The Apple Watch Series 3 launched alongside the new iPhones two weeks ago, and it’s arguably a more exciting hardware update than the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. With the release of the Series 3, Apple removed the Series 2 from the lineup, leaving customers with a choice between the Apple Watch Series 1 and the Apple Watch Series 3.
With the Series 1 starting at just $249 (or less), it’s an attractive offer that many will consider, but after going hands-on with Series 3 ($329+) over the last few weeks, I think that would be a mistake.
In the past, this was a more nuanced decision, as the Apple Watch Series 1 and the Apple Watch Series 2 were basically the same device, minus a few differences with things like water resistance, GPS, and the like. With the Series 1 vs Series 3, however, there’s a significantly larger gap between these two devices from both a price and feature perspective.
For those in the market for a new Apple Watch, which model should you consider? Have a look at our hands-on video walkthrough for the details.
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The majority of the marketing push for the Apple Watch Series 3 has revolved around cellular LTE connectivity, and understandably so. It feels almost futuristic to have an Apple Watch that’s always connected even without Wi-Fi or a paired iPhone nearby. But in my opinion, that’s not the most important feature of the new Apple Watch Series 3.
The biggest new feature of the Apple Watch Series 3 is speed. As improved as the Apple Watch Series 2 was with its S2 dual-core processor, it can feel downright pedestrian next to the 70 percent faster dual-core S3 chip nestled inside of the Apple Watch Series 3.
There’s also a new custom-designed wireless chip that Apple calls the W2. The W2 combines both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, and affords 85% faster Wi-Fi performance, with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi being 50% more power efficient. If you don’t overuse LTE cellular connectivity, you should experience noticeably improved battery life to go along with that performance.
While it’s true that watchOS 4 optimizations have helped to streamline the usability experience, much of the speed difference is thanks to the new hardware under the hood of the Apple Watch Series 3.
Put it this way: if you’ve ever tried an Apple Watch before and were outright disgusted by its slow loading times and overall sluggishness, then you owe it to yourself to try Series 3 — it’s that much better of a device, and by a wide margin.
While LTE is the “sexy” new feature, the performance improvements of the Apple Watch Series 3 are what make the device actually worth it. If you put the same LTE connectivity in the Series 1 or Series 2, sans speed improvements, then the experience wouldn’t be nearly as compelling.
With Apple Watch Series 3, not only is the overall interface much snappier, but apps load in mere seconds; as such, you’re more motivated to use them. As someone who’s waded through the muck of several generations of slow and sluggish Apple Watch experiences, I’m happy to finally have hardware that doesn’t weigh down the experience with dreadful latency.
The next big Apple Watch Series 3 feature is, of course, LTE. As I previously mentioned, LTE is a game changer, and a large selling point based on the cool-factor alone. Being able to leave your iPhone in the car as you go for a run, while still maintaining basic connectivity, is a great feeling. iPhone runs out of battery? You can still make that emergency call.
iPhone-free workouts are the obvious application, seeing as the majority of Apple Watch owners are into the fitness aspects that the device brings to the table. But here’s something that you may not have considered: What about those important times in life where you’re spending valuable time with family or friends?
For those of us who struggle with the temptation of checking iPhone notifications in situations where you should be focused on the actual people in front of you, the Apple Watch is a great thing. It’s even better now that cellular connectivity is involved, because you can leave your iPhone in the car or at home, outright bypassing the temptation to pull it out in the first place.
Cellular connectivity on the Apple Watch means that you can still be reached via a phone call or a text message in the event of an emergency. The great thing about the Apple Watch is that it uses your same phone number as your paired iPhone. Thus, the transition between the two devices is virtually seamless.
I left my iPhone in the car and went on a 1.5 mile walk to test LTE connectivity. Phone calls worked perfectly, with good call clarity. The person on the other line couldn’t even tell I was on my watch. I made three phone calls during my walk, and each lasted about 3-4 minutes each.
