Can you live on just an LTE Apple Watch and leave your iPhone behind?

For years, I've dreamed of an Apple Watch with LTE. I do a fair bit of bike riding and — if my bike is broken — will even succumb to a run or two sometimes. Like most people, I take my iPhone with me every time. Between a family and work, I need to be accessible, even if I'm out and about. And becuase I use an iPhone 7 Plus as my daily driver, this means putting up with carrying a huge slab of glass and aluminum everywhere I go. It can be frustrating, and yes — it's a shattered screen just waiting to happen.

The LTE Apple Watch promises to solve this. Leave your silly phone behind, it whispers, and it'll just be you and me.

The LTE Apple Watch promises to solve this. Leave your silly phone behind, it whispers, and it'll just be you and me. For basic connectivity, it does the bill: My spouse can call me if something comes up, and my business partner can send me an iMessage if he needs anything. I can take a call or reply with Siri quickly and easily, all while I take a quick break from filling my rings. If I am involved in an accident or need help, I can get in touch with anyone in my Contacts list with ease.

But living that Watch-only lifestyle with the iPhone behind me isn't quite as easy as I had hoped it would be.

Cars and the Apple Watch do not mix

Something as simple as listening to music in my car with just my Apple Watch has proven difficult: During an untimely iPhone screen repair, I found myself in need of music for my 2014 Toyota, with only my watch at hand. Unfortunately, while my iPhone has been able to auto-pair with my car for years, the Watch is a different story — while they could see each other over Bluetooth, they failed to connect whatsoever.

Turns out, that sort of Bluetooth connection just isn't supported (opens in new tab) by watchOS at this point. I guess if I leave my iPhone behind, I'll need to grab an iPod instead to avoid listening to terrestrial radio.

The Apple Watch app problem

Here's the bigger problem I'm running into: A bunch of my Apple Watch apps aren't really ready to be independent of their phone-based parents.

As of watchOS 3, developers could build apps that could connect directly to a web service or server, bypassing the iPhone completely. As such, when the LTE Watch was announced, there were theoretically a bunch of apps ready on day one to live iPhone-free.

The reality is less rosy: Very few apps are truly iPhone free. Many need you to set up a profile on the iPhone first, due to privacy permissions for things like Health or logging into an online account. Others are still stuck in the past, and can't be used independently of the iPhone at all.

Like many companies, Relay FM depends on Slack for almost all of our internal communication. Without the iPhone, however, the watchOS app is currently ... less than helpful. The same goes for Tweetbot, my Twitter app of choice. If I want to check my home security cameras, I'm out of luck there, too. And that's not even mentioning the utter lack of podcast playback support.

I don't mention these apps to shame the developers behind them. I like and use all three on a daily basis on both my Mac and iPhone. I'd also bet that watchOS updates were fairly low on their priority list, given that until now, very few people used an Apple Watch without an iPhone in their pocket — or used third-party Apple Watch apps at all.

Time to stand

There are always growing pains when a platform expands: This is a transition, much like when larger form factors were introduced to the iPhone line, or when multitasking options first appeared on the iPad.

As with those changes, I'm sure implementing full watchOS 4 support in apps will take time. Developers need to re-work their watch apps, and some may find the hours they sink into development aren't worth it. Right now, that's fair; long-term, however, I think the untethered Apple Watch will only grow in importance in the lives of users.

I know it already is in mine.

Stephen Hackett is the co-founder of the Relay FM podcast network. He's written about Apple for seven years at 512 Pixels, and has more vintage Macs than family members living in his Memphis, TN home.

7 Comments
  • A lot of excellent information in this article. Thank you clearing a lot of my questions.
  • Why shouldn’t lazy developers be shamed? Unless the developers are still in school, and have other priorities, there is no excuse for not upgrading their apps in time for this watch.
  • Maybe it’s not laziness, maybe they just no longer want to support the Apple Watch, has that ever been if anyone’s thought. Just look at how all the big names have outright dropped support for it. Perhaps now that there is LTE that may change, but I’m not holding my breath at all on that. The reality is the Apple Watch is still tethered if it still needs to be on some sort of leash.
  • Because this change involves network code, it's a more complex job than others, and will require more testing. I'd expect there to be updates soon, but it's not an easy or quick change for everyone.
  • It's not laziness. There is no benefit to the developers. The Watch, while most popular smartwatch, is still a niche product used by very few people.
  • I think we are being incredibly harsh here. I'm no programmer, but it has to be a really big leap from being a window into a larger app on the iPhone and being truly independent. One has to wonder where the resources come from for such a big undertaking by a developer, and just how many customers will be in the pipeline with cellular Series 3 watches to justify the undertaking.
  • WatchPlayer podcast app lets you listen to and download podcasts with just the watch. I too would like to see car Bluetooth work, foolish that it doesn't... Wish there was a running list of Apple Watch apps that work without an iPhone.