The latest Apple Watch has been on sale for a few days now and I’ve been testing it for over two weeks. Here’s all you need to know.
The Apple Watch has evolved so much since the first one arrived in Spring 2015. Series 1 and Series 2 arrived in late 2016 with significantly faster speeds and better water-resistance. Series 3 was a game-changer with the addition of an esim so it was no longer tethered to your iPhone all the time.
And the new Series 4 offers a tremendous update to the design, the fastest speeds yet (it’s a 64-bit watch, for goodness sake!) and features unheard of on other smartwatches.
In this review, I’ve tried to answer the questions I’ve heard most while I’ve been wearing the new Apple Watch Series 4. If you have more, you are welcome to message me on Twitter (@davidphelan2009) and I’ll answer them there or in a follow-up post here. Anyway, tick-tock. let’s get to it.
Apple Watch Series 4 (left) and last year’s Series 3.David Phelan
Does it really look that different?
Oh my, it really does.
It gleams. The bigger screen makes a spectacular difference thanks to those slimmer bezels and the screen is brilliantly pin-sharp, colorful and vivid. Previous Watch faces look great now they spread closer to the edge, and if you turn on the torch function you can see clearly one of the reasons: the bezels now perfectly follow the shape of the case, curved edges to an oblong, instead of just the sharp-cornered display that preceded it. It’s a subtle but utterly opulent improvement to the look.
The torch shows how the screen has changed between Series 3 (right) and Apple Watch Series 4.David Phelan
Even so, it retains the usefulness of a squarish, as opposed to a round, display: that text runs evenly down the screen in the way that a circular screen could not support.
I also like the subtle red ring on the Digital Crown instead of the solid red dot from Series 3, that indicates a Watch with cellular connectivity. It looks more elegant and, I think it’s also to more effectively facilitate the ECG/EKG capability which we’ll come to later.
Apple Watch Series 4 (left) – bigger than last year’s Series 3 (right).David Phelan
But it’s bigger, right?
Sort of. I mean, it really does look bigger even though the actual physical size is only fractionally larger.
But the proportions are different which is what is so transformative. In other words, there’s a lot more flat area which means the curved area is proportionally smaller so the slope takes up less of the total space.
The improvement extends beyond the looks to the feel, especially because the Series 4 Watch seems lighter and less bulky thanks to its slimmer profile from front to back.
It is technically slightly bigger in its height (44mm instead of 42mm, or 40mm against last year’s 38mm) and it’s fractionally wider, but neither of these facts is evident when you look at it and the actual volumetric size of the new Watch is less than last year’s. The screen is what makes the difference. The display on the 40mm (smaller) Watch is bigger than on last year’s 42mm (larger) Watch and the screen on the 44mm model is way bigger – over 30% bigger on both new models.
The full screen as shown by the Torch function on Apple Watch Series 4.David Phelan
What’s more – crucially – every previous Watch band fits the new model perfectly. Even the different shape of the curve on the case doesn’t make enough of a difference to be noticeable in terms of the fit.
Oh, and it works the other way, too: new straps fit old Watches – the 38mm and 40mm models work with those straps and the larger models, new and old, work with 42mm and 44mm straps. Marvelous.
The shape of the back of the Watch means your existing charging puck is still a good fit (and Apple’s AirPower must be coming soon, I believe).
For the first time, thanks to the addition of the gold-finish stainless steel, the Watch looks every bit as glamorous as the Apple Watch Edition in previous years – and at a fraction of the cost!
Which is not to say the aluminum version isn’t cool, and personally my favorite is still the stainless steel space black, but the gold is drop-dead glorious. This is a spectacular-looking Watch, whichever model you choose.
The new Digital Crown on Apple Watch Series 4.David Phelan
There’s a new Digital Crown?
That’s correct. It looks similar to before except that it’s almost a third smaller, but it now includes haptic feedback. I mean, it still rotates and presses in as it did before but now when you scroll down a list, for instance, you can feel the crown click from one item to the next. In a really quiet room you can even hear it click. Apple says it gives a more precise mechanical feel, which it does, but it’s kind of ironic that it achieves it in an electronic, not a mechanical, way.
The Infographic Watch face on Apple Watch Series 4.David Phelan
What about the new Watch faces?
These make the most of the real estate on offer. The Infographic face is brilliant and crams so much in to the Watch face that it becomes almost addictive to check it.
Not every app has devised complications for this face yet as they are differently shaped than most. This includes Dark Sky, the hands-down best weather app with granular detail, astonishing accuracy and a pleasant interface. I’m hoping this will be resolved imminently, right, Dark Sky?
Then there are the more florid, illustrative Watch faces. Like the glorious liquid metal faces. I believe these gorgeous, photo-realistic images were achieved not by CGI but by working with video of bubbling metal for extra veracity.
Or the Breathe face. If you’ve used Breathe you’ll know it’s an Apple Watch special. It encourages you to take a minute or so out of your day to focus on your breathing and although it’s only brief it genuinely makes you feel differently after from before. It’s a pleasingly simple face which, when you tap it, takes you to the Breathe app.
