Apple Watch Series 4 hands-on review

With more screen and 1 world-first feature, the Apple Watch still rules the wrist

The best smartwatch just keeps getting better.
The best smartwatch just keeps getting better.
The best smartwatch just keeps getting better.

Highs

  • Impressive array of heart-tracking features, ECG
  • Larger screen that looks great
  • Strong performance
  • Haptic feedback on crown is a nice touch
  • Excellent app support

Lows

  • Longer battery life would have been nice
  • Expensive
  • No third party watch faces

Last year’s Apple Watch Series 3 cemented its place as the best smartwatch you can buy. This year, Apple has gone a step further to make the Apple Watch Series 4 the only wearable you need. The improvements range from a larger screen to two times better performance over the Series 3, but the spotlight falls on the electrocardiogram (ECG) app, which has been certified by the Food & Drug Administration, making the Apple Watch Series 4 the first over-the-counter ECG alternative for consumers. It’s an impressive feat, and it shows just how much of a lead Apple has over the competition.

We managed to spend some time with the new watch at Apple’s event in Cupertino. The ECG app won’t be available until later this year, but that still left us plenty to explore.

Bigger screen, sleek design

Like before, the Apple Watch Series 4 comes in 40mm and a 44mm size options. What’s new here is the screen real estate — you get more screen, without having to deal with a significantly bigger watch body.

Slimmer bezels allow a 30 percent larger screen, which means you can see more content than ever before. Will this affect battery life? Apple claims new low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) display technology should improve power efficiency, so we’ll just have to wait and see. The screen looks excellent, as usual, though we’ll need to use it outdoors to see if it’s easy to see in bright sunlight.

We liked the Vapor watch face, which showed off neat, dynamic animations on the watch as it lit up.

The Series 4 watch looks a little curvier than previous Apple Watch devices, but it’s just as elegant and sleek. We tried on the stainless steel 44mm watch, which felt lightweight and supremely comfortable. The leather magnetic strap wrapped around our wrist without much fuss, and the lug design meant there were no gaps between the watch and our wrist.

All this being said, we would have been thrilled to see what Apple would do with a circular watch, but it looks like that may never happen.

Accompanying the larger screen are several new watch faces, and some look better than others. The Infograph watch face, for example, looks a bit too cluttered for our tastes, but it does provide a ton of information at a glance if that’s what you want. It has an air-quality index, ultraviolet index, weather, and access to breathing exercises, heart rate, activity, music, and workout. The complications can be customized to your liking.

Apple Watch Series 4
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Other new watch faces have pretty animations that shift to the rhythm of breathing exercises — handy if you constantly find yourself stressed out.

We much preferred the Vapor watch face, which showed off neat, dynamic animations on the watch as it lit up. We do think Apple missed an opportunity here to launch a store for third-party watch faces, but baby steps were made. The Infograph Modular watch face lets you add in a slice of data from any other Apple apps or third-party apps — if developers add support. Baby steps.

Major breakthroughs

One of our favorite features on the Series 4 is the haptic feedback implemented in the Digital Crown. As you rotate the button, you can feel vibrations for every selection you move past. It’s a small but wonderful touch that makes interacting with the watch a little more fun.

The Series 4 Apple Watch can also alert you when it detects a low heart rate or an irregular heartbeat.

The crown is also what you will use for the electrocardiogram app when it’s available later this year — just tap your finger on it, and the electrical heart sensor will do the rest. You’ll be able to download a PDF to share with your doctor.

While we can’t comment on how well it works, the ECG has the potential to make a significant impact in the health community.

Many people wear the Apple Watch all day, but may not do the same with traditional ECG monitors. While the results likely won’t be as accurate as what you may find in the doctor’s office, the ability to take measurements quickly at any moment will be a major boon.

The Series 4 Apple Watch can also alert you when it detects a low heart rate, and recognize an irregular heart rate. If you have any heart-related issues, these features make the Apple Watch the watch you want to have on your wrist at all times.

Apple Watch Series 4
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Going a step further, the watch can also detect when you fall, and send out an alert to your emergency contacts if it doesn’t detect movement after a minute. Sure, Life Alert exists, but a stylish watch is a lot more enticing than a clunky pendant.

Better performance, louder speaker

The Apple Watch Series 4 is powered by Apple’s new S4 chip, which the company claims delivers two times faster performance. We never ran into a problem with performance on the Series 3, but we’ll happily take any improvements. Moving around the watchOS operating system is fluid and smooth, and we didn’t see any issues here.

Apple has also shifted the placement of the microphone to reduce echo during calls, and the speaker is purportedly 50 percent louder. We weren’t able to tell in the loud environment we were in, but if true that should make using the new Walkie-Talkie feature in watchOS 5 easier. Speaking of watchOS 5, you can check out all the new features available in our handy guide.

We’re not expecting much of a difference with battery life of the Series 4, so expect more than a day, perhaps two, based on our experience with the Series 3.

Pricing and availability

The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $400 for the Wi-Fi and GPS model, and $500 for the GPS and cellular model. Prices also vary depending on whether you want the aluminum case or the stainless steel. There are a ton of options to choose from, so it’s easy to find something you’ll like. The two size options are also great for people who want a smaller or larger watch. Pre-orders start September 14, with sales starting September 21.

There’s a lot of technology fitted into the relatively small case of the Series 4 Apple Watch. It’s impressive, but we haven’t really been able to test many of these features, so we’re not ready to recommend it quite yet. Still, considering the FDA certification and the host of new heart-tracking features, this is certainly a smartwatch worth considering for everyone.

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