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Apple Watch 3 review

18 Jan 2018

Page 1 of 2Apple Watch 3 review


Long term test of the Apple Watch 3: The best smart watch available with only a few niggles keeping it from being perfect

Cyclist Rating: 
Accurate workout tracking; Slick, sophisticated interface; Most advanced activity tracker on the market
Limited network compatibility for the foreseeable feature; Limited to iPhone users; Requires almost-daily charging

The banner news here is that the third incarnation of the Apple Watch has LTE ‘cellular connectivity’, which is Americana for ‘it’s like a tiny mobile phone’. (There is also a non-LTE - basically LTE means 4G - Apple Watch 3 for la lower price.)

Inside is an ‘e-SIM’ (a non-physical sim card), which means the Apple Watch 3 can hook into a mobile network to make and receive calls, texts, stream music and chat (a bit) to Siri, all independent to your mobile phone.

This is in contrast to the previous Watch generations, which needed your phone within Bluetooth range to do these things.

There are a host of other ‘minor’ changes too, which during testing arguably proved to be more useful day-to-day, but we’ll come to those in a minute (or skip through to the ‘The business end’ header below if you’re not interested in the whole LTE Watch thing).

For now, let’s focus on the mini-phone business.

Contract killer

You need to know two things here. First, all of Apple’s claims are true – the Watch 3 means you really can leave your phone at home while still being connected to the rest of the world, providing there is network coverage, same as a mobile.

You don’t even need headphones (which can pair via Bluetooth) as the Watch 3 has a built in mic and speaker, which work really very well indoors and out, in a way Captain Kirk would be proud of, and in a way anyone within a few metres can hear. You have been warned.

However, there’s no internet browsing capabilities, save for asking Siri questions about stuff, eg, ‘Hey Siri, who won today’s Tour Down Under stage?’ and you can only stream music through Apple Music, as opposed to say, Spotify. Plus, unless you are on, or prepared to go with EE, there’s none of this for you. None!

OK, there is all of this for you, but only when your iPhone is also present (which needs to be an iPhone SE or 6 or above). But, at the time of asking, to unlock the independent cellular bit you have to be either a pre-existing EE customer or sign up to EE in some fashion.

Because at the time of writing EE has a monopoly on the LTE-enabled Watch.

For example, a pre-existing iPhone-wielding EE customer pays £5 extra per month, allowing the Watch 3 to utilise whatever minutes/texts the existing mobile phone plan has, plus 10GB of data (note, EE doesn’t mirror pre-existing data bundles here – unlimited contract still mean 10GB per month Watch data).

The Watch is purchased separately. Or, for £25 extra per month (ie on top of your existing EE contract), EE gives you the Watch for “free”, with unlimited data.

A non-EE customer can get an Apple Watch 3 plus sim-only contract deal, for example £49.99 per month for unlimited minutes/texts on both devices and a shared 30GB of data. Remember you’ll need an iPhone as well.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a process of sim cloning or mirroring; the phone sim and e-sim are independent, just tied to the same telephone number/account.

If this all sounds a bit like I’m advertising EE contracts, I’m not. Frankly I think this business is ridiculous, like selling a car that can only run off petrol from certain garages.

There’s a good chance you’re not on EE, and I’m pretty sure most people find the thought of switching contracts an expensive faff.

It’s a real shame, because conceptually the whole LTE-cellular thing is a real gamechanger and Apple has executed it very well, with only more to follow, one would assume.

For the sake of balance, the official party line is that other networks don’t have the infrastructure to cope with the Apple Watch 3, and this could change. Make of that what you will, but bet on future cross-network compatibility at some stage.

The business end

As mentioned the Apple Watch is available as an LTE-enabled or, for £70 less, GPS only. Aside from the LTE bit and storage capacity (16GB plays 8GB respectively), the two Watches are identical, both featuring a faster dual-core processor and updated iOS firmware over the Watch 2.

In real terms I found that meant the whole interface was slicker than before, and moving through menus and between apps was noticeably smoother and faster (and things were already pretty darn good, see Apple Watch 2 review on page 2).

The screen also turns on better than before. It remains off until you flick your wrist a la looking at a watch, and this has become more reliable, with only a few occasions requiring a re-flick.

