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Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE review: missed connections

You should still call me on my cellphone

Writer’s note: Since the initial launch of this watch, a software update has been issued to fix the connectivity issues, the music streaming feature has been rolled out, and we’ve also had a chance to review the non-LTE version of the watch. Overall this has significantly improved our experience with the Apple Watch Series 3; however, the original review remains unchanged below.

How much are you willing to pay for a gadget that offers intermittent convenience? How much are you willing to pay for what feels like a little bit of insurance, just in case you need cellular connectivity and your phone isn’t nearby or charged?

Those are the questions you need to ask yourself when you consider buying the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE. The biggest difference between the Apple Watch Series 3 and older Apple Watches is that this model comes with the option of a built-in cellular modem. That means that even if your phone isn’t nearby, and even if your Watch isn’t connected to a known Wi-Fi network, you should still be able to make and receive calls and messages on the Watch.

It’s the promise of an “untethered” experience, one that other smartwatch makers have attempted before. No one will argue the fact that sometimes our smartphones can be as much of a burden as they are incredibly useful and beneficial. A smartwatch with LTE will, in theory, let you go for a run, buy a coffee, splash in the ocean, or simply step away from the phone and still be connected. A smartwatch with LTE will, in theory, let you call a ride home when your smartphone dies before your watch does.

In theory. In reality, my Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE failed at the LTE part.

The Apple Watch Series 3 starts shipping this Friday, September 22nd. The version with LTE costs $399. The Series 3 without LTE, which still has GPS, waterproofing, and the same improved processor, starts at $329. The Apple Watch Series 2 is going away, but the basic Apple Watch Series 1 — no GPS, no waterproofing mechanism — is still around, and starts at $249.

If you’re intrigued by the Watch with LTE, you’re also going to have to factor in a monthly cellular cost. You don’t need a separate plan or phone number for the Watch, but you will need to pay a separate fee. All four of the big wireless carriers in the US — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — will offer Apple Watch plans, and they’re all $10 per month on top of your phone service plan. In most cases, you’ll get the first few months free. (Sprint’s is technically $15 per month, but you get $5 off if you enroll in auto-pay.)

There’s some fine print worth examining, too. For example, Sprint’s plan includes unlimited data, but other carriers will base your Apple Watch data usage on the smartphone plan you already have. So if you’re an AT&T Unlimited Plus or AT&T Unlimited Choice customer, your Apple Watch Series 3 data will also be unlimited, but if you’re on an AT&T Mobile Share Advantage plan, the data from the Watch will count against your monthly bucket.

There are some activation fees involved, like the $30 activation fee through Verizon, but in most cases it’s waived. Also, the Apple Watch Series 3 doesn’t work with prepaid wireless plans. It doesn’t work from country to country. You can’t use something like Project Fi, Google’s own wireless service, as your cell service on the Watch.

In general, it’s safe to assume that having cell service on your Apple Watch isn’t totally unlike having cell service on your iPad, provided your iPad is using the same number as your phone. But since the SIM card is built into the Watch, you can’t swap it out for a different one.

From the outside, you wouldn’t really know this is a new Apple Watch. It looks just like the Series 2 model, and the Series 1 before that. It’s a square, metal watch with a lovely OLED display that slopes gently into the watch casing. The Series 3 is a tiny bit thicker on the underside than the Series 2 watch, and there are different color options for certain metals (as well as new bands). But otherwise, the design is the same.

With one exception: the red dot. The crown on the side of the Series 3 LTE smartwatch has a red dot on it. Apple has said this is to differentiate the Series 3 LTE Watch from other models that don’t have cellular capabilities.

It’s a befuddling design choice, because once you, as the customer, have gone through the process of buying a $399 smartwatch and paying a monthly fee, I don’t think you’ll need another reminder of what you’re paying for. (Oh yeah! My smartwatch has LTE!) The red dot, then, is supposed to communicate to the outside world that you have an LTE-equipped Watch. But again, I don’t see a whole lot of value in that. Maybe having a Watch with a red dot helps during the retail or resale process, to prove that it’s the LTE model. Otherwise it just seems unnecessary.

More important are the guts of the Watch. The Series 3 Watch (both with LTE and without) has a faster processor, one that enables the Watch to perform 70 percent faster at common tasks. Based on my own experience, switching between apps, opening up calendar appointments, and saving workouts felt faster. You might remember that the very first Apple Watch was painfully slow, especially when it came to launching or running third-party apps. The Series 3 Watch switches between tasks faster than the White House switches communications directors.

In an engineering workaround that follows last year’s quirky water-expulsion method, the antenna of the Series 3 Watch is built directly into the display, something that Apple declined to share more technical details on. Other smartwatch makers have put the LTE antennae in the watch’s strap, but that makes it impossible to change straps; whereas the Apple Watch has swappable straps. In addition, the Apple Watch Series 3 has an altimeter, for elevation tracking. And there’s the option for the electronic SIM card, which is what enables LTE.

The Watch’s connectivity issues made sending messages difficult.
Using Siri was also impossible when the Watch wouldn’t connect to the network.

