Ap­ple Watch Se­ries 4 re­view

SE­RIES 4 TAKES AP­PLE WATCH FROM GOOD TO GREAT, AND FEELS LIKE THE WATCH WE’VE BEEN WAIT­ING FOR ALL ALONG.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY JA­SON CROSS

Sure, the Ap­ple Watch is a huge suc­cess, out­selling all ri­vals, but there are still a lot of fence-sit­ters not sure if it’s re­ally a worth­while ad­di­tion to their Ap­ple ecosys­tem. And not ev­ery­one is a watch per­son.

If this sounds like you, it’s time to get off the fence. The im­prove­ments in Se­ries 4—a big­ger dis­play, faster pro­ces­sor, and bet­ter sen­sors—make the Ap­ple Watch down­right de­light­ful to use, el­e­vat­ing it from “neat gad­get for Ap­ple fans” to “gotta-have-it ad­di­tion to your iphone.”

The $399 start­ing price is dis­ap­point­ingly high, but this is the Ap­ple Watch that fi­nally feels like it de­liv­ers on the promise Ap­ple has been build­ing to­ward for the last four years.

THE NEW DIS­PLAY: 30% BIG­GER IS 100% BET­TER

The most im­me­di­ately no­tice­able dif­fer­ence in the Ap­ple Watch Se­ries 4 is the new dis­play. It pushes out to­ward the edges, shrink­ing bezels and round­ing off cor­ners to match the curve of the case. Whether you choose the big or the small watch, you get more than 30 per­cent more dis­play area than the prior Ap­ple Watches.

And that 30-plus per­cent makes a huge dif­fer­ence in us­abil­ity. For one, it means that the new small-size Ap­ple Watch has a dis­play just a tiny bit larger than the old large Watch. Those with small wrists, like me, will ap­pre­ci­ate the abil­ity to choose the smaller size with­out sac­ri­fic­ing leg­i­bil­ity. Whether you pick the small or large model, ev­ery­thing ap­pears larger and more zoomed-in. Maps dis­play more de­tail. If you get a link to a web page in Mes­sages, you can ac­tu­ally read it on the watch. You may not want to, but it’s not the ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity it is on Se­ries 0–3 Watches. Ev­ery tap tar­get feels larger and eas­ier to hit. Ev­ery facet of the in­ter­face is eas­ier to read.

This seems ob­vi­ous, of course. Big­ger is big­ger. But it’s hard to ap­pre­ci­ate just how much it im­proves us­abil­ity un­til you try it out your­self. I have thin wrists and re­placed my old large 42mm watch with the new small 40mm Se­ries 4. It looks and feels bet­ter on my wrist, I didn’t give up an ounce of screen area, and still ev­ery part of the in­ter­face feels eas­ier to ma­nip­u­late.

The higher res­o­lu­tion and larger size also en­ables new watch faces. There are a hand­ful of nifty an­i­mated faces added to all Ap­ple Watch mod­els in watchos 5 ( go. mac­world.com/wktk; fire and wa­ter, liq­uid metal, va­por, and breathe), but two ad­di­tional faces are ex­clu­sive to the Se­ries 4. In­fo­graph takes an ana­log watch face and just crams it full of com­pli­ca­tions. There are so many that I hon­estly ran out of use­ful things to put there—i guess I should add a one-tap Shazam but­ton to my watch face? Opin­ions are sharply di­vided about it. Some find it far too busy and full of mixed col­ors, oth­ers love the in­for­ma­tion den­sity. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it’s my go-to watch face now.

In­fo­graph Mod­u­lar takes the ex­ist­ing Mod­u­lar watch face (one of the most pop­u­lar) and re­places the large cen­ter com­pli­ca­tion with a new high-info lay­out. Not many apps sup­port it yet, but those that do can put a lot more de­tail in there.

The new dis­play en­hances the over­all look of the Ap­ple Watch, too. Rather than mix­ing a dis­play that has sharp cor­ners with a curved-cor­ner watch face, the cor­ners of the dis­play now ex­actly match the curve of the case. This evens out the bezel all the way around, which is far more el­e­gant. It’s the iphone X look on your wrist.

