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Apple Watch Series 4 review

12 May 2019
Verdict:

The Apple Watch Series 4 should be seriously considered by cyclists

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
• Incredible functionality in so many areas • Intelligent design • Wearable all day, everyday
Against 
• Doesn’t pair to power meters • Niggles over data sharing between apps

Reviewing an Apple Watch is a bit like trying to review a whole house, room by room, with reference to what you can do in each room whilst also considering the multitude of different furniture you could put in each room.

This vast task is namely because an Apple Watch – even the earliest series – is an insanely powerful device for its size, eminently adaptable to a range of tasks via a plethora of downloadable apps and hence really only a few steps away from an iPhone.

It shares the same iOS DNA as an iPhone, and as such is only really happy working alongside it, although people who really want a Watch but don’t have an iPhone can get some workaround apps to pair the Watch to Android devices, or the Watch can be used standalone. But ultimately, a Watch without an iPhone is like a bird with clipped wings.

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Consider, then, the Watch Series 4 as a near-mirror of your iPhone, right down to the apps, which most big app developers now make, albeit with pared down functionality compared to the mother iPhone apps. Strava, for example, has an excellent Watch app, but it’s mainly there to do the record activity duties, display a few metrics and upload its data to Strava.

The ‘Cellular’ version of the Watch Series 4 (£499) makes and receives calls and messages without your phone present, provided you have a Watch Cellular contract with your service provider, either as a bolt on to an existing phone contract or a standalone contract just for the Watch. Prices here vary, so check online.

That said, the Watch has no camera (although it doubles as a slave screen and remote for your iPhone camera) and it can’t browse the internet. You can, however, store and listen to music and podcasts using Bluetooth earphones, with Apple’s AirPod earphones the popular option, albeit expensive at £199. (Without going off on a massive tangent, I've also tested these, and they provide really very good sound quality and surely the nimblest wireless earphones out there, little bigger than standard Apple buds, just with the cables cut off. The docking bay charger-cum-case is also quite beautiful in its design.)

One major thing the Watch can do that your phone can’t, though, is provide heart rate data via the infrared HR sensor on the back of the Watch, which Apple says has been markedly improved for accuracy. More on that later.

Rideability

So is the Watch relevant to a cyclist? Short answer: generally speaking, yes. Long answer, coming up…

First, just because you’re a cyclist doesn’t mean you’re not also interested in functionally and ergonomically pleasing gadgets. In my opinion, the Watch Series 4 is both, blowing every other smartwatch, sports watch and bike computer out of the water for design and usability.

The screen is bright and vivid, boasting higher resolution than its predecessor, and the Series 4 has a processor twice as fast as the Series 3. This means an Instagram feed, for example, looks like viewing photos on the screens of the best phones from ten years ago, and performing tasks happens without perceptible processing lag.

As much as I also love my Garmin Fenix watch, which I went out and bought once the review sample had to be returned, the Apple Watch makes the Fenix’s display look like a cathode ray TV in the face of a 4K OLED. Same goes for any other challenger, FitBit, Samsung et al.

The bezel has also been slimmed significantly compared to the Watch Series 3, such that the 40mm-wide Series 4 boasts a larger display area than the previous 42mm Series 3 (759sqmm compared to 740sqmm), with the larger 44mm Series 4 a whopping 977sqmm. Also, this latest Watch is 0.7mm thinner.

Everything is controlled by touch screen, crown-turning and pressing, or via a third menu button. But in the main, I found taps and swipes carried out the majority of tasks.

The side button also has an ‘SOS’ function. Hold it down for a few seconds and it brings up an ‘Emergency SOS’ screen button. Either tap the screen to call or keep holding the side button until a countdown starts that results in a call to the emergency services (it automatically dials the right number for wherever you are in the world). Though it should be noted that this only works on cellular Watches or Watches near to iPhones or on Wi-Fi.

Still, for solo cycling, it brings peace of mind, and Apple says this has saved people’s lives in the past. Interestingly, the Watch also has a fall sensor, which Apple says isn’t meant to deal with a bike crash (although it possibly would), but rather for falling when walking or running. In such an event it sends an SOS to a predetermined number, lest you get up, dust yourself off and tell the Watch not to alert your partner.

The back of the Watch is ceramic where the previous generation was metal, which Apple says boosts the Watch’s ability to receive radio waves, as ceramic doesn’t inhibit them in the same way as metal. In theory, this means the Watch can find GPS satellites more quickly and track activities more accurately. Having now tested Series 2, 3 and 4, I’d say the difference isn’t noticeable, but I’d hazard to say it’s there. Apple doesn't tend to do things for no reason.

GPS functionality is standard on Series 4 Watches, so Strava or Apple’s native Workout apps (which cover everything from outdoor cycling to yoga and swimming) provide full functionality without a phone present. Data is then stored and uploaded to your iPhone when it’s next in range. The amount of data harvested, including kilometre-by-kilometre splits for a ride and moment-by-moment heart rate data is impressive.

