Apple Watch Series 3

When is the right time to ship a product? In particular, a hardware product? The answer, sometimes, is not when it’s done, but rather when it’s useful.

The original Apple Watch was too slow. It was too dependent on being tethered to an iPhone. The user interface was too unfocused. But it was useful in some meaningful ways — primarily fitness tracking and as a convenient display for notifications.

With WatchOS 2 and 3, Apple focused the experience on fitness tracking and notifications. With last year’s Series 2 hardware, performance improved and the screen got much brighter, making it far more legible outdoors.

With the addition of cellular networking in Series 3, Apple Watch gains something essential: independence. It’s not just a cool feature. It’s aimed smack dab in the middle of the two things people like best about Apple Watch: notifications and fitness. When are you separated from your iPhone? When you’re exercising. What do you miss most when you’re away from your phone? Messages and phone calls.

Phone anxiety is a weird, and, for me at least, irrational thing. I know that mankind survived for millennia without the ability to communicate with each other out of earshot. But once you get used to having your phone with you at all times, you get used to feeling that if anyone needs you, they can get you.

Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular networking completely alleviates this anxiety. It is not a replacement for a phone, and is not supposed to be. But it lets you leave your phone at home when you go for a run, or in your locker while you’re at the gym, or in your hotel while you go to the beach, and not worry in the least that you’re out of touch.

Audio quality for phone calls on the watch is very good. People I called via the watch said I sounded great, and I could hear them loud and clear. And all of my testing of phone calls on the watch took place mid-day on busy city streets — full of traffic and pedestrians — here in Philadelphia. People won’t know you’re calling them from your watch if you don’t tell them.

Siri sounds great on the watch, too: crisp and clear. The hardware performance improvements surely help here — the S3 dual core CPU is “up to 70 percent” faster, and the new W2 chip for wireless improves Wi-Fi performance “up to 85 percent”. (The W2 also makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth more energy efficient, and, it seems obvious, is one of the reasons that cellular networking is possible at all.) The effect of these performance improvements isn’t that it makes Apple Watch Series 3 feel fast, but that it makes it feel not slow. When you dictate a text message to Siri and it just works, without delay, it just feels like it should.

But it really feels like a big difference that Siri now talks back to you. The non-talking Siri on previous Apple Watches now feels half-baked to me. (And, at least here in the U.S., you get the new improved Siri voice that also ships with iOS 11.)

The only thing I don’t like about the addition of cellular networking to Apple Watch is out of Apple’s hands: the monthly price to add it to a cellular plan. AT&T and Verizon are both charging $10 a month per watch. I don’t expect it to be free, but $120 a year feels like too much for a device that I’m using instead of the iPhone I’m already paying (a lot) for. With our Verizon family plan, it also costs $10 a month to add an iPad. But an iPad is a device we use in addition to our phones, not instead of.1 I think $5 per month is the right price. (And DF readers in Canada and Australia report that that’s about what it costs from the carriers in those countries — this is perhaps a U.S. problem, not a worldwide one.)

Battery life has been fine. “All day” is about right — charging at night, using it all day, and I’ve had plenty left in the tank when I went to bed again. That said, I’ve been testing a 42mm watch. I can’t speak to the battery life of the 38mm models. This is what I expected, but it’s kind of exciting when you think about it. Apple turned Apple Watch into a goddamn cell phone, without making the device thicker2 or heavier, and it still lasts all day.

It’s worth thinking about that. Apple is a company that is driven to make its devices thinner and thinner. To the consternation of many users, when Apple creates more efficient chips, they tend to keep battery life the same while making the devices thinner, rather than keep the devices the same size and extend battery life with bigger batteries. But in the early years of a new product line, they don’t do that. iPhone stayed the same basic thickness until the iPhone 4. In those early generations, it was more important to add essential missing features, like 3G networking, a better camera, and a faster processor, than to make it thinner. Apple Watch might stay the same size for a few more years.

There’s no way to review this watch without mentioning the red dot on the digital crown. All cellular equipped Series 3 watches, including all the stainless steel models, the ceramic Edition models, and the Hermès models, have this red dot. I don’t get it. It’s not that it looks bad in and of itself, but it draws unnecessary attention. I would much prefer this watch if it were black. Also, red doesn’t go with everything, and a huge part of the fun of Apple Watch is swapping bands. Apple sells a lot of watch bands that clash with the red dot.3

The Future

My two big wishes for future generations of Apple Watch: a camera and some form of always-on display.

