Wearables

Better Texting, Portrait Mode Watch Faces, and More


WatchOS 8 will deliver a number of new features to Apple Watches in the coming months, including overnight respiration tracking, fresh mindfulness features, watch faces, texting tools, and more. 

The next-generation smartwatch operating system won’t officially be available until the fall, but if you’re brave, you can try it out right now. While developers have had access to the software since June, Apple just released the first public beta for watchOS 8, and I was eager to check it out. 

The beta software is free to download on the Apple Watch Series 3 and later. To get the upgrade, your Apple Watch will need to be paired with an iPhone 6s or later running the iOS 15 public beta.

Before you go for it, you should know that once you install the public beta, you won’t be able to restore your Apple Watch software to an older version, which could mean dealing with some bugs until they’re ironed out. The good news is that I haven’t encountered any major performance issues so far.


How to Get WatchOS 8

Getting the public beta up and running on my Apple Watch Series 6 took around 1.5 hours. You first need to enroll your iPhone in the iOS 15 beta program and install it on your handset. On my iPhone 12 Pro Max, this step took the bulk of the time, around an hour. Once that’s done, you can enroll your Apple Watch in the beta software program, then download and install watchOS 8. 

watchOS 8

watchOS 8

If that sounds like too much hassle, don’t worry. When the software arrives for the general public this fall, the process for downloading and installing it will be much simpler.


Portraits Watch Face

One of my first priorities after downloading watchOS 8 was to try out the new Portraits watch face. 

In the Watch app on your iPhone, you can select up to 24 of your favorite Portrait mode snaps and turn them into watch faces. Once you pick a winner, you can move and scale the image, and select whether you want the time to appear at the top or bottom of the screen.

watchOS 8

You can then pick from three different text styles for the time: classic, modern, or rounded, and optionally add the date, plus another complication such as battery life, heart rate, or Siri shortcut. My dog Bradley always makes me smile, so I used a Portrait of him. I went with the classic text option for the time, which I positioned at the bottom of the screen, with the date below it. 

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

Once added to your watch, the Portrait mode photo will slightly zoom when you raise your wrist or use the Digital Crown. Apple says the existing Photos watch face is the most popular choice, so I’m sure the new Portrait option will be a hit. 


New Texting Features

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

Texting from the Apple Watch isn’t always the easiest, but watchOS 8 should help streamline the process. When composing a message, you can now Scribble, dictate, and add emojis from the same screen. You can, for instance, tap the microphone icon to start out dictating a message, then switch to Scribble to spell out a word, then add an emoji before pressing send. 

The new text composition screen is fairly intuitive, but it will take some getting used to. In testing, I accidentally pressed send on a few texts before I was done composing them. 

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

Meanwhile, if you spot an error in a dictated message, you can now use the Digital Crown to move the on-screen cursor to the offending spot for editing, a feature I find very helpful and easy to use. Apple says that dictation is one of the most popular ways to communicate using the Apple Watch, and everyone knows that it can be hit or miss, so this feature will undoubtedly prove useful to many more people than just me. 

Overall, I still find it easier to text from my phone, but these new features certainly improve the experience of composing messages on your watch. 

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

And best of all, when you don’t feel like using words and emojis, you can text a GIF from your Apple Watch. To do so, just tap the A symbol in a message, then tap the magnifying glass to browse or search for a GIF. 


Find Your Zen

With watchOS 8, Apple is introducing a new tool to help you de-stress and find your zen. Located inside the Mindfulness app (previously called Breathe) is a new session type called Reflect. 

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

When I tried a one-minute Reflect session, the watch offered the following meditation prompt: “Think of a time when you quietly listened to someone else,” it encouraged. “Consider how this enriched your experience.” 

When you press Begin, the watch shows a delightfully colorful, trippy animation on screen to help you zone out. When the session ended, the watch offered some advice, “Stay open to learning from others,” before displaying my heart rate. 

watchOS 8

(Photo: Angela Moscaritolo)

As a yogi, I love the new meditation prompts and animations, and I think Steve Jobs would have approved. In addition to these new Reflect sessions, the Mindfulness app still offers its classic guided breathing exercise with updated visuals. 


Overnight Respiration Tracking

Last year’s watchOS 7 brought sleep tracking to the Apple Watch, and now watchOS 8 adds a new overnight metric: your respiration rate. Using its integrated accelerometer, the watch will measure the number of breaths you take per minute while sleeping. 

To receive this data, you need to have sleep tracking enabled on the Apple Watch when you wear it to bed (visit Settings on the watch, scroll down and tap Sleep, then toggle on Sleep Tracking). Then in the morning, you can view your respiratory rate information for the previous night, as well as your trends over time, in the Health app. 

The first night I tested this feature on my Series 6, I got an interesting result, likely because I had received my second shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine the same day. Based on my testing of other respiration-tracking devices, including the Google Nest Hub (2nd Gen) and the Fitbit Luxe, I already know I average around 14 to 15 breaths per minute while sleeping, but I was interested to see whether post-vaccine side effects might impact this. 

Screenshots of the Health app

Screenshots of the Health app

That night, I was experiencing several of the post-vaccine side effects you hear about: headache, muscle pain, and I believe I was also running a fever at certain points. Unsurprisingly, my overnight respiration rate climbed as high as 21.4 breaths per minute, according to my Apple Watch Series 6. The watch measured my hourly average at 16.1 to 20.6 breaths per minute. 

I got a similar result from the Nest Hub, which averaged my overnight respiration rate at 18 breaths per minute that night. The Apple Watch gives you a lot more information about your respiration rate than the Nest Hub, which just shows your nightly average.

respiration data from the Nest Hub

The Google Nest Hub offered a similar respiration rate result

In the Health app, Apple says a respiration rate of 12 to 20 breaths per minute when you’re awake and moving around is “generally considered normal for an adult.” Factors such as working out, sleeping, and “a wide variety of medical conditions” (including fever) can affect your respiration rate, so it’s not surprising that mine shot up when I was feeling post-vaccine side effects. Fortunately, those side effects already seem to be resolving, so I’m sure my respiration rate will soon go back down to normal.


Other New Features

WatchOS 8 is a major release with many other fresh features, including support for digital house and hotel room keys, an updated Home app that promises to make it easier to control compatible smart home devices, new workout tracking options (for pilates and Tai Chi), and more. I’m just scratching the surface of what it entails in this first look, so be sure to check out our coverage of watchOS 8 when it officially arrives this fall.


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