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Exercising with the Apple Watch: The Hardware

Apple markets the Apple Watch as a fitness tool, going so far as to sign up Christy Turlington Burns to blog about her experiences training for and running the London Marathon (finishing in a thoroughly respectable 3:46:45). It was a win-win — Apple got to feature a former supermodel in its ads, and Turlington Burns gained unbeatable exposure for her worthy charity, Every Mother Counts.

But is the Apple Watch even useful for marathon training? And what if your idea of a run is a couple miles around the neighborhood twice a week? Or if exercise for you involves taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work? What if your goal is only to lose weight, and if you could do that while ensconced on the couch, you would?

I’ll lay my biases out up front. I love running and racing, and little competes with running for an activity that requires almost no equipment or expense, can be done anytime and anywhere, takes relatively little time, and is fabulous exercise. As humans, our bodies evolved to run, and while Christopher McDougal’s book “Born To Run” is a bit over the top in its praise of barefoot running, it’s still a gripping read that I highly recommend. (For a sense of what it’s like to race competitively, John L. Parker’s fictional “Once a Runner” is the classic in the field, and its
sequel, “Again to Carthage,” is also wonderful.)

But I can hear the complaints about running starting even now. No worries, I get that many people can’t or won’t run, so if you prefer scenic bike rides or laps in the pool, more power to you. Or perhaps the gleaming machines and scheduled classes at a local gym are what get you going — that’s great too. Heck, if a walk around the block is what you can do, that’s way better than nothing. And while I’m distressed by how people view exercise as a chore or even a punishment — I run, ride an ElliptiGO, swim, snowshoe, Nordic ski, and ice skate because those activities are fun for me — if you need to motivate yourself through weight loss goals, digital nagging, or mental
self-flagellation rather than pure enjoyment, so be it.

When it comes to unpacking what the Apple Watch means for fitness, we have to separate what its hardware provides, and what the software that runs on it could do for you. I’ll look at the hardware now; the next installment will investigate the software side.

The most remarkable part of the Apple Watch is how much technology Apple has managed to squeeze into that tiny case. But remarkable though it may be, there are still tradeoffs, and nowhere do they become more apparent than in fitness scenarios.

Screen — The high-resolution color display offers stunning graphics and capacitive touch-enabled interaction, but neither of those is a win when exercising. The screen is difficult to see in bright sunlight, and that makes touch-based interfaces even harder to control than they already are. Since the screen is capacitive, you can’t operate it with normal gloves, just like an iPhone (some gloves now have special fabric at the fingertips to work around this problem).

The other real problem with the display is that it turns on only when you raise your wrist or tap the screen, and turns off quickly to save battery life. Thus, just looking at it requires extra arm movements or interaction, which isn’t always easy, safe, or possible.

In comparison, the Garmin Forerunner 620 sport watch that I run with uses an always-on LCD screen that’s perfectly visible in bright sunlight (with a backlight for when that’s necessary). Most important interactions rely on physical buttons that can be pressed without looking, and although it has a touch-based interface too, it’s pressure-based and thus works with any gloves.

GPS — Since it lacks a GPS chip, the Apple Watch cannot track your location, though it can report on such information as collected by its companion iPhone. From a fitness standpoint, location tracking is primarily useful in terms of determining where and how far you went. The practical upshot of that is that if you’re going to carry your iPhone with you when you run or bike anyway, you may be able to use the Apple Watch as a sort of remote control for an app on your iPhone.

The lack of GPS is a problem for those of us who like to track such information; although I have a running belt for carrying my iPhone 6 at the small of my back (arm bands can throw off running form, and those I’ve tried bugged me intensely), the only time I voluntarily run with an iPhone is when I’m in an unfamiliar city and the iPhone could be helpful for navigation or communication. If you don’t mind carrying your iPhone while working out, peachy, but hey, don’t text and exercise.

Accelerometer — Happily, the Apple Watch does have an accelerometer that enables it to detect your steps, from which it can determine both distance and pace, even if you’re not carrying your iPhone. It calibrates itself when you use it with the iPhone around, and I’m impressed at how accurate it can be. After a few runs, its numbers match quite closely with those collected by my Garmin and with the quarter-mile markings on San Francisco’s Bay Shore Trail, where I was running recently. Unfortunately, accuracy drops significantly if you run uphill (where your stride is shorter) or faster than normal (where it will be longer). I don’t know if it’s equally accurate
when walking (where stride length is again much shorter) — when I’ve taken long walks with it, I’ve had my iPhone with me, and not the Garmin.