Where do I start with the connectivity issues with this Watch?

It became apparent after my first full day using the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE that something wasn’t right. My review Watch was paired with an iPhone 8 and was on an AT&T wireless plan. In one of my initial tests, I went for a walk with the phone on airplane mode, and tried to send text messages and use Siri to initiate phone calls through the Watch. Those didn’t work. I tried asking Siri basic questions. That didn’t work. Siri also wasn’t “talking back” to me, something that’s supposed to be a new feature on the Series 3 Watch.

Phone calls did sometimes work from the Watch, but I had to manually tap through my contacts or recent calls list on the Watch and initiate the call that way. (Calls through Bluetooth headphones sound good, but the Watch’s built-in audio isn’t ideal for extended conversations.) By 11:42 that morning, after 60 minutes of working out with LTE, multiple attempts to use Siri, and two seven-minute phone calls, the Watch’s battery had drained to 27 percent.

Apple Watch LTE connectivity (simulated screen, times and battery life don’t match actual experience)

So Apple replaced my original review unit with a second Series 3 Watch, also connected to AT&T’s wireless network. Siri was now audibly responding, which the company later said was attributable to the fact that the first batch of preproduction units hadn’t been set up properly with Siri.

But that doesn’t mean the LTE connectivity issues went away. On more than one occasion, I detached myself from the phone, traveled blocks away from my home or office, and watched the Watch struggle to connect to LTE. It would appear to pick up a single bar of some random Wi-Fi signal, and hang on that, rather than switching to LTE.

I actually went surfing, in the ocean, wearing the Apple Watch, hoping to replicate the glorious ad that Apple put out of a woman surfing and receiving a phone call on her Apple Watch. (Is this glorious? Real surfers would disagree. And I looked like a serious kook shouting “Hey Siri!” at my wrist in the ocean.) I wasn’t very far from shore, but the Watch vacillated between one bar of service and being disconnected entirely. I did manage to make one phone call from a surfboard. That was kind of wild.

The way the LTE version of the Watch is supposed to work is that it will “hand off” from your smartphone’s connectivity to whatever other type of connectivity is available. In some cases, like when you’re in a place with a Wi-Fi network you’ve connected to before, this will be Wi-Fi. In other cases, like when you’re out without your phone, and you’re nowhere near a known Wi-Fi network, this will be LTE.

It’s reasonable to expect it might take a minute for the Apple Watch to “find” LTE after you’ve walked away from your phone. It’s not reasonable for this to take many minutes or not work at all. This almost makes me wish there was a way to actively turn off Wi-Fi on the Watch, so it would just default to LTE. But that’s also another step that I, the wearer, the person-who-is-not-wearing-it-wrong, would have to take.

The day before publication of this review, Apple sent a statement about this, saying that the company discovered “that when Apple Watch Series 3 joins unauthenticated Wi-Fi networks without connectivity, it may at times prevent the watch from using cellular. We are investigating a fix for a future software release.”

But we don’t know when that software update is coming. And the company still hasn’t explained why streaming Apple Music from the Watch, something that would be one of the biggest value adds of LTE on a smartwatch, won’t roll out until next month.

Update, October 9, 2017: On October 4th, two weeks after this review published, Apple released an update to the watchOS 4 issue that included a fix for the WiFi-to-LTE connectivity issues. After five days of retesting the same Series 3 loaner watch with the new software, I’ve determined that the Watch works much better than it did before. I’ve made five different phone calls through the watch without the iPhone anywhere close to the watch, and all phone calls went through successfully. These calls were made both in the city of San Francisco, in exact spots where I’d had trouble before, and in the suburbs. I also sent and received text messages through the watch, including an Amber alert that went out to cell phones this weekend.

It’s not a completely seamless experience, though. On a couple of occasions I saw a red “X” and “Disconnected” before the watch connected to LTE and placed a call, which I’m told is the way it’s supposed to work. Siri, on occasion, still took several seconds to respond to commands. So while the Series 3 Watch now works for me as promised, I still think it offers an intermittent convenience.

Photo by Lauren Goode / The Verge

Not surprisingly, using LTE impacted battery life on the Series 3, although the second review unit showed battery life that was much more in line with what I expected. We spent a whole morning shooting video last week, with the Watch operating independently of the phone — about three hours of intermittent LTE usage. By noon, the Watch had drained to 30 percent. So I had to charge it later that afternoon, but that was still better than the experience I had with the first unit.

Over the weekend, I had my iPhone with me most of the time, and the Watch lasted from Saturday morning through early Sunday afternoon. So without the strain of LTE, the Series 3 Watch clearly matches the battery life of the Series 2 model. On Monday, as I wrote this, I’ve attempted to use LTE on the Series 3 Watch a handful of times, but have mostly been in range of the phone. It’s 6PM, and the Watch still has 59 percent battery life left.

It’s worth noting, though, that Apple’s aggressive estimates for Series 3 battery life are based on 30-minute workouts while connected to LTE. So long-distance runners or hikers may find themselves sorely disappointed by the battery life if you go out for a multi-hour workout while the Watch is connected to both GPS and LTE. In fact, you’d probably want to go into the Watch’s settings and turn off cellular data until you need it, which in some ways defeats the purpose of having an LTE-connected watch.

