watchOS 9 preview: All about fitness and personalization

Over the past two years, Apple has had a clear goal for every iteration of watchOS. For example, watchOS 7 has introduced many features to facilitate pandemic life. watchOS 8 focused on giving people tools to relax and add features that take advantage of the Series 7’s larger screen. This trend continues with watchOS 9, which is available starting today via public beta. This time around, Apple is focusing on a more expansive fitness experience, with a dash of customization.

watchOS 9 introduces several new running metrics and exercise views. You can now get insight into your running form, stride length, ground contact time and, for the first time ever, heart rate zones. Apple has also added support for triathletes as well as the ability to create custom workouts. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

After spending a few weeks with the developer beta, it’s easy to see why rumors swirl about a rugged Apple Watch Series 8. While the Apple Watch has always been a great casual fitness tracker, updates in watchOS 9 allow it to compete – at least in terms of data – with Specialized sports watches from Garmin and Polar. Overall, this is the most substantial and coherent watchOS update we’ve seen in a while. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be surprising to see a major change in the Apple Watch lineup this fall.

Race Roots You race against your last pace on a regular road.

New operating metrics

With each iteration of watchOS, Apple usually adds new activities to its Workout app or improves on existing ones. However, the new playback updates are the most important fix for any single activity in the… the entire history of the Apple Watch.

In addition to the new metrics mentioned above, you’ll also have access to new workout views that display elevation charts, heart rate zones, and other useful data like time spent in specific zones. Heart rate zones have been an essential metric in the most popular fitness apps and wearables for a very long time now, so it wasn’t quite as revolutionary. However, they’ve been blatantly overlooked on the Apple Watch, and the fix that makes the Workout app a more attractive option for fitness buffs.

As a passionate runner with a penchant for data, I use heart rate zones in my training to gauge the intensity level of certain segments or intervals. Before watchOS 9, this meant that I either had to use a third-party app she did Include that data or memorize what my five regions were. Not having to do this was liberating.

New watchOS 9 turns metric charts displayed on iPhone

Added Apple Charts showing new metrics for exercise summaries.

Switching between shows in the middle of a run came in the clutch while training for the 10K, but Apple is still playing catch-up here — it’s not fun swiping on the touchscreen with sweaty fingers or swiping on the Digital Crown mid-step, which makes it easy Displaying it accidentally overrides the view you actually want. (Third-party apps that work like Strava on the Apple Watch, which also require you to swipe and tap to move between screens, have the same problem.) It’s less intuitive than navigating the physical button you’d find on multisport watches.

Also, watchOS 9 changes the way exercise views are edited. Now, you can click the ellipses in the exercise type and customize the views to your heart’s content. The thing is, I prefer the time to do this within the Watch app, which is no longer an option. Being able to edit on the Apple Watch is great for standalone functionality, but doing so on a smaller screen takes a lot of time, especially if you (like me) have low vision. Having multiple editing options would have been helpful. I’m not sure why Apple removed Edit views from the Watch app, as it looks like you should be able to do it on either platform.

Apple Watch Series 7 displays the Create Workout screen for custom playback

You can create your own custom workouts or use presets like 1 Mile Repeats.

Although it’s still boring, I was less annoyed with creating custom workouts because there are good presets if you’re feeling lazy. You have multiple options here, which makes this suitable for all types of runners. Unlocks the possibility to use training programs from non-digital sources. However, I’m not convinced that many people will run into extra hassles since many third-party apps already have custom training plans built in.

On a more modest note, I enjoyed challenging myself to race my time on previous roads. You’ve failed miserably more than once, but it’s good for your ego to kick your ass from time to time.

I could go ahead with every little update, but here’s TL; DR: These extended playback features are a net positive, long overdue, and allow insight into your progress, setting your Apple Watch to compete more seriously with established players like Garmin and Polar.

Pink gradient version of the standard Apple Watch face on Series 7

Legacy watch faces get a customizable set of colors in watchOS 9.

More Fitness & Fitness Plus

This is just the stuff going on. With watchOS 9, Apple is also adding multisport activity for athletes as well as new swimming metrics. Full disclosure: I’m not a 3D athlete and haven’t had the opportunity to adequately test these plugins. I don’t have regular access to a road bike, and every swimming pool in my neighborhood is currently crammed with hordes of stuttering kids on summer vacation.

I she did Messing around with customizing multisport activity. You can choose to include all or just two of all three triathletes (eg bike running, bike swimming, bike swimming, etc.). You can also rearrange sports shows, alerts and workouts right from the wrist. Again, it’s a little daunting – but it’s almost always on smartwatches.

