Apple Watch wants to own health

    With its new Apple Watch Series 4, Apple effectively wants to dominate the digital health revolution. Tony Sarno explains why the Series 4 is a step in that direction.

    Apple has announced its true intentions: to have its watch manage your health like a medical device, not just as an exercise tracker.

    The headline-grabbing part of the Watch Series 4 launch this year was that the watch can now take an electrocardiogram (ECG), which checks heart rate and rhythm, and warn you if you have a potentially serious heart condition, atrial fibrillation.

    The other news was that its new, more advanced sensors and accelerometers can detect when you’ve taken a fall and send out an alert to an emergency contact.

    While these features might be realistically more relevant in a nursing home than to your typical Fitness First member, they’re effectively showcasing the fact that the sensors in the watch are now reaching medical-grade accuracy. One benefit of being able to do an ECG is that the heart rate monitoring in the Series 4 has to be far more accurate than in the past.

    On the hardware side, the new Watch Series 4’s display is 30% larger than the Series 3’s. The case itself hasn’t grown (in fact, it’s 1mm thinner), but the screen now just takes up more of the space, growing to 44cm from 42cm, and the smaller version from 38mm to 40mm.

    It doesn’t seem like much on paper, but it’s huge on your wrist. Workouts and health information are much easier to follow and allow more info to be read on-screen. Some new watch faces also allow you to add more complications (snippets of live information). I’m obsessed with having as much info on my watch as possible, so I’ve got the Infograph watch face on which I’ve crammed eight complications, including Reminders, UV Index, Calendar, Activity Ring, Heart Rate, Timer, Battery and yes, Shazam for instantly nailing that song.

    The Watch’s battery life remains at about 18 hours, which means you still have to charge it daily with small top-ups, but the battery life under GPS has been extended from five to six hours, which can make a huge difference to a runner.

    Other improvements come from a combination of the Series 4 and the upgraded software, WatchOS 5. These include the following:

    Pace and cadence alerts

    If one group really benefits from the Series 4, it’s runners. You now get cadence stats that tell you your stride rate as well as your rolling pace over the last kilometre. If you set pace targets, the Watch issues an alert if your current pace drops off or you’re going too fast.

    Podcasts when exercising

    How good is this? If you love listening to podcasts when training, you no longer need your iPhone. You can now get podcasts via your Apple Watch and WatchOS 5, which syncs with your Apple podcast library. Plug in your AirPods and you can both train and be informed. Music was already available on the Watch, of course, although you still can’t get Spotify on it.

    Compete with friends

    Friendly competition with your mates is one of the best ways to motivate yourself to move more. The Activity app shows your friends’ activity rings, so you can now challenge them to close their Move, Exercise and Stand rings first. In the Activity app on the iPhone, there’s a sharing tab that lets you select up to 40 friends who’ll get your invite to share their activity.

    Automatic workout detection

    This fixes one of my bugbears with workout tracking, that when you begin a session, its easy to forget to start tracking it. When the Series 4 senses that you’re moving in a way that indicates a particular workout, it alerts you with a prompt a few minutes into the activity. It then retrospectively rewinds the tracking back to the start. On a run, we found it typically alerts you before you reach 1km. It will also remind you to end the workout in case you’ve forgotten to turn off the tracking.

    Walkie talkie

    A really useful feature when you’re training or running with others is the Walkie Talkie. Just add any friends with an Apple Watch, press the button and you can talk to them immediately. It’s kind of like a quick FaceTime Audio call.

    Yoga, Hiking and more third-party workout apps

    Finally, there are new dedicated workout types for yoga and even hiking, which track active calories burned and exercise minutes earned. Like most of the other native workouts, they’re not as sophisticated as some dedicated third-party apps, but at least two hugely important activities are now part of the core offering.