Apple Watch Series 4 Review

Apple Watch 4
(Image: © Rene Ritchie/iMore)

Apple Watch is the most important product Apple has ever made. That's not hyperbole. It's certainly not fan-service. And you'd have to be literally the worst, burned-out, buzzed-up back-pager with an XS Max-sized stick up the apps to even consider calling it bull$#!+.

Because Apple Watch saves lives. And it does it over and over again.

By staying connected to you and keeping you connected, even in times of crisis and emergency; by encouraging you to stay active, regularly, reliably, quantifiable; and by alerting you to potentially life-threatening conditions and situations before they threaten your life, Apple Watch has been consistently, repeatedly, legitimately saving lives.

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Now, sure, phones save lives. Tablets. PCs. Helicopters. Ultrasounds. A lot of technology, old and new, medical and general saves live. Absolutely. But Apple Watch is uniquely positioned, literally, to do so in dedicated and persistent ways.

And, with Series 4, Apple isn't just doubling down — it's tripling up, improving connectivity, activity, and longevity.

Apple Watch Series 5

Apple Watch Series 5 (Image credit: iMore)

There's also a new, bigger, edge-to-edge design as well because, lets face it, if you're going to live longer and healthier, you're going to want to look good and have fun doing it.

Is Apple Watch Series 4 perfect? No, of course not. It's still missing core features like always-on time, sleep tracking, and a way for me to make a damn Super-Man Photo face with enough complications to actually be useful. It also starts at $399 — or $499 if you want it with cellular networking — which is still a good chunk of change for what for most people remains a tertiary computing device at best.

But, is Apple Watch Series good enough that you should seriously consider upgrading or getting in on this whole wrist computer thing for the first time? That's the question that matters, and the one I've spent the last week with a 44mm space gray model figuring out.

Here's the answer.

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Previously, on Apple Watch…

Apple Watch Series 4 builds on everything Apple's been engineering since the original in 2015. This review focuses on the new. For everything else, please see the previous reviews:

Apple Watch Series 4: In Brief

For people who want:

  • Bigger screen
  • Faster performance
  • Built-in EKG (ECG)
  • Fall detection
  • Longer battery life for workouts

Not for people who want:

  • Android compatibility
  • Always-on time
  • Custom watch faces
  • Week-long battery life

Bottom Line

If you don't have an Apple Watch yet, you should get one. And probably this one. Yes, it may seem expensive and extraneous if your already have an iPhone and maybe an iPad and laptop or whatever, but here's the thing: It can save your life in a way none of that other stuff can.

If you already have an Apple Watch, you'll need to consider how useful things like the new display are for your productivity and convenience, and how critical the new ECG and fall detection may prove for your health and welfare. I'd argue for Series 0 and Series 1, it's a no brainer at this point. For Series 2, it's compelling. For Series 3, you have to really want the new capabilities, never mind the new design. (And I do.)

Apple Watch Series 4 Display

Apple likes to talk about closing all the rings but, for the last 4 years, there's been one big, black ring even Apple couldn't close: the bezel around the Apple Watch display.

We've always been at war with bezels — the thick, flat mattes that frame the artwork of the display. They helped house all the vital, internal components but contributed nothing informational to the user. And, for that, they had to die.

Killing them took time and technology. Apple got iPhone X there first, cramming the Plus-sized display into the regular-sized casing. Now, it's doing the same thing with Watch, cramming the 42mm-sized display into the 38mm-sized casing, and an even bigger display into the 42mm-sized casing. 35% and 32% bigger respectively. (A new technology called low-temperature polycrystalline oxide, or LTPO, helps improve power efficiency by letting the refresh rate ramp down for static content like photos.)

It's an end not just to bezels but to compromise. If your eyes previously lusted after the 42mm screen but your wrist demanded the 38mm case, now you can get the new 40mm Watch and have the best of both. If you were good with the old 42mm, now you can be even better with the new 44mm Watch.

Like with iPhone X — sense a pattern here? — Apple is putting all that new display space to good use. The built-in apps and interfaces have been taken edge-to-edge. Text is bigger and easier to read. Buttons are larger and easier to tap.

There are new watch faces to show it off as well, including Fire & Water (not Fire & Ice, sorry), Vapor, and, get this, Liquid Metal. They're sourced from real-world material photography and animated to dance under the display and along its edges. They can go full screen, but then can't hold any complications and so are only really good for tuning out or tech-demo'ing up. They can also be constrained into circles, which don't look as impressive but free up space for a few complications — basically eyes and a smile.

The Breathe face, which comes in classic, calm, or focus flavors, lets you center yourself and restore a state of mindfulness with at the turn of your wrist. The instant accessibility comes at the expense of the full, guided app experience — more of a sip than a savor. But, you can tap on the face to bring up the app whenever you want to go deeper. As far as complications go, you can keep it clean or add the same smiley face layout as the materials faces.

There are still no custom watch faces and the Photos face still lacks enough complications to make it an even a halfway decent workaround. Worse, there's still no always-on time so there's still no way to subtly, considerately check just when exactly it is without twisting your wrist, tapping the display, or otherwise signaling to absolutely anyone and everyone around you that, "You exhaust me, I'm counting the seconds until I can get away from you."

I get that battery budget is still as limited as housing in South Bay, but we're four versions in and, painfully, poetically, Apple Watch's eponymous feature is still the biggest one missing. My kingdom for a screen-saver that's also an ultra low-power time saver.

Apple Watch sizes

Apple Watch sizes (Image credit: iMore)

Where the watch teams hit it out the [Apple] Park is with the new Infographic (analog) and Infographic Modular faces, and their "super-complications". Forget eye-candy, these show what the new edge-to-edge displays can really enable.

