Apple Watch Series 3 review: Still the best smartwatch, but the Fitbit Versa is a close second
Editors' note, Sept. 12, 2018: The Apple Watch Series 3 reviewed here is now available for a reduced price of $279. The Apple Watch Series 1 has been discontinued. Apple also announced the Apple Watch Series 4, which will start at $399 for the Series 4 model, $499 for the LTE model. Pre-orders for the Watch Series 4 will start on Sept. 14, and the watches will be available on Sept. 21.
Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 3 in September 2017 in a realized hope that the third time's the charm. With improved fitness tracking and music syncing, plus the ability to connect to a cell network instead of relying on your phone, the Apple Watch is still the best smartwatch out there.
Instead of duking it out with a smartphone manufacturer, Apple's main source of competition is the much more affordable Fitbit Versa. Fitbit finally caught up on the design front and the Versa has better battery life, but it lacks the communication features of the Apple Watch. While the Versa has only been available since April 2018 and won't get a refresh for a while, you can likely expect an updated Apple Watch as early as this September. We'll see a Watch OS5 release fairly soon as well.
Check out CNET's best wearables for more information on competitive products.
Our review of the Apple Watch Series 3 -- originally published on September 20, 2017 and which otherwise is mostly unchanged -- can be read below.
I spend a lot of time with a phone in my face.
That's why I was attracted to the original Apple Watch. It sold the fantasy of a watch-as-phone: An iPhone Micro on my wrist. One less gadget.
But because the Apple Watch had to be paired to my iPhone to do anything constructive, the phone never went away. I just ended up alternating between staring at two different screens.
That's changed now, kind of, with the Apple Watch Series 3 . It adds built-in support for cellular connectivity. The full Dick Tracy communicator, much like Samsung, LG and others have already tried.
I've been testing the Apple Watch Series 3 for a week, using it as my phone, fitness tracker, Apple Pay wallet and iPod. And, yes, I've even been making phone calls with it. It lets you stay connected in those few places where even phone addicts may skip the phone: Going for a walk around the block. At the gym. At the pool or the beach. In the bedroom, while you're trying to fall asleep.
The irony of having a watch that's a phone means you're more tethered, not less. But you're more limited, too. For better or worse, this isn't a full micro-iPhone. There's no camera. It's not easy to respond to emails and messages. I can't really tweet, read stories or watch videos. And you still need an iPhone to set it up and get the most out of it.
Other caveats abound. Battery life limitations severely curtail phone calls and GPS-aided workouts. There's still more Apple needs to do to maximize fitness tracking and streamline the software. And you'll be paying monthly subscription fees (for wireless service and for Apple Music) to get the most out of it.
All that said, the Apple Watch Series 3 is the best phone watch I've tried. Setup is easy, and toggling from cellular to Bluetooth and back again is mostly seamless.
But I still find myself reaching for the iPhone.
Editor's note: See the "Connection quirks" section below for information on a Wi-Fi issue on the cellular Series 3 models. More testing is still to come. Ratings are provisional until those tests are completed.
Cellular, and how it works
The big upgrade on the Apple Watch Series 3 is that it adds always-connected cellular functionality. It works works on all major cellular carriers -- in the US, at least -- which is nice.
Cellular supports data and voice -- where there's the proper coverage, of course -- and the Watch uses the same number as your iPhone. The catch, of course, is that it costs money: $10 per month in the US, above and beyond your existing wireless fee. And despite the fact that the Watch is designed to free you up from your phone, you'll still need your iPhone to set it up and to install apps. And no, it doesn't work with Android phones.
The Apple Watch communicates to the outside world in three steps. It looks for your iPhone first, pairing via a Bluetooth connection if it's nearby. If not, it tries Wi-Fi (new networks can't be added on the Apple Watch directly, but it syncs and knows networks that your iPhone does). If neither of those options are available -- say, if you're out hiking -- the Watch then enables LTE cellular, which is otherwise switched off to conserve power.
That auto-switching between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular is managed by Apple 's new W2 wireless chip. It saves some battery life, but it takes getting used to. In my tests, a red "X" appeared sometimes on top of the watch screen to suggest disconnecting from Wi-Fi, but vanished once LTE had kicked in. A new Apple Watch watch face, Explorer, shows signal strength as from one to four green dots. Otherwise, signal strength pops up in the swipe-up control center where Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and other quick settings live.
I could check things on Apple's apps, but third-party apps wouldn't always work. And also, to get notifications from third-party apps in the cloud, your iPhone needs to be powered up somewhere so the Watch can communicate with it via the cloud. So, yeah: even if you're out running without your iPhone, it still needs to be powered up and online somewhere. Weird, but true.
Apps can't be installed directly from the watch, either, unlike on Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches. But I could easily check my email, even on my work account (which automatically imported settings from my iPhone during setup).
Calls can be dialed directly on-watch with a keypad, or made via tapping existing contacts. Writing messages is still limited to scribbling letters, tapping emoji, or dictation. Siri talks now, too -- she's no longer limited to on-screen text responses. That said, Siri isn't a great conversationalist, and often asked me to "check my iPhone." Again, that's not a great experience if the phone is five miles away.
