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Apple Watch 8 is a sleeper hit, even if it doesn't match Samsung's sensors

Review: The Apple Watch Series 8 upgrades workouts, sleep tracking, and women's health. Battery life and the always-on display are better, too.
Written by Christina Darby, Associate Editor on
Reviewed by Jason Hiner
Pros
  • watchOS 9 brings new health and fitness features
  • Enhanced sleep tracking for more accurate insights
  • Temperature tracking can improve women's health
  • Impressive battery life
  • Always-on display keeps getting better
Cons
  • No major hardware upgrades from the Apple Watch Series 7
  • Doesn't match all of the sensors in Samsung watches

On the surface, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the Apple Watch Series 8 and last year's Series 7. The display sizes (41mm and 45mm) are the same. The battery sizes are the same. And the stock of colorful and purposeful watch bands is mostly the same. It's only when you interact with the new Apple Watch that you'll begin to notice most of the improvements. 

I've been wearing, exercising, sleeping, and wandering about with the Apple Watch Series 8. Here are my thoughts on the latest wearable and whether or not it could be a good fit for you.

Specifications


Apple Watch Series 8 (41 mm) Apple Watch Series 8 (45 mm) 

Display

352 x 430 pixel Always-on Retina LTPO OLED

396 x 484 pixel Always-on Retina LTPO OLED 

Weight

Aluminum (32g), stainless steel (42.3g)

Aluminum (38.8g), stainless steel (51.5g)

Processor

Apple S8 chip 

Apple S8 chip

Storage32GB32GB
BatteryUp to 18-hour lithium-ion battery (36 hours in low power mode)Up to 18-hour lithium-ion battery (36 hours in Low Power mode)
SensorsGPS, altimeter, blood oxygen, optical heart sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light sensor, body temperature sensor, high-G accelerometer
GPS, altimeter, blood oxygen, optical heart sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light sensor, body temperature sensor, high-G accelerometer
ConnectivityWi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, LTE (GPS + cellular model only) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, LTE (GPS + cellular model only)  

Case materials and colors

Aluminum: Midnight, Starlight, Silver, (PRODUCT)RED | Stainless steel: Graphite, Silver, Gold

Aluminum: Midnight, Starlight, Silver, (PRODUCT)RED | Stainless steel: Graphite, Silver, Gold

IP rating

IP6X dust-resistant water-resistant to 50 meters 

IP6X dust-resistant, water-resistant to 50 meters

PriceStarting at $399Starting at $429

Design

Like its predecessor, the Series 8 model comes in 41 and 45-mm stainless steel aluminum cases. The case's narrow bezel helps the display shine as the 41mm panel encompasses most of the watch's face. And there's a subtle curve surrounding the Apple Watch, giving it a soft, pebble-like impression. 

The digital crown and home button remain on the right side of the watch case and continue to be the easiest tools to navigate through the watch interface, scroll through notifications and apps, and even adjust the audio volume. 

The Series 8 comes in seven different aluminum case colors, four of which the Series 7 does not have: Gold, Silver, Graphite, and Space Black. 

Coming from a 38mm Series 3 to the 41mm Series 8, I was initially worried that the watch would look or feel bulky on my relatively smaller wrist. The 3mm difference, however, turned into a positive -- I could now see notifications and my live fitness metrics more clearly, and the watch still felt and looked minimal and sleek. 

More: New Apple Watch Ultra bands work with other apple watch models, too. 

watch-face-full-view-apple-watch-8

"Modular" is my watch face of choice.

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Unlike Samsung's Galaxy Watch series or more classic, round-face watches, Apple continues to keep its staple, squircle design. While Apple released a few new bands with this year's model, both the 41mm and 45mm sizes are backward compatible -- in case you currently own a Watch Series 7 and want to elevate the look without paying up for the Series 8.

Display and brightness

The Apple Watch Series 8 has the same display and brightness as last year's model, which means it's still impressive to interact with and look at. During my occasional jogs in sunny Central Park, I was able to clearly tell what rings I had to close for my daily fitness goals. The brightness, in particular, also made it easier for me to enjoy the six new Apple watch face designs, including "Lunar," "Astronomy," "Modular," and "Metropolitan." Like the Series 7, the background colors adapt to the light of your environment when the watch is on your wrist, shifting from light and dark modes to optimize battery life and keep things in focus.