I also tested out streaming music and the new Radio app found in the watchOS 4.1 beta, and that too worked great. All of this was going on while in the middle of a workout using the Nike+ Run Club app, which uses GPS to track progress.
At the end of my 30 minute walk I was down to 72% battery from 100%. That’s a significant amount of battery life to lose after only 30 minutes, but it’s not entirely unexpected given the LTE battery life estimate for phone calls published on Apple’s website. Battery life on LTE is definitely a downside for the Apple Watch Series 3, but I’m not usually talking on the phone during workouts anyway, which was the largest contributing factor to the quickly-diminishing battery.
16 GB storage capacity
All cellular models of the Apple Watch Series 3 come with 16 GB of storage space, which is double the amount of storage featured in the non-LTE version and Series 1. Having additional storage space is most useful when you want to sync music tracks for offline playback using the iOS Watch app.
What’s weird is that non-LTE users would probably find the additional storage space more useful, since there is no cellular Music streaming to be found while out and about.
The presence of a barometric altimeter allows your Apple Watch Series 3 to gather flights climbed and general elevation data during workouts without needing your iPhone nearby. It’s a handy workout-centric feature to have, and again makes the Series 3 Apple Watch a solid choice for those who wish to leave their iPhone in the car while exercising.
Music & Radio streaming
The watchOS 4.1 beta brings an updated Music app and a brand new Radio app to the mix. The updated Music app allows Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE users to stream the entire Apple Music catalog of 40 millions songs on demand from anywhere. Even if you’re not connected to Wi-Fi, and even if your paired iPhone is nowhere near, you can still stream the entire Apple Music Library, along with your iCloud Music Library via cellular connectivity.
There’s also a brand new Radio app, which makes it possible to play live radio stations like Beats 1, NPR, and ESPN, along with genre-specific and artist-specific playlist-based stations.
Watch our hands-on video walkthrough of the new Music and Radio features for more details:
As you can imagine, the new music features are liberating new additions for Apple Watch Series 3 w/LTE owners. Especially for those engaging in regular workout sessions can I see these being prized new features.
For the first time on Apple Watch, Siri has a voice. Siri can speak directly from the Apple Watch speaker, or via paired Bluetooth headphones.
Voice feedback may not seem like a big deal on paper, but I’ve found that it makes Siri seem a lot more alive, and closer to the full iOS version. The presence of voice feedback is big, but again it’s the speed that really makes Siri shine on Apple Watch Series 3.
With watchOS 4, Siri also supports SiriKit for notes and to-do apps. This allows you to interact with third-party apps like Things 3 using only your voice. For example, you can ask Siri to add a new task to Things, and the item will be added to the Inbox.
Explorer watch face
For those of you who opt for an LTE-enabled Apple Watch Series 3, you’ll gain access to the exclusive Explorer watch face. Explorer is a clean-looking watch face with a special area for displaying cellular connectivity when connected to LTE.
The Explorer watch face is limited in its color selection, relying heavily on red and white, which helps to accentuate the red dot on the Digital Crown.
The new Sport Loop can be purchased separately in a variety of colors, but it launched alongside the new Apple Watch Series 3. This is my favorite first-party band for a variety of reasons, because it’s:
- Easy to remove thanks to a reliable hook and loop setup.
- More breathable than the traditional fluoroelastomer Sport bands.
- Dries quickly after being submerged in water.
Additional features adopted from Series 2
The Apple Watch Series 3 comes with these additional features adopted from Series 2, that don’t appear on Series 1:
- 2x brighter (1000 nits) Second Generation OLED Retina display
- Water resistant 50 meters
- GPS (and GLONASS (new with S3))
- Ceramic back (LTE version only)
What’s not so good?
LTE connectivity issues
Some of the initial Apple Watch Series 3 w/LTE reviews complained about spotty or lackluster LTE connectivity. When I first got my watch, I experienced issues with making and receiving phone calls. I was able to fix the problem by removing and adding carrier service via the Apple Watch app, but it wasn’t as smooth as it should have been.
