An iterative update but the Apple Watch Series 8 is still the best smartwatch around
- Watch OS 9 features are great for fitness fans
- Crash detection
- Low Power Mode
- Weak battery life
- Advanced fitness features could do with a bit more polish
The one upgrade everyone wanted for the Apple Watch Series 8 was better battery life; alas, when Apple unveiled the wearable at its 2022 autumn devices event, there was no such improvement. The Watch Series 8 has the same “18 hours of all-day battery life” the Series 7 (£399) had. No more. No less.
In fact, updates in general are fairly thin on the ground in this year’s Apple Watch, with no notable change to the screen size, the internal hardware specification or the manufacturing materials. Apple clearly saved all of its research and development effort to lavish on the new Apple Watch Ultra (£849).
Apple Watch Series 8 review: What you need to know
Still, the Apple Watch Series 8 remains a high-quality wearable and, in my view, is still the best traditional smartwatch on the market. You still can’t use it with an Android phone, which is a pity when Wear OS wearables – indeed, most other wearables – are largely platform-agnostic. However, for iPhone users, there’s not much point looking longingly elsewhere; aside from that short battery life, which other traditional smartwatches also have problems with, the Apple Watch Series 8 remains the smartwatch to buy.
And while there are no big new features this year, Apple does continue to drip-feed its customers extra goodies. This time around, we have a newly upgraded S8 chip, a new “high-g” accelerometer and gyroscope, which – like the new iPhone 14 (£849) phones – helps the watch detect if you’ve been in a car crash.
There’s also an extra temperature sensor, bringing the total to two. The idea here is to improve accuracy so the watch can log changes in body temperature over time more reliably and, thus, enable more advanced menstrual cycle tracking for women. In conjunction with the Apple Health app and its Cycle Tracking feature, the Watch Series 8 will even attempt to predict when your next period will happen and retrospectively estimate when you ovulated.
Other upgrades include international roaming capability for the cellular model and a whole slew of new features Apple has added courtesy of watchOS 9. These additions include a new Low Power Mode, which you can apply when you need your watch to run for a few hours extra, plus a significantly enhanced workout app. Of course, if you already own an older Apple Watch such as the Series 4, 5, 6, 7 or SE you’ll get those features anyway.
Apple Watch Series 8 review: Price and competition
As ever, you have a number of different choices when it comes to size, colour, construction material and wristband type with the Apple Watch Series 8. The aluminium model is the cheapest, with prices starting at £419 for the 41mm case size and £449 for the 45mm (I was sent the 45mm for this review).
This comes in a choice of colours – black, Starlight (light gold), silver and red – and a number of different wristband types. For the latter, you can choose between the classic Sport Band, which is a great all-rounder but can feel a little bulky on narrow wrists, the woven nylon Sport Loop, or the Solo Loop, which is a stretchy band without a buckle.
They all look good and are pretty comfortable but, if you’re planning on using the Apple Watch’s sports features at all, I’d recommend the Sport Loop. This is the most comfortable to wear during exercise and it’s easy to get a snug fit, too, ensuring the best accuracy from the heart-rate monitor.
Next up in the price range, at £729 for the 41mm and £829 for the 45mm sizes, is the stainless steel Watch Series 8. This is available in gold, silver, dark grey and black and with an even broader selection of straps, some of which can send the price soaring. Choose the Hermes 41mm stainless steel with “Gourmette Metal Double Tour” strap, for instance, and you’ll be paying a massive £1,739 for the privilege.
The major competition for the Watch Series 8 doesn’t really come from other smartwatch manufacturers; it comes from within its own ranks. The new Apple Watch Ultra, which does offer better battery life, is £849 – hardly a huge step up in price. At the other end of the spectrum, the Apple Watch SE starts at a far cheaper £249 but misses out on ECG, temperature and blood oxygen monitoring.
Elsewhere, the main competition comes from specialist companies such as Garmin, Polar and Coros, which all offer more advanced fitness-tracking features, and Fitbit, which delivers a cheaper, simpler, health-focused approach. Our favourites in the Apple Watch’s price band are currently the Garmin Forerunner 955, which offers far better battery life than the Apple Watch and a superb array of workout and fitness analysis tools for a price of around £480. If you can’t afford that, then the Garmin Forerunner 255 is our next favourite at around £300.
The Forerunners aren’t the best-looking watches, though, so those wanting a bit more of a premium look and feel can opt for the Fenix 7 (or the smaller 7s) instead. It has a similar range of features to the Forerunner 955 but costs a little more at around £599.
Apple Watch Series 8 review: Design and key features
At this point in a smartwatch review I’d normally dedicate equal parts to the design and new hardware features. However, since the former is exactly the same as the Apple Watch Series 7 (£399), I’m going to focus principally on the latter this time around.
There are two significant hardware updates for the Watch Series 8, the first of which are the new dual temperature sensors (one on the rear, one on the front beneath the display), which are designed to measure skin temperature more accurately. This samples your wrist temperature, during sleep, every five seconds and Apple says the sensor can sense changes as small as 0.1%.
The idea here, specifically, is to improve the Watch’s menstrual cycle-tracking features with the new ability to retrospectively estimate ovulation dates. This isn’t anything particularly new, scientifically speaking. Measuring BBT (basal body temperature) has long been used by couples trying for a baby as a means of determining the optimum time for sexual intercourse.
However, it does – at the very least – simplify the collection of data, meaning you’re less likely to forget to take your temperature in the morning before you get up, which is what the traditional method of measuring BBT calls for.
