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By Jason Snell

Apple Watch Series 4 review: The invisible redesign

In the fall of 2014 the big question was: What is the Apple Watch good for? The company’s expansive answer was, essentially: What isn’t it good for? The result was a product that was new and interesting and weird and entirely unfocused.

In contrast, today’s Apple seems to have a laser focus when it comes to what the Apple Watch is for: Health, Fitness, and Connections. Can you do math problems on it? Sure. But it’s really a health guardian, fitness coach, and tool to help you stay connected with people and information sources that matter to you.

Better focus means better products. Apple has spent the last four years listening to and watching its customers, learning which features of the Apple Watch have resonated—and which ones haven’t. (Goodbye, Digital Touch!) Apple’s also got four more years of watch building and technological development under its belt.

The result is the Apple Watch Series 4, a new model that—combined with watchOS 5—makes it clear that Apple has left everyone else in the dust when it comes to smart watches. This is not a product for everybody—you can get a cheaper fitness monitor or a cheaper (or vastly more expensive!) timepiece. But if you need a device that fits into Apple’s areas of focus, the Apple Watch Series 4 will fit perfectly.

A little bit better all around

From the moment the first Apple Watch was unveiled, there’s been speculation about just how long Apple would stick with its basic design, including its watch bands. If you bought a bunch of watch bands in the first year, would you need to buy a whole new set the next year? As time has gone on, Apple’s proven to be more consistent than anyone would’ve guessed.

The Apple Watch series 4 is the first major redesign of the externals of the Apple Watch. It’s got a much bigger screen. It’s got larger dimensions that redefine the small and large models as 40mm and 44mm, rather than 38mm and 42mm. And yet… at first glance, it’s undeniably an Apple Watch. And watch-band compatibility once again remains intact.

There are a few different dynamics at work here. Apple has been aggressive in providing new watch band styles and colors seasonally. While Apple isn’t remotely above breaking compatibility and forcing people to buy new accessories, you get the feeling that people would be much less likely to buy a bunch of different $50 watch bands if they were afraid they’d all be worthless in a year. If you can let people upgrade without worry of losing use of that nice band they bought last year, why not? It encourages upgrades and the purchase of accessories. Apple profits from both.

Then there’s the popular success of the Apple Watch. It is, as Apple keeps saying, the top-selling watch in the world. While there’s a huge market that Apple hasn’t yet convinced to buy a smartwatch, it’s hard to deny that the Apple Watch has been successful so far. There’s no real need to rebrand or try something radically different. And while Apple will inevitably redesign the Apple Watch in more dramatic ways in the future, right now Apple benefits more by having the look of the Apple Watch remain consistent and recognizable. Why mess with success?

That’s why the Series 4 update, which is actually the most dramatic revision to the product yet, feels invisible by design. The corners slope down more gently, making the whole top of the watch seem less puffy and inflated. The side button now sits flush with the case, but pressing it feels so natural that you won’t even notice the change.

According to Apple, the Digital Crown has been completely redesigned. The triumph of that design is that it seems entirely familiar, yet better. The gaudy red dot of the Series 3 cellular model—I hated it so much, I put a space-gray sticker over it—has been replaced by an extremely subtle red ring. The crown spins as smooth as butter, but it’s been enhanced with haptics so that you can feel ticks as you spin it to advance through a list or scroll through content. The haptics feel good, making the crown feel like a mechanical watch—except, of course, that those haptic feels are driven by software rather than hardware. It works incredibly well.

When you’re looking at a device as small as the Apple Watch, you might be inclined to view the increase in screen size in the Series 4 as a minor thing. It’s a screen the size of a postage stamp, so what if it’s incrementally bigger? But in terms of percentage, these are huge increases in screen size, more than 30 percent in overall screen real estate.

There’s room for more content, and more overall space for your finger to tap on items without things getting a bit too small and a bit too crowded, as was frequently the case on previous models. In fact, I’ve had to adjust my muscle memory when entering my four-digit passcode because the number pad is so much larger than on the previous model.

In the end, the Series 4 Apple Watch looks and feels like an Apple Watch, but… just a little bit better all around. The convex bottom sensor doesn’t feel like it’s pushing into the skin of my wrist like it did before. It’s all a little bit more flat. It’s just better, in numerous ways.

New faces and unchanged old ones

It’s taken watchOS a few years to find its footing and also progress from some of the choices that were made for the original model. Apple has realized that the center of the Apple Watch experience is the watch face—and that apps are most efficiently used as complications.

The new Infograph and Infograph Modular watch faces are packed with information, for those who want that out of their watch. The larger screen means that app developers have room to spread out, creating new complications that span the width of the Infograph Modular face with items like a heart rate chart or activity log. And of course, if you tap on a complication, the corresponding app opens.

current-watch-face
My current default watch face.

I’m very excited about the complications on the Infograph faces, less so about the faces themselves. Infograph Modular is a solid, digital face—I just personally prefer telling time by looking at analog hands. Infograph itself is pretty and packed with features, but I find myself missing the numbers that encircle the face of my old standby, Utility.

That’s my bigger issue: Older faces haven’t been updated to take advantage of these new complications. The old complication styles are used, some of them now displayed along the curve of the face. It seems like a waste. Why not update the old faces so that they better take advantage of these new screens, including larger complications that show more data? Infograph is okay, but I’d much rather add a couple of new-style complications to Utility, and I can’t.

