With its just-announced watchOS 6, Apple has yet again tapped into a pair of Apple Watch trends that have helped make the device the bestselling tech wearable.

One of these is self-reliance; the Apple Watch is now more independent of the iPhone than ever before, gaining both its own App Store and a nascent library of standalone apps.

The other trend, and perhaps the Apple Watch’s highest calling, is health tracking. It is now more versatile in this regard with the capability to protect users’ hearing, help women keep track of their menstrual and fertility cycles, and more.

Along the way, watchOS 6 bestows upon its users voice-memo recording, audiobook playback, restaurant tip calculating, Web searching, and other capabilities.

Health and Fitness Features

After its misguided attempt to crack the fashion market at launch, the Apple Watch eventually found its way as a health and fitness device. With watchOS 6, Apple has introduced a handful of new software features that expand the scope of what the Apple Watch monitors in the wellness sense.

  • Cycle Tracking: The Apple Watch for the first time directly addresses women’s health via a new app for keeping track of menstrual cycles. The new Cycle Tracking app lets users predict the timing of their next period and, for those trying to get pregnant, time windows of optimal fertility. (Apple warns that the feature shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control.) In addition, a daily log feature allows adding of information such as current period flow and the results of ovulation prediction kits. To make it available to many more users who don’t use the Apple Watch, Cycle Tracking is also available in the Health app on the iPhone.
    watchOS 6 cycle tracking
  • Noise: Incremental hearing loss is a serious problem in our noisy society, and now the Apple Watch can help users detect when audio around them is potentially damaging. As sound levels change, the new Noise app shows a decibel meter that moves in real time. The Apple Watch can also post a notification if the ambient sound level reaches 90 decibels, which is considered harmful with a minimum exposure of four hours a week.

    The Noise app in watchOS.

  • Activity Trends: This refers not to a new fitness app but to additional functionality in the Activity app. The Trends tab gives exercise-conscious users a long-term view of their activity to help them analyze their progress in categories such as active calories, exercise minutes, walking pace, and more. As a result, downward trends relative to the last 365 days are easier to spot, so users can adjust accordingly.
    watchOS 6 Activity Trends

App Store and Standalone Apps

Among Apple’s hardware platforms, only the Apple Watch lacked its own app store with a library of standalone apps. With watchOS 6, Apple brings the Apple Watch in line with its other products.

Third-party app developers can now create Apple Watch-only apps that don’t require companion iPhone apps. You will be able to download these apps directly onto the watch via a new watchOS App Store that works independently of the iPhone and its Watch app. (We hope that’s not required given the awkwardness of using the Apple Watch’s tiny screen for most things.)

Searching for apps on the App Store will be possible via voice dictation or Scribble-based composition, and the apps appearing in such search results will have product pages similar to those found on the iPhone and the Mac—only much, much more compact.

Apple also announced a modest complement of new or improved apps that include:

  • Voice Memos: The familiar iPhone app now has a watch equivalent.
  • Calculator: A watch version of this indispensable app includes tip and check-splitting computations.
  • Audiobooks: Audiobook publisher Audible has had an Apple Watch app for a while, but Apple has now brought similar functionality in-house with an Audiobooks app for streaming audiobooks purchased from Apple Books directly from the watch.
  • Reminders: This app isn’t new but gets an overhaul in watchOS 6 to match the iOS and macOS versions.
  • Animojis and Memojis: These animated iPhone stickers are now available on the Apple Watch for adding to messages.
    New apps in watchOS 6

Faces, Chimes, and Complications

Many Apple Watch users have wondered over the years why Apple doesn’t open up watch face development to third parties, something that Google’s Wear OS has long allowed. For now, new watchOS faces remain Apple’s domain. There are some new options this time around, including:

  • A Gradient face smoothly animated with the time
  • A large Numeral face showing the current hour in multiple languages
  • A modern Digital face in a variety of colors
  • A rounded, mellow California dial that is customizable with a variety of complications
  • A solar face that visualizes the sun’s movement via a circle-within-a-circle animation
  • A Modular Compact face that is a space-saving version of the existing, information-rich Modular face
    New watch faces in watchOS 6

There are a bunch of new complications, too. Now Apple Watch users will be able to see decibel levels, cellular strength, the chance of rain, and more. One fresh complication will begin voice-memo recording, and another will get users back to their current audiobook.

Along with the new faces, watchOS 6 introduces Taptic Chimes that, on the hour, make the watch vibrate and, optionally, play a sound, such as a bird song. Also, holding two fingers on a face will make the Apple Watch read the time out loud.

Siri Is Smarter and More Capable

Siri gets a bad rap for lagging behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of smarts and capabilities. With watchOS 6, Apple is narrowing the gap a bit on the Apple Watch with a smattering of new capabilities. These include:

  • “What song is this?” Pose that question when you hear a track playing nearby, and Siri will get an assist from Apple’s Shazam song-recognition tech to enlighten you.
  • Web searches: Ask Siri to search for a topic, and you’ll get a scrollable list of Web pages to peruse.

As Usual, Fresh Watch Bands

As usual, Apple has trotted out new bands, including versions of its popular Sports Band and Sports Loop in such eye-catching colors as Dragon Fruit, Cornflower, and Canary Yellow. They are available now.

New Apple Watch bands

Finally, in Apple’s continuing support of the LGBTQ movement, it’s also offering a new Pride Edition Sports Loop with proceeds partially going to advocacy organizations such as Encircle, Gender Spectrum, GLSEN, ILGA, PFLAG, the National Center for Transgender Equality and The Trevor Project. The band’s matching face is animated.

Like watchOS 5, watchOS 6 works on the Apple Watch Series 1 through Series 4 (but not the original Apple Watch), although not all features will be available on older models.

Betas of watchOS 6 will be available to developers right away, and it will undoubtedly ship in September alongside iOS 13.