Some reviews have noted that the LTE version of the Series 3 has problems connecting to LTE when open Wi-Fi networks are nearby, a bug that Apple has admitted to. Apple confirmed these issues to CNET, too. It's unclear exactly when the problem will be fixed via software update, but I was told it would be soon. (In the meantime, to disconnect from a problem Wi-Fi network, you need to forget the network using your phone.)
I didn't experience those specific issues, but I did have weird experiences with notifications. iMessages sometimes popped in all at once or not at all. And third-party notifications, like Twitter, require your phone to be on and connected to a network somewhere, even if it's not nearby. If it's not, you won't get those pings on the watch. Also, many third-party apps don't currently support LTE connection yet. We'll keep testing this. AirPod connectivity sometimes didn't automatically work, either.
It's unclear how many of these will be smoothed over in software updates. Phone functions were generally fine, and so was email. Messages and notifications came in fits and spurts.
Music: iPod on your wrist, at last
Apple Watches could always store music, but they were bad at it: syncing music from a cloud-based Apple Music account was always a time-consuming ordeal. Most other smartwatches are the same. WatchOS 4 now syncs music more automatically, and it's a huge difference. The first time I used the watch, after an overnight charge I found a few playlists and albums waiting for me when I went walking. Others can be added and synced when the watch is charging.
But music is effectively an Apple Music-only proposition. Your iTunes library is always available to you, but for the more sophisticated playlist management -- and real-time music streaming, which isn't coming for a few more weeks -- you need an Apple Music subscription. Spotify, Pandora and Google Play Music subscribers need not apply. Nor, oddly, can podcasts be downloaded to the Watch.
Wireless headphones are also required. AirPods are a perfect fit for the cellular watch, so much so that they feel like an essential accessory. For the most part, they pair instantly. Sometimes, however, I needed to swipe up and select them from the watch control center.
Caveats notwithstanding, the Apple Watch finally feels like that iPod Shuffle on my wrist that I used to wear years ago.
Fitness making more strides, particularly with heart
Most people use Apple Watch as a fitness tracker. The on-watch extra sensor this time is a barometric altimeter, which lists stair-climbing stats like a Fitbit. And the Series 3 still includes the big fitness improvements from 2016: GPS and "swimproofing" -- it's waterproof to 50 meters, even in seawater.
Out of the box, the Apple Watch Series 3 runs WatchOS 4, the software update that's now available to all previous Watch owners. The new operating system amps up coaching a bit, if you let it. I'd see a ping that I could try for more activity today. Or at the end of one day, I was encouraged to take a 20 minute walk to close my red ring. I like coaching in wearables. The Apple Watch is doing it slowly, but now more on-watch than Fitbit, which relies more on a companion smartphone app.
Heart rate, previously a ping-as-needed tool, now lists more graphs for all-day averages in resting heart rate and walking heart rate. I found these really useful, and nice baselines. Other graphs and averages for workouts are listed, too. It's more like what Samsung's Gear watches offered in terms of fitness info on-watch.
But for steps and exercise sessions, daily graphs still aren't listed as clearly. Heart-rate recovery times are calculated over three minutes after workouts, but Apple Watch doesn't help me understand what my numbers mean. Are they good? The only quasi-medical advice the watch gives is a ping if your heart rate hits a certain number when stationary, indicating you might want to relax (or seek medical attention). 120bpm, 130bpm, 140bpm… you set it yourself. I luckily never hit the emergency ping, so I can't say what it's like.
Apple's on-watch activity app is still bare-bones, and so is the iPhone counterpart. They're getting better, but more work needs to be done. Apple splits your attention between the Health app and the Activity app, where Fitbit does a better job of offering a one-stop dashboard on its iPhone app. Likewise, Apple's apps still lacks the deep social community of Fitbit, which includes both Android and iOS users.
The biggest missing Fitbit feature is sleep tracking -- which brings me to battery life.
You're going to have to charge every night
Before Series 3, the biggest Apple Watch frustration was battery life. After a week of wearing the cellular model, I can reiterate that battery life is still the Apple Watch's Achilles' heel. But it varies widely, depending on what you're doing.
If you're pushing the unique features of the Series 3 with cellular, you're going to wipe out your battery quickly. I made a half-hour call to my mom as I walked into town a half mile away to get an iced coffee. A walk there, a walk back, checking email and listening to music (and using GPS with heart rate for the walks), I ended up at 50 percent battery by 3 p.m. Sure, I was using everything. But isn't that the point?
On the other hand, the way Apple has handled switchoff between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular arguably makes the Apple Watch Series 3 a better all-day performer than cellular-enabled competitors like the LG Watch Sport and Samsung Gear S3. I'd just advise you to keep an eye on how you're connected, or you could in for a surprise.
Ultimately, if you ever have to dial emergency services on your watch -- without having your iPhone around -- that one five-minute phone call may be all you need.
