Apple Watch Series 3 review: Apple retains its smartwatch crown

When the first Apple Watch came out, one of the main murmurs of disappointment was its inability to use internet-connected tools without a smartphone. The fantasy of a wrist-borne communicator was dampened by the need to hook up to an iPhone to do things such as send messages or check maps. Two years later, the Apple Watch Series 3 is here and promises to fulfill precisely those ambitions with its built-in 4G.

The new model replaces the Apple Watch Series 2, which brought GPS and swim-tracking into the mix. The original Apple Watch is still available in the shape of the Series 1, while the Series 3 is available with or without LTE 4G connectivity. In either case, you’ll find a device that’s very much angled towards fitness-tracking, health, and general wellbeing.

Apple has made much in recent months of its pre-eminence over other watch brands such as Rolex and Fossil, but is the Apple Watch Series 3 worth its hefty cost?

Apple Watch Series 3 review: What you need to know

The Series 3 replaces the Watch Series 2 as Apple’s pre-eminent wearable. And now there’s a GPS and Cellular version, which comes with built-in 4G connectivity, meaning you can access internet data without being tethered to an iPhone.

Aside from 4G, the Series brings a range of smaller tweaks to Siri and exercise tracking. These include a more in-depth heart-rate tracking, more exercises in the workout app and a digital assistant with a voice.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Price and Competition

The Apple Watch Series 3 GPS + Cellular, to give the device its full name, will set you back £399. If you opt for a stainless steel case, instead of the standard aluminium, you’ll have to cough up £599. Throw in the more expensive ‘Milanese Loop’ wristband and you’ll pay up to £749.

Without 4G, the Series 3 costs a more palatable £329. That still comes with GPS, but no option for internet data. For comparison, the Apple Watch Series 1 is now a mere £249, but that comes without GPS or full waterproofing.

In a similar ballpark is the Samsung Gear S3, which costs £349. Other prominent Android options include the Huawei Watch 2 (£280), while fitness-dedicated wearables include the Samsung Gear Fit 2 (£180) the Fitbit Charge 2 (£130) and Fitbit Ionic (£299).

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Design

The Series 3 is pretty much identical in design to the Series 2, with Apple mining the same sleek, mini-iPhone aesthetic for the watch’s body. Size-wise, there are 38mm and 42mm models; we tested the latter in its GPS and Cellular variant, which weighs 35g and has dimensions of 43 x 36 x 11mm. It’s light on the wrist and the AMOLED screen – which has a resolution of 272 x 340 for the 38mm model and 312 x 390 for the 42mm – is just large enough to ensure onscreen controls aren’t too much of a fiddle.

Apple has kept the size of its watch consistent even though it adds a new dual-core processor and LTE connectivity, cleverly using the main display as an antenna. Taps and swipes on the screen feel responsive, as do twiddles and presses on the Digital Crown and side button.

The main difference with the Series 3, at least visually, is the presence of a big red dot in the Digital Crown, which is a design misstep for Apple. I imagine it’s intended to let strangers know you’re wearing the latest and most expensive version of the Apple Watch, but it sticks out against the muted minimalism of the Watch’s body like a sore (red) thumb.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Cellular and battery life

Should you buy the Apple Watch Series 3 with 4G, or opt for the Series 3 with only GPS? In our experience with the 4G model and knowing the £70 price difference between the two variants, I’d lean towards the latter option. Internet data certainly is useful, particularly for maps or listening to music during a long run, but there aren’t that many times outside of exercise that you’ll be wearing the Watch without an iPhone in your pocket.

Setting up 4G connectivity on the watch is a simple matter of activating an EE e-SIM add-on via the Watch app on your iPhone (you’ll need an iPhone 6 or later to use cellular). At the moment, though, EE is the only carrier in the UK to offer this service and it will cost you an extra £5 per month. It’s not an inordinate amount but it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth when you’ve already paid more for the 4G model.

The good news is that 4G seems to work well. When the Series 3 first came out there were criticisms of the device latching onto passing Wi-Fi signals and subsequently dropping connectivity. Apple has since patched this problem and I haven’t noticed any problem in my time with the wearable.

There were a small number of times when Bluetooth connectivity fell by the wayside, meaning music playback would cut out, but for the most part, the Series 3 was happy to stream a few songs and notify me about emails – even though I was miles away from my handset. I was even able to make phone calls via a connected Bluetooth headset, although be warned: extensive use of the 4G feature will shorten the battery life considerably.

