Apple Watch Series 8: Decision Made

Posted on September 25, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Wearables, Apple Watch, Fitbit with 86 Comments

With 10 days (and nights) of usage under my belt, it’s time to decide whether I’m keeping the Apple Watch or going back to Fitbit. This is an expensive device—about $450 for the version I purchased—and it’s not strictly necessary, given that my current tracker, a Fitbit Charge 5, pretty much does what I want, albeit with nearly daily aggravation. And let’s face it, a nod to Apple Watch is a step further into the one-way, dead-end street that is the Apple ecosystem.

But, yeah, I’ve decided to dump Fitbit and move to Apple Watch.

Now please let me explain myself.

First, the “why” of health and fitness tracking. After all, I sometimes get some unconstructive feedback about my desire to measure this stuff: some people just have a hard time understanding why others want things they don’t. And while it would be nice not to have to worry about this stuff, I’m not getting any younger and I’m not as healthy as I want to be. Worse, I had one life-altering experience that I think makes understandable my need to stay on top of this stuff.

In February 2005, I almost died from something called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or HAPE, while on a skiing trip to Colorado. You can read the full story here, but this is the first of just a handful of times in which I was forced to confront my own mortality and, suffice to say, it left a mark on me. Indeed, as I wrote in that article, correctly, I’ve always felt since that HAPE—or, rather what it may have done to me—is the thing that will one day probably get me one day unless there’s a bus out there with my name on it.

The underlying issue here is blood oxygen level, or spO2, a topic most people probably don’t think about all that much because why would they? I certainly didn’t, at least until my blood oxygen level fell dangerously to 60 percent on that trip; as the doctor at the time observed, “I’ve only seen one oxygen reading lower than yours. And that guy died.” The normal range is 95 to 100 percent.

The fear I had after contracting HAPE was that my blood oxygen levels would remain lower than the normal range and that I’d need oxygen tanks to survive. Related to this, I have serious sleep apnea and need a CPAP to sleep properly. And so I’ve always been worried about my oxygen levels at night, specifically. What if I’m not getting enough oxygen while I sleep?

Semi-related to this is another blood oxygen-related metric, VO2 max, which basically measures how much oxygen your body can absorb and use while exercising. Here, too, the higher the number the better: an active and healthy man will typically have a VO2 max in the 42 to 47 mL/kg/min range, while a sedentary man will have a lower score, perhaps 35 to 40. (Scores vary for women and for very active people.) Think of it as “cardio fitness.”

These two measurements—blood oxygen and VO2 max—were well beyond the capabilities of the first fitness trackers I used, like the Nike Fuelband and early Fitbit wearables. Indeed, the first trackers were pretty much all about steps, and they were unable to measure activities that took place without moving, like using an elliptical trainer or a stationary bike. But as time has pushed forward, fitness trackers and smartwatches have gotten a lot more capable. And now I don’t need to go to a doctor to measure these things.

The newest Fitbits, like the Versa 4 and Sense 2 smartwatches and the Charge 5 tracker that I’ve used for the past year provide blood oxygen and VO2 max tracking, but the former only happens automatically at night when you sleep and only when you use a specific clock face. Worse, some data is hidden behind a Fitbit Premium subscription, and the Fitbit app doesn’t make it particularly easy to keep up to date on these measurements. (Fitbit also hides other data I care about, like sleeping heart rate and breathing rate, behind that subscription.)

And this is where the Apple Watch gets interesting, in particular the Apple Watch Series 8 (as opposed to the SE). Anyone interested in an Apple Watch could save a lot of money by choosing an SE over the Series 8, and depending on what they need, they should do so. But the Series 8 has some useful advantages over the SE, including a larger display with always-on capabilities, improved water and dust resistance, fast charging support, temperature sensing, blood oxygen sensing with a dedicated app, ECG sensing with a dedicated app, and a few other things. A few of those are important to me. The blood oxygen functionality, for the reasons noted above, and fast charging (because battery life is always an issue) are key among them.

The Apple Watch has also had two related advantages that I find useful: it does a better job of proactively telling me what it’s measured—both on the device itself and in the Health app on my iPhone—and it does a better job of letting me customize what it is that I want to measure and see, again, on both the Watch and in the app. For example, while Apple Watch focuses on Apple’s “three rings” of exercise measurements, I can still pick a watch face that shows my heart rate too, something I watched regularly on my Fitbit. And I can (and did) customize the Health app’s front-end dashboard to display the things I care about most upfront: blood oxygen, resting heart rate, sleep, and steps all appear on the initial screen of information, with Apple’s trends reports below that. It’s pretty much ideal for what I want.

I also like that I can configure the dock on the Watch—accessed by pressing the side button—with the apps I need to access regularly, like Activity, Heart Rate, Workout, Blood Oxygen, and ECG. Because I’m so concerned about blood oxygen, and because this is a new device and I want to see whether the trends I’m used to are continuing with the Apple Watch, I’ve been doing manual blood oxygen scans about once a day in addition to the automatic readings it sometimes makes (always at night).

What I’ve found, by the way, is that my blood oxygen levels are almost always right in that perfect range of 95 to 100 percent. (One time, it said 89 when I woke up, but that seems like a weird outlier.) And my VO2 max is on the very low end of average for an active person. Which I’m not, I guess. But these readings are what I basically saw with Fitbit too, it’s that I had stopped using Fitbit Premium when it was no longer free after a trial, and Fitbit didn’t surface this data well if at all.

