Tech review: Apple Watch Series 4
Some people still wonder if a smartwatch is for them. Apple's new model makes a compelling case. The new Series 4 Watch is a major step up in almost every way from the Series 3 model, itself a decent smartwatch.
For anyone who already has an Apple Watch and is considering the upgrade, do it. The benefits are worth it.
For those wondering whether to jump in, now may be a good time.
The biggest improvement is the display screen, which is considerably larger than the previous three generations, even though the Watch itself is around the same size. This is because Apple has thinned out the bezels, meaning the non-active parts at the side of the display. (My test device is slightly wider, at 44mm instead of 42mm, while the smaller variant has been increased from 38mm to 40mm.)
This has a substantial effect on the impact that messages, notifications or functions on the Watch have on my attention. They're easier to see, for one thing. This makes the Watch slightly more engaging: it's more tempting to use it to look at more involved content, even photos.
Everything also feels much, much faster. The Series 2 and Series 3 Watches got things done, but there was often a somewhat perceptible lag between executions, especially on the Series 2 and original model. That's been cut right back: this feels much more like iPhone speed on a smartwatch.
One of the most talked-about features of the new Watch - and the thing that most of us were squarely focused on when it launched a few weeks back - was the built-in ECG function. This was a breakthrough: an ability to monitor your heart's health.
Alas, even though it's technically built in to the device I have, it's not available to me, or to any non-US Watch. This is because that feature is subject to fairly strict regulatory control. (While it has been given the all-clear in the US, it will take a software update to make it active. But when that happens, this Watch could genuinely save lives.)
It's anyone's guess when this might be given the regulatory go-ahead in Europe or in Ireland.
Another much talked-about feature on Apple Watches is their cellular ability. Apple sells two variants of its Watch, a GPS and GPS+Cellular version.
In the US, UK and other countries, the cellular version works with your phone contract, allowing you to make or take calls, send SMS messages or access online services on your Watch while you're out and about and your iPhone is at home. So far, no Irish operator has done a deal with Apple to make this happen here. And no, it won't work if you buy one in the UK (or the US) and use it over here, partly because the cellular function on the Apple Watch doesn't roam (at all).
One other interesting facet is the new array of Watch faces ('complications') that you can choose. Some of these are very detailed, letting you pack your Watch's face with seven or eight bits of data (date, steps, temperature and other stuff). The extra choice is good, although at some point, Apple might consider introducing downloadable complications in an App Store context. There may well be a lot of demand.
When it comes to fitness, the Watch Series 4 builds on the big leap it took for the previous Series 3 model. It's still waterproof (in freshwater or saltwater, although my Series 3 model's crown creaked a little after I spent an afternoon swimming off the Mayo coast).
There's a ton of information that you get for running, walking, swimming or doing intense workouts. It works really well with some of the most common sports apps, such as Runkeeper, Strava, Runtastic and Map My Run. It's not as good for sleep tracking, if that's important to you. But I question the real effectiveness of wearables for sleep tracking. Besides, night-time is typically when you recharge a wearable.
There are a lot of small things that gives this Watch extra lustre, too. The haptics - physical feedback from the screen or crown - feel much more polished and developed. There's a more natural feeling to when you reach the end of a menu or set of options.
Speaking of the crown, it's a bit easier to use now. It has a better grip, even though it's thinner.
Battery life on the Apple Watch is a good deal beyond what you got with the first model in 2015 (one day) but is still only solidly two days. (I sometimes get close to three full days on it, if I don't use it for music or messaging.)
This puts it considerably behind some specialist sports and fitness smartwatches from Garmin and Fitbit. But it's worth noting that the Watch Series 4 can do considerably more sophisticated smartphone-like things than any dedicated sports watch. It also works more seamlessly with an iPhone. So it's definitely a trade-off.
The only time I find it to be an issue is when I'm travelling. With some other smartwatches I don't have to bring an extra charging cable if it's just for two or three days: I do with this device.
That said, it's no mystery why Apple's wearable is now the best-selling watch in the world. For the general user (albeit one with an iPhone, which you need to get full functionality), this is currently the best smartwatch you can buy. It's the most accessible, advanced watch with the best display you'll find. There are far more strap variations for the Watch, too, than for any other smartwatch: a pretty important consideration.
One last point, for the person who is wondering whether switching to a smartwatch means they can't have any other watch.
I haven't found this to be the case. It is possible to wear the Apple Watch (or any smartwatch) a few days a week, switching to a favoured analogue watch the rest of the time.
I have found that you'll still get a lot of value out of it.