Apple Watch Series 4 review

Apple's best product isn't the iPhone, it's the Apple Watch

The best smartwatch you can buy, a genuine improvement over previous models, and Apple’s finest hour in years.
The best smartwatch you can buy, a genuine improvement over previous models, and Apple’s finest hour in years.
The best smartwatch you can buy, a genuine improvement over previous models, and Apple’s finest hour in years.

Highs

  • Great design and build quality
  • Excellent, user-friendly software
  • Comprehensive, motivational health and fitness features
  • Can replace your phone for a short time
  • Plenty of colors, straps, and third-party accessories

Lows

  • Short battery life

More people are buying the Apple Watch than all the other watches available in the world put together, which whether you like it or not, makes the unusual oblong case a design success. “Watches are supposed to be round,” shout the purists, but Apple is rarely one to simply follow trends for the sake of it. It makes sense that the basic shape of the Apple Watch Series 4 hasn’t changed much over the previous versions, but there are a few crucial alterations that make it more wearable, and better to use than ever before.

It has been on our wrist for some time now, and we’re ready to talk about it. One unfortunate feature omission aside — for now — the fabulous Apple Watch Series 4 makes our heart go boom, boom, boom.

The Apple Watch Series 4 won our award for the best products of the year. Make sure and check out all our other selections for Best Products of 2018.

Design

Luxury watchmaker H. Moser & Cie’s Swiss Alp watch looks very, very similar to the Apple Watch, something the company is not afraid to admit. It’s a very interesting product, because this is a post-Apple Watch timepiece and although the addition of a tourbillon movement, sapphire, and white gold elevates it to true luxury status; it proves the Apple Watch’s shape works well as a traditional watch. See also any Patek Philippe Ellipse watch, Casio’s classic G Shock 5000 series, and even the Tag Heuer Monaco for further evidence that not all desirable watches have to be round.

What’s more, because the Apple Watch sells so well, we see it on many wrists. Designs seen as gawky or challenging often become more accepted the more we see them. What we’re saying here is that if you’ve been put off the Apple Watch because of the design in the past, it’s time to forget all about it and give the Series 4 a try.

The Series 4 comes in either 40mm or 44mm case sizes, but you don’t notice much of a difference over the 38mm and 42mm Series 3, at least not in a bad way. The size difference is mitigated by the slimmer case, which is down to 10.7mm over 11.4mm for the Series 3. It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes it easier to get the watch under a tighter shirt cuff. Crucially, it’s the visible screen area that has been increased. We’re wearing the 44mm model, and the display area is 977 square millimeters, compared to the 740 square millimeters on the old 42mm Series 3. Apple’s advancements in screen technology and case size is highlighted by the 40mm Series 4 having a larger visible display than the 42mm Series 3.

Beautifully-made, highly wearable, and with the right strap and body color combination, damn attractive.

Thinner bezels are key here, and the curved corners help emphasize them, while also appearing more watch-like and keeping up with mobile screen trends. A sensible change over the Series 3 is the circular red line identifying the Cellular model over the GPS model, which is considerably classier than the big red splodge used on the Series 3. The heat rate sensor has a cleaner design than before too. Apple’s fabulous build quality shines through. The Apple Watch is an excellent example of what premium means in the mobile industry, as it’s almost flawless.

Apple’s Sport Loop straps look great too. The pictures on Apple’s website don’t do them justice. The black Sport Loop has a copper fleck running through the material, which complements the space grey watch very well. We’d choose one of these over the sport band, and the insanely expensive Milanese loop option. It’s comfortable for everyday use, and is good at resisting sweat when working out.

Crying about the Apple Watch not being round is redundant today, and the watch buying public largely agrees, judging by the amount being sold. To not buy the Series 4 because of this is the wrong decision, because you’re missing out on a beautifully-made, highly wearable, and with the right strap and body color combination, damn attractive smartwatch.

Screen and software

There’s another reason you’d be silly not to buy an Apple Watch (provided you own an iPhone, of course), is that it has, by a very long stretch, the best wearable software platform out there, and a stunning screen on which to view it. The Series 4 comes with Watch OS 5 installed, which is also compatible with almost all previous Watch models (first generation Apple Watch is not compatible), and Apple has done the sensible thing and evolved the software, rather than radically enhancing or redesigning it.