I'm calling them "super-complications" because, one, I like the play on watch words, but two, they're not just bigger than the standard complications — they're informational escalations that manage to be denser without sacrificing legibility. Edward Tuft would be so proud.

On Infographic (analog), in addition to the hour, minute, and second hands, you also have room for four wedges in the corners and four circles in the middle. On Infographic Modular, in addition to the hour and minute — frustratingly, there's still no digital second face other than the not-ideal-for-all-occaisions Activity face — you can also fit a small rectangle up top, four circles on the left and along the bottom, and a giant rectangle in the center.

You can fill them with communications apps and contacts, if you're running around playing secret agent. You can fill them with world clocks and trackers if you're traveling. You can fill them with fitness features if you're off to a workout. Or you can mix and match to best suit your average activities.

And they're so informationally rich. For example. in addition to the classic day and date, Calendar curves your next appointment around the top of the dial. Timer shows how much has elapsed and how much remains along the total duration. Weather shows not only the current temperature but where it is relative to the day's high and low. Its not just the position along a curve either — even the color provides additional data, like relative coolness or hotness.

Developers can plug into all the new "super complications" through updates to ClockKit (opens in new tab). And that's where the real fun will begin. (Bring it on, CARROT.)

Apple Watch Series 4 Casing

The new design language is, not surprisingly, all curves and iPhone X as well. The result is an Apple Watch casing that's thinner but more spacious, bigger in surface but smaller in volume — you know, that trick Apple's industrial design team just keeps on pulling.

Apple Watch Series 4

Apple Watch Series 4

I can't tell if it really feels lighter and flatter on my wrist or if that's just a sensory illusion. The human brain has a nasty habit of obliterating objective measures like millimeters and milligrams for subjective feels like newness and shininess. My cuffs say it doesn't really fit any better under them than the previous models did, but we're getting there.

It comes at a price, though. For everything Apple's giving us with this new design, it's taking something away from the finishes and materials.

First is rose gold. Apple ditched it entirely from iPhone X last year and effectively from iPhone 8 by merging it with the old champagne color to create a new, blushing hybrid. This year, Apple's doing the same thing with Watch. (Pssst: rose gold on the MacBook — you need to run for your anodized life.)

This new, unified gold, to my eyes, is just a shade deeper than blush. It continues Apple's tradition of providing something that looks opulent, even over-the-top, but not chintzy or gaudy. You can get it on the aluminum model, alongside silver and space gray.

Entirely new for this year, you can also get gold on the stainless steel model now as well. It matches the new, steel gold of the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, if you want to get your coordination on. You can't anodize steel like you can aluminum, so Apple is using a physical vapor deposition (PVD) process to achieve the gold look. It's similar to what Apple's done with the Space Black Watch since launch. That model uses a diamond-like carbon (DLC) type of PVD, which makes for an incredibly hard, scratch resistant finish. Not all PVD is DLC, but this one is supposed to be just about as tough. And, If PVD isn't your thing, you can also still get the steel watch with its polished silver finish.

The new steel gold comes at a cost as well: Apple made room for it by deleting the ceramics as though they were bezels. That's right: Apple Watch Edition, 2015-2018. RIP.

After launching the original Watch with a 18K yellow and rose gold Editions, Apple right-marketed that down to a single white ceramic Edition for Series 2, then expanded back to a white and a gray ceramic Edition for Series 3. Ceramic is a staple of higher-end watches and I liked it enough to buy it both years it was offered. I'll mourn its loss. Especially because gold is less my thing. Apple knows its numbers best, though, so I imagine steel will have a long reign on top of the materials and price chart.

Hopefully, it'll be successful enough that Apple can afford to start offering or including more than just polished silver lugs in the high-end band boxes...

With Series 3, LTE models were identifiable by a thirsty red punch to the Digital Crown cap. While the look wasn't unheard of in the watch world, it often clashed to the point of being unsightly and was always something you could just never unsee.

On Series 4, the dot is replaced by a slightly less thirsty red ring. LTE iPads seem to survive just fine without red power buttons, so I'm not sure why watch feels the need to be so noisy here. The non-LTE models, by contrast, sport a much classier black ring.

The inside of the Digital Crown has been redesigned as well. Apple increased the number of components inside the mechanism by 21% but decreased the overall size by 30%. That's nerdy information that'll only appeal to people interested in how Apple keeps pumping more battery filling into the casing cake. What'll appeal to everyone is the new haptics. Same as Force Touch and 3D Touch, it uses the fact that our senses are a lie and our fingers are proprioceptive liars to emit vibrations that feel, for all intents and purposes, like precise, incremental clicks.

The is intended to let you scroll the interface without your chubby human finger blocking out the display. Since I'm more of an iPhone person than a Watch person, I've stayed stuck to tapping with my chubby human fingers anyway, except in cases where a list refuses to scroll by any mechanism other than the crown. Then I remember it's there.

The new clicking absolutely feels more precise and more fun to use. It's catchy, if not quite AirPods lid flipping catchy. I'm not sure it's enough to break me of my bad habits just yet, but I'm a huge believer in the future of tactile interface and I very much like where Apple is going here.

The Side button is flush now but still a real button. It doesn't make Series 4 any more water-resistant or "swim-proof" than Series 3 was. That's still the same. But it does make it a little harder to find with just your finger, which might be an accessibility issue. If you're not used to Apple Watch conventions, you'll still be able to tell something is there, it might just take some experimentation or explicit information to help you figure out what it is. If you're at all used to Apple Watch, though, you won't even notice what you're not noticing — you'll just press the side and it'll work, same as ever.