Everything Apple Watch Pro needs to beat Garmin and Samsung
2022 is a big year for smartwatches. Samsung just refreshed its Galaxy Watch line with a new “Pro” model, Google is finally releasing a Pixel Watch, Qualcomm has launched a new wearable chip, and some Wear OS 2 watches will finally get the upgrade to Wear OS 3. camp, the Apple Watch lineup is about to get its biggest overhaul in years. This year, we expect to see not one, not two, but potentially three new Apple Watch models. A new Series 8, a new SE, and a never-before-seen rugged “Pro” model — a new high-end option that could potentially shake things up in the smartwatch world.
Indeed, an Apple Watch Pro would mean Apple is entering a whole new wearable category: multi-sport fitness watches. This is a category with avid users who demand a specific list of fitness and navigation features to fuel their sports adventures, potentially putting the Apple Watch in the face of challenges it hasn’t faced before.
Fitness watches are a niche dominated by brands like Garmin, Polar, and Coros. These brands specialize in devices that can take a beating in every element, last for weeks on a single charge, offer advanced navigation features, and give users dozens and dozens of performance metrics to obsessively analyze. Newer models feature multi-band GPS so users can get a signal even in the most remote locations.
It’s an interesting pivot for Apple, which already dominates the overall smartwatch market. However, while multisport watches are primarily aimed at a niche audience, it is a loyal crowd. Unlike people who only engage in occasional workouts to stay active, they are dedicated athletes who invest a lot of time and money in training. They are unlikely to let their sports watches gather dust in a drawer for months. Flagship GPS watches like the Garmin Fenix 7 start at around $700 and can cost upwards of $1,000 for the more advanced models. It’s a lucrative market for Apple.
It’s also a departure from what Apple’s smartwatches are primarily known for. The Apple Watch is known for its advanced health features, superior connectivity, seamless integration with iPhones, and to be blunt, its average battery life. It’s more of a mini computer than a dedicated training tool. This presents opportunities, but also challenges if Apple wants the “Pro” Watch to succeed.
To win over the Garmin crowd, Apple will need a watch with better battery life, superior durability, improved physical controls, and support for recovery metrics to help with training.. If Apple can pull this off, it has the ability to reshape what a “traditional” smartwatch can do in the fitness space. Innovations here could actually lead to an advanced sports watch that doesn’t force users to choose between fitness and smarts.
The most glaring problem Apple has to deal with is battery life. Since day one, Apple hasn’t deviated from the 18-hour battery life estimate for its smartwatches. In fact, you can get more depending on your usage – on some models I took up to 36 hours before needing to recharge. But 36 hours is still not weeks battery life. When I tested the Garmin Fenix 7S, I got two weeks on a single charge. I’ve had a week on the Polar Grit X Pro and the Coros Vertix 2 has around 60 days of daily use. (After two weeks of testing the Vertix 2, I still had 85% battery left.) I’ll be really shocked if the Apple Watch Pro comes close to a week old, but it has to do better than 36 hours to really be a several days Look. For example, in testing, I got around 48-60 hours on the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. It falls short of a Garmin or a Polar, but it’s a start.
As far as durability goes, I’ve never broken an Apple Watch before – and I’m a klutz. However, I have had nicks and scratches with normal wear and tear on almost all of my Apple Watches. (Including more durable models, like the Series 7!) If you’re going to take a watch to run on a dusty trail, go rafting, kiteboarding, skiing, or whatever, you want to know that sweat, grime, dust, water, sand and the elements are no problem. This is partly a problem of perception. You can swim with an Apple Watch and the durability has improved since previous models, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s harsh.
Then there is the issue of controls. I’ve covered before why physical buttons are important for athletes, but relying on touchscreens is a potential deal breaker. Wet fingers make swiping a chore, the Digital Crown isn’t immune to accidental presses, and the side button, while great for sleek minimalism, isn’t ideal when wearing gloves for sports in cold weather. These controls are fine for everyday life, but they aren’t as reliable as Garmin’s or Polar’s five-button navigation system for activities. And while Siri is useful, it’s not always an option in noisy environments or when you need to be discreet. For example, using Siri was pointless when I was running a half marathon. Cheering crowds and loudspeakers made all commands inaudible.
Apple is also still behind on some follow-up action. 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. Not only was it late for native sleep tracking, but it’s still a pretty basic feature of the watchOS 9 beta. The watch also doesn’t offer much information on how you recovered from the physical fatigue.
Instead, Apple is focusing more on users closing their rings. This often leads to prioritizing streaks over rest – which anyone seriously training for events will tell you is a big no-no. If he wants to win over serious athletes, the Pro will need less gamification and more flexibility. That said, after testing the beta version of watchOS 9, I’m not too concerned about the workout metrics. While you won’t get as much detail as a Garmin or Polar watch, watchOS 9 adds some necessary basics like heart rate zones, custom workouts, running form metrics, and elevation graphs.
These are all big challenges for Apple’s new Watch, but there are also big opportunities here. Multisport watches tend to be low on smart features such as music streaming, digital assistants, smart home technology control, contactless payments, LTE connectivity for emergency SOS calls, detection of falls and advanced health features such as atrial fibrillation alerts. Garmin is the best of the bunch, but its versions of these features often come with caveats. Security features depend on how close you are to your phone, apps in its Connect IQ store aren’t up to snuff, adding music can be finicky, 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 boost their smart capabilities.
Apple isn’t the only one going Pro this summer. Samsung has also just launched the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which is also aimed at outdoor enthusiasts. And while it improves battery and durability, it still lacks reliable physics controls and workout recovery metrics. (Plus, its step-by-step navigation leaves out runners.) Basically, it’s an admirable first attempt, but there are certainly areas where Samsung can improve. I imagine the Apple Watch Pro could be similar – a first attempt that tries to get the basics right, while leaving room for more exciting features down the line.
None of us have seen the Pro – or whatever it’s called – yet. There could very well be new design elements or more robust specs that would at least address some of these challenges. That said, it’s rare for a company to knock it out of the park on the first try. The Apple Watch itself didn’t really hit its stride until Series 4. The first Pro is unlikely to lead a horde of Garmin enthusiasts to suddenly ditch their beloved Fenix watches and Forerunner. Nor is it how anyone should judge their “success”. For that first rugged Apple Watch, it will be far more important that it does the basics well enough to make even the most diehard Garmin and Polar loyalists curious.