Apple Watch Series 4 review: Bigger, faster and even mo…

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Bigger, faster and even mo...
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I am of two minds on the Apple Watch. On one hand, I think that it’s the best overall smartwatch you can currently buy. And to that end, the Series 4 — now available starting at $399 — is the best Apple Watch to date. 

After wearing one for weeks, it’s worked really well, but it’s not as tremendous a leap forward from last year’s model as you might think. And the Apple Watch is no closer to being a clear must-have device than it was before, unless you value the possible benefits of new health features. The 2018 model adds a nice slate of upgrades:

  • Thinner design with bigger, almost no-bezel watch faces: Larger 44mm and 40mm displays fit into the same general case sizes that previously held 42mm and 38mm ones, respectively.
  • Lightning-fast speed: The Series 4 is fast. Response time for nearly everything that doesn’t require an online ping is effectively instantaneous. The improvement versus Series 2 and earlier models is particularly dramatic.
  • Fall detection: The Watch will alert loved ones and EMS when you take a serious tumble (but Apple doesn’t guarantee it, and it’s not on by default unless you’re 65 or older).
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG): This feature, coming soon via a software update, amps up the Watch’s already impressive heart-rate monitoring features with a full-on, FDA-cleared on-demand EKG that will check for heart arrhythmia.

On the other hand, the Apple Watch Series 4 doesn’t address some of the longstanding frustrations that have dogged the platform since day one. Specifically:

  • Battery life remains stuck at little more than a day (two days max, if you’re lucky).
  • No sleep tracking: Because the watch needs to be charged overnight, that effectively kills sleep tracking options.
  • No always-on watch face: To save battery life, the watch face is dark most of the time.
  • Despite a handful of new data-rich watch faces, the apps that use these faces are limited, and deeper customization — including having a watch face store like rivals do — remains MIA on Apple Watch.

To be clear, none of these are futurist fantasies. Rival products from from Fitbit, Samsung and others are starting to last for days — with promises of weeks between charges (in more pared-down watch modes) made by Qualcomm’s new chip that’s powering upcoming Google Wear OS competitors. And those same products offer sleep tracking, dozens or hundreds of watch face options, and always-on timekeeping, too.


Sarah Tew/CNET

But back to the positives: if you’re looking for the fastest, most seamless, best-connected smartwatch around, this is it. And, yes, on a watch, speed matters. And the Apple Watch’s audio capabilities are improved: speaker and microphone are stellar.

New features like automatic workout tracking, walkie-talkie communications between watches, raise to talk (no more “hey Siri”) and better support for music and podcasts are all welcome additions to the Apple Watch. But those are part of the 2018 WatchOS 5 upgrade, so they’re also available on older Series 1, Series 2 and Series 3 models.

To that end, if you’re not a workout junkie, or someone who’s particularly interested in the safety aspects of fall detection or EKG-level heart monitoring, the Apple Watch Series 3 — available starting at $279 (£279, AU$399) — is still a worthy option. That model retains the standalone cellular option, too, if you want to occasionally go phone-free.

The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 (£399, AU$599) for the standard model, and $499 (£499, AU$749) for the LTE model. Models climb up from there depending on size, material (stainless steel versus aluminum), band choices and additional styles (Nike+, Hermes).  

Existing Series 3 owners shouldn’t feel a rush to upgrade. And Series 1 and Series 2 owners should start with that free update to WatchOS 5, of course. But if you’re looking for considerably faster speed, a bigger and more information-rich watch face, and better health and workout features, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a worthy upgrade. 

However, iPhone owners looking for a smartwatch with longer battery life or sleep tracking should check out alternatives like the Fitbit Versa.

22-apple-watch-series-4-larger-44mm

The original Modular watch face is still on Apple Watch Series 4, and it’s definitely more minimal than Infograph.


Sarah Tew/CNET

My favorite thing: Speed

The first Apple Watch in 2015 was slow. Loading apps was its limiting factor. The lightning-quick, smooth feel of the Apple Watch Series 4 almost feels like a given, since it’s how Apple products tend to feel out of the box. It’s as fast, now, as an iPhone or iPad. It feels automatic. Last year’s Series 3 was also fast, and it’s still fine. The Series 4 does it one better, so that loading times no longer seem to exist much at all.

