One of the best things a smartwatch can do is let us detach from the obsessive pull of our smartphones. To be able to go out and not feel the urge to reach for that black mirror every few minutes would be really nice, wouldn't it?
Is that really possible? Thus far, it hasn't been. There just isn't a great number of smartwatches with cellular connections to try out. Apple Watch Series 3, however, might be the best bet yet.
Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 3 review
It's got LTE, sure, but it's also got a mature app ecosystem and all the bells and whistles, including things like GPS and Apple Pay, that could allow for a purely standalone experience. However, even though Apple's own ads scream "the freedom of cellular" the Series 3 is only built for freedom in fleeting moments.
Despite that, I wanted to see how far I could push the Series 3 as a standalone device. That's not Apple's intention for the Watch, so think of this less of a review and more of an experiment, but I thought it would be interesting to find out. How close are we, exactly? So I set out for a week with a Series 3 with cellular as my main device, and my iPhone tucked away. This is what happened.
Communication is still the smartphone's headline act. From messaging apps like Slack and iMessage to social media like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and then email, the notifications never seem to end.
Unless you've got nothing but an Apple Watch. Then it's like you've slipped back in time and people can only reach you one way. On one hand, this stuff is really refreshing. For once, there's not a barrage of notifications drawing your attention to a whole bunch of different platforms. There's just one thing, and one thing to concentrate on.
This is because the Apple Watch app support in terms of communication is surprisingly bare boned. There's built-in iMessage support, but that's it. There's no Twitter app for me to constantly check in on, or to even tweet. There's no Facebook to share articles to. There's no Instagram to scroll through pictures. I very quickly felt quite isolated – not quite painting-a-hand-on-a-volleyball isolated, but still fairly removed.
Read this: The 50 best Apple Watch apps
My friends could only really contact me via iMessage through the week, which meant only those who counted themselves among the blue bubble army could talk with me. Sorry I've ignored you, my Android-having green bubble friends. Facebook Messenger was an option, but not one that loaded particularly quickly. I quite literally spent five minutes waiting for a conversation to load on Facebook Messenger's Watch app. I gave up.
And when I did eventually get to talk to someone it was a chore. No matter what we talked about, from depressing news headlines to our thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, having to scribble my responses one letter at a time put me at a disadvantage. As soon as I typed a response, my friends had moved past it and were talking about something else, with them wondering why I was so late – and why I kept misspelling things.
As for using Mail, I might as well not have bothered. For much of my email, I was instructed to head to my iPhone to see what it had in store for me. Sorry, Apple Watch, but I'm trying to do an experiment here and you're not helping.
Going Dick Tracy-style and speaking to your wrist is still a huge no-no in public
It wasn't a total wash, because eventually I would get back to my computer and could do the things I needed to do. Facebook and Twitter were suddenly options again, as was sharing links to my friends. It's more of an inconvenience really, but it's an inconvenience that has good and bad sides.
The good side is that you really are less connected, which lets you be more present in what's happening in front of you (this will come up again). The bad side is that it kind of breaks the smartwatch experience. One of the good things about smartwatches, and especially smartwatches with cellular, is they let you feel connected without being connected. You can see your notifications, and if they aren't serious you can let them be for later.
The Apple Watch needs more app support, which would allow me to better filter what's important and what's not. If there was app support I would be able to see Slack messages from colleagues or updates from GroupMe on a friend's wedding, and give them higher priority than messages about Blade Runner.
Which brings me to another thing – the camera. With the quality of smartphone cameras, pictures and video have become a big part of how people communicate now. None of that is possible by rocking the Apple Watch solo, as it obviously doesn't have a camera on it. I was at the train station patiently waiting for my train, when I saw someone had impressively stuck a chapstick to the wall end-first. I immediately had a great Instagram caption, but sadly you'll never know what it was.