We’re pleased to see and use the raise-to-speak feature for Siri, which increases usefulness in certain situations. Setting timers in the kitchen, for example, is simple. The major new additions fall into the health and fitness category, and we’ll start with the most impressive. The Apple Watch Series 4 has an electrocardiogram, which can potentially detect an irregular heartbeat. But for all the bluster and excitement over the feature, it’s not working yet. Apple said a supporting app is coming later this year, so for now it’s not available. There’s also concern the ECG may not gain approval outside the U.S., or exactly how far along clearance is with the FDA in the first place.

Despite our dedication to the review process, we haven’t tested out the fall detection feature either. This detects if the wearer suffers a “hard fall,” and can call the emergency services or send out a location to selected contacts. The legal department squashed our idea of strapping the watch to an unsteady member of the DT team, and shoving them until they fell. It’s bullying, apparently. Apple says the watch will also warn you if your heart rate drops dangerously low, but no amount of meditation has dropped our heart rate low enough to test out that alert either

The Apple Watch Series 4 feels so fast you’ll want to put on a seatbelt.

The larger display area gives the Series 4 watch a big step up in usability, with everything from much larger buttons to enter your passcode, to more complicated watch faces for more information. There’s now a Walkie Talkie mode that lets you chat in real time with other Apple Watch owners just like a Walkie Talkie. It’s finicky at first, because inviting people isn’t the most seamless process, but it works well after a connection is established. We wish there was a better nudging system that would alert you to an incoming Walkie Talkie though, as we’re afraid of being interrupted in a meeting.

The notifications the Series 4 delivers are more interactive and rich in detail, and the combination of the rotating Digital Crown — complete with super-satisfying haptic feedback — 3D Touch on the screen, and smooth scrolling makes the watch an absolute joy to use. If you think the iPhone is a polished product, the Apple Watch goes way beyond it.

It’s not all roses though, and it doesn’t always deliver notifications despite supposedly mirroring the activity on the phone. The apps are also rather hit-or-miss, with few delivering must-have features, and a worrying amount of developers have discontinued Watch support over the past year. This naturally leads to the “what’s the point of a smartwatch,” conversation. It’s a valid point, but Apple’s strong fitness features, superb easy-to-use software, and clear notifications make it way more compelling than any other wearable product around at the moment.

Health and fitness

Make no mistake, the Apple Watch Series 4 can take on and beat any ugly Fitbit or cheap fitness band out there, and the technology and design makes it more user-friendly and useful than any of them. There’s automatic exercise detection now, and it works well — walking swiftly to the gym and running up steps on the way saw the watch ask if I was about to start a workout. There are plenty of pre-built workout plans, now including yoga and hiking, which are simple to access and start. It’s all transferred into the iPhone’s Health app, where the data is presented clearly and helpfully. Simple, clear, and helpful. How many fitness products can you say that about?

apple watch series 4 review 9
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

If you leave the Watch’s settings alone, WatchOS 5 is obsessed with making you stand up, breathe, and get more exercise. There are now more watch faces that encourage all this too. Constant, almost hourly alerts tell you to get out your chair, or to sit back and breathe for a minute or so in case you’re a bit stressed. In the morning, it motivates you to beat the day before’s movement totals. All can be turned off, but if you follow the Watch’s advice, it does make a difference to your day, in that you feel marginally better about yourself, and it does so way more effectively than most fitness wearables. The goals it sets are achievable with minimum adjustment to lifestyle, and there’s something genuinely addictive about “closing the rings” in Apple’s health app.

That’s before you add in the heart rate sensor, the reliable Bluetooth connection for music, and the variety of straps suited for gym use, including the special Nike+ version. Also, while messaging apps lack slightly, there are many health and fitness apps for the Apple Watch, and the added performance from the new S4 processor makes them run well too. The Apple Watch Series 4 is one of the most comprehensive, user-friendly fitness wearables you can buy.

