watchOS 3 guide: 15 essential tips to transform your Apple Watch

You don't need a Series 2 to seriously upgrade your Apple Watch. Give these watchOS 3 features a shot.

watchos 3 primary

A whole new Apple Watch experience

Apple made the Apple Watch faster with the September release of two new models, the Series 1 and Series 2, which both have powerful dual-core processors. But if you bought an Apple Watch when it launched last year and don’t feel like buying a new one, installing watchOS 3 will go a long way toward making your old device feel new.

There are big changes like a brand-new function for the side button, which now pulls up an app dock that launches your most-used apps seven times faster than in watchOS 2. This will completely change the way you interact with your watch. Then there are small tweaks, like automatic run-pausing for workouts, a new way to send messages in the form of Scribble, and activity-focused watch faces to keep your eye on the prize—three closed rings, of course.

Read on for watchOS 3 tips and tricks that will take your Apple Watch to the next level.

watchos 3 dock

Customize your Dock

Goodbye, Glances. Apple replaced the app snapshots that were visible when you swiped up on your watch display with a new, fast-launching app dock accessible by pressing the side button. Any app can live in the dock, regardless of whether it’s built-in or third-party. Apps you place there are constantly refreshed, so you can see a live preview when you swipe from side to side in the dock. Tapping on an app from its live preview will launch it instantly (or pretty close to instantly).

You can choose up to 10 apps to place in the dock. Open the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, then tap through My Watch > Dock. Tap the Edit option on the top right to move apps into the dock or rotate them out. You can also choose which order they appear in.

watchos 3 control center

Get to know Control Center

Now that Glances are gone, swiping up on the watch face reveals the redesigned Control Center. From this new view, you’ll see how much battery life you have left, plus easy access to Power Reserve if you need to conserve juice. There’s also Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, a lock button for locking your watch with its passcode, a Find My iPhone button so your phone will make a sound and make itself more easily discoverable, and an AirPlay button for listening to music from your Apple Watch with wireless headphones or a set of Bluetooth speakers.

Control Center used to be hidden in Glances, which wasn’t very convenient. Putting these commonly used settings a swipe away makes way more sense.

watchos 3 activity sharing

Invite friends to share activity

Now that Apple is doubling down on its commitment to the Apple Watch’s health and fitness features (see the brand-new Series 2 model for more evidence), it’s finally adding social features to the Activity app. Activity-sharing on the Apple Watch allows you to see your friends’ daily progress in meeting their activity goals, from workout details to their rings. You can send positive messages to encourage a friend who needs a boost from the watch Activty app, or if you’re feeling competitive, some prewritten snark is just a tap away.

Activity-sharing isn’t turned on by default—you have to invite friends to share their data with you and wait for them to reply. This is in the iOS Activity app, not the iOS Apple Watch app.

watchos 3 run pause

Turn on automatic run-pausing

As a runner, one of the watchOS 3 features I was most excited for was automatic run-pausing. Gone are the days of using Force Touch to pause a run while waiting for a traffic light. But run-pausing isn’t turned on by default—you have to turn this on in the iOS Apple Watch app (sensing a theme with these features?). Tap through My Watch > Workout, then toggle on the Running Auto Pause setting. Pro tip: You have to come to a complete standstill for the watch to pause your indoor or outdoor run.

If you don’t want to enable automatic run-pausing, you can still pause a run by swiping right on the display to bring up options to pause, end, or lock your watch.

watchos 3 scribble

Take advantage of Scribble

I wasn’t convinced I would use Scribble, a new feature in the Apple Watch Messages app that lets you respond to texts by drawing letters on your watch screen. But I find myself using it in situations where I don’t have a fitting prewritten response stored in my defaults, I can’t dictate a message with my voice, and I don’t want to pull out my phone to tap out a full sentence. That happens more often than I expected, honestly.

To send a message with Scribble, just tap the giant Scribble bubble in the reply options, which still include Digital Touch, emoji, voice dictation, and prewritten responses that you can customize in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone.

watchos 3 unlock mac

Unlock your Mac with your watch

Apple’s signature synchronicity between its devices comes into play with watchOS 3 and macOS Sierra. You can now use your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac, no password necessary.

Take these steps first: Make sure your Mac and Apple Watch are both signed into the same iCloud account and enable a passcode on your watch if you haven’t already. On your Mac, click through the following settings:  > System Preferences > Security & Privacy > General. Enable “Allow your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac.”

If you have two-step verification turned on, you’ll need to switch to two-factor authentication instead, otherwise you’ll find yourself running into a wall of frustration. You can see which security method you’re using by signing into your Apple ID account.

To turn off two-step verification and enable two-factor authentication, follow Apple’s handy guide here.

watchos 3 faces

Choose from the new watch faces

Apple introduced three new watch faces in watchOS 3: Numerals, a stunningly simple face with clock hands and, you guessed it, numerals; Activity, which puts your rings front and center on the display in either analog or digital form; and Minnie Mouse to join her pal Mickey.