Watch OS 4 has lots of extras, even for older watches
A handful of new watch faces ("Toy Story," a trippy kaleidoscope that uses the spinning crown, a phone-access watch face and a Siri-enabled face) add to the growing Apple Watch face gallery. Workouts are easier to start and stop, or switch on the fly. Runs can be auto-paused. Music controls show up in workouts with a quick swipe, and music playlists can be set to go automatically.
There still isn't a proper watch face store yet, which is a shame. I found myself toggling between multiple apps, wishing more of them were available as widgets on a goldilocks watchface.
Case in point: The new Siri watch face. It's just weird. Its stack of continuously updating cards are reminiscent of Android Wear's Google Now feature. Sometimes it helps important things (the weather, news headlines from Apple News, fitness goals, appointments) to surface. But it also feels random. And it looks a little ugly. It's a small step towards improving always-on watch awareness, but stacking notifications isn't what I want.
Still, it's worth noting that the Series 3 is noticeably zippier than the 2016 Apple Watches. App-launching and general performance feels snappier. The days of sluggish Apple Watch load times are over.
How Apple Watch compares to the pack
The Apple Watch Series 3 is feature-packed, and it arguably balances its tradeoffs better than many of its competitors -- though some of them may outshine Apple in specific areas.
Versus Samsung Gear: The Apple Watch has the advantage of hooking directly into iOS for core features, unlike Samsung's Gear watches, which rely on a separate app store and sometimes-annoying hook-in app conduits for Android. That said, we haven't yet reviewed the Samsung Gear Sport, or even the Gear Fit 2 Pro -- though the latter is more of a fitness tracker than a smartwatch.
Versus Android Wear watches: Watch OS 4 and the Apple Watch hardware feel a lot more refined, right now, than Android Wear 2.0. Android Wear watches are being made across tons of fashion brands, however, and discounts can be had. But no Android Wear watch -- so far, anyway -- has the same combination of heart rate, swimproofing, cellular, mobile payments and an onboard barometer.
Versus Fitbit: I still really like Fitbit's total package of nutrition, sleep tracking and social goals. Apple doesn't quite do the same thing for Apple Watch. The added barometer and improved heart-rate graphs are welcome adds, but the Apple Watch battery life trails most Fitbits, which get four days or even longer. But at least the Apple Watch can be worn swimming. The forthcoming Fitbit Ionic has added swimproofing, too, and mobile payments and apps, but its onboard music and smartwatch functions feel far, far inferior to those on the Apple Watch. Apple Watch is the superior smartwatch. Fitbit generally wins for more casual use.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs. older Apple Watches
Many people don't see the need for an Apple Watch. Among smartwatches, it's ended up surviving as the best of the bunch, thanks to solid design and software that's continually been improving. The design stays the same this time, but that's actually impressive. (The red dot on the crown is the only indicator you have the cellular Series 3 model.)
The Series 3 with cellular is the same basic size as 2016's Series 2 watch; Apple expanded the back of the watch a fraction of a millimeter. My review unit is a stainless steel step-up model, rather than the aluminum baseline model. It feels the same as every other Apple Watch I've worn. The new watch works with the same bands as older Apple Watches, which is good news if you've been building a collection.
The cellular version of Series 3 is a $70 upgrade to the GPS-only Series 3: it costs $400 and up (for the 38mm version) versus $329 and up, depending on size and band. Stainless steel models cost $599 and up, and Apple still sells Hermes and ceramic Edition models for an insane $1,200 to $1,300 and more. Fitbit's newest Ionic watch is $300, and Samsung's last-gen Gear S3 costs around $300, too.
But it's the extras that will cost you: $10 a month to hook it into your cell plan, $10 a month for Apple Music. And, of course, you need those wireless earphones ($160 for AirPods, or find a less expensive pair).
Versus Series 2: This year's cellular model isn't that much more than last year's Series 2, though. That model is now gone. Series 2 owners shouldn't upgrade unless they're really smitten by the cellular feature.
Versus Series 1: Apple has only left the 2016 Series 1 in the line, with a price drop. It lacks GPS and LTE and can't be worn swimming. Still, it's a fine option if you're less of a runner or gym rat, or if you have no interest in the Series 3's phone features.
Versus original Apple Watch: That first watch is still fine. If it works, why upgrade? But you do get faster performance, stair-counting, swim waterproofing, GPS and cellular with an upgrade.
For the complete keep-connected package, the cellular Series 3 has value. But its limitations mean it won't be worth it for a lot of people. The cellular-free Series 3 may be a good pick. But just remember that you can get the cellular model without attaching it to your plan -- you can always just keep the option open for later.
The best cellular smartwatch, but not a must-have
Do you even need an Apple Watch in the first place? No. And the step back in battery life that the new features require, sometimes, makes it feel like a compromise. But, when I went for walks with just the watch, it was pretty fun. And I enjoyed the feeling of being unburdened from my phone. I even left my wallet at home.
Then I found out that the cafe down the street didn't take Apple Pay.
So, maybe the world hasn't caught up with Apple's mobile lifestyle vision yet. But if it appeals to you, the Apple Watch Series 3 is the way to go. Just temper your expectations on battery life to the extreme -- and be ready to pay up for service fees and wireless headphones to have the full experience.