BET­TER SEN­SORS FOR A BET­TER YOU

Se­ries 4 marks the first model where Ap­ple has se­ri­ously up­graded the ar­ray of sen­sors that make so many of the Watch’s fea­tures work. The ac­celerom­e­ter and gy­ro­scope are more sen­si­tive, with more dy­namic range—it can de­tect forces up to 32g, dou­ble the 16g of ear­lier watches, and mo­tion data is sam­pled up to 8 times faster.

That hard­ware is used for all kinds of stuff in the Ap­ple Watch, from sit/stand de­tec­tion to count­ing steps or swim strokes, and in my first week with the watch all of these ac­tiv­i­ties seemed to be tracked just a lit­tle bit bet­ter. Any ac­tiv­ity that re­lies on mea­sur­ing mo­tion was maybe a lit­tle bit more steady and pre­dictable, with less mo­ment-to-mo­ment vari­ance.

More im­por­tantly, the new mo­tion/gyro sen­sors add the new abil­ity for the Se­ries 4 to de­tect ac­ci­den­tal falls. If you take a bad tum­ble and don’t move right away, a warn­ing will pop up. You can quickly call emer­gency ser­vices if you need help, say you’re okay, or tell your Watch that you didn’t fall af­ter all. If you don’t do any­thing for about a minute, the Watch will be­gin a 15-se­cond count­down while tap­ping you on the wrist. When time is up, it will au­to­mat­i­cally con­tact emer­gency ser­vices and text your emer­gency con­tacts with your lo­ca­tion.

It’s a cool fea­ture that’s aimed at se­niors; in fact, it is only en­abled by de­fault for those aged 65 or older. Ev­ery­one else has to go into the set­tings to en­able it. I spent five min­utes toss­ing my­self on the ground in var­i­ous ways and couldn’t get it to trig­ger. It’s hard to fake a fall that looks, to these sen­si­tive sen­sors, like a real tum­ble, but I don’t think false pos­i­tives are go­ing to be a big prob­lem here.

Still, ac­ci­den­tal fall de­tec­tion is go­ing to be a hit fea­ture among its in­tended au­di­ence. Some se­nior is go­ing to take a spill and their Ap­ple Watch is go­ing to no­tify their chil­dren, sav­ing them a lot of painful time spent on the floor. Then they’re go­ing to tell all their friends about it down at the wa­ter aer­o­bics class. The next week, half of the class is go­ing to have an Ap­ple Watch on their wrists.

There’s a new op­ti­cal heart rate sen­sor that is more sen­si­tive and en­ergy ef­fi­cient, too. Watchos 5 adds the abil­ity to de­tect ab­nor­mally low heart rate to the ex­ist­ing high heart rate warn­ing, and with a soft­ware up­date later this year, will warn of ir­reg­u­lar heart rate as well.

Ex­clu­sive to Se­ries 4, how­ever, is a new elec­tri­cal heart sen­sor than can per­form a sin­gle-chan­nel elec­tro­car­dio­gram (ECG). Just run the app, hold your finger on the dig­i­tal crown for about 30 sec­onds, and you get an ECG chart you can share with your doc­tor as a PDF, along with an anal­y­sis of whether your heart ac­tiv­ity is nor­mal or not.

Ap­ple made a lot of noise about how this fea­ture has FDA clear­ance, but that is dif­fer­ent than FDA ap­proval for med­i­cal de­vices. The FDA granted it clear­ance in the Class II cat­e­gory, which it de­scribes thusly:

Elec­tro­car­dio­graph soft­ware for over

the-counter use. An elec­tro­car­dio­graph soft­ware de­vice for over-the-counter use cre­ates, an­a­lyzes, and dis­plays elec­tro­car­dio­graph data, and can pro­vide in­for­ma­tion for iden­ti­fy­ing car­diac ar­rhyth­mias. This de­vice is not in­tended to pro­vide a di­ag­no­sis.

It’s not meant to sub­sti­tute for a real med­i­cal ECG, it’s not ap­proved for peo­ple un­der 22 years of age, and it won’t nec­es­sar­ily find heart prob­lems. But for some, it will point out a po­ten­tial prob­lem

that leads them to a doc­tor for a real test. In some cases, that will amount to noth­ing. In oth­ers, it will lead to a di­ag­no­sis that will save some­one’s life.

Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not yet testable. The ECG fea­ture is rolling out later this year in a soft­ware up­date, and only to U.S. users. Ap­ple will have to ob­tain the proper med­i­cal de­vice clear­ance be­fore it can be en­abled in other coun­tries. The com­pany has given no timetable for this ex­cept to say it’s work­ing on it.

THE S4 SIP: FI­NALLY FAST AND FLUID

For all the quips about the Ap­ple Watch be­ing a mini iphone on your wrist, it has never felt like us­ing one. Even sim­ple apps would take a while to launch. Some­times it was hard to get a swipe or a tap to reg­is­ter. Scrolling would some­times be smooth, some­times stut­ter ter­ri­bly. Most users didn’t con­sider these to be deal­break­ers be­cause com­pro­mised per­for­mance is com­mon to most smart­watches, and be­cause you just nat­u­rally in­ter­act with a watch in shorter, sim­pler ways. We just don’t hold them to the same stan­dards.

As good as Ap­ple Watch per­for­mance has been com­pared to other smart­watches, these lit­tle fits and starts have af­fected the way we per­ceived the Ap­ple Watch: It was a de­vice for check­ing on im­por­tant no­ti­fi­ca­tions, get­ting some at-a-glance info on your watch face, and trig­ger­ing set-and­for­get ac­tiv­i­ties like mu­sic playlists or ex­er­cise track­ing. It’s meant to give you quick info or track an ac­tiv­ity with min­i­mal ac­tual in­ter­ac­tion, right?

Then along came the Se­ries 3, bring­ing a se­ri­ous speed boost over the Se­ries 2. With re­spon­sive­ness and app load­ing im­proved so much, it started to feel like the Ap­ple Watch was some­thing you were meant to in­ter­act with, not just pas­sively push in­for­ma­tion at you. The Se­ries 4 feels

like a sim­i­lar leap over the Se­ries 3.

Ap­ple says the new dual-core 64-bit pro­ces­sor in the S4 Sil­i­con-in-pack­age (SIP) is up to twice as fast as the S3, and it’s easy to be­lieve. Ev­ery­thing is just but­tery smooth and re­spon­sive. Taps and swipes reg­is­ter in­stantly. Tap a com­pli­ca­tion and the as­so­ci­ated app just springs right open. Even no­to­ri­ously slow-launch­ing apps like Poké­mon Go ( go.mac­world.com/pkgo) pop open so quickly you’ll think some­thing must have gone wrong.

It has com­pletely changed the way I use my Ap­ple Watch. Apps I wouldn’t have both­ered with be­fore are sud­denly part of my reg­u­lar daily use. Even on a Se­ries 3, some apps take a few sec­onds to load, and I won’t bother with them. That sounds like an im­pos­si­bly high stan­dard, but if I can’t launch a Watch app faster than I can pull my iphone out of my pocket, I’ll just use the phone to get a full-fea­tured app ex­pe­ri­ence. Se­ries 4 makes ev­ery­thing so in­stan­ta­neous and re­spon­sive that I find my­self will­ing to use apps I never would have con­sid­ered be­fore.

In many ways, it feels as though watchos was too for­ward-look­ing, and has been wait­ing around for hard­ware fast enough to run it the way it was meant to be ex­pe­ri­enced. With the Se­ries 4, that hard­ware seems to fi­nally be here.

BAT­TERY LIFE: ALL DAY AND THEN SOME

The Ap­ple Watch has al­ways been a “charge it ev­ery day” de­vice. So when I say that the bat­tery life on the Se­ries 4 is ex­cel­lent, it’s in the con­text of other de­vices that claim full-day bat­tery life. Ap­ple says the bat­tery should last you up to 18 hours, but in prac­tice, I got a lot more.

I took my 40mm Se­ries 4 (Wi-fi + GPS) off the charger at 9 a.m. on Sat­ur­day and wore it un­til it died, even keep­ing it on as I slept, though I didn’t run a sleep-track­ing app. It fi­nally shut off around 5pm on Sun­day, 32 hours later.

