Apple Watch Series 8 In-Depth Review

Apple-Watch-Series8-Review

While all eyes last week were on the Apple Watch Ultra, the reality is that the Series 8 will sell the most units (by far), has almost every software feature of the Ultra, and includes the same slate of massive sports and feature changes as part of WatchOS 9. The Apple Watch Series 8 hardware itself was a modest update at best, instead, relying heavily on new sports & fitness software features like triathlon support, deeper structured workout/interval features, a revamped compass app with backtrack functionality, and running power/efficiency metrics.

To be sure, the hardware features – however minor, will likely be important to Apple’s longer term vision. These features include vehicular crash detection (using high-impact detecting sensors & algorithms), but more notably on the health/fitness side include a new skin temperature sensor set at the wrist. This sensor set aims to track your wrist temperature while sleeping, primarily with the goal of providing women’s menstrual cycle tracking. However, in this iteration it falls short of cycle prediction, like we’ve seen from some of Apple’s competitors, who leverage similar temperature tracking hardware.

I’ve been putting the Apple Watch Series 8 through its paces in a variety of workouts, including running, cycling, swimming, and more. This is of course in addition to testing WatchOS 9 most of this summer as well, using the new features there – even in a triathlon. I’ve also got an Apple Watch SE In-Depth Review slated for tomorrow, and of course in due time you’ll see a review of the Apple Watch Ultra.

Finally, note that Apple did provide a media loaner Apple Watch Series 8 unit, though, I’ve also been testing WatchOS 9 on my own Apple Watches. As usual, the loaner unit will go back to them afterwards. If you found this review useful, feel free to hit up the links at the end of the site, or consider becoming a DCR Supporter. With that – let’s begin!

What’s New:

P1066652

When it comes to the Apple Watch Series 8, the changes are very minor in the hardware department – at least as far as sports & fitness features go. Instead, the vast majority of the changes come from WatchOS 9 itself, which is the software platform. These changes are available back to Apple Watch Series 5 (though, some like the Backtrack feature are only from Apple Watch Series 6 and higher). It’s within the WatchOS 9 feature updates though that you’ll find the biggest increase in new sports/fitness/health metrics that we’ve seen since the launch of the Apple Watch.

Nonetheless, here’s what’s changed hardware-wise on the Apple Watch Series 8 since the Series 7:

– Improved gyroscope
– New high-g accelerometer (for vehicle crashes)
– Wrist temperature sensor

And while the software side has a massive slate of changes, including fitness and non-fitness, here’s a look at the sports/fitness changes first:

– Compass App: Revamped user interface
– Compass App: Added new waypoints option (saving, navigating to)
– Compass App: Added Backtrack capability to save a track without starting a workout
– Compass App: Added Backtrack to track back following your route
– Workout App: Adding three new running form metrics for efficiency: Vertical Oscillation, Stride Length, and Ground Contact Time
– Workout App: Can now see heart rate zones during the workout zones
– Workout App: Can now create new custom workouts, including repeats based on distance or time intervals
– Workout App: New alerts for heart rate zones, cadence, and other metrics (not shown yet)
– Workout App: New Running Power support, now natively tracks running power
– Workout App: Revamped data pages with more data per page
– Workout App: Will race against past workouts, which are saved to the workout app
– Workout App: Triathletes gets triathlon support including auto-switching between swim/bike/run and triathlete tracking time
– Workout App: Adding kickboard swim detection
– Workout App (coming later this year to the US): Track mode for running tacks

There are then of course lots of non-sports changes around general usability, Apple Home/HomeKit, etc…, the bulk of which I’ve outlined in my WatchOS9 post when it announced this summer.

Finally, in terms of pricing – that remains unchanged as well with the Series 8. Of course, Apple has revamped the lower-priced Apple SE with a new 2nd gen unit at the same time, while concurrently announcing the new higher-end Apple Watch Ultra, which has longer battery life and an extra button.

Here are the basics of the lineup:

Apple Watch SE (2022): $ 249
Apple Watch Series 8: $ 399+/$ 499+ with LTE
Apple Watch Ultra: $ 799

Got all that? Good. Let’s get this unboxed.

