Apple Watch Series 3 Review: Next best value in tech?

Last month, the 2019 Apple Watch Series 5 debuted with its new, always-on display, starting at $399 for the regular model and $499 for the cellular version. In my Apple Watch Series 5 review called it the world's best health and fitness tracker and motivator, connected communications and emergency contact band, and wearable computer platform — and now simply the best watch period.

At the same time, though, the 2017 Apple Watch Series 3 was also re-introduced, and at the lowest entry-level price ever — $199 for the regular model and $299 for the cellular. Sure, it's a low enough price that some original and Series 1 Apple Watch owners might be tempted to upgrade when they otherwise wouldn't. But, it's also a low enough price where I think a lot of people — the vast majority of people — who still haven't tried out an Apple Watch might decide to take the plunge for the first time. Especially during the holiday sales and gift-giving season.

So, the question becomes — is it worth it?

Apple Watch Series 3 in 2019: Design & Display

Apple Watch Series 3 was the last to bear the original design. By that, I mean the displays are slightly smaller, the bezels slightly bigger, the capsule of the casing not quite as flat feeling or sleek looking.

But, strap it on and light it up, and instantly it still looks pure sci-fi. Even if it's a little retro sci-fi now compared to the latest models.

It still comes in two sizes, which is great for people with both smaller and bigger wrists… and display needs. The smaller is 242 by 360 resolution at 38mm and the large, 312 by 390 resolution at 42mm.

The Series 3 displays are also OLED, which means deep, inky blacks that almost melt away into the big bezels, and rich, vibrant colors that pop right out. And RGB stripe, not PenTile like phones, which makes them look even sharper. It's not the same as the Apple Watch Series 4 and 5, which hit 324 by 394 pixels at 40mm and 368 and 448 pixels at 44mm. That gives the new small watch a display pretty much the size of the old big watch, the new big watch… well, even bigger.

Also, because the Series 3 display is square and not rounded, and smaller, it seems a bit cramped now compared to the 5. And, it is. For example, the Series 3 doesn't get all the new, fancy watch faces of the Series 4 and 5.

In some cases, that's no loss. Several of them are just special effects faces, like fire and water, designed entirely to show off the bigger watch faces.

In other cases, like with the infographs, the loss is more meaningful: You don't get all the richer, super-complications that provide higher information density. And that's something I've come to depend on as my daily dashboard while at work, for example.

You do get the same 1000 nits brightness on both Series 3 and Series 5, though, so the display remains legible even under fairly aggressive sunlight.

But you don't get the always-on display of the Series 5 which, instead of turning off when you're not interacting with it, simply abides in a dimmer, lower-power state, but in a way that you can still glance at it and see the time, even complications or workout data, without having to raise or tap to wake it.

For me that makes the watch functional as a watch, but others seem not to like or want it, so it may make no real difference to you.

The physical casing for the Series 3 isn't just smaller than the Series 5 either, it's ever so slightly thicker. Less than a millimeter, but it does end up feeling not quite as flat on the wrist and a bit more capsule-like.

Also, because Apple is only selling the aluminum version of the Series 3, it's only available with Ion-X, or ion exchange glass. That's a fancy name for the chemically hardened glass Apple uses to reduce the likelihood of scratch, scuffs, and breaks, including on all of the iPhones.

If you want the even tougher sapphire crystal, you'll have to move up to the Apple Watch Series 5 and the higher-end materials like steel, titanium, or ceramic, or the special partnership watches like Nike or Hermes to get it.

I have gotten a few scratches and scuffs on my glass Apple watches over the years but nothing that I can see when the display is lit up or even really notice unless I hold them up to the light and look for them.

It also has an original, physical crown instead of the new, haptic crown of the Apple Watch Series 5. The feeling is a little different, at least when the watch is powered on, but the effect is the same. Turn it and the app or interface element scrolls in that direction.

The really cool thing is, though, that Apple Watch Series 3 is compatible with all Apple Watch bands going back to the original and up to the most recent ones released this fall.

That includes the sport bands and loops, metal Milanese, leather buckle and sold-separately Hermes.

Small to small, large to large, even though the case sizes have changed, the groove and lug sizes have remained the same.

So, if bands matter most to you, you have exactly the same options, even with the Apple Watch 3.

Apple Watch Series 3 in 2019: Health and Fitness

Apple Watch Series 3 has most of the same health and fitness features as the Series 5. That includes activity rings, so you can keep up with meeting or exceeding your stand, movement, and exercise goals every day.

The coaching and encouragement mechanisms have gotten better and better over time but the simple, satisfying nature of seeing those rings close towards the end of the day.

The Series 3 is also properly water-proof to 50mm, so you can track all your swims, as well as walks, runs, cycles, wheels, all of that. And it's got a biometric altimeter to measure elevation for your stairs, hikes, and climbs, and an optical heart rate sensor, not only for accurate calorie counts, but for low, high, and irregular heart rate notifications.

