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Commentary Wearable Tech

Apple Watch Series 4's new watch faces, reviewed: Great start, but more, please

Commentary: Some stand out, but others aren't as different as you might expect.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I love lots of information on my wrist. I love good, clean, interesting designs. Those two things don't always work well together. The Apple Watch Series 4, however, sometimes nails it really well, and it's a clear step up over the Apple Watch Series 3. But it's not always as big a leap as I expected.

The Apple Watch S4 has been on my wrist for about a day so far. Much as has been the case with other smartwatches, I'm obsessed with the watch faces. You will be, too. Watch faces are what you'll stare at 90 percent of the time. It's the whole reason to wear a smartwatch.

Read: Apple Watch Series 4 review in progress

The S4 has a bigger display that looks wonderful, and Apple has offered up some exclusive watch faces that make the most of its real estate. The rest of Apple's watch faces are there, too, and some have also gained advantages in design. Not all of them, though.

I started reviewing the watch faces as a Twitter thread. Here are my thoughts so far.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple Watch Series 4: A guided tour
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Lots of beautiful looks, but similar themes

Apple doesn't have a watch face store, so you can't download third-party watch faces. Apple's offerings are all you can pick from. Admittedly, there are a lot, now: 25, and most can be customized in several ways, offering up a lot of flexibility.

But: I already notice that several watch faces follow a common theme. Some are "full screen" animation-type faces, like the new Liquid Metal, Fire and Water, Vapor, Kaleidoscope, or Motion (which shows butterflies, jellyfish or flowers, an original Apple Watch face). Kaleidoscope, Fire and Water, Liquid Metal and Vapor only show a circular graphic on older Apple Watches (S3 and before), but go full-screen on S4.

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The Liquid Metal watch face on the new Series 4, 40 and 44mm (left and right), versus the Series 3 (center).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Also, many watch faces still just show either a plain analog set of watch hands, or a medium-sized basic digital watch display. There isn't much choice of watch hands or digital clock readout design or layout.

Two new watch faces to show more information

Complications, those bits of information that float on Apple Watch faces and double as shortcuts for apps, take a leap forward in two faces: Infograph and Infograph Modular. They're easily the most interesting faces. They present complications with added graphic detail -- maybe a daily temperature range or a graph of the wearer's heart rate. Not all apps and complications use the added space well, so far. Also, some watch faces now curve text information around the round watch readouts, which is cool-looking. Most watch faces don't have more than three or four complications allowed on a face. Infograph Modular allows six complications. Infograph, the most eye-catching, allows a whopping eight. At first, I loved it.

The problem, though, is that sometimes it feels like too much. I thought I'd love Infograph. Aesthetically, I do. But at a glance, it's too much. The modular face is better, and digital, but feels like a busy widget dashboard.

New watch faces: I was hoping for even more 

I really love unique watch face designs. Apple's very first watch had some really bold ones: Astronomy, with its solar system and Earth views, or the Solar face with its sunrise/sunset cycles. There aren't any singular new "idea" faces this time, which is surprising. It seems like, with the larger display and faster, more powerful processor, the Series 4 could be doing a lot more.

For instance, where are the new fitness watch faces? I use "Activity Digital" as my go-to: it's easy to use, shows daily stats, and has some shortcuts for music, date and weather. But the S4 version is basically the same as earlier versions. Some sort of revamped fitness watch face seems like a total missed opportunity, especially with Apple's new emphasis on heart rate.

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Mickey looks a lot better and fuller on 44mm S4 (right) vs. 42mm S3 (left)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Most watch faces simply benefit by being bigger now. Round analog watch readouts fill more of the display and look less like a circle-in-a-square. I love the way it looks compared to last year's S3.

But keep in mind, none of these watch faces are always on. Just as before, you still have to raise your wrist to look at any of these watch faces. 

I just kinda wish a little more had been done... or that I could download third-party watch faces, too. The Series 4 clearly pushes the possibilities forward in a big way. Now it's time for watch faces to take an even further step forward -- or allow others to design great watch face designs for it, too.

We'll be continuing to review the Apple Watch Series 4; more to come as we wear it.

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