Apple Watch 3 review: 4G is a game changer, but the niggles remain
The Apple Watch Series 3 may look the same, but how you use it just drastically changed
Apple Watch tends to divide opinion. People live by it, can't see the point of it or baulk at the design, not to mention the price.
Yet, despite reports of falling sales, Apple announced at its recent keynote that the Apple Watch is now the most popular watch brand in the world, overtaking Rolex and Fossil. This may explain why the company is seemingly ploughing ahead with the Apple Watch Series 3, or Watch 3 for short.
The latest iteration of its Watch OS-powered wearable looks almost identical to the Series 2 and offers the same waterproof features, but now ships with one game-changing feature: it has 4G.
Apple Watch 3 review: Design
To give it its full title, the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) is remarkably similar to its predecessors in look and weight. Dimensions vary slightly depending on which model you choose, but, as a guide, the 38mm aluminium Watch Series 2 measures 38.6mm x 33.3mm x 11.4 mm and weighs 28.2g without the strap. The same model in the Apple Watch Series 3 range is identical in size and weighs 26.7g for the GPS-only model, or 28.7g with cellular.
The digital crown and power button are on the right-hand side of the face. On the opposite side are the ports that expel water from the device and the speakers. On the underside is the LED used for tracking heart rate and the wireless charging sensor encased in glass.
The main visible difference on the Apple Watch 3 is its bright red digital crown, likely designed as a status symbol so people know you're wearing the latest model rather than its predecessor. I can't think of any other reason why you'd whack such a strong colour on what is largely a subtle casing; it's a shame because it sticks out a mile.
Overall, the Watch still looks chunky on the wrist and doesn't sit comfortably under long sleeves but I'm happy to make this sacrifice for the number of sensors packed inside.
Apple Watch 3 review: Sensors and features
Image 2 of 4Having partnered with various carriers globally, namely EE in the UK, the Apple Watch 3 is a "full 4G LTE" wearable that switches to data when it is away from an iPhone. At the time of writing, I've been testing a GPS+cellular model without the e-SIM install. I'll update this review when we've had time with an EE contract.
The technology works via e-SIM, which means there's no need to install a physical SIM card. The EE partnership is a major coup for the network operator but problematic for those on other networks because you can't use the 4G version of the Apple Watch 3 without having an EE contract on your phone.
Previous versions of the Apple Watch were a little redundant without a phone and some of the best features, namely the fitness apps, couldn't be used on their own. With the Watch 3, you can go running, track data and listen to music without having to worry about strapping a phone to your arm or sticking it in your bag.
It's also possible to make and receive calls via wireless headphones (Apple's excuse to sell more AirPods), see messages and notifications. This is a game changer and makes the Apple Watch 3 a more viable investment.
Inside the Apple Watch Series 3 is the S3 chip, Apple's third-generation, dual-core wearables processor designed to open apps quickly and make graphics smoother. The Watch is slick, but not noticeably superior when compared to previous models.
You can now enable Siri by saying "Hey Siri" without touching the digital crown speak, which has its benefits when you don't have your phone, but Siri is nowhere near as accurate as Alexa or Google Assistant in our experience. Plus, so many commands require you to unlock your phone (such as sending a WhatsApp message), that I found little use for it on the Watch.
Apple Watch 3 review: Battery life
Teardowns have revealed the Apple Watch 3 battery has a capcity of 1.07Wh (279mAh at 3.82 volts), which is a 4% boost over the Series 2 and 32% on the Watch Series 1. These numbers are almost redundant, though, because Apple quotes the same standard, 18-hour runtime across all three models. This should give you "90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of app use, and a 30-minute workout with music playback from Apple Watch via Bluetooth."
In our tests, this sells the Watch 3 a little short. At the time of writing our 38mm Watch is on 42% and this after using it from 5.30am the previous day, taking it off at 10pm and with 30 minutes of exercise, for a total of 24 hours so far. The longest we've got from the Watch was when it pushed into a third day, totalling a highly impressive 40 hours, with an hour of moderate exercise.
At the same time, I've also noticed the battery on my iPhone 8 Plus is lasting longer as I split usage across the two devices.
Another thing that hasn't changed all that much is that the Watch 3's still charges using Apple's proprietary MagSafe charger, and doesn't work with Qi-enabled plates like the iPhone 8 Plus does. I don't know the full details of Apple's AirPower plate but, if as the pictures attest, the Watch 3 will work with the AirPower, the plate must have both MagSafe and Qi technology inside.
Apple Watch 3 review: Software
Apple Watch 3 runs watchOS 4 with an updated Heart Rate app that lets you track your pulse more accurately than before. You can additionally choose to receive a notification when your heart rate becomes elevated above a threshold while inactive. This could be a sign of a heart condition and the app will let you monitor it. I particularly like the updated heart rate feature as it's a great indicator of changing fitness and stress levels, and I've used it far more than I expected I would.
