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Like many Apple products, the Apple Watch can be incredibly easy to get started with — but that simplicity hides an amazing level of depth and customization. If you’ve just received an Apple Watch, there’s a lot to do to make sure you get the most out of your new wearable. Let us walk you through the process, from initial setup to optimizing everything it can do.
Of course, the first thing you want to do is pair your Apple Watch with your iPhone. Even if you have an Apple Watch capable of cellular connectivity, the iPhone is required to set up and manage the device. Fortunately, this process is pretty straightforward — after turning on your Apple Watch, place it near your unlocked iPhone and you’ll receive a prompt to set up the device. During the process, your iPhone will walk you through the initial pairing as well as sign in with your Apple ID, set a passcode for your watch, set up things like Siri and Apple Pay, and decide if you want to transfer your compatible apps to the watch. I recommend that you don’t move all your apps automatically this first time, because the watch is more useful when you nurture it with only what you want need to.
Some of the features that you should definitely set up are fall detection and emergency SOS. The latter lets you quickly make a call to local emergency services by pressing and holding the side button, while fall detection uses the watch’s accelerometers and other sensors, well, to detect if you’ve had a bad spill. It will automatically start an SOS emergency call if it detects a fall and does not detect your movement. Before you make that call, the watch will do its best to get your attention with a notification, vibration, and audible alarm.
The fun part: tweaking apps and notifications
Once you have the basics set up, it’s time to make your Apple Watch your own. By default, your Apple Watch reflects all notifications that arrive on your phone. But I found the watch to be much more useful with a little bit of organization. In the iPhone Watch app, you can customize notifications for all of Apple’s first-party apps, or turn them off entirely. For example, the Activity app notification panel lets you choose whether or not you want reminders to stay on every hour, notifications when your friends share activity milestones with you, and so on.
Third-party apps don’t have the same resolution, but you can turn them off so your watch won’t be pinged. For things that aren’t particularly time-sensitive (for example, updates from Google Photos, or if you don’t want the Apple News app to weigh heavily on your wrist), feel free to turn them off. They will keep hitting your iPhone, and you can always enable them again later.
The iPhone Watch app also lets you choose specific iPhone apps that will be installed on your Apple Watch. I think this is more useful than just letting the Watch install every compatible app, as this could mean you have a few dozen apps to browse on your watch to see if they’re useful. Instead, I’d rather look at the list and decide if there’s any benefit to having these apps on my wrist. In the case of apps like Google Maps or Ecobee to control my thermostat, that’s definitely yes. But things like Etsy or Bank of America don’t make all sense on the watch. And if you ever change your mind, you can remove an app from the Watch app or long-press in grid view and delete it — just keep in mind that this will remove the app from your watch but not your iPhone.
However, I was surprised by what some developers envisioned for the Apple Watch. Take the Bear notes app, for example. I often use it to make grocery lists, and checklists look great on my Apple Watch. So, if there is an app on your phone that you consider essential, try it out on the watch.
Another sometimes overlooked part of the Apple Watch experience is the watch faces. Since this is what you’ll see literally every time you raise your wrist, I think it pays to find one that fits your personal style. Despite the lack of external faces, the Apple Watch has more than 30 built-in options that are endlessly customizable. We’re talking about a huge variety of colors, different typefaces and watch face styles, multipliers (small slices of information like weather, date or music controls) and much more. You can have a simple digital display of time with nothing else, an information-dense face with eight different intricacies or anything in between.
You can set up new faces right on the Watch — but as with most in-depth features, it’s easiest to do so on the iPhone. The Face Gallery shows every available face, along with multiple examples of how to customize it. You can use these as a starting point for making your own creations. Once you’ve curated your favorites, you can simply swipe through them on the Watch itself when you want to mix things up. If you long press on a face, you can tweak it directly on your watch as well, which comes in handy when you just want to quickly change the color to better suit your look.
If you’re using an Apple Watch Series 5, 6, or 7, you can also decide if you want to activate the always-on display. You can find this option in the Settings app, under “Display and brightness.” If you’re after maximum battery life, turn this off, but most people probably prefer to turn it on. New watches can still get a full day of use while using the Always On feature, but once your watch gets a bit old and battery performance deteriorates, you might want to learn how to live without it.
One of the Apple Watch’s biggest selling points is its fitness tracking features. Whether or not you actively exercise on a regular basis, the watch will track your steps and activity level, and use this data to track your daily movement through three rings that you are encouraged to close. The “Move” ring is the number of active calories you burn in a day, the “Exercise” ring tracks activity when or on top of a brisk walk, and the “Stand” ring tracks whether you get up and move around for a minute or two every hour of the day.
When you set up your Apple Watch, it will suggest daily goals for each, and the Activity app (or the Fitness app on your iPhone) will show how close you are to achieving them. If you haven’t used an Apple Watch before, it’s OK to follow the default settings — each week, you’ll get a summary of what you did and will also suggest increasing your Move number if you easily skip the he-she. The Workout and Stand up options default to 30 minutes per day and 12 hours per day, but they can also be modified.
For even more motivation, the Fitness app lets you connect with other friends who use your Apple Watch and see how much progress they’re making against their three rings. Naturally, you can use this information to taunt them about their habits, but you can also challenge them to informal contests. You earn points based on the percentage that each of your episodes close each day, and the person with the most points wins after a week. It’s a fairly casual way, but it’s also a fun way to stay motivated.
If you want to track a specific exercise, such as running, walking, or a weight training session, you can do so in the Workout app. There, you’ll find many different types of workouts that Watch can track. If you already have a favorite way to track exercise on your phone, you’ll likely find it for your Apple Watch as well. Nike Run Club, MapMyRun, Peloton, and others have Watch apps that let you track workouts using wearable sensors. Also, many apps can now connect to the Health app on your iPhone. It’s a database of all your activities and exercise data from your watch, so you may easily be able to sync your workout data from there to the service of your choice. As with most things with the Apple Watch, it will take a little play to figure out what works best for you.
One of my favorite things about the Apple Watch is that it can stream music and podcasts — not just from Apple services but from others like Spotify and Pandora as well. You’ll need a cellular-capable watch to stream music without your phone, but the good news is that Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora all allow you to save music directly to the watch as well. Regardless of whether you choose the cellular model or not, there is a way to listen to the tunes and leave your phone behind.
If you are an Apple Music user, it will manage the downloaded music through the Watch app on your iPhone. Open that and go to the Music section and you’ll see a big button to add songs to your watch. There’s also a setting that automatically downloads albums and playlists you’ve listened to most recently – turn them on and you’ll always have some music on your wrist.
It’s also easy to choose specific albums or playlists you want to save. Just hit the big add button and you will see your Apple Music library. From there, just scroll to whatever you want, hit another plus button and it will download to your watch. Note that music only transfers when your watch is charging, so you’ll need to take it off your wrist to sync.
If you’re using Spotify, just go to an album, playlist, or podcast on your phone and tap the three-dot icon – you’ll see an option to “download to Apple Watch” there. Next, on your watch there is a clearly marked “Downloads” section where you can play content offline.
Experiment, experiment, experiment!
Like many Apple products, the Apple Watch has a lot of functionality and complexity hidden beneath its user-friendly surface. But I’ve found that the watch hides a lot of features, so it’s worth checking out the built-in Tips app for suggestions on what you can do. Without a clue like that, you’ll probably never realize that double-clicking the side button calls up Apple Pay, or that you can view the icon grid in a list if you prefer. Chances are good that you won’t screw something up irreversibly, so click, drag, scroll, scroll, and search in settings.