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The Series 4 is more than the sum of its improvements and is comfortably the best smartwatch we’ve ever used. It’s better for more active users because of its more forgiving fit; it’s better for productivity fans because of its zippier apps and networking; it’s better for the small-wristed because you get a good-size screen in the smaller body, and it’s an amazing product for people vulnerable to falls or heart problems. It’s better for everyone is what we’re saying. And with these kinds of health features, Apple has shifted our thinking from it being a product that’s nice to have but is by no means essential, to one that we hope as many people as possible can own just in case it saves their life.
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Apple Watch Series 4 Smartwatch.
The Series 4 changes screen size for the first time since the original Apple Watch, and it now comes in 40mm and 44mm flavours, as opposed to 38mm and 42mm.
It may sound like nothing, but millimetres make a difference in watches, and this shift makes for the best looking Apple Watch yet. For big wrists (namely men’s) the 44mm doesn’t feel overly large, and because it’s slimmer, it actually feels smaller than the old 42mm. For men with slim wrists, the 40mm is also a decent option. While the 40mm might not feel bigger and most people won’t feel the difference, women, in particular, will need to cope with 2mm more screen estate than before to enjoy the Series 4 as there is no 38mm version. But there’s an upside, and that’s usability. The 38mm was always cramped, and the 40/44mm versions pack in 32/35% more screen real estate, aided by the edge-to-edge screen. The new Apple Watch sizes will probably please more people, and although technically they’re all smaller in volume, they put more screen on your wrist.
And that’s part of the shift. The original Apple Watch was designed to be a glanceable companion, but the improved features, via cellular and the heart rate data, means it now requires more interaction than before. That’s embodied by the new Infograph watch face, which supports eight complications for a medley of on-screen information. The hero watch face for Series 4 is designed to push as much information as possible, and it’s a masterclass of presenting data in tiny spaces. But it’s telling how the use case of the Apple Watch has evolved over time. It is, of course, a matter of choice. If you want a simple design or a lot of info on screen, there are so many watch faces to choose from. To help matters, There’s the improved speaker, which actually makes a big difference on the communication front. Anyone who’s taken a call from their watch or used Siri might have found their Apple Watch pressed to their ear, but the new speaker is certainly louder and clearer.
The same basic functionality in Apple Watches still remains. Notifications, fitness tracking via the closing of the now iconic rings, sports tracking, and of course LTE cellular if you opt for the Series 4 LTE. Apple Pay still has a central role, and it’s still great. Along with cellular, it’s fitness and health features that Apple see as the biggest driver for the Apple Watch. And it’s a distinct difference, fitness referring to activity tracking and workouts, while health has much more serious connotations, in terms of monitoring your body for signs of illness, and protecting you against falls. When the original Apple Watch landed it barely leveraged the heart rate sensor, but on the Series 4 it’s a key part of the experience. And there are multiple aspects.
Heart rate is monitored 24/7, and that data is used in a number of ways. First, you can view it on the Apple Watch itself by diving into the heart rate app. Then you’re presented with three sets of stats: resting heart rate, current heart rate and walking heart rate. These are plotted across your day. We tested accuracy at rest against a chest strap and found no discrepancies. And we double checked that against a good old pulse count with a stopwatch, which again checked out. It’s resting heart rate we like the best here, and it’s great to see this important stat tracked. And while the Apple Watch itself offers a great snapshot, the Apple Health app offers tracking that is as granular as you like, showing you resting heart rate plotted across a day, week, month and year and it is all well presented.
Part of the health features of the Apple Watch is monitoring your heart rate, and checking to see if anything is wrong. There are modes for high heart rate, which were introduced in watchOS 4, and now low heart rate and heart rhythm, which can be a sign of atrial fibrillation (Afib). This is a leading cause of strokes, which are in turn the second biggest killer in the US. You can set your low heart rate threshold in the Apple Watch app with an all-out low level of 40 bpm. This should be good enough for most people, but there will be a subset of the super fit who regularly sleep below 40bpm, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see 35bpm and 30bpm added soon.
Then there’s the ECG functionality. Apple has added a titanium electrode on the sapphire and adapted the digital crown, so the Watch can take an ECG reading from your finger. A 30 second reading from the ECG app will do two things: first, assess whether your heart rate is normal (Sinus) or Afib. Finally, it will spit out an ECG graph of your heart rate into the Health app, which can be given to your doctor. Interestingly, it’s this aspect that the FDA has certified and actually has real-world benefit. The idea is that those with heart conditions can take an FDA certified reading of their heart-beat, perhaps when they’re feeling unwell, rather than during a medical appointment, when everything may be reading normal. It moves beyond Afib, with an ECG useful for diagnosing a huge range of complaints. What this represents is the Apple Watch moving beyond a smartwatch into a true medical device. What’s more, this functionality isn’t an extra and while (hopefully) most people will never need it, or see high/irregular/low warnings, it will save lives. And there are few wearables out there that can make that claim.
