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Review: Apple Watch Series 4

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Oct 1, 2018, 6:00 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

Apple redesigned its smartwatch this year and the new hardware is a pleasing and powerful update to what was already one of the best wearables available. With its renewed focus on health and safety, is it good enough to upgrade from an older Apple Watch? We find out.

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Apple continues to define the smartwatch category. It may have brought the Apple Watch to market long after fitness trackers and Android smartwatches hit store shelves, but Apple quickly surpassed them in function and performance. This year, Apple overhauled its hardware in order to make the Watch a more personal, health-conscious device. Here is Phone Scoop's review.

Hardware

The Apple Watch comes in so many sizes, finishes, and configurations that it should be no problem for most people to find a combination that works for them. The Apple Watch Series 4 carries over the square-shaped display, rounded metal body, and core controls including the digital crown and action button.

The 38mm and 42mm screen dimensions have been replaced with 40mm and 44mm sizes. The Series 4 is slightly taller and minimally wider than the Series 3, though it is also just a bit thinner (front to back). Most people won't be able to tell the difference, and it's just as comfortable to wear. I appreciate the slightly reduced thickness of the Apple Watch, as it makes it less problematic when wearing jackets or long-sleeved shirts.

The Watch is available in space gray, silver, and gold colors, in either the aluminum or stainless steel chassis. If you want a little more flair, you can opt for the Nike+ or Hermes versions, which have different straps. Speaking of straps, basic options include sport plastic or woven nylon. If you want a milanese loop or leather you'll need to fork over more cash to upgrade. If you want Hermes, you'll need to fork over several paychecks.

Apple Watch Series 4  

We tested a large (44mm) space gray aluminum model with a nylon strap.

The materials, fit, and finish of the Watch are a step above the competition. It is by no means a traditional timepiece, but the chassis is strong, the curved glass is perfectly fitted, and the hardware controls are easy to manipulate.

I really like the new screen, which measures 368 pixels by 448 pixels on the 44m size. The OLED display is bright, sharp, and offers plenty of real estate for information. There's so much space, in fact, that Apple has doubled the number of complications available on some of the watch faces. The new Infograph face, for example, has eight complications. There's a ton of info on the screen, and it wouldn't be practical on the old, smaller screens.

All Apps

All Apps

The digital crown on the right side of the watch is a marvel of engineering. You can use it to zoom quickly through on-screen items, or scroll slowly and precisely. A quick press of the crown opens the app menu and a long press opens Siri. (Later, Apple will enable the EKG capturing ability of the crown — something no other wearable offers.)

Digital Crown

Digital Crown

The action button on the right of the chassis is flush with the surface and harder to find by feel. You just kind of know where it is. A quick press opens the app dock, a double press opens Apple Pay, and a long press calls up the SOS, medical ID, and power-down options. The button itself works well and delivers good feedback.

Two slits on the left side of the watch signify the speaker. Apple says it made the speaker louder for the Series 4 Watch and it wasn't kidding. When compared to my Series 2 Apple Watch, the Series 4 is dramatically louder and clearer.

Apple's circular cluster of sensors on the bottom of the Watch makes me think of a sci-fi drone or probe of some sort. It's watching me! Quite literally, the heart rate sensor is beaming light into your skin and looking at the reflection.

Sensors

Sensors

Apple's strap design is second to none. Cavities on the top and bottom edges of the Watch accommodate an entire ecosystem of straps from Apple and third parties. These are far easier to deal with than the pins you might encounter with standard watch straps. Apple has ensured that the new 40mm and 44mm watches are compatible with the straps for itd old 38mm and 42mm watches.

Last, the Apple Watch is fully waterproof. It can handle depths up to 50 meters, but Apple says you shouldn't take it scuba diving. Want to swim in the ocean or a pool? That's no problem. I wore the watch outside in the pouring rain and it managed just fine.

Out and About  

The design may be a bit generic and the Series 4 may not appeal to those who prefer classic round watches, but in the smartwatch category Apple's hardware is hard to beat.

Software

WatchOS 5, which is what ships on the Series 4, is the best-yet version of Apple's wearable platform. Notably, the company has honed the operating system to focus on core health-related functions.

App Screen

App Screen

The basic home screen experience will be familiar to anyone who's owned an older Apple Watch. The main display houses the watch face, of which there are thousands available for customization. Swipe down for notifications, swipe up for action toggles (GPS, airplane mode, etc.), press the digital crown for the full app menu, and press the action button for the dock.

Infograph

Infograph

I like that the dock is now arranged in a vertical set of cards that float up and down by swiping on the screen or turning the digital crown. You can customize the order in which apps appear in the dock, or let them sort themselves by most recently used. Either way, this is a fairly quick way to jump back and forth between open apps.

Dock View

Dock View

Toggles

Toggles

A handful of new watch faces are available that make use of the Series 4's larger, denser screen. As noted above, the Infograph can be fully customized with up top eight complications — or alternate info sources. For example, I have it set to include the weather, my next calendar appointment, my activity rings, the phases of the moon, sunrise/sunset, the battery, a stop watch, the UV index, and the date. This may sound like overkill, but once you get used to the layout of the face it is easier to decipher what's going on. You can turn off the extra complications if you wish, or pick a watch face that simply tells the time.

Watch Faces

Watch Faces

Apple has added tons of workout tools. The best is the auto workout detection. I used this several times to see how well it performed and it surpassed my expectations. For example, I left my house and began a walk. About 11 minutes into the walk, the Series 4 sent me a notification "It looks like you're taking a walk" and offered to record the walk for me. I simply accepted the offer and it credited me for time walked back to the beginning of my sojourn. The Series 4 sent similar notifications when I went for a hike and a bike ride. This is great for those of us who are forgetful.