One gripe here is you can’t really recall much data on the Watch itself, such as individual splits from an activity, once the activity has been saved. This in contrast to a Garmin Fenix, for example, where historical data is available on the device itself.

No biggie, but access to data is one place I feel the Watch trips up a bit. For example, you can record a ride using the Watch’s Strava app and the Watch will happily push this data onto Apples Health and Activity apps on your iPhone (with your permission, a setting in Strava).

But, it won’t do it the other way round, so if you record a ride on the Watch’s Workout app that data doesn’t get sent to Strava, automatically or otherwise. There are third party apps that offer workarounds, but I’ve dabbled and they are annoying and the better ones you have to pay for.

Good news, though is battery life is improved. GPS recording lasts around six hours before the Watch asks to switch into non-GPS power-saving mode, while light use – a few short activities recorded here, messages received there – sees the Watch happy for two days between charges.

Of course, you could just only use Strava for Strava, but I prefer Apple’s Workout app user interface and the onscreen data it provides (the fields of which can be adjusted in number, size and data). I also like the homogeny with, and multitude of, other types of Workouts. I can’t use Strava for indoor rowing or interval training in the same way I can on the Watch.

Better than the rest

I have really benefitted from the general activity monitoring the Watch provides, far more so than equivalent systems from Garmin and FitBit. Its design meant I wanted to wear it every day, and its slickness means recording activities is effortless (two button presses, no lag).

That wearing everyday thing should not be underestimated. My Garmin Fenix is great but it’s a unit, and I’m not in the SAS and I’m not a fan of that football-player-massive-watch look. By contrast, the Watch is sleek, fits under cuffs, and thus it’s always on me to record whatever I’m up to.

The Watch also senses if you are on a run or a walk and prompts you to record it. This is great, especially since it records in the background, so when you say ‘yes’ to recording it starts not from that point but from the point at which it detected running/walking movement.

However, the consistency of when it detects activities varies – if I walked with my hands in pockets it wouldn’t register I was walking. But that’s understandable as the Watch bases such things on accelerometer data, ie, arm swings. It is also a feature you can turn off.

Speaking of accuracy, things seem pretty good. The Watch picks up GPS signal quickly and seems to give data congruent to other GPS devices. It also seems really very accurate at tracking swimming, able to determine stroke type, number and distance, even in a pool. However, the heart rate monitoring isn’t much cop in the water. Although again this is by nature, not defect, because water gets between skin and infrared sensor, thus messing up the readings.

It’s a similar issue when running too, where the jiggling nature of the Watch – even when uncomfortably tight – can produce erroneous readings as the sensor breaks contact with skin. Thus I often found the Watch recorded max HRs of well over 200bpm when running, which I know isn’t possible for me ole ticker.

The Watch is fully water resistant to 50m, and if you submerge it for a bit the screen auto-locks, as water droplets mess with the touch screen’s sensitivity. To that end, the screen is near useless in heavy rain. Give it a wipe, thoguh, and it's fine.

To unlock, rotate the crown a few times, whereupon the Watch beeps to vibrate the water out of the diaphragm in the speaker. It’s marvellously clever stuff.

One problem, though, is having failed to manually lock the screen on a couple of wet rides (where the Watch wasn’t wet enough to auto-lock), the data failed to record properly – my damp sleeve evidently triggering the screen to stop recording. Essentially my fault and avoidable, but it is nonetheless noteworthy, and interesting that a Garmin Edge 810, for example, doesn’t generally throw a hissy fit in the rain, and the touch screen is generally workable unless rain is torrential.

Nearly there

If you’ve read this far, thanks. There is almost too much to say about the Watch, but I’ll end on two things that prove out its limitations yet near limitless potential.

First, the Watch doesn’t sync to a power meter. It could, it has Bluetooth and can connect to HR straps, but as yet the Watch doesn’t do power meters.

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Second, the Watch can take a medically accurate ECG – or Electrocardiogram – which can be used to help ascertain heart health, detecting things such as arrhythmias. This data is collected in the iPhone's Health app and can be sent to a doctor, in PDF form. There's a lot to it, so check this link for more information. If you own a Watch Series 4 already, you made need to update the iOS to get the ECG stuff up and running.

This is an incredibly clever and potentially life-saving function, which puts the Watch in strange new territory: it could potentially report health data live to a doctor, or even, a health insurance company. Would these be good things? If it helps detect problems early, then undoubtedly. And as with any Apple product, what data gets shared is ultimately up to you. 

Regardless, none of that has happened yet and the ECG functionality is just another element that proves how incredibly advanced the Watch Series 4 is compared with any other challenger, from its hardware to its software. As such, it remains, overall, unsurpassed as either smartwatch, activity tracker or sports watch.

That said, until power meters can connect to it, a lot of riders won’t feel the Watch is a viable alternative to a dedicated bike computer. But I’d wager it won’t be long before that changes.

Pictures by Peter Stuart (Insta: @peterstuart3 )

Price: 
£399 (GPS), £499 (GPS + Cellular)

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