… don’t upgrade
The Apple Watch Series 8 has me thinking about the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen. The concept, made famous by Toyota, means continuous improvement. The Series 7 was a minor update to the Series 6, which was an incremental update to the Series 5, which was a small improvement over the Series 4. These updates weren’t much on their own, but they added up, and over time, they’ve widened the gap between the Apple Watch and every other smartwatch.
2022 is a big year for the Apple Watch, but the Series 8 isn’t the star of the show. The new Apple Watch Ultra is the most interesting watch this year, and the second-gen SE replaces the Series 3 at the entry level. That leaves the new Series 8 in the middle.
So no, this isn’t a terribly exciting update. Then again, does it have to be?
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All the changes are under the hood
You’d be hard-pressed to spot the differences between the Series 7 and Series 8. Full disclosure: the only reason I can is because my review units are different sizes and colors. This is a fancy way of saying nothing’s changed. The Series 8 still comes in two sizes: 41mm and 45mm. There are fewer color options this time around — RIP green and blue — and that’s about it. The price also remains unchanged. The Series 8 starts at $399 for the GPS-only version and $499 for cellular.
When I saw the 45mm Series 7 and Series 8 side by side last week, I was convinced that the Series 8’s display was a smidge bigger, but it isn’t. It was an illusion: watchOS 9 comes with new watchfaces like Metropolitan that make better use of the watch’s thinner bezels. My Series 8 review unit is the 45mm cellular version in starlight, which is a champagne-y color that splits the difference between gold and silver. I usually prefer smaller watches, but this didn’t look too ridiculous on my smaller wrists. I also appreciated the slight boost in readability that a larger screen provides.
But while everything looks the same to the naked eye, the Series 8 has some significant changes under the hood.
The watch’s temperature sensing is mostly passive. Unlike the existing EKG, heart rate, and blood oxygen sensors, you can’t take on-demand readings. You can only get wrist temperature readings when you have the Sleep Focus turned on and sleep tracking enabled. Plus, you need to sleep with the Apple Watch for five nights to establish a baseline. Once that’s completed, you’re only going to see deviations from that baseline. You’re never really going to look at your wrist and go, “Oh, I have a fever because my temperature is 100 degrees Fahrenheit.”
That’s not a knock against Apple. This is the same approach that the Oura Ring and Fitbit take. The idea is to monitor how certain factors — like a hard workout, illness, or even a few too many margaritas — might impact your baseline. If you happen to track your cycles in the Health app, enabling wrist temperature readings means you can get retrospective ovulation estimates after about two cycles.
There’s a reason those estimates are retrospective and not predictive. For starters, this is strictly an awareness tool — if you better understand past cycles, you may have an easier time when planning to conceive. Basal body temperature is often used as a tool in family planning, so this isn’t coming out of left field. However, the Series 8 isn’t cleared for contraceptive use and it’s absolutely not meant to be used in any sort of medical capacity. There are apps that have been FDA-cleared for this purpose, like Natural Cycles and Clue. Natural Cycles even got the okay recently to use wearable temperature data collected from an Oura Ring for birth control — but that’s not the case with the Apple Watch. (At least, not yet.)
As for accuracy, it’s a little hard to say, as I’ve only had the Series 8 for about a week. I don’t have two cycles’ worth of temperature data, and I’ve only just established a baseline. For the few nights I do have temperature data for, however, it largely corresponds to what I got on my Oura Ring. For example, two nights ago, the Oura Ring said my body temperature was 0.5 degrees higher than normal, while the Series 8 said it was 0.41 degrees higher.
I’m also someone who struggled for two years to get a polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosis — so it’s nice to see that Apple can now notify you when it detects a cycle deviation. However, I wasn’t able to test how this works since I haven’t experienced a deviation yet. It’s also not available for folks who may have a “cycle factor” like hormonal birth control.
