Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: What's the difference?

The Apple Watch is probably the most popular line of fitness wearables on the planet, a line with so many similar-sounding choices that it’s hard for the layperson to know what to go for. You have different screen sizes, colors, material finishes, and even iterations - is it best to go with the Series 8, the latest Apple Watch SE, or an older model? 

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However, once you know your desired model, size, and color, the next important question you need to ask is whether your watch needs cellular data in addition to the watch’s in-built GPS, or just the non-cellular GPS-only model. So what's the difference between Cellular and GPS Apple Watches, and which is right for you? Is getting a cellular Apple Watch worth it?

Simply put, a Cellular Apple Watch offers increased connectivity options over the GPS version. The former can use cellular data provided by your carrier to carry out tasks and make phone calls using data without needing your iPhone present. 

On the other hand, the GPS version relies solely on your phone for all of its data needs. You’ll still get notifications and emails and so on, but you’ll need to be in close proximity to your phone to get them. It makes up for this by being slightly cheaper than the Cellular models, even without the additional monthly cost of data.

Need more info? Here's our in-depth guide that gives you all the information you need to make the right decision. 

If you already know what you want, then check out our Black Friday Apple Watch deals page, where we're going to keep you up to speed with the very best offers over the Black Friday period or read our live blog of the Best Black Friday Apple deal right now.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: An at-a-glance breakdown

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Apple Watch series 8

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

From the outside, the Apple Watch Cellular and the Apple Watch GPS look almost identical, the only real visible difference a small red ring around the digital crown on the Cellular model. It’s what’s inside that makes all the difference between the two watches.

The table below is based on the specifications of the Apple Watch Series 8 - the Apple Watch Ultra and SE will be slightly different again, but this is useful for illustrative purposes.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 GPSGPS + Cellular
Battery life (total)Up to 18 hoursUp to 18 hours
Battery talkN/AUp to 1.5 hours
Audio playbackUp to 11 hours playback from Apple Watch storageUp to 11 hours playback from Apple Watch storage
Up to 8 hours streaming playlist with LTE
Workout battery lifeUp to 11 hours indoor workout
Up to 7 hours outdoor workout with GPS
Up to 11 hours indoor workout
Up to 6 hours outdoor workout with GPS + Cellular
Family Setup battery lifeN/AUp to 14 hours
Charge timesAbout 45 minutes to 80% (Series 8) About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 7) About 75 minutes to 100% (Series 7) About 1.5 hours to 80% (SE 2022) About 2.5 hours to 100% (SE 2022)About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 8) About 45 minutes to 80% (Series 7) About 75 minutes to 100% (Series 7) About 1.5 hours to 80% (SE 2022) About 2.5 hours to 100% (SE 2022)
Monthly cost$0From $10 per month, depending on the carrier

What about the Apple Watch Series 7?

If you can find one, then the Apple Watch Series 7 is still an excellent smartwatch to choose. It was also available in GPS and Cellular forms. The same pros and cons will apply to the Series 7 as to the Series 8 - they are, in the end, very similar products. If you’re looking to save some money, however, then the Apple Watch SE is still the way to go, as Series 7 prices haven’t yet dropped that low.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Band options

There are no differences between the straps available for a GPS or Cellular options - they do use, after all, pretty much the same shell. The straps that the watches come from out of the box however, can differ. If you go for the Aluminum Apple Watch and you want a Milanese loop, then you’re going to have to buy one separately, but buy a stainless steel Apple Watch then you can get that same strap in the box. There are some great straps available for the Apple Watch family- the only thing you have to worry about is choosing the right size to fit your watch. Make sure you check out some of the best bands for Apple Watch to see our favorites.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Carrier restrictions

Apple Watch series 8

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

The GPS + Cellular Apple Watch models come with LTE connectivity, which stands for Long-Term Evolution and sits somewhere between 3G and 4G in terms of connectivity. This allows you to piggyback off your current carrier plan (for an additional monthly fee, usually around $10) and get internet and phone connectivity even when your iPhone is far away. To ensure you get a great deal, check out the best cell plans for Apple Watch.

Of course, this opens up new opportunities for you. If you want to listen to music while tracking your runs, you can leave your iPhone behind and just take your Apple Watch on your next adventure. An Apple Watch with LTE coverage lets you do anything solo on the Apple Watch that you can do when tied to your iPhone's data, such as placing calls, receiving messages, using Siri, navigating via the Maps app, playing with third-party apps, and just about anything else.