The downside here is that looking at data on the bike requires removing a hand from the bars. Running and other sports are less of an issue, of course.

Third party apps such as Strava run happily, utilising the onboard GPS and generally picking up signal quickly, although in built up areas it does take longer, but it’s still quicker than my Garmin Edge 820 or Fenix 3 watch.

It also seems accurate, or at least congruent with those trusted devices, both for cycling, walking, running and swimming.

The Apple Workout app has had a few tweaks, such that one screen tap now opens the workout, eg ‘Outdoor Cycle’ and starts it with a 3-2-1 countdown.

As before, though, Apple keeps this data to itself and there is no way to share a workout with a third-party app such as Strava.

On the one hand, the answer is just to use Strava. On the other, that’s just a bit annoying. I liked the Workout Watch app (and the Activity app it pushes data to) better than the Strava app, as historic data was more elaborate and easily accessed on the Watch.

Yet there were rides I wish I now had on Strava but which can never be (if you want to get a bit deeper, you force data from Workout/Activity to Strava via apps such as Run Gap, but the GPS data is lost so you don’t get segments, just time, distance, speed etc as if you’ve been on a turbo).

Apple doesn’t seem to want to budge on this position any time soon. Again, a missed opportunity in my book.

The new iOS means you can join Workouts together with a few taps, so a ride then run can be combined. Again I question the point of this as if you’re serious enough to be training block sessions you’re probably serious enough to be using Strava or TrainingPeaks or whatever, yet as discussed there’s no meaningful way of getting your data into those programs from the native Watch apps.

Apple has also added a HIIT workout, designed for tracking, say, circuit training, but in reality it is just a label for a fancy calorie counter.

On the nature of calories, the Watch 3 is forever sampling your heart rate and using it to help work out how many calories you’re consuming.

The number of calories burnt is weighted in a workout, but the Watch is ‘smart’ to a degree. For example, if I ride to work without starting the cycling workout I apparently burn around 190kcal.

If I engage the app that number increases to around 270kcal, even though my work rate and thus heart rate is the basically the same in both instances.

It’s worth pointing out the heart rate sampling seems much more reliable than before. There are very few weird readings, and it does a much better job of sampling heart rate when doing activities such as running, where the Watch is jiggling around.

It does make one wonder at the accuracy of calorie counting, but then to a degree it doesn’t matter, and to a degree it’s all part of what makes the Apple Watch 3 by far and away the best activity tracker.

Calorie counting at least seems consistent, even if I can’t attest to its veracity. The Activity app has three ‘rings’ that fill up each day to tell you how lazy you’ve been, Stand (you get a point for standing up for more than a minute each hour), Exercise (measured in minutes and kicking in when your heart rate rises above normal averages, I’d guess at around 120bpm) and most importantly for me, I found, Move, a tally of calories burnt beyond basal metabolic rate.

I’ve never really been a fan of calorie counting and activity tracking in this sense, but with its slick interface and easy-view calendar of past performances, I got really sucked in to the Watch.

My extra-curricular target was 1,000kcal, and soon found myself being mildly annoyed when I hadn’t hit this target by the end of the day, and consciously taking steps to make amends the day after.

It showed an alarming pattern of sedentariness (every Saturday it seemed I barely lifted a finger), but also a pattern of irregularity, going hard for a few consecutive days then clearly becoming knackered so tapering off.

It also made me assess eating habits, eg I’ve done little today so adjust my calorie intake to reflect this (and conversely, big ride = big takeaway).

Of course these are things I already knew, but for whatever reason I found the Watch had the ability to better motivate me out of bad habits in a way that trials with other activity trackers never have. And the scales don’t lie, I’ve slowly lost over half a stone since November.

However to end on the weight-loss note is to sell the Watch short. It is by far and away the most motivating aid I have come across for this, but it has also motivated me to ride more and run more, and its Activity and Heart and Health apps offer up a smorgasbord of data that’s intuitively organised.

Then besides this, the Apple Watch 3 is an incredibly powerful device capable of all manner of things, including, one day, maybe even replacing your phone. Maybe.

So should you buy one?

If smart watches are you game then yes, the Apple Watch 3 is beyond compare.


The best smart watch available with only a few niggles keeping it from being perfect

Cyclist rating: 4/5

Buy the Apple Watch 3 from Amazon Marketplace here


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