I like watches. I wear one every single day, without fail, and have since I was in elementary school. I also like gadgets a lot, which means that a smartwatch is something that I’ve always been intrigued by and wanted in my life.
But despite being both a watch wearer and a fan of overwrought gadgets, I’ve never found a liking for the Apple Watch. The early iterations had a clumsy interface, slow performance, and just average battery life. They always left me disappointed and looking for something else after a short while.
Apple has added many features and improvements to the Watch since its debut in 2015. The company has completely re-architected how the user interface works, but for the most part its feature additions have been focused on a specific type of user: an active person who wants to use the Apple Watch to track all of their workouts and fitness activities.
Last year’s Series 2 model added standalone GPS, which is hugely helpful for getting accurate maps of your runs. It also introduced swim tracking, so you can use the Apple Watch to record your lap times. This year’s Series 3 builds on that with optional LTE connectivity, which allows you to leave your iPhone at home and still be connected.
My colleague Lauren Goode has already gone in depth on the Watch’s fitness features, which you can read about here and here. (In short: GPS is great. LTE needs some work.) But I am not terribly concerned with fitness-tracking features or LTE connectivity. For me, the extent of working out is when I have to run to catch the train before it leaves the station, or shoveling snow when we get the next inevitable nor’easter. And there is never a time where I’ll leave the house without my phone in my hand or pocket.
In addition to the highly publicized fitness features, Apple has been iterating on the things that make the Watch a useful wrist computer, including better battery life, easier-to-use software, and much faster performance. So, for the past two weeks, I’ve worn the latest Apple Watch to get an idea of where it’s at as a smartwatch, not a fitness tracker. I haven’t used LTE connectivity or GPS tracking, two features that don’t impact my day-to-day use, but I have managed a lot of notifications, interacted with a bunch of third-party apps, controlled my smart home gadgets, checked the weather countless times, and even used Siri almost every day. And, of course, with the Apple Watch on my wrist, instead of my usual analog watch, I’ve used it to check the time a bunch, too.
My conclusion, after testing the $329 (and up) Apple Watch Series 3 without LTE, is that it’s hands-down the best option if you want a smartwatch to go with your iPhone. It’s fast, has by far the best support for third-party apps and integrations, and its battery life is reliable enough that I don’t have to charge it every single day. That isn’t to say it’s perfect — far from it — nor is it to say that everyone needs a smartwatch. But if you’ve already decided that you do want a smartwatch, or if you’ve tried the Apple Watch in the past and were frustrated with its performance, usability, or battery life, the Apple Watch Series 3 is what you want.
At this point, the Apple Watch’s design is iconic, and it hasn’t changed at all since 2015. Its rounded rectangular shape is distinctive enough that I can easily spot one from across a room or subway car, and it’s compact and comfortable in ways that other smartwatches only dream of. The 42mm space gray aluminum model that I’ve been wearing has the same level of fit and finish as any other Apple product, which means it’s damn near perfect. I’ve worn other smartwatches that cost orders of magnitude more than this and don’t have the build quality that Apple manages here.
But that iconic design also means that every Apple Watch looks like every other Apple Watch, and when millions of people already own these things, it’s hard to project a sense of personality or taste with one. Yes, you can opt for one of two sizes; a silver, gold, or gray color; aluminum, stainless steel, or ceramic finishes; and a wide variety of first-party or third-party straps (I’ve been wearing Nomad’s Modern Leather strap for the most part), but there’s no mistaking the Apple Watch for anything else. If you’re accustomed to people asking you about the watch on your wrist because it’s unique or different, you can forget about that happening with the Apple Watch. Call it a victim of its own success, if you will.
That said, the Watch’s design is very functional, with its bright, colorful square display making it easy to read text indoors or out, and its two buttons plus a touchscreen make it easy to navigate the interface. The spinning crown is particularly great for scrolling through lists, zooming in on images or maps, or making quick volume adjustments when listening to music.