The result is that I like lots of aspects of the watch faces on the Series 4, but after more than a week of fiddling with complications and faces, I’ve yet to settle on one that I am comfortable with. I find myself wanting to mix and match, which isn’t actually allowed. Perhaps as more apps add support for the new complication sizes, I will find that their utility balances out my preference for the aesthetics of the older faces. Right now I’m using Infograph with a handful of complications around the edges, but I don’t love it. There’s still something missing.

The circle of the Utility and Infograph watch faces are exactly the same size. There’s no reason that Utility shouldn’t use modern complications. I understand that Apple may have had bigger fish to fry in watchOS 5, but it feels like it’s time for a upgrade and rethink of all the Apple Watch faces.

That all said, I’m happy Apple seems to be trying very hard to appeal to people who want lots of information density and people who want little or none. The new colorful faces Vapor, Fire and Water, and Liquid Metal are all pretty and largely empty of information. That’s not what I’m looking for, but a software-driven watch should provide enough flexibility to please the entire spectrum, from info dense to info light.

A platform that’s settling in

The series 4 interface is responsive in a way that previous versions weren’t. Some of that is thanks to watchOS 5, which feels mature in a way that previous versions haven’t. It’s not just the core OS, either, but the fact that it seems to finally be enabling apps that are able to do more and be more useful in the background and when untethered from an iPhone.

I’ve written about it in detail, but the experience of running with only my Apple Watch and a set of AirPods, while listening to podcasts and doing interval training, can’t be beat. With the cellular model, I’m able to leave the house for a run on a hike and know that I’m still connected, without needing my phone weighing down my pocket. It’s not a lifestyle choice that most people will make, but for those who see the benefit in going without a phone while still being able to engage with the world (or call for help in an emergency), it’s an excellent experience.

Speaking of calling for emergencies, I should point out that as an advantage of buying a cellular model of Apple Watch even if you don’t end up adding it to your data plan. Like all cellular-capable devices, the cellular Apple Watch is capable of calling an emergency number even if it’s not part of an active phone plan. If you just want to call emergency services in a pinch, or if you’re thinking that the new fall-detection feature might benefit you, it’s worth considering the cellular model anyway.

I wasn’t able to test the new electrocardiogram feature, which has not yet been turned on, but the same consideration applies. Most people won’t use the feature and won’t need the feature, but we’ve already seen how having an Apple Watch has saved some people’s lives and diagnosed previously unknown conditions. With new support for measuring low heart rates, plus the ECG feature, we will hear more stories about that, and rightly so.

The Series 4 watch should be a showcase for Siri, with its louder speaker and watchOS 5’s support for raise-to-speak. In theory, not needing to say any trigger word should make using Siri on the watch a much more natural feeling experience. In practice, I found it unreliable. Perhaps there’s a specific cadence you need to lift your wrist and speak a command, but I could rarely manage it. And if you fail, then you’re just a weirdo standing in the street whispering into your wrist.

The experience of migrating to a new Apple Watch from an older model has improved, too. The migration’s still not exactly instantaneous—you need to pair a new model and restore from an old backup—but it seemed to take much less time than I’ve experienced in the past. Apple has also improved the experience of moving an Apple Watch to a new iPhone. When you’re transferring data to a new iPhone, the migration assistant will note that you’ve got a Watch and will offer to move it. It’s a much less fraught process than the old manual approach.

Who should buy one?

If you’re still using your original Apple Watch, now’s the time to upgrade. You can’t run watchOS 5 on the original models, and that battery’s got to be showing its age. (The battery in my wife’s Series 0 was barely getting through the day—and she’s just taken delivery of a new Series 4 that is a spectacularly big upgrade.)

In the same vein, if you’re using a Series 3 watch, I think you should probably keep on with what you’ve got. It’s a pretty solid piece of hardware that is given extra oomph by the upgrade to watchOS 5.

In between those two? It depends on your priorities, and how you’re using your watch today. It’s worth mentioning that Apple is raising the prices on these watches. The Series 4 base models start at $399 (GPS) and $499 (GPS + Cellular); last year’s equivalent models started at $329 and $399. (The Series 3, which now starts at $279, is a pretty good buy if you don’t care about the larger screen! That’s $30 more than the Series 1 was selling for, but… a Series 3 is a whole lot better than a Series 1.)

Apple also won’t let you buy a Stainless Steel model unless you buy the cellular edition. That double penalty means you can’t get a stainless Series 4 for less than $699; the first Apple Watch I bought for my wife was a Stainless model, but this time we saved $300 and went with aluminum. I would’ve been open to spending more for better materials, but 75 percent more? I’ll pass.

I’ve worn an Apple Watch pretty much every single day since I took delivery of the very first model on day one. I’ve enjoyed using it, but I’ve also enjoyed watching at how the platform has just kept getting better. For the first few years, most of the improvements were on the software side, along with incremental hardware improvements inside the same, familiar exterior.

This year is different. That exterior is familiar, but it’s not the same. It’s new, and surprising, and paints with a much larger canvas. The iPhone is Apple’s revenue driver, the iPad Pro is my ultimate mobile-productivity tool, and my heart will always belong to the Mac—but for my money, the Apple Watch is currently the most interesting product the company makes.

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