The fourth generation of the Apple Watch got sidelined a little at Apple’s event last month. Rather than being left till later in the show, it was wheeled on stage first, as an appetiser. But actually it was one of the best things announced on the night. A bigger screen, tweaked design, better performance, improved sensors, fall detection, even ECG capability were shown off. No doubt about it, we are a far cry from the first generation from 2015.
We’ve spent a month with Apple Watch 4 and it’s time to give you the considered lowdown on how this wearable stacks up against the competition and its older siblings.
Read our guide to the best smartwatches to see what the Apple Watch is up against
The obvious change is the design, Apple says the watch has as been redesigned and reengineered from front to back. The new screen is 30 per cent larger thanks to the sizes getting a bump from 38mm and 42mm to 40mm and 44mm models. That new screen itself is a low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO), which basically means you get a high-quality OLED display that chomps through less power. This has allowed Apple to increase screen size yet deliver the same battery life (18 hours) – something that was always good on the Apple Watch from the first iteration. All-day use is no problem – and longer if you are careful.
The screen manages power well because it can dynamically adjust refresh rates, switching from 60Hz for moving images or animations to 30Hz for static ones. It’s a neat trick and you should have no battery issues as long as you use the cellular capability sparingly, of course.
You would think that such a minuscule increase in screen sizing would have little impact on how you view text and images on the watches face, but in reality it has a significant effect. Text is bigger, and much easier to read. The buttons are larger, so selection errors are less common. Apps such as Maps fill the larger display entirely, so the end result is that glancing at directions while being guided around streets (still one of the Apple Watch’s best features) is just quicker in general.
None of this should be a surprise to those familiar with the watch world, where millimetre differences make all the difference. Spend any time with people from the world and they can tell at a distance whether a case size is, say, 43mm or 45mm. On the wrist such dimensional changes are even easier to detect, too. A huge win for the Series 4 is the that it is thinner than the AW3, down from 11.4mm to now 10.7mm. I know it sounds tiny, but it is instantly noticeable. In short, the AW4 is a pleasure to wear.
Turn the watch over and you see that the back of the Series 4 is now made of black ceramic and sapphire crystal – this is for improved cellular reception, which leads us to one of the greatest changes is in the new model: making calls. In our review of the AW3, although we praised the much-wanted inclusion of cellular capability on the model, there were a good few more drops outs making calls on the wearable, and signal strength was not as solid as an iPhone. It was also tricky on occasion to hear a caller’s replies if not using Bluetooth connected headphones. All these issues have been fixed with the AW4.
The speaker in the Apple Watch Series 4 is 50 per cent louder, and it really is easier to hear people. The microphone has been shifted to the opposite side of the speaker, reducing echo. On our calls, for the person being contacted, such was the improved mic setup’s effectiveness, it was hard to tell the difference between a call made from a phone or the watch. That’s a huge improvement. Also, there were no drop-outs during calls. When walking along the street on a call on the watch and flicking between headphones and the AW4’s mic, it was hard, though not impossible, to discern the change. Making calls on the Apple Watch 4 is not only just possible, as it was with the Series 3, but now is a pleasurable experience.
Apple has also paid the ‘Digital Crown’ some attention, making it thinner and removing that big red blob that used to denote the Series 3’s cellular capability – now there is a subtle red ring, which is much better. But the internals have changed, too, with haptic feedback added so you feel incremental clicks as you scroll. It works and it is the kind of feature that you didn’t miss when you didn’t have it, but once you do you wonder why it wasn’t there all along.
Anything else? Apple Watch Series 4 features the S4, a new 64-bit dual-core CPU and a new GPU, doubling the performance of the watch. Apps load appreciably faster, reactions are slicker. There is also a new W3 wireless chip for faster Bluetooth 5.0. It’s more power efficient, and can send and receive data faster using less power – but you’ll be pushed to notice this in day-to-day use.
For fitness, the addition of automatic start and end detection of workouts brings the Apple Watch up to par with competitor fitness wearables – finally. Fitbit, Garmin and others have featured auto-detect workouts for years and it’s now the yardstick for such devices. The Apple Watch’s inability in this area had started to be a glaring omission.
Thanks to a new accelerometer (up to 32 g-forces compared to the 3’s 16) and gyroscope setup, the Watch Series 4 can detect when you fall heavily. Clearly aimed at elderly users, the feature is automatically turned on if your profile tells Apple you are over 65. Custom algorithms identify a hard fall by analysing wrist trajectory and impact acceleration. The Watch then sends its user an alert after a fall, which can be dismissed or used to initiate a call to emergency services. If you don’t respond within a minute, it can automatically make an SOS call to emergency services. Now, we tried to fall down hard, honest we did, but we couldn’t trigger this safety feature, but that’s probably because we were wimping out during testing.
Finally, the Series 4 features a new electrical heart sensor, made up of electrodes that are built into the Digital Crown and that back sapphire crystal. Together with the optical heart sensor the Series 4 can perform two new party tricks: low heart-rate notifications and faster heart-rate readings. In the future you will also be able to use the Digital Crown’s built-in titanium electrode with the electrodes on the back to get a faster heart reading (by placing your finger on the crown). And, impressively, that electrical heart sensor is also capable of taking an electrocardiogram using an ECG app, but this will only be available in the US later this year, with no word on when or if it will be coming to the UK. This disappointing fact neatly leads us to…
No, it’s not all gravy. There are a few niggles. While the auto-detection for exercise works well for most regimes, for walking it only kicks in once you have been on the move for 15 minutes. We found this frustrating as most walks are about that length, a quick pop to the shops or to get a coffee, the morning walk to the train station, for example. While no one wants to be bothered by constant requests to start recording exercise, we’d rather it logged these walks and asked us later if it wanted to include them in our daily activity.
The lack of any native Apple sleep detection seems a little odd, too. After all, sleep tech is booming and this would be a welcome addition. Yes it would mean no charging overnight, but the watch powers up so quickly anyway it would still be a viable option for those really interested in recording this vital part of our healthy lives.
It’s also more than a little galling to those who have forked out good money for Series 3 watches that some new complications are only compatible with the new watch faces of the Series 4. After all, these things are not cheap and despite the improvements it will be hard for those with a AW3 to justify upgrading to the AW4 right away.
The Series 4 is by far the best Apple Watch yet, and now with the bump in specs, new design and new hardware is also the best smartwatch on the market. The GPS version starts at £399 and GPS + Cellular one at £499, while at the same time the Series 3’s price has dropped to a starting cost of £279. If you plan to use the cellular capability, that is supplied by EE and Vodafone, which is something to be aware of if you’re not currently with those providers.
According to Horace Dediu, mobile industry analyst at Asymco, Apple had shifted approximately 33 million Apple Watches by this time last year. The Watch, then, is in fact a sleeper hit. And deservedly so, slowly and surely gaining pace in market share while at the same time getting better and better. The myriad improvements here make the AW4 greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a testament to Apple’s dogged determination to nailing the Watch and not giving up on a product that was not universally loved when it initially came to market. Perseverance has definitely paid off.
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