Hands on: Apple Watch 4 review

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Hands on: Apple Watch 4 review

OUR EARLY VERDICT

This is a really impressive upgrade from Apple – if you’re thinking of getting yourself a Watch from the brand, we’d suggest you start thinking about this one. Given that the display is the only real upgrade, you could say there’s not much of a change; but it really makes a difference, and the smart health stuff is going to make this more attractive to those who take a keen interest in their wellbeing. Looks like Grandpa might be getting an Apple Watch…

The Apple Watch 4 is the first big upgrade to the device that the brand has thrown our way for a number of years – in fact, never since the launch of the first model years ago have we had anything different.

We spent some decent time with the new device at the Apple launch event recently and have added in some extra thoughts based on our time in the demo area – there are a few new features to trawl through in this new wrist-piece.

The Apple Watch 3 recently lost its title of best smartwatch in our rankings to the Samsung Galaxy Watch – so what can the Watch 4 (or Apple Watch Series 4, to give it its full title) bring that might propel it back to the top of the charts?

 

Apple Watch 4 price and release date

The Apple Watch 4 is coming in four variants: 40mm and 44mm sizes, and with or without LTE.

In terms of the Apple Watch 4 release date, we’re looking at September 14 for pre-orders, but September 21 if you want to actually get this thing on your wrist.

The GPS-only version will start at $399 / £399 / AU$599 for the smallest version, launching in 26 territories. The cellular option will be $499 / £499 / AU$749 and is coming to 16 markets. We’ll update this section with more pricing and availability info as we get it.

If you’re looking for a contract with the LTE watch, you’ll be looking at carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile in the US. EE offers deals for the LTE version of the watch as it did for the Apple Watch 3 in the UK, plus Vodafone now offers deals for the first time.

Design and screen

The new Apple Watch 4 in 44mm and 40mm sizes.

The new Apple Watch 4 in 44mm and 40mm sizes.

If you asked most people what upgrade they’d like on their Apple Watch, most would say they’d either like it to be round, or to have a large display.

Well, they’re not going to get the former, no matter how many patents for more rounded designs Apple holds, but the latter has come to pass.

The design of the Apple Watch 4 is much like many would expect: it’s based on the previous four models (the first Watch was retooled and re-released, remember), but now is ever so slightly larger, as you can see in the side-by-side picture below.

The 42mm Apple Watch 3, left, and 44mm Apple Watch 4, right

The 42mm Apple Watch 3, left, and 44mm Apple Watch 4, right

That means you’re getting a rectangular OLED display with rounded edges that curve away and towards the wrist.

The same quick (ish) release straps are back – it would be something of a surprise if they disappeared given the Watch band ecosystem Apple has built up around them – and the heart rate monitor is present at the back of the device (more on that later).

The digital crown, the spinning dial that allows you to flick through lists and hit ‘enter’ when clicked in, is back (with a red-ringed version denoting that the Watch 4 has LTE connectivity) and above / below that (depending on which wrist you have the device on) is the power / multi-tasking button.

It’s also now haptic, meaning that you can scroll it and get a vibrating ‘tick’ every time you scroll past something on the screen – it’s a really useful upgrade that makes using the scrolling crown more useful, and there’s even a slightly audible click as it rolls around.

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Everything feels polished, well-made and light enough on the wrist. The rear of the Watch is even ceramic and sapphire to add that little bit of glitz to proceedings and make sure that cellular signal can get through well – and it’s really visually striking when you see it for the first time.

The speaker and microphone have been moved a little too, so the speaker can be 50% louder without getting mic interference – not that you’ll be using it all the time, but it’s a more useful way of conducting a call in the car or something.

But let’s get onto that screen! A new thing! A visual change to the Apple Watch, finally!

The change here is that the screen has been shoved to the edges of the Watch, so no more ugly black bezels around the sides of what you’re looking at.

