WatchOS 8 public beta: The best new features coming to Apple Watch


Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Apple Watch is getting its annual facelift with WatchOS 8 with extra workout modes, more flexible messaging tools and a new portrait watch face. Apple released the public beta of WatchOS 8 Wednesday, which gives us a sneak peek of the operating system that will be released in the fall. While there are no big interface surprises in the new OS, Apple has refined the Watch experience to bring many features in line with the iPhone.

WatchOS 8 will run on all Apple Watches from the Series 3 and later. We don’t recommend installing any beta software on your primary device, but if you do want to preview the new features coming to iOS 15 and WatchOS 8, you can find out how to download them here.

Here are the best new Apple Watch features we’ve found so far.

WatchOS 8 puts portrait photos on your wrist

Using any portrait mode photo taken on the iPhone, you can now add the Portraits watch face to see these images on your wrist. But rather than displaying as a static image, the watch uses segmentation data from the photo to separate the foreground from the background. This means time appears just behind the head of your subject and if you raise your wrist or like to fidget with the Digital Crown, the subject pops in and out, too.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

I’ve found it works best with photos that have a lot of distance between the foreground and background, plus ample headroom above your subject so you can really see the effect. Some complications are also supported so you can put elements like battery level or heart rate on the watch face as well.

The Photos app itself also gets some new tools like surfacing your memories and featured photos, so new content is synced to the Watch daily. Plus you can now share photos straight from the Watch through Messages or through the Mail app.

AssistiveTouch is a mind-blowing accessibility feature

Apple announced AssistiveTouch in May along with a range of accessibility features for the iPhone and iPad.

It lets people who only have the use of one arm control the Apple Watch by detecting movement in the hand and wrist, like pinching or clenching actions. So you don’t need to be able to touch the screen to interact with the watch.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

It’s difficult to describe how intuitive this feels until you use it. Pinch your thumb and forefinger and the watch will move the focus to navigate through menu options. A double pinch moves back, while a clench is a tap action to select something on the screen. AssistiveTouch is also customizable so you could set a double clench action to answer a call or bring up the action menu.

Better messaging tools

When you go to send a message, you’ll now be able to use the scribble tool, emoji selector or the dictation option all from the same screen. Plus, if you go to dictate a message but find it makes an error in the transcription, you’ll now be able to select the word and use the Digital Crown to make corrections. It’s something I appreciate as my Australian accent often results in some pretty amusing dictation errors.

Just like on the iPhone, you can send a GIF by selecting the image magnifying glass icon and choosing either from the trending list, or searching for one from your wrist.

New apps coming to Watch OS

The Contacts app is finally available on your wrist so you can edit, add, browse and share without pulling out your phone. Apple has also expanded its Find My app into two new apps: Find Items and Find Devices. They do exactly what they say on the tin and you can ping items like the AirTag, or find devices signed in to your Apple ID from the Watch.

WatchOS 8 also works in conjunction with the Focus mode on the iPhone, so you can limit distractions coming through or customize modes so only notifications from certain contacts and apps break through. Once you apply the mode on the iPhone it automatically sets it on the Watch as well. It’s also supposed to be smart about Focus suggestions, like prompting you to turn on the mode when you start a workout. I’ll need to spend more time with the beta before it can pick up my usage patterns.

Two new workout options — and Mindfulness

There are two new workout types you can track: Pilates and tai chi. They use customized heart rate and motion algorithms to better determine your effort than if you used to track these workouts using the “Other” option in the workouts app. Apple’s Fitness Plus also gets a picture-in-picture mode, plus additional workouts filters.

Apple has also moved the Breathe app into a new Mindfulness app. On top of being able to see animations to help guide your breathing, there’s also a Reflect app that gives prompts to help focus your thoughts. I really like the new animations in the Mindfulness app and in the short time I’ve used them, they do help to focus my attention. The time you spend reflecting appears in the Health app on the iPhone (along with your heart rate) after each session.

Sleep tracking also adds respiration rate to the existing sleep metrics like heart rate and time asleep. You can also view trends over time in the Health app on the iPhone.

We’ll update this story as we uncover more of the best features in the WatchOS 8 public beta.

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