by Lance Somoza

When Apple Watch was announced in 2014, many were complaining the company was late yet again to another emerging market. Fast-forward only three years and Apple Watch is purportedly the top-selling watch in the world by revenue (according to Apple). Yes, the top-selling watch, surpassing even Rolex. Just yesterday, Horace Dediu published fascinating analysis of Apple Watch sales which seems to corroborate Apple’s claim.

As you will glean from my review, Apple Watch Series 3 is the epitome of the original. It accomplishes everything the first one set out to do and takes it one step further with the addition of a cellular radio. Think of Series 3 as a high school graduate. It’s not truly independent from iPhone, but it has moved out of the house and is living above the iPhone’s garage. It still needs the iPhone for the foreseeable future, but just took its first big step towards being a grownup.

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Table of Contents

From Fashion to Fitness

One marketing change I noticed is Apple’s downplay of the Watch-as-high-fashion narrative introduced with the original model. Fitness and health gets more of the attention now in terms of features, marketing, and frankly importance. Of course the Apple Watch is still the best-looking smartwatch on the market, but it’s hard to continue hyping the same design for three years. Further proof of this is supported by the disappearance of the solid gold Edition models when Series 2 debuted last year.

That aside, the fitness capabilities of Series 3 are great, if largely the same as previous versions. It now has an altimeter for tracking elevation on its own (i.e. stairs climbed), and the Workout app is highly responsive thanks to the the new S3 System In a Package (SIP for short)

Design

My original Apple Watch was the 42mm Space Black Stainless Steel model. It cost a pretty penny, yes, but that was before I had a daughter. This time, I opted for the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS+LTE) 42mm in Space Grey aluminum much to the happiness of my wallet, I’m sure.1 I’m happy to say the Space Grey model is really nice and I don’t miss the Space Black as much as I thought I would.

The design itself is identical to the original model that started shipping in 2015. That’s not to say it’s a bad design — I quite like it. However, Apple Watch needs to be a fashionable product, and I would have to think Series 4 will see design changes in some larger capacity (not just a new crown color).

The Red Dot Crown

Before I delve into its purpose, I’ll just say that I personally like the red dot crown. Red and grey are my favorite colors, so I have no objections. 2 I see why others may not like it, though. Red can be very polarizing. If the crown were any color besides red, black, white, or grey, I might take personal issue with it.

I said on Fatherboard Episode 003 that Apple differentiating a product by making an arbitrary design change didn’t sound like them. Cases in point: iPhone X has a different design because it follows function with its edge-to-edge screen and notched sensor housing. The same can be said for the the glass back (on iPhones 8 as well). This design change was facilitated by the new wireless charging function. Until now, there was little functional reason to change the design that originated with iPhone 6.

Then, I remembered Apple Watch is still technically a fashion product. Looking at it from this perspective, the addition of the red dot makes complete sense whether you like the color or not. Not that I’m a fashion expert, but three years seems like an awfully long time to use the same design for such a product. Apple needed to distinguish the cellular model from the bunch since there is no outward-facing function to influence the design (like the iPhone examples mentioned above). The crown was the simplest and most subtle place to put this mark, in my opinion. Any other place would have been too distracting.

As for future models, I can see the red dot crown situation going one of two ways. Apple may remove it completely when all models come with cellular or a new series has its own major design changes. Conversely, if this design is going to be around for a while longer, they may continue to use it to differentiate internal upgrades.

That’s quite a few words for a little red dot.

Finishes

Much to everyone’s surprise, and chagrin of my wife, there is no more aluminum rose gold finish (for either Apple Watch, iPhones 8 or iPhone X as a matter of fact). I was shocked, since I thought rose gold was more popular than plain gold just by observations in public. That said, the gold finish Apple is using now is more vibrant and less tacky-looking than the prior one. Perhaps Apple wanted to reduce the number of SKUs and the new gold seemed like a good middle ground.

The other new finish Series 3 comes in is the Ceramic Gray Edition model. If money were no object, I would opt for this model in a heartbeat. I’ve only seen pictures online, but it looks like a lighter, shiny version of the aluminum Space Gray.

I’m a little surprised Apple didn’t introduce any new casing materials this time around (tungsten or titanium, perhaps?).

Performance

Aside from the obvious addition of cellular, this is the most exciting part of the new Apple Watch, and I think Apple should be more vocal about it.

Compared to the Original Apple Watch

Compared to my original Watch, or ‘Series 0’ as it has been dubbed by the community, this thing is an absolute beast. It has an upgraded dual-core processor in its new S3 SIP which enables the Watch to fly. Everything is faster; launching apps, dictating, Siri, sending messages, navigating the UI, you name it. For a ‘Series 0’ Watch owner, this is the main thing I wanted in the Apple Watch. My ‘Series 0’ had become so slow, I had been using it less and less over the past year. I haven’t stopped using my Series 3 since I got it.