To add these new faces to your lineup, open the Watch app on your iPhone and tap on Face Gallery in the bottom navigation bar. You can add all of the new faces, if you want, and delete or rearrange the way the faces appear on your watch by tapping the Edit button under My Watch > My Faces in the iOS Watch app.

watchos 3 watch face

Change your watch face easily

In watchOS 3, you can still change your watch face using Force Touch (as before). But now you can also simply swipe from edge-to-edge either left or right on the watch display to see the faces you’ve loaded onto the device in the iOS Watch app.

If you want to customize a face’s colors or complications, you’ll still need to use Force Touch.

watchos 3 wheelchair

Access Wheelchair workouts

Apple has always been a big proponent of making its devices accessible to all, whether you have low vision or challenges with hearing. The company is bringing that philosophy to the Apple Watch with new settings for watch wearers in wheelchairs.

In the iOS Watch app, you can toggle the wheelchair setting on under My Watch > Health > Wheelchair. Doing so will turn off your iPhone’s automatic step-counting and prompt your Apple Watch to start tracking wheelchair pushes in both the Activity and Workout apps. There are now two specific workouts designed for wheelchair users, and stand alerts are replaced by “Time to roll!” notifications.

watchos 3 workout complication

Move Workout to a Complication

Starting a workout used to be a hassle—you’d have to use the Digital Crown to get to your home screen and then find the tiny green Workout app icon. Siri made that slightly easier, but the app would launch slowly.

Apple’s third-gen watchOS puts a Workout complication right on your watch face for easy access if you need it (you can customize complications to your heart’s content and ditch Workout if you never use it). Tapping on the new complication instantly launches the Workout app, and a new Quick Start option lets you start exercising right away, without having to set a goal.

watchos 3 workout view

Customize Workout metrics

Apple just fixed one of my biggest problems with the Apple Watch Workout app. Before watchOS 3, your exercise stats—heart rate, calories burned, mileage—were displayed on separate screens, so you had to swipe to view them mid-workout. Now the watch displays all of those metrics on one screen by default.

You can change that if you prefer the old way: Just open the iOS Watch app, then tap through My Watch > Workout and select Single Metric. Instead of swiping, you can use the Digital Crown to scroll through each stat. I prefer Multiple Metric, but you do you.

You can even customize which four metrics are displayed for all 12 workouts, if you’d rather see average pace than heart rate on an outdoor run, for instance.

watchos 3 breathe

Give Breathe a chance

If you upgrade to watchOS 3, you’ll notice a new built-in app called Breathe. Its purpose is mindfulness: The app is designed to guide you through relaxation sessions so you’ll give more thought to your mental health, which often gets the short end of the stick when talking about wellness.

You can customize Breathe in the iOS Watch app—just tap through My Watch > Breathe, then choose how often you want reminders to breathe throughout the day and how many breaths per minute is most comfortable. You can also adjust Breathe’s haptics, the vibrations that will walk you through each session.

Breathe’s reminders can become slightly annoying, but just like Stand, you can turn them off entirely if you’re committed to having no chill.

watchos 3 sos

Add SOS contacts

Apple made the side button useful with watchOS 3, giving it two functions: Just pressing the button calls up the app dock so you can quickly launch your favorite apps, but if you hold the button down, your watch will trigger an emergency phone call.

If you’re worried that you’ll accidentally trigger that call (or that the children in your life will), you can adjust your SOS settings in the iOS Watch app under My Watch > General > Emergency SOS. Instead of simply holding down the side button to automatically call the authorities, disabling “Hold to Auto Call” will prompt you to slide the Emergency SOS trigger on your watch face to send out the alert.

You can also add up to three emergency contacts in that same section of the Watch app. Those contacts will be automatically alerted when SOS is triggered and the emergency call is placed, and your watch will even share a map of your current location so friends and family will know where to find you.

watchos 3 home

Set up your smart Home

iOS and watchOS both have Home apps now for controlling the HomeKit-compatible gadgets on your network. If you’ve set up the iOS 10 Home app, the watch app will make it easier and faster to turn on multiple devices at once or control each gadget individually. You can also add a Home complication to any watch face to launch the app more quickly. You’ll also receive notifications on your watch from smart home products—say, for instance, a doorbell that alerts you with a photo when someone is at your front door.

watchos 3 screenshots

Turn on screenshots

If you were used to taking screenshots of your Activity rings or Workout stats and sharing them with friends, you may have noticed that pressing the Digital Crown and side button simultaneously no longer screenshots by default. If you’re in the midst of a workout, pressing both the crown and the side button will pause it, and those buttons won’t do anything when pressed outside of the Workout app.

But all you have to do is change that setting in the iOS Watch app. Go to My Watch > General and scroll down to Enable Screenshots at the bottom. Toggle that on so you can keep using the Digital Crown and side button to take screenshots that will be saved to your iPhone Camera Roll, just like before.

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