Unboxing:

DSC_3522

When it comes to the Apple Watch unboxing ‘experience’, it remains unchanged from past years. The multi-layer box is designed to account for multiple strap and watch body SKU’s, with no noticeable difference between the Apple Watch Series 8/SE or previous units.

Inside the outer wrapper you’ll find basically two sets of boxes:

A) One box for the watch pod, including the charging puck
B) One box for the watch strap, including two sizes

Here’s a closer look at that:

DSC_3525

One fun tidbit I caught but never noticed previously, is that the Apple Watch SE pod (the watch itself sans-strap) is packaged in a thin plastic wrapper, while the Apple Watch Series 8 is packaged in a felt/cloth wrapper. I guess like fancy car interiors, paying an extra $ 120 upgrades you to a nicer wrapper. Except, you’ll never use it again, likely going into the trash.

DSC_3526

In any case, here’s a closer look at the parts meaningful parts, which includes two strap sizes.

DSC_3527

Note that I didn’t measure the depth of the Apple Watch Series 8 at unboxing time, and now with some unexpected flight changes I’m not with my handy-dandy measuring tool.

DSC_3528

However, it is clear that Apple (like years past) isn’t listing the correct depth of the Apple Watch 8, and is excluding the heart rate senor in their measurements. Albeit, at least in Apple/Garmin’s cases here, that depth measurement is relatively minor, whereas in Samsung’s case it was 50% of the case depth and not so-minor. Nonetheless, I did want to make that clear for fairness sake, and I’ll add those measurements in when I return home.

The Basics:

P1066653

This section is all about the basic usage of the watch, primarily from a fitness/health standpoint, but occasionally some general usage bits as well. There are infinite numbers of sites talking about how to use the calculator or listen to music on an Apple Watch, none of which has changed this time around. I’m not here to re-write that. Instead, I want to focus on activity tracking and related.

First though, a quick primer on the display and controls. The Apple Watch Series 8 has two buttons on the right side, one being the digital crown (rotating thingy), and the second being a normal button. The digital crown both can be rotated and pressed inwards for two different actions. It’s used for everything from changing options in menus, to unlocking the screen. The quantity of buttons falls short of the Apple Watch Ultra, which added a 3rd so-called ‘Action’ button on the other side for more precise control in rougher weather conditions.

P1066659

Meanwhile, the screen itself is an always-on touchscreen. The difference there being that the Apple Watch SE for example, the screen turns off you lower your wrist. So as I type this sentence, the Apple Watch SE on my left wrist has the display off, while the Apple Watch Series 8 on my right wrist has the display on and dimmed. When I raise my Apple Watch Series 8-laden wrist, the display brightens automatically. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE wrist when raised would turn on entirely.

P1066658

Of course, all these display tweaks are in the pursuit of battery savings. While these displays are beautiful in terms of image quality, they come at the cost of being battery blow torches. Thus, any time Apple can save battery time, they do. The Apple Watch Series 8 is rated for “18 hours of all-day battery life”. Though, Apple tends to be pretty conservative in their battery estimates. In my case with the Series 8, inclusive of 1-1.5hrs of GPS time each day, I’m basically charging the battery each day. I’ve roughly varied when I charge it, so it’s not always dead-dead, but yeah, it’s a daily thing.

Last year Apple introduced the faster charging dock, which helps, but ultimately you’ll have to find some spot during the day to charge it if you want to also do sleep tracking. I find the best time is just after I get to my desk and start doing e-mails and such first thing in the morning. That’s a good block of time where it can charge and I’m not missing out on any activity tracking.

