Last week, Apple gave me a Space Grey Aluminium Apple Watch Series 3 to test. I have been wearing an Apple Watch since it first came out and it has become an essential part of my device portfolio. I have already admitted to being a skeptic when it comes to wearables with cellular but a skeptic with an open mind willing to be proven wrong about the need to have a connected smartwatch. So I was much more interested in what Watch OS 4 had to offer to be honest and features such as the new heart monitor than cellular.
While I had been running iOS11 Beta since it first came out, I had decided not to run Watch OS 4 Beta so the first time I experienced it was when I turned on the new Apple Watch Series 3. Aside from cosmetic embellishments to the UI and faces, the most noticeable improvements for me have been on activity and fitness. The higher performance heart monitor and the added data on recovery really help you bring your workout to the next level even if, like me, you are just trying to get fitter. It has also been interesting to have Siri answer back to you rather than just displaying the answer to my question. I thought this might be a hook for me and while I need to spend more time with Apple Watch, it certainly has the potential to make me turn to Siri more.
The Role of the Carriers
As I listened to Apple Watch Series 3 being announced at the Steve Jobs’ Theater, I said that it was going to be down to the carriers to mess up this opportunity. I was referring to the pricing they would choose to charge for activating a watch which turned out to be about $10 a month with some limited promotions. A price, that in my view is excessive considering what the device can do, which is much less than what an equally priced phone or a tablet can do.
Little did I know, that the actual experience of setting up the Apple Watch could also be a bit of a hot mess mostly because the store, as well as online staff, was not properly informed. After a few hours and a few self-taught sales assistants, I could activate my Apple Watch, but in the process, I learned a few things.
My carrier still thought I was using an iPhone 5 as, apparently, the data on what phone I am using does not get updated automatically when a new phone with my phone number gets connected to the network. When I asked the salesperson, he said that they do not have that information and I should be calling in my IMEI number every time I update my device – he could not quite understand why I chuckled when he said that! I am sure it will not surprise you to hear that in the UK my mobile operator knew what phone I was using and that data was actively used to pitch upgrades and services.
It also turned out that my SIM was an old one, which did not support WIFI calling, a feature you need to activate to get NumberSynch working. Once again, I was surprised, as in the UK my carrier sent out a free SIM every time they upgraded them.
All these steps were necessary to start the activation, but they are totally unrelated to the Apple Watch and just show very poor customer management on the carrier part.
Others reported glitches in their activation process and I am not sure if it was because carrier underestimated the amount of demand or because carriers were just not ready. Either way, the customers are feeling the pain and Apple will likely be criticized for it. The complexity of being almost first (activations of LTE smartwatches thus far have been quite limited) and doing things slightly differently from others by relying more on the sinergy between Apple Watch and iPhone, however, had left Apple trusting that carriers would be ready. In some ways, this reminds of Apple Pay roll out when banks were heavily advertizing their support but you called to activate your card and they would have no clue. Some suggested that Apple should have waited, that the product was rushed, but I do not think that was the case. No matter when the shipping would have started these issues with setup would have likely occurred. As it was the case with Series 1, I think Apple is still in learning mode with Apple Watch and in this case how consumers will use the cellular connection.
Setting Expectations Right
Once I could set up LTE on my Apple Watch 3, I was very impressed by how smart the LTE connection is. When you look at your control panel, you can see when the Apple Watch is connected to the phone and therefore cellular is off. You can tell because you have a green phone icon and the cellular icon is white. When your phone is off or not connected to your Apple Watch because it is out of range, the cellular icon turns green and rather than the iPhone icon you will have the network bars, well dots in this case. This allows for Apple Watch to optimize battery life.
Apple made it clear that while the Apple Watch can now be a stand-alone device, it is not meant to be that way all day long. I had no problems going for a dog walk or through a workout without my phone and being able to make a couple of test calls and receive messages and notifications. Battery life when I did that ended up being a little shorter than when I did not use cellular, as you would expect, but I still made it through the day.
Apple’s great demo of the employee who was paddle boarding led people to expect miracles. While Apple’s decision to favor Wi-FI made sense, as it would help with battery life but also with data consumption, it is proving difficult in an urban context where you can find many public networks that require a password. Aside from this widely-reported Wi-Fi issue, which I am sure Apple will address shortly with a software update, I think that, because of that demo, people now expect to have reception in locations where not even a phone would get a signal. Let’s be realistic, despite the innovative design Apple used for the antenna, there are going to be limitations on what Apple Watch vs. an iPhone can do.
Should you buy the Apple Watch Series 3 LTE
I won’t tell you, whether you should be buying an Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE. Not because I cannot tell you but because I should not. My experience is mine alone, and more so than any other device you might have with you, Apple Watch is a very personal experience, and you should base your purchase on what you think your key use cases will be and mindful of the limitations the Apple Watch might have as an iPhone replacement simply because that is not what it’s purpose is.