Apple Watch Series 4 Review
Review indexA short history of the Apple Watch | Design and Size | Activity and New Health Features | New Watchfaces | Calls, Podcasts, Walkie-talkie and Siri | Battery life | Prices and Alternatives | Conclusion
The new Series 4 looks a lot like earlier Apple Watches, it has the same rectangular form, the same digital crown and one button below it, but just turn on the screen and you witness a brand new experience. Apple has trimmed the bezels, adding more than 30% of extra screen space, and this makes a world of difference. Apple has also completely rearranged the components inside the watch, so you get louder sound for calls and Siri, and best of all, this new watch is very, very fast.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve been using the Apple Watch Series 4 day and night, at work in the office and then at the gym, we’ve dived with it in a swimming pool, played basketball and slept with it. How did it do, and should you spend all that cash that Apple is asking for its latest smartwatch? Read on to find out.
A short history of the Apple Watch
Before we start with this review, we wanted to first take a look back at the history of the Apple Watch to see how it has evolved to the Series 4 and how it has changed throughout the years.
Apple Watch Evolution:
- Apple Watch (unofficially called Series 0) – released in April 2015
Key features: rectangular form factor, OLED display, 38mm/42mm sizes, optical heart rate sensors, easily interchangeable band system, watchOS interface, activity rings, support for third-party apps, Taptic Engine, 18-hour battery life, only works with iPhones
New features: upgraded to a dual-core processor (50% faster than S0); the latest operating system, watchOS 3; and a lower price of $269
- Apple Watch Series 2 - September 2016
New features: dual-core processor (50% faster than S0), adds GPS sensor, water protection for swimmers (up to 50 meters), brighter OLED display, Breathe app,
- Apple Watch Series 3 - September 2017
New features: optional LTE connectivity via eSIM (plus $10 monthly carrier fee on top of your cell phone bill), new and faster S3 processor, altimeter for elevation tracking
- Apple Watch Series 4 - September 2018
New features: ~30% larger screen, Faster S4 chip, W3 chip with Bluetooth 5.0, fall detection, ECG
A lot of things have changed, but one thing hasn’t: you still have no always-on screen option with the Apple Watch, so you have to do that slight flick of the wrist every time. Also, officially Apple has maintained the same 18-hour battery life target for the Apple Watch, but more about this later.
Design and Size
The Series 4 looks almost indistinguishable from the previous models. The rectangular form and curved sides, as well as the two buttons on the right side are still here. What’s new is that the digital crown now provides haptic feedback with every turn of the wheel, and this is a very nice little touch. The back of the watch is now made out of ceramic, a much more scratch proof material. And neatly, the actual thickness of the Series 4 has gone down a bit, so the watch sits a bit closer to the wrist.
Activity and New Health Features
Speaking of workouts, you have a separate Activity app on your phone that stores all your workouts with all the details and you also have a map generated in concert with the GPS module on the watch, so you can track your runs.
Here is a full list of the supported workout types on the Series 4: you have an outdoor/indoor walk, outdoor/indoor run, outdoor/indoor cycle, an elliptical workout, rowing machines, stair steppers, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), hiking, yoga, pool and open water swim, and the “other” type. The yoga and the hiking are the two new options that come with watchOS 5, and these are welcome additions. But if you are looking for fitness tracking for a particular sport like basketball, football, or anything else, you don’t quite have this option. A sports session like that would just end up in the “other” category and you will get a summary of your heart rate and the time you spent doing it, but not much in terms of information that actually relates to a particular sport.
We have found other fitness trackers do a much better job at this and don’t ask for a confirmation and just automatically start tracking the activity, which would have been a nice option to have on the Apple Watch as.
One last thing about Activity and Workouts: strangely enough, you cannot view individual activities on your watch. Even if you’ve just finished a run, the most logical thing would be for the watch to give you a short summary, but that’s not what happens. Instead, once you confirm you’re done exercising, the workout is stored only on your iPhone, but cannot be viewed from the watch. Most other fitness watches and trackers get this right and this just seems like a sloppy experience, so we hope Apple fixes it in the future.
What’s still missing in the list of native apps on the watch is sleep tracking. You can track your sleeping patterns using third-party apps on the Apple Watch, but we found that this process drains a lot of battery. With the app that we used, we went to bed at around 11pm with 57% on the battery meter and woke up at 7:30am with the watch at just 3%. Keep in mind that we had also previously set the watch to theater mode so that it does not light up when we tossed and turned in our sleep.
The new Infograph watchface with up to 8 different complications is the one that you have seen in the press pictures, and it truly provides an incredible density of information at just one glance. The only problem with all of those complications is that they are often a bit too colorful and might be a bit overwhelming. We certainly felt that the default look was a bit too chaotic look, so we cleaned it up a bit, leaving the useful complications in the four corners, but simplifying the rest, and this is now our go-to watchface during most of the day.
