The Apple Watch Series 3 ($399) is the first Apple Watch to use cellular data, meaning you can leave your iPhone at home and still get calls, texts and email notifications, and stream music. Siri speaks out loud, too, which is an Apple Watch first. Compared to other Apple Watch models, the Series 3 is a better fitness tracker with continuous heart-rate monitoring, a redesigned workout app and special features for swimmers. (You can also buy a Series 3 without LTE for $329; those models don’t have the red crown.)
Editor’s Note: You may have read that some early reviewers had connectivity issues with their Apple Watch Series (LTE models) when switching from wi-fi to LTE. Apple has since fixed this problem with its watchOS 4.0.1 software update. I did not experience any of these handoff issues with my review unit.
During my review period, the Series 3 didn’t support music streaming. This has since been remedied and Apple Music subscribers can now stream music.
The Good: The Series 3 is the best Apple Watch ever. It might look similar to past models, but it’s much faster, more energy efficient and more water resistant (up to 50 meters), and it’s a significantly more accurate fitness tracker. It also comes in LTE and non-LTE models, so you don’t have to set up a cellular plan with your carrier if you don’t want to.
Who It’s For: iPhone users who want to ditch their iPhone some of the time. It’s also ideal for athletes who have Apple Music subscriptions.
Watch Out For: You’ll have to charge it every night if you’re using cellular data. It doesn’t charge with all wireless chargers. It looks nearly identical to the years-old Apple Watch Series 1. You’ll have to add it to your cell phone plan, which can be a hassle. And it’s expensive.
Alternatives: The Series 3 with only GPS is excellent for runners who use iTunes [update: and now Apple Music]. The Series 1 is probably the best option if you just want notifications on your wrist. Samsung’s Gear Sport ($300) and Gear Fit2 Pro ($198) are probably the best options if you have a Spotify subscription. The Fitbit Ionic ($300) is also a great pure fitness tracker.
Review: Let’s cut to the chase. The Apple Watch Series 3 is the most expensive and arguably the best smartwatch that’s ever come out of Cupertino. Most importantly, it’s the first of its kind to have cellular connectivity. And yes, it works. It works well. In my few weeks with “the world’s most popular watch” (according to Tim Cook) I had very few issues receiving calls, answering iMessage, scrolling through Instagram, getting directions from Apple Maps, checking emails, talking to Siri and even streaming music, all with my iPhone far, far away. But it begged the questions: Did I need all that? And was I willing to pay extra for that? Really, those are the questions you have to ask yourself.
The answers to those questions will inevitably vary from person to person, and if I’m being honest, I had difficulty finding ways to ditch my iPhone. I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that we don’t realize how often our phones follow us. When I was home or in the office, my phone and watch were connected to wi-fi, so LTE wasn’t needed. When I was commuting, my iPhone was nearby, too, so LTE wasn’t needed. A few times I left my iPhone at home to see what a day in the life without a smartphone was like, and found that even though I could answer iMessages and emails, and see my some of my Instagram feed, it wasn’t the same.
That said, the Apple Watch 3 has the potential to be magical for runners. I usually run five miles several times a week, and it has been liberating to leave my iPhone at home. For most of my review period, however, I was only able to listen to one iTunes playlist — that’s all the Series 3 allows. You can load up to 250 songs, but still only one iTunes playlist.
Another promise for the Series 3 with LTE was that you could stream music, no preload loaded playlists required; this feature hadn’t launched at the time of this writing.
The downside to the new Apple Watch’s streaming capabilities is that you’ll need to be an Apple Music subscriber. There’s no Spotify app for the Apple Watch, and I’m a Spotify subscriber; I don’t know when that’s going to come. There’s no app for Google Play Music, Amazon Music or Pandora, either. If you just want to listen to Spotify without your smartphone, I’d suggest looking into Samsung’s new smartwatch or fitness tracker, the Gear Sport and Gear Fit2 Pro; Samsung partnered with Spotify so you can download Spotify playlists and listen to them whenever, without your phone nearby; they’re the first wearables to do so.
