Just as Samsung, Google and the Wear OS gang look like they’re catching up to Apple – it goes and streaks ahead. The truth is that the Apple Watch Series 4 is in a different league right now, and balances style, features and specs to make an excellent smartwatch. Battery life is still just OK, and is the key reason to look elsewhere – as is the price which has crept up since the Series 3. The ease and availability of cellular, the accuracy and usefulness of its heart rate monitor and the breadth of its fitness ecosystem – these are the areas that have left rivals in its dust. Add Apple Pay, SOS, fall detection, the heart rate alerts – it’s incredible to think that the Apple Watch Series 4 will, undoubtedly, save at least one person’s life. And who else can say that right now?
- Better design
- Lifesaving metrics
- Top sports features
- More expensive
- Battery life still short
- Siri integration still not great
The Apple Watch keeps steaming on, and while its rivals try to make sense of the smartwatch form-factor, the Series 4 arrives with the market wrapped around its little finger.
Yet the Apple Watch Series 4 is the company’s biggest change since the original Apple Watch landed in 2014. After four years and five watchOS operating systems, the design, features and use cases of the Apple Watch Series 4 have all shifted.
When the Apple Watch launched it was a response that simply validated the smartwatch form-factor with its presence. Four years later it’s dominating the space, with the Series 4 showing us the direction the smartwatch will travel. That’s because Apple is now calling the shots – turning the smartwatch into a cellular, medical and fitness device.
But with these new ideas comes a bigger price. The Series 4 starts at $399, making it the most expensive Apple Watch to date. But does the Apple Watch Series 4 cut it? Here’s our verdict on Apple’s new smartwatch.
The Series 4 changes screen size for the first time since the original Apple Watch, and it now comes in 40mm and 44mm flavours, as opposed to 38mm and 42mm.
It may sound like nothing, but millimeters make a difference in watches, and this shift makes for the best looking Apple Watch yet. Losing the cavernous black gap around the edge of the screen makes for such a better looking smartwatch. Likewise, the newly steeper corners make for a less boxy look, and tellingly when you return to the Series 3 it just seems more – techy.
For big wrists (namely men’s) the 44mm doesn’t feel overly large, and because it’s slimmer, it’s actually feels smaller than the old 42mm. And for men with slim wrists, the 40mm is also a decent option – go try one on for size if you’re unsure.
But it’s a shame that the 38mm Apple Watch bought the farm.
While the 40mm might not feel bigger (again thanks to the slimmer build making it smaller overall) and most people won’t feel the difference. But the 38mm version was unique to the smartwatch world. It lives on via the Series 3– but women in particular – you’ll need to cope with 2mm more screen estate than before to enjoy the Series 4.
Watch Series 4 (left) next to Watch Series 3 (right)
But there’s an upside – and that’s usability. The 38mm was always cramped, and the 40/44mm versions pack in 32/35% more screen real estate – abetted by the edge-to-edge screen. The new features of the Apple Watch demand more on-screen information, so what’s been lost in the diminutive design should mean a better experience.
And that’s part of the shift. The original Apple Watch was designed to be a glanceable companion, but now the improved features – via cellular and the heart rate data – mean it now requires more interaction than before.
That’s embodied by the new Infograph watch face, which supports eight complications for a medley of on-screen information. The hero watch face for Series 4 is designed to push as much information as possible – and it’s a masterclass of presenting data in tiny spaces. But it’s telling how the use case of the Apple Watch has evolved over time.
And it’s of course a matter of choice. If you want simple design choose one of the new Fire and Water style watch faces. If you want max-detail, Infograph (below) is for you – with everything from key contacts, weather (with current, and daily min and max temperatures), all activity rings and even outside air quality all displayed on a single screen. We’ve fallen for Infograph in a big way.
So, the new Apple Watch sizes will probably please more people – and yes technically they’re all smaller in volume, they put more screen on your wrist. And how you feel about that is a personal choice.
Then there’s the improved speaker, which actually makes a big difference on the communication front. Anyone who’s taken a call from their watch (in the car perhaps) or used Siri might have found their Apple Watch pressed to their ear, but the new speaker is certainly louder and clearer – and you shouldn’t have any trouble making out our what your contacts are saying via a call or a Walkie Talkie conversation.
So what’s going on in terms of the Series 4’s features?
Well, clearly we have the same basic functionality as Apple Watches of yore. Notifications, fitness tracking via the closing of the now iconic rings, sports tracking, and of course LTE cellular if you opt for the Series 4 LTE. Apple Pay still has a central role – and it’s still great.
We were satisfied by the Apple Watch Series 3 LTE experience once the kinks were ironed out – but it’s taking us time to really test how much the design changes has improved LTE. We’ll update with our findings.
There’s also a heap of changes courtesy of watchOS 5 – but these aren’t exclusive to the Apple Watch Series 4, and will land on all Apple Watch models bar the original. We have extensively outlined the changes in watchOS 5, and you can read them in our full watchOS 5 guide.
