Apple Watch Series 4 Pushes Smart Watch Technology Closer to Perfection

Bigger, thinner, lighter and with a lot more technology squeezed inside

It’s difficult to create an elegant smart watch. There’s the screen, which, without graphics dancing across it, is a black void and then there’s the unavoidable battery that fattens up what might otherwise be a svelte metallic frame.

As a watch collector, I’m accurately aware of these limitations, so when I look at the nearly square Apple Watch or Samsung’s thick and large Galaxy Watch, I try to cut them some slack.

However, I’m also aware of just how hard Apple works to counter those limits. More than any other smart watch manufacturer, Apple approached its smart watch as a fashion object first. The attention to design, material and band accessories is evident and now, with the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple’s finally able to start tackling the tech-induced design limits of the smart watch itself.

Obviously, Apple Watch Series 4 ($399 to start) is by no means a full-scale redesign of the original Apple Watch design. Instead, it’s a firm push is a more elegant direction. Apple did this while making the Apple Watch slightly larger: 44mm instead of 42mm and 40 mm instead of 38 mm. But it also thinned out the watch a bit, going from 11.4 mm down to 10.7 mm. All tiny, yet noticeable changes that add up to a larger, yet somehow lighter device. The 42 mm Series 3 stainless weighed 52.8g, while the new 44 mm Series 4 stainless weighs just 47.9g.

The Apple Watch Series 3 next to the Apple Watch Series 4. Series 4 is bigger, but thinner and lighter.

The bigger watch body accommodates a larger, radiant AMOLED touchscreen screen (protected under a layer of sapphire glass), that, unlike previous Apple Watch models, curves out toward the equally curved corners of the wearable. Even on the smaller 40 mm Apple Watch Series 4, the 448 x 368 screen is the same size as it is on the 42.5 mm Series 3.

By the way, despite the size differences, all my old Apple Watch bands from all the previous series fit perfectly on the new watch. Bravo, Apple.

Apple is making ample use of the extra screen real-estate with gorgeous new complications that hug the edges of the brilliant, larger screen. Some are packed with information cobbled together from disparate apps and services. One face, infograph, may be my favorite. It includes the date, access to my overall calendar, my upcoming meetings and appointments, a sunrise-to-sunset-visual tracker, temperature, UV index, and quick access to a timer and my activity rings (I’m more an “Activity Guy” than a “Workout Guy”). And it doesn’t even look crowded. Like other Apple Watch faces, all these complications are customizable, so you see the information you want to see when you raise the watch or tap the screen. There are a bunch of attractive new faces that make excellent use of the new screen size.

All told, it’s a distinct increase in screen real-estate and an alteration that enhances the over allegiance and classic “watchness” (my term) of the Apple Watch.

The digital crown is smaller, but now with haptics and a heart sensor. The speakers are 50% louder and have a new configuration.

My Apple Watch Series 4 — I’m wearing the black brushed aluminum 44 mm unit with GPS and Cellular and 16 GB of storage ($499) — is also, thanks to a flush side button and more low-profile, yet newly functional digital crown, sleeker and, yes, watch-like.

There are still a few open slots and one hole on the device, though their configuration and positions have changed significantly. On one side is a pair of matching slots, which accommodate the Apple Watch Series 4’s powerful new speakers. On the other side is a small circular opening between the crown and button for the mic.

The biggest chassis change, though, is one most will never see — at least when you’re wearing the Apple Watch Series 4. Instead of wrapping the body material (stainless steel or aluminum) to the back of the device, the underside of the watch is now a Sapphire circle surrounded by ceramic. The material change helps with the watch’s antenna reception, but the new configuration also accommodates important new components.

Watching Your Heart

In the base is the optical heart sensor that been part of the Apple Watch since Series 1. If you happen to turn over the watch when it’s tracking your heart rate, it glows a brilliant green. Now, however, that optical sensor is joined by crystal electrodes on the back that work in tandem an electrical heart sensor embedded in the new digital crown.

The new back is a mix of sapphire, ceramic and heart sensors.

Yes, this is a tiny electrocardiogram machine. When Apple fully enables the feature later this year with an ECG reader in the Health app, Apple Watch Series 4 app owners will be able to place one finger on the crown, hold it there for 30 seconds and get a single-sensor ECG reading, one that they can eventually share with their doctor as a PDF.

Apple’s ECG reading system got an FDA classification and the American Heart Association is on-board with the technology, not as a replacement for full-scale EKGs that use a dozen or more sensors, but as a first warning system of a heart rhythm that’s off-pace. Personally, I think the world’s first personal, wearable ECG machine is a really big deal.

While I did get a brief, live demo of the Apple Watch Series 4’s ECG skills, the feature was not yet enabled on my test unit. The current optical sensor and software configuration can now detect low and irregular heartbeats and does so in the background since, you might not always notice it. As of this moment, I haven’t received a single notification. My heart is chugging along at 77 beeps per minute (bpm) and I have a resting rate of 71 bpm, slightly above my typical resting rate of 68 bpm.

I think I’m fine.

Under the Apple Watch Series 4 screen are a bunch of other new components helping it stay better connected and operate with just a little more pep. There’s the new dual-core S4 processor, which Apple says is twice as fast. I wouldn’t say the chip update results in a stunning performance difference, but operations are faster. For example, maps load much more quickly on the Series 4 (and they look amazing, too). In general, I found zero lag in the Apple Watch Series 4 operation.

There’s also the new W3 wireless chip that supports Bluetooth 5, which should increase wireless range and performance.

