Apple Watch Series 3 review: A solid improvement over the original Apple Watch

 The Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular, showing the Explorer watch face and the Dark Olive Sport Loop Band

The Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular, showing the Explorer watch face and the Dark Olive Sport Loop Band

Last Friday, I received a nice self-purchased present for my 60th birthday -- an Apple Watch Series 3 with the Dark Olive Sport Loop Band. Prior to the arrival of the Series 3, I hadn't updated my Watch since the original came out in April of 2015. Combined with watchOS 4, the newest Apple smartwatch is an impressively powerful update when compared to the original device. In this post, I'll take you on a detailed tour of the new Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular.

Design

The Series 3 is almost identical to the original Apple Watch, with Apple noting during the September 12 keynote that the thickness of the Series 3 has increased by the thickness of two sheets of paper -- about .05mm. The biggest change is the red dot on the end of the Digital Crown that shows that it has LTE cellular capabilities.

Sport Loop Band

The Series 3 can be purchased with a new band called the Sport Loop. It's available in eight different colors, and uses a breathable nylon weave material fastened with a "hook and loop" closure. I think I may have finally found the perfect Watch band, as the Sport Loop is much more comfortable than the original flouroelastomer Sport band and is easier to put on and adjust. The Sport Loop bands are available from Apple for previous Apple Watches for $49, but there will most likely be similar third-party bands for much less.

Thumbs up on the battery life...with one exception

My original Apple Watch required me to take it off each night for charging, as it would not make it through a full 24 hour period with my usage pattern. I'm happy to say that the Series 3 has lasted 48 hours (including two sleep periods) on a single charge. The original charge level was at about 85%, and I even used the LTE cellular connection for one phone call during that 48 hours. 

Although I haven't actually tested it, my estimate is that a fully charged Apple Watch Series 3 running off of a Wi-Fi network or iPhone tethering would probably last a full three days. It's that LTE connection that really sucks down the battery. For my purposes, where I only want to be connected to LTE for about 30 - 60 minutes per day and don't expect to be making many phone calls during that time, it should be able to easily last for two days. 

If you expect to use the Apple Watch Series 3 as an iPhone replacement and make a lot of calls, I don't think you're going to be very pleased with battery life. Let's hope that Apple or a third party comes out with a Watch band that includes a separate battery pack for extended calling. 

The Cellular Connection

The biggest feature of the Apple Watch Series 3 is that built-in LTE connection that enables the Watch to upload and download data or even make voice calls without needing a nearby Wi-Fi network or iPhone. 

One complaint I heard from other Series 3 buyers was that they didn't see a signal strength indicator once they were apparently set up with their cellular plan. Fortunately, it turns out that the signal strength dots appear only when the Watch is out of reach of both an iPhone and a Wi-Fi network -- in other words, the LTE service is only turned on when you really need it. Once you're away from those other connectivity sources, the antenna icon in the Watch Control Center display turns green and the dots appear on the new "Explorer" Watch face.

Voice calls sound great on the Series 3, not surprising since calls made or received through the original Watch via the tethered iPhone were quite clear. The Series 3 speaker is definitely much better than the one that was in the original Watch, so calls sound loud and clear. 

Calls are made by tapping the phone icon on the Explorer Watch face, by launching the Phone app, or by asking Siri to call a contact. For dialing, one can explore Contacts by twirling the Digital Crown, then tap a single contact to see and dial numbers; tap on recent calls to dial someone you’ve talked to recently; view the list of Favorites created on your iPhone or Mac and dial with a tap; or bring up a keypad to tap in a number. In each case, the calls go through very quickly. There’s also a dedicated voicemail button for listening to voice messages.

WatchOS 4

Other than a few different gestures and some new Watch faces, not much has changed on the face of watchOS 4. However, even with the "old" original Apple Watch I noticed that apps were somewhat more responsive and in many cases were pre-loading data behind the scenes. 

Perhaps the biggest changes in WatchOS 4 are in the area of activity updates. Apple has found that many people obsess about "completing their rings", that is, closing the blue, green and red activity rings that indicate standing, exercise and movement. WatchOS 4 is much more persistent in trying to get me off of my butt; every evening since I've had the watch, it's told me to go for a walk for a certain number of minutes to complete the exercise and movement rings. Hmmm, I really should listen to what it's telling me...

Those who do specific workouts may like the fact that watchOS 4 can put your Watch into Do Not Disturb mode during those workouts, so no telephone calls or message notifications will bother your yoga session. The Heart Rate app now shows current, resting and walking averages, and tapping on any of the listed averages shows a scatter chart of heart rate versus time. The Heart Rate app can also be set to warn you if heart rate suddenly rises above a pre-set level during a period of inactivity, which can be a sign of possible atrial fibrillation. 

There's a new Siri Watch face that changes what you see during the day, pulling from a variety of sources and displaying that info. You can choose the sources; I'd rather not look at Apple News headlines, for example, so I shut that one off. In addition, I don't really want the HomeKit "Good Morning" scene on my watch every morning, as I don't use it to turn on every light in the house. That will get shut off today. 

Toy Story and Kaleidoscope Watch faces also add excitement to your day. With the former, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are animated on the Watch face as you view it to check the time, while the Kaleidoscope face takes an image and animates it in a kaleidoscopic motion. 

Siri is much improved on the Apple Watch 3 with watchOS 4 in that it can verbally answer you now. Previously, making a verbal command resulted in a written response; now you can hear it talking back to you. 

I like the ability to "scroll" through recent apps by tapping the side button once and then flicking the watch face with a finger. That's a nice improvement and I've found it really cuts down on the amount of time I need to spend in the "all apps" screen searching for apps. 

Last but certainly not least, I'm thinking that Apple Music on the Apple Watch 3 -- combined with AirPods -- might be the reason I'll finally sign up for Apple's music subscription service. Over 40 million tunes on my wrist at any time? Yes, thank you!

Is the Apple Watch the future iPhone?

I've owned an Apple Watch since day one, and to be honest the speed and functionality improvements of the Apple Watch Series 3 surpassed my expectations. Battery life -- at least when not using LTE cellular data -- is markedly better, and I'm pleased to see that most information I want on my wrist is there when I need it with no delays. 

If Apple can improve battery life on the Watch so that it can communicate solely over Wi-Fi and LTE or 5G networks all day long, the smartwatch could start replacing the iPhone -- especially if Apple comes out with augmented reality glasses that provide a visual interface when needed. AirPods are already a wonderful way to hear content from a Watch, and glasses would make a flat slab display like we have now with the iPhone a thing of the past. 

Conclusion

If you couldn't tell by now, I am very impressed with the Apple Watch Series 3. When compared to the original Apple Watch, it is much faster and more capable of acting as a wrist-borne assistant. For a first-generation cellular version, battery life is acceptable and I understand that it will get better in the future -- either through more efficient processors, better batteries, or watchbands that also act as battery packs. For now, giving the Apple Watch Series 3 a charge every night or two works fine for me. 

Apple World Today Rating (out of 5 stars): ★★★★★