Likewise, we’re still trying to trip hard enough for the Fall sensor to kick in. Perhaps it’s pleasing that the feature isn’t sensitive enough to produce false positives, but purposeful trips just aren’t setting this thing off. We’re working on it.
Along with cellular, it’s fitness and health features that Apple see has the biggest driver for the Apple Watch. And it’s a distinct difference – fitness referring to activity tracking and workouts, while health has much more serious connotations, in terms of monitoring your body for signs of serious illness, and protecting you against falls.
When the original Apple Watch landed it barely leveraged the heart rate sensor, but on the Series 4 it’s a key part of the experience. And there are multiple aspects.
Heart rate is monitored 24/7 – and that data is used in a number of ways. First, you can view it on the Apple Watch itself by diving into the heart rate app. Then you’re presented with three sets of stats: resting heart rate, current heart rate and walking heart rate. These are plotted across your day.
We tested accuracy at rest against a chest strap – and found no discrepancies. And we double checked that against a good old pulse count against a stop watch, which again checked out.
It’s resting heart rate we like the best here – and it’s great to see this important stat tracked. And while the Apple Watch itself offers a great snapshot, the Apple Health app offers tracking that’s as granular as you like – showing you RHR plotted across day, week, month and year.
Apple only takes a resting heart rate reading when it’s satisfied you’re at rest, and satisfied several variables from the accelerometer. Some competitors take resting heart rate when you wake up in the morning, which is probably the best experience, but as there’s no built-in sleep functionality, the Apple Watch can’t do that. Thus our RHR was a few bpm higher than we’ve seen on Fitbitdevices, but still a useful metric, and well presented.
Heart rate notifications
Part of the health part of the Apple Watch is monitoring your heart rate, and checking to see if anything is wrong. There are modes for high heart rate which was introduced in watchOS 4 – and now low heart rate and heart rhythm, which can be a sign of atrial fibrillation (Afib). Afib or atrial fibrillation is a leading cause of strokes, which is in turn the second biggest killer in the US.
You can set your low heart rate threshold in the Apple Watch app – with an all-out low level of 40 bpm. This should be good enough for most people, but there will be a subset of the super fit who regularly sleep below 40bpm – so we wouldn’t be surprised to see 35bpm and 30bpm added soon.
Then there’s the ECG functionality. Apple has added a titanium electrode on the sapphire and adapted the digital crown, so the Watch can take an ECG reading from your finger. A 30 second reading from the ECG app will do two things: first assess whether your heart rate is normal (Sinus) or Afib. Finally, it will spit out an ECG graph of your heart rate into the Health app, which can be given to your doctor.
Interestingly, it’s this aspect that the FDA has certified – and actually has real world benefit. The idea is that those with heart conditions can take an FDA certified reading of their heart beat, perhaps when they’re feeling unwell, rather than during a medical appointment, perhaps when everything is reading normal. And it moves beyond Afib, with an ECG useful for diagnosing a huge range of complaints.
The feature lands in the US later this year, and we haven’t had chance to test the feature personally, although we were treated to a demonstration by Apple. What it represents, however, is the Apple Watch moving beyond a smartwatch into a true medical device. What’s more, this functionality isn’t an extra – and while (hopefully) most people will never need it, or see high/irregular/low warnings, it will save lives. And there’s few wearables out there that can make that claim.
The activity tracking elements of the Apple Watch haven’t hugely changed, and it’s still a great experience for those wanting to keep tabs on goals. For the uninitiated, you need to close three rings: Move (calories) Exercise (active minutes) and Stand (the amount of hours in which you’ve stood for a single minute).
It’s a nice break from the standard step goals, which are the preserve of most fitness trackers – and the closing of the rings is a great way to express your progress. The rings can also be added as complications, so you can see three goals worth of progress in a very small space – which is clever stuff.
What’s more, the Move goal automatically shifts according to your general activity, so it doesn’t seem overbearing or too easy, and grows as you get fitter. A big thumbs up here.
You’re still prompted to stand, which can be a little irritating, but that’s not as annoying as the reminders to use the Breathe app – Apple’s mindfulness play. It’s simply an app that guides you through a breathing routine, which supposedly relives stress. The reminders are quite off-putting, and we quickly turned this off in the app.
You can review all goal progress on the Watch from the complication, the Activity watch app, the special Activity watch face, the regular updates and prompts, and get historical goal progress via the Actvity iPhone app.
One of the most common questions we get about the Apple Watch is sleep – and this still isn’t tracked natively within the watchOS experience. This means you’ll still be relying on third party Apple Watch sleep apps – which can offer a decent experience – but is a hole within the 360 degree picture of your health that the Apple Watch generates.
While the workout app hasn’t changed for the Series 4 per se, it’s undergone substantial improvement in watchOS 5 – and that’s crucial if Apple wants to convince sporty types to move away from Garmin.
So there are new sports tracked, with the full list reading running (indoor and outdoor), cycling (likewise), walking (indoor and outdoor), hiking and yoga (both new to watchOS 5) and rowing, elliptical, stair stepper, and general high intensity interval workouts.
