Time to upgrade: the six best features in Apple's watchOS 4

Apple's Watch is getting a big software upgrade today – here's what you have to look forward to...

The Apple Watch has spent the last two years figuring out exactly what it wants to be.

That might seem like a strange thing to say about a five-star gadget, but the problem hasn't been a lack of good apps or design polish – it’s still, by some distance, our favourite smartwatch.

No, the Apple Watch has simply been lacking a bit of a focus and some software that helps it become a truly standalone wearable. Well, the good news is that both of these things are going to be, if not solved, then massively improved in autumn 2017 with the arrival of watchOS 4.

The free upgrade for all Apple Watches, out sometime on September 19, is still more about refinement than reinvention, but its collective changes add up to a big statement about what the Apple Watch is going to be. Namely, an incredibly versatile health and fitness tracker, with proactive, context-sensitive notifications that work much better on a smartwatch than a smartphone.

Here are the six best things coming to your wrist...

1) The Siri face is a Watch-changer

Okay, a new watch face might not sound that exciting, but this one could actually change the way you use your Apple Watch.

Like Google Now’s cards or Pebble’s Timeline, the Siri face serves up contextual info based both on your schedule and usual routine. So if you drive to work at 7am, it’ll show the latest traffic from Apple Maps. Or if you’re catching a flight, the boarding pass will automatically show up. Apple HomeKit is also supported, so there’ll be prompts to turn off your smartlights at bedtime too.

You might have noticed a theme in the above scenarios – they’re all based on Apple apps. Yep, so far the Siri face can’t pull info from third-party apps, but Apple didn’t rule out this happening in the future.

For now, it is at least customisable, letting you choose which apps you want to receive nudges from. And while there’s no room for third-party complications on this face, there is a new Siri shortcut if you need to quickly quiz her about the weather or open an app. 

It all looked very promising in our demo, but we’ll need to live with it for a while to see how well Siri really knows us.

2) It's stepped up its running music game

Getting music onto your Apple Watch is currently a royal faff, and not something you want to do just before a run – even if you have heard Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’ 17 times this week.

Luckily, watchOS 4 brings big improvements here, as long as you use the Music app. This will now automatically sync new tunes to your Watch every week, based on your recent listening.

The ‘Favorites Mix’ will hoover up the tunes you’ve been listening to the most, while ‘New Music Mix’ acts like a Spotify Weekly for your Watch. You can also choose a playlist to auto-start with a Workout session or, if you have an Apple Watch Series 3, stream any of Apple Music's 40 million songs without needing your phone nearby.

If you don’t quite trust Apple’s algorithms to be your DJ, you can also sync multiple playlists to the Watch (instead of a measly one) and sync individual albums too, as long as they don’t collectively take up more than 2GB storage. 

Suddenly, some Airpods or Bluetooth headphones are an Apple Watch essential.

3) It's much easier to get around

One thing Apple didn’t crow about at WWDC 2017 are the small but important tweaks it’s made to the Apple Watch’s navigation.

For example, the app dock (that list of apps you get when pressing the side button) now scrolls vertically rather than horizontally. Which, of course, makes way more sense, given that the digital crown also spins vertically.

There’s also (thank the stars) an alternative to the confusing app cloud, in the form of an alphabetical app menu. To get this, just force touch the app cloud and make this vertical ‘list’ your default way to find apps. No more playing the app equivalent of Guess Who?.

In fact, this ‘vertical scroll’ stuff is everywhere in watchOS 4, from flipping through album art in the Music app to the redesigned Workout app. Sure, it’s effectively smoothing out the rough edges of watchOS 3, but it makes the Apple Watch much more enjoyable to use.