The always-on display also continues to get better and better. The combination of the improved battery life in the Series 8 and WatchOS 9 optimizations has made the always-on display more usable than ever. Apple's early implementation of the always-on display on the watch was not always worth the battery hit. Depending on what watchface you used or what app you were in when it went to sleep, the always-on display used to act more like a screensaver with a clock on it. Now, for example, it can simply dim the watchface you're using or dim your workout and take away the seconds counter. The battery hit is now minimal, and so it's well worth turning on the feature in the Series 8.

c1f11048-bfbf-4bd3-9338-5c1fbddab9c8-1-201-a

My watch face is even customizable with my own photos and I can change the color of the background to make the portrait pop even more. 

Screenshot by Christina Darby/ZDNET

WatchOS 9

The latest version of WatchOS introduces enhanced health and fitness features, including in-depth sleep tracking, cycle and basal temperature tracking for women, split pace notifications for cardio workouts, and a more custom workout display. Always On display and its notification functionality has also gotten a lift; rather than piling up and then quickly disappearing, notifications pop up at the top of the watch face and roll away without overwhelming your feed. Notifications are glanceable even if you're working out. 

It's worth noting that Apple Watch models dating back to the Series 4 are eligible to receive the watchOS 9 update, but not all the features -- specifically, the health and fitness ones -- will be available. For that reason alone, it may or may not make sense for you to make the upgrade to the Series 8.

Performance - Fitness

As fitness continues to be at the core of the Apple Watch experience, the Series 8 wearable introduces a catalog of new tracking and measurement features that could greatly benefit users of all levels. 

For cardio-based exercises, the watch can now track the "zone" that your heart rate drops to during a workout. Like a professional-grade heart rate monitor, you can see if your heart rate falls in Zone 1, 2, 3, or 4. For instance, when I felt out of breath during my spin class, I noticed that my heart rate had dropped to Zone 3 but nothing lower, so I pushed harder to get it racing again and exercise more efficiently. Since watchOS 9  calculates these zones with your resting and max heart rate taken into account, each Zone is tailored to your specific heart rate and updated monthly. You can view how the specific zones correspond to your heart rate levels on your watch settings and learn a lot about your cardio health.  

workout-view-scrolling-on-series-8

The Apple Watch can save records of your heart rate numbers and performance. 

June Wan/ZDNET

Apple Watch Series 8 now shows your mile split, which is handy if you're a long-distance runner. While I'm not training for a race, I found it just as practical for my everyday walk to work. By tracking how much time it would take for me to walk a mile or two, the watch basically set a benchmark for my walking speed, which pushed me to speed up my pace every morning. 

The new metrics tracking helps you see workouts differently. Since there are now more stats you can sift through, with the addition of heart rate zones and split pace, you can better customize your watch face to display the information that's most important to you. Within the exercise app, you can, say, switch the typical "calories burned" metric on your watch face to the split pace numbers instead. If you, like me, are borderline obsessive about closing all your rings, you can even set the watch to display the three trackers at a glance. There were plenty of times when I'd see that I only needed 50 more calories to close my move ring and it motivated me to put in a few more reps when working out. 

More: I put the Apple Watch Ultra through a Tough Mudder: Here's how it held up

It's also possible to add more variety to your run with the Apple Watch Series 8. Instead of using your watch to simply log a run, you can now account for warmups and recovery and set drills and repeats for your main "work" intervals. For runners training for a 5K or half marathon, this tool can make your runs more structured and reliable. 

apple-watch-series-8-walking-stats

The Apple Watch Series 8 shows your split time when you're walking, running, or biking. Split time can be a good tool for establishing and modifying a benchmark pace. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

You can even become your own biggest competitor by racing yourself on an outdoor track that you've already completed. Again, if you have a favorite training spot and want to build off your benchmark time, this feature alone may be worth the splurge. 

Finally, for the true multitaskers out there, the Series 8 also has a "multi-sport" function that allows you to quickly transition from running to biking or swimming without having to completely end the workout -- like on the Series 7. 

It's worth noting that the Apple Watch Series 8 still cannot measure blood pressure and body composition standalone, two metrics that Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch 5 series, with its BioActive sensor, can calculate. If those numbers matter to you, and the need for additional equipment is unfavorable, then I'd suggest looking elsewhere

More: How Samsung leapfrogged the Apple Watch, with a little help from Google

Sleep tracking

sleep tracking on the apple watch series 8

After you sleep, use the health app on iPhone to view your daily sleep stats.

