Apple Watch Series 3 Review: Freedom Meets Frustration

I've owned multiple iPhones, iPads, iPods and MacBooks over the past decade. I wore a first-generation Apple Watch and now sport the Series 2 on a regular basis, when I'm not testing other wearable devices. The Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE is the first Apple device I've used that didn't just work out of the box. And while I did eventually get it running, other issues — as well as its high price — make this connected watch a tough sell.

The Promise — and Reality — of LTE

A smartwatch aims to put easy access to your smartphone on your wrist. But cellular connectivity has the potential to remove your phone from the equation altogether. Early criticisms of the Apple Watch were that it leaned too heavily on the phone for basic tasks. Software updates and faster processors have made that less of an issue — now the watch can run apps natively and access Wi-Fi networks that your iPhone has connected to in the past. But it still requires your phone to be its relay device for phone calls and notifications, and it can't do much when your iPhone is out of range and there are no known Wi-Fi networks around.

The LTE Apple Watch Series 3 is designed to bridge that gap, but that's it. It's not an iPhone replacement. If you're expecting to leave your phone for extended periods of time and use the watch to handle all your tasks, you will be disappointed.

Even though I knew the watch couldn't replace my iPhone, I still had high hopes. Those were dashed as soon as I unboxed the device.

Activation: Nothing But Problems

The Series 3 pairs to your iPhone the same way past generations did, with a dynamic image on the watch face that you scan with your iPhone camera. That part is just as seamless as usual. But then I got to the part where I had to activate the watch's cellular connectivity.

I have a grandfathered unlimited data plan through AT&T that has some restrictions — namely, that I can't use it as a tethering device. I didn't expect this to be an issue with the Series 3, because you have to pay an extra $10 a month to allow your watch to use your phone's data. But I was unable to activate my watch with AT&T, and not even an AT&T customer service agent could help me figure out if the problem was with the watch or with my cell phone plan. (I've reached out to AT&T to clarify what the company's actual policy is on activating LTE smartwatches on the retired unlimited data plan, and will update you if it responds.)

Then I paired the Apple Watch to an Apple-provided iPhone 8 on T-Mobile to test out the device while I sorted out my AT&T issues. The T-Mobile LTE connection was strong, and I was able to query Siri (which has improved so much on the Series 3), download emails and launch apps on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn without an iPhone. But phone calls? Forget it. Every single time I tried to make a call, it failed.

It took some back-and-forth with Apple to figure out I had to deactivate my T-Mobile Apple Watch plan in the Cellular section of the Apple Watch iOS app, then reactivate it and reboot the watch. That did the trick, and I was able to make phone calls with no problem.

I chalk all of these issues up to launch weekend jitters, though it's still unclear if the problems were caused by the carriers or Apple. A look at Twitter and Reddit shows that other Series 3 buyers experienced the same problems I did.

There is one bug that's definitely on Apple. Early reviews of the LTE Series 3 indicated that the watch has a problem switching from Wi-Fi to cellular. This is due to a software issue that Apple says will be fixed in a future update. I didn't run into this problem, which is caused when your iPhone is on a Wi-Fi network that requires an interstitial login (like at a hotel or a Starbucks).

Because the watch lacks the ability to log in to Wi-Fi networks on its own, it gets stumped by the login page, but won't default to cellular. The biggest issue here is that you can't control whether your watch is relying on your iPhone's Wi-Fi connection or its own cellular connection. It always defaults to the iPhone to save battery life, and you can force the watch to connect to cellular by putting the phone in airplane mode. But there should be a manual way to control that connection.

Cellular Connectivity: Battery Killer

I quickly figured out the LTE Series 3's limitations when I left my iPhone at home to keep the watch on cellular. I started off my day with an early morning 3-mile run with GPS activated. While I ran, I listened to the Apple Music My Favorites Mix playlist I had downloaded to the watch using my Bluetooth AirPods. By noon, the battery on the Watch was at 40 percent. By 2:30 p.m., it was at 10 percent, and I had to turn on Lower Power Mode. These activities aren't battery killers on the Series 2 or Series 3 without LTE, but with the Series 3's constant cellular connection, you can forget about lasting 18 hours on a charge. Simply being connected to a cell network will reduce battery life from 18 hours with mixed use to about 8 hours.

