Apple Watch Series 3 review

Updated: Still a fantastic smartwatch – if you can bag a deal
Apple Watch Series 3

The Apple Watch Series 3 is a generation old now, and does feel a tad dated due to the older, boxier screen shape and display technology.

But it's still a brilliant smartwatch, deserving of Wareable's Smartwatch of the Year award in 2017, and still a popular choice in 2019.

That's partly thanks to the incredible selection of Apple Watch Series 3 deals around today - with prices often below £250.

Make the right decision: Apple Watch Series 3 vs Series 4

And you're hardly buying dates tech. It's compatible with watchOS 5 (soon to be watchOS 6), which means you get most of the latest features from the Series 4. What's more, it comes with an LTE version, so you can use it untethered if you buy a data plan.

We've updated our review to make it more relevant in the current smartwatch landscape.

Apple Watch Series 3: Design

Apple Watch Series 3 review

The Apple Watch Series 4 brought about the first change in design since 2014, and changed case sizes too. And that’s significant. The Series 4 rounds the corners and brings the display closer to the edge – making for a much more polished look.

When you look back to the Series 3, it seems boxier and bigger thanks to the black space around the edge. There’s no two ways about it, the Series 3 now lags in design stakes.

The Series 3 also comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes, which changed to 40mm and 44mm on 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 the tiniest of wrists.

It's still a lovely comfortable fit, and there are no wearability issues. It's always been an extremely comfortable smartwatch.

Apple Watch Series 3 review

Otherwise this is the same Apple Watch you already know, with a decent 1,000 nit display, as rich as it's ever been. The display is not visibly brighter or sharper than the newer Series 4.

The Series 3 was 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 – 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 - if you're feeling flush - a fancy ceramic case in either white or grey. 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 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 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 S3 processor, which makes the Watch faster to use. Switching between apps is faster on the Series 3 than the Series 2, as is talking to Siri, which becomes a bigger deal with LTE.

Apple Watch Series 3
Apple Watch Series 3

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 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. Thankfully you can pair Bluetooth headphones to help with that - particularly handy when calling over LTE.

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.

It should also be noted that the Apple Watch Series 3 now ships with watchOS 5 – not the watchOS 4 used to come with. That means you get stuff like Walkie Talkie, automatic exercise detection, Podcast app, and improved Siri. It's also set to get watchOS 6 near the end of 2019, which will add dedicated app store and women's health tracking features.

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 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? You can 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. Sprint is also now carrying the LTE Apple Watch, also for $10 a month.

Over in the UK, Vodafone and O2 have joined EE to support the LTE-enabled Watch, and will add the Apple 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 Wear OS and Samsung watches got there 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Read this: My cycling life with the Apple Watch

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.

Read more: 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 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 4

Probably the toughest choice out there now for prospective Apple Watch buyers – a tantalising Apple Watch Series 3 deal should be of interest to a lot of people. The Series 3 comes with watchOS 5, GPS, and if you need, LTE support. Only those who prefer the tweaked design of the Apple Watch Series 4, or the impressive ECG technology, should overlook a decent Series 3 deal.


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


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3 comments

  • jeffpoulin·

    Somebodies prediction on when I will be able to buy this watch without the iphone? I would love to make that move and have only a watch and a computer... no more phone!

  • IanBlackburn·

    That's the navigator watch face - you only get it with the LTE edition :(

  • ScubaBlake·

    I do scuba dive in my daily. I use the catalyst case which claims to go to 350ft which I don’t doubt that but the actual screen can only handle so much pressure. My question is how much pressure and the reason I ask is the other day I went to 205 feet and somewhere between 200 and 205 ft the glass shattered but there still wasn’t any water except in the watch so the case obviously can handle way more than the watch. I’d like to know the actual pressure it can take.