Updated Sept. 19: If you have a Series 3 Apple Watch model or later, watchOS 6 is available for download right now.
Apple is taking a huge step toward making the Apple Watch, the best smartwatch you can buy, a fully independent device. The watch gained cellular connectivity with the launch of Series 3 in 2017, but the only way you can install apps on the device is via your iPhone. That changes with watchOS 6.
WatchOS 6 release date and compatibility
If you've got a Series 3 model or later, you can download the new OS right now. Apple Watch Series 1 and 2 owners can expect a watchOS 6 update that's compatible with their devices later in the fall. If you’re still hanging on to an original Apple Watch (known as Series 0), you’ll either have to chug along on watchOS 4 or upgrade to a newer model.
New watchOS 6 features
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 and fitness tracker, and bringing some of our favorite iPhone apps to the wrist. Here's a look at 9 new features of watchOS 6 that make the Apple Watch even more useful.
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.
watchOS 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.
watchOS calculator app
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.
Health and activity updates in watchOS 6
Activity trends for Apple Watch die-hards: 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.
Headphone audio 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.
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.)
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.
watchOS automatic software updates
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.
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.