Apple Watch Series 3 review

UPDATED: An LTE smartwatch that doesn't phone it in
Apple Watch Series 3

The Apple Watch Series 2 was the answer to a question Apple had been asking since its very first wearable: What do people actually want their smartwatch to do? The resounding answer was fitness, and in response the Series 2 doubled down on getting you in shape. The Apple Watch Series 3 has a more difficult question to answer: Do people want a cellular connection on their wrist?

Apple has made it clear that despite adding LTE to its smartwatch, the iPhone's days aren't numbered, but it wants us to lean a little less on the smartphone. Maybe that's going for a run with just the watch and still being able to take a call; perhaps it's being able to enjoy dinner with a friend, free from the temptation to check your phone every 20 minutes – because you left it at home.

Rivals: Fitbit Ionic review | Samsung S3 review | LG Watch Sport review

Apple is the sector's most successful smartwatch maker, and now the number one watch seller in the world – but the Series 3 poses its toughest challenge in trying convince us that an LTE connection on our wrists isn't a luxurious extra, but something genuinely useful. Are we convinced? Here's our verdict.

Apple Watch Series 3: Design

Apple Watch Series 3 review

The first major difference you'll notice between the Apple Watch Series 2 and Series 3 is… not much. In fact, beyond a red flourish to the digital crown on LTE-enabled models, everything is exactly as before. Ok, well, not exactly; the heart rate sensor protrudes an extra 0.25mm beneath, but you really can't notice it.

That red mark is the only distinguishing feature, and to be honest we find it to be one of Apple's stranger design choices. Not only is it rather blatant on an otherwise fairly subtle smartwatch, it clashes with a few of Apple's own straps. All of Jony Ive's careful deliberation between the subtleties of cobalt and midnight blue, and he goes and sticks that on.

But hey, maybe you're not too bothered by it. After all, you can only see it when the watch is turned to the side. Apple wasn't forthcoming when we asked the reason for it being there, but it seems fairly obvious that it's a way to show the world you have a tiny smartphone on your wrist, and you're not afraid to use it.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

Otherwise this is the same Apple Watch you already know, including the 1,000 nit display, which is as rich as ever, and the black face that cleverly conceals the bezel. The introduction of watchOS 4 brings new ways to interact with the existing design, including more time scrolling that crown to navigate lists and menus, but if you've used the Series 2 or Series 1, the Series 3 generally feels like a homecoming.

Which is more of a compliment this time, because Apple has managed to cram in LTE as well as GPS, the optical heart rate sensor and that gorgeous display into a waterproof design all without reducing battery life (with exceptions – we'll come to those). Other LTE watches we've seen from Android Wear OEMs and Samsung have been compromised in design by the cellular extra; the Apple Watch is the first smartwatch to feel like it isn't. Apple cracked the formula.

Like the models that preceded it, the Series 3 comes in a choice of aluminium, stainless steel and a fancy ceramic, either in white or grey, if you're feeling flush. Don't want LTE? That's fine, there's a Series 3 without it, but only in aluminium.

Apple Watch Series 3: Features

Apple Watch Series 3 review

We'll get onto the big new addition of LTE later, but as far as what else is new on the feature front, not a huge amount has changed from Series 2.

From a watch perspective you can still do things like change faces and customise with complications (widgets). There's still no always-on display mode, but a simple flick of the wrist wakes the watch up and you can slowly twist the digital crown to see what's on the agenda with the new Siri face. That crown still functions in the same way too, pushing you into that honeycomb UI (which can be sorted into a more sensible alphabetical list in watchOS 4) or letting you scroll through messages, while the button below pushes you to the dock, which is now oriented vertically, rather than horizontally. These small tweaks make the Watch feel much more intuitive.

Helping too is the new processor, which makes the Watch faster to use. We've noticed that switching between apps is faster on the Series 3, as is talking to Siri, which becomes a bigger deal with LTE. When opening apps the spinning wheel sometimes still hangs around longer than it's wanted, but it's much, much better than what we started with on the first Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Series 3 LTE
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Moving to the smarts, notifications are still very much at the heart of what the Watch does, and it does them really well. First- and third-party apps are supported, and you can add to or cull your flow in the companion app. If you've missed a notification, you can swipe down on the screen to reveal the most recent ones. Apple's slick approach to notification support remains a key reason why we like wearing it.

