watchOS 8 beta hands-on: Subtle but useful changes

With the iOS 15 and watchOS 8 public betas now available for testing, it’s time for us to get an early look at some of the features coming to Apple’s biggest platforms. While the next watchOS might not be as big a change as iOS 15, it still introduces new tools that promise better integration with your iPhone, along with some health and fitness updates.

If you’re thinking of checking the public beta out for yourself, make sure you’ve thought twice about the risk of running preview software instead of a stable release. Those who simply can’t wait for a stable public version of the upcoming platform can sign up for Apple’s beta program and install the builds now, provided you have an Apple Watch Series 3 and newer, as well as an iPhone running the iOS 15 beta. Either way, we’ve checked out the watchOS 8 beta so you can see from a safe distance or decide if the changes are worth the trouble right now.

Mindfulness, health and fitness

Though there aren’t huge updates coming to watchOS 8, Apple’s new health-centric features could interest those looking for a more wholistic approach to wellbeing. The company has renamed its Breathe app to Mindfulness, adding a meditation guide to the existing breathing exercises. You can set each Mindfulness session’s duration to 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 minutes before starting. A prompt appears before each session to help you focus your thoughts, along with a button to begin.

So far, I’ve seen typical meditation prompts that tell you to be aware of your thoughts and let them pass without judgement. Some other examples include “Think of someone you care about. Imagine you can feel your connection with them” and “Consider the values that matter to you in something you’re focused on.”

Then, a colorful swirling animation takes up the screen. I usually just lean back and close my eyes at this point, but if you continue to stare at your watch, the animation is a nice distraction that’s almost hypnotizing. At the end of your set time, the watch vibrates and shows a closing thought tied to the opening prompt, like “Bring this sense of open awareness with you.” You’ll also see your total Mindful minutes for the day (which includes time spent doing Breathe exercises) and your heart rate. After two Mindfulness sessions, my Apple Watch SE said my pulse plummeted from 67 to 47bpm, which is great I guess.

On its own, this feels like a glorified timer meets fortune cookie meets Magic 8 Ball, all set to Windows Music Player-style visualizations. But combined with reminders throughout the day that you can customize, Mindfulness could help remind you to check in with yourself periodically to assess your state of mind.

A few other health-centric additions to watchOS include two new Workout categories: Tai Chi and Pilates. I’ve yet to have a session of either exercise so I can’t say how accurately Apple tracks these yet. There are also a couple more features I need more time to get a better sense for, like respiratory rate tracking overnight and walking steadiness. The latter requires about two weeks of walking with your iPhone stashed somewhere on your body, so it’ll take some time before I get results.

Messaging, new apps and integration with iPhone

A big part of the watchOS 8 update is improved communications tools and integration with your iPhone. Notably, the Messages app now allows you to compose via Scribble, Dictate and Emojis all within the same screen. I scrawled out part of a message, dictated longer parts of it, and added emoji from one page easily. Editing is also less of a hassle than before, thanks in large part to being able to use the Digital Crown as a cursor controller now. Hallelujah! Scrolling back to insert a space or fix a stray “v” got so much better.

There’s also a new option now to send GIFs in Messages, from the same place you’d send a Digital Touch (just hit the search glass button and type in your keyword).

Communicating with people is also made easier thanks to the new Contacts app, which lets you find specific friends more quickly. If you’ve set one of iOS 15’s new Focus modes on your iPhone, the same settings will apply to your watch. People and apps that have been blocked will remain muted on your wrist, and it was helpful to see a symbol at the top of the screen indicating which Focus mode is active.

Contacts isn’t the only new app for watchOS 8. Apple’s also redesigning Home to make interacting with your connected appliances easier, and bringing Find Items, Find Devices, and Tips to your wrist. The new OS will also add support for ultra wideband to enable more precise car key functions like spatial awareness. Plus, the update will let you use your Watch as a key for hotels and offices in addition to your home and car, though of course it’ll only work with compatible buildings and locks.

Like its counterpart on iOS, the watchOS Wallet app will also support your Driver’s License, which you can use in participating states and agencies in the US when that’s more broadly rolled out. In addition to privacy and security concerns around Apple storing your ID on your device, there are also questions here about how likely law enforcers or various authorities will welcome these digital cards. But that’s not something I was able to test on this preview, given it’s not accepted by most places at the moment.

Portrait watch faces, multiple timers and Fitness+

I did try out a few more new features on the watchOS 8 beta: Portrait watch faces and multiple timers. Similar to how you would create a Photos face for Apple Watch before, you’ll have hit Share on your desired picture on your iPhone, then tap Create Watch Face. If you want the faux depth-of-field effect on your wrist, you’ll need to pick an image shot using your phone’s Portrait mode. The effect will animate when you rotate the watch dial. Currently, there are only three clock styles available for Portrait faces, and I found “Modern” the least offensive. You can also add a single complication to these faces.

As for multiple timers: it works. I set a countdown for three minutes, then hit back and set another for a minute. They both went off without a hitch. It’s funny that something as simple as this took eight whole updates to get, but at least it’s here. Those who use their Apple Watch for cooking timers will appreciate this one.

Finally, this isn’t quite a watchOS update but since you need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+, the two are intertwined. When you use Fitness+ on your iPhone or iPad, you’ll now be able to watch the exercise videos in Picture-in-Picture mode. I was also able to resize the panel that was overlaid atop my other apps simply by pinching to zoom.

Wrap-up

This isn’t the biggest update to watchOS, but Apple has made some subtle improvements so far to enhance communication tools and iPhone integration. I also appreciate the attention paid to different takes on health and wellbeing. There are still more features to test, like walking steadiness and ID support, but for now the watchOS 8 beta feels like thoughtful, if small, update.

This story is developing, please refresh for updates.

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