Battery and performance

The Apple Watch’s battery capacity is unknown, but Apple says it will last for around 18 hours before it needs a recharge using the included magnetic charging disk. The quoted time is on the conservative side, depending on your use. If you’re using GPS, fitness tracking, or cellular, then 18 hours is at the top end, but with only notifications and turning it off overnight, we could almost reach 24 hours. Not great, but we’ve seen worse.

The Apple Watch Series 4 is one of the most comprehensive, user-friendly fitness wearables you can buy.

Apple’s S4 dual-core processor powers the Watch Series 4, and we experienced no slowdown, and almost no hesitation at all when opening apps. If all you’ve ever used is the first Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Series 4 feels so fast you’ll want to put on a seatbelt. This is true whether you’re reading the news on the BBC app, scrolling through music and the new Podcasts app, or replying to Facebook Messenger. The fast replies work best, but you can reply more fully if you take the time to draw out letters or use voice. Navigation is always responsive and smooth.

Cellular and connectivity

Like the Series 3 Watch, the Series 4 comes with the option of buying a model with a cellular connection. This involves paying an additional fee to your carrier, which provides a set amount of data for use with the watch. It doesn’t require a SIM card, or permanent connection to your phone. You can go out and make calls, use GPS, and receive messages and other data while your phone is safely at home.

We connected ours to EE’s service in the U.K., and it was all performed through the Apple Watch app itself, rather than having to call customer services or visit a retail store. The Series 3 watch’s cellular feature suffered from a quiet speaker, and it was impossible to hear even with a little ambient noise. It’s considerably louder here, and the microphone helps the caller hear you better too. You still look silly using the Apple Watch to make calls in public though.

Apple Watch Series 4 Review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Yes, you can make calls; but you still can’t quite entirely replace your phone due to the lack of app support, which is crucial to the cellular Apple Watch’s usefulness. It’s better than before, as there is an official Messenger app, a WeChat app, and a Line app; all of which work well. There’s no WhatsApp Watch app though, and you have to use a third-party Twitter app. Maybe, depending on your workflow, the Apple Watch could be the only device you need for a short period of time.

Outside of the cellular part, the Apple Watch has Bluetooth and can connect to wireless headphones, a feature we found simple to use and reliable. On a related note, transferring music to the Apple Watch is performed wirelessly from your iPhone, and only when the Watch is on charge. It’s time-consuming, but more reliable and transparent than doing the same on Google’s Wear OS. The music app is also better than Google’s app, with larger controls, easier access to features like shuffle, and greater responsiveness.

Our Take

We’re not going to pull any punches here. The Apple Watch Series 4 is the best smartwatch you can buy. And it’s so far beyond anything else available, we question the sanity of anyone who decides to buy another smartwatch. It’s also one of the best all-round fitness wearables too, and unless you’re totally hardcore or need much longer battery life, it’s more than enough for most. Finally, the cellular model can replace your iPhone for a surprisingly long time. It’s genuinely superb.

Is there a better alternative?

If you own an iPhone, there is no better smartwatch than the Apple Watch. If you own an Android phone and desperately want to buy a smartwatch, it’s a solid reason to switch over to iOS. Google’s Wear OS models currently cannot compete in terms of usability, build quality, and software. The fashion brands are starting to nail design though, and improvements are coming that could help it catch up.

The only real Apple Watch competitors comes from either Apple itself with the slightly cheaper Watch Series 3, or from Samsung. The Galaxy Watch has great software and a good design, and although it comes very close, we feel the Apple Watch’s superior fitness and health features, along with masses of third-party accessories, makes it a more complete package.

How long will it last?

Software and battery will limit the Apple Watch’s lifespan. However, expect the Series 4 to receive software updates for at least the next two or three years. The battery may begin deteriorating at that time, resulting in shorter use time, and this is the biggest problem with smartwatches — a finite lifetime due to the battery. Still, two years at the absolute minimum is relatively long in the world of mobile tech.

The Apple Watch is swim-proof and can handle regular shallow-water activities to a depth of 50 meters. It’s not especially tough, and is likely to be more exposed to scratches and knicks than your phone, so be careful. We wouldn’t call it delicate though, and if you treat it like any other expensive watch, it should remain in great condition.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Apple Watch Series 4 is a comprehensive improvement over those that came before, and a giant-sized leap ahead of most other smartwatches.

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