In the post-Roe v. Wade world, I completely understand if advanced cycle tracking gives you the heebie-jeebies. If that’s the case, you should know that using Apple’s Cycle Tracking feature is optional. You can also track temperature without tracking your cycle or completely disable wrist temperature tracking in the settings. If you do enable temperature tracking, Apple says that health data is encrypted on your device and only accessible with a passcode, Touch ID, or Face ID. If you enable a passcode and use two-factor authentication, Health app data synced with iCloud is also end-to-end encrypted.
Crash Detection is new
Apple has always touted the watch as a device that could save your life. It maybe went a little ham with that messaging this year when it introduced Crash Detection, but it’s a neat feature that builds on the watch’s other safety offerings, like Emergency SOS and fall detection. Like the Ultra and second-gen SE, the Series 8 has an improved gyroscope and a new accelerometer that can measure changes in gravitational force up to 256 g. These work with the watch’s barometer, GPS, and microphone to detect extreme impact and sudden changes in speed and direction. If a severe crash is detected, the watch will call emergency services on your behalf. You’ll also get 10 seconds to cancel the call if it’s not needed.
Every version of watchOS 9 has snazzy new watchfaces. I usually feel “meh” about Apple’s watchfaces, but I actually enjoyed quite a few of them this time around. (They really do make the screen seem larger than it is!) The Lunar watchface gave me all the feels this past week during Chuseok. It’s a huge Korean holiday timed with the mid-autumn harvest on the lunar calendar when you visit your hometown to spend time with your family. I also really dug the Metropolitan face, and switching up the color backgrounds on my favorite Modular face to match my outfits was good ol’ fun.
On the productivity front, the redesigned Calendar app really makes use of the bigger display. It was a great way for me to discreetly visualize my weekly schedule. I wrote more about medication reminders a few months ago, and despite using them, I’m still terrible at taking my meds when I’m supposed to. At least I take them much more consistently when I have reminders on than when I don’t.
Another thing I wasn’t expecting was the fact that the Series 8 gets one of the Ultra’s coolest perks: the redesigned Compass app. If you’re an avid hiker, this is great news. With the new app, you can drop waypoints — geographic points of interest — as well as retrace your steps using Backtrack if you get lost. I tried it out on a walk, and while there was a slight learning curve, as someone with no innate sense of direction, I really enjoyed using it. (I’ll also dive more into this feature in my Ultra review, so stay tuned.)
Sleep tracking also gets a boost. You can now view sleep stages as well as more detailed sleep metrics within the Health app. It’s still not the best, and Apple is playing catchup here, but it’s loads better than what Apple launched with in watchOS 7. I imagine the addition of wrist temperature tracking will only pave the way for more advanced sleep tracking down the road — though battery life will have to improve a bit before the Apple Watch can give Fitbit or the Oura Ring a run for their money.
Speaking of battery life… the Series 8 is still a device you have to charge daily, but watchOS 9 adds a new low-power battery mode. It turns off the always-on display and background sensor readings while limiting Wi-Fi / cellular connectivity. It also leaves heart rate and GPS intact during workouts. Supposedly you can get up to 36 hours with it on the Series 8. (Your mileage will vary on older models.)
Fair warning: enabling low-power mode isn’t going to magically get you multiday battery life, and I never got the full 36 hours. With regular usage without low-power mode, my Series 8 got around 24 hours before I needed to stick it back on a charger. Low-power mode was mostly a good way to get a bit of extra juice so I could make it home or to get me through the last mile of a long run when I forgot to top up the battery before heading out.
While we’re on the subject of exercise, I loved everything about the new workout views. It’s easy to customize the order, and I’m a big fan of adding a whole second screen of metrics. I’m also very chuffed that I can now view heart rate zones in the native Workout app, which you can already do on most other trackers. It’s also great that Apple’s finally added the ability to create your own custom interval workouts. If you’ve been using a Garmin or Polar, you’re probably rolling your eyes because these are staples you’ve had for ages. I’m merely saying that it’s about time Apple added these features, and it’ll be a huge benefit for beginners transitioning to more intermediate-level workouts.
