watchOS 9 preview: A hearty upgrade for exercise and sleep tracking


A composite of pictures and screenshots showing an Apple Watch with the Astronomy face hovering on top of eight screenshots showcasing new watchOS features.

Apple may have the best smartwatch, but there are still a few areas where it lags behind the competition, particularly when it comes to tracking movement and sleep. With watchOS 9, the company is bringing a robust set of workout updates alongside new watch faces, redesigned apps, and the ability to recognize sleep zones. Now that public beta is here, we can take a first look at whether the company can fill those gaps.

To install the watchOS beta, you need an Apple Watch Series 4 or later and an iPhone running the iOS 16 beta. That said, if you don’t want to risk losing your data, you might want to wait until an official release before updating.

Hearty changes in workouts

Some of the most impactful updates are related to workouts. Apple added pages that show more data when you’re logging an activity, so you can easily track things like your segments and splits or heights. Of these new screens, my favorite is the cardio zones view, while I found the activity rings page the least helpful.

It was satisfying to see where my heart rate was during a 45-minute HIIT session, and the Apple Watch clearly displayed that information. There were five zones of different colors on the screen and the zone I was in was highlighted. After that, I learned from the fitness app’s new summary page that I’d spent most of my time (about 22 minutes) in zone 4, and Apple also helpfully shows the heart rate zone for each zone.


The cardio view is supposed to be available for all workouts, but I didn’t see it for activities like yoga, dance or cooldown. However, they all support the new Custom Training feature, which allows you to set specific goals to focus on during your session. This is much more useful for distance or endurance activities like running, biking, rowing, or HIIT, where Apple offers suggested templates like 8 x 400m reps, 1-mile reps, or 20 minutes of 20 seconds / 10 seconds. Receive haptic and audible alerts when you reach your target heart rate, distance, calories, or time.

You can scroll all the way down to set up your own, but that experience is pretty patchy across different workout types. For some activities you have many options like pacer, distance, calories or time. For others, like Open Water Swim or Rower, you only see calories and time, along with a custom option that lets you set specific work and rest times.

Not every activity will be compatible with distance or pace, so this inconsistency is understandable. Just don’t expect the custom training feature to behave the same way for all your exercises.

Six screenshots showing the new custom workouts in the watchOS 9 beta.


However, runners will find many of the watchOS 9 tools helpful. Apple also added new metrics for running form, like stride length, ground contact time, vertical oscillation, and something it calls power. The latter measures your responsive energy needs and is displayed as a wattage. These new metrics are calculated automatically and are only available during Outdoor Run workouts. You must also be using an Apple Watch Series 6, Watch SE or newer.

If you tend to run or cycle the same routes, watchOS 9 also lets you compete against yourself in the new Race Route feature. When you complete outdoor running, outdoor biking, or wheelchair running pace workouts, your iPhone uses on-device processing to group similar routes together. The next time you start one of these activities, the guidance view will show you whether you are ahead or behind your typical time, how much distance remains and warn you if you deviate from your usual path. Apple also added a new Pacer mode that lets you set a target time to complete a distance you specify, and then guides you to set the pace required to reach that goal. Garmin and Samsung watches have similar features, so Apple isn’t breaking new ground here, but it’s nice to see watchOS coming.

I don’t typically bike, swim, and run in one session, but for triathletes, the new multisport training mode makes it easy to switch between the three activities, so you don’t have to fiddle with your watch. Apple also added support for Kickboard as a shot type, and swimmers can see a SWOLF efficiency score in their summaries.

New watch faces and user interface

One of the nicer things about every watchOS update is the new faces, which provide a way to update your device. This time around, Apple not only added the ability to change the background color of existing options like Modular and X-Large, but also introduced new Playtime, Metropolitan, and Lunar themes. The company has also redesigned the astronomy screen and is similar to the iPhone version, where you can choose between views of the Earth, the Moon or the Solar System. Meanwhile, Lunar lets you choose from the Chinese, Hebrew, or Islamic calendar for 24-hour viewing.

Three screenshots showing, from left to right, the new Modular, Astronomy, and Lunar watch faces in the watchOS 9 beta.


I never knew how much I would appreciate having the Chinese lunar calendar within reach until I added this face. It has Mandarin characters that tell me it’s currently the fifteenth day of the sixth month and I can use this to count how far we are from the next lunar new year or my grandmother’s birthday (which my family does on the Chinese calendar based).

Apple also redesigned the Calendar app, making it easier to add new events from your wrist. Siri no longer takes over the entire screen when triggered, but appears as a floating ball above the clock.

Since I had medication set up on my iPhone in iOS 16 preview, I also received a notification on watchOS 9 when it was time to take my supplement. I could easily log taking my medication, skipping it, or resetting the reminder.

Sleep zones and other updates

Speaking of snoozing, Apple also added sleep stage detection to watchOS 9, which uses data from the accelerometer and heart rate monitor. It detects when you are awake and distinguishes between zones such as REM, core or deep sleep. This feature is long overdue considering Fitbit has long been able to do this even with its midrange trackers. But while I didn’t manage to test Apple’s system in time for this preview, I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares when I do a full review.

A screenshot and image showing, from left to right, a floating Siri icon on the watchOS 9 home screen and a medication reminder.

Screenshot / Engadget

There are also some other updates I’d like to spend more time on such as: B. the additional readings during a Fitness+ workout. So far, my experience with the watchOS 9 beta has been smooth, and to be honest, the cardio zones training view alone made it worth installing (at least for a fitness fanatic like me). If you’re familiar with the risk involved in running beta software and can’t wait until a stable release to get these new features, you’ll likely enjoy what Apple has to offer today.

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