Battery and durability are a good start, but not everything.
2022 is a big year for smartwatches. Samsung just refreshed its Galaxy Watch lineup with a new “Pro” model, Google is finally releasing a Pixel Watch, Qualcomm launched a new wearable chip, and some Wear OS 2 watches will finally get the upgrade to Wear OS 3. And over in Apple’s camp, the Apple Watch lineup is about to see its biggest overhaul in years. This year, we’re expecting to see not one, not two, but potentially three new Apple Watch models. A new Series 8, a new SE, and a never-before-seen rugged “Pro” model — a new high-end option that could potentially shake things up in the smartwatch world.
That’s because an Apple Watch Pro would mean Apple’s entering a whole new wearable category: multisport fitness watches. This is a category with passionate users who demand a specific list of fitness and navigation features to fuel their athletic adventures, potentially putting the Apple Watch up to challenges it hasn’t faced before.
Fitness watches are a niche dominated by brands like Garmin, Polar, and Coros. These brands specialize in devices that can take a beating in all elements, last for weeks on a single charge, offer advanced navigational features, and give users dozens upon dozens of performance metrics to obsessively analyze. Newer models feature multi-band GPS so that users can get a signal in even the most remote locales.
It’s an interesting pivot for Apple, which already dominates the overall smartwatch market. However, while multisport watches mostly appeal to a niche crowd, it’s a loyal crowd. Unlike folks who only engage in casual workouts to stay active, these are dedicated athletes who invest a lot of time and money into training. They’re unlikely to leave their sports watches to collect dust in a drawer for months on end. Flagship GPS watches like the Garmin Fenix 7 start at around $700 and can cost as much as $1,000 for the most advanced models. That’s a lucrative market for Apple to enter.
The most glaring issue for Apple to address is battery life. Since day one, Apple hasn’t veered from the 18-hour battery life estimate for its smartwatches. In reality, you can get more depending on your usage — on some models, I’ve gone as long as 36 hours before needing to charge. But 36 hours still isn’t weeks of battery life. When I tested the Garmin Fenix 7S, I got two weeks on a single charge. I got a week on the Polar Grit X Pro, and the Coros Vertix 2 has an estimated 60 days of everyday use. (After two weeks of testing the Vertix 2, I still had 85 percent battery left.) I’ll be genuinely shocked if the Apple Watch Pro gets anywhere near a week, but it has to do better than 36 hours to truly be a multiday watch. For instance, in testing I’ve gotten about 48–60 hours on the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. It falls short of a Garmin or Polar, but it’s a start.
As for durability, I’ve never broken an Apple Watch before — and I’m a klutz. However, I have gotten nicks and scratches with normal wear and tear on just about all my Apple Watches. (Including more durable models, like the Series 7!) If you’re going to take a watch running on a dusty trail, whitewater rafting, kiteboarding, skiing, or what have you, you want to know that sweat, grime, dust, water, sand, and the elements aren’t an issue. Some of this is a perception issue. You can swim with an Apple Watch and durability has improved since earlier models, but it just doesn’t give the impression that it’s tough.
Then there’s the matter of controls. I’ve already written about why physical buttons are important for athletes, but relying on touchscreens is a potential dealbreaker. Wet fingers make swiping a chore, the digital crown isn’t immune from accidental presses, and the side button, while ideal for sleek minimalism, is not great when you’re wearing gloves for cold-weather sports. These controls are fine for daily life, but they’re not quite as reliable as Garmin or Polar’s five-button navigation system for activities. And while Siri is helpful, it’s not always an option in loud environments or when you need to be discreet. For instance, using Siri was moot when I was running a half-marathon. The cheering crowds and loudspeakers rendered any commands inaudible.
Apple is also still behind when it comes to certain tracking metrics. Recovery and injury prevention have been a hot trend in fitness tech in recent years and that’s an area where Apple hasn’t done much. Not only was it late to native sleep tracking, it’s still a fairly basic feature in the watchOS 9 beta. The watch also doesn’t offer much insight into how well you’ve recovered from physical strain.
Instead, Apple’s focused more on users closing their rings. That often leads to prioritizing streaks at the expense of rest — which anyone who seriously trains for events will tell you is a big no-no. If it wants to win over serious athletes, the Pro is going to need less gamification and more flexibility. That said, having tested the watchOS 9 beta, I’m not too concerned about the workout metrics front. While you don’t get as much detail as a Garmin or Polar watch, watchOS 9 adds some necessary basics like heart rate zones, custom workouts, running form metrics, and elevation charts.
Those are all big challenges for Apple’s new watch, but there are also big opportunities here. Multisport watches tend to be weak on smart features like music streaming, digital assistants, control of smart home tech, contactless payments, LTE connectivity for emergency SOS calls, fall detection, and advanced health features like atrial fibrillation alerts. Garmin is the best of the lot, but its versions of these features often have caveats. Safety features depend on your phone being nearby, the apps in its Connect IQ store aren’t up to snuff, adding music can be finicky, and Garmin Pay is limited to your watch. It’s arguably easier for Apple to improve its fitness features, battery, and durability than for Garmin and Polar to beef up their smart capabilities.
Apple isn’t the only one going Pro this summer. Samsung also just launched the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which also is aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. And while it improves battery and durability, it’s still lacking in reliable physical controls and training recovery metrics. (Plus, its turn-by-turn navigation leaves out runners.) Basically, it’s an admirable first attempt but there are definitely areas where Samsung can improve. I imagine the Apple Watch Pro might be similar — a first attempt that tries to nail the basics, while leaving room for more exciting features down the line.
None of us have seen the Pro — or whatever it ends up being called — yet. There could very well be new design elements or beefier specs that would address at least some of these challenges. That said, it’s rare that any company knocks it out of the park with a first attempt. The Apple Watch itself didn’t really hit its stride until the Series 4. It’s not likely that the first Pro will lead a horde of Garmin lovers to suddenly ditch their beloved Fenix and Forerunner watches. That’s also not how anyone should evaluate its “success.” For this first rugged Apple Watch, it’ll be much more important that it does basics well enough to make the most diehard Garmin and Polar loyalists curious.