The Apple Watch has always been an important product for Apple, and it's gone through quite a few changes over the years. Apple almost saw the very first one as a piece of jewelry — a fancy flex you could purchase that would look great on your wrist but also give you some fun features to extend your iPhone's usefulness. Subsequent models of the Apple Watch started focusing on packing more and more features into the tiny little square. Then, after that, Apple Watch became increasingly focused on health, offering life-saving features like fall detection, ECG readings, and more. So, where does that leave the Apple Watch now? Interestingly enough, the Apple Watch is blasting into the future by doubling down on a core feature: fitness.
WatchOS 9 is by far the biggest update to the fitness tracking features of the Apple Watch we've seen in years and finally puts the Apple Watch in the conversation of top-tier fitness trackers. With the public beta now out for the masses, people who don't mind taking risks with their devices can see what all the fuss is about. If you're an absolute fitness beast, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Before I get into watchOS 9, a quick reminder. watchOS 9 is still in beta, and this is not intended as a review but rather as an overview of the new features and my personal experience with them. I will give my full review and opinions on the newest Apple Watch software once it's released to the public in full this fall.
Apple occasionally offers updates to iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS as closed developer previews or public betas (opens in new tab). While the betas contain new features, they also contain pre-release bugs that can prevent the normal use of your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, or Mac, and are not intended for everyday use on a primary device. That's why we strongly recommend staying away from developer previews unless you need them for software development, and using the public betas with caution. If you depend on your devices, wait for the final release.
Custom workouts offer a ton of flexibility for your workouts
I said earlier that watchOS 9 pushes the Apple Watch into the conversation of top-tier fitness trackers, and I realize that may seem confusing to people. Surely, the Apple Watch is already a top-tier fitness tracker, right? Well, if you talk to really hardcore fitness enthusiasts and athletes, you'll see that the Apple Watch — yes, even the powerful Apple Watch Series 7 — has traditionally fallen short of its use cases on many occasions. The good news is that watchOS 9 tries its hardest to address this. The addition of Custom Workouts is probably the greatest example of this.
Before watchOS 9, you and your best Apple Watch were at the mercy of the workouts Apple included on its' Apple Watch. Granted, there are many different types of workouts in the Workout app, and you could certainly change the goals of your workouts to be more focused on what you are trying to achieve, but it never gave you any real flexibility in how you work out. Custom Workouts is changing all that.
You can create a Custom Workout for any of the workout types in the Workout app. Inside a Custom Workout, you can have multiple intervals for work and recovery periods, which means you can easily set up sets. For example, say you want to go for a run, but you're doing interval training because you suck at running like me; you can create a Custom Run Workout that will allow you to set up a two-minute work period and a 45-second recovery period. Or, you can set it so that you run for 1km and then rest for half a kilometer. Plus, you can set that to repeat if you want. So, if you want to run 5km, repeat that five times and boom, you have a Custom Outdoor Run Workout that you can use anytime you want. You can even put a warm-up and cooldown into a custom workout, meaning you don't need to jump out of the workout you're in to start a separate cooldown.
That's just one example. Every workout type can utilize Custom Workouts, and you can even have more than one for each workout, meaning you now have a ton more flexibility to work out how you want, when you want.
Get in the zone — the heart rate zone
People often talk about "getting in the zone" during a workout, but some people mean that quite literally. Heart rate zones have long been a tool used to help people train and illustrate improvements in their overall fitness level. If you're running a marathon, you can't be in your max heart rate zone the whole time; you'll burn out before you finish the race. Instead, you likely want to be in a moderate heart rate zone for most of the time, trying to maintain a pace that's comfortable for most of the race.
Many sports, like hockey (sorry, I'm Canadian), rely on short bursts of intense activity. When a hockey player skates off the bench to take their shift, they will likely be in or near the maximum target rate for the 45-90 seconds they are on the ice. So, when they train, they need to train for those short bursts of energy, meaning they need to know when they're hitting those heart rate zones.
In watchOS 9, you can set any type of workout to show your heart rate zones directly on your Apple Watch. So, if you're out for a run, you'll be able to check your watch and see what heart rate zone you're in. It's a pretty handy metric, and it's even customizable.
By default, your Apple Watch will use the data it already has to calculate your heart rate zones and label them one through five, one being the lowest. This is super awesome for anyone who doesn't want to take the time to calculate their absolute perfect heart rate zones (as it varies from person to person). Still, if you want more control, you can manually set them to any value you want.
So how do you see heart rate zones during a workout? Well, it's part of something new that Apple calls Workout Views. When you go to customize a workout in watchOS 9, whether it's a pre-set workout or a Custom Workout you've created, you can select which Workout Views are available for you to see during a particular workout. So, once you've enabled the heart rate zone Workout View for your Custom Outdoor Run Workout (as an example), you can swipe up or down during the workout to see the different views you have enabled.
Of course, you can have multiple views enabled, and this is where Apple has placed Elevation and Power Views, so you can keep an eye on how you've climbed during your run and your running power. These are important metrics for serious runners — and watchOS 9 will help you track so much more.
Two years after the Sleep app was brought onto the Apple Watch, it's finally got an update many people have been clamoring for: the ability to track Sleep Stages. In the Health app, you can now see how long you've been in four different Sleep Stages: Awake, REM, Core, and Deep.
You can see all the data graphed for you and even highlight the specific Sleep Stages to get a better look. While it's not amongst the most in-depth sleep trackers, it's the sleep-tracking feature I've been the most excited to get on the Apple Watch. As you can see by the sample in the screenshot above, I struggle to sleep and often don't get a ton each night. Data like this will help me understand my sleep patterns better and may even help me ensure the sleep I get feels more restful.
New watch faces and small UI improvements
Of course, the Apple Watch wouldn't be an Apple Watch without a plethora of Apple Watch faces. Apple has a habit of releasing new watch faces with every major software release, and watchOS 9 is no exception.
Honestly, when you get watchOS 9 (whether it's the public beta now or the full release in the fall), I'd highly encourage you to check out all the new and redesigned watch faces because beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you'll love the newly redesigned Astronomy watch face, which shows the earth front and center and even peaks in front of the time, much like the new iOS 16 Lock Screens do. Or maybe the Lunar watch face, which depicts the relation between our normal calendar (Gregorian calendar) and the lunar calendar, will tickle your fancy. Playtime is a wacky and interactive art watch face that was created in collaboration with Chicago-based illustrator and artist Joi Fulton; perfect for any time you're feeling a little zany. And, of course, the new Metropolitan watch face is as classy as can be. Plus, there's even an update to some older Apple Watch faces, like the gradient backgrounds you can add to the popular Modular watch face. The main takeaway is more watch faces mean more personality you can eject into watchOS 9.
On top of some new watch faces, watchOS 9 has some small UI improvements that will make the Apple Watch experience a tad smoother than it already feels. When you're actively using an app, notifications will be smaller and relegated to just a small banner at the top of your screen. You can tap it to enlarge it and see the entire notification, but it's awesome that an incoming message doesn't just take over your screen. Plus, the Dock is much more intuitive because it promotes the apps you have most recently used over all the other apps in the Dock. This makes it much easier to switch between apps when you want.
More to come
WatchOS 9 is committed to giving us more. More fitness tracking, more sleep tracking, more watch faces, more customization, and more everything that makes the Apple Watch so delightful to slap on your wrist.
Of course, this is just a first peek into the wonderful world of the watchOS 9 beta. I will be diving into even more improvements in watchOS 9, like changes to the Medications app, in the near future, so be sure to check back in about a week for even more insight into the goodies and features in Apple's latest watch software!
Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way.
Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.
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