Screenshot by Christina Darby/ZDNET

While Apple spent a good portion of its Sept. 7 keynote talking about the Apple Watch Series 8's sleeping tracking features, I've always thought that wearing a watch to bed would be uncomfortable. But after night one, the Apple Watch became just as much of a nighttime accessory as my retainer. I loved having insight into the one thing I wasn't used to tracking -- my sleep. 

New this year, the watch tracks how long you spend in deep sleep, core sleep, REM sleep, and awake. You can then access the data in the iPhone's Health app to learn just how efficient or inefficient your sleep really is.  As someone who chronically wakes up every night around 3 am, I was impressed to see that the Apple Watch was able to perfectly mark those times and the depth of my sleep after the fact. 

A week in, I am more invested in my sleep habits than ever before. After noticing that I am often in my REM sleep cycle just before my dreaded alarm goes off, I started going to bed 30 minutes earlier, which has helped me to feel less disoriented in the mornings. 

My colleague Jason Hiner has also been testing the Apple Watch Series 8 and has been using the Apple Watch for sleep tracking for over three years. He's also tested under-the-mattress sleep sensors and a smart bed. He reports that, overall, he still prefers the Sleep Watch app on Apple Watch to the built-in software in the Health app. 

However, the biggest thing he missed from the under-the-mattress sensor was the data on sleep stages to help understand the quality of sleep. He now regularly uses that feature on the Series 8 and is impressed with the accuracy and the visualizations. But, the Apple Watch's sleep app would be much better if it also integrated HRV, blood oxygen, and other data -- and he added that Apple is overdue to launch a companion Sleep app for the iPhone as well. 

The features I didn't test

Crash Detection

Like the iPhone 14 line, the Apple Watch Series 8 can detect a severe car crash by measuring changes to the environment's sound, pressure, and motion, and help connect you to emergency services. In the event of a car crash, the Apple Watch will ask if you're okay or if it should call emergency services. It will do the latter if there's no response within 20 seconds. By default, crash detection is on. 

Women's health features

Perhaps one of the biggest upgrades to come with watchOS 9 is the upgraded health features, specifically for women's health. As a woman, I found it convenient that I could track my cycle by answering a few questions and wearing my watch daily. While this technology is useful for women who just want to be more in tune with their bodies, it's worth noting that a smartwatch is not smarter than your physician. If you have an irregular cycle or suffer from medical anxiety, the Apple Watch may be a useful first assessment, but you should not base your medical decisions on just that. 

While I personally am not using the watch for family planning purposes, I know many look for a tool to do so. WatchOS 9 also tracks changes in basal temperature while you sleep (after five days) and can monitor your ovulation.

More: The Apple Watch Series 8 body temperature sensor offers ovulation cycle tracking insights

Battery life

You can expect a similar battery life performance with the Apple Watch Series 8 as last year's model given the similarity in battery size. Having switched from the Series 3, however, I was even more impressed with the Series 8's endurance. 

I typically wear the watch from morning to night, walking about two miles to and back from work, exercising for 30 minutes to an hour, and then sleeping for about 7 hours. That means that time and charging management is needed if you plan on using the Apple Watch day and night. 

apple-watch-series-8-charging-icon

A view of the Apple Watch Series 8 when it starts charging. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Fortunately, the new Apple Watch charges fast. I've been using Anker's 511 Charger (Nano 3) and Apple's USB-C charging cable (introduced last year), which takes the Series 8 to a full charge after an hour. Since I've been using the watch during my sleep, I've been occasionally trickle-charging it during the day, like when I'm sitting in a meeting.

Bottom Line

The Apple Watch Series 8 is an incremental update to the classic, squircle smartwatch -- and I'm not complaining. The same catalog of good-looking and practical watch faces is still there and, with the enhanced health and fitness tracking features, the watch is more useful than ever for helping me stay in tune with my body both during activity and at rest.

My only callout is with watchOS 9 and its abundance of updates and features: they may be overwhelming and not applicable to every user. But if you want the most comprehensive Apple Watch experience -- other than the Ultra -- then the new Series 8 is the one to get. As we often say with the latest products, if you have last year's Series 7 then there's no reason to upgrade to the Series 8. But if you have the Series 6 or earlier and you've been considering whether it's time to upgrade, you're likely to find a ton of things to like about the Series 8 -- especially the battery life.  

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