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What the Apple Watch Rugged Edition needs to beat Garmin at its own game

Trail runner tying shoelace wearing an Apple Watch
(Image credit: Getty)

A few weeks ago, Apple announced that it's getting truly serious about running, adding a bundle of new features that will put the Apple Watch in direct competition with Garmin. Following the update to WearOS 9 later this year, Apple Watches will be able to measure running power (without the need for any additional accessories), plus metrics like stride length, ground contact time, and vertical oscillation.

It's impressive, but software alone isn't going to be enough to make runners, hikers, and climbers trade in their Garmin, Coros, and Polar devices. The Apple Watch just isn't tough enough for life on the trails or the crag – but that might be about to change.

It's hard to foresee Apple making drastic changes to the classic Apple Watch as we know it. In fact, the Apple Watch 6 and 7 are nearly identical to the naked eye, with the latter having a fractionally larger display. However, the company could shake things up by releasing a completely new device alongside the classic Apple Watch – something that can compete with the best Garmin watches on the hardware side as well.

Rumors about an Apple Watch Rugged Edition began last year, when Mark Gurman of Bloomsberg shared a snippet of insider info in his regular Power On newsletter (opens in new tab). Gurman, who has established himself as an authority on all things Apple, wrote that the company was investigating the possibility of building a tougher smartwatch with 'extreme sports' in mind.

The watch failed to materialize with the launch of the Apple Watch 7 later in the year, but Gurman still believes it's in the works, and has now suggested that the Rugged Edition may well appear alongside the Apple Watch 8 (opens in new tab).

Apple's 2022 product showcase is fast approaching (the event typically takes place in the fall), and may give us out first glimpse of this new watch, if it does indeed exist. However, it's got its work cut out if it's going to tempt Garmin users away.

Much, much longer battery life

The biggest hurdle for the Apple Watch Rugged Edition will be battery life. The Apple Watch 7 has to be placed on its charger every day, whereas the best GPS watches can go weeks between charges in ordinary use, or even months if equipped with the company's photovoltaic Power Glass.

One-day battery life just isn't good enough for a true sports watch, so Apple may need to make some sacrifices, such as downgrading the watch's screen to something less power-hungry than its current always-on Retina display, and crafting a chunkier case that can house a larger power cell.

A touch of plastic

When the going gets tough, the tough use resin. The Apple Watch is known for its sleek all-metal case, but that's not the most practical choice for a knockabout lifestyle. Garmin's must rugged watches, the Instinct series, have cases made entirely from fiber-reinforced resin that's hard to scuff, lightweight, and shock absorbent. Other watches like the Fenix 7 have a layer of metal over the bezel and lugs, with resin underneath.

Even full-metal sports watches like the forthcoming Casio G-Shock GA-B001 feature carefully placed internal resin structures to protect their internal components.

It might not look quite as smooth and chic, but the Apple Watch Rugged Edition will likely need to expand into less glamorous materials.

Person scrambling on rocks wearing Garmin Instinct 2

Garmin's toughest watch, the Garmin Instinct 2, has a fully resin case (Image credit: Garmin)

Buttons (and lots of them)

I've mentioned it before, but one of the Apple Watch 7's biggest downfalls as a sports watch is its lack of physical buttons. The Digital Crown is lovely to use, scrolling smoothly through menus and down pages, but it's not easy to operate with wet, cold, or gloved hands – and you can forget about the touchscreen.

Garmin has started equipping its Fenix and Forerunner lines with touchscreens, but it's kept the five physical buttons around the circumference of the case that make them easy to operate in harsh or wet conditions. All the other big sports watch brands (including Coros, Polar, and Suunto) use a similar control system for exactly the same reason, and if Garmin wants to steal their lunch, it'll need to follow their example.

Free workouts

Apple Fitness Plus gives you access to a huge (and rapidly growing) catalog of video workouts, including guided runs. However, although you get a free trial when you buy an Apple Watch, once that expires you'll have to pay $9.99 / £9.99 per month or $79.99 / £79.99 per year to keep using it.

Garmin doesn't have anything similar, but what it does have are customizable run coaching programs designed to help you achieve a goal by a certain date (such as running a 10k in a particular time), with training sessions that adapt based on your fitness and past performance. 

If Apple wants to compete, it will at least need to make its Time to Run sessions freely available to Apple Watch Rugged Edition owners so they don't feel obliged to pay a subscription fee to get the most out of their watch.

Cat Ellis
Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 13 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better).