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Apple Watch Series 4 Review

The Apple Watch is not just a niche smartwatch anymore. In fact, Apple claims it’s the most popular watch — smart or otherwise — in the world. The Series 4 is the latest generation of this product line, and it adds several features that sound great on paper. This includes the ability to take ECG readings, fall detection, larger and better displays that go all the way to the edge, and an improved heart rate sensor.

The Apple Watch also has GPS to track your runs accurately, and can be worn while swimming to track your swims as well. Unfortunately, the ECG feature doesn’t yet work in India for want of the necessary regulatory approvals, though that might change in the future. But how does the rest of the package hold up? Read on to find out.

Apple Watch Series 4 design, display, and setup process

If you already have an older Apple Watch, you’ll immediately notice two things about the new Apple Watch Series 4 — the display, and the new heart rate sensor. The Apple Watch Series 4 has a display that extends nearly to the edge of the screen. The Series 4 sizes are now 40mm and 44mm rather than 38mm and 42mm. The interesting thing is that all existing Apple Watch bands still work with the Series 4, but remember that 38mm watch bands are compatible with the 40mm Series 4, and the 42mm bands with the 44mm Series 4. This is a nice move on Apple’s part and it rewards those who’ve already bought a bunch of bands.

The optical heart rate sensor has just one LED instead of the four that previous models had. A more subtle change is that the digital crown now doubles as an electrical sensor too. These two can be used in conjunction to collect better heart rate data, which we’ll talk about in depth later.

 

The Series 4 models, just like with the Series 3, have LTE variants to allow you to make phone calls and receive messages even when your phone is switched off. Luckily, the gaudy red circle on the LTE version’s digital crown has been replaced with a much subtler red ring. It’s nice to look at, but we think it’s unnecessary to differentiate the two models visually. The speaker occupies more space on one side, and the microphone has been moved to the other side, between the digital crown and the side button.

The display is one of the standout features of the Apple Watch Series 4. Having a little bit of extra screen space has allowed Apple to introduce some new watch faces and tweak its existing ones, as well as displaying more Complications (Apple’s term for widgets). Our favourite watch face, Activity, now shows the time in seconds as well — it’s still just hours and minutes on older Apple Watch models.

We had no issues with legibility on the display, and the Series 4’s 44mm screen almost felt a bit too large when compared with the 42mm Apple Watch Series 2. We think the 40mm variant might be big enough for many people, even those who used the 42mm Apple Watch models. The Sport band is extremely comfortable and we never felt like taking the Apple Watch Series 4 off our wrist, except of course to charge it.

apple watch series 4 pace alert gadgets 360 Apple Watch Series 4

The Series 4 has a larger display, one that extends almost to the edge of the screen

 

The Apple Watch Series 4 uses the same magnetic charging cradle as its predecessors, which is a big plus in an industry where companies such as Fitbit seem hell-bent on designing different chargers for each new product. Apple has changed the box for the Series 4, making its shape longer and thinner. We received the 44mm stainless steel LTE variant with the Sport band for review, which is priced at Rs. 71,900 in India.

The setup process is simple enough. You just have to open the Watch app on your iPhone 5s or newer iPhone (Series 4 ships with watchOS 5, which isn’t compatible with older models) and follow the simple on-screen instructions. For the LTE variant, you’ll see a page called Mobile Data Setup, and if you choose to set up LTE at the outset, you will be redirected to your telecom carrier’s website to log in and set up the Apple Watch’s eSIM.

You’ll be using the same phone number as the SIM in your paired iPhone, so it is worth noting that at the moment only Airtel and Reliance Jio support Apple Watch Series 4 LTE in India. The setup process was pretty smooth, and we managed to get LTE working instantly. However, after having un-paired and re-paired the Apple Watch a few days later, we had issues re-activating LTE on Airtel.

Apple Watch Series 4 watch faces

There’s a new Series 4-exclusive Infograph watch face, which lets you have as many as eight complications apart from showing the time and a calendar entry. Each of the four corners of the display allows for one Complication, and there are four more within the dial. This allows people to customise the watch face to suit their needs and get all the information they need at a glance.