Tracking Workouts

Tracking Workouts

Recorded workouts are a treasure trove of information. For example, the Series 4 captures the temperature, humidity, and air conditions, your elevation changes, step counts, distances traveled (highly accurately, thanks to GPS), calories burned, active calories burned, time, splits, and so on. All of this information is synced back to your iPhone where you can add it to the Apple Health app, if you wish, for sharing with your health providers. Not everyone cares to have this much information, but for those who do, it's invaluable.

Workouts on iPhone  

The heart rate monitor can literally be a life saver. Since the Apple Watch's debut, dozens of people have been alerted to potential heart issues (such as arrhythmia) and sought medical attention, thereby saving their lives. You can adjust how often the Series 4 takes your pulse and checks for other heart rhythm issues. It determines your resting heart rate, your walking heart rate, and highlights maximum rates achieved during workouts. It then stores the data so it can easily be consumed in charts and graphs.

Heart Settings

Heart Settings

Apple stunned everyone when it announced that the Series 4 can capture an EKG, or a reading of your heart's electrical activity. It does this when users touch the digital crown. The feature isn't yet available and will be enabled later this fall. For people who need to monitor their heart regularly, this can prevent multiple trips to the doctor's office for exams that cost real money.

The fall detection feature isn't ready yet, either, but also may be a life saver. The Series 4 can, when enabled, automatically detect when the wearer has fallen. It knows to pause for a few seconds to see if the person gets up. If he or she doesn't get up, but asks for help, the Watch will call the owner's emergency contacts. If he or she doesn't answer at all, the Watch will automatically dial 911. This suddenly makes the Apple Watch a very interesting option for people who want to ensure their older relatives are safe and taken care of.

WatchOS 5 brings another interesting, long-promised feature: walkie-talkie capability. The app ostensibly allows any two Apple Watches to talk to one another walkie-talkie style. You have to set it up between two watches first, and it requires your watch be connected to the internet, whether that's via WiFi, or cellular, or your iPhone. Unfortunately, it's cumbersome and unreliable. When it works, it's a delight. When it doesn't, you'll wonder why you didn't just pick up the phone.

Phone Calls

Phone Calls

This new platform is the icing on the cake that is the Series 4.

Various Apps  

Performance

The Series 4 covers the basics pretty well.

With Apple's W3 radio chip and Bluetooth 5.0 aboard, pairing with an iPhone is the easiest experience possible. It takes all of 5 seconds to get your iPhone and Apple Watch talking. Have a pair of Apple AirPods? If you've previously paired them with your iPhone, the AirPods automatically also pair with your Apple Watch.

The Bluetooth bond between Watch and iPhone — and AirPods — never wavered. If you leave the standard 30-foot range of Bluetooth, the Watch so easily reconnects to the iPhone you often never know it was temporarily disconnected.

Music I streamed from the Watch to Apple's AirPods sounded as good as it does when streamed from the iPhone. You can use the Watch and your AirPods together and leave the iPhone at home, without making any sacrifices on your music listening. (By the way, the Series 4 has 16 GB of storage, which is more than enough space for your favorite playlists.)

Music

Music

When on jogs, walks, hikes, or other outdoor adventures, the Series 4's GPS radio tracks you like a bloodhound. The darned thing knew which side of the street I was walking on.

Maps

Maps

The new S4 processor is a marked improvement over Apple's previous wearable CPUs. The Series 4 performed significantly faster than older watches installing the same system updates. The UI was smooth and uniform throughout. Apps opened quickly and closed quickly. Nearly everything the watch does, it does in a blink. Apple's revised silicon is superior.

Watch Face

Watch Face

For a wearable, the Series 4's battery life doesn't do too poorly. Third-party teardowns of the Series 4 suggest the battery may actually be smaller than the one found in the Series 3. Even so, the Series 4 will push through an entire day, complete with GPS-based workout tracking, without breaking a sweat. That's about as far as it gets. I was able to use the watch through the early morning hours on day two, but had to find the charger well before lunch time. It would be really great for a smartwatch to last for at least two full days. The Series 4 does not. This is where you'll get more mileage from lower-cost devices from companies such as FitBit, which prioritize battery life.

Settings

Settings

The haptic engine is perhaps one of Apple's finest engineering feats. The tiny motor in the watch is able to deliver delicate and precise taps to your wrist that are subtle, yet unmistakable. You can turn the haptic engine off, but I can't imagine why you'd want to. It's by far the best way to receive any notification on the Apple Watch.

More Settings

More Settings

Discussion

iPhone owners do have a selection when it comes to smartwatches and other wearables. None, however, is as complete or as compelling as the Apple Watch Series 4.

The new device from Apple has a great screen, a comfortable form factor, and high-quality materials. The simple hardware controls function as intended and ensure the wearable is easy to operate. I appreciate that Apple kept the new device compatible with its existing range of straps. Toss in the louder speaker, the improved heart rate monitor, fall detection, and the EKG, and you have something no other watch offers.

WatchOS 5 ensures that the Series 4 puts its features to good and effective use. Adjusting watch faces, tracking workouts, triaging notifications, and more is a breeze. I appreciate the new functions, such as the walkie talkie, even if the execution isn't perfect.

If you have a Series 1 or Series 2 Apple Watch, do not hesitate to upgrade to the Series 4 The huge jump in performance is worth it. If you have a Series 3, the only reason to upgrade to the Series 4 is if you specifically want the larger screen, EKG, and fall detection.

Our Ratings

4.5
Overall
 

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