watchOS 9 preview: all about fitness and personalization

For the last couple of years, Apple’s had a clear purpose for each iteration of watchOS. For instance, watchOS 7 introduced several features to make pandemic living easier. watchOS 8 focused on giving people tools to chill out and adding features that make use of the Series 7’s larger screen. That trend continues with watchOS 9, which is available starting today via the public beta. This time around, Apple is zeroing in on a more expansive fitness experience, with a dash of personalization.

watchOS 9 introduces several new running metrics and workout 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’s also added support for triathletes as well as the ability to create custom workouts. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

After spending a few weeks with the developer beta, it’s easy to see why the rumor mill is buzzing about a rugged version of the Apple Watch Series 8. While the Apple Watch has always been a great casual fitness tracker, the updates in watchOS 9 allow it to compete — at least in terms of data — with niche sports watches from Garmin and Polar. All in all, this is the most substantive and cohesive update to watchOS that we’ve seen in a while. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be surprising to see a major shakeup to the Apple Watch line this fall.

The Race Route workout displayed on a Apple Watch Series 7

Race Route lets you race against your last pace on a regular route.

New running metrics

With each iteration of watchOS, Apple usually adds new activities to its Workout app or improves existing ones. However, the new running updates are the most significant overhaul to any one activity in… the entire history of the Apple Watch.

In addition to the aforementioned new metrics, you’ll also have access to new workout views that showcase elevation charts, heart rate zones, and other helpful data like time spent in specific zones. Heart rate zones have been a core metric in the most popular fitness apps and wearables for a very long time now, so it’s not as if this is revolutionary. However, they’ve been a glaring omission on the Apple Watch, and fixing that makes the Workout app a more attractive option for fitness buffs.

As an avid 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, that meant I’d either have to use a third-party app that did include that data or memorize what my five zones were. Not having to do that was liberating.

New watchOS 9 running metric charts displayed on an iPhone

Apple’s added charts displaying the new metrics to the workout summaries.

Switching between views mid-run came in clutch while training for a 10K, but Apple is still playing catch-up here — it’s not fun swiping on a touchscreen with sweaty fingers or scrolling the digital crown mid-stride, which makes it easy to accidentally fly past the view you actually wanted. (Third-party running apps like Strava on the Apple Watch, which also require you to swipe and tap to navigate screens, have the same problem.) It’s less intuitive than the physical button navigation you find on multisport watches.

Also, watchOS 9 changes how you edit workout views. Now, you can tap the ellipses on a workout type and customize views to your heart’s content. Thing is, I preferred when you could 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 it’s more time-consuming to do this on a smaller display, especially if (like me) you have poor vision. Having multiple editing options would’ve been helpful. I’m not sure why Apple removed editing views from the Watch app, as it seems like you should be able to do it on either platform.

Apple Watch Series 7 showing the Create Workout screen for custom runs

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

Though it’s still tedious, I was less fazed creating custom workouts because there are good presets if you’re feeling lazy. You have multiple options here, which make this suitable for all kinds of runners. It opens up the possibility of using training programs from non-digital sources. However, I’m not convinced that many people would go through the extra hassle since many third-party running apps already have their own built-in custom training plans.

On a more humbling note, I enjoyed challenging myself to race my times on previously run routes. I failed miserably more than once, but it’s good for the ego to get your butt kicked from time to time.

I could go on about every little update, but here’s the TL;DR: these expanded running features are a net positive, long overdue, allow for greater insight into your progress, and position the Apple Watch to compete more seriously with established players like Garmin and Polar.

A pink color gradient version of the Modular Apple Watch face on a Series 7

Older watchfaces get a pop of customizable color in watchOS 9.

Even more fitness and Fitness Plus

That’s just the running stuff. With watchOS 9, Apple also adds a multisport activity for triathletes as well as new swimming metrics. Full disclosure: I’m not a triathlete and didn’t get a chance to adequately test these additions. I don’t have regular access to a road bike, and every pool in my neighborhood is currently overrun with hordes of rambunctious children on summer break.

I did fiddle around with customizing the multisport activity. You can choose to include all three triathlete sports or just two of them (e.g., run-bike-run, swim-bike, swim-bike-run, etc.). You can also reorder the sports, alerts, and workout views directly from the wrist. Again, it’s a little tedious — but it always is on smartwatches.