DSC_3533

Now, before we get to activity tracking, we can change the watch face displayed on the unit. Apple provides a handful of watch faces, which you can customize the so-called ‘complications’ on them. These are basically the tidbits of data on them. I ebb and flow with the season as to which watch face I like, sometimes just some more technical stuff, and sometimes the one that automatically pulls photos from my phone so that each time I glance at it, I get a new favorited photo:

P1066662

I’ve often talked about the subtle integration bits that Apple has on the Apple Watch that seals the deal for a lot of people, and this is one of those. There’s no complex setup, it just works, and every time (literally) I look at my wrist there’s a new photo, typically of my family or a memorable moment. Contrast that with other watches where you set the watch face photo and it’ll likely stay that way for years. And of course, plenty of the have sports/fitness metrics that can be displayed on the watch face, or customized as well. Even 3rd party apps have the ability to provide data which can be selected from complications.

So let’s turn our attention to the activity tracking pieces. In the Apple fitness realm, everything revolves around the ‘rings’. Apple uses a three-color ringed approach to monitoring your daily activity levels. These rings have daily goals, and complete a circle (ring) each time you achieve that goal. For example, the blue standing ring is goaled by default at 12 hours of standing. Which means you need to stand once every hour, ideally 12 hours of the day. The pinkish-red is for ‘Moving’, and the green is for ‘Exercise’.

P1066663

If you swipe down from the rings, you’ll see how you’re doing in each category, as well as a bit of a timeline on the day. Being earlier in the day, this isn’t quite as robust as if I took this photo at the end of the day. You can also see total steps, total distance, and floors climb listed one swipe lower.

P1066664 P1066665

Of course, like any activity tracking platform, all of this is synced to the companion app on your phone, called ‘Fitness’. This app is only available on iOS (that’s the phone platform, so it’s not available on iPad or any other device type). In turn, the app technically pulls data from Apple Health, which is the health/fitness repository that Apple has on iOS (and, since it’s not on iPad, it’s why the Fitness app isn’t on iPad and why the Apple Watch isn’t supported on iPad’s).

In any case, within the Fitness app you can see your daily totals as well as longer term trending bits.

clip_image001 clip_image001[5] clip_image001[7]

There’s also the ability to display trends over time. However, this takes 180 days of data before it starts (it used to take “just” 90 days), which as I’ve said for years, seems like an absurdly long time for basic trends like whether or not your standing/walking more this week compared to last week. Every other fitness platform on the planet (and my 4-year old daughter with her activity tracker) can tell you that if you walked more steps this week than last week, your trend is upwards. I know I’ve harped on this before, but I’m hoping that with Apple’s new focus on sports/fitness, they’ll look at some of these legacy silliness items, and consider it as low-hanging fruit to address in hopes of pulling other sportier users.

clip_image001[9] clip_image001[11]

Though, as you can see above for the running pace one, it’s actually interesting in that it’s pulling from Apple Health, and not Apple Watch specifically. At least, best I can tell. Thus, my average is skewed upwards (slower), likely because of non-GPS based data sources contributing to my Apple Health data set that aren’t as accurate.

In any case, let’s look look at some other data bits, one of those is sleep. Apple has increased its sleep focus on WatchOS 9, namely via adding sleep stage data. When sleeping, your watch goes into a sleep mode, where the display dims substantially and shows just the time. You can change the exact times this occurs, which Apple calls your ‘Sleep Schedule’. This doesn’t dictate when you can sleep or the tracking of it, but just when the display dims.

P1066666

Once you wake-up the following morning, you’ll get your sleep data displayed in the sleep app on the watch:

P1066667 P1066668

You can see its estimated sleep stages/phases, as well as the sleep times. I generally don’t rate/judge sleep stage accuracy for a few reasons, instead, focusing on the exact sleep times as a better proxy. The reason I don’t look at sleep stage/phase accuracy is that the comparative technologies that are available to do so aren’t all that accurate to begin with (about 80% accurate in most cases), and thus, we’d never judge a heart rate sensor or GPS track against something that was wrong 1/5th the time. It does seem like companies are at least getting more consistent here (Apple included), but I wouldn’t focus on this a ton at this time.

