Apple Sleep Tracking In watchOS 7/iOS 14: A Good Start, But It Needs Some Improvements

One of the things that showed up as part of watchOS 7 is sleep tracking. There have been third party apps that have done this in the Apple ecosystem for years, but to have something built into the Apple ecosystem would make many users very happy.

Sleep tracking works by having your Apple Watch detect movement and using that to determine if you are asleep or awake. The Apple Watch will also track your heart rate while you are asleep as well. The onboarding process is mostly straightforward and once you set it you can forget it. Let me walk you through the setup process via the Health app on the iPhone.

First you set a sleep goal. As in how many hours you’d like to sleep. And you have to define how much time you want to wind down before you get to bed, and when wind down should start. During the wind down process, the iPhone and the Apple Watch become more difficult to use as you’re not supposed to be using your digital devices before you go to bed. For example, The phone becomes increasingly more difficult to unlock and open. This is to allow you to create a routine before bed that allows you to get the best sleep possible. I should note that you can set up some wind down shortcuts to help you to wind down before going to bed. Here’s what you have to choose from:

In my case, I set a sleep goal of 8 hours. And I set a wind down time of 30 minutes. Then I set up my bedtime and wake up time:

In my case I set a bedtime of 10:30PM (which is the time that the lights go out) and my wake up time of 7AM. I can also set this schedule to be 7 days a week, or weekdays only, or weekends only for example.

I can also set up an alarm at my wake up time, though I can only choose between 9 rather gentle musical routines to wake up to. Or put another way, if I wanted to wake up to Gun’s And Roses “Welcome To The Jungle”, I couldn’t. Now these musical routines are played through the Apple Watch with some haptic feedback. And from my testing, they do a good job of waking you up. One thing that I should note, you can set up charging alerts to let you know to charge your Apple Watch if it has a battery life is below 30%. Though strangely, you have to leave the Health app and go to the Watch app to do that a shown here:

You might be wondering how much battery life that sleep tracking on the Apple Watch uses. On my wife’s Series 4, she uses about 15% of her battery life consistently. In my case, my Series 6 uses between 15% and 20%. I am guessing the difference is in how much movement one makes. In her case, her head hits the pillow and she’s out. I tend to be a bit of a restless sleeper.

Now I just walked through how to set this up on the iPhone using the Health app. But there are other ways to do this from the watch as well.

At this point, you can now just follow the prompts to go to sleep. Which is that if your Apple Watch needs a charge, you’ll get a prompt for that. Then 30 minutes or whatever time you have it set for, wind down begins. Then you get into bed and hit the bed icon on your Apple Watch by swiping up from the bottom to bring up control center:

This stops the display on your Apple Watch from lighting up, and it forces you to spin the digital crown to get out of this mode. If you do want to see the time however, simply tapping the display will show it to you. But it is very dim. At this point, you go to sleep. The next morning you wake up and you can see what kind of sleep that you got:

This is the results that I got over the last week. The green sections are where I was sleeping. The gaps between the green sections where I was awake or restless. This is where Apple’s sleep tracking starts to show the need for improvement. In terms of digging into the data that you’ve collected, this is pretty much all that you can do. You can see the time that you started sleeping to the time you woke up:

The problem with this view is that it doesn’t show the time you actually slept unless you scroll down to this point:

And you can only see the last couple of days. You can’t see anything beyond that unless you click “Show More Sleep Data”:

While you can view the last week or last month, it’s kind of light on information. Speaking of being light on information. You can track your heart rate during sleep as evidenced here:

But you can only see that for your last sleep session. If you want to go back over a few days to compare, you can’t. Another thing that I noted is that the sleep tracking doesn’t track blood oxygen levels while you are asleep, even though for Apple Watch Series 6 tracks that as I can see the data that it grabs while I am asleep. My guess is that this is a deliberate choice by Apple as blood oxygen in the Apple Watch Series 6 is marketed as a “wellness” feature. Which means that Apple can’t say how accurate it is, nor can they use it for diagnostic purposes like they do with the ECG functionality in Apple Watch Series 4 and up.

Another thing that I noted is that if you use the Apple Watch to turn off the alarm, it will display the weather, battery status and date as well as wishing you good morning. But I also notice that I often have two to three stand goal hours credited to me in the Activity app on the watch. That doesn’t make sense as if I get up once during the night, I should have only one hour credited to me. But I will have two or three hours credited to me. And some nights I haven’t gotten up at all and I still have an hour or two credited to me. Thus I am pretty sure that this is a bug that Apple needs to figure out.

Finally, here’s the big thing that Apple’s sleep tracking is missing. It can’t figure out the states of sleep like some Fitbit products claim to do for example. I have always questioned the accuracy of what Fitbit does as a sleep lab uses things like mattress pads with position sensors and having you connected to a EEG amplifier to read your brain state to figure out your sleep state accurately. Now it should be possible to do the first half of this using a wearable, which presumably is what Fitbit and other are doing. But how can you tell if whatever movement it’s detecting is due to a nightmare rather than you tossing and turning because you can’t get to sleep as that would indicate what sleep state that you might be in? That’s likely why Apple doesn’t have that functionality here as it likely isn’t something that would bring meaningful value to their users.

So in short, the sleep tracking functionality is usable but it is also pretty basic. And Apple has a few areas where they can improve upon to make sleep tracking way more functional and coherent. And hopefully they do that within iOS 14 rather than wait for next year for iOS 15. But if they do that, I think they have the start of something good that will benefit Apple users who want to better manage their sleep.

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