One of the most difficult questions we get asked by people is “Should I buy an Apple Watch?”
While it’s a product that has done a lot of things well, it’s never felt essential, and there are products on the market (particularly fitness watches) that replicate a lot of its features for a much lower price.
But with the Watch Series 4, Apple has created a product that’s so much better than any other smart watch out there that it’s easy to recommend to anyone with an interest in wearables. The biggest improvement has to be the comprehensive redesign, with bigger displays, a thinner form factor and new watch faces that display much more information than before.
But there are some serious feature improvements too, including a bigger internal speaker for calls, fall detection and emergency SOS, and an upcoming electrocardiogram that looks like it will be a genuine game-changer for smartwatches.
The result is the first wearable that actually feels essential, combining fantastic design and great features that just aren’t available on other smart watches.
The asking price for all models of the watch has gone up, sadly, but there’s plenty to recommend, and as a result we can now the answer the question of “Should I buy an Apple Watch?” with a resounding “Yes!*”.
*If you've got a wad of spare dollars
APPLE WATCH SERIES 4 DESIGN: UPGRADE TIME
Watch Series 4 is the first major redesign to Apple’s wearable since it was originally unveiled in 2015.
Series 4 brings a much-needed update to the whole design of the watch - nearly every component including the screen, Digital Crown and speaker has been improved, and for the better.
First off, there’s the physical size of the device itself. Previously, Apple offered 38mm and 42mm options for the watch - now it's been bumped up to 40mm and 44mm. However, the 44mm Series 4 model we tested feels smaller on the wrist than the 42mm Series 3, thanks to its tapered design and the fact that it’s 0.7mm thinner than before.
But it’s the displays that are the most noticeable improvement on the previous generation Apple Watch. Before, the Apple Watch had a square-format screen, with large bezels boxing in the display. On Series 4, the screen on both sizes has grown by at least 30 per cent, and features rounded corners that go right out into the edges.
The result is a watch with a much larger display which can show much more information, so much so that the display on the smaller Series 4 40mm model is actually larger than the one on the Series 3 42mm model.
Apple has created new watch faces to take advantage of this expanded real estate, with the new default, Infograph, with eight different widgets (or “complications”, as Apple calls them). These new widgets are particularly well designed in the corners of the screen, previous complications showed only the temperature, whereas the new version shows both the temperature and how that fits into both the high and low for the day.
The downside to the Infograph face is that it’s actually a bit too much to take in, especially with all of the different colour schemes going on. But there are many other new watch faces as well, including new takes on the modular design and kaleidoscope, a Breathe face, plus a few analogue faces designed to really show off the bigger screen that feature slo-mo footage of fire, liquid and vapor.
Personally, we found ourselves setting up two versions of the new Infograph Modular face: one for exercise, filled with activity data and weather info, and the other for work, filled with calendar info and world clocks. Another positive of the screen getting larger is that fonts are more legible and buttons are larger and therefore easier to press.
There are some other more minor cosmetic changes as well. The big red dot that signified you had the cellular version of the Series 3 watch has been replaced with a much subtler red ring on the Digital Crown. This makes it less easy be ostentatious in front of friends (the cheapest cellular Series 4 watch is £499, plus the cost of the contract), but is certainly more stylish overall.
The Side button also sits more flush to the side of the watch, and has a more noticeable click, meaning it’s more reliable when you double-tap to activate Apple Pay.
You won’t look at the back of the watch when you’re using it, but the non-Cellular version of the watch now has a ceramic and sapphire back, which should be more durable than the composite material on the Series 3.
Our main criticism of the new design is that, while the corners of the screen are round, the watch itself isn’t, which will still put many people off wanting a more traditional watch design. Also, given how long the watch has now been available, we’d love to see Apple allowing third-party watch faces at this stage.
But overall, the redesign of the watch is so comprehensive and crucially so good that frankly, it makes the Series 3 look seriously dated in comparison.
Finally, the models that we reviewed were both Space Grey Aluminium (one cellular, one non-cellular). There is a new gold finish available, we particularly liked the new gold Stainless Steel model, but bear in mind it costs £320 more than the aluminium models, while the Hermes models cost even more.
The ceramic models, which used to cost at least £1249, are no more, which is probably for the best given Apple tends to upgrade these things once a year now.
APPLE WATCH SERIES 4 FEATURES: HEARTY UPGRADES
While the physical redesign is the biggest reason for most people to buy or upgrade to a Series 4, there are features on the Series 4 that make it a tempting offer...
Let’s start with the headline new features that Apple’s been shouting about in the health space. Apple Watch Series 4 will use motion detection to sense when you trip, slip or fall, and then if you’re not active for 30 seconds afterwards, it will alert your emergency contact and tell the emergency services where you are.
This feature is enabled by default for users over 65 and is optional for those under that age. In testing, we found it impossible to replicate a fall and actually try this feature out, but regardless of who you are or what age you are, it’s a good safety feature to have.
