Review

Apple Watch Series 4 44mm review: It's almost the one you've been waiting for

Announced at Apple's iPhone event in September, the Apple Watch Series 4 is almost everything that you want it to be. It has a larger screen in almost the same size footprint, the bezels are smaller, and the processor is faster.

It's still missing one key feature though, which is an ambient mode, or the ability to see the time without raising your wrist. I don't always raise this as a key point in an Apple Watch review, but the Series 4 is heralded as the maturation of the product, the one that you've been waiting for. Without an always-on display, it's never going to be quite there.

This review is still going to end with me loving the product, as it's still awesome. This is my third Apple Watch, the first being the first-generation model (which we'll refer to as Series 0), and the second being the Series 2. Like I said, if you buy the Series 4, you will love it, but might regret your purchase next year.

I went with the larger, 44mm model in Gold stainless steel, with cellular.

Here's our review:

Specs

CPU Dual-core S4
GPU PowerVR
Display 1.78 inches, 448x368, 326ppi, LTPO AMOLED, 1,000 nits
Body 44x38x10.7mm (1.73x1.50x0.42in), 36.7g
Storage 16GB


Day one

Design

While this is the first time that there have been noticeable changes to the body of the Apple Watch, the changes aren't significant. If you're one of those people that are waiting for a round Apple Watch, that's probably not coming any time soon. A square display is still the best for displaying information, even if it's not the sexiest to wear on your wrist.

Indeed, the body is still a rectangle with rounded corners, although the corners are more rounded than before. On the right side, there's a digital crown and below that, a button for power and Apple Pay. The crown has a red circle on it since I went with the cellular model, replacing the big red dot that was on LTE models of the Series 3.

There's also a new color this year, which is Gold on the stainless steel model. The benefit of this one is that if you know anyone that spent $10,000 on the actual gold original Apple Watch, you can buy this and show it to them while pointing and laughing. Also, if you find yourself in this situation, I recommend pointing out that your Watch shipped with a version of watchOS that they can't even get.

The bottom of the device is still made of ceramic and sapphire crystal, which means that it's not going to scratch. The display also has sapphire crystal, as long as you get the stainless steel model. The aluminum model is just strengthened glass.

The only thing harder than sapphire is diamond, and that's why it won't get scratched. It can, however, be shattered. Harder materials like sapphire won't scratch, but they can shatter. On the other hand, softer materials can easily scratch, but they won't shatter. For example, the Moto Z2 Force won't shatter, but you can scratch it with your fingernail.

There are also two buttons underneath the device for removing the bands. All you have to do is press them and slide the band out, which is super easy. There's a solid selection of bands on Amazon at dirt cheap prices, so I like to have a collection.

Display

This year's Apple Watch marks the biggest change to the display since the device was first introduced. For one thing, it's bigger. It now comes in 40mm and 44mm sizes instead of 38mm and 42mm. It also has a higher pixel density than before at 326ppi, whereas previous generations were 303ppi.

The definition of a Retina display varies depending on form factor. The idea is that you won't see any pixelation from an average viewing distance, and that means something different on a phone than it would on say, a laptop. For example, Retina on a laptop is 227ppi.

Apple has mixed it up a bit with iPhones though. Historically, it's been 326ppi, and that's the significance of seeing the increased pixel density on the Apple Watch.

There's also a new display technology called LTPO AMOLED. LTPO stands for low-temperature polycrystalline oxide, and of course, AMOLED stands for active matrix organic light-emitting diodes. That pretty much adds up to the display using less power than before.

With an OLED display, some pixels can be turned off. That means that black is true black, as opposed to an LCD, which is backlit. This works out pretty well on a smartwatch because you can't really see where the display ends and the bezels begin.

Yes, the bezels on the Series 4 are narrower than before, but they weren't always noticeable on previous generations unless you used a full-screen watch face. The new display does have narrower bezels and it's definitely nicer, but I wasn't exactly complaining about the bezels before.

Of course, there's more real estate on the new screen, which is frankly beautiful. Apple has new watch faces like fire, water, and vapor, which are a bit mesmerizing. You can set them to be round or full-screen, which is good and bad. You can only use complications when it's round, but it looks a bit ugly. If you go full-screen, it definitely looks better, but you can't add complications. Also, to be clear, these watch faces are available with watchOS 5 on older devices, but only as round.

An ambient future

Let's take a moment to speculate, because I started out this review by pointing out that while this is the best that the Apple Watch has ever been, it's still lacking a key feature: an always-on display, also known as an ambient mode. The reason that I make a point of saying it is because it seems logical that next year might be the year that the Apple Watch has one.

Recently, Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon Wear 3100, which makes some major changes to the idea of a wearable chipset. Rather than multiple cores of equal strength, it uses something called big-small-tiny. This is basically a scaled down version of big.LITTLE for smartwatches. This provides powerful cores for tasks that require them, and efficient cores that use minimal power for tasks that don't require it.

That means that when a smartwatch display is in ambient mode, it's not sucking down power. It's nothing new in the world of smartphones, as pretty much every high-end device uses a chip that utilizes big.LITTLE in some way, but for smartwatches, it's a big deal.

Obviously, Apple doesn't use off-the-shelf parts from Qualcomm. It uses its own custom processors, but you can bet that Apple is working on something similar. This idea has become so ubiquitous across the smartphone landscape that it's common sense that this is going to happen across the board on smartwatches, especially with the benefits that it allows for wearables.

