Apple Watch Series 4 review: Bigger and better, but headline features are MIA in the UK
When Apple’s Jeff Williams unveiled the Apple Watch Series 4, the wearable looked like it could be genuinely transformational: it could save lives.
Not directly, of course – it can’t administer first aid yet – but as an FDA-approved health device, it had a number of tricks up (or rather, under) its sleeve that could be a first early warning about underlying heart problems. Unfortunately, these headline features are America-only, to begin with, with Williams only saying the company is “working hard” to bring them to the rest of the world.
Without these, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a more familiar kind of upgrade: bigger and better, but lacking the wow factor. It’s still one of the finest wearables around, but it’s evolution, not revolution and starting at £399 that may not be enough.
Apple Watch Series 4: Design
When I said the Apple Watch Series 4 was “bigger and better”, it wasn’t just hyperbole. It’s literally larger, now coming in 40mm and 44mm flavours. That’s significant, given last years’ devices came in 38mm and 42mm sizes: this year’s small version is only slightly dinkier than last year’s big watch.
That size increase combined with thinner bezels means a watch face that is roughly 30% larger than its predecessors, and although it’ll look familiar to anyone au fait with Apple’s previous wearables, it’s certainly a refined design. The curves and edge-to-edge display are straight out of the iPhone X playbook.
It’s slightly heavier than the Apple Watch 3 too, but crucially at 10.7mm thick, a bit thinner. The 0.7mm shaved off may not sound dramatic, but it means the 44mm review unit we were sent feels surprisingly less bulky than a 42mm older model we had kicking around.[gallery:2]
The larger screen leads to a higher resolution: the 44mm version has a 368 x 448 display, compared to 312 x 390 on the 42mm Apple Watch 3. If you’re counting pixels, that’s a win for the Apple Watch Series 4: 341ppi, compared to 332ppi on its predecessor.
The extra 0.2in of screen space makes a real difference – not just in the new watch faces which offer a lot more information at a glance (more on this later), but just in day to day navigation. Something as simple as picking the right app out from the Grid View is far less susceptible to fat-finger syndrome.
Otherwise, it’s familiar but with subtle improvements. The side button is now flush with the casing, rather than protruding as it did in previous models, and the crown now has haptic feedback. The latter point sounds minor, but makes a big difference in practice: scrolling through menus and zooming in on the Maps app just feels a bit more precise, and getting a little buzz on your wrist when you move between things is simply better than having to rely on visual cues – no matter how much clearer they are on the new, larger screen.
Apple Watch Series 4: Performance
These improvements are matched by what’s on the inside. The Apple Watch 4 packs a new 64-bit, dual-core processor, called (somewhat unoriginally) the S4. It’s up to 50% faster than the S3 chip that powered the Series 3 watch, and although there aren’t any watch-only benchmarks to test with, there’s certainly no reason to doubt them on this score. The UI feels buttery smooth, but it’s not like it was chugging on its predecessor. In any case, smartwatches have far lesser demands placed on them than smartphones, so you really shouldn’t rush out to upgrade your older model based on speed alone.
Other performance boosts are equally slight. A 50% louder speaker is nice, but not something people were exactly clamouring for. Likewise, a move to the Bluetooth 5 standard means a longer range, and more power efficiency than the older Bluetooth 4.2, but most people won’t notice the difference.
You won’t even notice an improved battery life, with Apple promising the same level as stamina in the Series 4 as with past generations: 18 hours. That’s not bad going considering the larger screen, and for once this is a tech company underselling battery life rather than overpromising. In my experience, the Apple Watch Series 4 could sometimes reach two days without needing to return to its charging cradle. And while that’s still frequent enough to put some people off the idea of a smartwatch, for most it should be fine given the features included.[gallery:5]
But more important than all these performance boosts is the side effect of the larger screen: customisable watch faces. In short, this means you can get more data where you need it, with the Infograph watch face offering up to eight complications, besting the Watch 3’s five by some way. This may sound unnecessary, but think how often you use a smartwatch to see anything that isn’t immediately visible on the home screen.
With the Apple Watch Series 4, you really can stuff the information that matters to you into the larger space. World clocks, activity, heart rate, the weather, useful shortcuts – you name it. Basically, it makes the Apple Watch Series 4 the most customisable smartwatch we’ve ever seen, and that really sets it apart from the competition.
Apple Watch Series 4: Features
The Apple Watch Series 4, Tim Cook says, is the first consumer device to be able to offer an ECG test on the wrist thanks to an electrical heart rate sensor. There are two problems with that statement: first, it isn’t – AliveCor’s KaridaBand and KardiaMobile beat Apple to it – but more importantly, if you’re in the UK it currently doesn’t work. The same fate befalls detection of atrial fibrillation. These features only just received FDA approval and are yet to be rolled out outside the USA. They could reach the UK tomorrow, for all I know, but the point is they aren’t here now.
Still, these aren’t the only improvement. There’s also fall detection, where the accelerometer and gyroscope work in tandem to figure out the kind of fall and then decide whether they should get the watch to phone the emergency services on your behalf. This only kicks in if you don’t move within a minute, and it’s turned off by default if you’re under the age of 65.
Apple says that physically active users may end up triggering the feature by mistake if partaking in high-impact activities, but it’s easily disabled if that’s the case. Maybe Apple is judging our sedentary lifestyles though, because with an Alphr-fall simulation zone (read: a mattress positioned below us), we couldn’t get the Apple Watch Series 4 to accept we’d fallen over once. Though this could just be the technology detecting that the soft landing meant we were in no danger at all. Clever Apple.[gallery:8]
There are other good improvements, but these come from Watch OS5 rather than the device itself, which means they’ll also be appearing on the Apple Watch Series 3. The watch will now tell you if your heart rate drops too low, so you can take action, for example, and there’s the option to challenge a friend to a week-long exercise competition where you compete to complete the most fitness rings. Less usefully, you can also use your Apple Watch as a Walkie Talkie with other Apple Watch owners, but it’s easily ignored if you’re as confused by its utility as we were.
Automatic exercise detection also joins the party, meaning it detects brisk movement and opens the Workout app so you can log your efforts. We found this to be a touch inconsistent though: springing into life after a brisk walk, but failing to detect a half-hour bike ride.
Still, as a fitness wearable, it’s undoubtedly been improved, with pace targets and cadence tracking added for runners, which are both hugely useful metrics at improving form and race-day performance. And as a training tool, it’s more useful too, with podcasts available on the Apple Watch for the first time. These sync with your phone as you go, so the latest episode of a given subscription is always on hand and ready, whether your phone is with you or not.
Apple Watch Series 4: Verdict
All of which leaves the Apple Watch Series 4 quite hard to score. On one hand, it’s improved over its predecessor in every way: it’s faster and more practical, while feeling less like wearing a bulky smartwatch on your wrist. That’s quite an achievement considering the screen is 30% larger.
On the other hand, it’s expensive for a smartwatch, the most interesting features are lying dormant for everywhere but the US and other advances are coming to the now cheaper Apple Watch Series 3, which now starts at £279 thanks to a £50 price cut.
All I can tell you is that even without the extras, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a damned fine wearable, and my best advice is to get to an Apple Store and see if the extra screen space appeals to you. If it doesn’t, you won’t miss too much by saving a few bob and picking up last year’s edition.