the Apple Watch’s operating system were exceptionally useful; however, and offers an easy way to count calories during the day as well as track things like 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 a bit unique. While there were certainly devices like the FitBit on the market that tracked the amount of movement you might make during the day, that movement was typically represented in just 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 the Apple Watch's operating system at its Worldwide Developer Conference, an annual conference that traditionally happens 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 will have access to the update months before the general public will.

If you're wondering what we think is coming in terms of Apple Watch hardware, we'll we have some guesses (and rumor roundups) in our often-updated Apple Watch rumors article.