WatchOS 4 officially became available to all Apple Watch owners last week even if its release was overshadowed by the hype surrounding the Series 3 Apple Watch. The newest software update for Apple’s wearable brings a decent amount of change, but it’s not enough to make the Apple Watch feel like an entirely new machine. Some of the biggest new additions in watchOS 4 include a new vertical Dock, new Siri and Toy Story watch faces, a slew of new heart rate monitor calculations, and new Music and News apps.
While watchOS 4 is available for all Apple Watch models, I primarily tested it on an Apple Watch Series 2. Though we also spent time trying the new Series 3 Watch, I wanted to see how much of an impact watchOS 4 has for those who stick with an existing Apple Watch rather than upgrading to the newest model. And no matter which version of the Apple Watch you have, they’ll all feel similar running watchOS 4.
Dock and interface
You won’t notice many differences on watchOS 4 when first booting it up on your Apple Watch. Your preferred watch face fills the entire display. Swiping down from the top opens the notification drawer, swiping left or right changes the watch face, and swiping up from the bottom opens the Control Center. The Control Center now has a new feature, the flashlight switch, and it has three controls: one that puts a bright white rectangle on the display, one with a flashing white rectangle, and the last with a bright red rectangle. Apple explained the flashing option could be useful when you’re doing outdoor activities at night like walking the dog or running. Reflective clothing makes it easier for cars to see you in the dark, and the flashing option can almost act as a similar warning to surrounding vehicles if you’re not wearing that kind of clothing.
A single press of the Digital Crown reveals the app grid, while a long press brings up Siri. (Note: we’ll discuss the new Siri watch face in the next section, but discussions of Siri’s new voice on the Apple Watch are in our Series 3 review.) The app grid hasn’t changed much, but now you have the option to get rid of it. Force Touching the app grid lets you choose between grid and list view, so if you’ve hated meandering around the grid to find that one app you need, you can now keep every app in an alphabetical list.
A single press of the side button brings up the Dock, and a long press lets you either turn off the watch or call emergency services. Apps in the Dock are oriented vertically, a switch from the horizontal orientation in the previous software. It’s slightly easier to scroll by swiping up and down on the watch’s display rather than right to left, so it’s only a marginal improvement. This works even better with the Digital Crown, which you can turn to cycle through the Dock’s apps. You can also see more apps with the vertical Dock: apps are stacked on top of each other like cards in a deck, and the watch’s display can show up to three apps at once. One appears farther away in the background, one is in the middle of the display, and the other appears in the foreground.
Another new feature you may notice sporadically has to do with alerts. When your iPhone receives two alerts at the same time that get pushed to your Apple Watch, the watch combines those notifications into a single bubble. Previously, each alert had its own push and bubble, so this consolidates that a bit to make seeing multiple, immediate notifications easier.
Watch faces and complications
Everyone gets excited about new watch faces even if they represent a fraction of what’s new about a software update. After all, they’re often the most looked-at things on a smartwatch. And faces are even more important on an Apple Watch since you can have multiple watch faces on your device at one time, switching between them freely by swiping from side to side on the display.
WatchOS 4 brings three main new watch faces: Kaleidoscope, Toy Story, and Siri. The Kaleidoscope face is neat because it essentially warps an existing image into a funky, kaleidoscope-like pattern using the primary colors in the image. Apple has a few new floral wallpapers to choose from in iOS 11, and those are the default photos to use in the Kaleidoscope watch face. You can choose another image from the Photos app on your iPhone to customize the Kaleidoscope face even more. When on the watch’s screen, the face subtly moves like an actual kaleidoscope would, giving it a psychedelic effect.
The Toy Story watch face is divided into four different preferences: you can choose to have Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Jessie appear randomly on your screen, or you can choose your favorite of the three characters to populate the watch face every time. I stuck with the group preference, so I saw a photo of three of them on my watch face most of the time, and when I tapped the watch face, different animations of the three characters popped up. Sometimes a confused Woody would run across the display, sometimes a self-assured Buzz would appear from the bottom edge. It was a surprise every time, and I don’t blame anyone who gets lost tapping away at this watch face to see all the different animations.
