watchOS 3 in-depth look | What's new in watchOS 3

watchOS 3 was unveiled at WWDC in June 2016, and was released to the general public on 13 September 2016; but what are the best new features that watchOS 3 for the Apple Watch? In this article we round up all the information about the new features in watchOS 3 and how to upgrade your Apple Watch to watchOS 3. Curious about what’s coming next? Take a look at our watchOS 4 rumour article.

Read next: Apple Watch vs Apple Watch 2 | Apple Watch 2 release date, UK price and specs | Apple Watch review | How to update watchOS | Apple Watch buying guide 2016.

watchOS 3: What is watchOS?

Let's cover the basics of watchOS first. The Apple Watch, which went on sale in April 2015, runs an operating system called watchOS, and regular free updates to this software mean Apple Watch owners periodically get access to new features and interface tweaks without having to spend any additional money. Happily, for Apple fans, Apple has announced another major update to watchOS: watchOS 3. This version of watchOS 3 will also run on the newly announced Apple Watch Series 2.

The most recent full-number version update, watchOS 2, came out at WWDC in June 2015 (although there have been smaller 'point' updates since then), so we weren't surprised to see Apple announce and demonstrate watchOS 3 at WWDC 2016 on 13 June 2016. It will become generally available on 13 September. Here's everything you need to know about the new watchOS software, including watchOS 3's release date and the new features you'll get when you install it.

watchOS 3 release date: How do I get watchOS 3?

After its announcement on 13 June at WWDC 2016, Apple showcased watchOS 3 at San Francisco during its iPhone launch event.

The new watchOS 3 was a free public update that launched on 13 September 2016. If you haven't already, open the Apple Watch app on your iPhone and check for a software update - you should then be prompted to install watchOS 3 on your Apple Watch.

Read next: Best Apple Watch deals

watchOS 3 new features: Design & graphical elements

Apple's design and interface teams have made some tweaks to visual aspects of watchOS for this update. Here's what to expect.

Read next: Apple Watch tips: watchOS 3 tips & secret features

New watch faces

Apple unveiled new watch faces, including a Minnie Mouse option that was certainly a crowd-pleaser. There's also an Activity watch face, and you can launch more apps straight from the watch face screen including Workout, Music and Messages.

Complications have been introduced to the Photo, Motion and Timelapse faces, too.

Redesigned Control Centre

The Control Centre has been given a makeover, with it now being easier to access. With the exclusion of Glances in watchOS 3, you can now quickly enter the Control Centre by swiping up from the watch face. This now presents you with a few quick toggles, such as a button allowing you to ping your phone and even toggling airplane mode.

Despite being a small update, this new feature greatly improves the user experience and speeds up efficiency when using the Apple Watch.

Disable screenshots

A very small feature, but useful nevertheless, you can now disable screenshots on your Apple Watch, meaning less accidental screenshots. This is presented as an option within the watch's settings.

watchOS 3 new features: New features and improvements

watchOS 3 is a pretty big update, with lots of new features set to make your Apple Watch experience smoother and faster. Read on for more detail about each of the new features and what they'll mean to you.

Dock

The new Dock feature is one of our favourites. It's set to make navigating through apps much easier on your Apple Watch. The Dock will show all of your recent and favourite apps.

You access the app dock via the much-maligned side button on the Apple Watch. We're not sure if Apple is completely getting rid of the top contacts dial that is currently brought up by the side button, or re-binding this to a different control. Either way, we won't miss it. It's always struck us as a niche feature given undeserved prominence - we use our Apple Watches to accept incoming calls and reply to texts, but almost never initiate conversations on it - although we'd be interested to hear from readers who have used it regularly.

Instant apps

You'll also find that your apps launch much, much faster than they did before. That's because Apple has introduced an instant launch feature, and the apps will update in the background so that the information displayed is accurate, and ready to go, at all times.

Apple says watchOS 3 makes the Apple Watch seven times faster at opening new apps. This update might seem minimal, but there cannot be a single Apple Watch user out there who hasn't noticed the device's sluggishness at opening apps, and wishes for some kind of speed boost - watchOS 3 addresses that.

On that subject, on 7 September 2016, Apple announced the dual-core processor will feature on both its old Apple Watch (named the series 1) and the new Apple watch Series 2. The new processor reportedly adds 50 percent performance, which coupled with the instant apps update in watchOS 3 will provide a much better user experience.

For more on that, read our Apple Watch 2 release date article.

Activity motivation improvements...

Apple has also improved the Activity and Workout apps to help you stay motivated. You'll be able to share, compare and compete with your contacts, and you'll now get notifications about your friends' progress too. Activity sharing is connected to the Messages app too, so you can send personalised messages of encouragement.

...including benefits for wheelchair fitness

With watchOS 3, the Apple Watch will be able to track the activity and fitness of users in wheelchairs. watchOS 3 will provide two wheelchair-specific workouts, and determines calories burned in a wheelchair according to how hard the surface is and its gradient, while taking into account different seats and wheel heights. And the "time to stand" fitness notification will be optionally replaced by "time to roll".

We discuss the wheelchair-focused features in watchOS 3, as well as looking at alternative fitness trackers for disabled users, in a separate article: Best smartwatches, bands and trackers for wheelchair fitness tracking.

Breathe app

The all-new Breathe app will encourage you to take moments throughout the day to do deep-breathing sessions to maintain your stress levels. You'll get a heart rate summary after the session, which can last for up to five minutes.

We've looked at Breathe in a lot more detail in a separate article. See: What is Breathe for Apple Watch?

Quick replies

Apple has improved the messaging system in watchOS 3. You can now use stickers, handwriting, full-screen effects and invisible ink just like the new features in iOS 10. Smart Replies are now available within the message notification, and you can use the scribble feature to write custom replies by drawing each letter, which the Apple Watch will convert into text.

SOS

The SOS app, which will be available worldwide so will work wherever you are in the world, even if you're travelling, can be used to call emergency services and alert your emergency contacts right from the Apple Watch. It works using your phone's cellular connection or WiFi.

Use your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac

This feature has yet to come to macOS, but was showcased at WWDC 2016 with the Apple Watch working in unison with a Mac in order to authorise payments, unlock a Mac and help display information.

This added feature improves your Mac's security by bringing two-step verification through the Apple Watch.

Face Gallery

Despite not being able to create your own custom watch faces, you will be able to customise the included ones with your iPhone. Previously you were only able to do it on the watch itself, but now you'll be able to do this on a bigger screen, making it easier for you to customise your watch face.

Find my Apple Watch

The Find My iPhone feature is now available on the Apple Watch, meaning if you lose your watch you can track it through Find My iPhone.

Siri

Siri has received a small update, where a haptic tap is now felt when Siri is no longer active. We would have liked a bigger updated for Siri on watchOS 3, but we will have to wait for a later revision.

Camera controls

You can now use the Digital Crown to control the iPhone's digital zoom levels. It's not quite the full customisation of the Digital Crown we were hoping for, but having the ability to zoom in photos is good nevertheless.

OUR VERDICT

watchOS 3 brings a number of improvements to the Apple Watch that we welcome, with Instant Apps being our personal favourite. We've been reluctant to use Apple Watch apps thus far as they've taken a while to load (so long that we could get our iPhones out and check!), but the introduction of watchOS 3 means that many apps now load instantly. It's a huge improvement over watchOS 2, and we can't wait to find out what Apple has in store for watchOS 4!

Find the best price