Apple Watch Series 3 Hands On: Apple throws down the small watch gauntlet

On looks alone, the only thing differentiating this year's Apple Watch upgrade from its predecessors is a tiny red dot on the Digital Crown. Why red? Why add it to the Crown? While I got no official answer from the folks at Apple Park, I love the look. It further highlights Apple's bestselling smartwatch on the wrist as not only a fashion choice, but an outright statement. We are the smartwatch industry. We are here. And we are crushing the competition. (And, somehow, making a red dot work with all our bands, case colors, and outfits.)

Forget Fitbit, Misfit, Android Wear, Samsung. It's been three years since the Apple Watch's release, and no one has built a watch that does a fraction of what Apple is attempting to do in the Series 3 — and in a 38mm form factor.

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This year, the company is stepping up its game and adding LTE. Not by halving the battery life (which reportedly is staying the same), nor bulging the watch up or out (the sapphire crystal backing protrudes just 0.2mm more). By being Apple: working silicon to the bone. Making the Watch's OLED display the LTE and Wi-Fi antenna. And miniaturizing an already tiny SIM card. Oh, and the S3 chip makes my otherwise competent Series 2 feel like it's running through molasses.

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If I sound bullish on this iteration of Apple's smartwatch after only a short time with it, that's because I am. I came into this event with high expectations for the company and a low tolerance for compromise. I didn't want to see an LTE watch that only made phone calls, or destroyed battery life, or required the 42mm watch to function. If Apple was going to do this, they needed to do it right.

And, quite frankly, they have. They're innovating in this space in the areas that matter, like health monitoring and smart connectivity. Those who expected the LTE version of this watch to be crippled in some way — myself included — were wrong: The Series 3 offers full connectivity for Maps, Messages, phone calls, third-party apps, Music (coming in October), and Siri.

I've never used Siri the way I did with the Series 3 earlier on Tuesday. The pause is gone. You ask a query, and Siri responds immediately. No lag, no spinning, no "I'll tap you when I'm ready." The assistant, even without all the features it had on the iPhone, was always the best way to interact on the Apple Watch — when it worked. Now it does, and it works reliably. I threw a half-dozen queries, app requests, and dictations toward Siri in the hands on area and it answered flawlessly. It might be the best Siri experience I've ever had. This alone is a game-changer for how I use Apple Watch, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Maps is equally compelling: wander or run about your city and don't worry about bringing your pocket computer for emergencies. As is Messaging and phone calls: the features allow you to be connected when you need to, but disconnected (with the tap of a button) when you don't.

The Series 3 may not go far enough for some people in this arena. It still requires an iPhone to pair, which means those dreaming of an Apple Watch on Android or a phone-less world have to keep on dreaming. And you'll undoubtably have to pay an additional fee for data use, which won't be a thrill for those on a budget. Still, it's one of the most impressive feats I've seen from the folks at Apple, and I look forward to testing it more thoroughly upon its release.

The form factor

A word on Apple's form factor here, because it's something I've been stewing on this week. When the Apple Watch was first released in 2015, I compared the 38mm and 42mm cases to a variety of Android manufacturers, lamenting at the time that only Apple made a watch that didn't look like a black hole on my wrist.

Yes, big watches were (and are) in style these days, but the style requires a loose, almost bangle-like fit around your wrist to look correct. With smartwatches and heart monitors, this sort of fit is nigh-impossible: Wear it loose, and you get no heart rate measurements; wear it tight, and it looks like you have a sun dial strapped to your wrist.

I know there are complaints about the rectangular form factor, and I feel it. There's a beauty to oval watches, and I hope Apple can do something with the style in the future. But the company went that way in the first place in order to have watches that fit all kinds of people — not just those with 40mm+ wrists.

Since I wrote that piece in 2015, there is not a single manufacturer who has managed to make a working watch with the same features under 40mm. I highlight this to point out just how incredible it is that Apple is not only shipping an advanced smartwatch at 38mm — it now packs a full-featured LTE antenna inside that form factor, too. Small, stylish watches are hard. Small stylish watches with fitness tracking and a full mobile OS are harder. Small stylish watches with fitness tracking, a full mobile OS, and LTE? Those are impossible, according to the rest of the industry. And Apple just proved them wrong.

LTE Apple Watch Battery Tests: Will cellular destroy the Series 3 battery?

Just saying: There's a reason the company is now the best-selling watchmaker on the planet, and it's not because they're making square watches. They're making small ones.

Healthy lifestyles

The other side of the Series 3 is centered around software-side improvements, largely to the Heart Rate app. These features will be coming to all Series models with a watchOS 4 update, so it's less of an exclusive feature than an early sneak peek, but still a welcome one.

The Heart Rate app will track your resting heart rate over time, as it has in the past, but now it will track and display your average workout heart rate, recovery time, and more. Apple has also built in an alert that warns users if their heart rate goes over a certain BPM when the watch believes the user is at rest — 120 by default, but supposedly user customizable. The interface on the watch is easily readable, with a Health app interface that allows even easier legibility. I appreciate also that it divides your heart rate averages by workout types — after all, not all workouts are made equal.

