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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Slimmer, more comfortable build
Larger, detailed screen
Smart, useful fitness capabilities
Improved battery life
Versatile feature set
Still very expensive
No third-party faces
Strong enhancements and clever feature additions make the Apple Watch Series 4 the best all-around smartwatch today.
The Apple Watch wasn't the first smartwatch on the market, but between Apple's trademark style and premium features—with a premium price tag to match—it quickly became the gold standard by which other wearable devices are judged. The Series 4 edition of the Apple Watch (44mm, Wi-Fi only model reviewed) continues the legacy set by its predecessors, but with significant improvements across the board. It doesn't look much different at a glance, but subtle upgrades to the screen, design, and health features make it the most useful and wholly impressive Apple Watch to date. It certainly hasn't gotten any cheaper, however, and users who don't need all the latest upgrades might be better off saving a chunk of change on an older Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch Series 4 maintains the same overall aesthetic as the previous three models, with the rounded rectangular face that makes it look like a tiny iPhone on your wrist, along with the rotating Digital Crown and a physical button on the right side.
However, for the first time since the launch of the device, Apple has tweaked the dimensions to 1.7 by 1.5 by 0.4 inches (HWD). The result is a slimmer profile and a Watch that feels less bulbous on your wrist. Comparing the original Apple Watch to the Series 4, we could feel the difference in the everyday fit. Apple didn't change too much, as all previous Apple Watch bands (official or otherwise) can still slot in as usual, but subtly shaving off some bulk works wonders.
Turn on the Watch and you'll see the other big design shift at play with the Series 4. Both sizes of the Apple Watch now feature larger screens without physically growing the dimensions, thanks to the combination of new display technology and trimming a bit of bezel around the panel. Instead of 38mm and 42mm screens on the old models, you now have the choice of 40mm and 44mm displays on the Series 4 models.
Apple didn't change too much, as all previous Apple Watch bands (official or otherwise) can still slot in as usual, but subtly shaving off some bulk works wonders.
That doesn't sound like a huge difference—and truly, it's not. But cutting away some of the bezel makes the screen feel more refined and immersive, allowing Apple to pack in more detail and complications (small, customizable widgets) on a single watch face, as seen with the sleek new Infograph face. The result is a smartwatch that has a slimmer body and feels better on the wrist, yet also packs in a larger screen that makes better use of its face. That's a thoroughly winning combination.
As before, the Watch's bands can be easily removed and swapped by pressing the little buttons on the ceramic backing. Apple's own official bands are pretty pricey, but the company offers a lot of distinctive colors and styles and there are some pretty good unofficial bands out there that'll save you a heap of cash. The Apple Watch Series 4 comes in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold aluminum editions, and Silver, Space Black, and Gold stainless steel versions.
It's an Apple product, so unsurprisingly, the Apple Watch very easy to set up. The Apple Watch only works with iPhones, so you'll need an iPhone 5S or newer running iOS 12. Once powered on, getting started is as simple as opening the pre-installed Watch app on your iPhone and pointing it at the Watch's screen, which displays a unique cluster of dancing particles
The iPhone will quickly recognize the Watch and then begin the pairing and installation process, which puts your settings and compatible apps onto the Watch. After everything's installed and you're up and running, you can change settings and watch faces from either the Watch itself or the Watch app on your iPhone—whichever is easier for you.
With Apple's own S4 processor inside, the Apple Watch Series 4 is super speedy and responsive. Apple suggests that this chip is up to twice as fast as the Series 3's S3 processor. Coming from using the increasingly sluggish original Apple Watch over the last few years, it feels many, many times faster than that old dinosaur.
Hardware is a key part of the equation, but so too is software. As Apple's watchOS operating system has matured, app performance has also improved, making getting around the interface easier and much more fluid. The overall experience of launching apps and using the Apple Watch has improved significantly.
The Apple Watch was never promised to be a multi-day watch, and Apple's own estimate of 18 hours of mixed usage has remained the same since the original model. That's true again here, but we were surprised by just how resilient the Series 4 was in average, everyday usage.
Time and again, we got two strong days of usage out of the Watch with the screen at full brightness (1000 nits). That's with pretty basic usage: a steady flow of email and message notifications throughout the day, flicking our wrist to check the time or weather conditions and automatically tracking outdoor walks. By the end of the first day, it was routine to still see 70 percent of a charge remaining. That tally would bleed a bit overnight, getting us closer to 50 percent left for day two. That was always enough to get us to bedtime.
