2022 is a great year for smartwatches. Samsung refreshed its Galaxy Watch lineup with a new “Pro” model, Google is finally releasing the Pixel Watch, Qualcomm released a new wearable chip, and some Wear OS 2 watches will finally be upgraded to Wear OS 3. Also camped at Apple, the Apple Watch lineup is about to see its biggest overhaul in years. This year, we can expect to see not one, not two, but three new Apple Watch models. The new Series 8, the new SE and a never-before-seen rugged “Pro” model — a new high-end option that could shake things up in the smartwatch world.
That’s because the Apple Watch Pro means Apple is entering a whole new wearable category: multisport fitness watches. This is a segment of passionate consumers who demand a specific list of fitness and navigation features to fuel their athletic adventures., The Apple Watch is able to tackle challenges it hasn’t faced before.
Fitness watches are dominated by brands like Garmin, Polar and Coros. These brands specialize in devices that can withstand all the elements, last for weeks on a single charge, offer advanced navigational features, and provide users with dozens of performance metrics to analyze obsessively. Newer models feature multi-band GPS so that users can get a signal even in the most remote locales.
It’s an interesting pivot for Apple, which already dominates the entire smartwatch market. However, while multisport watches attract more of the crowd, this is one reliable the crowd Unlike people who only engage in simple exercises to stay active, these are dedicated athletes who invest a lot of time and money in training. They are unlikely to leave their sports watches in a drawer to gather dust for months. Flagship GPS watches like the Garmin Fenix 7 start at around $700 and go up to $1,000 for the most advanced models. This is a lucrative market for Apple to enter.
It’s also a departure from what Apple smartwatches are primarily known for. The Apple Watch is known for its advanced health features, superior connectivity, seamless integration with iPhones and frankly, mediocre battery life. It is more of a mini computer than a dedicated training tool. This presents some opportunities, but also challenges if the Apple “Pro” Watch is to succeed.
To win over Garmin’s audience, Apple will need a watch with better battery life, greater durability, better physical controls, and support for recovery metrics to aid in training.. If Apple can pull that off, it has the potential to redefine what a “traditional” smartwatch can do in the fitness space. Innovations here could actually lead to a sophisticated sports watch that lets consumers choose between fitness and smarts.
The most obvious problem for Apple to address is battery life. Since day one, Apple hasn’t deviated from the 18-hour battery life estimate for its smartwatches. Of course, you can get more depending on your usage — on some models, I’ve gone up to 36 hours before charging. But still not 36 hours weeks Battery life. When I tested the Garmin Fenix 7S, I got two weeks on a single charge. I got a week into the Polar Grit X Pro and the Coros Vertix 2 estimates 60 days of daily use. (After two weeks of testing the Vertix 2, I still have 85 percent of the battery left.) I’d be really shocked if the Apple Watch Pro gets anywhere near a week, but if it really needs multiple days it should do better than 36 hours. Watch. For example, in testing I got about 48–60 hours on the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. It’s less than 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’ve gotten nicks and scratches on all my Apple Watches with normal wear and tear. (Including more durable models like the Series 7!) Whether you’re on a dirt trail, whitewater rafting, kiteboarding, skiing, or taking your watch with you, sweat, dirt, dust, water, sand, and the elements aren’t a problem. Some of this is a perception problem. You can swim with the Apple Watch, and durability has improved from previous models, but it doesn’t give the impression of being rugged.
Then there is the matter of controls. I’ve already written about why physical buttons are important for athletes, but the reliance on touchscreens is a potential dealbreaker. Wet fingers make swiping a chore, the digital crown isn’t immune to accidental presses, and the side button, while ideal for sleek minimalism, isn’t great when you’re wearing gloves for cold-weather sports. These controls are fine for everyday life, but they’re not as reliable for activities as Garmin or Polar’s five-button navigation system. And while Siri is helpful, it’s not always an option in noisy environments or when you need to be discreet. For example, using Siri while I’m running a half-marathon is debatable. Cheering crowds and loudspeakers drowned out any commands.
Even Apple still lags behind when it comes to specific tracking metrics. Recovery and injury prevention has been a hot trend in fitness tech in recent years, and it’s an area where Apple hasn’t done much. Aside from the delay for native sleep tracking, it’s still a very basic feature in the watchOS 9 beta. The watch doesn’t provide much insight into how well you’ve recovered from physical activity.
Instead, Apple is more focused on getting users to close their rings. This often prioritizes streaks at the expense of rest – a big no-no as anyone who trains hard for events will tell you. If it wants to win over serious athletes, Pro needs less gamification and more flexibility. After testing the watchOS 9 beta, I’m not too concerned about the workout metrics front. While you won’t get as much detail as a Garmin or Polar watch, watchOS 9 adds some essential 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 are weak on smart features like music streaming, digital assistants, smart home tech control, contactless payments, LTE connectivity for emergency SOS calls, advanced health features like fall detection and atrial fibrillation alerts. Garmin is by far the best, but its versions of these features often have exceptions. Security features depend on your phone being nearby, apps in its Connect IQ store are inconsistent, adding music is fiddly, 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 improve their smart capabilities.
Apple isn’t the only one going pro this summer. Samsung also launched the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which is also aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. And while it improves battery and durability, it still lacks reliable physical controls and training recovery metrics. (Plus, its turn-by-turn navigation leaves runners.) Basically, it’s an admirable first attempt but there are definitely areas where Samsung could improve. I imagine the Apple Watch Pro will be similar — a first attempt to nail down the basics, but leave room for more exciting features down the line.
None of us have seen the Pro – or whatever it’s called – yet. There may be new design elements or beefier specs that address at least some of these challenges. It’s rare for any company to hit it out of the park on the first try. The Apple Watch didn’t really hit its stride until the Series 4. It’s unlikely that the first Pro will lead a legion of Garmin lovers to suddenly ditch their beloved Fenix and Forerunner watches. How can one not judge its “success”. For this first rugged Apple Watch, it’s important that it does the basics well enough to appeal to even the most diehard Garmin and Polar loyalists.