The activity tracking elements of the Apple Watch haven’t hugely changed, and it’s still a great experience for those wanting to keep tabs on goals. For the uninitiated, you need to close three rings: Move (calories) Exercise (active minutes) and Stand (the number of hours in which you’ve stood for a single minute). It’s a nice break from the standard step goals, which are the preserve of most fitness trackers and the closing of the rings is a great way to express your progress. The rings can also be added as complications, so you can see three goals worth of progress in a very small space, which is clever stuff.
You can review all goal progress on the Watch from the complication, the Activity watch app, the special Activity watch face, the regular updates and prompts, and get historical goal progress via the Activity iPhone app. One of the most common questions we get about the Apple Watch is sleep and this still isn’t tracked natively within the watchOS experience. This means you’ll still be relying on third-party Apple Watch sleep apps but is a hole within the 360-degree picture of your health that the Apple Watch generates.
While the workout app hasn’t changed for the Series 4 per se, it’s undergone substantial improvement in watchOS 5 and that’s crucial if Apple wants to convince sporty types to move away from Garmin. There are new sports tracked, with the full list reading running (indoor and outdoor), cycling (likewise), walking (indoor and outdoor), hiking and yoga (both new to watchOS 5) plus rowing, elliptical, stair stepper, and general high-intensity interval workouts. It will now automatically detect exercise, so if you forget to start the watch, it will pick up your workout. It worked for walking and running but can kick in quite slowly. It won’t pick up a supposed workout until around 10 minutes of sustained activity but when it did, we didn’t have any issues with missed minutes. It came out exactly in line with a Garmin that was tracking our run from the beginning, which was highly impressive.
Running is the area that’s been improved most, with some specific metrics added. WatchOS 5 adds a bunch of new workout features, including auto-exercise detection as well as cadence and rolling pace. We’re actually really excited to see cadence added to the Workout app, which is an underused stat for running efficiency, and our tests generally saw it shaped up to Garmin’s estimates.
There is a snag, however. The Apple Watch only supports one screen of in-workout data, so you have to select the metrics you want in the Apple Watch app. There are six slots taken by duration, heart rate, rolling pace, average pace and distance. If you want to add another metric (e.g. cadence) you’ll need to sacrifice one of those. It’s not ideal, and coming from the wealth of in-workout data you’d get from a Garmin, for example, it feels a little limiting. When running 10-20 miles, you have time to indulge yourself with stats, and it would be nice to get more data. A second screen of info isn’t too much to ask. Of course, there’s also the world of third-party apps. Pretty much every service is catered for, including Strava, which offers all the macro analysis any runner or cyclist needs. If you’re someone who feels the Workout app experience is undercooked, third-party apps can pick up the slack.
We’ve been impressed by the accuracy of the heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch since the first generation but the Apple Watch is now a leader when it comes to optical accuracy. We’ve put the Apple Watch through the same series of tests we subject the likes of Garmin, Polar and Suunto to and it produced one of the best accuracy performances we’ve seen. Through a medium intensity run, the optical sensor was locked onto that of a Garmin chest strap paired to a Fenix 5 – almost beat-for-beat. Pushing through five miles of running, into and above the threshold, the Apple Watch was never more than 1bpm out, and over 40 minutes of exercise, plus interval sprint finishes, the two produced identical average bpms. The sprint intervals involved letting the heart rate settle at around 120bpm and then sprinting for 100m, raising the heart rate to around 185bpm. It followed the chest strap up to the exact peak HR, around five seconds after. It also tends to increase in large stages, but the critical thing is that it does get to those HR peaks, while rivals are often still rising while your heart rate is falling after an interval.
The verdict here is that Apple is leading in optical accuracy, and while it’s far from perfect, buying a Garmin or Fitbit watch/band won’t get you better optical performance. However, the caveat is that if you’re concerned about your heart rate from your CrossFit class, you might want to invest in a Bluetooth chest strap, which works with the Apple Watch Series 4.
Part of the logic behind adding a louder speaker was enabling better interactions with Siri – but this is still a mixed bag. Siri still isn’t a leading smart assistant but it’s improved a lot. Siri on the Apple Watch is great for setting alarms, quick reminders, checking the weather and running quick internet searches with your voice. When things got a bit more complicated, it did fall down somewhat. Mapping and directions are still a bit of a pig when going from the watch.
Despite adding 2mm to the screen size (and slimming the case), battery life remains at 18 hours. In real-world tests, we’d find our watch at around 50% drain when heading to bed – so with some careful management you could get it through two “days”. But those calling for a week of battery life are going to be disappointed. If you’re going on a three-day city break or business trip, remember to pack that charger. Our running and sports tests also agreed with Apple that you should get around six hours of GPS tracking, so more than enough to complete a marathon. That part we have no issue with. In the era of smartphones that require nightly charging, we don’t have a huge problem with the Apple Watch only lasting a day. The reality is that to get more longevity, design and features would have to be culled and the Series 4 would be a very different smartwatch.