Apple Watch Series 4 review: Easily the best smartwatch

Posted: 27 September 2018 11:23 am News

It's a luxury buy rather than must-have wearable tech, but the Apple Watch Series 4 shows every other smartwatch maker exactly how it should be done.

Quick Verdict
The Apple Watch Series 4 doesn't add a load of new features that suddenly makes a smartwatch a "must-buy" proposition in the same way that Apple managed with the original iPhone. Still, by refining and smartening up how it shows you information and boosting the speed of the Apple Watch experience, it's made the best smartwatch you can buy.

The good

  • New watch faces prioritise notifications
  • Great battery life
  • eSIM options for phone-free usage
  • Larger displays, but old bands still work

The bad

  • Still can't roam with an Apple Watch
  • You'll have to wait for the ECG function
  • No third-party watch faces
  • Apple's watch bands are still a little pricey
  • iOS only.



Apple Watch Series 4: Design

  • Larger screens with little increase in mass
  • Smaller bezels make rounded faces more attractive
  • Existing watch bands still fit corresponding sized watches

While Apple hasn't steered away from the essential rectangular nature of its Apple Watch design, what it has done this year is to super-size it. Gone are the regular 38mm and 42mm size Apple Watch options in favour of 40mm or 44mm sized OLED displays. The new Apple Watch Series 4 designs are marginally larger of course, but the slimming down of the bezels on each watch design means that you're getting a lot more viewable watch screen area on the new models. On the 38mm Apple Watch Series 3, you get 563 sq mm of display, whereas the new 40mm Apple Watch Series 4 manages an impressive 759 sq mm. To give that some perspective, that's more displayable area than on the 42mm Series 3 watch.

The new Apple Watch designs are also slimmer – down to 10.7mm from 11.4mm on the Series 3 watches, which means they sit ever so slightly more flush to your wrist. Apple's redesigned the rear of the Apple Watch with a more sapphire-based covering, not that you're likely to spend that much time staring at the non-information-centric part.

The Apple Watch Series 4 sells in silver, space black or gold finishes, regardless of whether you opt for the slightly less expensive GPS-only edition or the GPS+Cellular edition. The one design catch here is that the GPS variant only ships in an aluminium casing, whereas the Apple Watch Series 4 GPS+Cellular sells in either the lower-cost aluminium or more premium stainless steel finish if that's your style.

While the new Apple Watch sizes are larger than their predecessors, one nice touch here is that if you've got bands from an older Apple Watch, they'll fit neatly as long as they correspond to the same size – either smaller or larger – Apple Watch. So older 38mm bands will fit the new 40mm Apple Watch Series 4, and likewise old 42mm bands will slip neatly into place onto a new 44mm model.

Apple naturally has new Apple Watch bands to sell alongside the Apple Watch Series 4, and while there's a style for just about every taste, pricing is wildly variable. It's not hard to spend as much on a band as for some models of the Apple Watch Series 4 if you're buying through Apple.

For the very cashed-up or sports-centric, there are new Nike and Hermès edition Apple Watch Series 4 models to consider as well. The Nike Models come with exclusive watch faces and bands, and only in aluminium finishes, while the Hermès models are stainless steel only with their own range of exclusive bands.

If you want to flash your wealth, they're the models to opt for, with the most expensive Apple Watch Series 4 this year clocking in at $2,299 with either a Fauve Barenia Leather Single Tour Deployment Buckle or Ébène Barenia Leather Single Tour Deployment Buckle.

The other new design feature of the new Apple Watch Series 4 is a range of new watch faces, some of which are information-centric, but many of which are more aesthetically inclined. I rather like the breathe watch face, which naturally launches the Breathe app if you tap on it, but it's somewhat limiting that Apple doesn't allow third-party watch faces. Apple has nice design folks working for it, but you are limited to just the watch faces it wants you to have, with minimal personal modification.

