Review: Apple's New Watch Only Partly Frees You From Your iPhone

Sep 26, 2017

The good: Offers LTE connectivity without a bulky design, can now measure flights of stairs climbed.
The bad: Expensive, and not all third-party apps work without your phone.
Who should buy: With LTE support, integrated GPS and better health tracking, the Apple Watch Series 3 is Apple's most comprehensive smartwatch yet. But the LTE is only worth the extra monthly expense if you feel burdened by your smartphone.

When Apple introduced the Apple Watch in 2014, CEO Tim Cook used the word "personal" to describe it. In some ways he was right: the watch is a device that's meant to be worn on the wrist, in full display, all and every day, not tucked away in a pocket or purse. It knows how fast your heart is beating, can nudge you when someone calls, and lets you pay for things without reaching for a wallet or iPhone. For all that our smartphones rule our lives, Apple wanted its smartwatch to be a semi-liberating alternative.

For all it's done to free up those functions, it can still feel shackling. The Apple Watch is literally a miniature wrist-sized computer, but it relies on your iPhone to do all the heavy lifting. Without a Bluetooth tether to your phone or a connection to a compatible Wi-Fi network, your Apple Watch is a glorified pedometer with a clock.

That's finally starting to change with the Apple Watch Series 3. It's the company's first smartwatch to have a cellular radio built-in, which means it can connect to data networks all by itself. That is by far its biggest improvement. But it also includes a processor that's 70% faster, a barometric altimeter for measuring elevation and a new wireless chip (dubbed "W2") for improving Wi-Fi performance. The Series 3 with LTE starts at $399, but you can also opt for a version of the Series 3 without cellular support for $329.

The Series 3 definitely did more to separate me from my phone than any other smartwatch I've tested. Apple's smartwatch isn't the first to support cellular connectivity. Plenty of others including Samsung and LG have offered it for a long time. But Apple's Watch is the only one that's both sleek and comfortable enough for me to want to keep on my wrist all day.

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The number one question my friends and family members ask about buying a smartwatch is: What's the point if I have to keep my phone nearby? Cellular connectivity addresses that concern, but the Series 3 still relies on your iPhone more than I'd expected. For instance, I left my phone at home during a hike with friends, and was able to successfully send and receive texts, as well as initiate phone calls. But I could do little else. Several apps I frequently use, including Instagram, Yelp, Twitter, Slack, and Yahoo Fantasy, for example, still require that your phone be nearby in order to work.

The Apple Watch's cellular connectivity covers important basics: making calls, sending texts, checking email, or getting directions through Apple Maps. And in the near future it'll support streaming tunes from Apple Music. Apps like Dark Sky, Yummly, Uber and Lyft also work independently on the watch. But several other things I like to do, say checking Twitter or Instagram while waiting in line for a coffee, still require the phone's presence. Apple's smartwatch isn't meant to be a smartphone replacement, but it is supposed to keep you in the loop when your phone isn't nearby. At this point that's a question of app support. If there's an app you can't live without and expect to function independently on the new Apple Watch, you'll want to verify its developer supports the new LTE functionality.

As a texting tool, the watch is sufficient for sending simple replies, but isn't designed for full conversations. I answered a text from my sister by tracing letters on the watch's screen to spell words. As with past models, the watch translated my swipes with little error. But spelling words takes time, and the Apple Watch is better suited for dispatching pithy, prewritten responses that appear as selectable options like "Sure!," and "No problem!," or "Sorry, can't talk right now."

Making calls from the Watch didn't feel as convenient as from my phone, but it's reliable enough for quick voice chats. I could hear recipients clearly, without having to hold the watch to my ear. I simply asked Siri to make a phone call while typing at my keyboard, and was able to connect and begin talking without lifting my wrist. You'll probably want a pair of Bluetooth headphones if you plan on taking phone calls often, since the Watch itself, while fine in a pinch, is a mediocre speakerphone. Keeping a charger handy is also essential if you plan to take a lot of calls on the Watch while away from your phone. A two-and-a-half-minute phone call dropped my watch's battery from 73% to 69%, and Apple says the new Watch is good for up to an hour of LTE talking, tops.

Not that leaving LTE tanks the battery. In my tests and outside of calls, the Series 3 Watch had comparable battery life to last year's Series 2. You'll still have to charge the watch nightly, and power-hungry features like calls or running with GPS enabled will drain the battery quickly. But if you're an average user, you shouldn't have trouble getting through a day off a single charge.

Many Apple Watch reviewers also reported connectivity issues and inconsistencies due to a bug that prompts the watch to connect to Wi-Fi networks when it shouldn't. I didn't experience this during my testing, and was able to access LTE wherever I usually have Verizon service with my iPhone, but it's worth noting. Apple says it's looking into the issue, and a fix is presumably forthcoming.

Because the new Apple Watch has a more powerful processor, Siri can respond to you verbally through the watch for the first time. I can't think of many situations in which I'd need to use Siri when my phone or Mac isn't nearby. But if you do, say, want to set a reminder while at the gym or going to pick up the laundry, Siri works pretty well on the wrist. As was the case with phone calls, Siri's responses are usually audible enough to hear without raising your hand.

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Playing catchup to Fitbit, the Apple Watch Series 3 finally has a barometric altimeter. That means the new watch can measure how many flights of stairs you climb in a day, which it then factors into your daily activity readings. It will also show changes in elevation as a new metric during a workout, which can be useful for those who frequently run uphill. It may sound like a minor addition, but it's another indication that fitness tracking is no longer a side bet for the Apple Watch. Apple is slowly but surely closing the gap between the Apple Watch and Fitbit's line of fitness trackers in measuring versatility.

After spending several days with the Apple Watch Series 3, I found it to be most helpful in day-to-day scenarios like running quick errands in my neighborhood, or stepping out to lunch during the workday. In those instances, I felt safe leaving my phone (and purse) behind knowing that I'd still be able to receive incoming calls or texts.

But priorities and carrier preferences are going to vary, and it's worth shopping around. You can get the Apple Watch Series 1 for $249, which is $150 cheaper than the LTE Apple Watch. It can't connect to LTE networks, manage GPS without a phone or keep water out if you go for a swim, but it's enough for managing notifications when your phone's tucked away in a bag or pants pocket. The Apple Watch Series 3 also has a hidden cost: you'll have to pay your carrier an extra $10 per month to add it to your data plan. And if your heart is set on LTE, you'll want to consider alternatives like the LG Watch Sport, which is much cheaper at $249.

Apple never intended the Series 1 or 2 Apple Watch to replace your phone, and with the Series 3, it still doesn't. Your smartphone is generally a better choice for just about every task the Watch can perform, save for fitness tracking and checking the time. Support for cellular connectivity is a big step toward Apple smartwatch independence, but in some ways it's also an incremental one. Unless you're already an iPhone user, and unless you're craving a phone-independent fitness tracker that folds neatly into Apple's app-verse, the Series 3's LTE is more of a novelty than a bedrock feature that's fully worth the added expense.

3.5 out of 5

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