Your sleep data is then sent to your iPhone, where you can view it within the Apple Health app. As noted earlier, this is Apple’s giant repository for health/fitness data. You can see details about not just that night’s sleep, but previous data at the week/monthly/6-month level.

clip_image001[13] clip_image001[15]

There’s actually an odd quirk in my data from last night. You’ll see it shows 8hrs 12 mins in bed, but only 5hrs 41mins of sleep. Yet, you can see those little pink areas are the ‘awake’ times (so a few mins before I feel asleep, and a few mins when I woke-up). However, the chart oddly gaps towards the end. It’s done this slightly more recently on WatchOS 9 in some cases, seemingly including time I’m awake, out of bed, and moving around on the chart.

You can also get some sleep-related trends here, such as respiratory rate (aka breathing rate), and sleep time. It even thinks I’m doing better this year than last year, clearly, it hasn’t yet accounted for this week and next week in those calculations…

clip_image001[17] clip_image001[19]

A new feature for Apple WatchOS 9 is more detailed HRV values (heart rate variability). HRV is an area that has exploded in interest in the last couple years, with various fitness/sports companies leaning heavily on it to try and estimate how your body is recovering. While that can be tricky (at best) to do from HRV values, Apple isn’t quite going into that realm (yet). Instead, it’s just (slightly) increased the data provided by the watch to Apple Health. Previously, it gave only one data point per night (which is useless). Now, it provides more data, though, still a relatively small amount. For example, last night I’ve only got 5 data points, hardly enough to do anything with.

clip_image001[21] clip_image001[23] clip_image001[25]

Of course, the most notable Apple Watch Series 8 data point is the new wrist temperature tracking. This metric won’t show your exact body/skin/wrist temperature, but rather change relative to the baseline (e.g. + 1*F). This is similar to how other companies do it, as it’s a bit more useful and easier to consume. There are two ways you can use this data. The first, is that women can use this data to get historical cycle tracking data, including (historical) ovulation estimates. The second, is that you could use this data to find trends between nights where you’re body/skin temperature is higher or lower and you’ve got better or worse sleep. For example, a hot room might lead to poor sleep, so you could potentially figure that out and adjust accordingly.

This starts showing in the app after 5 nights of data, and then also shows more female cycle tracking data once you get far deeper historical data. Here’s a shot I took last week of someone’s phone at Apple with much more historical data to exemplify this:

WristTemp

You can see the estimated ovulation dates on the calendar, again, looking retrospectively, as well as on the watch:

P1066486

I’m going to take a guess that Apple is probably starting with the retrospective ovulation dates because honestly, nobody is going to get super upset if Apple mistakenly identifies historical data. However, forward looking ovulation data is an entirely different matter. We see both Oura and Whoop doing work/features in this area today, and with reasonably good accuracy (even for irregular cycles, with enough data). I’m guessing by this time next year we’ll probably see Apple do the same, having leveraged a year’s worth of temperature data within their internal testing. For most women, having forwards-looking estimates is really where the value is (especially for those with irregular cycles as well as ovulation estimates).

With that, let’s dive into the sports features in more depth.

Sports Features:

P1066678

In terms of hardware, the Series 8 unit offers no new hardware features for sports. However, WatchOS 9 offers a massive number of new sports features. As outlined earlier, this includes everything from heart rate zones, to backtrack functionality, to custom workouts, running power support, to triathlon support. It’s a massive leap forward for Apple. And the

First though, let’s start with getting a workout setup. To do so, we’ll open the Workout app on your Apple Watch, it’s the one with the green runner icon. Here you’ll see a list of sports to choose from. Each of these allows you to tap the three little dots in the corner. This is where you can customize what type of workout for that sport you’ll do.

P1066679

For example, in running the default would be just to track a run. But you can also now create structured workouts, or just simple workouts with a defined end goal (like distance or time).

P1066680

Here you can create an 8x800m structured workout. When you create these workouts you can add warm-up/work/recovery/cooldown segments, as well as repeat section.

P1066681

You can give this workout a title, as well as specify unit views for the workout itself. And within these workout views are where you’ll see the ability to toggle fields/pages like the new heart rate zones, as well as running efficiency metrics, including running power.

