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 thinner and with less volume 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 dimensions of its smartwatches to 40mm and 44mm, up from the 38mm and 42mm dimensions that had been standard thus far. The new models are thinner than their precursors, however, 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 30% larger.
Other core hardware highlights include:
- A speaker that is 50% louder, in order 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 right edge to the left edge, just below the Digital Crown, to make audio exchanges clearer.
- A re-engineered Digital Crown that includes haptic feedback and 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. Apple says this will 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.
- Improved battery performance of up to 6 hours during outdoor workouts.
Software: New, More Complicated Watch Faces
Apple had previously announced watchOS 5, now slated to ship on 17 September 2018, but the company used the Series 4 announcement to announce 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 Infograph watch face that can incorporate up to eight complications for maximum utility. One welcome complication provides circular pictures of loved ones for one-tap communication.
- 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. Travelers will appreciate a new face that monitors multiple time zones. And there’s a new face crammed with health and fitness features.
- Face lifts: The popular Modular watch face, with its extra-large center complication showing snippets of information, now features more options—including data from Apple’s Stocks, Activity, and Heart Rate 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.
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 a 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. If the user is lucid, the Apple Watch displays a screen option to contact emergency services for help. If you don’t respond to that within 60 seconds, the watch automatically contacts designated emergency contacts along with emergency services.
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. Apple is now building on these capabilities with additional health-monitoring features.
Most notably, Series 4 users can now record an electrocardiogram (ECG), via 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.
To take an ECG reading, you touch the Digital Crown for about 30 seconds to receive a heart-rhythm classification courtesy of new electrodes built into the dial and a new electrical-heart sensor in the back crystal. Apple’s Health app stores those readings, and you can share them with doctors. (This capability was previously available with $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 exceeds or falls below a specified threshold.
The ECG app along with irregular-rhythm notifications are due later this year.
The Apple Watch’s monitoring features are getting nods from the American Heart Association and the Federal Drug Administration, giving them considerable credibility as health devices.
The Apple Watch Lineup
The Apple Watch Series 4 start at $399 for GPS-only models and $499 for cellular-capable models (which also require an additional monthly cell plan). The Apple Watch Series 3 started at $329 for the basic model and $399 for the cellular model.
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.
Along with the three aluminum finishes anodized in silver, gold, and space gray, the Apple Watch Series 4 is available in a gold stainless steel with a matching Milanese band, joining the stainless steel models in silver and space black.
Apple is, as usual, trotting out new watch bands, but emphasizes that all existing bands will work just fine with the new, bigger watches and vice versa. Similarly, the Nike+ and Hermès versions of the Apple Watch come with new bands and matching watch faces. Notably, there’s a Nike+ Sports 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. Of course, if the price is a problem, the Series 3 remains available, but without the attractive new features.