Photo by Apple
At its special event on 12 September 2018, Apple led off the announcements by unveiling fourth-generation Apple Watch models that, for the first time, deviate significantly from the size and shape of older models. Though more compact than precursors, the new Apple Watch Series 4 models include bigger screens that go closer to the edges.
There are new model-specific software features, too, including an assortment of watch complications and faces that cram more information onto the gadgets’ compact displays—or just look trippy.
The Series 4 models also incorporate significant new health-monitoring features courtesy of new and improved sensors that can detect if users have experienced falls or are experiencing abnormal heart rhythms.
Hardware: Larger, Faster, and with a “Mechanical and Responsive” Feel
Apple slightly boosted the vertical screen dimensions of the Apple Watch Series 4 to 40mm and 44mm, up from the 38mm and 42mm dimensions that had been standard thus far. The screens are correspondingly a bit wider to preserve their slightly rectangular proportions.
The new models are thinner than the Apple Watch Series 2 and Series 3 models, with less total volume. How much of a difference this really makes is probably a matter of feel, so if size is a concern, we recommend trying one on before buying.
Apple advertises the Series 4 displays as having an “edge-to-edge” design, and while there’s less of a black border than on the previous models, the display doesn’t completely fill the screen. The corners of the displays are curved, too, and the overall viewing area is about 30% larger.
Other core hardware highlights include:
- A speaker that is 50% louder to optimize phone calls, Siri exchanges, and two-way conversations using the new Walkie-Talkie feature in watchOS 5
- A microphone that Apple relocated from the left edge to the right edge, just below the Digital Crown, to reduce echo and make audio exchanges clearer
- A re-engineered Digital Crown that includes haptic feedback with what Apple describes as a more “mechanical and responsive” feel, including the sensation of incremental clicks
- A redesigned back, which is now made entirely of sapphire crystal and black ceramic to improve cellular reception
- A next-generation S4 chip with a custom 64-bit dual-core processor that is supposed to deliver twice the speed of the Series 3 while maintaining about 18 hours of overall battery life
- For athletes, there’s a next-generation accelerometer and gyroscope that can sample motion data up to 8 times faster, along with improved battery performance of up to 6 hours during outdoor workouts
- Bluetooth 5 support for improved data-transfer speeds and more reliable connections to iPhones over longer distances
Software: New, More Complicated Watch Faces
Apple had previously announced watchOS 5, but the company used the Apple Watch Series 4 announcement to reveal additional software features intended to take advantage of the new, roomier displays. These include:
- New complications: Apple added more complications, and cooked up an entirely new Series 4–only Infograph watch face that can incorporate an advertised eight complications for maximum utility. One welcome complication provides circular pictures of loved ones for one-tap communication. Other complication options here include health gauges for athletes and multiple time zones for travelers.
- New faces: These include mesmerizingly animated Fire, Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor faces. For those who like the Breathe app, there’s a new Breathe face, with three visual flavors along with the app’s functionality. Though these faces are meant to show off the new Series 4 screens, watchOS 5 brings them to older models too.
- Face lifts: The popular Modular watch face, with its large center complication showing an extended snippet of information, now features more options, including data from Apple’s Activity, Heart Rate, and Stocks apps. It also supports more third-party apps, allowing users to show scores from the MLB At Bat app and flight info from the Qantas app, among others. These changes are available for older models running watchOS 5 too. In its Series 4 version, the Modular face gets a slight name change to Infograph Modular.
Health: Watching for Falls and Abnormal Heart Events
The original Apple Watch struggled a bit to justify its existence, with Apple focusing initially on the fashion market. In subsequent updates, Apple turned its attention to fitness, where the Apple Watch has proved popular. With the Apple Watch Series 4, the company is now concentrating on making the Apple Watch into a health-tracking device.
Accordingly, Apple trotted out some new health-related features to make the Series 4 more of an “intelligent guardian of your health.”
If a user takes a hard fall, the Apple Watch can now detect that event thanks to that next-generation accelerometer and gyroscope. The fall-detection capability can monitor “repeatable, identifiable patterns” such as wrist trajectory and impact acceleration to determine if a user has fallen, or just slipped or tripped.
What happens after a hard fall depends on the circumstances. The Apple Watch initially displays an alert with an option to contact emergency services for help. If the user doesn’t move within 1 minute, the watch automatically notifies emergency services along with designated emergency contacts. The feature is reportedly on by default only if the user is over 65; younger people will have to turn it on manually.
Improved Health Monitoring
The Apple Watch has helped many people track their health through its ability to measure such things as calories burned, resting heart rate, and abnormally high heart rates via an optical heart sensor. Apple is now building on these capabilities with additional health-monitoring features.
Most notably, Series 4 users will soon be able to record an electrocardiogram (ECG) with Apple’s new ECG app. An ECG can help determine if your heart is beating normally, or if it’s showing signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib), a condition that can lead to significant health complications such as strokes.
To take an ECG reading, you’ll touch the Digital Crown for about 30 seconds to receive a heart-rhythm classification courtesy of a new electrical-heart sensor with electrodes built into the dial and back crystal. Apple’s Health app stores those readings, and you can share them with doctors. (This capability was previously available via a $200 add-on product called Kardiaband.)
In addition, the Apple Watch can intermittently analyze heart rhythms in the background and send a notification if an irregular heart rhythm—such as AFib—is detected. It can also alert you if your heart rate is too high or too low, which is potentially a sign of something serious. These features also are made possible by the optical heart sensor.
The ECG app along with irregular-rhythm notifications are due later this year.
The Apple Watch’s new health-monitoring features are getting nods from the American Heart Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, giving the smartwatches increased credibility as health devices.
The Apple Watch Lineup
The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 for GPS-only models and $499 for cellular-capable models (cellular connectivity requires an additional monthly cell plan). The Apple Watch Series 3 previously started at $329 for the basic model and $399 for the cellular model, making the new models pricier propositions.
For those who don’t want to spend so much and aren’t in need of the new capabilities of the Series 4, Apple is continuing to sell the Apple Watch Series 3, with a new starting price of $279 for the GPS-only model and $379 for the cellular model.
Along with the three aluminum finishes anodized in silver, gold, and space gray, the Apple Watch Series 4 is available in a gold-colored stainless steel with a matching Milanese band, joining stainless steel models in silver and space black.
The new watches became available for pre-order on 14 September 2018 and will ship 21 September 2018.
Notably missing from the announced lineup is the ceramic Apple Watch Edition, which is no more. It turned out that people didn’t want to spend up to $17,000 for a gold Apple Watch Edition at the device’s initial launch, and they apparently aren’t interested in spending more than $1,000 for a ceramic Apple Watch Edition either.
Apple is, as usual, trotting out new watch bands, but the company emphasizes that all existing bands will work just fine with the new, bigger watches and vice versa. Similarly, the niche Nike+ and Hermès versions of the Apple Watch come with new bands and matching watch faces. Notably, there’s a Nike+ Sport Loop with reflective yarn for safer outdoor, low-light workouts.
With the release of the Apple Watch Series 4, the buying decision becomes more difficult. The new health-monitoring features are particularly compelling, particularly for older folks who are concerned about falls or heart health, but they’re accompanied by increasingly steep price tags. If the price is a problem, the Series 3 remains available, but without some of the attractive new features.