There is one new aspect of the Apple Watch that’s worth two thumbs up, and that’s the new watchOS 4 software. Luckily, this is something that will roll out to all Apple Watches, not just Series 3 Watches. If there’s one thing that can be said about the Apple Watch, it’s that Apple has consistently upgraded its software each year to make this tiny touchscreen a lot easier to use. And this year is no exception.

Some of these updates are cosmetic. For example, there are new watchfaces, including a Toy Story watchface and a kaleidoscope one. Others are more functional: one of the new watchfaces prioritizes Siri. It shows a tiny Siri button, and below it, things like calendar appointments, weather and stock updates, and wallet notifications appear throughout the day.

The Watch’s app dock has been redesigned again. Now when you press the flat button on the side of the smartwatch, shortcuts to apps appear in a vertical format, which means you scroll up and down through them rather than swiping from right to left. I actually liked the side-to-side layout more, but I’m getting used to the vertical one. And, this is a small thing, but the keypad on the Watch’s lock screen now features bigger, bolder keys, which might just be my favorite feature of the software redesign.

Not surprisingly, the biggest updates to the Watch’s software have to do with health and fitness tracking, since that’s one of the big draws for people who buy and wear an Apple Watch.

Apple watch heart rate monitor (simulated screen)

I spent less of my time testing the workout features of this year’s Apple Watch than I have in years past, simply because I had to troubleshoot so many other issues. But I was able to hike, spin, swim, surf, and test out a couple other activities on the Series 3 Watch, which, like last year’s model, has GPS. I liked the daily and weekly notifications that the Watch now sends. These are supposed to encourage you to get moving each day, to match your activity from the day before, or to let you know that you beat your daily “Move” goal three times the week before.

Within the list of workout options, there’s now a high-intensity workout option, as well as a multi-sport feature that lets you stop one workout and start another without having to go through the “save” process first. And the swim modes now track what kind of stroke you’re using when you swim laps, though it doesn’t appear until after you’ve completed the workout.

Speaking of saving a workout: when you finish a workout on the Watch now, there’s only one option, Done. The Apple Watch used to offer two options, Save and Discard. I suspect some people were accidentally discarding workouts when they were finished, instead of saving them. This is a much simpler way to do it.

But the watchOS 4 updates to heart rate tracking are really the most noteworthy. Any Apple Watch with heart rate sensors will now record your resting heart rate, your average walking heart rate, your recovery heart rate, and, if you opt in, any spikes in heart rate that occur when the Watch thinks you’re not working out.

The idea behind this is that any irregularities in heart rate could indicate a bigger problem, though Apple has been careful to not say it is diagnosing anything with Apple Watch. The company has also said it’s working with Stanford University and telemedicine company American Well to run studies and determine if it can accurately detect cardiac arrhythmias. This is all part of a larger effort in the wearables space to provide more value through software and data processing, since the hardware can only be and do so much. Apple is not the only company attempting this, with companies like Fitbit also exploring more medical use cases.

Again, all of these workout and heart rate features are being pushed out with watchOS 4, and are not specific to the Apple Watch Series 3. Update: Apple confirmed that these new heart rate features will only work on Apple Watch Series 1, 2, and 3 — not the original Apple Watch.

An Apple Watch with built-in cellular capabilities, should, in theory, prompt existential questions about what a smartwatch can be. Is it no longer just an accessory to the iPhone? Is it still an accessory to the phone, but a much more independent gadget? Is a cellular modem on the wrist something that could eventually replace the cell service we have on the phone? Does any of that even make sense considering that you still have to have an iPhone to set up an Apple Watch?

But in order for that philosophizing to occur, something else has to happen first: the thing has to work. Apple promises magic over and over again with its products, and in this case, that magic is supposed to happen when you step outside without your phone and can rest easy knowing that important calls and messages will still go through.

You can’t rest easy with the Apple Watch 3 yet, because that seamlessness, that so-called magic, isn’t there. The stutters during the handoff from Bluetooth to Wi-Fi to LTE shouldn’t happen. The music streaming? It isn’t there yet. A built-in podcast streaming option? Also not there. A reliable Siri? Nope, not in my experience.

Given that Apple is also selling a version of the Apple Watch Series 3 without LTE, it makes me wonder why the company didn’t just announce the Series 3, with its faster processor and outspoken Siri, on its own, with an LTE version “to come” later, along with music streaming. Considering that my Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE (both first and second review units) didn’t function like it was supposed to, I can’t recommend buying it — and paying the monthly cell fee — based on promises. I know I’m not.

Writer’s note: As mentioned earlier in the review, the Apple Watch Series 3 also comes without LTE, and we have not yet had the opportunity to review a non-LTE version of the new Watch. We may update this review to include more information about a non-LTE model once we use it. It’s worth noting that during the two days of testing when the Series 3 LTE Watch was mostly connected to an iPhone, it performed like we’d expect an Apple Watch to perform.


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