watchOS 5 Revealed: The New Features You Need to Know

This story has been updated to reflect that watchOS 5 is available to download now (Sept. 17). Here's how to install it.

The Apple Watch didn't immediately catch on with buyers when it launched in 2015, but has become the best-selling wearable device on the market. That's not because of design — the watch's looks haven't changed much since its debut. Apple has focused on adding more health and fitness-focused features to the watch to make it less of an iPhone notification accessory and more of a stand-alone device. The next generation of watchOS is bringing even more fitness-tracking features to the wrist.

New Fitness Features

watchOS 5 doesn't add sleep-tracking or any other advanced analysis, but it does catch Apple Watch up to Fitbits in a few key ways.

Apple has added competition to the watch's activity-sharing feature to make it even more social. These types of challenges are incredibly popular with Fitbit users, and now you'll be able to challenge Apple Watch-wearing friends to 7-day activity competitions. Closing the Move, Exercise and Stand rings has already been a motivator for Apple Watch users to stay active, and watchOS 5 makes that a more social experience.

Another huge change in watchOS 5 is automatic workout tracking. If you forget to start a workout but the watch senses your movement has increased and your heart rate has gone up, it will retroactively recognize your workout and start tracking it. The same applies to ending exercise-tracking. I know I've forgotten to stop the indoor cycling workout after a spin class and accidentally tracked two hours of...doing nothing. The watch will now end the workout for you based on the same heart rate and movement data.

Runners who rely on the watch for accurate pace-tracking will appreciate the addition of custom pace alerts, so the watch will tap you on your wrist when you fall behind the pace you've set for your run. A few other run-tracking tools are included in watchOS 5, including cadence data and rolling mile pace, so you can easily view the pace of your last mile while you're running.

Two new workouts, yoga and hiking, can also be tracked on the watch.

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Walkie-Talkie, Podcasts and More

Apple also wants to make the Apple Watch more fun to wear when you're not working out.

watchOS 5 packs in a new way to chat with friends. The Walkie-Talkie feature lets you choose contacts you want to be able to voice chat with in real-time and send them requests. After accepting the request, you'll be able to send a quick voice message. Your friend will feel a light vibration on the wrist and a beep before hearing your voice come in — kind of like a real Walkie-Talkie.

One long-requested feature is finally coming in watchOS 5: Podcasts. While you can already download and play music to the Watch, Apple will sync episodes from podcasts you're subscribed to to your watch, and the behind-the-scenes tech will let you listen to audio even while using other apps. That's a hurdle that kept the watch from being useful for listening to audio, and Apple just made it possible.

Watch notifications, which were once simple alerts relayed from your iPhone, will become significantly more useful in watchOS 5, especially in third-party apps. Alerts about flights will now let you check in, and Uber alerts will let you pay for trips with Apple Pay.

And the Apple Watch is becoming useful for students, with the addition of Student ID cards that college kids can tap to gain access to buildings and more on campus. Apple is partnering with a handful of universities, including Duke, Johns Hopkins and Temple University, to roll out that integration this fall.

Siri Gets Smarter

In watchOS 5, you no longer have to raise your wrist and say "Hey Siri" to use voice commands. A simple wrist raise does the trick — just start talking.

The Siri watch face introduced in watchOS 4 will show new content like sports scores, heart rate data and the contextually aware Siri shortcuts that are coming in iOS 12. The Siri watch face will show you predictive shortcuts, such as a workout and a playlist that you usually do at a specific time of day. And the Siri watch face will display notifications from third-party apps, not just the watch's built-in apps.

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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.