Last updated: 1 month ago

For the past five years, watchOS has evolved from an extension of iOS into a standalone operating system with its own App Store. The relatively new platform has seen multiple large revisions since its launch and each update brings Apple Watch closer to becoming an independent device.

● 31 Apple-designed watch faces
● Customizable complications
● Siri
● Workout tracking
● Sleep tracking
● On-device App Store
● Launched in 2015

Apple Watch and watchOS were announced months ahead of their eventual release. The September 2014 iPhone keynote included a "one more thing" moment, which showed off the Apple Watch for the first time. It finally launched in the spring of 2015 with a very iPhone-dependent operating system.

The operating system built for your wrist watchOS is the operating system built for your wrist

Advancements in hardware and the OS have allowed the Apple Watch to detach itself from the iPhone. Now users only need an iPhone to set it up for the first time, after which the device can perform tasks independent of the iPhone.

watchOS Features

Apple built watchOS as an extension of iOS in both look and feel. Tapping and swiping gestures make up most of the software's interactions with the Digital Crown, adding in a physical scroll-wheel function. Iconography and interface elements take on rounded shapes for better presentation and readability on the tiny display.

Apple Watch has matured into a sophisticated device on its own and features surrounding fitness, health, and convenience drive the device's use case.


Track your exercise with the Workouts app Track your exercise with the Workouts app

First and foremost, Apple Watch is a fitness device. Just by wearing it, users track their active calorie burn, exercise hours, and stand hours. 

watchOS includes automatic tracking features that can detect what a user is doing throughout the day. The accelerometers, heart rate sensor, and barometer can work together to determine if a user is walking, running, or swimming.

Apple includes the Workout app to start specific workouts with different goals and the Activity app to track a user's metrics with a system of rings. The Activity app also tracks medals you've won while doing Activity Challenges made by Apple, or lets you challenge your friends to workout competitions.

Third-party apps can tap into the Apple Watch's sensors to provide specialized workout apps and activity apps like yoga tracking or guided 5-minute workouts.


Health tracking is a big part of the watch Health tracking is a big part of watchOS

Health features were not a primary focus of Apple Watch early on, but they have quickly become a cornerstone of the platform. watchOS will track the various sensors on the Apple Watch and try to warn users of potential health issues as they arise.

The heart rate sensor tracks a user's heart rate every 5 minutes when being worn, and every minute when a workout is active. If a dangerous condition is reached, or abnormal heartbeat is found, users will be notified and asked to seek medical attention.

Automatic fall detection uses algorithms to determine if a person has abruptly fallen and remains motionless for too long. If enabled, the Apple Watch will call emergency services, like 911 in the U.S. if the user is not responsive.

As of the Apple Watch Series 4, you can perform an ECG using the Digital Crown. If an AFib is detected, you'll be alerted and need to see a doctor for more advanced screening.

Apple Watch has been known to save lives on many occasions with its various alerts and features built into watchOS.


Customize your Apple Watch face Customize watchOS with faces and complications

Apple may not allow third-party watch faces on watchOS, but you can get pretty close using the built-in customization features. The watch faces have small widgets visible called "complications" that can be changed to whatever the user wants.

Developers can build complications for their apps, which will automatically populate the complication picker in the watch customization interface. As of watchOS 7, users can now display multiple complications from the same app on the same watch face.

iOS 14 and watchOS 7 both enable users to share their customized watch faces over iMessage. The feature prompts users to install any missing apps when clicking on a shared watch face. Apple is also planning on releasing editorialized content in the App Store that suggest specific watch face configurations.

The Apple Watch Series 5 has an always-on display, which will fade out slightly when not in use and show updated information on a slightly altered version of the user's watch face.

watchOS Releases

Through the years of releases, watchOS has seen multiple design changes and feature updates. The current operating system is vastly different than what was released in 2015, as Apple has learned what Apple Watch users want from the platform and changed accordingly.

watchOS 7

  • Announced at WWDC 2020, launched in September
  • Watch faces can now have multiple complications from the same app
  • Watch face sharing lets users send their current watch face to a friend via an iMessage
  • Sleep tracking gives you basic sleep stats and wake you up with a tap
  • New workouts include dance, Functional Strength Training, Core Training, and post-workout cooldown
  • Cycling directions are available in Apple Maps and will alert users of upcoming obstacles like stairs
  • A hand washing timer starts automatically and alerts users if they have not washed long enough
  • Siri translates conversations from your Apple Watch
  • Siri Shortcuts work natively on the watch via the app or complication
  • Headphone volume can automatically adjust based on playback history to conserve hearing

watchOS 6

  • Released in September 2019
  • Activity Trends in the Health app show users what their data may mean and what to do to improve
  • Cycle tracking is now possible, and a specific app and complication were added to the Watch
  • Hearing health is tracked via the microphone and users will be alerted when environments are too loud
  • The App Store is built into the Apple Watch and lets users install and purchase apps locally on the device

watchOS 5

  • Released in September 2018
  • Workout competitions let users challenge each other to complete different goals over a time
  • Workout auto-detection starts a workout as soon as a compatible workout is detected
  • Added Yoga and Hiking workouts
  • New Podcasts app with local storage for offline listening
  • Walkie-Talkie lets users contact each other using FaceTime Audio with quick back-and-forth communications
  • Siri watch face adds third-party app support

watchOS 4

  • Released in September 2017
  • New Siri watch face that surfaces content and notifications throughout the day
  • Added Toy Story and Kaleidoscope faces
  • Monthly Activity Challenges with medals awarded in the Activity app
  • Workout app redesign
  • Added High-Intensity Interval Training
  • Workouts can be chained together in one session
  • New heart rate measurements and high heart rate notifications
  • Apple Music app redesigned
  • Apple News app added
  • Home screen list view added
  • Apple Pay Cash
  • Radio app

watchOS 3

  • Released in September 2016
  • Dock has a favorite apps section
  • Dock now contains up to 10 apps
  • Switch watch faces with a swipe
  • Control Center toggled with swipe up
  • New faces include Minnie Mouse, Activity, and Numerals
  • Apple Watch app on iPhone gains watch face gallery
  • Share activity rings with friends
  • Quick start workouts with previous settings
  • Auto-pause workouts from lack of activity
  • Wheelchair workouts and tracking added
  • Breathe app added and alerts users regularly to breathe and meditate for a moment
  • Scribble keyboard lets users draw letters rather than type them on the small display
  • Emergency SOS will call emergency services and alert emergency contacts when the Side Button is held down
  • Home, Reminders, and Find My apps added

watchOS 2

  • Released in September 2015
  • Overhauled experience with speed in mind
  • New watch faces include Time-lapse and Photo
  • Time Travel function (later removed) let users scroll the Digital Crown to view complications as they would appear over time
  • Nightstand mode shows the time and date when Apple Watch is charging vertically
  • Siri can control HomeKit devices, make FaceTime audio calls, and start a workout
  • Friends can have more than 12 friends with support for groups (Friends functionality was later removed)
  • Beats 1 Radio support
  • Reply to email using dictation

watchOS 1

  • Released with Apple Watch in Spring 2015
  • Nine watch faces included at launch
  • Twenty stock apps
  • Circular app icons on the home screen placed in a grid
  • Digital Crown navigation features
  • Digital Touch, heartbeat sharing, and app dock central to the experience

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