I woke up this morning as I do on most Saturdays—a bit later than usual—and set out with my normal routine, which normally starts off with making a cup of espresso, checking my sleep quality on Fitbit, and reading the news on my iPad. But this morning’s ritual was preempted before I even reached the kitchen, by a cheery little message from my Apple Watch Series 8, proactively congratulating me for meeting—no, exceeding—my sleep goals the night before.
And that’s interesting because I’m not sure how long it would take my Fitbit to sync my sleep data with the service—and thus with the app on my phone—because I’ve always had to manually sync to see it. And that sync often fails the first time, requiring me to wait before I can view it. For some reason.
Sign up for our new free newsletter to get three time-saving tips each Friday — and get free copies of Paul Thurrott's Windows 11 and Windows 10 Field Guides (normally $9.99) as a special welcome gift!
"*" indicates required fields
That said, at least Fitbit requires just one app: this will quickly become obvious, but it took me a second to remember that my sleep data is found in the Health app, not in the other two apps—Watch and Fitness—that interact with the Watch. (Workouts, go figure, appear in two of those apps, Fitness and Health, as I later discovered.)
Point being, if you use Apple Watch, there are niceties … and there are complexities. Or, um, complications. (Pardon the pun: any Apple Watch fan will get that joke.)
In addition to Apple Watch actually syncing my sleep data immediately, I discovered another nicety once I figured out where that data was on my phone: the visualizations for such things as sleep stages and so on are much more attractive and easily understood than is the case with Fitbit, which uses weird colors and small graphics. And Apple Watch relays at least one sleep-related data point, sleeping heart rate, that Fitbit hides behind a paid Fitbit Premium subscription. I’m semi-obsessed with my resting heart rate data, and I have tracked it closely for years, so this extra bit of information is interesting to me.
(Quick aside related to resting heart rate: my resting heart rate is normally about 66-67 bpm, but it goes up on the weekends when I do a bit of drinking. It also went up and then stayed up when I got COVID-19 after my Alaska trip, and it continued into the time when I got food poisoning when I came back from Mexico. So I saw an interesting one-month-long aberration in my normal resting heart rate cycle recently, and I was very happy to see it return to normal eventually and then stay here over a period of weeks. I really do pay attention to this stuff.)
Anyway, the morning continued. And after making espresso and perusing the data I’d received from the Apple Watch for a bit, I read the news as usual on the iPad, ate a no-carb breakfast while watching the second half of the latest episode of The Rings of Power on Amazon, and then walked the dog with my wife. (We do this much earlier on weekdays, but on Saturday and Sunday it often happens in the late morning instead, and since the dog has suddenly slowed down a lot this past summer, she doesn’t seem to mind as much.)
This was an excellent chance to test a basic workout on the Apple Watch. And is another good example of the nicety/complexity dichotomy of this device.
As you might imagine, I had spent some of the previous afternoon configuring Apple Watch and, when confronted by its complexities, researching how to do basic things like customize the watch face, interact with apps, and start and end workouts. With the latter, I was thinking about how it might differ from what I’ve done on Fitbit over the past several years: I go on walks, which are auto-detected, tracked, and synced automatically (some Fitbit does well in sharp contrast to its sleep tools) and I go to the gym, where I manually start and stop (sometimes unreliably) my elliptical and weights workouts.
I was tempted to just go on the walk and see what happened. But I had looked it up and what I found was that Apple Watch doesn’t automatically track any workouts. Instead, it can detect certain workouts (mostly movement-based, I imagine) and then prompt you two minutes in to see whether you want to formally monitor what it believes to be a workout. I may test that eventually, but today, I just started it manually.
And that, of course, requires a story. Because everything with Apple Watch requires a story.
As you might imagine or know, Fitbit can track some number of workout types, which it calls exercises. You can configure which exercises appear on the device, which is nice since I remove those I know I’ll never take part in, which thins the list dramatically. You start exercising (on my Charge 5, at least) by swiping to the left twice from the clock face and then swiping up or down, if needed, to select the exercise you want. The most recent exercises are at the top, so I always see Elliptical and Weights there now, which makes sense.
On Apple Watch, you start a workout by running the Workout app. Depending on which watch face you choose, this might be available right from the default clock face. Or, you can find it in the Apps list, which is long and alphabetical (and doesn’t wrap around, so you can’t scroll backward, which would be nice). Or, you can add it to the Dock, which I had to look up: this interface, which is reached by pressing the side button (not the crown button), lists recent and favorite apps (you can customize the latter). So if you have an app you like to use a lot and want to get it to more quickly than from the Apps list (and less quickly from the clock face, but it might not be available there), it’s a nice shortcut.