The Watch’s biggest goal is to accomplish iPhone tasks in less time and with more efficiency, while providing a compelling reason to do so. This Apple Watch nails all of this, largely thanks to this big jump in performance.

Compared to Series 1/Series 2

I have my wife’s Series 1 Watch to make this comparison, as Series 1 and 2 share the same S2 SIP with dual-core processor. My Watch is noticeably faster than hers, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to justify the upgrade from Series 1/2 to Series 3 alone. If you’re on the fence about this decision, take everything else into account before performance.

Battery Life

Battery life has been both phenomenal and Apple Watch’s biggest opportunity for improvement at the same time. Series 3 receives a tiny bump in capacity from Series 2. This pales in comparison from the bump Series 2 received (+30% over ‘Series 0’), but that’s not a bad thing for now.

At the end of the day while mostly tethered to my phone, I’ve been averaging about 60% — 70% remaining battery life. That’s with medium usage, including a 30-minute drumming workout, various texts, driving directions, and notifications. This Watch could last me two days without a charge, which is similar to what I’ve heard about Series 2.

While making phone calls with only the Watch’s built-in cellular radio, battery does drain noticeably faster. Apple only promises one hour of talk time in this scenario, and that seems about right to me. Since our reliance on actual phone calls is on an ever-downward trend, this is probably not a big issue for most. However, with processing performance hitting acceptable levels, battery life now becomes Apple Watch’s largest opportunity for improvement. It’s an opportunity I’m honestly not sure how Apple will address. They have continued to refine chipsets and their software to become more power efficient, but there is a point where you just need more physical space for a battery. I don’t see the Apple Watch’s casing slimming down anytime soon for this reason. More on cellular performance below.

As the Watch is becoming more utilitarian, Apple could theoretically make a Watch band with batteries in it for those that really need the extra juice. It would be akin to a battery case for your iPhone. If you need to use it every day, you lose a little flexibility with your band selection, but I’m sure they would look fashionable in their own right.

Cellular

On to the tent-pole feature of Apple Watch Series 3. I have seen so many people online question why Apple would add a cellular radio to the Watch, but I always thought it was clear to see this was the next logical progression for this device.

Setup

During the pairing process, you will be asked if you want to add the device to your cellular plan. Simply tap “Set Up Cellular” and you will be redirected to complete enrollment via your carrier’s website. This was a breeze for me, though I hear some experienced issues, which would be typical for a new device on launch day. Once done, my Watch activated itself after about a minute.

You can use the Watch without cellular, of course. Simply tap “Skip This Step” instead.

Cellular setup page.
Cellular setup page.

Price

Most US carriers are charging a $10/month fee to use your Watch on your existing data plan. Verizon, my carrier, is offering the first three months for free so that’s cool. The price is pretty high for a device that will only use cellular as a last resort — not to mention if you have multiple Watches on the same account. I had predicted $5/month, but carriers are notoriously greedy so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

How it Works

Apple Watch’s data connection has always followed a priority that goes like this: iPhone (Bluetooth) > Known Wi-Fi Network.

Adding in the Watch’s own internal cellular radio complicates things a little bit. Here is the new priority: iPhone (Bluetooth) > Known Wi-Fi Network > Internal cellular radio.

In other words, Series 3 tries to utilize its new cellular radio as little as possible. As a matter of fact, it will only use it if your iPhone isn’t around and it can’t connect to a known Wi-Fi network. Once back in range of either of these options, it will switch back over, but not always as quickly as it should.

Checking Signal

iOS 11 ditches the dots for signal indication and watchOS inherits them (they fit in much better here). You can view your cellular signal strength one of two ways:

  1. Using the new ‘Explorer’ watch face.
  2. Swiping up from the watch face and looking in the top-left corner.

Note: signal dots will only appear if the radio is actively being used.

Left to right: Explorer watch face with signal indicator, cellular button and signal indicator, cellular toggle with details.
Left to right: Explorer watch face with signal dots, cellular button and signal dots, cellular toggle with details.

Phone Calls

I’ve made a few calls directly from my Watch’s cellular radio and they’ve been fantastic. I haven’t experienced any audio quality issues or dropped calls. This feels incredibly futuristic, especially when combined with AirPods. 3

Data

Using cellular data on the Watch is a little complicated.

For instance, some carriers prevent sending SMS texts from the Watch over cellular. It’s not exactly clear at this point whether this is a bug or policy. iMessage still works no matter what, so if most of the people you text have blue bubbles, you’re all set.

Also, not all third-party apps have been updated to take advantage of the new cellular radio. These are still dependent on the iPhone to function in some capacity. For instance, the TuneIn Radio app won’t stream content without being tethered to an iPhone.