The only thing I didn’t love was scrolling through the multiple workout views mid-run. The Series 8 mostly relies on touchscreen navigation; sometimes it works fine… and other times your fingers are so sweaty, it’s a pain. The digital crown is also so slim that it’s not always the easiest thing to use mid-motion. This is something I imagine won’t be an issue on the Ultra, but it’s a pain on the Series 8.
Not many reasons to upgrade
If it’s not obvious by now, the Apple Watch Series 8 is a great smartwatch. But if you’re happy with your current Apple Watch, there isn’t much of a reason to upgrade.
For starters, most of the things that made my time with the Series 8 stellar come from watchOS 9 — a software update. If you have a Series 4 or later, you’re going to get the vast majority of what makes the Series 8 great. If you have a Series 5, 6, or 7, you also have roughly the same processing power. Upgrading to the Series 8 isn’t going to make things zippier or your battery last that much longer.
Meanwhile, temperature tracking is still a nascent feature. I imagine Apple will build it out in the future, but you don’t necessarily need it right now. This is doubly true if you don’t menstruate, don’t feel comfortable giving tech companies your health data, or don’t use the Apple Watch for sleep tracking.
You also don’t need the Series 8 if you’d like Crash Detection. It’s also available on the iPhone 14 lineup. If this is a feature you want and your phone is on its last legs, you could always just upgrade that instead.
When you take all these factors into consideration, Series 6 and 7 owners have no compelling reason to upgrade. Chill. But it’s a different story if you’ve got a Series 3, 4, or 5. (And if you’re on a Series 2 or older, my friends, it’s time to get a new watch.) Longtime Series 3 owners, you definitely should upgrade to the Series 8. Trust me, you’re going to enjoy the performance gains and the always-on display, and watchOS 9 is a much better update than watchOS 8 was. It’s time. For Series 4 or 5 owners, I think the bigger display is worth it. After a year with the Series 7 and a week with the Series 8, I’m confident in saying either is a game changer for readability. But if you’ve got 20/20 vision, you could probably hold off another year.
If you’re buying your first Apple Watch, you could go with either the Series 8 or the slightly cheaper SE, which starts at $249 for GPS only and $299 for cellular. The SE is the better choice for first-time buyers who aren’t sold on the idea of a smartwatch at all. You’re gonna get the gist of what makes the Apple Watch so popular without breaking the bank. (All you’re giving up is the always-on display and advanced health sensors.) From there, you can make an educated decision about whether you want the fancier version when you upgrade. But if you’re already committed to the idea of an Apple Watch, you might as well get the Series 8.
I still have to test the Apple Watch Ultra, but I’m 99.9 percent certain that the Series 8 is the best choice for most people. Not only is it cheaper than the Ultra but also it’s the more versatile watch. It’s better suited to smaller wrist sizes, and it can be easily dressed up or down to suit all occasions. Also, unless you’re into hardcore endurance sports or a supreme klutz of the highest degree, you really don’t need the Ultra’s extra durability. The Series 8 might seem more fragile, but it’s plenty durable on its own. (But, if the Ultra is something you really want, don’t let me stop you.)
Listen, the Series 8 doesn’t revolutionize the Apple Watch as we know it, but it doesn’t have to. Part of the reason why Apple can get away with year after year of incremental updates is because it is light-years ahead of its rivals for iOS users. We’re seeing more competition sprout up among Android smartwatches, but if the forthcoming Pixel Watch and Wear OS Samsung watches are any indication, wearable ecosystems will remain siloed for the foreseeable future. When it comes to smartwatches, Apple has a winning formula. And until someone comes up with another smartwatch that iPhone owners actually want, it has no reason to fix what isn’t broken.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales. Video by Owen Grove.