Saying that, many apps used a black background already so it was quite hard to see the border, but with the larger screen you can see so much more information. Also, there is still that border – it’s as much edge-to-edge as the iPhone XR is.

Apple has used this to good effect, allowing more complications on the watch faces so that you can see more information at a glance – it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for third-party apps to be re-tooled to make full use of the display’s extra space.

There are multiple new watch faces on offer here as well – Apple has been crafting new ‘beautiful’ scenes to display on the handset as well as new complications thanks to the larger space – for instance, you can tag in friends and have a one-tap screen that gives easy access to calls and messages.

The Apple Watch 4 is still using the same OLED technology as before, and still doesn’t have that ‘always-on’ display that many would like – you still need to raise your wrist to wake it, and while we couldn’t test this in multiple scenarios in the demo area (for example sitting, standing, lying in bed), in the past the reaction to a raise has always been pretty good from Apple’s wristwear.

The screen is strong, dynamic and colorful, and the new Watch faces really add to the mix. There’s so much more you can do to accessorize it, and while it doesn’t look any brighter it really impresses the eye just by being larger.

Fitness

The Apple Watch has been gaining in prowess as a fitness device over the years, incorporating ever-more sophisticated tracking for your runs and cycles, connecting to separate gym equipment and monitoring you through more activities.

All that is on offer here, but the fitness smarts have been augmented in a couple of ways. The main one is the improved heart rate monitor, and while that won’t be of interest to many there are plenty of people out there that do want more medical insights, and that’s where Apple is aiming this device.

We know someone with diabetes, and if the Apple Watch ever became capable of monitoring blood glucose he’d buy it straight away.

The Apple Watch 4 has an improved tracker for checking how your ticker is beating, using an ECG (electrocardiogram) monitor to give better readings in a medical scenario. It’s still not certified as a medical device, of course, but it can give better notifications of things that you might want to get checked out.

We couldn’t test that just yet – the feature isn’t coming to the US for a month or two, and will roll out elsewhere later – so the basic heart rate monitor looked, well, basic.

The overall functionality of the heart rate monitor, when just generally exercising, should also be improved, which will be very much welcomed by fitness aficionados, as the Apple Watch has never been the best at reading your pulse when it’s being bashed about during exercise.

WatchOS 5 is also added in, which means more automatic exercise tracking – but that’s something coming to the whole range of Apple Watch devices in the near future.

Battery

The battery life of the Apple Watch 4 is improved once more, thanks to the presence of the new S4 chipset inside creating more efficiency, and (presumably) to Apple finding a way to cram a little more battery into the space by further shrinking other components.

Apple now claims that its Watch 4 battery life is staying strong at 18 hours for ‘all-day’ use, although that’s a bit of a disappointment, and keeps it behind the levels claimed by others like Samsung or more dedicated running devices.

However, for some reason Apple seems to underplay its battery life – when it first claimed 18 hours on a single charge we found it would last a little longer. Plus you can now go for six hours in GPS mode, which is going to make it appealing to more marathon runners.

However, with a more impressive heart rate monitor and the presence of GPS for tracking on the go, along with connecting to your phone to show notifications, there’s a lot for this watch to do .

The charging setup is the same as before: you’ve got the wireless, but magnetically-connected, charger that clips onto the back of the Watch 4 – this is a pretty strong link despite using magnets, so you’ll rarely knock the watch off it during the night.

Early verdict

The Apple Watch does bring some upgrades, and the biggest and most important is to that display. Finding a way to put more information on the display is a big enhancement here, and will entice more users by bringing more information to their wrist.

It’s good that Apple has managed to retain the same form factor while making the screen bigger, and the mix of the fitness and more health-related features will broaden the attraction of owning an Apple Watch.

The lack of dedicated apps remains an issue – brands aren’t exactly rushing to put their wares on the Watch, and some older apps are being discontinued – but as a standalone device Apple has definitely improved its wristwear in 2018.


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