One feature we weren’t able to test is the electrocardiogram, which will be rolled out once it has full FDA approval in the US (other worldwide health organisations should then follow suit). By holding your finger up to the digital crown, electrodes in the watch will allow you to take a reading which will then alert you to conditions such as atrial fibrillation.
This will be of most benefit to people who have reason to believe they’re at risk for such conditions, either based on prior health assessments or because of family history. For these people, it could genuinely be a life saver. For other people, there’s the danger that this feature (and self-diagnosis in general) could induce a mild form of hypochondria, but it’s a significant new feature in the wearable space that, as long as Apple rolls it out soon, will only be available on this watch.
There are other improvements to the Series 4 Watch that don’t sound like much but actually do improve the overall experience. The microphone has been relocated to the right side of the watch, between the Digital Crown and the Side button, meaning the speaker on the left side of the watch has been made much bigger. The result is that the Apple Watch is now much, much louder, allowing you to easily hold a conversation with someone outdoors or in a loud environment.
Anecdotally, we were told by people they couldn’t tell any difference between the watch and a regular phone call when they were on the other end of the line, which is a testament to the quality of the microphone Apple's used.
The Digital Crown has also been upgraded with haptic feedback, which basically means it vibrates slightly each time you pass an item on a scrolling menu. Like we said, it’s a small improvement, and scrolling using the touchscreen still feels more efficient in most cases. But you soon get used to the haptic feedback, and it is quite pleasurable to use it to scroll through lists, if you enjoy those particularly Apple-esque touches.
The first Apple Watch was a real slouch when it came to general use and just navigating the menus was a real chore. Things got better on the way to Series 3, but Series 4’s S4 chipset makes the watch feel really snappy when it comes to general use.
Changing between watch faces, switching complications and scrolling through photos doesn’t slow the watch down at all, which is good because the larger watch face means you actually want to do more of these things with it, rather than using your iPhone.
One area that this improved horsepower really benefits is Siri who will answer your questions almost instantly once you have a signal. In conjunction with the new “Raise to Speak” Siri functionality on watchOS 5, we actually began using Siri on the watch much more than we did our phones.
APPLE WATCH SERIES 4 BATTERY: POWER FOR DAYS
Apple quotes the same 18-hour battery life for Series 4 as it did for Series 3, but we found this estimate to be conservative.
In normal use (as in, not making excessive amounts of calls or doing 10K runs), we were able to get through two days of charge. As a result, we'd now really like to see Apple offering an always-on display option.
There are still multiple occasions each day when we’d turn our wrist to activate the watch, and it wouldn’t register - having it always-on would mean it'd feel much more like a regular watch.
There are also a host of feature improvements that come in with watchOS 5, but bear in mind they’re also available to all Apple Watch owners apart from the very first “Series 0” generation.
They include a new Podcasts app which allows you to listen to shows away from your phone, a new Walkie Talkie app that allows you to send and receive messages between friends, Activity Challenges between friends, and low resting heart rate alerts. For more on these and more, check out our watchOS 5 feature.
APPLE WATCH SERIES 4 CONNECTIVITY: GOOD, BUT DRAINING
The Series 4 Apple Watch, like its predecessor, is available in both cellular and non-cellular models. Supported by EE since last year, and now also by Vodafone, this allows the Apple Watch to function on its own without being connected to your iPhone. Cellular access is not as reliable as with a phone, which is a shame as Apple claims to have improved connectivity on this model. But if you're in an area with good coverage, it does the job. You can make and receive phone calls, send and receive messages (you can't type them, but you can dictate them) and get data for other apps.
The downside is the battery life. Apple rates the watch at 18 hours on a full charge, saying that this includes 4 hours of LTE connection and 14 hours of Wi-Fi. But they also say that there's only two hours' talk time if you make calls with the watch when it's connected to your iPhone, and just one hour if it's on 4G LTE only. In everyday use, we found that with the Series 3, we would end the day around 80%; with the 4, it's around 60%. This is when we've been using it for the time, notifications and the occasional Siri command, rather than intense outdoor workout sessions. We also noted it charges more slowly than before. One more thing to keep in mind: if you're in an area with sketchy 4G coverage, EE does not support the watch when used with UMTS; Vodaphone, however, does support this.
One improvement for those not buying the Cellular version of the watch is that it now has 16GB of storage, rather than the 8GB it had before. That means more room for storing songs and podcasts when you’re out of range of your phone.
APPLE WATCH SERIES 4 VERDICT
Apple Watch Series 4 has everything going for it - the larger screen, improved processor and louder sound means it’s easier to actually do stuff on it, and it has a load of health features that just aren’t on other wearables. It’s sadly more expensive than the previous generation, but it does do a lot of things to justify that extra outlay.
The result is a product that is a must-buy if you are at all interested in owning a wearable but have been holding out.
Whether you’re navigating somewhere using Maps, going for a run without your phone, or just wanting to keep track of your activity during the day, the Apple Watch does a great job of doing all these things and more. Apple Watch Series 4 is the best smart watch available, and a significant improvement on the previous generation.