Continuing with the fitness theme, the Series 3 has a new workout app and a much-improved heart-rate sensor. The workout app adds some coaching for various exercising; I only used the coaching for “outdoor runs.” The new heart-rate sensor, however, is significantly better than that of Series 2, which Apple doesn’t sell anymore. It’s able to continuously track heart rate, an Apple Watch first, and it can detect your resting and recovery rates as well, making it more of an overall heath app rather than a typical fitness app. There’s also a watch face that can display your heart rate correctly, another Apple Watch first.
The other big downside, which is common with the few LTE-enabled smartwatches that are out there, is its battery life. The Apple Watch Series 3 will default to Bluetooth when your iPhone is around, then wi-fi if you’ve connected to the network before, and finally to cellular when neither of the others is available. And LTE kills your battery. I spent most of my days in connected to wi-fi or with my iPhone nearby, and the battery would hover around 50 percent at the end of the day. On the days I purposefully left my iPhone and went running at night, the Watch was on its last legs by the time I was ready for bed. If you intend to utilize the LTE (and GPS) without your iPhone, be prepared to charge it every night.
The Series 3 has a number of other updates on previous Apple Watch models. It has a W2 chip that Apple claims helps make it 85 percent faster over wi-fi than the Series 2 and saves 50 percent more battery when connected to wi-fi and Bluetooth. It also is the first Apple Watch that allows Siri to speak, which is nice, but not a game changer. And despite looking near identical to other Apple Watches, the Series is actually “two sheets of paper” thicker, according to Apple.
Verdict: The Series 3 doesn’t feel totally revolutionary. Though great, it still feels like the Apple Watch I’ve had for years. Cellular connectivity was a breath of fresh air, especially when I took it running and streamed music, but the Apple Music exclusivity was a bummer, and it was actually really difficult to find myself situations where I normally wouldn’t have my phone on me. Also, cellular adds a monthly fee (about $10) to an already expensive device. Taking calls and holding the watch to my face wasn’t comfortable, nor does it look natural, but it works excellent when paired with Bluetooth headphones, like my AirPods.
The other thing is, while the Series 3 can replace your iPhone for some tasks, it can’t for others, and in those situations, it’s ultimately going to tell you to complete other actions or get more information on your smartphone. Sending complex emails or texts isn’t particularly enjoyable, though the dictation feature did work really well. And it doesn’t have a camera, let along the fancy one on your iPhone.
If you don’t want to pay a monthly cellular fee, the Series 3 (GPS only) has all the same features, without the ability to work like a phone without your phone. The battery is exponentially better when not utilizing GPS or LTE, too. At the end of the day, the Series 3, LTE or not, is the best Apple Watch ever, with the most sophisticated fitness-tracking capabilities. You just need to factor in how much time you spend completely away from your iPhone, and if you still want to receive iPhone-esque notifications when you’re away.
What Others Are Saying:
• “I used the term ‘liberating’ above, and I mean it. With Apple Watch 1 and 2, you were essentially given an additional screen that told you what you were already being told on your larger, more powerful, more familiar screen (your phone). I understand why that wouldn’t be for all – and frankly in the end, it wasn’t for me either. This is different. Completely different. I don’t know that I ever would’ve guessed I would say this about a smartwatch, but Apple Watch Series 3 might make your life better – you’ll be less connected with the digital world and more connected with the real world around you.” — Benjamin Clymer, Hondinkee
• “Do you even need an Apple Watch in the first place? No. And the step back in battery life that the new features require, sometimes, makes it feel like a compromise. But, when I went for walks with just the watch, it was pretty fun. And I enjoyed the feeling of being unburdened from my phone. I even left my wallet at home…Then I found out that the cafe down the street didn’t take Apple Pay.” — Scott Stein, CNET
• Not everyone will have a need for a high-end smartwatch, beyond the novelty factor. But for people who require ready access to data to manage a medical condition, or who would benefit from knowing they can get help with the push of a button, this device is a game changer.” — David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times
Size: 38mm or 42mm
Sensors: barometric altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, GPS
Water Resistance: up to 50 meters
Battery Life: up to 18 hours