You'll get much better battery life from the non-LTE model. After 30-minute runs with LTE turned on and with cellular deactivated — both times with GPS turned on and listening to Apple Music playlists I had stored offline — the non-LTE model was at 75 percent battery by noon.

That's why the watch is designed to rely on your phone's connectivity to keep its own cellular connection from draining the device. You can see what source the watch is connected to — phone, Wi-Fi network or cellular network — in the Control Center by swiping up from the bottom of the display. You can't actually change the source from that screen, which is why that Wi-Fi bug is so problematic.

Design: Unchanged, in a Good Way

Apple's ability to put a cellular modem and bigger battery in the Series 3 without dramatically adding to its size is impressive. The watch is slightly thicker than the Series 2 — about two sheets of paper thicker, Apple says — but not noticeably so. The 38-millimeter Apple Watch Series 3 is the only LTE smartwatch that looks good on my wrist. The Series 3 also comes in a larger 42mm size for people with larger wrists.

The ultrabright, 1,000-nit OLED display has the same size and resolution that the last models have: 272 x 340 pixels on the 38mm model and 312 x 390 on the 42mm. The screen is Ion-X glass on the aluminum models and sapphire crystal on the stainless-steel and ceramic versions. The aluminum variety comes in gold, silver and space gray, while the ceramic version is available in white and gray.

Basically, it's still one of the better-looking smartwatches on the market (yes, even though it's square).

Fitness Tracking: Better Than Ever

Working out is the one use for which an LTE Apple Watch is perfect. There is nothing quite like lacing up my sneakers, pairing my AirPods to my watch and hitting the pavement with no phone weighing me down. (I love my iPhone 7 Plus, but it feels like a giant barnacle attached to my body when I'm running.) Knowing that I can still get text messages and important notifications on my watch is reassuring. Is it essential? Not for me.

Both Series 3 models, the one with cellular and the one without, sport a new barometric altimeter, which is a handy new data point for measuring elevation. That's useful for hiking and skiing as well as actual stair climbing. I knew I climbed a lot of stairs by virtue of all subway stations being located underground, but I never really tallied them up before. After I saw that I powered through 21 flights of stairs after a Mets game at Citi Field, I realized why I was so tired (and promptly took a nap).

Otherwise, the Series 3 with LTE has the same great fitness-tracking features that the Series 2 and Series 3 without cellular connectivity have, including accurate built-in GPS and equally accurate heart rate sensor. Apple's watchOS 4 upgrade put more fitness-tracking features on all its smartwatches, such as alerts when your heart rate is elevated and support for high-intensity, interval-training workouts.

If you're going on a long run, Apple has added a feature to the LTE watch that allows you to turn off cellular connectivity and the heart rate sensor to save battery life. I toggled on this feature for one run, but if you do this frequently, it makes owning an LTE watch kind of pointless.

Streaming Music: Missing in Action

Streaming audio is another feature for which I would consider buying an LTE smartwatch. Apple is promoting the watch's Apple Music streaming feature, but it isn't actually available yet, which is bizarre, considering that the company's new Apple Watch commercials prominently tout the deep Apple Music integration.

I also believed an LTE Apple Watch would finally deliver stand-alone podcast streaming or at least offline storage, so I could catch up on new episodes at the gym or on a walk around Brooklyn's Prospect Park without carrying my phone with me. That hasn't happened, due to limitations in watchOS 4, as Overcast developer Marco Arment details here.

I still have to carry my phone with me when I want to listen to podcasts on my commute, which I do every day. The watch does allow you to control audio playback and save music offline from Apple Music to listen to via Bluetooth headphones, but those features are neither new nor exclusive to the LTE model.

Phone Calls: Cool Concept, Warm Execution

Sure, you can phone home from your watch. But do you really want to? Making or taking phone calls from your wrist sounds a lot more exciting in your mind than it is in reality.

I rarely talk on the phone, but when I do, it's for extended calls such as check-in sessions with my mom, who lives 3,000 miles away, or going over contracts with vendors for my upcoming wedding. On the watch, these calls require Bluetooth headphones, because holding your wrist up for any length of time to speak into it is annoying.

