Skipping straight to the conclusion, Apple Watch Series 4 is the best Apple Watch ever. And that makes it the best smartwatch ever. It is without peer. And that’s too bad. I can’t help but think that if Apple had some real competition, the list of nagging gripes would be a lot shorter.
If you have anything less than a Series 3, you should buy this watch. Here is what you need to know:
The Crowning Achievement
Smartwatches are wrist computers. And computers need input devices and interaction mechanisms. The Apple Watch uses touch, swipe, press, and roll. Rolling is handled by the digital crown. It was a good idea from the beginning, but with suspect implementation. Series 4 makes the digital crown a priority. And it shows.
I suspect this crown will get all munged up with crud as did the old one. After all, it is still a mechanical object. Apple Watch owners know that they have to periodically clean the crown under running water to keep it working smoothly. But that has not happened to me yet. So I can only compare how the crown works at its best compared to the previous watches. The Series 4 has a noticeably smoother action, and is a delight to use.
That is not the only new trick it brings to the table. Rolling the digital crown while on a list rewards you with haptic feedback to reflect the items being scrolled. I am not certain how useful it is, as there is a slight lag between what you see and what you feel. But it is rather satisfying all the same.
The new crown is a little smaller and less prone to accidental activation. Everything about it is much improved. Besides the screen, the crown might well be the most improved feature on the Series 4.
While it is not worth its own subheading, the side button is also improved. Apple made it completely flush so that you don’t even feel it unless you are looking for it. Even then, you don’t so much feel it as you just happen to know where it is. It is a subtile improvement. But on something as small as a watch, little improvements are a big deal.
Let’s talk about the screen. The new, larger display size for Apple Watch is 44mm, up from 42mm. Wile the watches are virtually the same size, there is more screen on the new one. While 2mm is a small increase, this is one of those little changes that make a big difference. Both sizes grew by roughly 33%. The smaller size at 40mm is roughly the same as the previous 42mm.
That said, few screen elements are actually larger. This is one of those increases that crams more information on the screen rather than giving you bigger print. Being a person with low vision, I will almost always opt for bigger print on a larger screen. If you are like me, this screen increase, while appreciated, is not the low-vision win you were hoping for.
That said, you do get a bit more information on the screen at the size you are used to, if not a bit smaller in some cases. Eight complications plus the time is going to be a little pinched on something worn on the wrist. The text that goes along with those enhanced complications is pretty small, even for a person with perfect vision.
Still, the text is very crisp. And the touch layer is very responsive. If possible, it even feels more fluid and natural than the Series 3. And that was no slouch. The rounded corners soften the look of the device. Round watch faces seem a lot more at home on the Series 4. Too bad there aren’t more of them.
Beam Me Up
No, the Series 4 does not have a built-in transporter. You will have to acquire one of those separately. But if you had one, you most likely would be able to use your watch to command it to beam you up. The Apple Watch has, in some respects, become a better Star Trek communicator than the one envisioned by the writers of that iconic show.
Apple Watch takes voice calls seriously. It is not just a gimmick to inflate the feature list for marketing purposes. This is the second year Apple has offered an LTE variant. It is not just for data. Not only does the watch have a dedicated phone app, Apple enhanced the speaker to make phone calls even better.
Apple is also pushing another form of voice communication: walkie-talkie. It works as advertised. It’s fun. And it is quite useful. Think of it as a personal intercom between you and all your Watch-wearing friends and family. Apple has been trying to figure out ways to do communications on the watch since the beginning. With walkie-talkie, they have done it. If you don’t have a watch, walkie-talkie is almost reason enough to get a pair of them.
You can still communicate in all the expected ways such as email, messaging, and social media. You can invoke Siri for dashing off a quick message, or scribble it on the screen with your finger it you prefer. Need more? There are plenty of third-party communication apps for your every need.
Not About Time
Apple Watch is as much about time as iPhone is about phone calls. That is to say, it is not about time at all, at least, not primarily. Keeping track of time is a thing it can help you do. But Apple doesn’t see to consider it a high priority.
Consider the fact that from the beginning, one of the most repeated criticisms and requests is concerning the missing, always-on feature. Apple requires you to make a definite motion to view the time. There is no casual glanceability.
Also notice that on the digital watch faces, with few exceptions, the time is not the largest element. The new Infograph Modular face has a larger central panel. That area is not reserved for a larger display of the time, but for just about anything else you would like to track. The time is relegated to the upper-right corner. Here are a short list of things you can track with the Apple Watch besides the time:
Weather (all aspects)
This does not even scratch the surface. You can follow your friends on social media, track packages, and keep an eye on sports scores. Today’s Apple Watch is yesterday’s smartphone, only better. It is so much more than a glorified time tracker.
