The Apple Watch has been updated for the fourth time in as many years, bringing with it a number of new features, and for those looking to upgrade from the first-generation model, there's a tweaked design which has a bigger screen and other exciting new tech, including an ECG monitor in the crown.
But is that enough to take it to the next level? We've been living with Apple's smartwatch since the launch to find out whether this really is the king of the hill when it comes to staying connected.
- New 40 and 44mm sizes
The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at £399/$399 for the 40mm version (or £499/$499 with cellular), and £429/$429 (or £529/$529 with cellular) for the 44mm model. We originally had the larger model in for review, which also has a more capacious battery, but we have used and continue to use both models across the team.
Existing users will note the 38mm and 42mm models from before are no more.
A new design
- Larger OLED screen than before
- Same strap size as predecessors
- Aluminium and stainless steel options
- Stainless steel gold finish also available
The Apple Watch Series 4 is physically about the same size as previous models but the display is much bigger.
In fact, the display is 35 per cent larger than its smallest predecessor (32 per cent if you're looking at the larger 44mm model) and that's achieved by Apple pushing the screen to the edge, making for a much more immersive viewing experience on your wrist. We like this new display - although on first wear it looks and feels a lot more like you've strapped an iPhone on your wrist than wearing a dainty watch, over time you become used to the new screen size.
The new design - which feels like a huge step forward for the Apple Watch compared to previous iterations and akin to the step up from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 - still features the same rectangular design, as is staple for the Apple Watch, but now in a thinner form factor. If you've been wearing the Apple Watch for some time, you'll certainly notice the difference in this newer model.
That bigger size certainly makes reading messages, viewing data or interacting with things easier. Apple has jam-packed the screen with data wherever it can and that can be a bit overwhelming at times, although welcomed at others. Take the new watch faces for example: some allow you up to eight 'complications' in addition to calendar info and, of course, the clock face. We struggled to fill it.
Despite the upsizing, the straps remain the same size, thankfully, so any existing ones you might have amassed will still fit the new Watch. Phew.
Also tweaked is the Digital Crown. It's much thinner and is now haptic feedback enabled – the same tech found on other Apple devices like the iPhone XR and the MacBook. These changes not only mean the crown doesn't protrude as much from the edge of the watch, but when you scroll through apps or messages you'll get a buzzing feedback so you feel more 'connected' to the experience.
The back of the watch has changed across the range too. It now features ceramic and sapphire glass for better cellular connectivity (it was metal and sapphire glass for the sport model and sapphire glass for the stainless steel models), although the changes in materials on the rear aren't noticeable when wearing it.
- New S4 processor, 64-bit dual core
- Accelerometer gyroscope can track falls
- New: EE and Vodafone support in the UK
It's not just about a new screen though. The Apple Watch Series 4 offers a hefty spec upgrade too. The speaker location has moved and is now 50 per cent louder than previous models – designed to help with phone calls. The mic has also been relocated, so you don't get pick up from the speaker.
Both improvements are instantly noticeable the moment you ask Siri for help. It's now certainly possible to make a call on the Apple Watch and you don't need to have it right next to your ear.
The operator options have expanded this year to include Vodafone in the UK. You'll need to be a consumer rather than business customer (such support is expected in 2019), but as with EE in 2017 it's simply a case of adding the Apple Watch to your contract. Both are around £5 a month.
The signal does seem notably improved compared to our experience with the Series 3, presumably down to the improvements on the rear of the device and a better antenna implementation. But if you have poor network coverage and are already struggling with your state-of-the-art iPhone then the Apple Watch isn't going to suddenly improve things.
Walkie Talkie etiquette
The new speaker and mic can also be used for a feature in WatchOS 5: Walkie Talkie. Sign up a friend, press the talk button and your voice will come through on their wrist loud and clear.
In theory it sounds like a great idea and we can imagine in certain use cases it is, but it can also be a disaster in the wrong situation. The problem is two fold: one, you have to have it on to receive messages; two, you get a quick beep to let you know someone is trying to talk to you. Getting that beep will make you want to look at your watch, but doing so means it'll blurts out the message.
The first time this happened for us was a friend shouting at us while we were at dinner with the family. Not good. Let's just say that you need to be careful who your Walkie Talkie friends are. Since the fun and games of the first week, this feature has been turned off for us.
New accelerometer with fall detect
The Apple Watch Series 4 also has a new accelerometer gyroscope for better recording of data. That, combined with new processing power, means the new watch will be able to detect when you fall over, and can then initiate an alert to help you send a message to emergency services if needed. If you don't react to the alert, it will automatically call for help on your behalf. This feature is automatically switched on if you are over the age of 65.
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There are questions of course. If you're unconscious how will you be able to talk to someone to tell them you need help? And there's nothing to stop the watch phoning the services if you're fallen home drunk and passed out on the kitchen floor.