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Apple Watch Series 4: Performance

  • S4 processor provides swift app response
  • Heart rate monitoring covers high and low heart rate.
  • ECG functionality should be very cool – but not yet
  • Fall detection could be great for the elderly or infirm
  • eSIM compatible – at extra cost
  • Haptic feedback on digital crown works well

Smartwatches are, as Douglas Adams would no doubt have pointed out, a pretty neat invention, but ever since their debut (not, I should note, via Apple Watch but more via the Pebble, although smart-capable-style watch design stretches back further than that), they've had the same problem.

Pebble pretty much got notifications right, and that left the field wide open for smart operators to step in and not only gobble up the company whole, but also innovate with a so-called "killer app" that would make smartwatches a must-have item.

Apple managed to make smartphones a must-have item with the original iPhone and its apps... but that's not what it's done with the Apple Watch Series 4. This is strictly a functional upgrade with new features that enhance that basic notification-and-information-centric appeal that just about every smartwatch has.

Maybe that's all smartwatches can be, but I'm hopeful somebody will crack that essential "must-have" factor. Until then, they're definitely a "nice-to-have" proposition, and among that crowd, the Apple Watch Series 4 is easily the best of the bunch by a significant margin.

While I wasn't thrilled with what Apple's done with the extra display on the iPhone XS Max, on the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4 as tested, the extra space is put to excellent effect via a number of new watch faces. Added complications, especially on the infograph faces, mean just about any data is just a glance away, with quick access to the underlying apps a further tap away.

The new S4 processor running the Apple Watch Series 4 is even faster than its predecessor, so the days of tapping on a watch app and waiting endlessly for it to respond are gone – at least for now. Apple says that app developers can make their own complications available for the infograph face, and there's always the prospect that some new app down the track might slow the Apple Watch Series 4 down some. However, for now, it's very slick and easily the fastest and most pleasant smartwatch device I've ever tested.

Apple's upgraded the digital crown on the Apple Watch Series 4 in a couple of significant ways. It now gives haptic feedback when spun, making it much easier to scroll through list apps or subtly adjust volume on a playback track or phone call.

The digital crown is also now part of the Apple Watch Series 4's heart rate monitoring system, which can manage faster readings if you tap on the digital crown while taking a reading.

That's because Apple's also placed two electrodes within the crown, a feature that will in the future enable the Apple Watch Series 4 to take full ECG (electrocardiograph) readings. That's a matter of getting proper regulatory approval – understandable given the prospects of an incorrect ECG reading on your health – and will launch in the USA first, with Australian availability hopefully coming down the track. According to Apple, you won't be able to simply hop over to the USA and get an ECG-ready Apple Watch and take it back here because it'll only operate in jurisdictions where Apple has that regulatory clearance.

Speaking of travelling, the Apple Watch Series 4 continues the eSIM-based journey started with the Series 3 model. This lets you take the Apple Watch Series 4 out on a run or down to the shops with communications enabled even if you don't have your iPhone with you. It's the same story as it was last year, with telcos charging an additional fee (typically $5/month) on top of your existing postpaid mobile bill for use of the service.

Any usage is then added to your mobile bill if it's on the watch itself. This can work well, and the new speaker on the Apple Watch Series 4 can certainly blast out the audio from a call to a wider area now. However, you are limited to usage within Australia, with the eSIM part of the Apple Watch Series 4 still incapable of roaming of any type.

The Apple Watch Series 4 includes fall detection, designed to alert first you and then emergency services if you drop or trip. By default, it's not activated unless Apple has your age pegged at over 65, and if you do want to switch it on, this has to be via the Apple Watch App for iOS.

I'm passionate about my job, but not quite willing to throw myself at bare concrete to find out precisely what the limits of fall detection might be.

It's an interesting feature, and one that Apple warns won't detect every fall. In my own tests, throwing myself deliberately at the floor and then staying still afterwards, the Apple Watch Series 4 didn't seem to care.