P1066683 P1066684

P1066687 P1066688

Heart rate zones can be setup on your phone, however oddly, at this time data pages/fields cannot be. Up through WatchOS 8/iOS15, you could actually modify workout data pages on your phone (Watch App > Workout > Workout View). However, with WatchOS 9/iOS 16, that feature/section is gone. All configuration must take place on the watch itself, which can be fairly tedious. It sounds like this will return, but didn’t quite make the cut for launch. You can still modify other things from the phone like Auto Pause, and the new Workout Low Power Mode (more on that in a second).

In any case, with everything all set, we’ll go ahead and start a workout. When you do so it’ll give a 3-second count-down and then start the workout.

P1066689

There isn’t any ability to see whether or not it has optical HR or GPS satellite lock before it starts. With the Apple Watch Series 8, Apple has changed how it does GPS lock. Specifically, it no longer depends on the phone like it used to (if the phone was within range). Now, it’s entirely self-standing in all scenarios. That has its pros and cons, depending on how you look at things. If you didn’t want it to drain your phone’s battery, it’s great (that’s me). But if you wanted longer battery life on your watch instead, it’s less ideal. Perhaps the best solution would be a simple toggle. I know I use the term ‘simple’ when in reality very little is simple in real-life, but, given Apple previously had the feature – I’ve gotta imagine the ability to chose the GPS source can’t be that difficult.

clip_image001

Now that we’ve started our run, we’ll get metrics shown on the watch in real-time, as you’ve configured it. This includes the new running power and running efficiency metrics. For these you’ll need to be actively running, as running power won’t display while walking or hiking. I know this sounds obvious, but in reality, most other running power competitors do actually display running power while walking/hiking. The reason is that energy is still expended, and should be accounted for. This is especially notable if you look at trail/ultra running, where competitors will often power walk steeper hills. In this case, their power output might be no different than ‘running’, but isn’t accounted for here.

clip_image001[6]

I suspect this is more of an algorithm accuracy issue, in part based on the underlying wrist-based running efficiency metrics that drive the calculations for running power may lack the ability to gather this data accurately. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes over time. It wouldn’t surprise me, especially as they expand the footprint into the harder core running crowd with the Ultra edition.

If doing a structured workout, you’ll see whether you’re in a Work or Recovery interval in the upper left side, as well as distance/time remaining in that interval.

P1066691

The structured workout piece is good here, though, there isn’t any API for 3rd parties to access it like there is on other platforms. Meaning, a company like TrainingPeaks or such can’t simply export a workout to the device like most other sports watches can. Of course, Apple Watch itself is a platform where apps can be built and someone can build an entire app dedicated to that (and they do). But, I think the one thing Apple knows is that if they want to be true competitors in the endurance sports realm, they have to have these seemingly niche things. It’s the combination of a boatload of niche things for why someone choose a Garmin watch over an Apple watch when it comes to sports tracking.

Speaking of which, let’s briefly talk sensors. The Apple Watch Series 8 will use its internal heart rate sensor by default. However, you can pair to external Bluetooth heart rate sensors if you’d like. You can do this within the Bluetooth menu:

P1066693

Generally speaking, optical HR accuracy is very good on the Apple Watch (as you’ll see later), but it’s certainly still an option if you want. However, when it comes to other sport sensor types, the Apple Watch doesn’t support any of those natively today. Meaning, if you want to pair a Bluetooth Cycling Cadence Sensor or a Bluetooth Power Meter, there’s no option to do so (and certainly not ANT+ either). With Apple including triathlon support, and even making references to iron-distance triathlons on their Apple Watch Ultra keynote section, they’re going to have to tackle this if they want to make headway into those crowds. The majority of iron-distance athletes have a power meter these days, and luckily for Apple the number of companies in the Bluetooth power meter space is relatively small.

There are 3rd party Apple Watch apps that can pair to Bluetooth power meters, but none that support triathlon. Thus, yours’re kinda in a pickle today. Speaking of triathlon, I’ve written an entire post already on using WatchOS 9 in a triathlon, and I may try and sneak in another triathlon this weekend. But you can read my previous post here.

