Apple Watch Series 8 First Impressions

Posted on September 16, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Apple Watch with 51 Comments

I haven’t owned an Apple Watch since the OG version in 2015, but after years of frustrations with Fitbit, I’m ready to give it another shot. And so today, I ordered—and received—an Apple Watch Series 8.

And that’s its own story, really.

I’ve considered trying an Apple Watch each of the past three years or so, holding off primarily because of my battery life concerns. But as Apple has slowly added features—blood oxygen measuring with the Series 6, for example, and fast charging with the Series 7—I’ve almost pulled the trigger. Related advances like the Solo Loop and Sport Loop bands, which make it much easier to take the Watch on and off—ideal for its daily charging needs—have pushed me ever closer as well.

This year Apple shipped another iterative update. Lower power mode is an obvious idea given the Watch’s battery life issues, but other minor additions like temperature sensing and crash detection don’t really push the needle with regards to my own needs. And the Fitness+ service, while interesting, is likewise not really where I’m at since I focus on cardio and weight training when I go to the gym 4-5 times per week.

No, the primer driver for me was Fitbit and my frustrations with its unreliability and terrible UIs. This is ironic given our modern understanding of the word: Fitbit is owned by Google now and I switched from the Google Pixel 6 Pro this past year to an Apple iPhone 13 Pro due to similar frustrations. I prefer the openness of Google’s platforms to the insular Apple world in theory, but in real-world terms I’m tired of things that do not work properly. I can only put up with so much.

And my Fitbit is frustrating. The automatic sleep tracking often misses hours of my sleep, and when I correct it manually, the sleep data for that missing time syncs immediately, indicating that the device did, in fact, register what I was doing. At least once a week, I’ll end a workout on the device, drive home, look at the time and discover it never actually ended the workout. At least once during every workout, I’ll look at the device’s display to see my heart rate and it will instead display a non-skippable celebratory notification related to steps taken, something I don’t care about at that time and is interrupting what I want to see. And the Fitbit smartphone app is a disaster: it keeps filling up the screen with “You did it” notifications that feature a close button that many times can’t be tapped; I have to kill the app to get rid of that. You get the idea.

And so I figured I should at least try an Apple Watch again. I had vague memories of my experience with the first version over 7 years ago, and was curious how the on-ramping experience had improved. Given the years of functional updates, I was curious how it would satisfy my simple needs for fitness tracking. And while I don’t really like large devices on my wrist, I had hopes that the large Apple Watch display—large, that is, compared to the Fitbit Charge 5 I’m currently using—would help with at-a-glance readability.

And so I watched and rewatched the Apple Watch portion of this month’s Apple event, perused Apple’s website, and compared the Series 8 to the Apple Watch SE, a slightly smaller device with a smaller display that lacks a few minor sensors (blood oxygen, ECG, temperature) and costs $150 less. Ultimately, I decided to go with the Series 8 because this isn’t something I’d replace very frequently and it has a few advantages that do matter to me like an always-on display and fast charging. The starting cost is $399, but I would have to spend $429 to get the larger 45mm size. I opted to skip cellular connectivity since that adds another $100 (!) plus whatever charge per month from my carrier. If I somehow turn into an Apple Watch convert and use this thing for 2 or 3 years, I’ll consider cellular then. (It was as likely that I’d just return it, I figured.)

The question was timing. $429 is a lot of money to spend on something that will duplicate the functionality of a device I’m already using (and one that only cost $149 when new). And I still have feelings for the Google ecosystem: what if the coming Pixel Watch magically solves the problems I have with Fitbit (despite it being a Fitbit device itself)? I figured I could wait until October and see what Google’s Pixel event brought. You never know.

Today, of course, is the day that Apple’s new iPhones, Apple Watches, and AirPods Pro became available, and with another frustrating Fitbit day in the making—sleep tracking for last night was off again, it displayed a steps celebration when I tried to check my heart rate, and then it didn’t correctly end a workout—I fired up the Apple website again, not expecting to actually pull the trigger. Yep, it’s still $429. Yep, I still can’t push that by my wife without justifying the expense. Yep, this can wait.

And then I remembered something: I had at least some money in my PayPal account. If that covered most of the cost, I could probably make it happen. And besides, I may not even keep the damn thing. So I checked, and sure enough, I had enough to order the Watch. There was just one sticking point. Fridays are busy, and I had two work meetings in the afternoon. There was no way I was driving out to the Apple Store today. But I checked, just in case.

Amazingly, Apple would deliver the new Series 8 to my house, today, for just $9. (Otherwise, I would have to wait for early October if I wanted free shipping.) $9. I could even choose a delivery time. So I chose 2-4 pm. And … sure enough, when I went through with the order, I was given a 2:38 delivery time. And later, the car delivering the Watch pulled into my driveway at exactly 2:38 pm. That’s amazing in any context, but given how terrible deliveries have been since the pandemic, it was a miracle in its own right.

What I ordered is a 45 mm Apple Watch Series 8 in Starlight—a kind of champagne color I really like, sort of halfway between gold and silver—with a Midnight Sport Loop. I got the GPS version (e.g. not the cellular version) and opted for the larger XL band size, which supports 170 to 245 mm wrists (as opposed to 145 to 220 mm) at no additional cost.

Taking the long, weird-looking box out of the Apple Store bag, I was confronted with a familiar and not entirely welcome memory from my original Apple Watch. This is a curiously long and ugly box with two large tabs on either side and stickers—on Apple packaging!—describing its contents, similar to, but a bit smaller than, the box it had used 8 years earlier.

Inside that box were two smaller but equally long boxes, one for the Watch and its charger and one for the band.

Maybe I’m missing something but I feel like this could be done a lot more efficiently with less packaging. When you remove all the contents it’s quite a mess.

This would require some reading. So I attached the band to the Watch and took that and the charger upstairs to figure it out. What I discovered is that the process of setting up and then configuring an Apple Watch is just as long and complex as it was 8 years ago, and this seems like a fairly daunting thing to ask of a typical consumer. But I soldiered through it, added a few watch faces, and will experiment with it over time. What I’m most interested in is how this handles the activities I routinely engage in—dog walking in the morning, a trip to the gym most days, and sleep tracking—and whether its many additional functions are in any way useful. There is a ton of stuff to learn.

And there have been some improvements, of course. The ridiculous “bubble” UI for the installed apps can now be replaced by a more traditional list, and so I made that change. And many apps that were not available way back when, like Google Maps, are now available.

I’ll find out how well charging works. I’m going to experiment with charging when I’m shaving and showering, since that’s something I do every day and is an obvious time to do that. Will it be enough? I hope so.

But I’m most struck by how complex this device remains. There are so many functions, as noted. And some configuration is done on the device, but some is done on the iPhone, in the Watch and Health apps.

Let me see how it goes.

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