Other watchOS 4 features include a Siri watch face that shows the "information users need most throughout the day", a new Workout app with clearer display and, with GymKit, you'll soon be able to sync your Apple Watch 3 to compatible gym equipment. As part of the refresh, the Nike Run Club app has been updated to add Audio-Guided Runs, voiced by Nike coaches and athletes, and the Cheers feature lets friends send audio-based cheers.
Concerningly, a number of major developers have pulled their apps from the Watch App Store in recent months, including Google Maps and Twitter, claiming notifications are mirrored so a standalone app is no longer needed. This shouldn't make a huge difference, Apple Maps is still available (even if it is a substandard alternative) and Twitter posts still get pushed to the device, but is worth noting.
Apple Watch 3 review: Fitness tracking
The Apple Watch 3 is now, more than ever before, a fitness focused wearable and it has been since the Series 2 update. It continues to do a great job. I'm now more acutely aware of how much - or in some cases, how little - activity and exercise I'm doing. It's shocking how few hours in the day I stand for a minute or more, for instance.
The Workout app is where it all happens and it's as fully featured a piece of wearable fitness software as I've ever come across. You can track a huge number of different activities, from gym sessions to hiking and cycling, plus a whole load more, but it's the small touches that make all the difference. For instance, you can combine workouts by stopping one and starting another, and the app will pause if you need to stop at traffic lights while running.
I love how the watch tracks laps and length (it still can't detect stroke types, though), while the added heart rate data gives you an all-round summary of your activity - a real boon for anyone trying to lose weight or improve their times and fitness.
With the advancements in software, the Apple Watch 3 moves closer in terms of accuracy and function to the Garmin Swim, for example, while offering more smartwatch and day-to-day features.
Apple Watch 3 review: Colours and straps
The standard Apple Watch 3 comes in gold, silver and black aluminium while the stainless steel model comes in black and silver only.
The new Apple Watch 3 Hermes model is available in silver, the Nike+ range comes in silver and black aluminium, and the white and black ceramic models are only available on the Apple Watch 3 Edition. The latter is sold with GPS and cellular by default.
There are new Watch straps from Nike, Hermes, and Apple itself, including a range of quick-drying, Velcro sport bands. The Woven Nylon has been updated with a new pattern, while the Apple Watch Edition expands to include a dark grey ceramic case that pairs with a new two-toned Sport Band.
Continuing its partnership with Nike, Apple is also launching platinum/black Nike Sport Bands and Sport Loops later this year, and Apple Watch Herms models come with a new collection of bands including the Single Tour Rallye, inspired by the Herms driving glove and the Single Tour Eperon d'Or, inspired by the equestrian scarf pattern designed by Henri d'Origny in 1974 - both in calfskin.
I've been testing a gold aluminium Watch 3 with a light pink silicon band which is a lovely combination and pairs with all sorts of outfits. It's more subtle and feminine than the Watch Series 1 with blue leather strap I had previously.
The light band works well with the "gold" case but if you're looking for a more striking combination, the white ceramic case on the Apple Watch 3 Edition with a bright purple band looks great. There are of course myriad customisation options to help you match your style (and budget).
For swimming, we recommend getting the material sport band over the standard fluoroelastomer one. It fits perfectly on the wrist, is fully adjustable thanks to the Velcro, and although it looks like it would be rough, it's soft and dries so quickly you can see the water leaving the band in seconds.
Apple Watch 3 review: Early verdict
The biggest bugbear I had with previous Apple Watches was their reliance on the phone. Apple Watch 3 solves this. Yes, you'll need to spend 400 for the 4G model, (plus an EE contract) but it's likely to have a much longer shelf-life and will be genuinely more useful than before.
It isn't cheap, though. If you buy directly from EE, you can get an Apple Watch 3 for 25 a month with no upfront cost. The most expensive package costs 25 a month, with 159 upfront, for the 42mm Stainless Steel Case with Soft White Sport Band model.
The Apple Watch 3 additionally comes in a GPS-only model for 329, but we'd recommend spending the extra for the additional features. You can, of course, go all out and buy the 1,299Apple Watch Edition with GPS and cellular if you're really keen. Note, though, that for all models you need to be running iOS 11 on the connected device, while the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) requires an iPhone 6 or later.
The Apple Watch 3 is a great smartwatch; the best in the business in my opinion and this is its most impressive outing yet. But if the price looks too high, you're not bothered by the GPS, cellular or the swim-tracking features, there may be a better option. The Apple Watch (known as Series 1) might be all the smartwatch you need, and it costs a much more reasonable 249.
Screen: 1.65in CPU: S3 Battery life: Up to 18 hours Connections: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth and 4G (on select models) Price: £399 for GPS+4G from EE, £329 for GPS only Release date: 22 September