The other big new feature is the new accelerometer, which can detect forces up to 256g, and an upgraded gyroscope. These are used, in conjunction with other sensors on the watch – the GPS radio, microphone and barometer – to detect if you’ve been in a car crash. Now, this isn’t something I have the facility to test, but others have, and with some success, and it does appear to work.
If the worst happens the Watch will, after a short delay, put you in contact with emergency services (via your phone) without you having to do anything. If you’re unresponsive, it gives them your position and it will notify your designated emergency contacts as well.
Of course Apple has also upgraded the Watch Series 8 to its new S8 chip as well, but there’s no appreciable uptick in performance. It feels just as responsive and slick to use as the Series 7 and the Series 6 before it.
Apple Watch Series 8 review: Low Power Mode and watchOS 9
These new features are certainly impressive but they don’t change the way you use the watch on a day-to-day basis. That’s where watchOS 9 comes in, and it brings a raft of new features.
The biggest is Low Power Mode, which is aimed at improving the Apple Watch’s battery life. This can be quickly enabled at any time by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, tapping on the battery icon and tapping the toggle, but most users will enable it when they get the low battery notification at 10%.
Low Power Mode delivers up to 36 hours of use, according to Apple, effectively doubling the usable battery life of 18 hours, although that’s only if it’s activated when the battery is fully charged. Going by Apple’s claims, if you turn it on with 10% remaining, it will extend your overall battery life by around 1hr 48mins.
That doesn’t sound like much. However, you might be tempted to turn it on well before 10% because it doesn’t completely cripple what you can do with the Watch as the old Power Reserve mode did.
It disables certain features, as you’d expect. The always-on display goes, as do background heart measurements, heart notifications and blood oxygen measurements. It turns off workout reminders and automatic workout detection. It limits sensor use and mobile data activity and it bundles up notifications and delivers them once per hour. However, you can still use the Watch Series 8 to track workouts and use apps in this mode. You can make and receive calls, use Maps to navigate and even listen to music over Bluetooth.
After draining the battery to 20% with nearly a full day of normal use (including an hour of running outdoors with GPS), I switched it on and it lasted nearly six hours before giving up the ghost completely – now, that’s useful.
There’s plenty else to like about the watchOS 9 update as well, particularly for fans of its workout-tracking capabilities. The big one for me personally is that the watch finally gets the facility to display your heart-rate zones during workouts and the ability to create custom, structured workouts. Where before you had to download a third-party app and break out of the Apple ecosystem to do this, you can now do it right on the watch itself.
Not only that, but the watch now also delivers more advanced metrics, such as vertical oscillation, ground contact time and stride length along with your running power. These are features you’d see typically in more advanced running and multisport watches, so it’s great to see Apple incorporate them here.
There are still some areas for improvement, however. I’d like the option to use heart-rate zone calculation schema other than the simple heart-rate reserve (HRR) method employed here, and it would also be nice to be able to set your maximum heart rate manually. You can get around this by setting your zones manually but it’s more fiddly than it should be.
Other improvements in watchOS 9 include a selection of new Workout Views, including one focusing on the new Power metric, one for Elevation, one for Pacing and one for Splits. There’s also now a Multisport workout that can be used for triathlons or brick sessions, which will switch sports automatically between the different legs. Finally, there’s also automatic running-track detection. The latter feature isn’t available at launch, however – it’s “coming soon” – and it will only apply to 400m US running tracks initially.
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Apple Watch Series 8 review: Heart-rate and GPS accuracy
Given the sensors and GPS hardware are essentially the same as they were in the Series 7, I’d expect similar performance with the Series 8, and so it proved during my testing. I found that, across all the runs I did with the watch, it was very close to my Stryd Wind pod and the MyZone MZ-Switch chest belt I was using for comparison, with average differences of 2.3% for average heart rate and 1.5% for total distance run. That’s pretty good.
The key thing to point out here, at least if you want to ensure reliable heart-rate data, is to make sure the watch is nice and snug on your wrist before you start a workout, otherwise it can take a while to get a lock – sometimes longer than a minute – and, thus, give you skewed data during your workout. The wristband you use can affect this, which is why I’d advise opting for the Sport Loop to get the best possible fit.
While I’m on the subject of getting a lock – on heart rate or GPS – this continues to be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair with the Apple Watch Series 8 and that’s mainly due to the way the workout app is designed.
With most sports watches you select your workout, then the watch goes to a holding screen where you can see if it has a heart rate and satellite lock before you click start. There’s none of this with the Apple Watch: no indication of whether it’s got a reliable read on your pulse or a GPS signal lock at any stage before you start the workout proper. You simply select the workout, it counts you in from three and you’re straight into the workout.
I can understand why Apple does this. It simplifies things for users to a certain extent, but it would surely be a simple thing to fix: just add a menu option for those who want to see such information.
Apple Watch Series 8 review: Verdict
There’s still some work to do on Apple’s part to perfect some aspects of the Apple Watch, and that’s especially true if it’s hoping to compete with the heavy hitters of the sports/running watch world. With the introduction of Watch OS 9 that’s certainly the direction it seems to be heading in.
However, given how fully featured the Apple Watch Series 8 is elsewhere, it seems churlish to criticise it too strongly. After all, what serious sports watch also has the messaging facilities the Apple Watch does, the voice assistant and phone call support, health monitoring, smart safety features such as crash and fall detection, plus music playback, in addition to its core sports offerings? And what smartwatch also has the serious sports capabilities the Apple Watch Series 8 delivers?
Where I might take issue is with how few changes Apple has offered up with this iteration. It’s barely any different from the Series 7 (£399) in day-to-day use for most things, with the same battery life, the same display and design, and mostly the same hardware. It’s certainly not one for an upgrade, then, but it’s still a fabulous smartwatch and the best all-rounder for iPhone owners.