When it comes to communication, whether that's responding to tweets or taking a call, not a lot has changed here either. You can still do your best Dick Tracy impression as long as the call quality's strong, though you might struggle to to hear in noisier environments. You can also still use the built-in mic to dictate responses to texts, show off your emoji skills and draw out letters to type out messages. As far as being able to reply to notifications or people in general goes, Apple still offers the more comprehensive and reliable ways of doing it from your wrist compared to its closest rivals.

Apple Watch Series 3: LTE availability

Alongside a cheaper, GPS-only Apple Watch Series 3 is the LTE version, which boasts its own cellular connection. The new Apple Watch uses an eSIM, which means you don't have to insert a SIM card, and also allows you to share your number with your iPhone, depending on your carrier.

Read more: LTE smartwatches explained

But don't think that means it doesn't cost money. You'll still need to sign a deal with a carrier to get LTE connectivity – despite sharing a telephone number with your smartphone.

One caveat to LTE connectivity. T-Mobile will not be providing LTE speeds for your Series 3. Instead, you'll only be able to achieve 512kb/s, which is closer in speed to 3G than LTE. This is because T-Mobile's ONE plan limits all wearables and tethered devices to 512kb/s and, thus far, it isn't making any exception for Apple.

So what does it do? Apple has revealed that this will enable users to take/make calls, along with getting all your other notifications. You'll also be able to access Apple Music directly from the watch, so you can head out for a workout sans iPhone and still be able to stream tunes.

Availability for Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE carrier plans is pretty widespread, but far from worldwide. From launch you'll be able to find a Watch-specific tariff in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

In the US AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have announced pricing – it'll cost you $10 a month, which is comparable to other wearable devices. While AT&T isn't offering any deals, Verizon and T-Mobile customers will get three free months of LTE Apple Watch service. Spring will also carry the LTE Apple Watch, but hasn't announced pricing yet, though it's a safe bet it will also offer $10 a month.

Over in the UK, EE will be the sole carrier of the LTE-enabled Watch, and will add the Watch to your plan for £5 a month.

Apple Watch Series 3: Living with LTE

Apple Watch Series 3 review

So this is what it all comes down to. Just how good is the Apple Watch when separated from your iPhone? First, let's talk about LTE in general. This isn't the first smartwatch we've seen gain cellular connectivity, letting you use it away from the smartphone. Some of the Android Wear watches already offer this, as does the Samsung Gear S3.

Even once that's done, your Watch will only switch to its cellular connection when it loses a connection with your iPhone, otherwise it will default to Bluetooth. The speed of that hand-off has varied a bit in testing, with the watch sometimes picking up cellular bars almost instantly, and in other cases taking a while longer to latch on.

You'll know it's connected because the cellular icon in the Control Center will turn green, and Apple has a new watch face that will show you how many signal bars you have. From there you can make and receive calls and messages. Your number will display as it normally would for the person on the other end, and there should be no giveaway that you're contacting them on a smartwatch and not a phone.

Is LTE worth it?

But does cutting free make the Watch experience any better? To find out we've been going about normal daily activities sans smartphone, including a trip to supermarket, an evening out with friends, and a few workouts. All of which helped illuminate how we actually use a smartphone – and where the gaps still lie in Apple's cellular smartwatch.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

How useful you find LTE on the Apple Watch will depend on how you use your phone. For those of you who are into fitness, the Watch presents an obvious benefit in that it lets you head out for a jog, swim or bike ride without your smartphone. For the times we took it running and swimming, cutting the cord was absolute bliss, as it has been when we've worked out using cellular smartwatches before.

Being reachable and having access to music without an awkward rectangle bouncing around in our pocket was very freeing, and this will get much better in a month's time when Apple Music becomes available to stream through the watch. For the time being you'll have to make do with syncing your songs to the Apple Watch's memory. Sadly, we don't get the impression Spotify will be coming to the watch any time soon.


As for calling, the microphone on the watch is impressive. When we phoned a friend they said we sounded just like we were using a smartphone, and the speaker on our end was good too. It wasn't so good for us when we made a call from a busy street, as the speaker struggled to cut through the din, but the person on the other end said we were still coming through crisp and clear. For those situations, you're going to want to pair some Bluetooth headphones. Starting a call from the wrist can be done by selecting a contact from your address book, or by using the keypad.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

We don't think the Series 3 is going to finally be the one that convinces people to talk into their wrists, but with headphones, many of the features of the Series 3 feel better, especially as Siri can now talk back so you don't even need to look at the watch to get some information. It's almost as if the AirPods were launched in anticipation of all this…

All that said, while Siri may be improving, her dictation is still too hit-and-miss to make us want to reply to messages on the watch, AirPods or no AirPods. Alternatively you can scribble out each individual letter, or use one of Apple's custom responses, but these aren't ideal. Ultimately we don't think these interactions will improve until Siri gets better.

