Apple Watch Series 3 review: Still the best smartwatch, but the Fitbit Versa is a close second

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The Good Cellular connection works well for phone calls, email, Siri and messages. Music now syncs more easily. Improvements in fitness tracking and added watch faces. Adds barometer to GPS and swimproofing. Same overall size as last year’s watch.

The Bad Battery life takes a major hit when making calls or during GPS workouts. 42mm cellular model is expensive, and that’s before monthly wireless service and Apple Music fees. Still requires an iPhone to set up and pair with. A new Watch is expected later this year.

The Bottom Line The Apple Watch Series 3 is the best overall smartwatch you can buy, but battery limitations and add-on fees keep it from being a must-have upgrade. Apple with likely release an upgrade later this year.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Battery 6
  • Performance 8
  • Software 8
  • Features 9

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. 

Update, 2018

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 ($199 at Apple). It adds built-in support for cellular connectivity. The full Dick Tracy communicator, much like Samsung, LG and others have already tried.

Apple Watch Series 3

Better take some AirPods (or wireless headphones with a good microphone).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Apple Watch Series 3

Calls are similar to Apple Watch when paired... but now you're untethered.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Apple Watch Series 3

Maps on demand.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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).

Apple Watch Series 3

Siri can speak on the speakerphone now and works via cellular. Sometimes she understands.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Apple Watch Series 3

Some playlists just automagically end up on your watch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connecting quirks

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

The iPod is gone: long live the new iPod.

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.

Apple Watch Series 3
Sarah Tew/CNET

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 ($1,985 at Walmart) 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.

Apple Watch Series 3

Heart rate data now includes resting heart rate and graphs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.