- Great price for Apple Watch benefits
- Top sports and fitness tracking
- Lots of apps
- Design looks dated compared to Series 5
- No ECG or fall detection
- iOS only
The Apple Watch Series 3 is now two generations old, and does feel a tad dated due to the older, boxier screen shape and display technology.
However, it's still a brilliant smartwatch, deserving of Wareable's Smartwatch of the Year award in 2017, and Apple has continued selling the Series 3 for a cut-price, to ward off the challenge from smartwatches like the Amazfit GTS.
Apple has permanently dropped the price of the 38mm Series 3 down to just . But it now sits just under the Apple Watch SE, which offers the more modern design and updated features for just less. The Apple Watch Series 6 is still .
Even the bigger 42mm Series 3, which comes in at , is still pretty affordable. If you shop around for Apple Watch deals, you may find it for cheaper than that, too.
Update: This review was originally published in 2017, but has been updated to reflect the release of the Series 5 and the price cut by Apple – plus comparisons to more recent budget smartwatches.
Apple Watch Series 3: Design
Compared to other Apple smartwatches, the Series 3 feels boxier and bigger – largely due to the black space around the edge.
There’s no two ways about it, the Series 3 lags in design against the 2019 competition, due to the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 5, which offer a more refined design and different case sizes. However, for our money it's still better looking and made from more premium materials than the competition.
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The Series 3 comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes, which changed to 40mm and 44mm through the Series 4. That means that the Series 3 is the last Apple smartwatch you can buy in the smallest size, which may be a draw for those with smaller wrists.
We had the 42mm model to live with, and it's still a lovely, comfortable fit. There are no wearability issues, and it's always been an extremely comfortable smartwatch.
Otherwise, this is the same Apple Watch, with a decent 1,000 nit display, as rich as it's ever been. The display is not noticeably brighter or sharper on the newer Series 4 or Series 5, despite the pixel density improving.
One thing it doesn't have, though, is the option for an always-on display. That means you'll need to raise your wrist to wake (or tap on the display).
The Series 3 was also the first time Apple managed to cram in LTE alongside GPS, the optical heart rate sensor, a gorgeous display and waterproof design – all without reducing battery life (with exceptions, which we'll come onto). The Series 3 was the first strong example of that extra connectivity can still be combined with an elegantly designed device – although you will have to buy a more expensive model and foot an extra data bill. For some people that extra edge of connectivity is worth it, but we're not hyper-connected enough to feel the need.
In terms of choice of finish, you only have aluminum to pick from, in Silver and Space Grey, while new Watch devices also come in stainless steel, ceramic and titanium options.
Compared to the Series 5, this a slightly chunkier Watch that comes without ECG, a digital crown with haptic feedback, a display with an always-on mode. If those aren't biggies for you, there's still a whole lot to like about the look of the Series 3.
Apple Watch Series 3: Features
We'll talk through LTE further below, but, as far as what else is new on the feature front, there's not a huge amount different from the Series 2.
Smartwatch basics, like changing faces and customizing them with complications, are all there, and the Digital Crown still functions in the same way, pushing you into the app menu and letting you scroll through menus and notifications.
The button below, too, pushes you to the dock, which is now oriented vertically, rather than horizontally – just like the iPhone. These small tweaks make the Watch feel much more intuitive.
Read more: Apple Watch Series 4 v Apple Watch Series 5
Helping, too, is the S3 processor, which makes the Watch faster to use than older editions. Switching between apps is faster on the Series 3 than the Series 2, as is talking to Siri, which becomes a bigger deal with standalone connectivity.
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 we like wearing the Watch.
When it comes to communication, whether that's responding to tweets or taking a call, not a lot is different to newer models. 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.
Thankfully you can pair Bluetooth headphones to help with that – particularly handy when calling over LTE. And using AirPods makes that ludicrously easy.
You can also still use the built-in microphone to dictate responses to texts, show off your emoji skills and draw out letters to type out messages.
And, as far as being able to reply to notifications is concerned, Apple still offers the most comprehensive and reliable ways of doing it from your wrist.
It should also be noted that the Apple Watch Series 3 ships with the latest watchOS 6. The latest iteration of Apple's smartwatch OS brings a dedicated app store, women's health tracking features and new watch faces.
Compared to Wear OS, Fitbit OS and Tizen, it still feels like the most polished of the smartwatch operating systems. It's not perfect, but it's certainly the one we have the least gripes about.
Apple Watch Series 3: LTE availability
Alongside the cheaper, GPS-only Apple Watch Series 3 is the LTE version, which boasts its own cellular connection. The Series 3 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.
Don't think that means it doesn't cost money, though. You'll still need to sign a deal with a carrier to get LTE connectivity – despite sharing a telephone number with your smartphone.
So, what does it do? You can take and 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 without pre-downloading. That, along with taking calls when your iPhone's not around, is the biggest draw for LTE.
Availability for Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE carrier plans is pretty widespread now, but far from worldwide. The likes of Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, the UK and the US support it – among more.
In the US, the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon offer support for LTE connectivity on the Series 3. EE, O2 and Vodafone offer similar support in the UK.
Apple Watch Series 3: Living with LTE
Just how good is the Apple Watch when separated from your iPhone? First, let's talk about LTE in general.
This isn't the only smartwatch with cellular connectivity, letting you use it away from the smartphone. Some Wear OS and Samsung watches got to the mark first.
If you do opt for the LTE route, 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?
Does cutting free make the Watch experience any better? To find out we went 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.
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.
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.
We think a lot of people are yet to be convinced that talking into their wrists is the future, 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.
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?).
More of an immediate concern are the supported third-party apps. The number of apps that work with the standalone cellular connection is still very low, 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.
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
It's all about filling those activity rings and giving you a notification nudge when you need a 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 some years back, we hoped we see native sleep tracking features make an appearance. Even with the arrival of the Series 5, it still hasn't turned up, despite supposed details of Apple's sleep tracking features apparently leaking out.
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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.
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.
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. A newly announced partnership means that Strava works with Apple Healthkit, so you can use the Workout app and still get your Segments data – the best of both worlds. There's also a decent third-party Strava app too, which shows how versatile the Apple Watch can be.
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 say yes – as long as you're not getting too serious. The main limitations are battery life and metrics. A dedicated running watch will offer more data to dive into and better battery life. The Series 3 will just about manage a marathon, but you might need to turn off features to ensure you get there. Weekend runners that do the odd half marathon or 10K won't have a problem at all.
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.
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.
Essential reading: Full guide to heart rate on the Apple Watch Series 3
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 has introduced an improved optical sensor on the Series 5, though in our time testing it, there's not a massive amount of difference in performance.
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 doesn't compromise 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 quotes 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.
In terms of running tracking, we'd hesitate to guarantee four hours of GPS without using power saving modes.
Apple Watch Series 3 v Series 4 v Series 5
Perhaps the toughest choice out there now for prospective Apple Watch buyers is which one to actually buy – a tantalising Apple Watch Series 3 deal should be of interest to a lot of people.
The Series 3 comes with watchOS 6, GPS and if you need, LTE support.
Only those who prefer the tweaked design of the Apple Watch Series 4 or the always-on mode or ECG technology on the Series 5, should overlook a decent Series 3 deal that competes if not betters what else is available at this price.
How we test