By Jason Snell
October 5, 2017 8:30 AM PT
Apple Watch Series 3 review: The start of something big
Three years in, the Apple Watch is still the Apple Watch.
This wasn’t a foregone conclusion. When Apple introduced the Apple Watch in the fall of 2014 (it didn’t ship until spring 2015), it was unclear how often we’d see new models, and whether the design of the original Apple Watch would be replaced immediately or be maintained for several years.
But here we are in late 2017, and while the Apple Watch has seen some major internal improvements over the years, Series 3 looks just like the original model. (There will undoubtedly be a time when Apple breaks with the design style—and people who have invested in Apple Watch bands will be supremely sad—but three-plus years is a pretty decent run.)
Those internal improvements, though…. The Apple Watch Series 3 is noticeably faster than the Series 2 (let alone the original model), making the interface much more responsive and reducing annoying wait times. In a glanceable device like the Apple Watch, there is perhaps no greater sin than forcing the user to stare at a spinning animation while… nothing… happens. That happens a lot less on the Series 3 watch, and the waits (when they appear) are much more brief. Siri also tends to come up faster, though there are still frustrating random pauses where I’m not allowed to talk to Siri. With Apple Watch Series 3, Siri can talk back to you, which is a good addition—the last thing I need to do is stare intently at my wrist for longer than I need to.
Last year, the Apple Watch Series 2 added standalone GPS capability, which was good, but with the Series 3 it has reached its ideal form with the addition of cellular networking. Just as we arrive at the era where our smartphones are the be-all, end-all of personal technology, along comes a device that allows you to sidestep the obligation we all feel to carry our phones with us just in case someone needs us (or we need someone).
Is that freedom worth the $10 per month I’m paying my cellular carrier? For a lot of people the answer is going to be no—and that’s okay. People resisted the cost of the first wave of smartphone data plans, too… but over time the market and our needs adjusted and synced up. I really do believe that in the future we’ll all have a collection of these devices and paying for them will seem normal (and not outrageous). Today, it’s a feature that will appeal more to people who really benefit from not toting their phone around, mostly active people like runners and bikers and swimmers.
Both the Apple Watch hardware and software have evolved a lot in the past three years, but it’s clear that the hardware development has seriously outpaced the software side. One of the big features Apple is promoting with the Series 3—streaming Apple Music over cellular—doesn’t actually work yet. Apple says it’s coming soon, but in the meantime Apple has set up automatic syncing of music you play often and Apple Music’s auto-generated personalized playlists. Overnight, when your watch is connected and charging, that music will get loaded on your watch. It’s a nice feature (and syncing music to the Apple Watch has come a long way from the janky early days), but it’s not quite the feature that was promised.
I also had some stability issues with my Apple Watch Series 3, though they seem to have worked themselves out after a few days. The first time I went out for a bike ride with only my Apple Watch and a set of AirPods, the watch rebooted twice and spontaneously lost connection with my AirPods a third time. My guess is that the watch was left in a weird state after restoring it from the backup of my previous watch, but that had happened nearly 24 hours prior. Later that day, I got a bunch of permissions requests from the watch (i.e., do you want to allow location tracking), and all of a sudden the watch began to behave normally. I haven’t had a problem since.
Another challenge for watchOS is that the watch was originally conceived as a device with a closely tethered iPhone as a buddy. Many (perhaps most) watchOS apps are still reliant on communicating with their iPhone app on the iPhone, which limits their utility when away from the iPhone. Over time, apps will be updated to take advantage of cellular networking, but today there are a limited number that are truly functional when you’re out running, miles from your iPhone. watchOS needs to be improved to allow developers to create more powerful watch apps, because users will expect more from the device when they’re relying on it as their only connection to the world.
I’m also baffled by how little cellular status has been integrated into the Apple Watch’s faces. There’s a new face, Explorer, that will show dots to subtly indicate that you’re on cellular—but those dots are only available on that face. Why not on my favorite face, Utility? No idea. Every watch face should have a network status complication available. It feels like integrating cellular functionality into watch faces was an afterthought, to be honest.
I don’t want to imply that watchOS isn’t advancing at all—it is, and watchOS on Apple Watch Series 3 is the best Apple Watch experience yet. I love the fact that the apps I most need access to—fitness and audio apps as well as whatever other apps I’ve been using lately—generally stay right on top of the interface, so I don’t have to re-launch them every few minutes when I want to make a quick adjustment. watchOS 4 lets me view my apps in an alphabetical list instead of playing a pattern-matching game in a honeycomb of tiny circles, for which I’m grateful. (You have to force-touch on the app view in order to select list view, so it’s not a very discoverable feature, but at least it’s there.)
Most importantly, watchOS seems to have fully embraced the fact that scrolling (via the Digital Crown) is the primary way to interact with the watch interface. Tapping the side button brings up a new dock, redesigned for the second straight year, that’s stacked vertically so that it makes sense that you can scroll through it via the Digital Crown. There are a few side-to-side swipes still in the interface, but much more of it is about scrolling up and down. Good call.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is an improvement on the previous model, which was itself a major improvement on the original. While adding cellular connectivity isn’t a must-have feature for everyone, for a lot of people it will be reason enough to upgrade (or buy an Apple Watch in the first place). I wish the Apple Watch software was better able to take advantage of cellular connectivity, but for the first time in ages I can leave my phone at home and know that I’m still reachable and can reach out if I need to. This is the start of something big.
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