Speakers, Calls, and Siri

As I mentioned above, my Apple Watch is the more expensive cellular model. In addition to paying more up front for hardware, you will ultimately pay a small monthly fee, usually $10 a month, to be able to use your Series 4 watch as a phone (it will still use your original cellphone number) and device capable of downloading audio and other content directly from cell towers.

Podcasts are new to Apple Watch thanks to watchOS 5. I set up playlists on my iPhone that I can store on the watch, or I can just stream Apple Music.

It was fun to stream music directly from my Apple Music Account, though I preferred the new Podcast capabilities. I get a lot more done while listening to I Was There, Too, or WTF with Marc Maron, than I do with a “Get Work Done” playlist. So, the addition of Podcast support was an especially welcome one for me.

There are clear benefits to a cell-enabled smart watch for, say, runners, who don’t want to strap an iPhone onto their arm, but I’m not sure everyone, including me, needs this. I’m not a runner or even someone who hits the gym (yeah, I work out, but it’s in the privacy of my own home and with really old-school equipment). I have my iPhone with me pretty much all the time and am happy to let it do the connectivity lifting (or my home Wi-Fi) and save the $120 a year.

Of course, I did test out the cell-connectivity. The good news, it works. The bad news is my test unit network, AT&T, is, where I live and work, terrible. Sometimes when I checked the watch, it was on the network, but most times, it was not. I did manage to make a lengthy call through it, but the real highlight of this was another key hardware improvement.

Remember the pair of slots I mentioned? They’re there for a speaker system that Apple says is 50% louder than on the Series 3. And you know what? They’re right. Everything coming out of those speakers, from my parents speaking to me from thousands of miles away to Siri responding to my latest query is so loud and clear. Plus, the mic does an excellent job of picking up my voice. My parents reported excellent sound quality and Siri understands virtually everything I say.

I ask Siri important questions.

While we’re on the subject of Siri, I no longer have to say “Hey Siri” to get her attention, which is a big relief because when I said it, the iPhone Xs would light up, too, and try to answer. Now I just raise the phone to my face, pretty close to my mouth, and start my query. Siri knows that the wrist-raise motion combined with the proximity of my voice means I’m launching a Siri query. I did have some trouble perfecting this move. Often, I think had the watch too far from my mouth and Siri didn’t respond at all. I also think my wrist move was a little off. I’m sure I’ll eventually get this move right and almost never say “Hey Siri” again.

The Active Life

Apple has, from the start, targeted health and, especially, fitness buffs with the Apple Watch. Naturally, the Series 4 extends this mission, with a nice assist from Apple Watch OS 5 that adds new hiking and Yoga workout tracking and advanced running features like target pace. I’m sure a runner could tell you a lot more about how those features work.

I loved how the Apple Watch Series 4 tracked my power walk, even as I stopped and restarted it.

One feature that I’m sure we can all appreciate is that Apple Watch Series 4 with watch OS 5 will recognize when you’ve started a workout, even if you forget to tell Apple Watch. When the watch notices, it gives you a tap and notification. You can then turn on the workout and, yes, get credit from when Apple Watch detected that the workout began. Similarly, Apple Watch Series 4 knows when a workout ends and, even if you forget to end the workout session on the watch, it’s smart enough to know when you actually stopped working out. For active workouts like a run, this detection can happen quickly, but for what I like to do — take brisk walks — it won’t activate until you’ve been walking for a solid 10 minutes or so, so as not to confuse a quick walk to the market with a workout.

I eventually took that long power walk and marveled at how the watch let me know it had noticed me walking for a while and that I could start a walk workout (with time served) and how it also kept reminding when I stopped for a time that it could end the workout based on when I actually stopped walking. Even better, if I started walking again, the workout started up again.

The many faces of a workout.

The Apple Watch Series 4 remains an excellent swimming device, but since I couldn’t go to the beach with it (there wasn’t time), I took it for a shower. Preparing the new watch for a dip is unchanged in watch OS 5. I swipe up from the bottom of the screen, select the water drop icon and I’m ready to flow…er…go. The only noticeable difference is when I used the sonic feature to expel any water that might be sitting in front of the speaker. Now, the newly haptic crown gives a little clicking feedback as I spin it and the audio output is, well, 50% louder as the watch expels the water.

Lookout

There is another new feature that I enabled but, fortunately did not have to use: Fall detection. As the name implies, the Apple Watch Series 4 can use its accelerometer and gyroscope to detect motion consistent with a fall. It’s not on by default, you have to enable it in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone.

If the feature is on and the Watch does detect a fall, it’ll tap your wrist with a notification. If you don’t respond by tapping the screen within a minute to indicate that you’re okay, the watch can automatically call emergency services and then move on to contacting your emergency contacts.

Sorry, but I did not force a fall to test this, but I’m certain we’ll soon be hearing stories of the Apple Watch Series 4 saving Grandpa Lou who fell and couldn’t get up.

Battery Life and Bottom line

I’ve always been pleased with Apple Watch battery life and I’m no less enthusiastic about the performance of the Apple Watch Series 4 which has a more power-sipping screen technology. I got a solid 24 hours of use on a single charge (with brightness set, by default, to low). Your mileage will vary depending on whether you use Wi-Fi and Cellular to make calls and stream music.

Obviously, I’ve reviewed my version of the Apple Watch Series 4, which may look quite unlike the one you’re eyeballing. It could be a more affordable and smaller model. Maybe it doesn’t have cell-service. It could be any number of colors or finishes and accompanied by a dizzying array of band choices. This is, after all, as much a fashion statement as it is a cutting-edge technology one. I’m still dreaming of the day Apple makes a $199 composite model, but for now, there is no better wearable melding of technology, innovation, design, and fashion sense than the Apple Watch Series 4.