Fight! Fight! Fight!: Apple Watch vs Fitbit Ionic

We had a lot of a-ha moments through the day where relying on the watch away from the phone made sense, but there were also times we came up against walls of the Watch's capability. Maps, for example, are something we often rely on our phones for, and on the Watch that experience is compromised due to the limitations of Siri and Apple Maps, making it a bit too fiddly. Another thing is the lack of a camera; we've come to rely on our smartphones as our primary photo takers, and there were times when out with the Watch that we wanted to snap a picture, and couldn't. It's barely a criticism because we don't believe there's a case to stick a camera on the Apple Watch just yet, but it was an interesting observation.

If Apple wants to keep pushing us more to the wrist, these are things it may eventually have to think about. LTE especially makes a case for better navigation (hey Google, can we have the Maps app back?)

Apple Watch Series 3 review

More of an immediate concern are the supported third-party apps. The number of apps that work with the standalone cellular connection is very low right now, and any app that doesn't have an Apple Watch app, like WhatsApp, won't give you anything when you're separated from your phone. That's a huge bummer, and means that if you don't want to rely solely on Apple's services, you're out of luck. Hopefully this will change over time, and who knows, it might even push WhatsApp into finally adding support for Apple's wearable.

All of which is to say, we think the benefits of the Series 3 are going to vary a lot between people and the reasons they wear a smartwatch. Siri isn't yet good enough that we could lean on the Series 3 without a phone as much as we'd have liked to, but there have still been some revelatory moments in cutting that tie to the phone, many revolving around fitness or short trips away from our desks at work.

The question is how Apple can make LTE on the wrist compelling when other smartwatches haven't. The answer largely comes down to the intersection of hardware and software that Apple controls so well, making LTE feel more seamless and better integrated into the Apple Watch experience. Has Apple turned it into a must-have? Not yet, but it makes a more compelling case for it than we've seen to date.

Apple Watch Series 3: Fitness, sports tracking and heart rate accuracy

Apple Watch Series 3 review

Activity tracking

Apple never made a fitness tracker, opting instead to plug the features that we've come accustomed to seeing in Fitbits, Misfits and Garmin wearables into its smartwatch. It did however inherit many of the people that worked on the Nike Fuelband, and while that particular tracker is no more, it lives on in many ways through the Watch Series in the quest to keep you motivated and moving.

It's still all about filling those activity rings and giving you a notification nudge when you need that little push to hit your target. Sharing Activity data, which was recently introduced, remains a great tool for this and on the whole Apple's fitness tracking experience is really solid. But Apple is behind in one big area: sleep tracking. With Apple's acquisition of Beddit not so long ago, it was perhaps wishful thinking to expect the ability to monitor your zzz's would appear in the Watch Series 3, and we will probably have to wait for the next Apple smartwatch for it to turn up. Battery life is the obvious obstruction here, and until Apple can stretch that out it seems unlikely it will want to sell us on a feature that would be too compromised.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

As far as accuracy as concerned, we wore it with the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch and while both pack in similar sensors they do work to their own separate algorithms to calculate distance and steps. Despite that, there was generally a difference of 500-1,000 steps while distance covered was pretty much spot on. Inactivity notifications and milestone markers popped up around the same time too. We never expected the two to be identical but there doesn't seem to be any reason to sound the alarm that the Watch Series 3 is not doing a good job of tracking.

Apple does a very good job, but maybe it's time for a more actionable approach to the data it's recording, to provide the kind of motivation that will pay off in the long term. With Apple on board the FDA's new fast-track system, we could also see deeper health tracking appear before too long. It's already confirmed it's working with Stanford to test if the Watch can detect atrial fibrillation.

Running

On the Series 2, we got the built-in GPS we craved, and on the Watch Series 3 it's as speedy to pick up a signal as it was on the now-retired predecessor. Performance-wise, things thankfully haven't changed all that much, though the Watch does now track elevation gain. From a software perspective though, we still think there's some work to be done.

The Workout app is still your port of call to track a run, but you do have the option of a host of third-party apps and you'll probably want to explore those alternatives. There's nothing inherently wrong with the UI and the way it displays run data, but it's what happens after that's the problem. You still can't review a run on the watch, and it feels like there should be the option to do so.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

To compare GPS tracking and running metrics accuracy we put it up against the Garmin Forerunner 935 and the Polar Beat iPhone app for several runs and were generally pleased with what it delivers. As you can see from the screenshots above, distance and average pace are pretty much in line with the Garmin and the Polar app.

