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watchOS 7: The MacStories Overview

It’s WWDC week, and while we’ve been deprived the pleasure of meeting up in person this year, Apple’s OS updates are rolling forward like always. In this morning’s keynote address, Apple VP of Technology Kevin Lynch announced the latest version of the Apple Watch operating system. watchOS 7 isn’t as dramatic as some past releases have been, but it does introduce some excellent new features including sleep tracking, multiple distinct complications from the same app, a Shortcuts app, and new workout types. We’ll dive into all the features in depth below.

Watch Faces

With watchOS 7, Apple is introducing several new features to improve watch faces. First up is the ability for apps to ship multiple complications and show them on the same watch face. In previous years apps could only ship one complication per style, so if there were four circle-style complications from the same app on a watch face, they would all have to show exactly the same thing. Now each circle can show a different complication from that app, so apps with lots of distinct data options can display them more easily by using multiple complications. This feature enables watch faces to be fully styled for a particular app, such as the Nike face showing various different metrics from the Nike Run app.

In the same theme of watch faces styled for a particular app, watch faces can now be shared. The Nike Run app could therefore provide a one-tap install of its branded face including the complications that it thinks would be most useful to display. Watch faces can also be shared via links from websites or social media, between Apple Watch users, or from App Store editorial articles. You could set up a watch face and send it to a family member or friend, or feature a watch face in an article and make it available to readers (I’m sure my annual watchOS review this year will feature some shared face configurations).

It’s been a common sentiment for a while that few Apple Watch users spend much time customizing their watch faces. The new sharing feature sounds like an excellent way to potentially break down that barrier and get Apple Watch face customization further into the mainstream consciousness.

Speaking of customizing Apple Watch faces, the on-watch customization interface has been fully redesigned in watchOS 7. It’s also now hidden behind a long press gesture instead of the previous Force Touch method. This change may be a leading indicator of the Force Touch sensors being removed from future Apple Watches just like they’ve been removed from modern iPhones, but we’ll have to wait for hardware announcements to find out for sure.

Alongside the complication and sharing changes, the Chronograph Pro watch face has been updated with a tachymeter and more complication customization options, and the X-Large watch face has been updated with a new large complication as well. The Photos watch face now allows adding color filters to its displayed photos. Apple also mentions that there are now “more ways to show your pride” on new watch faces, which could indicate another new batch of pride-themed watch faces, or just the addition of rainbow color schemes on some existing faces.

Sleep Tracking

watchOS 7’s new sleep tracking functionality is starting out with a strong focus on bedtime routines and sleep durations. A new feature called Wind Down will attempt to coax you toward bedtime by enabling Do Not Disturb, dimming your device screen, and optionally running shortcuts to play relaxing music, change the lighting in your home, and more. Wind Down is a unified experience across watchOS 7 and iOS 14, so both your Apple Watch and your iPhone will be affected by it (no word yet on whether iPads or Macs are involved with Wind Down).

Once you’ve gone to bed, your Apple Watch will switch to a new Sleep mode in which the always-on display (if you have a Series 5) is turned off. The display will only turn back on if you physically tap it, in which case it will show an extremely dim and minimal watch face specific to Sleep mode. In the morning your Watch will wake you by either an alarm or a haptic vibration, depending on how you’ve configured it. Alarms will be paired with a watch face that greets you good morning and shows your Watch’s battery level and some other info about the upcoming day.

The new Sleep app in watchOS 7 can be opened to view your recent sleep activity, including data on how long you were asleep vs. awake during the night, how many hours of sleep you’ve been getting, and a graph view of your sleep behavior over time (including a rolling weekly average with trend data). This data is also available in a new section of the Health app for iPhone in iOS 14.

Shortcuts

We don’t have a ton of details here yet, but the Shortcuts app is finally coming to watchOS. When Shortcuts was still Workflow it had offered an Apple Watch app, but when Apple acquired the company it removed the Watch version during the transition and we haven’t seen it since. With watchOS 7 it’s coming back, and will include the ability to activate shortcuts via complications on the watch face. We’ll need to experiment with this once we get our hands on the beta, but combined with the new option for multiple complications from the same app, this could allow for a watch face from which you can activate a variety of different shortcuts directly.

Fitness

watchOS 7 ships with four new workout types: Dance, Functional Strength Training, Core Training, and Cooldown. Apple specifically called out the Dance workout in the keynote, mentioning that it uses a combination of vertical height sensing and standard wrist movement sensing to determine when you’re using your legs and your arms during dance moves.

The Activity app in iOS 14 has been redesigned, and renamed to Fitness. The app’s main view is now a summary tab showing your recent activity, workouts, and trends all together.

Maps

The watchOS 7 Maps app now includes cycling directions in supported cities. This is only a few cities to start out, including Los Angeles and New York City, but it will be expanding over time. Cycling directions support turn-by-turn navigation, inform you of upcoming steep inclines, and can include instructions to pick up your bike and walk it upstairs if necessary.

Automatic Handwashing Detection

By now everyone’s familiar with the 20 second requirement for a proper handwashing session, but remembering to maintain that level of hygiene can be difficult. watchOS 7 aims to help us out with its new automatic detection for handwashing. Your Apple Watch will now detect when your hands are making potential handwashing motions. This will trigger the Watch’s microphone to turn on and listen for the sound of running water or squishing soap. If the sounds are detected then the Watch will go into handwashing mode, in which it displays a twenty-second countdown accompanied by haptic taps and optional sound feedback. If you wash your hands for the full twenty seconds, you’ll get a “well done” notification.

The new handwashing feature also includes a notification to remind you to wash your hands when you return home after being out.

Conclusion

watchOS 7 looks like a great new release for the Apple Watch. Sleep detection is a major new feature that has been requested for years, and which could potentially improve even more with new Apple Watch hardware this fall. Multiple complications on watch faces will be a great quality-of-life improvement as well, and shareable faces have the potential to get complications into wider use among Apple Watch wearers. I still think the Apple Watch needs more dramatic changes to watch faces, be that complications which can automatically adapt throughout the day, custom watch faces, or more focus on the Siri watch face (the Siri face was not mentioned at all again this year). That said, I’m still looking forward to these incremental improvements.

I’m interested to see how hand washing detection works in practice. There are a lot of times when it’s going to be a great addition, but if it triggers every time I’m trying to do the dishes then it’s going to become an annoyance. Either way it’s nice to see, and I’m sure it can be easily disabled if it ends up being too overzealous.

Fitness and Maps also have small, but nice steps forward this year. New workouts are always a good addition, and I’m very much looking forward to cycling directions being supported in my city. Getting Shortcuts on the Apple Watch could be a game changer for heavy Shortcuts users, or a gateway drug for those who haven’t found them to be accessible enough, so it’s exciting to see that gap finally closed.

The watchOS 7 and iOS 14 developer betas were already released today, and later this summer there will be a watchOS public beta for the first time (we recommend waiting for the public betas if you aren’t a developer, especially for watchOS). The MacStories team will be digging into these releases as always, so stay tuned over the summer for more coverage.


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