Over that time I tracked a cou­ple hour-long work­outs at the gym while lis­ten­ing to mu­sic (stream­ing from my

iphone, us­ing the Watch to skip tracks and ad­just vol­ume). I checked dozens of no­ti­fi­ca­tions. I made sev­eral phone calls. I asked Siri a few ques­tions, and checked the weather a lot. I set some timers while cook­ing din­ner. If any­thing, I used it more than I typ­i­cally do be­cause I was try­ing out new apps. Later in the week, I re­peated the test with the same re­sults.

Yes, track­ing out­door fit­ness ac­tiv­ity and stream­ing mu­sic from your Watch to your Air­pods will run down the bat­tery faster, as will cel­lu­lar data ac­cess on cel­lu­lar-equipped mod­els. But my 32-hour stretch is way be­yond Ap­ple’s 18-hour promise. And I’ve been us­ing the smaller size—the larger Watches usu­ally typ­i­cally last a lit­tle longer.

I don’t know what sor­cery Ap­ple’s do­ing here, but I like it. The Se­ries 4 is way faster than the Se­ries 3, but it’s thin­ner and has a smaller bat­tery, and yet it still lasts just as long, per­haps even longer. Bravo!

That’s not to say that multi-day bat­tery life isn’t high on my wish­list for the fu­ture of the Ap­ple Watch. I still long for an Ap­ple Watch with the bat­tery life of the Fit­bit Ionic ( go.mac­world.com/ftin).

MI­NOR CHANGES AND MISS­ING FEA­TURES

There are a few mi­nor changes to the Se­ries 4 worth men­tion­ing. The most no­tice­able dif­fer­ence, at a glance, is the slightly up­dated shape of the case. Each of the two sizes have grown 2mm taller, so the small model has bumped up from 38mm to 40mm and the large from 42mm to 44mm. You won’t no­tice a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence on your wrist, in part be­cause the cor­ners are now more rounded and the watch is slightly thin­ner, shav­ing off the ex­tra thick­ness added to the Se­ries 2 and

Se­ries 3 and get­ting back to the trim pro­file of the Se­ries 0. Ex­ist­ing watch bands still work, too: the 38mm bands fit on the new 40mm and the 42mm bands fit on the new 44mm.

If you’re into gold, you’ll be glad to see a new gold-col­ored stain­less steel model. (The Se­ries 3 only of­fered the gold color on alu­minum watches.) And the cel­lu­lar mod­els are no longer adorned with a big red dot on the dig­i­tal crown—there’s a sub­tle red ring, in­stead. You can thank the elec­tri­cal pad re­quired for the ECG for that.

The dig­i­tal crown now has hap­tic re­sponse, too. There’s a gen­tle, sub­tle “tick” feel­ing as you scroll with it, giv­ing it the feel­ing of lit­tle de­tents. It al­ways puts a lit­tle smile on my face; just the sort of tiny de­tail I didn’t know I wanted un­til I had it.

For that mat­ter, all of the hap­tics feel bet­ter, sig­nal­ing pos­si­ble im­prove­ments to the Tap­tic En­gine. For ex­am­ple, I’ve al­ways known the hap­tic sig­nal for un­lock­ing my Mac with my Ap­ple Watch as a lit­tle dou­blewrist-tap. Tik-tik. With the Se­ries 4, the two taps feel dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent and mimic the feel of a lock un­lock­ing: Ca-click.

The speaker is a lot louder than on ear­lier Ap­ple Watch mod­els, and the mi­cro­phone has moved to the other side of the cas­ing. This, along with bet­ter noise can­cel­ing, have made mak­ing phone calls from your wrist a real pos­si­bil­ity. I made three phone calls, and the peo­ple on the other end couldn’t tell I was talk­ing on my Ap­ple Watch un­til I told them. The speaker is now loud enough that you can hear it with­out hold­ing your wrist up to your ear.

While mak­ing phone calls is not a new fea­ture, the Se­ries 4 takes it from a gim­mick I’ll never re­ally use to a le­git­i­mately use­ful fea­ture. If I had to make a short phone call, I’d have no is­sue mak­ing it from my wrist.