More Personal, More Assistant
There is a great deal of sturm and drang over Siri’s imperfections as a digital assistant. But I personally get a great deal of utility from Siri, and couldn’t imagine going through my day without it. Having a talking version of Siri on my wrist is indispensable, especially with the new, louder speaker.
It is important to realize that we had personal digital assistants long before they had voices and personalities. The original PDA was the modern smartphone without the phone. The smartwatch is like that, except with the phone.
It is your calendar, reminders, todo list, contacts, quick notes, and voice memos right on your wrist. With NFC, it is also your wallet. You can walk out of your house, listen to your favorite podcasts, check your schedule, and buy your favorite cup of coffee requiring no other technology than your Apple Watch. It is more personal and more helpful than ever.
Health and Safety
Much has already been said about the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker. It is an excellent tracker for the people who are already healthy, and want to stay that way. That said, I am not all that interested in health products for the already healthy, any more than I am interested in beauty products marketed at the already beautiful.
While the Apple Watch is great for the health nut, it is even better for the less fit among us. Apple started out by encouraging healthier habits such as standing once an hour and doing 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day. But not everyone is there. Some people have existing conditions. And Series 4 is doing more to address those.
The Apple Watch can proactively tell you when your heart rate is too high or too low. These notifications have already saved lives. Now, Watch can also tell you when you have an irregular heartbeat constituting AFIB. People with known heart problems will also be able to do a supplemental ECG from the watch that can be passed on to their doctor.
Beyond tracking heartbeats, Apple Watch can also tell when you have fallen and can’t get up. It’s only funny when it is not your mother on the floor. Not only does Watch note that a fall took place, but proactively calls emergency services along with your chosen emergency contacts if you don’t get up inside of a minute.
This feature is turned on automatically for those 65 and older. Everyone else has to turn it on manually. There are a lot of reasons turning this feature on is a good idea for everyone.
It is almost certain that future Apple Watches will tackle blood pressure and glucose levels. Apple is not just making devices for the already healthy, but for everyone. Apple Watch is not just a health monitor, but a device that covers both health and safety. That sets it apart from everything else in the category.
Some might notice from the pictures that I am rocking a cellular model. This will seem weird since I mercilessly mocked the very idea of a cellular watch in the past. I got it through my carrier making monthly payments. and cellular is the only option when purchasing it that way.
That said, I am starting to see the benefit of cellular on a watch. I tend to take my phone with me everywhere I go. But I am now realizing I do that because I have to, not because I want to. I don’t want to grab my phone every time I take the dog out for a walk, or go across the street for a burger, or walk a couple blocks for groceries, or just go out for a bit of exercise.
With onboard LTE, there is nothing I would do in those situations with my phone that I can’t do just as well with my watch. The only thing I would do with my phone in those situations is take it out of my pocket and drop it or scratch the screen.
In situations where the phone provides no added utility, it is nice to be able to leave it behind. This is not a sleight against the phone. I don’t bring my laptop with me on those occasions either. And I absolutely need my laptop. My life affords plenty of opportunity to use the phone. But I am discovering that it also affords plenty of opportunity to leave it behind.
The fear is that if you leave your phone behind, you might need to do something requiring the phone. To allay those concerns, here is some of what you can do on LTE without the Phone:
Check the weather on your favorite apps
Call an Uber
Pay for things
Make a phone/FaceTime Audio call
Use the walkie-talkie
Listen to music from Apple Music
Listen to podcasts
Listen to downloaded audiobooks
Use the map for turn-by-turn directions
You cannot play games, surf the web, or write long documents. Things that require more than a few seconds of screen time are better done on something with a larger screen and better i/o. That still leaves Watch with a lot to do when it is away from the phone.
Conclusion: Fantastic 4
If you have been waiting on the right moment to jump into the smartwatch game, now is the time. It is better looking and more functional than ever. That is not to say that it is perfect. There are gripes. And I will address those in a separate post. But the gripes don’t really affect the buying decision. Almost everyone should buy this watch.
You wouldn’t advise people not to buy a smartphone or a computer because these devices have issues. Of course they have issues. But of course you want and need them. Apple Watch is ready for the mainstream.
The tough decision is reserved for Series 3 owners. There is no shame in getting another year or three from your current watch. But there is also no shame in upgrading. Series 4 is fantastic and more refined. Apple will give you up to $250 for your Series 3 in the form of a rebate if you purchase a Series 4. That is a pretty good deal, and might just tip the scales.
You might also have good luck selling your Series 3 as I did. If you keep your Series 3, you need not fear missing out. But if you upgrade, you will not be disappointed. Let your wallet be your guide.