If something like this makes its way into the next Apple Watch, that would certainly be the time for the firm to introduce an ambient screen, especially when combined with the new LTPO AMOLED technology.

That's the biggest problem with this review. The Apple Watch Series 4 is awesome, but I do believe that the Series 5 is going to have that one key feature that we've all been waiting for since the beginning. As previously stated, this section is speculation, but it's worth considering before you spend a thousand dollars on the Series 4.

Performance

Aside from the awesome new display, performance is the reason that the Apple Watch Series 4 is great. Smartwatches are still sort of in their infancy. Think of the smartphone market before it matured. The original iPhone and Android phones were very low-powered, and the operating systems were built for that. Hardware rapidly got better, so devices became obsolete quickly. That's how smartwatch hardware is right now.

The Apple Watch Series 4 uses Apple's dual-core, 64-bit S4 processor, and the firm doesn't provide any specs beyond that. The differences in performance, however, are quite noticeable. It's good enough to where it changes the way I use the device.

Let me put it this way. On my old Apple Watch Series 2, I never bothered to try to open apps because it was a gamble. Most of the time, the display would go to sleep before the app could even launch. Now, apps actually work. Of course, this is how it was when I first got the Series 2. But if you want to see the difference, check out the differences in boot time in the video above.

Previously, I used my Apple Watch for notifications, and sometimes GPS. Both of those things have been invaluable to me. I now can't stand hearing smartphone notification sounds, or having a GPS voice interrupt the music playing on my car stereo. Now, I just feel more comfortable loading and using apps on the Watch.

Don't get me wrong; I'm still not using it for most of the apps that are there. But still, I can pull up Find My Friends and see where someone is without pulling out my phone, and it actually works.

Again, I can't run benchmarks so I can't put performance in numbers, but the Apple Watch Series 4 is solid, and it's actually a joy to use.

Cellular

Apple first introduced a cellular option with the Series 3, and just like last year, it's optional. As with anything portable, I'm happy to champion 4G LTE as a great feature to have. It's 2018, so shouldn't everything just be connected to the internet all of the time? It's a bit pricey though, as T-Mobile charges $10 per month for it, and I really don't use it enough to justify that price.

Unfortunately, the Apple Watch doesn't have a SIM card slot. If it did, I'd put a Project Fi SIM card in there, which doesn't charge for additional devices, just the data you use. I frequently use this method for iPads, Always Connected PCs, and anything else that takes a nano-SIM that I might not use frequently.

But I digress. 4G LTE is great, as things are just slow when all data is routed through your smartphone. You can use it to stream Apple Music, listen to podcasts, or anything else that's a standalone app and requires data.

Here's another example, and it's exactly the same as the one that I use to justify buying a cellular Kindle. There's an Audible app for the Apple Watch now, although you still need to download books (just like on the smartphone app). To be clear, the app sucks. Every time I've tried to use it, it starts my book at the beginning instead of syncing my place. That's fine, as I'm sure it will get better and this isn't an Audible app review. When it does get better, my place in the audiobook will sync with my Amazon account, so it will be set with other devices, along with the Kindle edition of the book.

That would work fine with an iPhone around, but with cellular, you don't have to worry about stuff like that. If you use a lot of services that need to sync with the cloud like that, cellular always comes in handy.

My one complaint is that the apps just aren't there. I'd love to partially disconnect from my phone, leaving social networks, email, and other things behind but still be reachable. The problem is that no one just uses SMS and Facebook Messenger, which are the two apps I have. I also need Skype, Hangouts, Slack, and sometimes other things.

Buy the Sport band

I always emphasize this, but whichever model you choose, get a Sport band. It doesn't matter which one, whether it's the regular one, Sport Loop, and so on. You're going to want one.

As I alluded to earlier, bands are much cheaper on Amazon. Apple charges $50 for Sport bands and those like it, and usually $150 for the more common fancier bands like the Milanese Loop. If you get the Milanese Loop bundled with the Watch, it's $100 more than the one with the Sport band, so the prices are about the same. Those $150 bands can be yours for under $20 on Amazon. Check your reviews first though, because a poor-quality band could fall off your wrist and damage your expensive Watch.

But while you build your collection of fancy bands, make sure you have a Sport band, or anything that attaches firmly. I love the Milanese Loop band as it's beautiful, but if you exercise, it will feel like it's falling off, and it might actually come off. Exercise can be running, but it can also be activities like bowling or going to the batting cages.

Because of this, I always recommend that people start with the Sport band. You can build your collection from there with anything you want, but make sure you have that one band you can use for any activity.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Apple Watch Series 4 is an awesome device that you're going to love. I just think you're going to want next year's model more if it has an ambient display. I'd recommend doing what I did with the original Apple Watch. Buy the aluminum one for a few hundred dollars, and save the really big purchase for next year.

It's a big problem for those with the Series 0, which isn't getting watchOS 5. Those people have to upgrade or stick with old software on frankly terrible hardware. I do understand that upgrading a smartwatch isn't as simple of a decision as a smartphone, for which most of us are on some sort of upgrade plan every year or two.

At the end of the day, it's a delightful device, and if you want one, you should buy one. You'll love it, but be prepared for what next year is going to offer.

I did go with stainless steel Gold, mainly because that's the new color. Apple always gets some of my money every year, so I like to change it up (Series 2 was stainless steel Black and Series 0 was aluminum Space Gray). It's definitely a beautiful device, and if you want to spend that much money, you'll absolutely love it.

 

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