As nice as it is to have all these options on the Infograph watch face, we were left wondering why you can’t instead show information from certain apps. Apple’s own apps such as Messages and Phone can’t be added as Complications on this watch face, which is baffling. We’d have expected that all of Apple’s apps would be well-integrated with watch faces, but clearly that is not the case here. However, a new report suggests that this could be coming soon.

Third-party developers still can’t create watch faces for people to download, but we can keep hoping that that’s in the works for next year’s release.

apple watch series 4 infograph activity gadgets 360 Apple Watch Series 4

Infograph (left) is a new watch face, and Activity (right) shows the time in seconds as well on the Series 4.

 

We think watchOS still needs to evolve a little to better support the LTE variant of the Apple Watch Series 4. We don’t like the fact that you have to swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen to see the strength of the LTE signal (unless you use the Explorer watch face, which isn’t one of our favourites). If there is no signal, you see a red X icon at the top of the screen, which is good but not enough. This is exactly the kind of information that should be displayable as a Complication on any watch face, but as of now, it remains unsupported.

There should also be a way to quickly launch the Phone app to make calls. Right now, you still have to go to the app drawer, which feels laborious for what is one of the headlining feature of the world’s most popular smartwatch.

Apple Watch Series 4 software, apps, and ecosystem

Apple has steadily been working on making the Apple Watch more than just an iPhone accessory. The LTE variant can work without your iPhone being within range all the time, but it isn’t a standalone product and still needs to be paired with an iPhone during setup. Also, the Apple Watch’s functionality is still somewhat limited when used untethered.

At the time of writing this review, only four of the top 50 free iPhone apps on the App Store in India — — Facebook Messenger, Jio Music, Ola Cabs, and Uber — were available for the Apple Watch. Sure, not all of them would be a good fit for the Apple Watch (camera apps, photo and video editing apps, video streaming apps, for example), but not having Google Maps or even WhatsApp does hurt the Series 4’s utility as a standalone device.

When your iPhone is on and within range, you can quickly reply to WhatsApp texts. If your iPhone is switched off, you won’t even get notifications from apps like WhatsApp because they don’t have a corresponding Apple Watch app. However, if you leave your iPhone at home when it’s connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data and head outside with your Apple Watch, you will receive notifications and be able to reply to them via the watch, as long as your Watch as Internet connectivity.

We made lots of phone calls through the Apple Watch Series 4 during our review period. The microphone worked well even when we were walking with our hands at our sides, but we still had to raise our hands to our faces like characters from a 70s spy movie to hear the other party clearly. You might have a different experience based on how noisy your surroundings are. Most people will either pair the watch with AirPods or other Bluetooth headphones while making calls, and that is a much better way to use the Series 4 LTE for phone calls.

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The Explorer watch face shows LTE signal strength and a Complication to quickly open the phone app.

 

There are a few other neat features such as being able to open some websites on the watch itself (via the Messages app) and the ability to trigger Siri just by bringing the watch close to your mouth — there’s no need to say “Hey Siri” anymore. Siri has improved a bit, and can now perform tasks such as setting alarms and playing music pretty well. However, in our experience, it didn’t reliably open every time we spoke a command to the watch, which was frustrating. Once, we said, “Hey Siri” with the watch close to our lips and it got triggered on our iPhone but not the watch.

The Apple Watch remains the best smartwatch for the iPhone due to its tight integration with iOS. A tiny little new feature that makes a world of a difference is that, like iOS 12, watchOS now groups notifications by app. This allows you to quickly dismiss pesky alerts on the watch itself, without having to scroll through an endless list.

Apple Watch Series 4 fitness tracking

The one purpose that we would highly recommend the Apple Watch for is fitness. Ever since the Apple Watch Series 2 was launched, it’s been pretty clear that exercise tracking is the best feature of the Apple Watch. The Series 4 doesn’t have any exclusive new fitness-oriented features, and you can track all the same workouts on older Apple Watch models too. Still, we were quite excited to check out what improvements the new heart rate sensor brings, and whether that merits upgrading to the Series 4.