Earlier this week Apple released watchOS 4.0.1, which it says has addressed the issues with LTE connectivity. That should solve some of the issues, but the carriers themselves, being unfamiliar with the product, seem to be responsible for some of the problems as well.
Monthly fee for LTE
Most carriers will charge about $10 a month for the ability to use the Apple Watch Series 3 on their cellular network. It’s a ridiculous charge, considering that you’re using the same data that you’d normally use for your iPhone anyway, but carriers have the advantage, and can pretty much dictate anything when it comes to their network. If there’s any sort of consolation, it’s that most carriers seem to be offering a three month trial before they begin charging a monthly fee for Apple Watch data usage.
Remember that you can also opt for an Apple Watch Series 3 without cellular, which comes with everything that the LTE version offers except a ceramic back, and 16 GB of storage.
Red Digital Crown
The red Digital Crown on the Apple Watch Series 3 is there to help differentiate cellular models from non-cellular models. While I personally don’t have a problem with it seeing as red is one of my favorite colors, I understand why people may be frustrated with Apple’s decision-making here. The red crown might clash with certain watch cases and band choices, and just looks odd on a device built around fashion and customization.
Thicker than Apple Watch Series 1
Apple says that the Apple Watch Series 3 is thicker by just two sheets of paper from the sensor housing on the back of the case. In other words, there is an almost an imperceivable difference between the Series 3 and the now discontinued Series 2.
That said, when comparing the Series 3 against the Series 1, a device that Apple still sells, the difference is noticeable. The Series 1 Apple Watch features a case depth of 10.5mm, whereas the Series 3 features a case depth of 11.4mm. Coupled with the larger sensor housing on the back of the case, the Series 3 feels a bit bulkier on the wrist when compared to Series 1.
Third-party app support for LTE
App support on Apple Watch has never been what I’d call outstanding. Sure, there are lots and lots of Apple Watch apps with a few gems here and there, but the vast majority of watchOS apps aren’t very good. It’s therefore not surprising that most of the apps available on the App Store today lack support for LTE connectivity.
In other words, most of the apps still rely on a paired iPhone or Wi-Fi connectivity to work. Some excellent forward-thinking third-party apps, like Shazam, work independently on LTE, but such occurrences are few and far between.
Battery life when using LTE
Battery life when using LTE for phone calls is unsurprisingly not very good. Apple notes that the watch will last just an hour when making a phone call over LTE. That’s not great, but realistically, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hold an hour-long phone conversation from the Apple Watch.
More realistically, phone conversations, and LTE usage in general, will probably be sporadic. Like salt to enhance a good meal, when used sparingly, it’s a good thing, but overuse will ruin the experience.
Outside of LTE connectivity, which can quickly kill battery life, the overall battery performance is better than any Apple Watch I’ve tried before. Much of that is likely owed to the more efficient W2 chip. During my testing, I regularly made it a day and a half, and sometimes longer, before being alerted that my battery was low.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is what the Apple Watch has always aspired to be. If you’re in the market for a fitness-oriented wearable that can do a whole lot more, then the Apple Watch Series 3 is the device for you. Unless price is of utmost importance, I’d skip the discounted Apple Watch Series 1, and head right towards the Series 3. Its speed alone makes the decision an easy one in my opinion.
If you want a device that is as future proof as possible, then I recommend going with the LTE model, even if you don’t plan on immediately activating cellular service. My hope is that third-party apps will eventually improve and adopt cellular independence. Being able to leave your phone behind has proven to be a significant convenience, and can help reduce distractions.
When paired with AirPods, Apple Music streaming via LTE is downright awesome. You literally have your entire music library on your wrist at all times. And Siri is more helpful than ever on Apple Watch, with voice feedback making the assistant come to life.
Of course, the Apple Watch Series 3 isn’t perfect, and Apple still has a ways to go in areas like battery life, case form factor, and app support. Yet, this is by far the most advanced personal computer that’s ever lived on the wrist, and when you sit back and think about how remarkable this little device is, then your appreciate for it is bound to grow.