The hardware changes are few, but the OS9 software tweaks enhance Apple's new smartwatches
Apple Watch Series 8 (left) and Apple Watch SE (right)
By Allen St. John
Apple recently introduced new versions of the Apple Watch and Apple Watch SE, adding some sensors and some fun software. Your reaction to the company’s latest models will likely be determined by just looking down at your left wrist.
Are you wearing an Apple Watch? If so, you’re likely to be underwhelmed by the new devices, unless your watch happens to be an outdated Watch Series 3 on the verge of replacement. But if you’re not wearing a smartwatch, this might be a good time to make the leap into the Apple Watch world.
The Series 8 starts at $399 and the SE sells for $249 and up.
We bought test samples through normal retail channels and sent them to our laboratories in Yonkers, N.Y., where our trained technicians put them through CR’s full testing program and delivered ratings for ease of use, heart rate and step count accuracy, water and scratch resistance, and more. Those results can be found in the writeups below.
Apple has also introduced a third option, the $799 Ultra, a high-end model with a titanium case designed for athletes, adventurers, and those who aspire to be one or the other. We’ll have a report on that watch shortly.
Apple Watch Series 8
As I unboxed the Series 8, what struck me first is that the device is nearly identical to the Series 7 watch. While last year’s model had some subtle, but real changes—a case that’s 1 mm larger and a bigger display with thinner bezels—the Series 8 case remains the same.
The only visible difference is in the choice of colors. Gone are the cool British Racing Green and deep navy options. The sample I tried out features the not-quite-black Midnight hue that would complement a charcoal gray Armani suit quite nicely. The other colors for the aluminum case base models include a brighter Product Red, Gold, Starlight (a warmish light gray), and Silver. (Our tests of earlier generation Apple Watches have shown that the higher-end stainless models—some of which come with a spendy and stylish Hermès band—aren’t more rugged, or better performers, than the base aluminum models.)
Internally, there’s not much difference, either. The Series 8, the less expensive SE, and the upscale Ultra all use the same processor as last year’s model.
Our testers give the Series 8 solid marks. During the evaluation in our labs, the model fell just a bit short of the Ultra, performing less well in the scratch test. The heart rate monitoring isn’t as strong as that on other models and the step count accuracy is only average. The watch did excel in ease of use, water resistance, readability in low and bright light, and versatility. Overall, it ranks ahead of the new Watch SE and toward the top of our smartwatch ratings (available to CR members).
The Series 8 does add two new sets of sensors. And while they do introduce compelling functionality, it’s not something most users will be eager to play with.
The new temperature sensors are designed primarily to provide women with retrospective ovulation estimates using wrist temperature data, which can be useful in family planning and other healthcare decisions. The sensor on the watch back takes skin temperature readings. A second on the side of the case measures ambient temperatures to increase the feature’s accuracy toward thermometer-in-your-mouth levels, Apple says.
We did not test the functionality of the app because it needs two full cycles of period tracking and a large chunk of temperature data to work accurately.
But Apple does emphasize the app’s privacy aspects, noting that this sensitive, personal information is stored on the device, and if your watch is secured with a password, the data is end-to-end encrypted so Apple can’t access it.
The other new sensors support Apple’s car crash detection feature. While earlier models incorporate sensors that allow an Apple Watch to detect and report falls during a walk, a run, or a bicycle ride, the Series 8 takes that one step further.
A new three-axis gyroscope and high-force accelerometer, which can detect impacts of up to 256Gs, can be used to determine if you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident, Apple says. These sensors work in concert with the microphone (which is listening for the sounds of a car accident) and the barometric sensor (which detects pressure changes associated with an airbag deployment).
When data from those various sources indicate that you’ve been in an accident, the watch asks you if you’re injured or need assistance. If you don’t respond within 10 seconds, it can call emergency personnel or the emergency contacts on your list.
My Series 8 sample came packed with Apple’s adjustable silicone Sport Band, which I found to be very easy to install and, not surprisingly, since I’ve worn previous versions of this band, comfortable and easy to adjust, though it remains a little thick and clunky for my taste.
I also got a sample of the new Nike Sport Loop band in a striking blue called Game Royal with the company’s Just Do It motto woven in. Made of a surprisingly soft hook and loop material, it has a decent amount of stretch. It has a couple of nice features, too. The strap is infinitely adjustable, so that you can achieve a just-right fit for the best performance of heart rate monitoring and other health-related functions. The fact that it’s fabric and not plastic might also benefit users with sensitive skin who have experienced irritation or rashes with silicone bands.