Put another way, a simpler way, when I get up in the morning, Apple Watch proactively tells me where things stand. With Fitbit, I have to try to manually sync first thing and that usually fails. But even when everything works, Apple gives me more data, presented better.  I just like it more.

Still, this wasn’t an easy decision.

If you are familiar with me at all, especially if you’re a Premium member where I discuss decision paralysis more than is maybe necessary, you know that I struggled with this. Regardless, know that this decision was long in the making: in each of the past few years, I’ve seriously considered switching to an Apple Watch as the company focused more on health and fitness and then slowly and steadily improved those capabilities.

Multiple things have held me back, however. The cost. The ecosystem bit. And of course, the battery life, which even in a best-case scenario is 1/5th to 1/6th what I’d get with a Fitbit tracker or smartwatch, or about one full day of use. To date, I’d been tracking exercise and sleep with Fitbit, every day, and charging the device about once every six days. That’s OK.

But there’s that other side of the story, too. As noted, Fitbit has been goddamned unreliable over the years, and it’s a huge problem. I’ve had issues with the hardware, the software, and the services. I bought the Fitbit Charge 3 last year and have already had to replace the band. I have sync problems almost every single day. And I have to manually adjust sleep tracking results multiple times every week. It’s routinely frustrating.

And yet it’s hard not to imagine an alternate timeline in which I stuck with Fitbit, which Google purchased and is integrating into its own Pixel Watch: had the Pixel 6 Pro not been so problematic, I wouldn’t have purchased an iPhone 13 Pro in late 2022 and I’d probably be planning to at least test a Pixel Watch now instead. This kind of what-if is tough on people like me, and to be clear, I still have a soft spot for Pixel despite all the issues I’ve had.

(Also, there are looming issues with the Google acquisition of Fitbit: soon, Google will force Fitbit users to migrate to Google accounts. And its latest generation smartwatches no longer support Wi-Fi sync, which has several ramifications, but the big deal here is that Fitbit-branded products are being de-tuned so that Pixel Watch and other WearOS devices can be better differentiated.)

On the Apple side of the discussion, the quality of the Apple Watch hardware won’t surprise anyone: Apple makes terrific hardware. And the software … well, it’s gotten better, in particular with the demotion of the silly “bubble tea” UI that Apple originally used (and still does, optionally) as an all-apps view on the Watch. And its services business, after a rocky start with Mobile Me years ago, is a powerhouse now, and its fastest-growing business.

And no worries there. I still want to steer clear of that as much as I can.

The good news is that I don’t need to pay for any services to use Apple Watch, and while Fitness+ looks good, honestly, I already go to a gym regularly and don’t need it. This is true with my iPhone as well, with one exception—iCloud+, which I pay for so my devices, and my kids’ devices, have enough space for backups—and I continue to use third-party services like YouTube Music (instead of Apple Music), Pocket Casts (instead of Apple Podcasts), Audible (instead of Apple Books), and Sonos. My goal is to use what’s best, whether it’s hardware, software, or services.

Now, I know the allure of the Apple ecosystem hinges on Apple’s solutions always being the best, even when they aren’t, in part because of integrations you don’t or can’t get with third-party offerings. I’ve largely avoided this to date, as noted, but my use of Apple hardware has also risen in recent years, from the iPad I use for reading and the Apple TV we use for video, to the iPhone I bought in late 2021 and now the Apple Watch. Surely, this is as far as I will go, since I’m never switching to the Mac and couldn’t care less about HomePod. AirPods Pro? Maybe. (Or Beats Fit Pro, more likely, for the gym.) But surely that will be the end of it. Surely.

But back to the Apple Watch. The point behind this shift isn’t just about finally giving up on Fitbit, it’s also about embracing a health and fitness ecosystem that actually works and is improving each year in obvious ways. It’s about a device that actually works, measures what I do accurately, and reports on it quickly and reliably in useful—and hopefully—actionable ways. A device that maybe motivates me to exercise harder and more often. (My Fitbit buzzed so infrequently, I was always confused when it did.)

What the Apple Watch Series 8 has verified is that I need to focus more on VO2 max, meaning more time in aerobic activities (like using an elliptical or perhaps fast walking) and less on weights. This was something I was already thinking about, but I feel like this device will do a better job than Fitbit in helping to get me there. And I also feel like Apple, inexplicably, is more serious about health and fitness than is Fitbit, a company that exists only for this one purpose. Certainly, Apple’s successes in this arena will drive further innovation no matter how you feel about that.

And so that’s a long way of saying that I’m keeping the Apple Watch Series 8 and will keep using it daily. I will continue to test charging during the day so I can track sleep—recently, I’ve done a few 30-minute daily charges that seemed to do the trick—but will consider giving up on sleep tracking since there’s little I (or Apple) can do about poor results. I don’t think I’m going to formally review Apple Watch Series 8 for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that this is only the second Apple Watch I’ve ever owned, and I’ve only used one Fitbit smartwatch, and that was over a year ago. This is not my lane, I guess. But it is something I’m interested in personally. So I may chime in from time to time with further observations.

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