Switching between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Cellular

Apple needs to work on this part, as evidenced by the captive portal hotspot issue caught by a few journalists last week. I haven’t experienced this issue myself, but I typically never use open Wi-Fi networks with captive portals.

That said, I did experience some delays when the Apple Watch was trying to switch between radios. Here’s a couple scenarios in which this happened.

Scenario One

My iPhone was in the bedroom and I was in the living room with my Watch (about 60 feet apart in a straight line). I tried to issue a command via Siri and it wasn’t responding. I got the dreaded “Hold on…” message from Siri. 4 In my opinion, the Watch should have switched directly to my home Wi-Fi network instead of hanging on to the iPhone via a low Bluetooth signal.

In fact, the Watch should always connect to known Wi-Fi networks even if your phone is around, but that may come at cost of battery life. I would love to see this happen eventually, as it would surely make for a more cosistent connection.

The truth is this isn’t new to Series 3, but something that has occurred since ‘Series 0’. It’s an underlying problem that’s tough to get right.

Scenario Two

I left my iPhone in the car while I ran into the drug store. The Watch took a couple minutes to activate its cellular radio, and when it did, I was unable to dictate an iMessage (no transcription appeared as I spoke). I had to use the Scribble feature to write my text, but it did send (odd).

Both of these scenarios left me shaking my head a little bit, as it’s something that should have been worked out in software. Apple has promised to fix the captive portal issue in a future update, but I they need to address radio switching as a whole to improve the experience. Also worth noting: as with all previous versions, you can’t toggle Wi-Fi on and off with Series 3.

Talking Siri

Siri now talks on Series 3 thanks to its upgraded processor. This is something I didn’t think I’d care for, but it has actually proven really nice to have voice feedback in most cases. A good example is when controlling your HomeKit devices. I can raise my wrist, tell Siri to unlock the door, and just drop my hand. A couple seconds later, I hear an audible “That’s done.” from thin air. It’s such a small thing, but it has a big impact. It makes the Watch feel more powerful and alive.

Siri is super fast now, too. I view it as the primary way to engage with the Watch, and Apple is increasingly positioning it at the forefront of their ecosystem. Siri is the voice of Apple devices, so to see how much better it works on the new Watch compared to the older models is highly encouraging. It’s almost as fast as yelling at Alexa on my Echo Dot to accomplish the same task. Because of these improvements, Alexa and I haven’t been on speaking terms much.

Apple Music Streaming

Coming this Fall, you will be able to stream Apple Music directly to your Watch over cellular. This effectively will make the Watch an always-connected iPod Nano. Just imagine going on a run with your Watch and AirPods while streaming any song on command. How amazing is that? Apple hasn’t given a hard date for this functionality, but I’m looking forward to testing it out once available.

What’s Next?

With Apple checking off the cellular box for Apple Watch, one wonders what upgrades a Series 4 (and beyond) model will see. Here’s a few things I can think of.

Battery Innovation

As I mentioned above, I think this is the Watch’s greatest opportunity for improvement. So many new features will be dependent on a better battery. Apple needs to push the envelope on battery technology like they have done with terraced cells in the MacBook. There could still be potential to make the battery bigger as miniaturization marches on, but that’s only part of the puzzle. Further optimization and new battery (or even charging) technology will drive major changes to the Apple Watch in the future.

Always-On Watch Face

I think this will happen in time, but is highly dependent on battery improvements. Raise-To-Wake works well, but there are times you can’t raise your wrist (e.g. when carrying something). Being able to glance the time simply by looking would be great. 5

New Finishes and Design Changes

Low-hanging fruit to spice up the product line is needed before the design starts to become stale.

Apple Watch as Keys

Tim Cook wants Apple Watch to replace our keys, but there hasn’t been much traction in this area. Sure, we can use it to unlock our Mac, but that’s within Apple’s own ecosystem.

I use it as such to unlock my smart deadbolt, but it would be even more amazing if it could also unlock my car. This is probably more on the software and automaker partnership side, but this would be a perfect use case for Apple Watch. I mean, who likes carrying keys?

Conclusion

There’s not much left to be said.

Series 3 proves the Watch is not a novelty, but a product coming into its own. I speculated it could be the ‘iPhone 4’ of its line, and I stand by those remarks after using it. One day, the Watch will move out of the iPhone’s garage and into its own apartment as it becomes more of a must-have device just like the iPod.


  1. Shh… little does it know iPhone X pre-orders are next. ↩︎

  2. Plus, you know, the obvious HAL9000 connotations and all that. ↩︎

  3. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out. ↩︎

  4. Side note: Apple really should remove this particular message. Siri telling me to hold on makes me feel like my time isn’t valuable. Her existing “One sec…” or “I’ll tap you when I’m ready.” messages seem more appropriate. ↩︎

  5. It is a watch, after all… ↩︎

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