GPS usage is where your battery will take its biggest hit if you're tracking runs, bike rides, and other activity, and fitness gurus are unlikely to stretch two days from a full charge. If you get the Watch with cellular connectivity, expect even more rapid drain. Everyone else, however, could get by without hitting the wireless charging pad every night.
As mentioned, getting around the Apple Watch's interface is a very smooth experience, and it's a pleasure to look at too. The inability to use third-party watch faces is disappointing, but Apple's own selection is strong and many faces can be extensively customized with various complications and color schemes. That way, you can have a face that's not only attractive, but also feeds you plenty of information at a glance.
Apple's Activity rings are still the smartest implementation of everyday fitness goals that we've seen on a smartwatch.
Where the Apple Watch Series 4 impresses the most is in its versatility as a wearable device. Some rival smartwatches excel primarily at fitness capabilities while others are better suited for relaying notifications and simple communication, but the Apple Watch very much feels like the complete package.
Apple's Activity rings are still the smartest implementation of everyday fitness goals that we've seen on a smartwatch, tracking basic movement, more fervent exercise, and how many hours a day you've gotten up on your feet for at least a minute. With a quick look, you have a sense of how close you are to hitting a solid level of activity for the day, and it can even motivate you to take the stairs or walk a few extra blocks. It subtly helps build healthier habits, and with Activity Sharing, you can connect with a friend to help motivate each other along the way.
Meanwhile, the Apple Watch is incredibly useful as a fitness tracker for both indoor and outdoor activities, whether you're running, biking, swimming, rowing, using an elliptical trainer, and plenty more. The onboard GPS means you don’t need to carry your phone to track runs, plus it also has a pair of heart rate monitors: one that's pressed against your skin and keeps tabs on your pulse, and another in the digital crown that can provide a basic ECG reading to check for irregularities. The Apple Watch can even detect if you've fallen, and summon emergency help.
On the communication front, it's also well-equipped thanks to the ability to take calls from your wrist, send quick voice messages like using walkie-talkies, and read and reply to texts. Apple Pay lets you quickly pay at a cashier terminal, plus you can hold the Watch near your face to ask voice assistant Siri for information or apps, it has built-in maps functionality, and the app and game ecosystem is more robust than on any other smartwatch today. It can also hold your favorite music and podcasts, and you can connect wireless headphones (like Apple's very convenient AirPods) to cut your phone out of the equation entirely.
Some rival smartwatches excel primarily at fitness capabilities while others are better suited for relaying notifications and simple communication, but the Apple Watch very much feels like the complete package.
All told, the Apple Watch Series 4 packs in numerous features that all have the kind of polish and smart design we’ve come to expect from Apple products that have been through a few revision cycles.
As the smartwatch gold standard, the Apple Watch is still, unsurprisingly, pretty expensive. An entry-level model with an aluminum case and a rubber sport band or fabric sport loop is priced at $399 for the 40mm model and $429 for the 44mm edition. If you want to add LTE functionality to give the Apple Watch its own cellular connection, add $100 to either sum.
Models with the stainless steel case start at $699 and range up from there depending on LTE and band options, while Apple's collaboration with fashion brand Hermès has yielded fancier models that start at $1,249 and rise from there. The eye-popping Apple Watch Edition, which started at $10,000 when the Apple Watch first released, is no longer available, but you can still spend a significant amount of money on the Series 4 today.
Just as Apple and Samsung frequently battle it out on the smartphone side of things, they're also key rivals in the smartwatch space. Samsung's current Galaxy Watch will actually work with your iPhone, even if the Apple Watch won't work with an Android.
In any case, these watches are dramatically different in design and interface. The Galaxy Watch's large, circular body is more akin to a traditional watch, and it has an excellent feature hidden in plain sight: a rotating bezel that lets you easily navigate through the interface. The screen looks great, the watch feels properly premium and impressive, plus the battery life is fantastic—we got more than five full days from a charge with average use.
Add to that a cheaper price ($329/$349 depending on size), and the Galaxy Watch is a strong alternative to the Apple Watch Series 4. However, the Apple Watch is a more cohesive match for an iPhone and has better health features along with a much more robust app ecosystem. It's also the more comfortable fitness companion, in our experience.
It's the best smartwatch yet.
You can use other smartwatches with an iPhone, but the Apple Watch Series 4 is the best of the best. It's impeccably designed and packed with features and feels totally in sync with iOS and the iPhone experience. That said, this premium device is priced accordingly, and anyone who needs a simple fitness tracker or a less-robust notification-flinging wearable should look elsewhere—including at older, cheaper Apple Watch models.