(Side note: these three levels of app access—quick, semi-quick, and all apps—mirror what we see on Windows 11, where I use the Taskbar, Start Menu, and the All Apps list in Start, respectively, for those same levels of access. Mobile systems like Android and iOS are similar, too, with a Dock (or Dock-like item) for a limited number of app shortcuts that are visible on all home screens, one or more home screens, and then an all apps view; on iOS, this is called App Library. Moving on.)
So there’s one bit of basically non-discoverable complexity to get by, and I’m glad I looked it up first. But once you run Workout for the first time, you’re confronted by the next complexity: Apple Watch supports an astonishing number of workouts, and unlike Fitbit (to my knowledge), you can’t remove any you won’t use. So you’ll do some scrolling, and some looking because each workout has its own name, and some aren’t obvious. For example, there’s no “Walk” down with the workouts that start with “w”; instead, Apple Watch has Indoor Walk, Outdoor Walk, and possibly others. And speaking of “w,” there’s no “Weights” workout either. Instead, I believe I will be using something called “Traditional Strength Training.” Seriously.
The good news, of course, is that Apple does at least put workouts you’ve used at the top. So once I’ve used Outdoor Walk, Elliptical, and, um, Traditional Strength Training, those should always appear at the top of that list and be easily accessible. And since I’m currently using a watch face, called Activity Digital, that has a link to Workouts, I can get to that interface very quickly. (Faster than on Fitbit, actually.) So that’s good too.
Anyhoo, as we walked out the front door, I opened Workouts, selected Outdoor Walk, and started the workout after a 3, 2, 1 countdown. The Watch then displayed the workout fullscreen, providing information like duration, active calories burned, heart rate, average pace, and miles walked using a nice, big, and easily-read font.
At the one-mile mark, the Watch cheerily dinged and announced that we had reached a “split,” whatever that means, in the workout. And when we arrived home, I swiped up from the bottom of the screen (which I knew because, again, I had looked this up beforehand) and ended the workout using a clearly labeled button. (On Fitbit, I have to swipe up, tap Pause, then tap End, and then tap End again, and there is something about that three-step process that often results in me not ending an exercise successfully only to discover the mistake later.)
Data from the workout was then available in both Health and Fitness on my iPhone. From what I can tell, Health covers everything health-related, from sleep and workouts, both of which I’d been tracking via a single Fitbit app, to cycle tracking for women, medications, mindfulness, symptoms, and much more.
And Fitness is just about workouts. (And this app won’t even show you trends until you’ve used it for 180 days[!] which is nuts. Just … nuts.)
More to the point, each app displays data from a workout in different ways. Indeed, each renders its display in different ways, too: where Health is pure white, Fitness is black. For whatever reason.
Because it does so much, Health is a holistic view of your, well, health. And Fitness is all about viewing how you did “closing your rings”—Apple Watch/Fitness use a three-ring system to track your movement (in calories exerted, not steps, which I find odd), exercise (in minutes), and standing time (once per some number of hours)—and comparing that to previous days. Each is nice in its own way, but I very much prefer the visualizations in Health, and I find these views much nicer to look at and more useful than what Fitbit provides.
I didn’t really learn anything new from my walk: my heart rate was elevated compared to a workday because of the previous night’s drinking, not that any wearable would have known that. (Apple Watch will be happy with me in a few days when these things normalize. Today, we’re still strangers.) But then I don’t really pay too much attention to walks: on Fitbit, a walk satisfies the need to do some exercise each day, even if it’s light, and I only casually think about the duration (usually 30 to 35 minutes) and not much else.
But because I was wearing both devices, with my Fitbit on my right wrist, I can at least compare the data. Fitbit tells me that today’s walk was 32 minutes long, with 24 of those minutes in what it calls “active zone minutes,” my average heart rate was 111 bpm, and I burned 338 calories. Apple tells me that today’s walk was 31 minutes long, my max heart rate was 129 bpm and my lowest heart rate was 99 bpm (for an average of 109 bpm, something I don’t see explicitly mentioned anywhere), and that I burned 205 calories.
But Apple—via the Health app—also displays a nice map of my walk because the Watch has a built-in GPS (that, honestly, I don’t care about at all), and it notes that I walked 1.2 miles and had an average pace of 24 minutes, 47 seconds per mile.
There’s a lot more to do—this is pretty much tip of the iceberg stuff—and to discuss, but that’s probably enough for this second look at Apple Watch Series 8. I’ll continue to explore its other features, and I’ll see how it works at the gym with elliptical and weights workouts.