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WatchOS 9 Could Help the Apple Watch Catch Up to Fitbit and Garmin

New sleep tracking and running features coming in WatchOS 9 will make the Apple Watch even more competitive.

Apple Watch Series 7 worn on a wrist
The Apple Watch Series 7.
Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

This story is part of WWDC 2022, CNET's complete coverage from and about Apple's annual developers conference.

The software that powers the Apple Watch is getting an upgrade. Apple announced WatchOS 9 on Monday at its Worldwide Developers Conference, where it showcased new fitness features for runners, better sleep tracking, an app for tracking medications and new watch faces. Such features will help Apple close the gap between its smartwatches and rival devices from companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Oura as it continues to focus on health and fitness as key selling points. 

The update will debut in the fall for the Apple Watch Series 4 and higher, and a developer preview is available immediately. The public beta will launch next month. 

Now playing: Watch this: Sleep Stages Is Coming With Watch OS9
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With WatchOS 9, the Apple Watch will gain new metrics intended to help runners better understand their performance and reduce risk of injury. These include vertical oscillation, stride length and ground contact time. A new workout view will let you see more information at a glance, such as segments, splits and elevation. 

Heart rate zones will give you deeper insight into the intensity of your workout in WatchOS 9. And a new multisport workout option will let triathletes easily switch between run, bike and swim tracking. Apple is adding a custom exercise option, too, that permits an interval workout that incorporates rest. 

The Apple Watch is already a comprehensive fitness tracker, but it lacks the more specific tools found on dedicated running watches. Even Garmin's entry-level watches like the Forerunner 55 have cadence alerts, pace guidance and training plans. The new features in WatchOS 9 will help the Apple Watch catch up in this regard, possibly making it more appealing to runners. 

Apple is also improving its sleep analysis by bringing Sleep Stages to its smartwatches. As the name implies, Sleep Stages will tell you how much time you spent in REM, core and deep sleep, giving Apple Watch wearers a more comprehensive picture of their sleep. Fitness trackers from Fitbit, Samsung and other companies have been offering this feature for years, while Apple has focused only on sleep duration and respiratory rate, until this point. 

But the Apple Watch is still missing one sleep tracking tool I've come to appreciate on other fitness trackers: a sleep score. As its name implies, this feature issues wearers a score assessing the quality of their sleep based on a variety of factors, which typically include movement and heart rate data. 

Read moreYour Apple Watch Will Soon Actually Track Your Sleep

Aside from these new running metrics and sleep tracking features, there are several other health and wellness improvements coming in WatchOS 9. The Apple Watch will now be able to provide more context about atrial fibrillation with a new feature called AFib history, which tracks frequency and other trends related to the heart condition. 

A new Medications app is also coming to WatchOS 9. The app is meant to make it easier to log medicine and set regular reminders to take specific medicine and vitamins, even without an Apple Watch. You'll be able to add medications by scanning a label or typing in the name manually. The app will show information about medication interactions too.

The update will bring four new watch faces and support for six new keyboard languages. The new watch faces are called Lunar, Playtime, Metropolitan and Astronomy. Other features include less distracting notifications when the Apple Watch is in use, new Quick Actions for answering calls or taking a photo with a double-pinch gesture and a redesigned dock that prioritizes apps currently in use. 

New software updates for Apple's major products are usually the centerpiece of WWDC. Apple uses its opening keynote as an opportunity to drum up excitement for new features and updates before the software arrives later in the year. Although most of the conference is taking place virtually this year, Apple hosted a special event for developers and students on Monday at its Apple Park campus.

Apple has maintained its leading position in the smartwatch industry. Apple accounted for 36.1% of smartwatch shipments in the first quarter of 2022, representing an increase from 35.9% in the same period last year, according to Counterpoint Research. Apple snagged 28.9% of basic watch and smartwatch shipments in the first quarter of 2022, according to a report from research firm Canalys

Now playing: Watch this: Sleep Stages Is Coming With Watch OS9
12:04

To find out more about Apple's major announcements at WWDC, check out everything we've learned about iOS 16 and MacOS Ventura.