The Apple Watch Series 8 with the Nike Sport Loop band displaying the enhanced Compass app
Photo: Allen St. John/Consumer Reports
Apple Watch SE
As I unboxed the Apple Watch SE, I had a sense of déjà vu all over again. The slick all-white packaging is very similar to that of the Series 8. And once I opened the box, the watch inside seemed virtually identical to its more expensive sibling.
Functionally, the SE is a slightly modified version of the Series 6 watch, And that’s not a bad thing, since the Series 6 was Apple’s top-of-the-line smartwatch before the Series 7 debuted less than a year ago. The SE lacks the blood oxygen sensor of the Series 6, 7, and 8, a function that’s primarily important for sleep tracking.
The upgraded processor, which is the same as the one in the Ultra and the Series 8, should future-proof the latest SE, promising longer-term compatibility with future software updates.
In our lab tests, the newest SE ranks a little below the Ultra, the Series 8, and even the old SE, although its scores are still well above average in all the categories we test. The model falls a bit short of its siblings in ease of use, though it actually fares a bit better in step-count accuracy. It excels at readability in low and bright light, ease of pairing, and versatility.
My evaluation sample came in the same all-but-black Midnight hue as my Series 8. The new SE also has a black crown with a red stripe, just like the Series 8. The back now matches the case better as well. The result is a watch that often forced me to look at the fine print on the back to determine which device was which.
It was only when I turned it on that I remembered that the new SE uses the 44-mm case from the Series 6 instead of the 45-mm case from the Series 8. The wider bezels make the display seem just a bit smaller as well. But, even with this slightly smaller case, the 44-mm SE still uses the same watch bands as the 45-mm Series 7 and Series 8.
That said, when I reviewed the Series 7 a year ago and compared it to my Series 6, I often forgot which device I was wearing. And I had the same experience this year when comparing the Series 8 and the new SE.
The Series 8 (top) has a slightly bigger case and display than the strikingly similar SE.
Photo: Allen St. John/Consumer Reports
Apple Watch OS9
Despite the limited hardware changes, the new Apple Watch OS9 software makes the Series 8 seem new and improved. (Of course, you’re welcome to install it on any watch dating back to Series 4, too.)
The enhanced compass app now has a cool Backtrack feature. When the watch senses that you’ve headed off the road and onto a trail or into the backcountry, it starts dropping digital bread crumbs. And if you get disoriented or just flat out lost, you can use them to find your way back. Backtrack doesn’t give turn-by-turn directions like Apple Maps, though, so you have to resort to your compass reading skills to retrace your steps.
The sleep tracking is also enhanced. Watches running OS9 now report on sleep stages so you can get a sense of how much deep sleep and REM sleep you’re getting. When I reported on sleep trackers for Consumer Reports last year, I found Apple’s previous-gen sleep tracking, which reports basic metrics like sleep duration and encourages you to look at trends in your sleep over a weeklong span, to be very effective for the casual user. (The sleep doctors I interviewed warn that sleep-stage data from consumer-level devices is not as reliable as data from a laboratory sleep study.)
Workouts are similarly beefed up with target heart rate zones that help you structure your cardio workouts, as well as new power readings of your running workouts. Your watch can now even detect when you’re trying the butterfly or the breaststroke in the pool.
Also new is the low-power setting that increases battery life. Apple claims it can double battery life from 18 hours to 36. In actual use, the low-power mode disables a variety of functions, including the always-on display and background heart rate and blood oxygen measurements, which are important for sleep tracking. While all-day use of low-power mode might be helpful on a camping trip where your access to charging power might be limited, I mostly used it when I was walking my dog Rugby at 10 p.m. and realized my watch was almost out of charge. In short, the new feature was most useful when used like the low-power mode we’ve seen on iPhones for years.
Should You Buy an Apple Watch Series 8?
The good news is that Apple has made this decision pretty easy. If you don’t own an older Apple Watch, the Series 8 can be a pretty magical device. It allows you to do everything from answering your emails to tracking your sleep.
But if you’re an Apple Watch newbie on a budget, don’t snooze on the upgraded SE. It has most of the cool features the 8 has to offer and looks just about the same, so no one needs to know you spent only $250.
If you do own a recent gen Apple Watch, though, there really isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade to the Series 8, unless you want to use the new ovulation feature or car crash detection. The new features in OS9 can make you feel like you got a new watch. For free. Which is the best kind of upgrade of all.
And, finally, don’t discount Apple’s earlier watch models. If retailers offer significant discounts on the Series 7 (especially in that sexy dark green case) or an older SE, you might forgo a few features and save a decent amount of cash.
Clarification: A previous version of this article, originally published on Sept. 15, 2022, referred to the Apple Watch Series 8’s ovulation prediction function. The Watch Series 8 actually provides a retrospective estimate of the user’s likely time of ovulation, and this article has been updated to reflect that.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.