Speed is probably more key on a watch than on a phone, if you’re counting on quick glances and instant info, I can’t think of a better wearable.

The Apple Watch interface design is mostly the same as last year, even with WatchOS 5. There are some key improvements: notifications now stack by type, much like on the iPhone in iOS 12, and it really helps with clutter. The Control Center (quick settings accessed via swipe-up) can also be reordered, front-loading most-needed controls (sadly, no new shortcuts can be added).

Speaking of shortcuts, Siri Shortcuts — which allow you to program activities with simple commands — are supported on the Apple Watch, but I haven’t found myself compelled to dive into using them yet.

My next favorite thing: Audio

More than the watch’s refined design, I truly appreciate the way it handles speakerphone functions. A louder speaker truly helps with quick Siri requests (which I really do, on my wrist, when setting timers or alarms or quick tasks). A new raise-to-speak function in WatchOS 5 means I can lift and talk really closely into the watch and not have to say “Hey Siri,” and it usually works. But for phone calls at home, when my phone’s lost somewhere and my sister or mom calls, I can talk with the whole family via my wrist and it works perfectly — it’s no different than a speakerphone call on the phone.

My good feelings on audio extend to the Apple Watch as iPod. Last year with WatchOS 4, the watch autosynced albums via Apple Music during overnight charging to fill an instant on-the-go library, and it made me use the watch for music far more than I expected. Podcasts and third-party audio apps can now work offline on the watch, too, and with a pair of AirPods (or other Bluetooth headphones, but AirPods pair and swap between iPhone and watch mostly seamlessly), it’s a perfect experience. I also appreciate the watch’s easy access to music controls when in a workout.

Bigger screen is better, but untapped watch face possibilities

The Apple Watch S4 is the biggest design update since the watch launched in 2015. Apple followed the model of its recent iPhone designs here: The Series 4 cuts down the bezel surrounding the screen versus last year’s Series 3, effectively squeezing larger screens into the same size chassis. It’s still a squircle, but the look is much more refined. It’s thinner, too: Apple cut the depth of the Watch from 11.4mm to 10.7mm, so it’s less bulbous on your wrist.

The Apple Watch still comes in “small” and “large,” but thanks to the economy of sizes from the redesign, the smallest new Apple Watch has a display that’s close to the size of the previous large one. The new watch sizes are 40 and 44mm, versus the previous 38 and 42mm.

37-apple-watch-series-4-larger-44mm

Both displays are bigger now, keeping case size still relatively compact. The 40mm (left) and 44mm (right), in stainless steel (gold colored steel is on the right).


Sarah Tew/CNET

The larger display on both sizes of Apple Watch models means bigger, more beautiful watch faces. But it doesn’t mean there’s all that much that’s new. There are only two signature new watch faces exclusive to the Series 4 — Infograph and Infograph Modular — and those faces show off new graphically rich complications for extra information on-watch. However, not all watch apps can take advantage of them yet, and even those that do aren’t as helpful as I expected. Heart rate, for instance, doesn’t show my heart rate or my resting heart rate on the watch face itself. Instead, it’s just a heart-shaped icon I can tap to launch the heart rate app.

Several weather apps can use the new “Infograph Modular” watch face’s center information pane to show daily weather trends, but few other apps can. And the areas where these complications are laid out can’t be moved around. For more thoughts, read my deeper dive into the new watch faces.

Other watch faces look bigger and prettier. New motion faces are full-screen, and the Kaleidoscope face looks brilliant and big. Round watch faces fill more of the available space. But they’re not fundamentally different, or any more customizable. I’d love to make my own styles of new watch faces, and build layouts that worked for me, using information I need. Apple has 25 watch faces to choose from and thousands of ways to tweak them and customize them, and yet I still find my ability to make my own perfect at-a-glance watch face is challenged.

I love the bezel-minimal, curved-corner display on the new watch, but with all the available space it now has, and the speed of the processor inside, Apple could be doing a lot more.

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