Apple Watch 3 Hands-On: It's Finally Untethered

The first thing you notice when you strap Apple's LTE-equipped Apple Watch onto your wrist is its size — or rather, any change to the size of previous Apple Watches.

The $399 Apple Watch Series 3 may come packed with cellular connectivity that lets you connect even without an iPhone nearby, but this is essentially the same-sized watch that Apple's been selling the last few years. And this freedom opens up all sorts of possibilities you didn't have before.

The Freedom LTE Gives You

What can you do with built-in 4G? I didn't have a chance to test out call quality in the noisy hands-on area at Apple's press event today (Sept. 12). But a demo during the Apple Watch's unveiling was illustrative, as it featured an Apple employee calling in from the middle of Lake Tahoe, with nothing but the built-in microphone on the watch to amplify her voice.

That also happens to illustrate the value of an LTE-equipped smartwatch. You can now leave your iPhone behind and still make and receive phone calls. The watch uses your iPhone number and is apparently smart enough to know that your phone isn't within reach when you get a call, forwarding it to your wrist; the Find My Friend feature switches over to your watch, too.

You can now go on runs or workouts without toting along your iPhone, and cellular connectivity means that Apple Music streaming can provide a soundtrack for that workout. All you need is the watch and some AirPods.

The trick will be how carriers support the Apple Watch Series 3. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon will all offer plans for the watch, Apple says, though it didn't reveal exact details. As attractive as cellular connectivity may sound, paying exorbitant monthly rates just to make a phone call from your wrist would kill off interest in this new feature pretty quickly.

Other New Features

Other improvements in the Apple Watch Series 3 sound good on paper, and we look forward to having more than just a little hands-on time to test them out. The new watch's dual-core processor should be 70 percent faster than before, making features like Siri more responsive. (Siri can now talk on the Series 3 watch, saving you from having to stare at the screen to get an answer.)

A new W2 chip, basically an update to the chip inside Apple's AirPods wireless earbuds, speeds up Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for those times you are connected to your phone or a wireless network. Apple's also upgrading the heart sensor as well, providing more info like resting heart rate and recovery heart rate. (Lower rest rate and quicker recovery rates can indicate that you're becoming more fit, so that's helpful data to have at hand.) The watch will also warn you if your heart rate spikes when it detects that you're not working out, potentially alerting you to health problems.

The Apple Watch Series 3 also reaps the benefits of watchOS4, which arrives Sept. 19. That means new watch faces — I'm a fan of the Toy Story versions — improved workout tracking for swimming, improved music features and two-way data exchange with some exercise equipment.

Similar Size Package (No Small Feat)

The latest Apple Watch isn't exactly the same size as its LTE-free counterpart. Apple says the back crystal of the new watch extends by 0.25mm over the Series 2. That's as thick as two sheets of paper, and unless you're equipped with super sense, you won't notice any added bulk. I certainly didn't when I put an Apple Watch Series 3 on my wrist.

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That goes for weight, too. The Series 1 watch, which Apple is keeping around as a $249 entry-level model, tips the scales at 25 grams for its 38mm version. That same size watch weighs 26.7 grams for the GPS-equipped version of the Series 3 and 28.7 grams for the LTE-equipped watch. If you can detect that kind of difference, I've got some mattresses laid on top of a pea I want you to try out.

Since cellular connectivity requires its share of circuitry, how did Apple fit all that onto such a slender watch? The display on the Series 3 pulls double duty, also serving as an antenna for transmitting and receiving cellular signals.
Instead of a nano SIM card for cellular connections — which is pretty tiny if you've ever popped one out of your iPhone — Apple turned to a built-in eSIM for the Apple Watch. It's one-hundredth of the size of a traditional SIM to keep the insides of the Series 3 watch fairly compact.

You'll know you're using a cellular-equipped watch, though. The digital crown on the Series 3 has a red cap, while green dots on the watch face show you the cellular strength. You can also swipe up on the watch's display to access the control center, which has more details on the cellular connection.

You can preorder either version of the Apple Watch Series 3 — either the $399 version with cellular connectivity or the $329 watch with only GPS tracking — on Sept. 15. The watches hit stores Sept. 22.

Image Credits: Philip Michaels/Tom's Guide

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.