None of the above is new, but what is new is just how fast and responsive the Apple Watch Series 3 is. Thanks to its new S3 processor and improvements made in watchOS, everything happens faster on the Series 3. The interface is more responsive, third-party apps open much quicker, and even Siri is quick enough to no longer be frustrating. I found myself actually wanting to use the Watch for things I’d typically just go straight to my phone for, like setting timers, checking the weather with Carrot, or adjusting my Ecobee thermostat, because the responsiveness is so much better than before.
Additionally, battery life has been greatly improved with the Series 3 over earlier Watch versions. While Apple still only says the Series 3 is good for “up to 18 hours” of battery life, I routinely get two days between charges, and sometimes even longer. (I do not wear the Watch when I sleep because that is awful and uncomfortable.) The reason for the longer battery life is the new, more efficient processor and a larger battery cell in the Watch itself, designed to compensate for the GPS and LTE functionality. But if you never use GPS or LTE, like me, the Watch can easily go for longer than a single day.
Despite the better battery life, Apple still doesn’t offer an always-on display function, which means the screen is off until you lift your wrist, a notification wakes it up, or you tap it. I’d easily give up a significant chunk of the improved battery life if it means I could have an always-on screen that I can quickly glance at to check the time without needing to raise my arm or interact with the Watch in some way.
Speaking of interactions, unless you use Siri to do everything, the Watch remains a two-handed device. I wear the Watch on my left wrist and that means I can’t do anything with it if there’s something in my right hand, such as a coffee cup, bag of groceries, or toddler. Android Wear’s gesture-based controls may be exceedingly goofy, but they do let me scroll through notifications without having to touch the watch.
A lot of the improvements Apple has made over the years are in the Watch’s software, and watchOS 4 is the best version of it yet. Apple has removed many of the unorthodox ideas, such as using the crown to scroll ahead in time or tapping the side button to see a list of favorite contacts, and replaced them with more obvious actions that mimic how the iPhone works.
Pressing the side button brings up a vertical carousel of recently accessed apps, while swiping up from the watchface opens toggles for connectivity, sound, and other functions. Swipe down from the top and you can see all of your notifications, or you can swipe left or right across the screen to quickly change watchfaces. Pressing the crown’s button still brings up the weird constellation of app icons, but I’ve found that I don’t need to dive into that very often because I just set my most-used apps as widgets on the watchface itself.
WatchOS 4 also brings a much improved Siri experience that’s faster and allows Siri to talk back to you for a fully hands-free / eyes-free experience. There’s also a new Siri watchface that shows upcoming appointments, weather, news, and more, but it’s not something I found particularly useful in my day to day.
The upside of all of these software improvements is that they are available on any generation of Apple Watch; you don’t have to buy the latest and greatest model to take advantage of them. If you do buy a Series 3 model, you will benefit from faster performance over earlier models, but the difference between a Series 3 and last year’s Series 1 or Series 2 is not going to be significant enough to warrant an upgrade for the increased speed alone. (If you have a first-generation Apple Watch from 2015, you are much more likely to see a performance difference with a Series 3.)
My takeaway after two-plus weeks with the latest smartwatch Apple has to offer is that it isn’t trying to convince the world that everyone needs a smartwatch. Instead, the improvements here make the smartwatch experience better for those that have already converted.
If you’re like me, and are into the concept of managing notifications and checking small bits of information on your wrist, the Apple Watch Series 3 does those things very well, with fewer headaches than earlier models. It’s better than using an Android Wear or Samsung Gear watch with an iPhone, simply because of its deeper integration with iOS and support for far more third-party apps and services. I would recommend skipping right past the LTE model and saving $70, which you can then spend on getting a different strap than the default silicone option that comes with the Watch.
There’s also a good argument to be made that the best Apple Watch for those that don’t care much about fitness tracking is the Series 1, which Apple still sells for $80 less than the Series 3. It is able to take advantage of all of the new improvements Apple has made in watchOS 4 and can provide a very similar experience to the Series 3. But unless your budget is really strapped, the Series 3 model will provide longer battery life and faster performance, and will likely be supported by future versions of watchOS for longer.
The Apple Watch may not ever be the promised device that liberates us from the shackles of our smartphones, but three years into its existence, it is a very competent and capable smartwatch. Now if only it would show me the time all of the time.