Apple didn’t only launch three smartphones this week, it also introduced a refreshed Apple Watch in the form of the Series 3. The addition of a new cellular chip means the Watch can operate independently of your iPhone for the first time ever.
The new Series 3 might not be the first example of an LTE smartwatch, but Apple is in a strong position since it currently produces world’s most successful wearable. Earlier this year the company regained the majority market share from FitBit, despite the device’s premium price point and dependence on an iPhone.
Should you rush out to buy one, and is the upgrade worth it for Series 1 or 2 owners?
Introducing Series 3
To be clear, Apple introduced two models of Series 3: a GPS-only version from $329, and the GPS + Cellular option from $399. Both models still require an iPhone, but the LTE-enabled model doesn’t strictly require an iPhone to remain connected.
For the first time ever, your watch needs a data plan. The “big four” carriers in the U.S. have each agreed on a flat $10-per-month fee to provide network coverage to your smart watch. Early adopters can enjoy waived fees for the first three months. You’ll also need to be pick the same carrier you’re currently using for your iPhone plan.
Not all carriers will support the cellular watch from launch, so be sure to check with your own provider before you buy. It’s not clear how this will work on a pre-paid plan, or how soon smaller providers will catch on.
Assuming your carrier and plan are compatible, you’ll be able to use the Series 3 to make and receive phone and FaceTime calls, send messages, make all manner of online Siri requests, receive alerts for appointments and from other apps, and stream Apple Music wherever you are.
In addition to LTE, Apple has fitted both Series 3 devices with the new S3 processor. This will improve performance across the board, with Siri now able to process commands right on your wrist. A slightly improved heart rate monitor allows for more precise readings, with resting heart rate, recovery time, and elevated heart rate monitoring included (though it’s unclear how much of that is software-based, since the Series 3 also ships with watchOS 4).
Apple also referenced a Stanford study in which Series 3 devices are being used to try and detect abnormal heart beats. While research is still ongoing, it’s an intriguing look into the future of wearables and health technology. It also signals that Apple knows there’s a lucrative market of health-conscious individuals out there looking for technology that can extend or improve their lives.
The new device also includes the W2 chip, an improved version of the W1 Apple launched last year which provides unrivalled sound quality and easy pairing based on proximity. It’s possible we’ll see updated AirPods that take advantage of the new chip before long.
In addition to geolocation services, the new Series 3 watches sport a barometric altimeter for measuring altitude, which is especially useful to cyclists and hikers for recording elevation data. The LTE model features a whopping 16GB of storage space for apps and media, while the regular GPS-only version has 8GB of storage.
As ever, there are a ton of models and straps to choose from. Series 1 watches only comes in aluminium with a sports band, while the Series 3 GPS-only model has both aluminium with sports band and a Nike+ configuration. If you want access to the Hermés or Apple Watch Edition, you’ll need to go for the GPS + Cellular model.
You can compare them all on Apple’s website, or save some money and opt for a third-party band instead.
Don’t Get Too Excited
Wireless communication is thirsty business — just look how much longer your iPhone lasts when you enable Airplane Mode. LTE on the new Series 3 is likely to put quite a bit of strain on its petite battery, though Apple rates the device for 18 hours (the same as its non-cellular models).
You can stream 40 million songs to your Apple watch. But you really only have the battery life for about 12 of them.
— Joe Steinkamp (@RangerStation) September 12, 2017
It’s likely that some power efficiency gains have been achieved with its new processor, and maybe there’s a bigger battery inside given the new Watch’s slightly thicker body. Even with these advancements, your own real-world usage is going to have a pronounced effect on that “18 hour” estimate.
Fortunately, Apple published their battery test criteria and results:
“All-day battery life is based on 18 hours with the following use: 90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of app use, and a 30-minute workout with music playback from Apple Watch via Bluetooth, over the course of 18 hours.
Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS) usage includes connection to iPhone via Bluetooth during the entire 18-hour test. Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) usage includes a total of 4 hours of LTE connection and 14 hours of connection to iPhone via Bluetooth over the course of 18 hours.”
While that sounds pretty good, individual tests aren’t so rosy. The same article quotes “up to 4 hours outdoor workout with GPS and LTE” for activity monitoring and a talk time of “over 1 hour connected to LTE.” That last number is a little concerning since it suggests even a 15-minute phone call over LTE could eat as much as 25 percent of your battery life.
The Apple Watch Series 3 will only give a 1 hour battery life for talk time if you use LTE?! pic.twitter.com/2DFHDQ4Ooi
— Eric Bartolotta (@ebartolotta) September 13, 2017
By our own tests, the Apple Watch Series 2 could manage around two days of life on a single charge with moderate to light usage. If you’re using the cellular capabilities on your Series 3, you’re not going to beat this. You could drain your entire Watch battery with a few hours at the gym and a couple of phone calls.
It’s worth remembering that the Series 3 isn’t going to be utilising LTE all the time. When you iPhone is in range, it will bridge wirelessly as every Apple Watch has done before it. So while the Series 3 with LTE is essentially Apple’s first smartphone on your wrist, the technology isn’t ready to stand on its own yet.
Your Other Option
The other thing Apple announced was watchOS 4, the next version of its wearable operating system. It’s not clear whether the first generation “Series 0” Watch will be supported (though it’s likely, given the device’s age), but Series 1 and Series 2 owners will get a free update that adds some nifty new features.
These include a new Siri watch face with machine learning to provide useful information based on your habits, enhanced workout with GymKit, better health data management, and general tweaks to the user interface. You might want to wait and see how the update affects your old Watch before reaching for your wallet.
WatchOS 4 to be available Sep 19 pic.twitter.com/u5kvaS7Gbb
— Daniel Eran Dilger (@DanielEran) September 12, 2017
If you’re still deciding whether or not to buy an Apple watch, consider saving some money by opting for a Series 1 device from only $249, or the cheaper Series 3 from $329. If you go for the cellular option, don’t forget to factor in the extra $10 per month you’ll be paying your carrier for the pleasure.
What do you think of the Series 3? Where is the future of wearables heading? Post your reactions to Apple’s Series 3 in the comments below.