The feature can still be disabled by dismissing the alert within a minute of the warning, which is likely going to be helpful for those who play contact sports.
To power all these new features, the watch gets a processor boost. Called S4, it's a 64-bit dual core processor that promises double the performance of previous models. Just like the iPhone XS and XS Max, this speed improvement is about ensuring the Watch is capable of doing things in the future regardless of what app developers and Apple create.
In day-to-day use that translates well. Apps open even more instantly than they did before, but you'll still be hampered by data transfers if the app in question needs to pull data from your phone or the internet.
WatchOS 5: Additional features
WatchOS 5 includes loads more features on the fitness side of things, including the ability for the watch to backdate exercise start times if you've forgotten to press the start button (we've found this really handy for recording walks), the ability to challenge friends to see who is the more energetic, and a rolling mile feature that lets you see how you're fairing on a run rather than just presenting your overall time.
Apple has also now announced WatchOS 6, which will come to the Apple Watch Series 4 later this year. With WatchOS 6, users will see a dedicated App Store on the Watch, Activity Trends, enhanced Siri and female health tracking is also launching, among other features. You can read all about WatchOS 6 and the new features in our separate feature.
With a bigger screen, more sensors, but a smaller battery than before, you would expect the Watch S4 to be worse off in terms of longevity. However, that's not what we've found. Busy days involving receiving messages and recording exercise has still left us with over 50 per cent battery in the tank before bed and while the smaller model has a smaller battery, we still have between 30 and 40 per cent at the end of the day.
Using cellular and lots of apps will affect that performance, of course, but it's certainly nothing to worry about. We're not at Garmin levels of week-long battery life yet, but you should easily be able to go the day, and more than likely for most two days on a single charge for the 44mm model, or a day and a half for the 40mm model.
Electrocardiogram support and better heart heath features
- Capture electrocardiogram data
- New Low Heart Rate monitor feature
The Series 4 gets WatchOS 5 software and new heart-rate monitor options specific to the Series 4 model. WatchOS 5 will let you check for low heart rate and irregular heart rhythm and alert you accordingly. It's something we hope you never need to use, but it certainly makes this appealing to those of a certain disposition.
The Series 4 and will also offer the ability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to help you diagnose certain heart conditions. Available in the US and the UK, the back of the watch includes electros in the glass. Users will be able to touch the Digital Crown with their index finger of the opposite arm to complete the circuit and record their findings to share with a doctor via a PDF report.
In practice, it's as easy as it sounds. You enable the service via the Health app on the iPhone, and then run the app on the watch. Thirty seconds later, you have a result with a "print out" of your heart's waveform.
In addition to the ability to perform an ECG, the Watch also monitors your heart rate every two hours for an irregular heart beat. If it finds one then it will do five further tests and if those prove positive, you'll then be asked to perform an ECG. Hopefully you'll never have to go further than that.
New watch faces
- More 'complications' support
- Fire, Wind, Vapour screens
With a new screen and a new operating system comes new watch faces. There's an all-encompassing circular face that will allow you to use the corners of the display to feature more shortcuts and 'complications' for your favourite apps. It's a really functional design that utilises that bigger display really well.
Those who already use the modular design on the current Apple Watch will love the amount of data and shortcuts the S4 can deliver. We've currently found ourselves settling for the new modular face, opting to show more granular details about our daily exercise. For those really keen to follow, say, a single share, this could be a pricing graph. A new Breath watch face encourages you to breathe, giving you a quick shortcut to the Apple Breath mediation app.
Rather than adding more Disney characters or butterflies, there are also new Fire, Water, and Vapour screens. These are fun, but nothing to write home about.
So, should you upgrade? If you're still using the original Apple Watch then the S4 is a monumental leap forward.
Over the last four years Apple has continued to refine the experience by enlarging the screen, adding GPS, waterproofing, cellular and other sensors and functionalities. There is also the consideration that the original Apple Watch isn't eligible for the WatchOS 5 update, so you'll also be missing out on the new software features too, as well as the new features that come with WatchOS 6 later this year.
If criticism is to be given there are a few nitpicks about the S4: there's no always-on display (although the move to wake feature gets better with ever iteration); we're disappointed by the raise to speak without Siri feature (it works only a fraction of the time); and Walkie Talkie isn't as exciting as it sounds (if only we were 12 again, then maybe it would be).
The Series 4's biggest success is its screen. That bigger panel provides so much more information than before, which makes interacting with passcodes or swiping to write messages when you can't use voice commands just so much easier.
Even if you're a Series 3 user, you'll likely find yourself jealous of those who sport the newer device. As the smartwatch all-rounder, there's nothing better than the Apple Watch Series 4.
This review was first published in September 2018.
Samsung Galaxy Watch
No, we're not trolling you, the Samsung watch does work with iOS. That said, while it's a great watch - that looks like one, rather than a smart device - it has limited compatibility with Apple and, frankly, the larger screen of the Watch S4 is much more alluring.