Automatic workout detection, introduced with watchOS 5, allows the Apple Watch to log workouts that you forget to trigger. It even shows a notification asking you to confirm that you’ve finished a workout. We found these alerts to be largely accurate, apart from one instance when the Apple Watch thought we had begun an elliptical workout when we were in fact sitting in an auto-rickshaw on Mumbai’s potholed roads – and we don’t blame the device for that at all. It was also pretty good at alerting us about ending our workouts — we always got these while stretching after a run or gym session.

apple watch series 4 heart rate sensor gadgets 360 Apple Watch Series 4

The Series 4 (left) has a much improved heart rate sensor when compared with the Series 2 (right).

 

We like the new Activity Competitions feature that lets you challenge friends and motivate yourself to stay active. We kept checking our score every day and tried our best to win the competition, which is a nice way to avoid being lazy. It’s actually quite easy to cheat here — you can simply set your daily move goal to 10 calories (Force Touch the activity rings in the Activity app) and quickly earn the maximum possible 600 points in a day. Even if you bring the calorie goal back up to your normal level, the earned points don’t disappear. Perhaps we need a feature that doesn’t allow for changing the move goal when a competition is on.

For runners, previous-generation Apple Watches have proven themselves to be pretty good. With watchOS 5, the Apple Watch can now track cadence data (the number of steps you take per minute), which is useful for runners. For those who don’t follow the running circuit, cadence is one way to verify whether someone actually ran a particular distance or whether they simply enjoyed a car ride with GPS tracking enabled. The car ride would obviously show a much lower cadence than running. There was no easy way for us to verify the cadence data that the Series 4 recorded, but it seemed to be accurate enough based on our pace.

apple watch series 4 activity competitions Apple Watch Series 4

Activity competition is a fun new watchOS 5 feature that lets you challenge your friends to a fitness battle.

 

We ran the Apple Watch Series 4 through our standard tests as well. We manually counted 1,000 steps while walking and found the Apple Watch to be very accurate — it measured 1,002 steps. Then we performed our GPS test on a 1km stretch that we have measured using the odometer of a car. The route takes us under a flyover and through an extremely busy stretch of the road next to several skyscrapers. We switched off the paired iPhone during this test for the most representative result, because the Apple Watch can use a paired iPhone’s GPS to get a quick lock on your location. At the end of the 1km walk, the Apple Watch reported the distance to be 1.03km. This is a pretty impressive result, and we also found that the deviation was non-existent in open spaces where GPS devices usually face no trouble in tracking your precise location.

You can set pace alerts while running, which means that if you want to run at 6 minutes per km, the watch will alert you if you deviate from this pace. There are two types of alerts — rolling and average. Rolling alerts check your pace in real time, while average alerts are triggered only when your average pace is falling short of the target. If you’re training for a marathon, these will help you ensure that you aren’t running too fast or too slow. These worked very well for us during our runs, and it’s a good thing that this feature is now available on Series 2 and 3 as well.

apple watch series 4 run gadgets 360 Apple Watch Series 4

Pace alerts allow runners to avoid running too fast or too slow during training.

 

We weren’t able to test swim tracking with the Series 4 during our test period but this feature has worked well for us with the Series 2 and we expect it to be similar with the Series 4. We did go to the gym multiple times and tracked those workouts. Here’s the best thing about the Series 4 — the improved heart rate sensor results in much more accurate workout data. We wore the Series 2 on one hand and the Series 4 on the other for multiple gym sessions and found that the Series 4 was much quicker to detect changes in heart rate.

With regular high intensity interval training, the built-in HIIT mode did a great job on both devices, but the heart rate sensor of the older model sometimes took a few extra seconds to detect a jump in heart rate. There were no such issues with the Series 4, which was on the ball all the time. We even compared it against a pulse oximeter, and the results were more or less an exact match.

If we have one complaint about the fitness-related features of the Apple Watch Series 4, it would be the lack of a proper strength training mode. If you want to log 50 pushups, 50 sit-ups, and 50 pull-ups at the gym, you’ll have to rely on third-party apps. It’s impossible for a wrist-worn device to know that you’ve done any number of squats or push-ups. The Apple Watch also still lacks built-in sleep tracking, but there are free apps such as Sleep++ to fill that gap.