The one great thing is calling, which I used to check in on a tux for my friend's wedding. Call quality is obviously pretty important in that sort of situation, else you risk ending up with a tux in 'satsuma orange' – and it worked great. The Men's Wearhouse employee could hear me perfectly well, and I could hear them perfectly too. You definitely should do calling with Bluetooth headphones though, because going Dick Tracy-style and speaking to your wrist still feels like a huge no-no in public. I became very self-conscious any time I spoke directly into the watch.
My big fear in relying so heavily on the Apple Watch was music. Apple has not yet released watchOS 4.1, which would use the Series 3's new cellular powers to stream music with the full Apple Music experience.
How would I live without instant access to hundreds of thousands of songs? What on Earth could perk up the walk through the sadness of a foggy day in San Francisco?
Well, it turns out my first world problem had a better solution than I expected. Thanks to watchOS 4, it's much easier to sync across albums. You don't just have to rely on created playlists, labouring away for 20 to 30 minutes recreating albums like a plebeian. I could just choose the albums I wanted and sync, and promptly did so just before the week began.
For the first couple of days, this worked a dream. I have a pair of AirPods, and the syncing process was so smooth I didn't realise I had done it. I put my AirPods in my ears and chose a song on my Watch, then my heart began to race as I began to worry that my watch would blurt out Dua Lipa's "New Rules" and my fellow pedestrians would smugly look down upon me as an uncultured, tech illiterate swine.
But it was seamless. I could happily walk around and listen to my music, and from my ears the experience sounded just like it did from the iPhone. Of course, you could easily get a pair of Bluetooth headphones with far better audio quality than AirPods – sometimes I switch to the Bose QC35s, if you're interested.
I was forced to control my music from my Watch, which was both frustrating and liberating. Liberating in that controlling the volume is much easier than instinctively pulling my comically big iPhone 7 Plus out of my pocket every time I wanted to do it. And yes, despite the Apple Watch being a better place to control music volume with watchOS 4 I still do that.
My fellow pedestrians would smugly look down upon me as an uncultured, tech illiterate swine
The frustrating part is that it takes much longer to navigate the controls on the Watch. There isn't much screen space to work with, so you see far fewer options than you do on a phone. There is Siri, of course, but I still felt super weird about saying "Hey Siri, play 'Killing Spree' by Logic" as I hurriedly walked past total strangers. Maybe it's just me.
Over the course of the week, I began to feel constrained by the music I synced before this all began. I wish I had synced this or that, and I found myself longingly staring at the "Library" button, wishing there was more there. Or hovering my finger over grayed out music selections that weren't available on my Watch. This will all be solved once 4.1 is out, of course, but it's a pretty suffocating music experience on a longer-term basis.
The other problem was when it came to my car. My car doesn't have Bluetooth, so when I want to listen to my music library on my phone I have to plug it in. So one day I went to drive to the East Bay, and when I got into my car I reflexively grabbed my auxiliary cable and promptly plugged it into nothing. I realised I wouldn't be able to do that with my Apple Watch, which has no ports. I sighed and turned to FM radio for the first time in ages. That quickly reminded me why I turned to streaming services in the first place.
Even with all of the problems, though, I kind of loved it. Listening to music without having to worry about pulling out a phone every once in a while feels so light. You know how when you take something heavy out of your backpack, and you suddenly feel a bit naked, but in a good way? It's like that, but with music.
This is working out
There are only a couple of reasons why most people would want to ditch their phones and go out by themselves. One reason is working out. When you're exercising, you tend to wear lighter clothes, and you don't want a big aluminum anchor in your pockets while you're running, constantly slamming against your leg.
You want to be as light as possible, and that's where a cellular smartwatch has its time to shine. Apple's answer has LTE and GPS and Apple Pay, which means if you need to go for a quick run you'll have everything you need. And, well, that's exactly what happened.
I went for a run and chose to not take my phone or my wallet. I just had my AirPods and Apple Watch, and that now-familiar liberating feeling swelled up inside me. I felt weirdly free.
