Again, not a great deal has changed regarding the Apple Watch 3’s display. It offers the same resolution as last year’s model, with a 272 x 340 (38mm) or 312 x 390 (42mm) OLED display. Importantly, it still has that 1000 nits of brightness, just like the recent Fitbit Ionic – and it’s what sets the Apple Watch devices apart from other rivals. Such searing levels of brightness mean you’re unlikely to encounter difficulties viewing the display, even in bright outdoor sunlight.
The touchscreen display looks incredibly vibrant and crisp, whether displaying your own custom photo watch face or just watchOS’s menus and interface. The font is sharp and readable and icons are easy to recognise. If there’s one minor complaint, it’s that an always-on display option is still lacking – something that many rival smartwatches have long implemented. These typically display a basic watch face in a low-powered state, rather than just having the display appear blank when not in use.
Although not a huge drain, an always-on display on a smartwatch does still impact battery life. Considering this is something that’s already at a premium on the Apple Watch, it goes some way to explain Apple’s hesitance to introduce a similar feature.
A simple wrist rotation gesture brings the screen to life and this works consistently unlike other wearables I’ve worn. You can also more discreetly peek at the time by rotating the digital crown when the display is off. This turns the panel on gradually, notching up the brightness little by little.
The display still supports Force Touch, enabling you to access other menus or interactions by pressing hard on the display. This is met with a little haptic vibration. It isn’t used as frequently as I’d like beyond a few apps and to change watch face customisations.
As mentioned, the microphone and speaker can be found on the side of the watch. The speakers do a great job of letting you take a hands-free call away from your iPhone. You don’t actually need to have it held up to your mouth Dick Tracy-style. At arm’s length works fine; just not dangled down by your sides. With my hands on a steering wheel I was perfectly able to have a conversation using the built-in speaker and mic.
Apple Watch 3 – LTE performance and watchOS update
In the initial weeks following the Apple Watch Series 3’s release, much was being said about the headline LTE performance. Namely, there was a problem in how the hand-off between Wi-Fi and LTE was being handled. In Apple’s own words: “We have discovered that when Apple Watch Series 3 joins unauthenticated Wi-Fi networks without connectivity, it may at times prevent the watch from using cellular. We are investigating a fix for a future software release.”
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This basically translates as the Apple Watch 3 is failing to use its LTE connectivity – you know, the service you’re paying extra for – because it’s prioritising Wi-Fi instead. In theory this makes sense: you’d probably want the device to use less battery-draining Wi-Fi and also save the data on your LTE plan.
The problem is, the Apple Watch 3 was joining Wi-Fi networks without connectivity, either because the internet connectivity wasn’t working, or because they required a user login. This is typically through a capture page you register, or click through to from the browser on your phone or laptop. Without the ability to do so on your Apple Watch 3, you were trapped in limbo and remained disconnected from the world.
Two weeks after release, Apple issued a watchOS update looking to remedy the issue. In use, I can say that it appears to have done the job for the most part. Disconnecting from my iPhone, either by way of leaving it behind or putting it into Airplane mode, the Apple Watch 3 was much quicker to jump over to its LTE connection – typically taking about 10-30 seconds. Walking around London and past the hundreds of coffee shops and open Wi-Fi networks, I kept an eye on the Apple Watch’s cellular icon and I didn’t see it drop the LTE in favour of an unknown Wi-Fi network.
When trying to make a phone call over LTE – admittedly, in a congested area surrounded by 16,000-odd runners at the Royal Parks Half Marathon – I did find the call dropping on occasion. I’ve also occasionally had to disable and re-enable the LTE to get calls to work. In less tricky surroundings, LTE calling has for the most part worked absolutely fine.
Reception is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not as good as an iPhone. My gym is located in a basement, which is never great for cellular reception, but my iPhone can at least conjure up a single bar in some areas. There’s no such with the Apple Watch 3. So while I can have my workout tracked and stream my offline music to my Bluetooth headphones, I can’t make use of the LTE connectivity.
Still, there are probably only a few occasions when you’re likely to benefit from having an always-connected – within the realms of network reception – smartwatch. Going for a run is clearly one of them. It was liberating to be able to leave my iPhone behind during the half marathon race, and know that I’d still be able to phone or message my running companion at the finish line. During a few earlier test runs I was still receiving Slack messages from the Trusted Reviews team, even though my iPhone was on my desk. You may occasionally want to turn off the LTE, when you want some alone time.
I can also now leave my phone at home while I quickly pop out to the shops, without feeling disconnected. Then there’s the Emergency SOS feature, which will call the emergency services via a long press of the side button, without the need for your iPhone. You never know when that might be useful, as shown in the Apple Watch 3’s reveal video.
The other potential draw for the LTE connection is Apple Music streaming, which will let you stream the service’s 40 million-odd tracks straight from your wrist while on the go. You can already download your Apple Music playlists for offline playback on the Watch, but if you’re always on the hunt for something new then you’ll appreciate the option. However, Apple Music streaming isn’t available at time of review – Apple says this should be ready within the next month.
The fact that the LTE connection doesn’t support roaming is frustrating; this is true even if your iPhone’s network provider supports it. This means if you take your Apple Watch Series 3 GPS + Cellular model out of your home territory, it will operate like the non-LTE model. That’s a drawback for frequent travellers – and a real shame.
Another annoyance is that when I attempt to call my voicemail number from my Watch, it directs me to my iPhone. The ability to clear voice messages (only ever left by my mum) from my Watch rather than having to get my iPhone out would have been great.
Then there’s also the fact that without your iPhone turned on and connected, you won’t receive SMS messages on your Apple Watch 3 even if it has LTE reception, although you can send SMS messages (iMessages will, however, send and receive as normal).
So far, occasions where the LTE connection has been undeniably useful for me have been few and far between. There’s obviously far more you can do with your iPhone than your Watch, limiting how often I felt compelled to go out without my device – aside from ‘just because I could’.
In fairness, Apple’s proposition with the LTE-enabled Apple Watch 3 isn’t as a device to replace your iPhone; it wouldn’t need pairing with one if it was supposed to, after all. It’s whether these sporadic moments and conveniences are worth the premium for both the device and your phone contract that will ultimately define the LTE option importance to you.