Apple may have the best smartwatch on the market, but there are still areas where it lags the competition, especially in exercise and sleep tracking. With watchOS 9, the company is delivering a full slate of workout updates, along with new watch faces, revamped apps, and the ability to detect sleep zones. Now that the public beta is here, we can see if the company can fill in those gaps.
To install the beta version of watchOS, you must have an Apple Watch Series 4 or newer, as well as an iPhone running the beta version of iOS 16. This means that if you don’t want to risk losing your data , you might want to wait for an official release before updating.
Significant changes in workouts
Some of the most impactful updates relate to workouts. Apple added pages that show more data when you log activity, so you can easily track things like your segments, splits, or elevations. Of these new screens, my favorite is the Cardio Zones view, while I found the Activity Rings page the least useful.
It was satisfying to see where my heart rate was during a 45-minute HIIT session, and the Apple Watch displayed that information clearly. There were five different colored areas on the screen, and the one I was in was highlighted. Then I learned via the Fitness app’s new summary page that I spent most of the time (about 22 minutes) in zone 4, and Apple also helpfully displays the heart rate range for each zone.
The Cardio view is supposed to be available for all workouts, but I haven’t seen it in activities like yoga, dancing, or cooling down. However, they all support the new personalized training feature, which lets you create specific goals to focus on during your session. This is much more useful in distance or endurance related activities like running, cycling, rowing or HIIT, where Apple offers suggested patterns like 8 x 400m reps, 1 mile or 20 min of 20 sec / 10 sec. You’ll receive haptic and audio alerts when you hit your target heart rate, distance, calories, or time.
You can scroll all the way down to set up your own, but that experience is quite inconsistent across different workout types. For some activities you will have many options like pace, distance, calories or time. For others, like open water swimming or rowing, you’ll only see calories and time, plus a custom option that lets you set specific work and recovery periods.
Not all activities will be compatible with distance or pace, so this inconsistency is understandable. Don’t expect the custom workout feature to behave the same for all of your workouts.
Runners will find plenty of watchOS 9 tools useful, however. Apple also added new running form metrics like stride length, ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and something it calls power. The latter measures your reactive energy demand and is displayed in number of watts. These new metrics are automatically calculated and are only available during Outdoor Run workouts. You will also need to use an Apple Watch Series 6, Watch SE or newer.
If you tend to run or cycle the same routes, watchOS 9 can also let you race against yourself in the new Race Route feature. When you do outdoor running, outdoor biking, or wheelchair running workouts, your iPhone uses on-device processing to group similar routes together. The next time you start one of these activities, the Route view will tell you if you are ahead or behind your usual time, the remaining distance and will alert you if you go off your usual path. Apple has also added a new Pacer mode that lets you set a target time to cover a distance you specify, then guides you to the pace required to achieve that goal. Garmin and Samsung watches have similar functionality, so Apple isn’t innovating here, but it’s nice to see watchOS coming.
I don’t usually cycle, swim, and run in one session, but for triathletes, the new multisport training mode makes it easy to switch between the three activities so you don’t have to fiddle with your watch. Apple also added support for Kickboard as a stroke type, and swimmers can see a SWOLF efficiency score on their summaries.
New dials and interface
One of the coolest things about every watchOS update is the new faces, which provide a way to refresh your device. This time, Apple not only added the ability to change the background color of existing options like Modular and X-Large, but also introduced new Playtime, Metropolitan, and Lunar designs. The company has also redesigned the astronomy screen, and it’s similar to the iPhone version where you can choose between views of the earth, moon, or solar system. Meanwhile, Lunar lets you choose from Chinese, Hebrew, or Islamic calendars to display 24 hours a day.
I didn’t know how much I would appreciate having the Chinese lunar calendar at my fingertips until I added this face. There are characters in Mandarin that tell me it’s currently the fifteenth day of the sixth month, and I can use that to count how far we are from the next Lunar New Year or my grandmother’s birthday (which my family bases on the Chinese calendar).
Apple also redesigned the Calendar app, making it easier to add new events from your wrist. Siri no longer takes over your entire screen when triggered, instead appearing as an orb floating above the clock.
Because I had set up medications on my iPhone on iOS 16 preview, I also got an alert on watchOS 9 when taking my supplement. I could easily log that I took my meds, skipped them, or snoozed the reminder.
Sleep zones and other updates
Speaking of naps, Apple has also added sleep stage detection to watchOS 9, using data from the accelerometer and heart rate monitor. It will detect when you are awake and distinguish areas such as REM, Core or Deep sleep. This feature is way overdue, given that Fitbit has been able to do this for a long time, even with its mid-range trackers. But while I didn’t have time to test Apple’s system in time for this preview, I can’t wait to see how it stacks up when I do a full review.
There are some other updates I’d like to spend more time with, like the extra metrics during a Fitness+ workout. My experience with the watchOS 9 beta so far has been smooth, and honestly the cardio zones workout view alone made it worth installing (for a gym fan like me, anyway ). If you’re comfortable with the risk of running beta software and can’t wait for a stable release to get these new features, you’ll probably appreciate what Apple has to offer today.
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