Apple fires on Garmin but has battery problem
At WWDC 2022, Apple announced that it would be adding a series of major fitness updates to watchOS 9. Most notably, this included a slew of new running metrics, as well as a new multisport mode for triathletes. As a runner and wearables reviewer, the presentation immediately made me think, “Holy guacamole, Apple is firing on Garmin.”
At the moment, smartwatches fall into one of two categories. First, you have full-featured flagship watches. These are the ones with not so long battery life, but the most advanced technology. They can call emergency services if you’re injured, have built-in voice assistants, control your smart home, have third-party apps, enable advanced health features like EKGs, and support cellular connectivity. The Apple Watch obviously falls into this category.
The second category is essentially fitness trackers in a smartwatch case – and within that category are multisport GPS watches. These watches have tremendous battery life but generally don’t bother with power-hungry displays. You rely on your phone for things like taking calls, but often make up for it with excellent GPS and more data than the average person can comprehend. These are your Garmin, Polar and Coros watches.
In general, dedicated athletes have to choose between the two categories – do you want a multifunctional smartwatch for everyday use or a more specific tool for tracking exercises and workouts? With watchOS 9, Apple seems to be trying to lure more people into the running community by dangling the prospect of a watch that can do it all.
WatchOS 9 introduces several metrics that you would typically find on a Garmin or Polar watch. This includes metrics like power output, stride length, cadence and vertical oscillation. It also adds new training views that include elevation graphs, custom interval runs, pace alerts for a set distance, and the ability to compete with yourself on routes you run frequently. You can now even set heart rate zones, which was a major omission for truly dedicated athletes. The question is what can you do do with all that extra data.
“I think the next step from here is to take all of this data that watchOS 9 is collecting and turn it into an actionable plan,” said Carson Caprara, vice president of footwear product management and merchandising at Brooks Running. “While form metrics are valuable, some runners can get a little confused about what to do with them. It’s incredibly valuable to take that data and use it to ensure everyone has a coach by their side to encourage them to take the next step.”
Apple is rumored to be launching a premium rugged version of the Apple Watch later this year. watchOS 9’s increased focus on running data and support for triathletes seems to back this up. On paper, it looks like Garmin and Polar should feel the heat. However, they still come out on top when it comes to one important feature: battery life.
“For runners using watches, battery life is essential to the experience,” says Caprara. “It can be a huge obstacle that makes a run virtually impossible when the battery is dead. If there is even a remote risk, the value will be diminished.”
In what feels like an eternity, Apple hasn’t deviated from its claim to an 18-hour battery life. If you ask, Apple Watch loyalists won’t hesitate to share their charging schedule with you, to get around the fact that it needs to be charged daily. But the Garmin and Polar fans love At least 14 days and between 30 and 40 hours of GPS activity on a single charge. In comparison, you get about 5-6 hours of GPS activity on the Apple Watch. That’s more than enough for the average person, but it still requires endurance athletes to do a little math or specifically remember to charge their watch before a run. With a Garmin or Polar you don’t have to worry about that at all. you can just go
Additionally, if you prioritize sleep tracking, a longer battery is more convenient than a scheduled fast charge. You also have a better chance of sticking with a device if you don’t have to take it off as often.
“Longtime, experienced runners who use watches understand metrics like pace pretty well,” says Caprara. “Casual runners, on the other hand, don’t have it readily available. With watchOS 9, it encourages them to ask more questions about their run and lets them be more proactive about the running experience.”
Apple might not have an easy time convincing people used to super-long battery life to switch to its ecosystem. After all, it’s not the first to add these metrics to a flagship smartwatch. Samsung has had detailed running metrics for a while, although its mediocre execution hasn’t wowed the Garmin crowd.
However, Apple could play a big role in bringing broader running metrics into the mainstream. This in turn could enable research on a much larger scale. For example, the Apple Heart Study had an unprecedented 400,000 participants using the Apple Watch.
“What’s exciting for us in the running industry is the ability to look at form measurement and match it to performance,” says Caprara. “With these metrics available to a broader community of runners, from casual runners to elite runners, it will advance studies into biomechanics and the correlations between running form and performance.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine that the vast majority of Garmin users will abandon the platform. Guaranteed or not, battery life is still a big reason why some people choose Fitbit, Garmin, and Polar devices. Now if Apple figured out multi-day battery life? That would be a whole different story.