A camera is the one thing I miss when I leave my iPhone at home and go for a run. I have no idea how a camera could work ergonomically on a watch. Maybe it’s just not feasible. But it is mildly frustrating when I’m out on a run and see something interesting that I’d like to photograph. In the same way that always carrying a phone gets you used to always being in contact with friends, family, and colleagues, always carrying a camera gets you used to always being able to take a photo.

Raise-to-wake works about as well as I could hope, but as someone who regularly wears mechanical watches, trust me, it’s no substitution for always being able to glance at your wrist for the time. With the current Apple Watch displays, the problem is obviously battery life (and perhaps burn-in too). I don’t know what the answer is, technologically, but I feel like Apple has to be working on this, and that it’s coming in some future model.

A third, bonus wish for the future: stronger, more precise haptic feedback from the next generation Taptic Engine. The Taptic Engine in Series 3 is unchanged from Series 2. It’s not bad, but I wish it were better, especially for the stainless steel models.

WatchOS 4

This is not a full review of everything new in WatchOS 4, but there are two features I want to point out.

First, I love the new option to show the app screen as a simple vertically scrolling list of apps, sorted alphabetically. The honeycomb design — which is still the default in WatchOS 4 — has frustrated me ever since the original Watch. It’s a bad design in several ways:

  • The icons are unlabeled, and at such small sizes many of them look very similar. At a glance the Stopwatch and Timer apps are practically identical.
  • The arrangement is seemingly random. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo” trying to find a specific app.
  • The tap targets are way too small and packed too close to each other. Even when you find the app you’re looking for, it’s all too easy to accidentally launch a neighboring one.
  • It suggests that the Apple Watch is like an iPhone, with a home screen. It’s not. The “home” screen on Apple Watch is your watch face.

The new simple scrolling list of named apps solves all of these problems. I’d go so far as to say that Apple should have made this the default. The honeycomb design is a violation of the adage that design is how it works. The honeycomb looks cool, especially when you pan around, but it works like shit, and it’s a reminder of the unfocused nature of the original Apple Watch.

(Update: To toggle between these views of apps, 3D touch on the app screen. You get a choice between what Apple calls “grid view” and “list view”.)

Second, there’s a new feature in WatchOS called “Auto-launch Audio Apps”. It’s in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, in the General: Wake Screen section. What happens with this is that when you initiate audio playback on your iPhone, if there’s a corresponding WatchOS app on your watch, when you raise your wrist that app is what you see, instead of your watch face. This was on by default with my review unit, which I set up as a new watch, and I noticed it while listening to podcasts in Overcast. Because I wasn’t expecting it, I was irritated at first, and thought about disabling it. But now that I know it’s there, I really like it. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to WatchOS 4, and how much to attribute to the performance improvements in Series 3, but there is zero lag involved. No spinner while the app launches or anything like that. When I play podcasts from my iPhone, my watch just automatically turns into a remote control for audio playback. It’s nice.

  1. It’s worth noting here that a Series 3 Apple Watch’s cellular networking will only work in the country in which you purchase it. That’s because the link between it and your iPhone is handled by your carrier. The watch’s cellular connectivity is an extension of your carrier account. ↩︎︎

  2. To be pedantic, as Jeff Williams pointed out on stage at the event last week, the casing for Series 3 watches is unchanged in size, but the covering on the back of the watch (ceramic on all cellular models, composite on non-cellular ones) is 0.2mm thicker. Not 2mm thicker — 0.2. As Williams described it, that’s “two sheets of paper”. Side-by-side it is indistinguishable in thickness compared to a Series 2, but I admire Apple’s exactitude. ↩︎

  3. While I’m talking about aesthetics, allow me to plop in an unrelated suggestion: try the “Bold Text” option in the Brightness & Text Size section of Settings. When you toggle this, the watch warns you that it will need to restart. That warning kept me from trying this option for a long time, because it takes Apple Watch so long to restart. I was worried that if I didn’t like the way Bold Text looked, I’d have to wait for two reboot cycles to get back to the default setting. But it’s not really a full reboot. WatchOS just needs to restart its presentation layer, much like on iOS when you switch to zoomed mode. And I really like the way Bold Text looks. Small text in complications just looks cooler, more like the way I’d expect small text to be printed on a nice mechanical watch. Seriously, give it a try. ↩︎︎