The watch's call quality is comparable to my iPhone, but unlike my phone, the device starts to heat up after a few minutes of talk time. I had to take it off my wrist after a 13-minute phone call because it became uncomfortably warm.

For quick check-ins with friends or significant others, the watch will do just fine, but I'd rather dictate a text message from the watch using Siri. (Though both are equally awkward to do in public, just FYI.)

Why You Don't Need LTE

When the watch is connected to cellular, it can quickly make calls, respond to messages using voice dictation or the Scribble handwriting-to-text feature, and activate Siri to answer questions or pull up directions. I experienced some issues downloading emails from my Gmail account in Apple's native Mail app on cellular, and there were periods of time when the cellular connection would unexpectedly drop (denoted with a red X at the top of the display), even when I hadn't moved.

The things I love most about the Apple Watch have nothing to do with its LTE capabilities. I appreciate being able to save music offline to listen to over AirPods, use Apple Pay to buy stuff without carrying my wallet around, glance at the Siri watch face to get an overview of my day and track my daily activity in the Workout and Activity apps. But those are all things I can do with a Series 3 that doesn't have LTE, which starts at $329. In fact, you can get all of these features with every watch Apple sells.

Bottom Line

The Series 3 with LTE has its problems, like the Wi-Fi software bug and launch weekend carrier hiccups. But its biggest issue is that it costs too much for what it is: a companion device for your iPhone. At $399 for the 38 mm and $429 for the 42 mm, plus $10 a month for cell service, the watch should be more capable. If you want the Series 3, get the non-LTE version, which starts at a much more reasonable $329.

Streaming music and podcasts would be a huge step forward (the music part is coming soon, but should've been ready at launch), as would manual control over cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity so your watch doesn't get stuck somewhere between the two. Longer battery life will continue to be a struggle for Apple at this size, even though the Series 3 has a bigger battery than its predecessors.

The good thing about the Apple Watch is that many of its improvements over the past couple of years have arrived with software updates, and the same will undoubtedly be true of the LTE model. There are moments when LTE makes the watch feel truly magical: receiving a text while I'm running with just the Apple Watch and AirPods, or downloading emails without a phone nearby after escaping the office to pick up lunch. But those moments aren't as frequent as I would like them to be.

I can imagine a future in which a smartwatch can replace a smartphone for most of the tasks we use it for, but the Series 3 with LTE is not that future. At least not yet.

Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom's Guide

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  • immense
    AT&T now offers a new unlimited data plan that included tethering (this was done in response to other carriers offering unlimited data). Your rep should have told you that.. I just swapped from my grandfathered plan to the new unlimited plan and saved $20/mo, got free HBO because I have DirecTV and 10GB/mo of tethering per device.
  • realnewscollective
    I picked up my Apple Watch on the launch date and haven't experienced ANY connectivity issues. Everything worked out of the box including cellular through my t-Mobile account. I upgraded from my Series 1 model without having to reboot or change any settings. Adding it to my t-Mobile account was seamless. They are offering 3-months free and then $10/monthly thereafter. I appreciate you well written review, however, I thought you should know my transition to Series 3 has been perfect.
  • pdgorton
    I collected my watch from Canberra yesterday, paired with my iPhone 6, read a (little ) bit of the user guide, connected with m Telstra account, and it all works as advertised. Delighted.
  • lumbee1
    I have ordered the Series 3 + LTE, but the delivery time has been lengthened, not shortened. Still at least a month. Am considering getting the Apple Watch without LTE instead. But,, that seems anticlimactic. I am buying my first Apple Watch. It was the presence of LTE and newly found semi-independence that convinced me.

    I do think $10 per month on a shared plan is too much to charge for service.
  • pdgorton
    Anonymous said:
    I have ordered the Series 3 + LTE, but the delivery time has been lengthened, not shortened. Still at least a month. Am considering getting the Apple Watch without LTE instead. But,, that seems anticlimactic. I am buying my first Apple Watch. It was the presence of LTE and newly found semi-independence that convinced me.

    I do think $10 per month on a shared plan is too much to charge for service.
  • pdgorton
    It’s my first also, and it’s good. I would suggest wait for the LTE version.