Fitness Plus also gets meaningful updates. In rowing, cycling, and treadmill workouts, watchOS 9 adds new metrics like strokes per minute, revolutions per minute, and incline. For cardio workouts, trainers will give intensity cues, which are also supposed to be displayed on-screen. I stuck to rowing workouts in testing since I was reviewing the Hydrow Wave at the same time. While I heard callouts to intensity and strokes per minute within the workout, I didn’t see those metrics reflected on my TV. This might just be because we’re still in beta, however.

More importantly, Apple’s added the ability to cast Fitness Plus workouts — with metrics — to any third-party TV that supports AirPlay. This was a major oversight when the service initially launched, so it’s nice to see Apple address this. I tried it on two separate LG TVs, and it worked without a hitch. This is excellent news for folks who are curious about Fitness Plus but aren’t keen on buying an Apple TV.

Medication reminders and sleep

Digital medication reminders are not new, but adding them natively within the Health app is. I am terrible at taking my meds because I have the working memory of a goldfish, so I was curious to see how well this would work for me.

Medication logging screen shown on the Apple Watch Series 7

You can log your medications directly from the wrist.

Features like scanning your medication packaging and creating custom schedules and reminders were convenient and made setup a breeze. Overall, I’d say the reminders helped, but it wasn’t perfect because again, goldfish memory. I’d have streaks where I took my meds more diligently, days where I’d fall off the wagon, and times where I’d take my meds and forget to log it.

I can’t say whether sharing medication data in the Health app might help with that. Theoretically, sharing this data may be a good way to have a loved one act as your medication accountability buddy. However, the only person I’d share that information with is my spouse, and they were wary of downloading the iOS 16 dev beta.

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

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

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

Screenshot of “This is fine” Focus mode showing watch face, wallpaper, and lockscreen customizations.

You can now link watchfaces to specific Focus Modes like you can with lock screens and wallpapers in iOS 16.

Enhanced personalization

With iOS 16, Apple finally lets you link lock screens and wallpapers to your Focus Modes, and watchOS 9 does it for watchfaces, too. Controversial opinion, but I enjoy creating Focus Modes and was pleased that I could choose which watchfaces were associated with my Work, Fitness, and “This is Fine” modes. It’s been a game-changer, as these are modes where I either want easy access to specific complications or a distraction-free watchface.

That said, programming effective Focus Modes still requires Herculean patience. This is going to be one of those features that’s most appreciated by folks who salivate at the opportunity to optimize their lives. For the average person? Maybe not so much.

The new watchfaces were less impressive. On a cultural level, I deeply appreciate that the Lunar watchface exists, but realistically, I’d never use it for myself. (Though, somewhere in heaven, my pro-Lunar-calendar mom is dancing a victory jig.) Instead, updates to existing watchfaces were far more meaningful.

For example, you can now set nifty color and gradient backgrounds. I love a good pop of color, and it’s amazing how this relatively small change can refresh old watchfaces. Several faces that previously didn’t support complications now do, making them more useful. Before watchOS 9, I’d never use a watchface like Kaleidoscope because I prefer glanceable data to aesthetically pleasing designs. Now, I can have my cake and eat it, too.

Also, the Portraits face now supports pets. Need I say more?

Other notes and observations

  • The redesigned Calendar app now lets you switch between multiple views and create events. It was handy for getting an overall sense of how busy my week was, but you likely won’t use this much if you primarily work from home.
  • The Podcasts app makes it easier to search for your shows and download offline episodes. Long overdue, but it’s annoying that you may have to switch between this and other apps for on-wrist listening.
  • watchOS 9 will introduce FDA-cleared passive AFib tracking, but it’s intended for those with an official atrial fibrillation diagnosis. I don’t have AFib, so I wasn’t able to test it.
  • There will be several updates to Family Setup, but no one in my family volunteered as tribute for beta testing, so I can’t speak to how well they work at this time.
  • The Workout app adds a new power-saving mode that disables the always-on display, cellular, and built-in heart rate sensor for walking, hiking, and running workouts. This is likely to appeal to endurance athletes, but I’m hesitant to comment on battery gains until we have the final release. Plus, your mileage may vary depending on which Apple Watch model you install the public beta on.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge