Pros: Series 3’s cellular capabilities untether the Apple Watch from the iPhone in a significant way. The addition of a barometric altimeter fills in the workout tracking gap from last year’s Series 2. New processor offers a 70 percent performance boost over Series 2 and enables Siri to offer voice responses. New W2 chip increases Wi-Fi performance by 85 percent while cutting power consumption in half and resolving former issues with some Bluetooth headphones. Cellular plan can be activated directly from iPhone in seconds without even requiring a call to your carrier in most cases. Provides almost two-day battery life when kept in range of iPhone.
Cons: Cellular data is only available on a limited number of carriers at launch, and will add $5 – $10 to your monthly phone bill. Significantly shorter battery life when used away from iPhone in cellular-only mode. Non-cellular Series 3 not available in stainless steel version. Many third-party apps don’t yet provide untethered internet connectivity. Despite cellular capabilities, Apple Watch still remains an extension of your iPhone rather than a standalone device.
Last year’s release of the Apple Watch Series 2 gave Apple’s wearable device a renewed focus, shifting it more directly toward health and fitness with features like a built-in GPS for workout tracking and swim-proofing. At the same time, Apple also gave it a significant performance boost with a new dual-core CPU, which the company also brought to the original first-generation Apple Watch, re-releasing the original model as the “Series 1.”
Now, Apple’s third iteration of its wearable device brings a feature that many have been expecting since the Apple Watch was first announced three years ago — untethered cellular connectivity that allows your Apple Watch to be at least somewhat useful even when you leave your iPhone behind. Add to that a barometric altimeter and for most users the Apple Watch Series 3 can now be the only device you need to have with you when working out.
Despite cramming in cellular capabilities, Apple has managed to fit everything in the Series 3 into a case the same size as the Series 2, adding only 0.25mm to the back crystal extension. For all intents and purposes, the Apple Watch Series 3 looks identical to prior generations, but it’s ultimately what’s under the hood that makes all of the difference here. In the following pages, we’ll discuss what’s new in the Apple Watch Series 3, and what factors might make it a worthwhile purchase for some, while others may still find the Series 1 — which remains available — to be a more cost-effective choice.
Models & Pricing
As usual, the Apple Watch is available in a plethora of case, color, and band options, in each of the usual 38mm and 42mm sizes. For the first time as well, Apple is actually selling two hardware variations of an Apple Watch: The Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) and Series 3 (GPS), the latter of which provides all of the Series 3 hardware improvements with the exception of the cellular connectivity for $70 less than the (GPS + Cellular) version. GPS + Cellular models are distinguished by a red dot on the Digital Crown.
While the Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) is available in pretty much the same range of variations as last year’s Series 2 — aluminum (from $399), stainless steel (from $599), Nike+ (from $399), Hermés (from $1,149), and the all-ceramic Edition (from $1,299) — those interested in the non-cellular version are limited to the aluminum casing (from $329).
Although it can be argued that those willing to purchase the higher-end models will be more likely to want the cellular capabilities, the limited options will be particularly frustrating for those in countries where the Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) model is not yet available due to a lack of carrier support — users in those countries will be limited to a choice of only six Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS) models.
Another subtle difference to note is that while all of the GPS + Cellular models include a ceramic back, the non-cellular models use the same composite back found in the Series 1, making them slight downgrades from last year’s Series 2 in terms of the materials used. For the GPS + Cellular version, however, the materials remain the same as last year’s Series 2, with the aluminum models still featuring Ion-X glass on the front, while the stainless steel, Hermés and Edition get the sapphire glass treatment.
Apple Watch Unchained: Activating Cellular Data
The marquee feature in this year’s Apple Watch is the ability to connect to the cellular network directly from the watch, without needing to have your iPhone anywhere nearby. The Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) packs an integrated eSIM that — provided your carrier supports it — allows it to be easily provisioned from your iPhone and share your main phone number so you won’t actually need to set up a separate cellular plan.
Of course, most carriers are still charging an extra cost to associate your Apple Watch with your iPhone plan. All four U.S. carriers are charging an extra $10/month to activate the new Apple Watch, while ironically in Canada and the U.K., where only one carrier in each country is currently supporting the new Apple Watch, prices are actually lower, with Bell Mobility in Canada charging $5 CAD per month (~$4 USD) and EE in the U.K. is charging £5 per month (~$6.50 USD).
The good news, however is that Apple and the carriers have managed to make the process of setting up the Apple Watch to be about the simplest we’ve ever seen. When setting up a brand new cellular-enabled Apple Watch out of the box, you’ll be prompted to activate it on your cellular plan as part of the set up routine, which will take you to a short series of carrier-specific pages taking you through the process of signing into your carrier account, acknowledging the fees, and confirming you want to activate it. On Bell Mobility in Canada, the entire process took us about 30 seconds to have the Apple Watch up and running. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on what carrier you’re on, and at least some carriers will also require that your iPhone already be on a compatible plan before you can activate your Apple Watch.
Once cellular service is activated on the Apple Watch, it works transparently in the background, remaining dormant until you actually need it. The Apple Watch continues to connect via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi when in range of your iPhone or a known Wi-Fi network, only switching over to cellular data when those other options aren’t available.
A new option also appears at the top left of the Control Center on the cellular-capable Apple Watch to provide quick access to turn cellular data on or off and help to show the status of your cellular connection — the button will appear white when cellular data is enabled but not in use and will turn green when your iPhone is actively connected to the cellular network. A status icon in the top left corner also shows your connectivity status, with an iPhone icon indicating that you’re communicating with your paired iPhone over Bluetooth, a Wi-Fi icon if you’re disconnected from your iPhone but on a known Wi-Fi network, and four dots showing your cellular signal strength when you’re connected to a cellular network.
The iPhone Watch app also now includes a “Cellular” section that appears when using a cellular-capable Apple Watch, providing options to check your data usage, manage your carrier account, or even remove your carrier plan from your watch. While you can see your data usage on an app-by-app basis from here, you can’t actually switch off data usage for individual apps like you can on the iPhone.
Apple Watch Unchained: Using Cellular Data
For the most part, the Apple Watch will figure out by itself which data channel to use. In our testing the switch from Bluetooth or Wi-Fi over to cellular sometimes took up to a minute, however the switch back from cellular to a paired iPhone connection was surprisingly fast. Our guess is that Apple has designed this to err on the side of caution to avoid using cellular data needlessly by delaying the switch to cellular until the Apple Watch is sure your iPhone is out of range.
All of Apple’s native watchOS apps now work as you’d expect over a pure cellular connection, so you can check maps and get directions, send and receive e-mails and text messages, get weather information, access your reminders and calendar, control HomeKit accessories, and when Apple launches watchOS 4.1, stream songs and radio stations directly from Apple Music. Siri will also work from the Apple Watch on a cellular connection, so you can set reminders, send e-mails, and even control HomeKit accessories with your voice. Notifications that come through on your iPhone also appear to be forwarded to the Apple Watch over a cellular connection using iCloud, meaning that you’ll still receive all of the usual notifications on your Apple Watch even when out of range of your iPhone.
Another nice bonus is that when the Apple Watch switches over to cellular, it will automatically begin sharing your location from your Apple Watch, rather than your iPhone, so when you’re out for a run without your iPhone, your friends will still be able to track your actual location, rather than just seeing the location of your iPhone sitting at home or in your car. Unfortunately, this doesn’t yet seem to work for HomeKit triggers, which still only operate on the basis of your iPhone’s location, not that of your Apple Watch.
Further, the new Apple Watch also now allows you to place and receive phone calls when away from your iPhone, either directly over the cellular voice network, or using FaceTime Audio. Since the Apple Watch shares the same cellular number as your iPhone, incoming calls will ring on both your iPhone and your Apple Watch, regardless of whether they’re in close proximity to each other, however both devices otherwise work as independent devices on the cellular network, so you can place calls on both devices simultaneously, and if another call comes in while you’re already on a call on your Apple Watch, it will ring through to your iPhone in addition to showing the call waiting notification on the watch itself.
The Messages app can also be used when on a cellular connection to send and receive both iMessages and SMS text messages directly from the Apple Watch. This worked fine in our testing, although it’s worth pointing out that the Apple Watch lacks the Send as SMS feature, so if you send an iMessage to somebody who is out of data coverage or otherwise unable to receive an iMessage, it will end up getting stuck in an undelivered state on your Apple Watch with no way to force it to go out as a text message. Further, the sent iMessage on your iPhone will be flagged as “Delivered” (even though it hasn’t been) and therefore will not fall back to SMS either. We’re hoping Apple fixes this in a future watchOS update, but until then you’ll need to pay closer attention if you have friends who regularly go out of data coverage or switch off cellular data to conserve their data plans.
While Apple’s own built-in apps otherwise work quite well over a direct cellular connection, unfortunately we couldn’t say the same for a lot of third-party apps. Many watchOS apps still expect to connect to their corresponding iOS app, and running most of them when on a cellular connection presented with the standard red icon indicating a disconnected iPhone, while others failed to progress beyond their loading screens. We’re hoping that many of these apps will receive proper native watchOS updates now that a cellular-capable Apple Watch is available.
However, it’s also important to note that the Apple Watch and watchOS 4 don’t provide the same capabilities as an iPhone, so many watchOS 4 apps may still provide limited functionality without an iPhone nearby. For example, while OmniFocus users can view and check off tasks, syncing of OmniFocus still requires the iPhone due to limitations in watchOS. Likewise, Starbucks recently released an Apple Watch app update that allows a user to reload their Starbucks card directly on their Apple Watch, however perhaps due to limitations with Apple Pay, the feature still requires the iPhone to be in proximity.
Battery Life, Performance + Other Enhancements
Although the Apple Watch Series 3 still promises the same 18 hour battery life as its predecessor, we suspect that Apple is now basing its eighteen-hour estimate on a combination of cellular and Bluetooth use. In our testing we actually found that when used exclusively with your iPhone nearby, the new Apple Watch actually handily exceeds those estimates — we’ve been wearing the Apple Watch Series 3 for two weeks now, and on 14–16 hour days we never went to bed with less than 50 percent battery remaining on days that we didn’t use cellular connectivity. Since the Series 3 packs in a nearly identical battery as the Series 2, the improved battery life is clearly the result of improved power efficiency with Apple’s new dual-core SoC and wireless W2 chip.
On the other hand, using cellular data will drain the battery considerably faster, especially if you combine that with working out and listening to music. We consistently lost about 15 percent when we took half-hour walking workouts without our iPhone, as compared to about a 5 percent drop doing the same type of workout with the iPhone in our pocket. The higher power consumption suggests to us at this point that the cellular features should definitely be considered more of a fall back feature than something users should realistically expect to use throughout the day.
The Apple Watch Series 3 also boasts a new dual-core CPU that Apple promises boosts its performance by up to 70 percent. Although we really didn’t consider the Series 2 to be particularly sluggish, it’s still a noticeable increase even over that model; if you’re upgrading from an original Apple Watch or even a Series 1, however, it’s a signifiant boost that will make the Apple Watch feel significantly more usable.
With this new horsepower also comes the ability for Siri to actually talk back from your wrist, in much the same way as the iPhone. This can be especially useful when asking Siri math questions, looking for unit conversions, or even inquiring about the weather. For those who would prefer that Siri remain quiet, however, a new option in the watchOS Settings app lets you choose to turn Siri’s voice off entirely, or tie it into the silent mode button found in the Control Center.
One thing we did note as a pleasant change from last year is that the Apple Watch Series 3 had no issues with any of the Bluetooth headphones we threw at it. We suspect this is probably another advantage of the move to the new Apple-designed W2 chip. It’s also worth mentioning that the non-cellular Apple Watch Series 3 only packs half the storage — 8GB vs 16GB — of its cellular-capable sibling.
While the cellular capabilities of the new Apple Watch Series 3 are a big deal from a technology standpoint, after two years of wearing an Apple Watch we can understand how users may actually find themselves split on the necessity of always-available connectivity. On the one side, we can see many users with more active lifestyles who will appreciate the ability to leave their iPhone behind when working out, playing sports, or hanging out at the beach, without having to worry about missing calls, messages, or other important notifications. On the other hand those who never go anywhere without their iPhone anyway will find the cellular connectivity to be mostly irrelevant, especially in light of the price premium it carries both for the Apple Watch itself and the necessary carrier plan fees.
Of course, if you’re in the former category, the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) is probably exactly the device you’ve been waiting for, and may be well worth the expense, even if you’re upgrading from a Series 2. Even for less active users, however, there’s definitely a nice added freedom to be able to quickly run into a store or work in your back yard without needing to have your iPhone with you at all times, but that may still not be enough to justify spending the money.
For users not interested in the new cellular features, the Apple Watch Series 3 will be a far less compelling upgrade. If you’re a Series 2 owner, the performance boost will be noticeable but not significant, and features like Siri voice responses and a barometric altimeter will appeal to users with specific needs, but aren’t groundbreaking in their own right. On the other hand, even without the cellular features, the Series 3 is a huge leap in performance alone over the Series 1 and first-generation Apple Watch, and of course also includes fully untethered workout tracking with GPS and elevation.
Despite the fact that Apple sells both a cellular and non-cellular version of the Apple Watch Series 3, if you’re planning on buying the new Apple Watch we’d strongly recommend considering the cellular version even if you’re not planning to activate the cellular capabilities. There’s no requirement to activate cellular data on the GPS + Cellular model, but for $70 more you get twice the storage, the ceramic back instead of the composite one, and you have the flexibility to easily add cellular data should you decide that you want to add it later on.
Although it’s still not a completely standalone device, the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) takes a huge step in making the Apple Watch fully usable in its own right, letting you leave your iPhone behind and still stay connected to the world. While there’s room for improvement in areas such as battery life and app capabilities, what Apple has done here is impressive and definitely a game changer for active users. Those who considered but passed on last year’s Series 2 will find a lot to like in this year’s model, and for those who have been on the fence, it’s a great time to take the plunge with the new Apple Watch Series 3.
Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular)
Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS)
Company and Price
Model: Apple Watch Series 3
Price: $329 – $1299