We’ve felt for a while that Apple could do a lot more to help people train, beyond just helping people track their activity. This means that the Apple Watch, at some point, should have a training mode that features guided workout plans that you can follow directly from your watch. Those could be for achieving a goal such as training for a marathon, or a nice strength training routine. We wish the subtle taps on your wrist that alert you every time you’ve closed an activity ring could be used to prompt you to do another set of an exercise, followed by a rest time, and then the next set. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but it definitely could increase the appeal of the Apple Watch for those who value strength training over everything else.

If you’re among those who are just trying to get active or reduce stress, the Apple Watch is still a pretty good product for you. We think this group of people doesn’t need the Series 4, because the Series 1/ Series 2/ Series 3 models will get the job done for a lot less money. The three activity rings — Move, Exercise, and Stand — are excellent motivators to get people moving. You just have to be active enough to hit your daily calorie target, exercise for 30 minutes a day, and stand up for a minute once every hour for 12 hours. These rings have been around since the first Apple Watch, and many people anecdotally report being or at least feeling fitter thanks to this feature. The Breathe app periodically reminds you to take a minute to breathe deeply to reduce stress. It works very well and you can do this without moving an inch.

apple watch series 4 infograph gadgets 360 Apple Watch Series 4

The Infograph watch face is exclusive to Apple Watch Series 4.

 

We never actually fell during our review period, but we did drop the Apple Watch Series 4 once and it accurately detected it as a fall. This is the new fall detection feature that is unique to the Series 4, and it can alert emergency services if you don’t move for 10 seconds after falling. This is a nice feature to have, even if it’s one you hope you never have to use. This feature is enabled by default only if you list your age as over 65 during setup. Otherwise you have to enable fall detection manually via Settings in the Watch app.

Battery life without LTE was a solid two days, but with it enabled and our paired iPhone switched off, the Series 4 barely lasted us six to eight hours. Of course that’s not how most people would use the Watch, so that number is a bit extreme. With LTE enabled and the iPhone switched on and near the Apple Watch most of the time, the battery went down from 100 percent at 6am to 14 percent at 10pm, so it should last you a full day.

A 30-minute run while streaming music via LTE to our AirPods brought the battery down by 13 percent. This is not bad, but long-distance runners who’d be running for over two hours while training will likely have to download music to the watch instead of streaming it.

Verdict

All of this leads us to conclude that the Apple Watch Series 4 is an excellent upgrade over the Series 3, but we do have our share of quibbles. The ECG feature isn’t available in India right now, the app ecosystem is quite weak, and the LTE variant of the Series 4 needs watchOS to evolve further.

We really love the fitness-related features of the Apple Watch Series 4, and its display is just stunning. We’d go so far as to say that it’s the best screen we’ve seen on any watch so far. The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at Rs. 40,900 for the 40mm GPS version and Rs. 49,900 for the cellular variant. The starting prices for the 44mm equivalents are Rs. 43,900 and Rs. 52,900. This is a significant jump from the Rs. 32,000 starting price of the Series 3 at the time of its launch.

While there is a lot to love about the Apple Watch Series 4, it is hard to justify the price. The LTE variant is almost a luxury item at this point, and we don’t think it’s worth paying a huge premium for it, especially because the ecosystem isn’t ready. Also, it will only work with Jio and Airtel right now.

The GPS variant would be our recommendation for those who want the best smartwatch for their iPhone. If you only care about fitness features and won’t miss the bigger display or fall detection, the Apple Watch Series 3 is almost as capable and starts at Rs. 28,900 right now for the GPS variant and Rs. 37,900 if you need LTE. You still get an excellent watch for running, swimming, and general fitness, as well as watchOS 5’s new features including grouped notifications and improved workout data. Battery life is also similar, making last year’s version an excellent value pick.

Pros

  • Stunning display
  • Accurate fitness tracking and heart rate sensor
  • Good battery life (non-LTE)

Cons

  • Weak app ecosystem
  • Lacks built-in sleep tracking
  • Expensive

Ratings (out of 5)

  • Design and comfort: 4.5
  • Tracking accuracy: 4.5
  • Software and ecosystem: 3.5
  • Battery life (GPS): 4 (LTE): 3
  • Overall: 4.5


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