Heart Rate Sensor — Apple makes much of the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor, which uses optical techniques rather than the more common conductive approach. The utility of pulse tracking is that one of the major goals of exercise is to increase heart rate — the heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, it gets stronger when you force it to beat harder and faster. Athletes sometimes train by heart rate, choosing workouts that keep the heart in particular zones for different types of results. Apple’s technology seems well done, generally agreeing with the uncomfortable chest strap heart rate monitor I sometimes use with my Garmin. The real question in relation to heart
rate will revolve around software — how you interact with and interpret this data.

Water Resistance — Apple says the Apple Watch meets the IPX7 level of water resistance, which means it should be able to handle immersion in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. Simultaneously, though, the company states:

Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529. The leather bands are not water resistant.

This seems to be a case of Apple under-promising and over-delivering, since many people have taken the Apple Watch into the shower and even into the pool — for a comprehensive set of tests, see DC Rainmaker’s writeup and videos (his site is a must-visit for anyone interested in workout gear).

My take? Don’t worry about the Apple Watch getting wet accidentally (but be careful with your iPhone!). Personally, I still wouldn’t take it in the shower or the pond because there’s no benefit in doing so — I don’t swim with my Garmin either, and Apple’s Workout app doesn’t offer a Swim category. A third-party swimming app might emerge in the future, but I could imagine Apple rejecting such an app on the grounds that it encourages behavior Apple warns against. What remains to be seen is if Apple honors its warranty if you get your watch wet and it stops working, either for that reason or something else.

Battery — In my usage, the Apple Watch has run out of power only once, when it shut off at 10 PM. Days when it lasted fine included a number of running workouts of up to 10 miles and one 33 mile ElliptiGO ride that took a bit under 3 hours. My conclusion is that battery life isn’t likely to be a problem for most people, although you shouldn’t be surprised if a long workout coupled with a lot more watch use causes it to sleep early.

If power is a concern, you can disable heart rate tracking during running and walking workouts to conserve power; do this in the Apple Watch app on the iPhone, in Workouts > Power Saving Mode. If the watch gets too low on battery, you can put it in Power Reserve mode, where it shows only the watch face.

That said, I doubt the Apple Watch will be sufficient for serious bikers, triathletes, and ultra-runners, whose training and racing take place across many hours. These people are already buying specialized devices, though, since even standard GPS watches aimed at runners seldom last more than 5–8 hours.

Although I have no experience with them, some of the fitness trackers, such as those from Fitbit and the Microsoft Band, also offer sleep monitoring. I’d be surprised if Apple added that, purely because most people will recharge the Apple Watch at night.

(Personally, I’ve not seen the need for sleep monitoring — Tonya and I go to bed between 11 PM and midnight most nights and get up between 7 and 8 AM. If we get to bed late, have to wake up early, or have our sleep interrupted, we feel cruddy and try to get more sleep the next night. But if you have trouble maintaining a regular sleep schedule or are surprised when lack of sleep impacts your productivity, electronic nudging could be useful.)

Bluetooth Audio — Even without an iPhone, the Apple Watch can store and play audio on a paired Bluetooth headset. I haven’t tried this, so I don’t know how effective it is, but for safety reasons I recommend against blocking out all external sounds when biking or running outside. Just recently, I was running a trail race and nearly ran over several people who couldn’t hear me repeatedly telling them from behind that I was going to pass on the left. And since I exercise with friends, earbuds of any sort are socially inappropriate. That said, if it can be done safely, listening to music can apparently improve both your enjoyment of your workout and its health benefits.

Overall, the Apple Watch’s hardware will meet the needs of people whose preferred form of exercise is walking or using a machine in a gym, and of those who have already figured out how to carry an iPhone while running or cycling outside.

However, if you need to interact fluidly with the watch during exercise, want location tracking without carrying your iPhone, like to track swim workouts, or just enjoy exercising for long periods of time, you’ll be better off with purpose-built sport watches like those from Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. They’re easier to see in bright sunlight, can be controlled without looking, offer built-in GPS capabilities, support multiple sports including swimming, and feature long battery life. And if sleep monitoring is important to you, look to a similarly long-lived fitness tracker like a Fitbit or the Microsoft Band.

Of course, the Apple Watch’s hardware is only half of the equation, with software displaying and analyzing that data — apps are what you’ll interact with on the Apple Watch. While Apple can’t change the hardware behavior significantly before the next major release, software is an entirely different story, since both Apple and independent developers will be improving the user experience constantly. The moving target of software is where I’ll turn my attention next time.

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