Is it a ready made replacement for a running watch? We'd still say no, but it does a better job of integrating run tracking than any other smartwatch we've tried. We just wish that Workout app was given a bit more love.

Swimming

The Apple Watch Series 2 was good at counting lengths, and we're pleased to say the Series 3 is impressively accurate too. The key is to make sure you set the pool length correctly before your workout so the Watch can calibrate. In a test against the Fitbit Ionic, the Apple Watch was bang-on in detecting our different stroke types. It did miss one lap, but still matched the Fitbit on yardage, so we weren't robbed of effort. This was in a busy pool, with lots of treading water between laps, so it did a good job of keeping up on distance and nailing those strokes.

Green optical sensors and water don't mix well, so don't rely on the Watch for heart rate readings, though it does try, and we could still see our readings throughout our swim, even if they were a bit spotty. Hard to say how reliable any of this is, though.

There's another benefit the Series 3 brings to the pool, and that's the LTE. We were still able to receive texts while in the pool, which was strange, but in a good way. Perhaps you'd prefer to switch off in those moments, and there's nothing stopping you from turning off cellular at any moment, but for people who can't suffer being separated from their notifications for too long, you can put that anxiety to rest.

Heart rate accuracy

Apple is tackling heart rate in two ways on the Watch Series 3. The first is still heavily geared towards fitness and giving you a better measurement of workout intensity, and now it can also measure resting heart rate throughout the day. That's a valuable piece of data because it's a strong indicator of your current state of health. A lower resting heart rate is definitely a good thing, in case you were wondering.

The sensor setup that's making that monitoring happen is near identical to the one on the Watch Series 2, so results should be the pretty much the same. Good and reliable, but not perfect. That statement could apply to a lot of wrist-based heart rate monitors though.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

What we found is that the heart rate monitor is another solid performer, whether it's checking in on your resting heart rate or real-time data during a treadmill session. Average heart rate readings generally seem to be higher in comparison to the Polar H10 chest strap we tested it against, roughly 5-6bpm. For max heart readings, it produced readings that were only 1 or 2 bpm off the H10. So on the whole it's one of the better optical sensors we've tested. We do still have reservations about its ability to handle really high-intensity workout sessions in short bursts, though. Over longer periods, it still seems pretty reliable, but HIIT fans might be left a little disappointed.

Apple Watch Series 3: Battery Life

As we said, Apple hasn't compromised battery life significantly with the Series 3, and when testing a mix of cellular and non-cellular features we've still been getting over a day of use. Apple continues to quote 18 hours, and you can probably hit that easily enough with moderate use, but when you start hammering the LTE you'll notice a faster drain.

Calling is especially battery intensive, and you'll only get an hour of talk time when using the Watch as a standalone phone; up to three if it's paired to the iPhone. So this isn't meant for those long catch up calls with your Auntie Nora, more just a few minutes here and there.

Apple Watch Series 3 vs Series 2

The big question many of you will be asking is how the Series 3 compares to the Series 2. One of the biggies is that the Series 3 is faster, with Apple touting that 70% performance boost, while the barometric altimeter means you'll only get the elevation tracking on the new models.

In terms of size, you're pretty much looking at the same smartwatch. Apple says the glass on the back of Series 3 is 0.25mm thicker – about two sheets of paper – which means it will be even less noticeable than the case bump-up between Series 1 and Series 2. The only other design difference is the red accent crown on the LTE version, while the non-LTE Series 3 is indistinguishable from its predecessor.


Apple Watch Series 3
By Apple
If you’re still rocking an Apple Watch Series 1 or original model, the Apple Watch Series 3 is worth the upgrade, LTE or not. For Series 2 owners, you’re looking at almost the same smartwatch, so an update will depend on how much you value LTE on the wrist. The Series 3 is about those windows through the day where a cellular watch can be freeing. It’s not yet time to ditch the smartphone, but Apple makes a more convincing case for a standalone smartwatch than anyone else so far.

Hit
  • LTE brings new freedom
  • Faster performance
  • Call quality is very good
Miss
  • Additional monthly cost to have LTE
  • Third-party apps are lacking
  • The curious case of the red dot


1 Comment

  • JasonNuss says:

    I have a series 3 also. What is the watch face you have. I want that watch face!! Thanks if can let me know

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