Last week, at Apple’s annual keynote presentation, the brand announced the Apple Watch Series 4 would be launching this month. I've had an Apple Watch on my wrist for almost two years now, and it comes with me on all my workouts, so I was pretty excited to take it for a spin.
The biggest—and most buzzed about—feature on the Series 4 is a new electrical heart rate sensor that can take an electrocardiogram, also called an ECG or EKG. (We asked cardiologists what think of this feature, here.) There’s also some new hardware that can detect hard falls and prompt you to make an emergency call. It it senses you’re immobile for one minute after the fall, it will reach out to your emergency contacts for you.
But what I was really interested in was figuring out if the new Apple Watch Series 4 had benefits over the Series 3 when I used it during my daily life and in my workouts. Luckily, over this past week, I had the chance to give it a test drive before it’s available to the public this Friday, September 21.
Avid Apple Watch Series 3 users will recognize the similarities and differences between the series 4 and the previous iterations of the watch pretty quickly. When it comes to hardware, there’s not too much that’s new. But there are some design elements and tech upgrades that make the watch a slightly more advanced piece of fitness tech than the last version was. Here’s what I learned about the new Apple Watch Series 4 while using it for six days.
The display is noticeably larger, which makes it easier to use.
The Series 4 does look a lot like my Series 3, but there is one key difference: The display is larger—in fact, over 30 percent larger, according to Apple. The Watch case itself isn’t larger, rather the display extends further out toward the edges. This doesn’t seem important on first glance, but as I used the Watch, I realized that I definitely appreciated the change.
Small things, like starting and stopping a workout and dismissing alerts, were quicker and easier because the buttons were all visible on the display, not getting cut off like they did on the Series 3. Less scrolling just eliminates a bit of fumbling and makes everything a tad quicker.
The Series 4 also comes in sizes 40 mm and 44 mm, versus the previous 38 mm and 42 mm options. The size differences aren’t really noticeable when you compare them on your wrist, but, again the display size definitely is. The Series 4 is also about 1 mm thinner, though I personally didn’t really notice or feel much of a difference there.
One last display-related note: There are a few new Watch faces (the displays options you can choose in the app to set on the Watch itself) available only on the Series 4, because they take advantage of the extended display. I’m really into the one I’m using right now, which has six widgets on it (in Apple speak, “complications”). You can see the one I'm using in the photo above, and a few more of the new ones in the image at the top of this story.
The speaker is noticeably louder and clearer, and the reception during phone calls should be better.
One of the other design changes Apple made this time was to make the entire back of the Watch out of materials that allow radio waves to pass through, to improve cellular reception. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make enough calls in different locations with the Watch to test this out. But one thing that is definitely noticeably better? The speaker. Apple says it’s 50 percent louder, and I believe them. The audio during calls is so much louder and clearer.
The fall detection capability is really interesting, and I can see it being useful in some situations.
As committed as I am to the craft of journalism, I wasn’t exactly willing to throw myself to the ground to experience the fall detection feature firsthand. Sorry. But according to Apple, the watch has an accelerometer and gyroscope, which together measure impact acceleration and wrist trajectory to detect if the wearer has taken a hard fall. If a fall is detected, the watch will alert the wearer and prompt them to either dismiss it or call emergency services. If the watch senses that you’re immobile for a minute after the fall notification goes out, it will automatically call emergency services and also ping your emergency contacts.
While this feature definitely feels more useful to people who are at an increased risk of falling, like older people or those with certain health conditions, I also see the relevance for people who play certain sports. If you’re a cyclist or snowboarder or skiier or participate in any other adventure sport, the fall detection may be a nice emergency feature. I definitely don’t see any downside to having an extra layer of safety when you’re out on the trails or slopes (you’d have to have cell service, though, for the emergency alert system to work).
The watch promises an extra hour of battery when you’re using GPS tracking during workouts.
Ah, the battery life. Always a point of contention. I love Apple Watch, but I must admit, its battery life just doesn’t compare to trackers from Fitbit and some other very fitness-focused brands. But Apple tells me that the new Series 4 will give me an extra hour of GPS activity usage—from 5 to 6. (The all-day battery life with regular usage, like notifications, calls, texts, etc., stays the same at 18 hours.) That’s good news for me, since I’ve watched my Apple Watch die on hikes before, and I was a little nervous it’s going to go dark on me before I cross the finish line of my first marathon in November. Hopefully, the extra alleged hour will be what I need.
While I haven’t tracked a six-hour-long workout with the watch yet, I did track a 2-hour run early in the morning, and still had enough juice left to use the watch as normal throughout the rest of the day and partway through the next day, which bodes well for the new and improved battery life.
But the most exciting new Apple Watch features, I think, are actually the ones that come with the operating system update, which is now available on all Apple Watches.
The Apple Watch Series 4 comes loaded with Watch OS 5, but if you have a previous version of the watch, you can update it to get the new OS, too.
New features with the new OS include: activity competitions that let you challenge other Apple Watch users and keep score, yoga and hiking features that you can select now in the Fitness section, and automatic workout detection. I was strolling around the city the other day, actually, and after I sat down, my watch asked me if I wanted to record the 15-minute walk I just took. That was pretty handy.
You can also now set a pace alert during a run, so that you get a notification when you fall behind or inch past a specific pace. I tried this last weekend while running a half-marathon, and it worked really well. You also now see your “rolling mile” pace on the display, which shows you what your pace was in the previous mile so you can compare it in real time to your current pace. I’ve been using these features over the past week while training for the marathon, and so far, they’ve helped me keep tabs on where I’m at and when I need to step it up a bit.
Overall, the Apple Watch Series 4 is more advanced than the Series 3. The differences aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but I do appreciate some of the little upgrades more than I thought I would.
Longer battery life, better speakers and reception, and a larger display, are all big pluses in my book. The biggest hardware addition doesn’t feel very relevant for me and how I use my Apple Watch, but the features that come with the updated operating system are exciting to me, especially as someone who’s doing a lot of running lately. Like most activity trackers and smart watches, whether or not the Apple Watch Series 4 is worth buying depends on what you’re going to use it for, and I hope that my experience with it can help you figure out it’s right for you.