Fitness Plus app also gets useful updates. In rowing, cycling, and walking exercises, watchOS 9 adds new metrics such as strokes per minute, revolutions per minute, and mile. For cardio exercises, the trainers will provide signals about the intensity, which are also supposed to be displayed on the screen. I stuck with the rowing exercises to the test since I was reviewing the Hydrow Wave at the same time. While I heard callouts for intensity and strokes per minute during exercise, I didn’t see those scales reflected on my TV. This may only be because we are still in beta.

Most importantly, Apple added the ability to throw Fitness Plus workouts – with scales – To any third-party TV that supports AirPlay. This was a huge oversight when the service was initially launched, so it’s good to see Apple address this. I tried it on two separate LG TVs, and it worked without a hitch. This is great news for people who are curious about Fitness Plus but aren’t interested in buying an Apple TV.

Medication and sleep reminder

Digital medication reminders are nothing new, but they are added locally within the Health app. I’m terrible at taking my medication because I have a working memory of a goldfish, so I was curious to see how well this worked for me.

The medication registration screen appears on Apple Watch Series 7

You can record your medications directly from the wrist.

Features like scanning your medication packages, creating custom schedules, and convenient reminders made setup a breeze. Overall, I would say the reminders helped, but it wasn’t perfect because again, the goldfish memory. I’ve had lines where I take my medications more seriously, days I fall off the wagon, and times I take my medications and forget to record them.

I can’t say if sharing drug data in the Health app would help. In theory, sharing this data could be a good way to get a loved one to act like a drug-accountable friend. However, the only person I share this information with is my wife, and they were wary of downloading the iOS 16 dev beta.

Health app on iPhone showing new sleep tracking in watchOS 9 and iOS 16

Apple is still playing a bit catch-up with sleep tracking.

For sleep tracking, watchOS 9 adds new sleep stages and comparison charts for metrics like sleep time, heart rate, and respiratory rate. It is a disappointing improvement. There are dozens of fitness trackers and smartwatches — and even Apple Watch apps — that already display this data in more detail and context. Apple is still playing catch-up here, in part because the Apple Watch’s battery life still isn’t ideal for overnight health tracking if you’re a power user.

Focus mode screenshot

You can now associate monitor interfaces with specific focus modes as you can using lock screens and wallpapers in iOS 16.

Enhanced personalization

With iOS 16, Apple is finally letting you associate lock screens and wallpapers with your focus modes, and watchOS 9 does that for watchfaces as well. A controversial opinion, but I enjoy creating focus modes and was glad I could pick watch faces associated with work and fitness modes and “that’s fine”. It was a game changer, because these are modes where I want either easy access to specific intricacies or a distraction-free background screen.

However, programming effective focus modes still requires tremendous patience. This will be one of those features that people who drool over will appreciate the opportunity to improve their lives. For the average person? Maybe not much.

The new watch faces were less impressive. On a cultural level, I highly appreciate the presence of the moon clock display, but realistically, I would never use it for myself. (Although my mom is a pro-lunar calendar, somewhere in heaven, dancing a triumphant dance.) Instead, updates to the existing monitoring interfaces were much more meaningful.

For example, you can now set stylish colors and gradient backgrounds. I love a good pop of color, and it’s amazing how this relatively small change can revitalize old watchfaces. Many faces that previously did not support complexities are now working, which makes them even more useful. Prior to watchOS 9, I had never used a screen interface like Kaleidoscope because I prefer cleanable data over aesthetically pleasing designs. Now, I can have my cake and eat it too.

Also, Portraits’ face now supports pets. Do I need to say more?

Notes and other notes

  • The redesigned calendar app now lets you switch between multiple views and create events. It was useful for getting a general sense of how busy your week is, but you probably won’t use this much if you primarily work from home.
  • The Podcasts app makes it easy to find your shows and download episodes offline. It’s quite late, but it’s annoying that you may have to switch between this app and others to listen on your wrist.
  • watchOS 9 will offer passive AFib tracking that is FDA-approved, but is intended for those with an official diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. I don’t have AFib, so I haven’t been able to test it.
  • There will be many updates on Family Setup, but no one in my family has volunteered as a tribute to beta testing, so I can’t speak to how well they worked at this time.
  • Workout adds a new power-saving mode that disables the built-in heart rate sensor and built-in cellular display for walking, hiking and running. This will probably appeal to endurance athletes, but I’m hesitant to comment on the battery gains until we get the final version. Additionally, your mileage may vary depending on the Apple Watch model you have the public beta installed on.

Photography by Victoria Song/The Verge

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