The Breathe face on Apple Watch Series 4.David Phelan
How about fitness?
I think this is the best wearable for health and fitness. Period.
The Workout app is better than ever (although, see the next question below). It now has certain workouts can start automatically. If the Watch spots you’re running, it’ll ask you if you are and if you’d like it to monitor it as a workout. Say yes and it’ll start the timer from the moment you started running, not when it notified you, so you don’t lose credit for the beginning of your run.
This is an enhancement of what the Watch already does in the gym when you forget to start a workout there.
There are also more settings for workouts which previously only appeared as Other, though you could rename them with a custom title and matching icon after you’d done them for the first time. These include a dedicated Yoga workout.
And, as you’ll know, there’s more to come in fitness monitoring, including ECG measurement, made possible by new sensors in the back of the Watch and the Digital Crown. When you have opened the app, you touch the Digital Crown with your right index finger, which completes a circuit through your body with your left wrist through the Watch’s back.
The app isn’t there yet because although it has had FDA clearance, the software isn’t finished.
But I believe it’s definitely coming: first, Apple wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it was a racing certainty and, second, I’ve seen it demonstrated. It looks impressive.
The other new fitness feature is Fall Detection which detects when you’ve had what it calls a “significant, hard fall” and can connect you to emergency services. This is impressive. You need to turn it on, except that if when you create your Apple ID you reveal you’re over 65 years old, Apple with thoughtfully turns it on by default.
The new Watch will give you low heart rate notifications, which could be important, and it offers faster heart rate reading, Apple says. I’ve found heart rate measuring to be pretty nifty already but this does seem to have the edge.
Apple Watch Infographic face, including Workout complication.David Phelan
Is everything better in the world of fitness?
Glad you asked. And no, frankly, it’s not.
I’m thinking here of the Yoga setting in the Workout app. There’s now a proper, dedicated Yoga workout setting. In watchOS 4, when opting for a number of different kinds of workout, you had to choose Other and then afterwards name it as “Yoga”, “Mind and Body” or whatever.
So you know, my Wednesday morning Hatha yoga class consistently burnt around 230 active calories.
It turns out that anything in the Other section is calculated on the basis of what a walking workout would achieve, based on the heart rate for the time.
Now there’s a dedicated Yoga setting, in other words, there’s a great deal more accuracy to be found.
All of which is good news, except that my class now only credits me with 190 active calories.
I’m grateful for extra accuracy, but now it means I need to do more yoga. Ah, well.
I’d also say that I’m still hoping for the Apple Watch to feature sleep tracking after the company bought Beddit over a year ago. I’m waiting, Apple.
Apple Watch Series 4 with a Liquid Metal Watch face.David Phelan
So you don’t need to say “Hey, Siri, any more?”
Well, sometimes. It’s true that when you raise your wrist towards your mouth and speak directly to the Watch, it lights up, listens and responds. But not always. Maybe I still haven’t quite learnt how to do it properly yet and it’s all in the wrist action, as they used to say.
But, here’s the thing, raise-to-wake works perfectly, pretty much all the time, where the accelerometer on rival watches has been much less impressive. However, raise-to-speak only works most of the time.
Until it does, I’ll keep saying, “Hey, Siri”.
On the other hand, when Siri talks back, you can really hear her. The new speaker is 50% louder than before. It feels like it’s louder than that. You may wish you could turn her down. You can at least choose whether she always speaks or not when the Watch is switched to silent.
Apple Watch Series 4 with Milanese Loop, all in gold stainless steel finish.David Phelan
How about performance?
It’s much, much nippier than before. This is a smartwatch with a 64-bit dual-core processor. I know, that’s quite something, right? Speed is up to twice what it was. It feels like more.
There’s also a new wireless chip, called W3 which is faster for downloading content over Bluetooth, noticeably faster for the initial setup procedure and more efficient so it uses less power.
That’s before we get to the extras provided by watchOS 5 such as Walkie-Talkie, better notifications, improved running features such a cadence metric. All of which are common to other Watches such as Series 3 as well as this one.
Or the way the Weather app adds extra information, most notably the attractive UV index complication which tells you how strong the sunshine is, and therefore how long you can stay in the sun, at your current location.
Note the many complications on the Apple Watch Series 4 Infographic face.David Phelan
So, what do you think?
This is the biggest step forward for any Apple Watch, bigger even than the change from Series 2 to Series 3 last year.
It’s the best-looking Watch by far, from any brand. In some versions, such as the Hermes models or the stainless steel in gold or space black, it is breathtakingly attractive.
It lasts for a full day, easily (way more than the 18 hours Apple promises), and it’s better built, too – the back of all the Watches is made from ceramic and sapphire crystal, not just the pricier models. This improves signal transmission, helped along by a new internal design for the antennae and transmitters.
If you like the idea of a smartwatch, this is the best one you can buy, by a country mile. And if you’re the sort of person who is not an early adopter, who waits until the moment when a new gadget comes of age, well, that moment is now.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these: