watchOS 9 preview: A great upgrade to track exercise and sleep

Apple may have the best smartwatch, but there are still some areas where it lags behind the competition, particularly in exercise and sleep tracking. With watchOS 9, the company brings a solid list of workout updates, along with new watch faces, redesigned apps, and the ability to detect sleep zones. Now that the public beta is here, we can take a first look at whether the company can fill in those gaps.

To install the watchOS beta, you’ll need to have an Apple Watch Series 4 or later, as well as an iPhone running iOS 16 beta. This means that if you don’t want to risk losing your data, you may want to wait until an official release before updating.

Cardio changes in workouts

There are some of the more impactful updates in the workouts. Apple has added pages that provide more data when recording an activity, so you can easily keep track of things like slices, splits, or elevations. Of these new screens, my favorite is the Heart Zones view, while I found the Activity Rings page to be the least useful.

I had the pleasure of seeing where my heart rate was during a 45-minute HIIT session, and my Apple Watch clearly displayed this information. There were five areas of different colors on the screen, and the area I was in was marked. Then I learned through the fitness app’s new summary page that I spent most of the time (about 22 minutes) in Zone 4, and Apple helpfully shows the heart rate range for each zone.

Two screenshots of the Apple Watch along with a screenshot of the iPhone showing the Cardio Zone view and new activity in the Workout app, as well as a heart rate summary on the Fitness app on the phone.

shots

Cardio is supposed to be available for all workouts, but I haven’t seen it in activities like yoga, dance, or cool down. They all support the new custom workout feature, which allows you to create specific goals to focus on during your session. This is most useful for distance or endurance-related activities like running, cycling, rowing, or HIIT, where Apple offers suggested templates such as the 8 x 400-meter repeat, 1-mile repeat, or 20-minute 20-second/10-second repetition. You’ll get haptic and audible alerts when you reach your heart rate, distance, calories or time target.

You can scroll down to set up what works for you, but this experience is largely inconsistent across different types of exercise. For some activities, you will have a lot of options like Pacer, Distance, Calories or Time. For others, like Open Water Swim or Rower, you’ll only see calories and time, along with a custom option that lets you set specific work and recovery periods.

Not every activity will be compatible with distance or speed, so this discrepancy is understandable. Just don’t expect the custom workouts feature to behave the same for all your exercises.

Six screenshots showing the new custom workouts in watchOS 9 beta.

shots

Runners will find plenty of watchOS 9 tools useful. Apple has also added new operating model metrics like stride length, ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and something it calls Power. The latter measures the responsive demand for power and is displayed as a number of watts. These new metrics are calculated automatically, and are only available during outdoor workouts. You’ll also need to use an Apple Watch Series 6, Watch SE, or later.

If you tend to run or bike on the same tracks, watchOS 9 can also let you race against yourself in the new Race Route feature. When you complete an outdoor run, an outdoor bike, or a wheelchair run, your iPhone will use on-device processing to group similar tracks. The next time you start one of these activities, the route display will tell you if you are ahead or behind your usual time, how much distance is left and alert you if you deviate from your usual lane. Apple has also added a new Pacer mode that lets you set a target time to complete the distance you set, and it will then guide you to reach the speed required to achieve that goal. Garmin and Samsung watches have similar features, so Apple isn’t breaking new ground here, but it’s good to see watchOS come along.

I don’t usually bike, swim, and run in one session, but for triathletes, the new Multi-Sport Workout Mode makes it easy to switch between the three activities so you don’t have to fiddle with your watch. Apple has also added support for Kickboard as a stroke type, and swimmers can see their SWOLF efficiency score in their summaries.

New watch faces and interface

One of the nicest things about every watchOS update are the new faces, which provide a way to update your device. This time around, Apple has not only added the ability to change the background color for existing options like Modular and X-Large, it’s also introducing new Playtime, Metropolitan, and Lunar themes. 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, the Moon, or the Solar System. Meanwhile, Lunar lets you choose from Chinese, Hebrew or Islamic calendars to display around the clock.

Three screenshots, left to right, show the new standard, astronomical, and lunar watch faces in watchOS 9 beta.

shots

I never knew how much I would appreciate having the Chinese lunar calendar on hand until I added this face. It has Mandarin characters telling me it’s currently the 15th of the 6th month, and I can use this to calculate our distance from the upcoming Lunar New Year or my grandmother’s birthday (whose family is based on the Chinese calendar).

Apple has also redesigned the Calendar app, making it easier to add new events from your wrist. Siri also no longer takes over your entire screen when turned on, instead appearing as a ball floating around the clock.

Since I set up medications on my iPhone in the iOS 16 preview, I also got an alert on watchOS 9 when it was time to take my supplement. I can easily log that I have taken my medication, skipped it, or a reminder snooze.

Sleeping areas and other updates

Speaking of snoozing, Apple has also added sleep phase detection to watchOS 9, using data from the accelerometer and heart rate monitor. It will detect when you are awake, and distinguish between areas such as REM, Core or Deep sleep. This feature is long overdue, given that Fitbit has long been able to do this even with mid-range trackers. But while I wasn’t able to test the Apple system in time for this preview, I look forward to seeing how it compares when I do a full review.

Screenshot and image showing, left to right, the Siri icon floating on the watchOS 9 home screen, and a medication reminder.

Snapshots / Engadgets

There are a few other updates I’d like to spend more time with as well, like additional metrics when doing a Fitness+ workout. So far, my experience with watchOS 9 beta has been seamless, and frankly, the view of the heart regions alone made the install worthwhile (for a gym like me, anyway). If you’re comfortable with the risks involved in running beta software, and can’t wait for a stable release to get these new features, you’ll likely enjoy what Apple has to offer today.

All products recommended by Engadget are handpicked by our editorial team, independently of the parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Leave a Comment