For all that the Se­ries 4 and watchos 5 add to the Ap­ple Watch, there are still a few fea­tures of­fered by com­pet­ing prod­ucts that we still don’t have. I think you get good enough bat­tery life to al­low for built-in sleep track­ing, for ex­am­ple. Apps like Au­tosleep ( go.mac­world.com/ aslp) do a good job, but I want an in­te­grated so­lu­tion, prefer­ably one that puts the watch into a spe­cial su­per-low­power sleep-track­ing state.

I’d also love to see an op­tion to burn a lit­tle of that ex­tra bat­tery life with al­ways-on watch faces. It’s a shame that this at­trac­tive hard­ware just turns into a blank, black slate when you’re not us­ing it. Watchos 6 should give ev­ery watch face an op­tional al­ways-on mode that elim­i­nates com­pli­ca­tions, col­ors, and ex­cess an­i­ma­tions in fa­vor of sim­ple de­signs that look good but don’t cause the OLED dis­play to use much power.

Just about ev­ery­one wants third-party watch faces, too.

Ap­ple ob­vi­ously doesn’t want to open the flood­gates to a bunch of ugly or trade­mark-in­fring­ing stuff, but surely some thought­ful­ly­con­strained tools could let de­vel­op­ers use a set of tem­plates and fea­tures along with lim­ited cus­tom art­work and an­i­ma­tions to make new watch faces that sat­isfy Ap­ple’s stan­dards?

BOT­TOM LINE

If you’ve been wait­ing for a big im­prove­ment to the Ap­ple Watch to add one to your wrist, now is the time. No sin­gle new fea­ture is ground­break­ing by it­self, but the com­bined ex­pe­ri­ence feels like a night-and-day im­prove­ment on pre­vi­ous Ap­ple Watches. If you have a Se­ries 2 or ear­lier, you’re go­ing to feel like you’re up­grad­ing from an iphone 6 to an iphone XS. If you have a Se­ries 3, it’s go­ing to be harder to jus­tify a $399+ pur­chase less than a year later. With all the new fea­tures in watchos 5 and the solid per­for­mance of the Se­ries 3 hard­ware, you can prob­a­bly wait an­other year.

Go­ing back to any prior Ap­ple Watch af­ter us­ing the Se­ries 4 feels like ty­ing my shoelaces to­gether. Why does ev­ery­thing take a se­cond or two to re­spond? Why is the screen so cramped? What hap­pened to the lit­tle tick feel­ing when I scroll the crown? Is that app still load­ing or did it freeze?

It seems a lit­tle trite to say that the Se­ries 4 is just the same Ap­ple Watch with a big­ger dis­play, bet­ter sen­sors, and a faster pro­ces­sor, but that’s ex­actly what it is, and it’s fan­tas­tic. Ev­ery other Ap­ple Watch felt full of promise, but the Se­ries 4 feels like promise ful­filled. ■

If you size down from the old 42mm to the new 40mm, you get a more com­fort­able watch with­out los­ing screen size.

The Se­ries 4 (left) is slightly larger than Se­ries 0–3, but rounder cor­ners makes them feel the same size. Plus, it’s thin­ner, and all your old bands still work.

Most of the im­prove­ments to ac­tiv­ity track­ing come in watchos 5, but the Se­ries 4 hard­ware makes it more re­li­able and bat­tery-ef­fi­cient.

I wasn’t able to trig­ger the fall de­tec­tion with a fake tum­ble. It’s hard to fake a fall that feels like a real one.

The ECG fea­ture will be U.s.-only at first, and will be added in a soft­ware up­date this fall.

The new S4 sil­i­con-in-pack­age is so much faster that it’ll change the way you use your Ap­ple Watch.

The se­cond-gen­er­a­tion op­ti­cal heart-rate sen­sor is clus­tered in the cen­ter of the ce­ramic back, with elec­trodes for the ECG sur­round­ing it.

With the mic moved to the right side of the Watch, and a much louder speaker, mak­ing brief calls on your Ap­ple Watch could be­come a habit.

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