Running is one area that’s been improved most, with some specific metrics added. watchOS 5 adds a bunch of new workout features, including auto-exercise detection as well as cadence and rolling pace. We’re actually really excited to see cadence added to the Workout app, which is an underused stat for running efficiency, and our tests generally saw it shape up to Garmin’s estimates.
There is a snag – however. The Apple Watch only supports one screen of in-workout data, so you have to select the metrics you want in the Apple Watch app. There are six slots taken by duration, heart rate, rolling pace, average pace, distance. If you want to add another metric – e.g. cadence – you’ll need to sacrifice one of those.
It’s not ideal, and coming from the wealth of in-workout data you’d get from a Garmin, for example, it feels a little limiting. When we’re running 10-20 miles, you have time to indulge yourself with stats, and it would be nice to get more data. A second screen of data isn’t too much to ask.
Likewise – the review of runs from the Workout app isn’t superb. They’re listed in the Activity iPhone app, but there’s little macro analysis of your progress.
Of course, there’s the world of third party apps. Pretty much every service is catered for, including Strava – which offers all the macro analysis any runner or cyclist needs. If you’re someone who feels the Workout app experience is undercooked, third party apps can pick up the slack.
Heart rate during exercise
We’ve always been impressed by the accuracy of the heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch since the first generation – but the Apple Watch is now a leader when it comes to optical accuracy.
We’ve put the Apple Watch through the same series of tests we subject the likes of Garmin, Polar and Suunto – and it’s produced one of the best accuracy performances we’ve seen.
Through a medium intensity run, the optical sensor was locked onto that of a Garmin chest strap paired to a Fenix 5 – almost beat-for-beat. Pushing through five miles of running, into and above threshold, the Apple Watch was never more than 1bpm, and over 40 minutes of exercise, plus interval sprint finishes, the two produced identical average bpms.
The sprint intervals involved letting heart rate settle at around 120bpm and then sprinting for 100m, raising heart rate to around 185bpm. This will temporarily bork most sensors, with the quick escalation of heart rate exposing lag times between sensor and watch. What’s more, sprinting in this manner causes mass movement noise, further scrambling optical sensors.
Now, the Apple Watch wasn’t perfect – it’s not solved the optical sensor problem. But in a sprint interval session, it followed the chest strap up to the exact peak HR, around five seconds after. It also tends to increase in large stages, but the critical thing is that it does get to those HR peaks, while rivals are often still rising while your heart rate is falling after an interval, missing a
Typically, the decrease in heart rate during rest also fell slower than the chest strap, but better than devices such as the Suunto 9 and Fitbit Ionic which we’ve recently reviewed.
The details are above – which aren’t too easy to compare visually, partly because of the slightly basic way that Apple presents data from the workout app – which goes back to our previous criticisms of the Workout ecosystem.
The verdict here is that Apple is leading in optical accuracy, and while it’s far from perfect, buying a Garmin or Fitbit watch/band won’t get you better optical performance. However, the caveat is that if you’re concerned about your heart rate from your CrossFit class, you might want to invest in a Bluetooth chest strap, which works with the Apple Watch Series 4.
Part of the logic behind adding a louder speaker was enabling better interactions with Siri – but this is still a mixed bag.
Siri still isn’t a leading smart assistant – but it’s improved a lot. Siri on the Apple Watch is great for setting alarms, quick reminders, checking the weather and running quick internet searches with your voice.
We could dedicate an entire review to Siri itself, but actually running some tests, we were surprised at the amount of searches it returned: “when is the Ryder Cup?”, “how do you spell renaissance?”, “how many milliliters in a cup?” – it works quite nicely.
When things got a bit more complicated, it does fall down somewhat. Mapping and directions are still a bit of a pig, when going from the watch. Siri is easily flummoxed by background noise, and garbles searches of things like business names: “Howdens Beckenham” was consistently turned into “how did this back in him”. “Direct me to Norwood Junction” (a local train station) just sent me to a place called Norwood 4.5 hours away.
A new feature in watchOS 5 is the Siri wrist raise that lets you just pull the watch to your mouth, and ask Siri a question Dick Tracey style. We found it a tad hit and miss with the wrist raise – particularly if you need to make a second query. You had to exaggerate the action of returning your hand to the side, then raising the wrist.
If there’s going to be one major gripe with the Apple Watch Series 4 in the comments below, it will be about battery life. Despite adding 2mm to the screen size (and slimming the case), battery life remains at 18 hours.
In real world tests, we’d find our watch at around 50% drain when heading to bed – so with some careful management you could get it through two “days”. But those calling for a week of battery life are going to be disappointed. If you’re going on a three-day city break or business trip, remember to pack that charger.
Our running and sport tests also correlated with Apple that you should get around 6 hours of GPS tracking – so more than enough to complete a marathon. That part we have no issue with.
In the era of smartphones that require nightly charging, we don’t have a huge problem with the Apple Watch only lasting a day. The reality is that to get more longevity, design and features would have to be culled – and the Series 4 would be a very different smartwatch.
But packing that extra charger for a weekend is annoying – and it’s a legitimate reason that will see people look to something like the Fitbit Versainstead.