To demonstrate the bigger screen, Apple has also created three new visually stunning watchfaces that are all about the show: these are the Vapor, Fire and Water, and Liquid Metal watchfaces where every time you flick your wrist to see the time you see this explosion of colors and matter that looks really, really impressive.
Apple still does not allow third-party watchfaces and while some may say that this is a disadvantage, after browsing through some truly worthless watchfaces on other smartwatches, we actually think that Apple is doing users a favor with a selection of high-quality curated wallpapers that you can customize fully.
Calls, Podcasts, Walkie-talkie and Siri
You can now also listen to Podcasts, for the first time on an Apple Watch, and just like with music and radio, you would need to have paired Bluetooth headphones for this to work.
It exceeds expectations!
Apple says the Watch will provide an average of 18 hours of battery life, but of course, this depends hugely on how you actually use the wearable.
- Wake up at 7:45am, picked up the fully charged Apple Watch, then went for a quick shower, cleaned up my place and cooked breakfast
- 8:45am I was out on a walk to take some photos with a few phones, so I score a half an hour outdoor walk workout and was home by 9:30am
- From then on, it was a short drive to the office where I sit down in front of a computer. I got prompted to stand up twice, which is always a nice reminder, and I was getting pinged with various notifications and messages from social networks. I went out for lunch at noon. After lunch, battery level stood at 91%. So far, excellent.
- An hour and a half and a few notifications and a 1-minute breathe session later, at 2:30pm, battery life is 85%.
- A couple of meetings at work and a lot of time spent typing on a computer, and it’s almost time to call it a day at the office. It’s 5pm and my battery charge is at 76%.
- Then, it was time for my daily half-an-hour commute back from work and dinner. Next, I had a workout in the schedule and I was back at home around 9:30pm. Battery level was at 65%.
- A couple more hours at home and I was ready to hit the bed at around 11pm. Right before I went to sleep, the battery meter stood at 57%. Not bad, right?
A couple of tips on battery life: if you want to ensure that you get the maximum battery life, we recommend using watchfaces with a dark background as well as turning the screen brightness to the still well-readable 1 out of 3 level (to do this, open the Watch app on your iPhone and go to Brightness & Text Size, and there, select the minimum brightness level). This does not disable the automatic brightness control, so you still get good outdoor visibility.
Prices and Alternatives
Gone are the ceramic Apple Watches from yester-year, but if you are after more luxurious looks, you have the stainless steel models with an Hermes band going for more than $1200.
Along with the release of the new Series 4, Apple has now also slashed the price on the Apple Watch Series 3 by $50, and it now starts at $280.
So, what are the alternatives?
First, we have to say that if you own an iPhone, no other watch or fitness band will be as tightly integrated and optimized as the Apple Watch. And if you are just reading this out of curiosity and run an Android phone, there are many options.
The first one is, of course, the Samsung Galaxy lineup of watches. Those are much bigger and bulkier, so they will not be a comfortable fit for everyone, but they have a cool rotating bezel, longer battery life, and also do well at health and fitness tracking. The prices for the Galaxy Watches are set at $330 for the 42-mil one and $350 for the 46mm version, and both of them feature a solid, stainless steel construction.
If you want a sporty smartwatch, the Garmin family of watches offers very well optimized, information-dense watchfaces, very accurate heart-rate trackers and an excellent battery life, but the screen on those watches are not as colorful and they don’t quite have the apps and the feature set for everything else but workouts.
If you just want a fitness tracker, the upcoming Fitbit Charge 3 is the gadget you should be looking forward to the most. A much more affordable option ($150 for the base model), it comes with sports bands, fabric straps and more stylish leather bands, it tracks your heart rate and it has a similar breathe functionality. You lose the colorful screen, but you gain a lot more in terms of battery life and it’s a much lighter gadget that is extremely comfortable for your workouts and for tracking sleep. You can track your sleeping patterns with an Apple Watch as well, but then when do you charge it if it’s on your wrist all night?
There are other fitness trackers that still track your heart rate and cost pennies like the $30 Xiaomi Mi Band 3. This is a good option if you just want something basic and don’t care too much if you get bigger variability in heart rate measurement accuracy.
Will it be obsolete in a year?
But then, after those few years pass, you’ll certainly get a Series 7 or something with new features. And one of those features (like Walkie Talkie that is not supported on the original watch) will inevitably require more resource and will not be available on your then old Series 4 watch. That’s the way the technology industry moves. Maybe, it’s no coincidence that Apple no longer sells luxurious, $1,000+ versions of its smartwatch. Maybe, it’s realized that inevitably, the watch exists into a fast-moving tech world that makes smartwatches obsolete like it does with other technology. Maybe.