Apple touts the new Siri watch face’s ability to be proactive in showing pertinent information to your life. When activated, the watch face changes periodically to show you important information based on the time of day, your location, and your most used apps. I consider it the “personal assistant” watch face since it updated me on what’s going on currently in my day and what’s up next in addition to fielding questions. By default, the Siri watch face has the new Siri complication at the top-left space and the time on the top-right space. (Complications, you’ll recall, is the term Apple uses for the functional wrinkles users can swap in and out of a base watch face.) The lower portion of the watch’s display is taken up by changing information—mine typically showed me the next appointment up on my calendar, a photo from my Photos app, the latest headline from Apple News, or the podcast currently playing on my iPhone through the Now Playing complication.
Like other watch faces, you can edit the two available complications in the Siri watch face. If you don’t want immediate access to Siri all the time, you could remove that icon and replace it with a more useful app. I don’t use Siri a ton, but it did come in handy for basic information, like the weather forecast ahead of my weekend trip to Boston or the score of the Jets-Dolphins game from the previous Sunday. I like getting quick answers on my wrist, but more often than not, I have follow-up questions to my initial, easy questions. Those tend to make me reach for my iPhone rather than rely on Siri, who will ultimately ask me to open my iPhone anyway. The Siri complication was the least useful part of the Siri watch face for me, so I’m happy to have the option to switch it out for a more useful complication in the Apple Watch iOS app.
You can also edit where the Siri watch face gets its data in the Apple Watch iOS app, though only to a certain extent. You can toggle data sources on and off in the watch face’s settings page, but Siri is limited to only native Apple apps. For example, the details of the podcast playing on my iPhone will show up on the Siri watch face through Apple’s new Now Playing complication, not my preferred podcast app Overcast (even though I have the Overcast Apple Watch app installed). In that example, tapping the Now Playing card on the Siri face brings up the Now Playing controls, including rewind/fast forward 30 seconds, play/pause buttons, and a volume adjuster.
By contrast, the Overcast app doesn’t include volume controls, but it does have the 30-second skip buttons, the name of the podcast and episode title, a favorite button, and a list button that lets you switch to any other podcast episode you’ve downloaded to your iPhone. I see the practicality of the Now Playing complication, and it’s especially useful for Overcast audio because Overcast doesn’t have an Apple Watch complication (only a full app). However, I prefer controlling my podcasts with the Overcast app and wish I had that option.
I have plenty of third-party apps that I prefer to Apple’s native services, but many of them tie in to those services (like Calendar) nicely. Because of this, the Siri watch face was fairly helpful for me throughout my busiest days. However, if and when I wanted to interact with the apps on the watch (or on my iPhone, for that matter), I always reverted back to my preferred third-party apps rather than the Apple apps pushed on me through the Siri watch face.
You can make a watch face out of any image in the Photos app, and some might find the results even better than the official new watch faces. Entering the “share” settings on a single image in the Photos app brings up a new “create watch face” option. That will export the image to the Apple Watch app on iOS where you can then customize it further by adding more photos (if you want the face to be a multi-image gallery) and choosing and arranging the complications on the final watch face.
As mentioned earlier, the Now Playing complication is new in watchOS 4, and there are updates to a few other complications. The heart rate complication now shows your most recent heart rate reading and how long ago it was taken (as long as it has enough room on the watch’s display). The Messages complication has a small number inside the message bubble to indicate how many unread texts you have. The Now Playing complication has the most practical use out of all these, and arguably it gives you the most reason to interact with the watch’s display. But I do also appreciate the updated heart rate complication because it makes it so you don’t have to navigate to the full app on the watch at all if you just want to see your most recent pulse reading.