Either Apple Watch hates me, or possibly my landing was too soft for it to notice. I'm passionate about my job, but not quite willing to throw myself at bare concrete to find out precisely what the limits of fall detection might be.

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Apple Watch Series 4: Battery life

  • Good two-to-three-day battery life
  • Apple's watch charger is still a little fiddly
  • Whatever happened to AirPower?

Apple's claim for the Apple Watch Series 4 is that it's capable of "up to" 18 hours of battery life, which is a very moderate claim and pretty much in line with its statements around the Apple Watch Series 3. Then again, the Apple Watch Series 4 is thinner, and that gives Apple less space to cram in batteries to speak of.

Annoyingly, it also means that sleep tracking isn't likely on Apple's horizon. I tested the Apple Watch Series 4 concurrently with the Bose Sleepbuds, and it would have been fascinating to see some cross-correlating data there – but it was not to be.

iFixit's teardown of the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4 shows a 291.8 mAh battery, around 17% smaller than that in the 42mm Series 3 watch.

Despite that, the Apple Watch Series 4 sailed through every day of testing with juice to spare, and on days when my use was moderate, two-day life appeared entirely achievable. While there are some fitness watches pushing towards a week's battery life or more, two days is a solid achievement for such a capable device.

Like its predecessors, the Apple Watch Series 4 uses a circular Qi-based charging disk to top up its power. It's supplied in the box, and while it's Qi-based, not every other charger would work.

I tested with a variety of other chargers, but the Apple Watch Series 4 simply sat flat on them, figuratively and literally. You can buy some third-party Apple-approved watch chargers if the cable-heavy disc solution that Apple provides in the box isn't to your taste, but there's as yet no sign of Apple's promised combined phone and watch AirPower charger.

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Apple Watch Series 4: Should you buy it?

  • The best smartwatch by far
  • But still not a must-have device

Apple hasn't reinvented the smartwatch with the Apple Watch Series 4, but in taking its sharper corners round, it's also smoothed out a lot of the very minor annoyances present in the Apple Watch Series 3. It's faster, it's better at displaying critical information relevant to your usage, and it's just damned pretty. It should also be better at tracking your ongoing health concerns, especially when and if Apple gets approval to switch ECG capture on Down Under.

So it's a superbly refined device, but that doesn't automatically mean you should buy one. Even nicely refined, the Apple Watch Series 4 doesn't present an argument for its own existence in a "must buy" way. It's a lovely bit of kit, and easily the best smartwatch you can buy right now, but it's also very much an indulgent bit of wearable tech.

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Apple Watch Series 4: Pricing and availability

The Apple Watch Series 4 sells from $599 for a 40mm watch with a sport band, all the way up to $2,299 for the most expensive Hermès 44mm models. It's worth remembering that the underlying technology doesn't change with price; what you're paying for at higher price levels is either material, with the stainless steel models attracting a premium, and the cost of the included band.

Apple Watch Series 4: Alternatives

Apple does still sell the Apple Watch Series 3 with either sports or Nike bands, with pricing starting from $399. If you're an iOS user, it's easily the next best option and still a fine smartwatch in its own right.

The Apple Watch Series 4 is iOS-only, which is disappointing for Android users, because while there are functional smartwatches available on the Android platform, pretty much all of which work on iOS, there's really nothing quite like the Apple Watch Series 4. Samsung's Gear smartwatches are decent, as are Huawei's, but the state of the art in Android wear and Tizen watches are still well behind Apple's best.

Specifications

Product Name
Apple Watch Series 4
Display
40–44mm
Resolution
368x448 (44mm)/ 324x394 pixels (40mm)
Software
watchOS 5
Battery
Up to 18 hours
Processor
Apple S4
Size
40x34x10.7 mm (40mm)/ 44x38x10.7 mm (44mm)
Weight
30.1g/36.7g (sans band)
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