There's also a lot to be said about Apple's continuing commitment to health discovery, the incredible video the company displayed during the keynote on its Apple Watch users, and the upcoming Apple Heart Study with Stanford this fall, but I'll save it for a piece outside of this hands on.

The rest

There are a few other features worth mentioning on the Series 3: I didn't get a chance to test the speaker, but I was always happy with the Series 2 for phone calls. (On a related note, Apple's phone call demo on stage was one of the better ways to explain why you'd want to take a call on your watch that I've ever seen.)

Apple Watch Series 3 Cellular vs GPS-only: What's the difference?

The watch itself felt identical on my wrist to the Series 2, with the exception of the Nylon Sport Loop band: It's nylon, but feels almost like terrycloth. It also provides a super-tight fit on the wrist without cutting off circulation or making your skin uncomfortable — runners like my dad are going to love this band.

Really, my hands on experience with the Series 3 comes down to this: I was skeptical and quite frankly concerned about Apple pushing LTE to the watch before it was ready. After today, my fears aren't completely assuaged — I'll wait for our battery life tests when I review it — but I have faith in the company's direction here. They're continuing to set benchmarks in the smartwatch industry, especially for the smaller-wristed, and the Series 3 looks to be the next big step.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • How much is the Apple Watch 3 Cellular going to cost me in monthly fees by the carrier? Another $20 per month?
  • I'm going to guess $5-$15, depending on carrier and region.
  • $10 for the 4 major us carriers
  • It's $10/month just to connect to the carrier but that doesn't include any data. It will use the data in your iPhone plan so you may need to pay additional costs to increase your data plan.
  • Most plans have unlimited data now.
  • Please don't forget Series 3 without cellular. How is it compared to Series 2 (battery, performance)? What are the differences of the models with and without cellular? I noticed on Apple's page less storage (8 GB vs. 16 GB) and a very restricted selection of choices (only aluminum cases and Sport bands).
  • Three things for you:
  • It's not really that big of a deal
  • Depends what you want out of the Apple Watch really. I'm still rocking my 1st gen Apple Watch, the new upgrades so far haven't really applied to my use cases, I don't need cellular and I don't really workout (I'm lazy, shush). What I really want out of the Apple Watch is an always-on display, the "lift wrist" gesture doesn't always work and is probably the biggest flaw at the moment. Give me an always-on display and I'll upgrade
  • Red crowns have a precedent: luxury Michele watches. They also happen to mostly be rectangular.
  • This means the Apple Watch will no longer be just a "notification screen", and more a device itself.. I have the first Apple Watch and i only watch for notifications but for every app (message, maps, run etc...) but when it comes to actually execute something, i have to take my iPhone it's far too long on the Watch... But maybe with the series 3 it will be better !! but i won't buy it it's too expensive
  • The speed increased a lot with watchOS 3, and I assume it'll be faster with watchOS 4 too. I use my 1st gen for more than just notifications
  • Yes i use it a lot, for quick action, or pre definied text, or to click on the "home" icon on maps, sometimes to change volume on my iPhone, and for running too, but not for starting action that's what i meant, it's more a reaction.. i don't know if i'm clear. But it's been 2 years and i love my Watch, i'm just sad the date of obsolescence is coming closer and closer, i think maybe next year will be the end for it. And i'm not ready to pay another time 600$....
  • I hope Apple doesn't compromise and make a round version. It doesn't lend itself to all the rhings a smartwatch can, and will, do. Round analog watches make perfect sense because they display analog time. It would also cause headaches for application designers. It's like wanting a truck to look like a car.
  • I wouldn't worry. Apple pays little attention to those who flap their pie holes about round watches being the only form factor allowed.
  • Why Red? It occurred to me that some places restrict cell phones. The red dot makes it clear which watch has cellular capabilities, and thus, watches without the red dot may be allowed in places red dot watches are not.
  • Is there a way to transfer calls from the watch to iPhone?
  • If Siri really works that well I'll use it a lot to ask quick questions. Siri on the iPhone is so slow and frustrating now.
  • Can the editon 3 work as a replacement for my iPhone for calls.I like the idea of not having to carry my phone everywhere, e.g., leave the phone at home and just use the watch all day. Is that reallistic or will battery life be an issue?
  • Two questions:
    1. Will it connect to 2 bluetooth devices at the same time? (Headphones and heart rate monitor)
    2. Will it play Podcasts, either natively (preferable) or 3rd party (acceptable)?
    3. (Okay, bonus question). Any idea on GPS accuracy? I do some running on a 1/4 mile track and my Series 2 usually is telling me that I've gone 2 miles at about lap 7 1/2.
  • I'd like to upgrade to the new Series 3 with LTE. My Verizon cell service is so poor in my house that I have to use the wi-fi calling feature on my phone. Will the watch only be LTE or might it have some version of this assistance also? My current 38mm 2015 version goes to power reserve just about every day after about 12 hours. Will I see a significant improvement by upgrading?