Now, once your workout is complete you’ll get a basic summary displayed on the watch. However, it’s better to turn towards the Fitness app to see more data from your run, including all of that new running power/efficiency data. Apple’s actually done a pretty good job in expanding out this section a fair bit. Here’s another set for a different WatchOS 9 run I did with more complexity:

clip_image001[33] clip_image001[35] clip_image001[37] clip_image001[39]

Next, let’s briefly look at the revamped Compass app. The reason this app is notable is that it now includes the ability to save waypoints, which you can then loosely navigate back to. Once you’ve opened the app you’ll see two icons at the bottom, the left one is for waypoints, and the right one trackback.

clip_image001[8]

The waypoints option allows you to save your current location, give it a name, and then also give it a unique color/icon. It’s funny, this isn’t some crazy concept, but it’s just so much cleaner/prettier than their competitors. Again, little things matter.

clip_image001[10] P1066698

Then, back on the compass we can dive into the Backtrack feature. This feature records a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, and displays nearby waypoints you’ve previously saved. This doesn’t actually start automatically when you start a workout. Instead, you can manually start it, or it’ll automatically start when it detects a lower density of nearby WiFi signals (not just yours) and loss of cellular signal. Meaning, it thinks you’re going somewhere you might need help getting out of later.

clip_image001[12]

Once started, it’ll plot data points approximately every 2 minutes, loosely connecting them with straight lines. This isn’t quite as high fidelity of data as their competitors, but in terms of getting yourself out of trouble, it’s likely good enough in most cases (crazy white-out snow-storms aside). You can then tap on a given historical waypoint to see the compass heading towards it, as well as navigate back to your start.

P1066706

You can also select a given waypoint from a list back on the main compass screen, and it’ll use the magnetic compass to point you in the direction of that waypoint, along with the distance.

P1066701 P1066702

Now, obviously, this is pretty basic functionality. First, I’d argue that anytime you start a workout it should be automatically triggered/started in the background. Hopefully that’s an easy change to make. Second, like structured workouts, there isn’t any API into this. So you can’t have Strava Routes pump data into this for example, or Komoot. Sure, apps can again create their own navigation (and many do).

And so in some ways, while this is a good start into this realm, it’s quite a long ways from where Apple needs to be to compete with more outdoor-focused watches in terms of native navigation and routing. After all, you can’t load a route into the watch at this time. The good news is that my conversations with Apple last week in California following the keynote seem to indicate that they understand this, and the gaps. They also acknowledged that this is just the start of their journey into the endurance sports world.

Lastly, let’s briefly chat about battery life. Here’s what Apple claims for workout battery life in two modes:

– Regular mode – 18 hours: This includes always-on display, cellular connectivity on, and all features in their normal state
– Low power mode – 36 hours: This includes turning off always-on display, lowering cellular connectivity to once per hour, stopping automatic workout detection, and irregular heart rate notifications

Now, within that there’s a new Low Power Mode during a workout, which you can see here:

clip_image001[16]

Interestingly, this low power mode for workouts doesn’t actually reduce fidelity of workout data at this time. Instead, it’s mostly focused on other watch things to save battery (always-on-display turned off, cellular reductions to hourly, limits background features, turns off irregular heart rate notifications, etc…). Apple says that the in this mode the full workout GPS and HR data fidelity is retained, and all workout metrics/views/details are retained at full fidelity.

However, there is *a second* reduced workout battery mode coming later this year that will offer further battery savings. This secondary workout mode *WILL* have reduced GPS & heart rate recording/display options for hiking, running, and walking workouts. That’ll extend out the battery times further, but the details on that are slim for now.

Finally, when it comes to getting your workout up to various platforms, you’ve got a few options. Some platforms like Strava & TrainingPeaks have their own apps that can pull in your workout data easily through the settings menus. While other platforms lack integrated connectivity and require a 3rd party app. In my case, I primarily use HealthFit to do all my workout syncing. It supports all the new running power and efficiency metrics, and is generally my go-to for data export to 3rd party platforms (and also, for most reviewers).

clip_image001[31] clip_image001[27] clip_image001[29]

There are other options of course, RunGap being another popular one. Given Apple Watch and iOS are vast platforms with tons of apps on them, there are undoubtedly countless other options out there. In my case, I just use what has worked for me over the years reliably.

