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How to Customize Your New Apple Watch

Here's a guide to the Apple Watch's main settings, which can let you feel like you’re in control of the watch, rather than the other way around.

So you got an Apple Watch. Or you’re still obsessively tracking the shipping data for the one you preordered.

Once you have it, how do you really make it your own?

I’m not talking about which watch face to select on any given day, or whichever particular band you chose. Those things matter, of course. But let’s talk about customizing the software so you have the apps you want, where you want them; having your favorite contacts and frequently-sought info in an accessible place; and receiving a helpful number of notifications, but not so many that you want to take the thing off.

As I learned after wearing the watch for a month, tweaking these settings and others can make the wearable far more useful.

So here’s a quick guide to personalizing the Apple Watch. Some of this can be done on the watch itself, but most of it is handled by the companion Apple Watch app that resides on your iPhone — Apple automatically put it there as part of a recent iOS update. (It’s the one with the black icon featuring a side view of the watch.)

The iPhone Apple Watch app
The iPhone Apple Watch app

If you’re looking for even more info, you can find Apple’s full user guide here, or in the Watch app on the iPhone (go to General/About/ and then scroll to the bottom). But even at a mere 96 pages, it’s a lot to wade through.

Settings on the Apple Watch

You can set a few things quickly from a so-called “Glance” — Apple’s name for a screen you retrieve briefly by swiping up from the bottom of the watch screen. One of these controls a few settings like muting the watch, and putting it into Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode.

Other customizations require launching the Settings app on the watch. Here you can control alert volumes, and the force with which the watch “taps” you on the wrist for alerts. You can choose whether the watch will wake automatically when you raise your wrist; and when it wakes, if it will show the clock face or resume the last app you were using.

You can also change or disable the passcode on the watch.

For almost everything else, you’ll need to use the iPhone app for Apple Watch, which broadly resembles the phone’s own Settings app, though it’s separate. You’ll want to be in the section of the app called “My Watch,” reached from the far-left icon on the app’s bottom row.

Here are some of the key things it controls:


In the main My Watch screen, if you scroll down below Apple’s built-in apps (everything below Workout), you can choose which apps to show on the watch. These are third-party iPhone apps you have on your phone that include some watch functionality, but you may not want them cluttering your screen’s limited real estate.

Setting app layout
Setting app layout

For example, I removed the AP Mobile app from my test watch, because I found it too slow to load, but kept other news apps like the one from the New York Times, which I find speedier.

If you go to General within the My Watch section, you can also choose whether to have all your iPhone apps that include watch functions automatically appear on the watch.

You can also use the very first item in the iPhone app for Apple Watch — called App Layout — to control the arrangement of your watch’s screen. Here, you can place your most-used app icons closer to the center, to save the time you’d spend panning around the small screen looking for them.


Having your watch tap you every few minutes can drive you crazy, but so can missing something that matters to you. So in the Notifications setting, you can go through the list of third-party apps and choose which ones will generate notifications. In some cases, these may be watch-specific notifications, but in others, they are simply “mirroring” the same alerts you’re getting on your iPhone.

It’s worth noting that activating fewer notifications may increase your watch’s battery life.

Setting notifications
Setting notifications

Texts and Email

Scroll to the Messages settings in the Apple Watch app for iPhone, and you can choose to mirror the text settings on your phone, or to customize them, by choosing whether to alert you to incoming texts. You can also decide here whether messages you dictate (which I’ve found to be a very useful and reliable feature of the watch) will always appear to the other party as dictated text, an audio file, or whichever you choose each time.

This is also where you can modify Apple’s limited, default set of canned text replies. For instance, you might prefer one that says “Cool” or “Yes, boss.”

Email, at least for now, is one-way only on the Apple Watch. You can’t reply to it. But you can, if you choose, reduce it by using the Mail settings to turn off mail from accounts you don’t need to see. Or you can choose to only see emails from people designated as VIPs, assuming you use Apple Mail’s VIP feature on your phone.


The watch has a feature that lets you quickly call, text or send drawings and screen taps to a dozen frequent contacts. The Friends setting in the app lets you choose these folks.


For lefties, or anyone who prefers to wear the watch on their right wrist, you can change the orientation of the software so it will display correctly, and tell the watch whether to assume the crown is facing left or right. (This one, like some others, can be set both from the watch itself and from the iPhone app, where it’s found under General/Watch Orientation.)


This feature lets you control which apps earn one of the 20 slots Apple has allocated to the quick views you can consult by swiping up from the bottom of the watch screen. For example, I have Glances on my test watch for Activity, Weather and Twitter, among others. You can also arrange the left-to-right order in which you can scroll through them.

Setting Glances
Setting Glances

Music and Photos

You can store two gigabytes of music and 15MB of photos on the watch itself, which means you can play or view them even when the watch is out of range of the phone. To choose which media you’d like to sync to the watch, go to the Music and Photos settings items in the app.

Passcodes and Unlocking

The only keyboard on the Apple Watch is a numeric keypad for typing in your passcode after you put the watch on your wrist. (It’s not only a good security practice, it’s required to use Apple Pay on the watch.) But if you go to the Passcode setting on the iPhone app, or on the watch itself, you can allow unlocking the watch by using the fingerprint reader or passcode on your phone — as long as the watch is on your wrist.

These are the main ways in which you can customize your watch. As with any new device, I encourage you to fiddle around with these and other settings until you feel like you’re in control of your Apple Watch, rather than the other way around.

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