I decided to use Nike+ Run Club, since that's one of the few apps that's been updated with standalone LTE support at the moment. I was even able to download the audio coaching within the app on the go, because I had totally forgotten to do it previously.
After a while I could feel a creeping thirst in my throat. So I decided to end my workout and walk over to the local Walgreen's, breathing hard as I wandered through the aisles looking for something, anything to quench my thirst. I picked a water and headed over to the register, tapping my wrist on the terminal to pay with Apple Pay.
Now you don't actually need cellular to use Apple Pay; all that information is stored locally on your actual Watch, not up in the cloud. Still, it's part of the whole untethered package, and that complete experience – from going out for a run sans phone to downloading an audio run guide to getting a drink – is part of the total freedom we think about when we think about cellular smartwatches.
It's the idea that you can forget your phone and do the things you need to without any hiccups or problems, with things just working. This freedom, of course, is hamstrung by support. Walgreen's supports contactless, and I go running in an area where I get good service. This wouldn't work as well if I ran past a store that didn't support Apple Pay or in a place where network service was poor.
My trip to a cinema was a good example of that. For whatever reason, I never get a signal near this cinema so my Watch was mostly useless – much the same as a phone would be. But I usually buy tickets via Fandango, and the Apple Watch Fandango app doesn't let you buy tickets – you have to buy them from your smartphone. Once you do that, your ticket is transferred to the Wallet app. So you guessed it, back to the old style of buying movie tickets for me.
Life on the wrist
Right now, living with an Apple Watch and no iPhone feels like living in both the past and future at the same time. The app support just isn't there to make you feel as connected as you want to be, so you don't feel as linked to the world.
Apple's own apps, like Messages and News, do work, and will keep you in touch with what's going on – but beyond that, it's like falling into a void. You can feel the emotional pull of the smartphone, especially when you open up a Watch app and see that glaring red logo of a crossed out iPhone. It's almost like it's spitting "how dare you?" at you with disgust.
Some of the apps that are there are still too slow. For instance, as I'm walking home from the Wareable US office, I sometimes like to try out a new coffee place or stop by Starbucks. I prefer to order ahead at Starbucks, pick up my drink and head out the door. I can't do that with the Starbucks Watch app, though I can pay if I wanted to wait in line (I didn't). Similarly, I tried to use Apple Maps to look around for a new coffee place on the way to the train station but by the time it started loading up it was too late.
On the flip side, the fitness aspects of the watch feel really great. This is why the Series 3 has LTE, and this is what makes it feel so wonderful.
There are, however, some limitations, though Apple isn't pretending that the Watch is a totally standalone experience – yet. Its message is that the cellular is there to benefit you episodically throughout the day, and it's probably going to remain that way for a long time. There are still many walls you hit when going standalone, like not having a camera on you.
Then there's battery life. Here I was actually surprised, as during most days I made it home with about 50% of juice left over. I was so afraid that LTE use would drain the battery that I constantly carried around my Apple Watch charger, but I never needed it.
Battery does drain much quicker when taking calls or using GPS, but I never even got close to a one-hour call, which would completely wipe the power, and I still made it through the day. This, obviously, is in large part due to how many standalone apps there aren't. I imagine if there were more apps, the battery would have drained much quicker, and I might not have made it.
On my phone, a lot of my battery time is dedicated to Twitter, Snapchat and messaging friends. I can't browse Twitter or Snap on my Watch, so those two battery drains get thrown out. And then there's messaging, which takes so long I can't quickly do it on a whim, as I would on my phone. Instead, I have to wait until I have a couple of minutes to scribble out a reply that would take me seconds on a smartphone.
In the end, this exercise is both a reminder of how far we've come and how far we still have to go. This isn't built to be your primary device, it's still heavily reliant on your iPhone. While there were some annoyances, and a lot of the things I wanted to do had to be delayed until I got to a computer, the fact that I was still able to do enough to get through my days surprised. Maybe the future I'm longing for isn't so far away.