GPS & HR Accuracy:

P1066708

In this section I’m going to look at the accuracy of the optical sensor, as well as the accuracy of the GPS/GNSS. The optical heart rate sensor here is the same as most other recent Apple Watches over the two years, and to save you some time reading, it performs the same as those (which is, generally quite good). On the GPS front, it lacks the multiband/dual-frequently sensor seen on the Apple Watch Ultra edition, but does no longer utilize the phone connection like past Apple Watches did (if your phone was nearby, it’ll of course always used internal watch GPS if your phone wasn’t with you).

For all these tests, I’ve got multiple other recording devices and sensors. As always, no two watches are on the same wrist so as to not interfere with each other. Extra watches are either worn elsewhere on the body (like a running pack) or bike (handlebars), or sometimes hand-carried. Those watches not on the wrist are collecting heart rate data from connected HR sensors/straps.

First up, let’s start with a reasonably straight forward indoor workout on a trainer. I say straight-forward in that it was a series of intervals, but for the most part watches don’t have too many issues with optical HR inside (it’s outside that’s trickier):

AW8-Ride1-HR

You can see the above where I’ve got the Apple Watch Series 8, SE (2nd Gen), Garmin HRM-PRO Plus, and Whoop 4.0 band. In this case, both Apple Watch units were spot-on with the chest HR strap. The Whoop was fine, but lagged a little bit as it usually does (it was worn on an armband).

So, I then went outside and did a somewhat steady-state run, with some 200m sprints tossed in. As you can see, things were basically spot-on here, minus a single blip with the SE early on in the workout. Specifically, it didn’t seem to find HR lock at the beginning, and then did a random spike for a few seconds. This is one of the challenges with the inability of Apple’s workout app to ensure HR/GPS lock first. The new Apple Watch Ultra actually solves this problem by allowing you to get lock before you start, but that isn’t available on the SE/8 units. After that point though, the HR was spot-on, including in the 200m sprints.

AW8-RunAMS-HR

So, looking then at the GPS track, this is mostly a straight forward route, though, I ran it through the forest instead to make it slightly more difficult.

AW8-RunAMS-GPSMain

And while both Apple watches were pretty good and matched the Garmin unit (and more importantly, my actual path), you can see this moment during one of the sprints were the Series 8 unit actually went all wonky into the trees by about 50m or so…twice. I’m not sure what to make of this. I’ve also been recording some of my commutes and other random activities and I haven’t seen this again. So hopefully it was just a random one-off.

AW8-RunAMS-GPS2

In fact, later the next day I was shooting some action cam stuff via mountain bike. While I was putting out a ton of work on this ride (because it was 105*F), I wouldn’t really classify it a proper ride per se. However, I did record the GPS on the Series 8 the entire time, alongside a Garmin Edge 1040 Solar (which has multiband/dual-frequency on it). The tracks across the route were identical.

AW8-MTB-GPS2

However, it’s worthwhile drawing your attention to this little spot below. Here I was in dense brush going back and forth more times than I can count. And you can see that despite that, the tracks of both units are very close to the trail itself, within just a couple meters. Meaning, even in these conditions the Apple Watch Series 8 was holding it’s own against a dual-frequency GPS device.

AW8-MTB-GPS1

For fun, here’s the elevation plot from that ride. The two units disagreed on the exact altitude by about 12 meters, though, they did trend the same the entire ride. That’s pretty common in my testing of barometric altimeters. Neither was manually calibrated, just automatic like most users would do.

AW8-MTB-Elevation

Next, we’ve got a short interval run from last night. You can see here all is well on the start and through each of the intervals from both Apple Watches.

AW8-Spain-Intervals-HR

GPS-wise, this should have been about the easiest possible thing to get right. It was directly out/back along an ocean road with virtually no tree cover. But sometimes, easy routes expose flaws, such as the inability to precisely lay down the same track going out and back. But that wasn’t the case here, both Apple Watch’s had no problems matching the track of the multiband Garmin Forerunner 955.