You can't sign up for a separate Apple Watch cellular plan from your iPhone. If you're on AT&T, your Apple Watch has to be on the plan, too. You'll have a separately assigned number for your Apple Watch, but it's not your usable phone number. It's just the account assignment number.

Note: If you buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card for international travel, consider leaving your Apple Watch at home because it will incur international charges if you use it while abroad (there's no SIM card in the Apple Watch).

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Apple Music and Podcasts streaming support

You can stream Apple Music, Apple podcasts, and audiobooks with a cellular watch, even when you're away from your iPhone.

You can also sync music, podcasts, and audiobooks from your iPhone to your Apple Watch. You can then play the content on your Watch, even if your iPhone isn't around, and the watch isn't connected to the internet. This you can do on any Watch - Cellular or GPS.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Family Setup

Thinking of handing down your old Apple Watch to someone that doesn’t have an iPhone? Then Family setup will be a boon. You’ll initially set up the Apple Watch to your iPhone, but then you can use it untethered. The Cellular model is the Apple Watch that supports Family setup, which will be an essential consideration if you have this feature in mind. You may not have the need for the Cellular connection now, but you could in the future.

The Family setup feature works with the Apple Watch Series 8 Cellular, the Apple Watch Ultra, and the Apple Watch SE Cellular.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Case and screen material

Apple Watch series 8

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

GPS connectivity is only available in aluminum in the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE. You cannot get an Apple Watch Ultra with GPS connectivity. Instead, the Cellular models can be had in aluminum with the Series 8 and the SE, as well as stainless steel in the Series 8. The Apple Watch Ultra is only available in titanium and Cellular.

The Aluminum versions of the Apple Watch come with an Ion-X glass display, while you can only get the Sapphire Crystal displays on the Stainless steel and Ultra cases. Ion-X glass is softer and more prone to scratches but is more sturdy when dropped. The Sapphire Crystal glass is much harder and less susceptible to scratching, but is more likely to crack if the watch is dropped.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Battery Life

Does a Cellular Apple Watch suffer from a reduced battery life from the GPS only model? Well, there’s no two ways around it - yes. Thankfully, that battery life can be improved by switching off certain features, as well as the new low power mode. That’s not why you buy the Cellular version, is it though? You need to know how long the watch will last while using the features you want.

Apple says that the Series 8 will last for 18 hours, and while its not been particularly forward with its testing methodology, it looks like it’s expecting around 4 hours on LTE connection and 14 connected to an iPhone. In person, it’s likely these numbers will diminish with time and use, and they’ll also change depending on what you use the watch for.

For other tasks, the watch doesn’t last quite so long at all. You’ll get around 11 hours of audio streaming from your phone, but use the LTE connection and that figure goes down to 8 hours. Similarly, use the workout feature and the battery life drops from 11 hours connected to an iPhone to 6 hours with GPS and LTE.

The battery life is always going to suffer when you use extra features in the watch, and for most people, the battery will be fine. For more niche users, like long-distance runners and extreme hikers who may not have access to a plug socket, most of the Apple Watch range isn’t perfect.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Price

Apple Watch series 8

(Image credit: Future / iMore)

The last differentiator between the two devices is the price. The current generation SE starts at $249 for a 40mm aluminum case, while the Cellular version starts at $329. 

The Series 8 GPS only starts at $389 for the 41mm aluminum case, and the Cellular Series 8 starts at $499. These prices rise with larger screens and nicer case materials. The most expensive device is the $799 Apple Watch Ultra, which is only available with Cellular connection. Of course, you can always save money with the best Apple Watch deals and sales.

Apple Watch Cellular vs. GPS: Which should you buy?

Apple Watch Series 7 menu

(Image credit: Stephen Warwick / iMore)

For almost everyone, the GPS-only version of an Apple Watch is going to suit your needs. You’ll still get all the same functions, you just won’t be able to use them without your iPhone nearby. They’re also far cheaper than the other models too. Remember, however, that you won’t be able to use Family set up and they’re only available in aluminum.

The Cellular models are fantastic if you are out and about a lot, and don’t want your iPhone in your pocket. For example, they're great for runners, who want to stay connected without the burden of an arm or chest strap to hold a phone.  They are also good if you want a more premium case material, like stainless steel. This is also the only form that the Apple Watch Ultra is available in as it's geared towards athletes and adventurers, so you’re somewhat stuck for choice in the case.