It doesn't have the electrical heart rate sensor of the Series 5, though, so it can't use the ECG app, even where available, and it doesn't have the newer generation sensors needed for fall detection either, so you can't get those alerts.

When Apple introduced those features last year, I immediately got the Series 4 for my immediate family. Fall detection itself was just that important for me. And, earlier this year, when one of them fell down the stairs and it went off, it was immediately worth it.

Also, while the Series 3 does have Emergency SOS, so you can call for help if your iPhone isn't in reach, or even around if you have the cellular model, it doesn't have the new modem with international SOS calling, even if you don't have a local cell plan.

So, if you want all the potentially life-saving features Apple Watch has to offer, you're going to want the Series 5.

But, if what you're looking for exercise, activity monitoring, coaching and encouragement, and workouts, the Series 3 offers pretty much everything you'll need.

Apple Watch Series 3 in 2019: Power & Performance

Beyond the cool faces and features, the Apple Watch is a full-on wrist computer. It can run all the apps in the Apple Watch Store, and it has some cutting-edge silicon inside. Yeah, silicon. In a watch.

Apple Watch Grey Addition

Apple Watch Grey Addition (Image credit: iMore)

There's an S3 system-in-package, which is like a whole computer in a chip. It's dual-core and 70 percent faster than the previous generation S2. It also enables voice-activated Siri.

Apple's also pretty much the only company making cutting-edge silicon for wrist computers so, while it's hard to tell exactly, I wouldn't be surprised if the S3 in the Series 3 is still leaps and bounds ahead of what other smartwatches are using.

The S5 SIP in the Apple Watch Series 5 is even more capable, of course — fully 64-bit, and 50 percent faster again than the S3. It also has a built-in compass which makes things like walking directions in maps just that much better, and a new W3 chip that improves on the W2 in the Series 3, making wireless work even faster and more efficiently.

They both have the same Wi-Fi capabilities, up to 802.11n at 2.4Ghz, but while the Series 5 has Bluetooth 5, the Series 3 tops out at Bluetooth 4.2.

So, Series 3 doesn't quite have the same range, speed, and efficiency over Bluetooth but, practically, you may not notice much difference.

The Series 3 also has 16 GB of storage to the 32 GB now in the Series 5. If you want to keep a lot of music, podcasts, or audiobook local on your wrist, that's something to consider as well.

Still, both are rated for the same 18 hours of battery life. But, in my experience, it really depends on how much you use it. Make a few calls, do a few workouts, and you'll have to recharge far more often. Do almost nothing, and it could last you overnight and until lunch.

Ultimately, though, while they both get the same battery life, the Apple Watch Series 5 can just do more things with it — the always-on display chief among them.

Apple Watch Series 3 can also run the brand new watchOS 6, of course, with its new calculator, audio book, activity trends, and cycle tracking, and more. I'm going to do a separate video on that, but it includes the new on-device App Store so you can download right onto the Series 3, no iPhone needed.

And, given that Apple is currently supporting watchOS 6 all the way back to the 2016 Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2, there's a good chance they'll keep on supporting Apple Watch Series 3 until at least watchOS 8, if not 9.

Apple Watch Series 3 in 2019: Conclusion

The Apple Watch Series 5 is legit amazing. But it starts at $399 for Wi-Fi + GPS and $499 for cellular. That's why, at the last Apple Event, when they announced the Series 3 was dropping to $199 for Wi-Fi + GPS and $299 for cellular, I was almost more excited. It was the same excitement I felt when Apple announced the 9.7-inch iPad — now 10.2-inch iPad — for $329.

Prices go up. It's what they do. And the price of the very top end of Apple's product lines has been rising as steadily as their feature sets. Average selling prices have largely stayed the same, even if they peak and valley from year to year, but the big stickers are the ones that stick out and get all the attention.

So, when you see a new entry-level, especially when it has a price like the Apple Watch Series 3, it has an equal and opposite effect. It makes the technology feel affordable and attainable to everyone.

Tech media obsesses about upgrades, especially year-over-year upgrades that increasingly just aren't the norm. People who do that tend to pre-order; they're already taken care of. But, like I said at the beginning, the vast majority of people don't even have an Apple Watch yet, any Apple Watch, and Series 3 starting $199 might just be the thing that changes that.

And, in that case, I'd say pretty much exactly the same thing. At $199, the Series 3 is a hell of a deal, and could potentially get even better as we roll into the holiday shopping season depending on how competitive the big retailers get.

So much so that, even tech enthusiasts who already ordered their Series 5 may just start looking at Series 3 for the rest of their families.

And sure, if for you and yours, the Series 3 is what gets your attention but you ultimately decide the bigger, always-on display, and especially those potentially life-savings features like fall detection, ECG, and international SOS, are worth the extra cost, that's totally cool.

Otherwise, even in 2019, Apple Watch Series 3 is still one of the best health and fitness trackers and motivators, connected communications and emergency contact bands, and wearable computer platforms in the world. That's why, starting at $199, I expect it to fly off the shelves and into a lot of new lives this year.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.