Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

Red marks the spot on Apple's first cellular-connected smartwatch
Apple Watch Series 3 first look

Why would you want an Apple Watch Series 3? That's not a rhetorical slight on Apple's new smartwatch, it's a serious question. I really want to know, because while the Series 2 had a very evident use case, I think the appeal of the Series 3 will be more varying.

For me, it's going for a lunch time swim without disappearing into a communication black hole, or for those moments my iPhone dies (a lot). For you it might be a gym session or a morning jog without a smartphone weighing down your pocket. Yet in all these cases, it feels like an excess. I don't need a cellular connection on my wrist any more than you do, but there are undeniably times in the day when it's going to be nice.

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And that's how Apple sees it too. The Watch Series 3 is by no means a death knell for the iPhone, but a more capable compliment. Apple sees you taking a five-minute conversation here, replying to a message there, but it's not able to fully replace your phone. It only offers an hour of talk time over LTE anyway, while Apple still quotes 18 hours when mixing LTE and non-LTE through the day.

The other thing to bear in mind is that we've seen cellular smartwatches before like the Samsung Gear S3 and LG Watch Sport, so how is Apple's any different? Functionally it's not, not really, but Apple has that knack of taking existing ideas into the mainstream, so I'm eager to see if it can make the cellular smartwatch popular, because until now reception to the idea has felt lukewarm at best.

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

What can I say about the design? Not a lot; this is the Apple Watch you already know. Ok, yeah, it's 0.2mm thicker, but I put it alongside the Series 2 for a side-by-side photo comparison and couldn't produce anything that could illustrate the difference. It's barely noticeable, even less so than the change in thickness between the original and Series 2. Like the Series 2, it comes in aluminium or stainless steel versions, or ceramic if you've got the cash, and it's still water resistant up to 50 meters.

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I do however want to vent about the one glaring difference, the red dot on the digital crown, because I see zero reason for it to be there. Presumably, its sole purpose is to remove any doubt you wouldn't be wearing the latest and greatest Apple Watch, but already I find it looks odd with most of my Watch bands, and I can't help but question the thinking here. Surely if I know my smartwatch has LTE, that's enough?

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

Calling is done by opening the phone app and scrolling through your list of contacts. You can set favorites too, or even dial with the on-screen keypad. Sending messages is different as unlike Android Wear you don't have the option of a keyboard, so everything must either be dictated to Siri or conveyed through pre-set short responses and emojis.

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

One of the best reasons for cellular, I think, is music streaming, and on Watch that will come with Apple Music. Sadly this isn't something we can yet speak to as Apple won't roll it out until next month, after it ships.

There's another, more pressing problem with the Watch though, and it's the quality of that LTE connection. Apple has acknowledged that the Series 3 has a problem where it snags on captive portal Wi-Fi - like the one you get at Starbucks - which cuts the cellular connection as a result. It's working to get a fix out, but told me it can't guarantee it will have that update ready for the time the Series 3 ships. Here's hoping it gets this sorted stat.

But LTE is only part of the story

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

All the focus on LTE can also distract from other improvements here. watchOS 4 advances the Apple Watch experience greatly; compare the Watch to what it was in 2015 it's almost an entirely different beast. Apple's first attempt at the software misunderstood a lot of the ways people would use its smartwatch, and that's Ok; it listened, it changed, it refined. Cellular taken out of the equation, the Series 3 is already proving to be a fantastic smartwatch that better understands how the wrist can be a useful place for technology.

The faster processor is already making switching between apps a little zippier too in my experience, though we'll need to push this a little harder to see how it fares under more strain.

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

There's also a non-LTE Series 3 model with GPS that's essentially the Series 2 with some slightly upgraded internals. If you have a Series 2 and are thinking of upgrading but don't want LTE, there's little point. You'll get the barometric altimeter for tracking elevation during workouts and some slightly faster performance, but that's probably not worth shelling out extra for. The non-LTE version costs $329, with the full works price from $399.

Thankfully, all these aesthetic similarities mean you'll still be able to use any bands you may have lying around from earlier models, and watchOS 4 is also available across the entire slew of Watches, so you needn't feel like you're missing out on any of those new features either.

The carrier problem

Apple Watch Series 3 first look: The smartwatch is breaking free at last

Spotty LTE aside, there's another problem I see with the Series 3, and it's the carriers. The Watch is being widely supported across networks - great - but to enjoy LTE you'll be paying on average $10 per month in the US, which for a lot of people may be the dealbreaker. Maybe it doesn't seem like a significant amount, but consider that people are already paying a contract for the phone, convincing themselves that they should pay more to have that connection on their wrist might not be easy.

Ideally, I think that price should be lower, and there's every chance it will be reduced over time, but right now I see it as one of the Watch's biggest hurdles.

We're in the process of testing out the Series 3, so keep an eye out for our full in-depth review coming soon. In the meantime, tell us in the comments below - why would you want a Series 3?


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