Whether or not you want that level of connectivity is another question. Personally, I do exercise to get away from the stream of notifications I’m bombarded with when I have my phone by my side, but if having access to messages and Twitter on a run is important to you then 4G could be a game changer.

What the Series 3 ultimately highlights, though, is that, outside of exercise, there aren’t that many times when I’m away from my phone. So while LTE is a nice addition, and being able to make and receive calls via wireless headphones is a good way to keep connected, it feels far from essential.

In terms of battery life, analysts have revealed the Series 3 has a capacity of 279mAh, marking a 4% boost over the Series 2. Apple says this should give you 18 hours, although I found the Series 3 would last much longer than this with moderate use. In my experience, it’s possible to squeeze two days from the device and sometimes a bit longer if it’s not being used as an exercise tracker.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Health and fitness tracking

The Apple Watch Series 3 continues the Series 2’s focus on health and fitness, with a range of exercise tools on offer. The activity tracker is still there, monitoring steps and movement and nudging you to stand up every hour like a perpetually disappointed schoolteacher. The Workout app is also present and correct but has been expanded to encompass a number of new exercises such as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

Plus, now that the Watch has an altimeter, it’s able to monitor the flights of stairs you’ve climbed during the day and provide more accurate elevation data during and after exercise.

Like the Series 2, the new Apple Watch can be used in the pool. Once you’ve got over the fear of submerging an expensive piece of kit into water it does an excellent job of keeping note of laps and lengths and it can now even tell you what stroke you’ve been doing. It’s also possible to combine a number of different workouts if, say, you’re moving from machine to machine in the gym.

And all of this is given a leg up with the addition of more in-depth heart rate data. The heart rate app on the Series 3 measures your BPM as before, but now also charts your average walking and resting rates, as well as your recovery time after workouts. It’s fascinating to see your heart’s progression over the course of a day and there’s even a potentially lifesaving option to turn on warnings if your heart rate jumps over a certain threshold while you’re inactive.

Altogether, the Series 3 offers the strongest amount of tracking and health data on an Apple Watch to date, which means for most people it’s the only fitness watch they’ll ever need. The only, slightly disappointing omission is the continuing lack of sleep tracking; although you can add that feature via a third-party app, it would be good to see Apple offering its own take on the feature. Perhaps next year.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Software, Siri and performance

The Apple Watch Series 3 runs on watchOS 4, and with this comes with a revamped version of Siri. There’s now a Siri watch face that shows the “information users need most throughout the day”, and the digital assistant can now respond with audio directly on the watch as well as text.

This makes Siri much more useful as a wrist-bound helper and is a big advantage for moments when fumbling with your hands isn’t practical – from setting timers to stopping music in the middle of a run.

And this is all made possible by the Watch’s new S3 CPU, which Apple says is 70% faster than the old S2 processor. Now, I didn’t have an issue with the Series 2’s performance, but with the Apple Watch Series 3 able to do so much more than its predecessor it makes sense to have more power on tap. Plus, it gives Apple Pay a responsiveness boost, registering payments on contactless readers a fraction quicker than it did with previous models.

As for third-party software, well that’s mostly very good still. There are thousands of useful apps available to run on your Apple Watch alongside the core Apple defaults (some of which also benefit from a small revamp), with the promise of developers coming up with increasingly clever ways of taking advantage of the Watch’s new 4G capabilities.

It’s worth noting, however, that over the past year a number of big companies have pulled apps from the Apple Watch App store, including Google Maps, Amazon and eBay – and there’s still no Spotify app available on the platform. If you want to stream music on the go, via the Watch’s 4G connection, your best bet, currently, remains Apple Music.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Verdict

The Apple Watch Series 3 is a stellar wearable, but not necessarily because of the inclusion of 4G. Being able to access the internet without a tethered iPhone is handy, but with a £399 price for the hardware and an additional monthly payment tagged onto your phone contract, it’s an expensive addition for not a great deal of advantage.

The good news is that that the non-4G version is nearly as good and, at £329, costs a lot less. In fact, at that price, it’s competitive with the Huawei Watch 2 and Samsung Gear S3 (although the platform dependence of smartwatches in general makes that comparison somewhat moot).

The fact remains, though, that the Apple Watch Series 3 in either 4G or GPS-only guise is the best smartwatch you can buy, regardless of platform, and for most people the best all-round fitness tracker as well. If you own an iPhone and you’re looking to buy a smartwatch, it’s the only sensible option.

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