watchOS 6 — everything you need to know

watchOS 6

With the release of watchOS 6, Apple added a host of new features, further cementing the Apple Watch as the best smartwatch you can buy. 

The biggest change in watchOS 6 is the launch of a stand-alone Watch App Store. Along with a streaming audio API that lets you to listen to audiobooks and podcasts, the watch is about to become a more independent device. 

But Apple is also making the watch a more sophisticated health device, including female health-tracking and an ambient noise meter. Siri is getting smarter too, letting you use the Apple Watch's microphone to identify songs and more. 

Apple is rumored to be adding the ability to continuously analyze the level of oxygen in your bloodstream as well as new improvements to the watch’s electrocardiogram (ECG) functionality.

Here's a look at some of the new features of watchOS 6 that make the Apple Watch even more useful.

WatchOS 6: Release date and compatibility

WatchOS 6 has been available since mid-September 2019, and is available for all Apple Watch models. However, watchOS 6 requires that you have an iPhone 6s or later running iOS 13. And, because newer Apple Watch models have more sophisticated sensors, older Apple Watches will not get all of the features of watchOS 6.

WatchOS 6

watchOS 6

watchOS 6: Independent watch apps

We’ve come a long way since the days when watch apps were simply extensions of iPhone apps. Developers have long had to create stand-alone versions of their iPhone apps for the watch, but now they can also create watch apps that don’t have iPhone versions at all. And the App Store on the watch itself only shows apps that don’t require an iPhone to work. This eliminates the frustration of trying to download an app to the watch, only to be handed off to an iPhone to finish installation.

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

watchOS 6: Audiobooks app

Apple brought a native Audiobooks app to the watch, so whatever you’re currently reading in the Apple Books app on your iPhone automatically syncs to the Apple Watch, allowing you to listen to your books on any device and always pick up where you left off. You can sync up to five hours of recordings, and stream audiobooks when connected to Wi-Fi or cellular.

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

watchOS 6: Calculator app

watchOS 6

At long last, a native Calculator app is on the Apple Watch. And it has a feature that the iPhone doesn’t: a tip calculator. Even better: When you tap “tip” on the display, the watch will automatically default to the customary tip in the specific region you’re in. In the U.S., that default is 20% (as it should be). Then you can divvy up the total if you’re splitting the bill.

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

watchOS 6

A new feature in your iPhone’s Activity app shows a full dashboard of activity trends over time. This was a highlight in the watchOS 6 unveiling at WWDC. But what Apple didn’t mention was that this feature will work best for long-time Apple Watch owners. The new dashboard compares 90 days of activity against the past 365 days — which means this will be most useful for people who’ve owned a watch (and been tracking their activity) for the last year. You’ll see trends for up to nine metrics, including stairs climbed if you own a Series 3 or Series 4, and cardio fitness level for watch owners who regularly do walking or running workouts.

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

watchOS 6: Noise levels

The Apple Watch offers a brand new Noise app for measuring the noise in your environment. But the Noise app can also measure how loud your headphones are — and they don’t even need to be AirPods or Beats headphones. If you have a pair of headphones paired to your Apple Watch or iPhone, whether they’re from Apple, Jabra, Bose or other high-end Bluetooth earbuds, or a pair of Lightning earpods plugged into your iPhone, the Noise app tells you if the audio level is in a safe range or loud enough to cause sustained damage to your hearing.

Available on: Apple Watch 4 and higher

watchOS 6: Customized period tracking

Apple’s new Cycle Tracking app enables women to log periods directly on their wrist; eventually, it will be able to predict when to expect your future periods and when your fertile windows are about to begin. However, fertility-tracking will be turned off by default, for women who are using contraception, who are pregnant or menopausal. If you’ve been using a third-party period-tracking app that syncs with HealthKit, Apple’s Cycle Tracking app can pull in that historical data, too. Apple isn’t going as far as to tell you how your period will affect your activity, which seems like a natural next step. (Cycle tracking and audio monitoring will be part of new clinical studies Apple is participating in; a forthcoming Research app will have more information on those studies and give you the chance to participate.)

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

watchOS 6: Improved timekeeping

The Apple Watch is, first and foremost, a watch. That’s easy to forget when there are so many other features that take this wearable into smartphone territory. But in watchOS 6, the watch is a better timekeeper. The watch takes advantage of the Taptic Engine inside to vibrate your wrist on the hour, and you can also turn on the volume to hear a chime at the top of the hour. If you press two fingers against your watch face, Siri can read the time aloud to you. That’s a great accessibility feature, but also useful if you’re multitasking and don’t feel like glancing at your wrist.

Available on: All Apple Watch models

watchOS 6: New watch faces

Apple introduced a number of new watch faces that not only provide more information at a glance, but are also available in more languages, and with more complications. Tap To Speak now works on all watch faces, and supports more than 30 languages. Better yet, you can now reorder the watch faces without having to use your smartphone.

The following new watch faces are available only for the Series 4 and later:

watchOS: Automatic software updates

watchOS 6

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left an Apple Watch software update uninstalled for weeks, simply because I’ve forgotten about it. With watchOS 6, Apple enables automatic software updates, adopting a feature that came to the iPhone last year. Now upgrades will install over-the-air overnight when your watch and iPhone are charging, so you’ll always be on the latest version.

Available on: All Apple Watch models

watchOS 6: Shazam integration

“Hey Siri, what song is this?” Apple makes use of its Shazam acquisition to give Siri the ability to recognize songs without pulling out your iPhone. The feature works automatically: Just raise your wrist and say, “Hey Siri, what song is this?” You’ll need to be connected to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular to take advantage of this feature, but this is a useful shortcut for diagnosing an earworm you can’t shake.

Available on: All Apple Watch models.

Caitlin is a Senior editor for Gizmodo. She has also worked on Tom's Guide, Macworld, PCWorld and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When she's not testing out the latest devices, you can find her running around the streets of Los Angeles, putting in morning miles or searching for the best tacos.