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

Apple Watch Series 3
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Heart rate recovery: A new feature that could use a better explanation.

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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.

Apple Watch Series 3
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Forget sleep tracking, because you'll be night-charging.

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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.

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A trippy kaleidoscope watch face.

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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.

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It's getting better and better as a fitness tracker.

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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.

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Steel Series 3 vs aluminum Series 2. Same size. The red dot is the only way to show off.

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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.

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Ask yourself if you really need cellular on a watch. I'd say the answer is no.

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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. 

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