This year’s Apple Watch looks just like last year’s Apple Watch. The Series 3, which comes in two sizes and starts at $399, has few new features other than Siri’s newfound ability to chime in at really awkward times. Almost nobody will ever know you’re wearing the new one, unless they spot the little red button on the side. And yet, this is a completely different device. It now has LTE built in, and connects to the internet without needing your phone or even a Wi-Fi connection. For two years, the Watch was an iPod Touch. Now it’s an iPhone.
Apple Watch Series 3
An always-on LTE connection totally changes what you can do with a Watch. It’s an impressive fitness tracker. Believe it or not, Siri’s pretty great.
The battery lasts a day in the best case—and often less. The Watch’s interface still takes too long to figure out.
When Apple launched the Watch in 2015, it pitched the device as a respite from the increasingly invasive technology in your life. “We’re so connected, kind of ever-presently, with technology now,” Kevin Lynch, the head of the Watch project, told me at the time. “People are carrying their phones with them and looking at the screen so much.”
But the product didn’t deliver. It only worked with your phone nearby, and acted mostly as a megaphone for your notifications. Over time, Apple shifted its focus, selling the Watch to fitness enthusiasts and the generally health-conscious. And yet, Apple always saw the Watch as something more than just a Fitbit plus notifications.
In talking to some of Apple’s execs after the Series 3 announcement, it’s clear that it marks a milestone for the Apple Watch. And after spending a week with it on my wrist, I have a theory: The Apple Watch is the next iPhone. Apple obviously sees the iPhone X and beyond evolving into something else, a more powerful computer designed for augmented reality and the next phase of work and play. In that future, the Apple Watch would replace much of what we do on our phones now—the calls and texts, the smart-home and music controls, the constant back-and-forth with our virtual assistants. On a Watch, you could do all those things without the nasty, attention-sucking side effects. It separates all the iPhone’s tools from its toys.
It’s a nice idea, one that’s not quite finished yet. But for the first time ever, I love the Apple Watch. And I’m going to keep wearing it.
Getting your Watch connected only takes a few minutes after pairing it to your phone. Carrier plans vary slightly, but it costs something like $10 a month to put your Watch on your plan. Most carriers also charge an activation fee, but many will waive that at the beginning and some even offer a few free months of service. I didn’t get to try the setup process, since Apple set my Watch up on AT&T for me, but it should be straightforward.
If your phone’s nearby, your Watch connects to it through Bluetooth and uses the phone as a modem. If you’re away from your phone, it looks for Wi-Fi, and as a last resort, jumps on LTE. I never noticed a difference between LTE and Wi-Fi, and in a week of testing didn’t experience any issues switching around. Others had a much harder time1, though, and Apple has fessed up to problems switching to unauthenticated Wi-Fi networks without connectivity.” So proceed with caution.
You know what definitely won’t like LTE? Your battery. I can get a day of battery from the Series 3 with normal use—about the same as the Series 2—but if I’m on LTE a lot, it’s more like four or five hours. Apple rates the phone-call-on-LTE battery life at one hour, which matches my testing. (Phone calls work remarkably well, by the way. The mic on this Watch works miracles.) You won’t replace your iPhone with a Watch because it just doesn’t last long enough. It’s more for the times when you’re on a run and need to make a call.
Otherwise, performance feels dramatically better than any previous Watch. Everything’s zippy and simple—I hardly ever found myself staring at loading screens, which happened constantly on older versions. I still find the whole interface sort of convoluted. The vertically stacked dock makes it easy to flip through my most-used stuff, but the constellation of apps takes forever to navigate, and it’s hard to know which things you manage on the watch itself and which you need a phone for.
The more I use the Series 3, the more I find myself using Siri. Its voice recognition consistently excels, even when I’m outdoors or talking at arms’ length. The Siri watchface, which preemptively loads information the AI thinks I’ll need, does nothing for me. It just shows old headlines and a weird compilation of photos I don’t want on my wrist. But I’m constantly long-pressing on that red-buttoned crown, or saying “Hey Siri,” then making calls, sending texts, getting directions, and taking notes. In every case, it’s so much faster than pulling out my phone. I don’t even have to look down.
Get Up, Stand Up
Most of the Series 3 hardware changes apply more to everyday users than marathon runners, but the new Watch OS software is practically all fitness. The new Workout app is a terrific way to quickly track almost any kind of workout, and I can’t even comprehend the pathological need I suddenly have to close all three activity rings every day. Apple’s made the Watch’s coaching features smarter, letting you know how long you’ll need to walk to close the loops and notifying you (maybe too often) to get your butt moving. I get mad at my Watch 20 times a day, but it’s good for me.
Apple’s built a big fitness ecosystem of its own, and most other exercise apps support the Watch too—take your pick between Nike Run Club, Runkeeper, Strava, and more. It still drives me batty that Spotify doesn’t have an Apple Watch app, but at least Apple Music users will soon be able to stream tracks over LTE. Spending $399 does feel like a lot for a workout gadget, but the Watch is easily the best of its kind.
Apple’s also using the Watch to do more health-related stuff, like warning you when your heart rate’s above normal and you should seek medical help. I haven’t encountered these warnings (luckily) or worn the Watch long enough to see enough data to really make a difference, so I’ll have to report back. But it’s clear that health matters to the Watch team, and I like wearing something that doesn’t look like a Life Alert but can serve the same purpose.
A Watch to Watch
I’ve tried to be A Smartwatch Guy so many times over the last few years. Since I write about gadgets, and since every company on the planet seems to think smartwatches are the future, a steady stream of them crosses my desk. All end up with their batteries dead, forgotten in my desk drawer, because ultimately they’re just accessories and it’s too much hassle to keep them charged and synced.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is the first smartwatch I’ve ever used that felt like something more. Paired with a set of Bluetooth headphones (AirPods or otherwise), it becomes an awesome evolution of the iPod. Once you spend a few minutes culling your notifications, it’s a useful way to stay connected without being distracted. It hasn’t made me throw my phone out, but now I walk the dog and run out for coffee without it, because I can even pay from my wrist. I go to the gym without my phone, which means I actually work out now instead of just sitting on the bench staring at Twitter. The Watch finally does free me from my phone, at least sometimes.
That said, it’s still not a perfect device. The battery remains the biggest limitation, and the Watch still needs more and better apps, and a simpler interface. And, for the love of everything holy, Apple needs to make a Watch with a screen that’s always on. But whether you’re a hyper-connected hyper-marathoner, or just looking for a few minutes away from the attention-sucking din of your iPhone, this is the first Watch that really works.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect issues with LTE, and Apple’s statement.
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