AW8-Spain-Run-GPS

Now, I did notice an interesting quirk though – which is running cadence. Check out the below graph, and notice how the Garmin unit shows the sharp changes in running cadence. This is correct, because I’m running an interval, and then I immediately walked the recovery for 100m. However, the Apple Watches significantly over-smooth that data, which isn’t correct. I suspect this may contribute to way Apple isn’t doing running power while walking.

AW8-Spain-Intervals-Cadence

Speaking of which, I’ve previously done a deep dive into Apple WatchOS9 running power and how it compares to COROS, Garmin, Polar, and Stryd. And realistically, nothing changes here. As with before, Apple’s running power is in the ballpark of Stryd/COROS, whereas Garmin sits on the higher end, and Polar about in the middle. Remember, there’s no standards for running power, and easy company measures slightly different things. So while they trend in the same directions, they aren’t measuring the same things.

Here’s an example from last night, showing the green of the Garmin HRM-PRO Plus strap-based running power, versus the two Apple Watches. I suspect any slight Apple Watch differences you see here are probably from taking a few photos/videos while running (since then I’m holding my wrist up). I’ll be diving deeper into Apple’s running power as part of my Apple Watch Ultra edition down the road (though, it’s all the same software).

AW8-SpainRun-Power

Ultimately, stepping back and looking at both HR accuracy and GPS accuracy, I’m seeing largely good things across the board on both new watches (SE & Series 8). As is usually the case with any watch I test, there’s usually one or two blips – but certainly nothing major here, or even rising to the level of minor concern.

I’ll be doing more city-based testing in the coming days across multiple units, and will add those data sets into this review in time, especially some of the downtown tall building testing I like to do. Hang tight!

(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy sections were created using the DCR Analyzer tool.  It allows you to compare power meters/trainers, heart rate, cadence, speed/pace, GPS tracks, and plenty more. You can use it as well for your own gadget comparisons, more details here.)

Wrap-Up:

P1066709

The Apple Watch Series 8 expands Apple’s reach into the sports and fitness area more than any other watch before it (save the also-announced Apple Watch Ultra, which…was technically announced about 6 minutes after the Series 8). The Series 8 does this not through major hardware advancements, but a slate of WatchOS 9 driven software updates. In doing so, it’s significantly encroaching on the lower to mid-tier multisport/running watches from the likes of Garmin, Polar, Suunto, and COROS.

The addition of a triathlon mode (which I used earlier this summer just fine in a triathlon), heart rate zones, running power, and editable structured workouts are key areas that Apple had to address. If we look at Apple’s triathlon mode for example, they made updates throughout the summer in response to feedback from users, such as making manual transitions possible. And in that case, they started out with the default of automatic transitions, something only Wahoo has on their watches. For the other metrics, Apple’s implementations are less detailed for sure than a Garmin watch, but only at Garmin’s Forerunner/Fenix realm. If we look at something like the Venu series, that lacks multisport mode, running power, and running efficiency metrics. All things that Garmin was the first to show on watches over the past decade (in the case of power, via Stryd initially)…but just not on the Venu lineup, the companies’ main competitor to the Apple Watch series.

The point in making these comparisons is that’s what Apple is aiming for with all these new sports/fitness features. They didn’t add these features for funsies. They added them to grow and expand into the sports/endurance market, and thus knowing how this stands up in those areas is key. And once you finish judging whether or not the sports features meet your requirements, then you can look back at the watch as a whole. Unquestionably, no smartwatch on the market is as polished as the Apple Watch. Of course, Apple is limited to being iPhone only today. So if you have an Android phone, you’re outta luck here.

Still, if you’re sporting an older Apple Watch, perhaps a Series 3 or the like, then the Apple Watch Series 8 is a solid upgrade for you – both in terms of hardware and more notably, the fitness and sports workout experience.

With that, thanks for reading!

Product Reviews – DC Rainmaker

Leave a Reply