If you followed The Verge’s earlier coverage of Apple Watch Series 3 LTE, then you know that I encountered a connectivity bug during my initial tests of the watch (one that was later fixed in a software update), and that the watch launched without its promised music streaming feature.
Music streaming from a wrist watch is, both in concept and in practice, a big thing. Almost every wrist wearable we’ve tried and tested that offers “music” is really doing one of two things: it’s playing music that was locally stored or cached on the watch in advance, or it’s offering wrist-based controls for music that’s actually playing on your phone. What Apple promised with the LTE-equipped Series 3 watch was true, phone-free streaming from the wrist, directly into your Bluetooth headphones.
I finally had the chance to use this over the past couple weeks. I slapped on the same Apple Watch Series 3 I tested back in September, and re-subscribed to Apple Music ($10 per month). Turns out it’s a great little feature to have.
Streaming music does drain the watch’s battery life — a lot — which isn’t a surprise, but still something to be aware of. And the only way to search for brand-new stuff from the watch is to use your voice, which can be awkward. But again, this is the first time I’ve put on a smartwatch and been able to request almost any music on demand from the watch itself, no phone required.
There are two separate apps for music listening on the watch: the Music app, and a Radio app. On other Apple devices, Radio is a tab within Apple Music; here it’s its own app. The Music app is where you find your pre-synced playlists (just like you would on non-LTE Apple Watches), and where, if you’re paying $10 per month, you can pull up any other music. The Radio app is free to use, and it’s where you listen to Beats 1, Apple’s free radio station, or three non-Apple streaming radio stations: ESPN, CBS, and NPR.
Having two separate Apple-made music apps on the watch seems nonsensical until you start using them. Even after that, it’s still a little confusing. To the best of my knowledge, the apps are split up on the watch simply because there are too many features and tabs to cram into one smartwatch app.
When you use your voice to search for an artist or a genre — like when I would say, “Hey Siri, play Prince” or “Hey Siri, play workout music” into the watch — music will start streaming from the Radio app. When you request a specific song, like “Hey Siri, play Going Deaf,” it will play from the Music app. You might not even notice unless you’re staring at the watch’s face, but there is a handoff that happens between the two apps.
If part of your New Year’s resolution is to stare at your phone a little less (hey, we just made a video about that!), then the ability to go for a walk or run without your phone and still stream music might feel like it’s magically aligned with your goals. Could you listen to music, sans phone, before smartwatches? Yeah of course. Tiny iPods were popular for a good reason. But you couldn’t look at your iPod and shout “HEY IPOD PLAY GEORGE MICHAEL” because you suddenly felt like playing something that wasn’t stored on your iPod. With the LTE Apple Watch you can.
That doesn’t mean music requests start playing immediately every time. There is an occasional delay or pause while the watch figures out what to do. And you have to have your Bluetooth headphones connected, otherwise you’ll get a message on the watch face that indicates there’s no device capable of playback connected to the Watch.
Battery life suffers from music streaming, too. But it varies. One morning I went for a 50-minute walk without my phone. I tapped to pull up music playlist on the watch, made one voice request about halfway through the walk, and watched battery life drop from 92 percent to 76 percent throughout the duration of the walk. But other times, when I made multiple music queries on the watch and switched between songs and genres, battery life would drop as much as 25 percent in 20 minutes. Generally speaking, if I used the watch in any meaningful way throughout the day for music streaming, I would almost certainly have to plan on charging it before the evening.
Really the only thing I missed acutely during these phone-free walks was access to podcasts on demand. For whatever reason, Apple hasn’t created an Apple Watch version of its Podcasts app. So you can’t just say to the LTE-connected watch, “Hey Siri, play the latest episode of The Vergecast” and have it play. In the past you could use a third-party app like Overcast, and pre-sync your podcasts to the watch before you head out, but that appears to no longer work on the latest version of the watch’s software.
And of course, there is that caveat that the only streaming music service you can play from the watch right now is Apple’s. So yes: this is one of those things where if you have an Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE, and you have an iPhone to pair it with, and you pay $10 per month for Apple Music, and maybe you also have AirPods that connect to the smartwatch super quickly, then this is going to feel like a value add. If, if, if you’re locked inside the Apple universe.
But hey: Apple has done true music streaming directly from a smartwatch. That alone is worth something.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that you could use a third-party podcast app like Overcast to send your podcasts to Apple Watch. As our readers pointed out, and as the app developer himself said, limitations in the new watch software have eliminated the option for podcast playback.