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Apple Watch Series 4 review: A great smartwatch

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
399
inc VAT

The Apple Watch 4 is an amazing smart watch and, quite simply, the best money can buy; but you have to own an iPhone to make the most of it

Pros 
Larger screen
Thinner
Excellent performance
Cons 
Battery life still not great
Expensive
No sleep tracking
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Update: Apple has unveiled the successor to the Watch Series 4 at its annual September launch event. The Apple Watch Series 5 will arrive at the end of September costing from £399 and will replace the Watch Series 4 in the lineup with the Watch Series 3 now available for the knock-down price of £199. That's the cheapest any version of the Apple Watch has ever been.

What's new? Not a huge amount, if we're honest. The biggest new feature from a hardware perspective is that the screen is now always on so instead of going black when you're not using it, the display merely dims, brightening again once you raise your wrist. The watch has a new chipset and, at last, a built-in digital compass, a feature that even the Watch Series 4 didn't have. 

Otherwise, the Apple Watch Series 5 looks largely the same as the Series 4: same shape, same size (with 40mm and 44mm options), same battery kife and same software. On the subject of software, it'll come with the latest version of Apple's smartphone software, WatchOS 6, which owners of Series 4 watches will also get in due course.

Our original review of the Apple Watch Series 4 continues below

When Apple launched the Watch Series 4 (Watch 4), the company boasted it had been “fundamentally redesigned and re-engineered”. Although that’s true on paper – the watch comes in two new sizes and has a 30% larger screen – when you see it in the flesh, it’s less of an overhaul than you might expect. That is to say, although it is totally new, the Watch 4 is unmistakably an evolution of its predecessors.

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However, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The Watch 3 is still one of the best smartwatches we’ve ever tested so Apple opting for refinement over revolution is hardly surprising. And it isn’t that company hasn’t demonstrated progress. The Watch 4 has a series of stand-out new features such as fall detection and the ability to perform an ECG test on your wrist, among other improvements that make it the best smartwatch the company has ever made.

READ NEXT: Best smartwatches

Apple Watch Series 4 review: What you need to know

As with all Apple smartwatches before it, the Watch Series 4 still needs to be paired with an iPhone. That will come as a disappointment for anyone who has an Android phone, especially those who have other Apple products such as an iPad or MacBook.

Where the Watch 3 is sold in 38mm and 42mm variants, the Watch 4 comes in larger 40mm and 44mm sizes. For both models, you can choose between a GPS-only model, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth, and a GPS+Cellular model (available on EE, Vodafone and, latterly, O2 as well) that can be used to make calls, send messages and even stream music independent of your phone.

Compared with its predecessor, the Watch 4 adds fall detection, atrial fibrillation (AF) alerts, and it can perform a full-blown ECG test. Both the GPS-only and GPS+Cellular models come with 16GB storage, too, where the GPS-only Watch 3 had just 8GB. And the new timepiece has a series of new watch faces that let you add up to eight complications per screen.

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Price and competition

Prices for the Watch 4 start at £399 for the 40mm, GPS-only model and £499 for the 40mm GPS + Cellular model. For both, you’ll need to spend an additional £30 if you want the larger 44mm watch. Should you opt for the GPS + Cellular model, you can also choose a steel case variant, but you’ll need to spend £699 for the privilege.

When the Watch 3 launched, the original Apple Watch continued to be sold and the Watch 2 was dropped. This time, Apple has kept the Watch 3 on, and it’s had a £50 price cut. That means the 38mm, GPS-only model is available from £279, while the 38mm GPS + Cellular model costs £379. Again, you’ll have to part with additional £30 to get your hands on the larger 42mm variants.

Apple Watch 38mm Sport Yellow Gold side

If you have an Android phone, our pick of the best WearOS smartwatches is still the Huawei Watch 2 if you want something that does it all with style, or the Mobvoi Ticwatch E + S for those on a tighter budget. However, with Qualcomm recently announcing it’s releasing its first new wearable processor in more than two years (the Snapdragon Wear 3100) I recommend holding out for the next generation of WearOS devices powered by the faster chip.

Similarly, Samsung has just released its Galaxy Watch, which runs on the company’s own Tizen operating system and can be paired with an iPhone as well as Android devices, so that’s another one to keep an eye on. We’ll be posting a full review over the coming weeks.

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Display and design

The Watch 4’s new larger sizes might not sound like a huge difference compared to its predecessor, but coupled with a smaller bezel, it has a display that’s more than 30% larger than the previous model. Taking design cues from recent generations of the iPhone, the display also has rounded corners that offer to a more edge-to-edge, experience.

Above all, this larger screen means there’s more room for showing sophisticated customisable watch faces on the home screen (I’ll go into this in more detail below) but apps benefit, too, and everyday tasks such as selecting an icon from the Grid View app launcher are made easier thanks to the extra pixels.

The pixel density hasn’t changed drastically, though. The 44mm model has a pixel density of 341ppi thanks to its 1.7in, 368 x 448 display while the 42mm Watch 3, which has a  312 x 390 resolution 1.5in screen, is only slightly less sharp at 332ppi. 

The other big change is that Watch Series 4 is thinner than its predecessor, measuring a mere 10.7mm where the Watch 3 was 11.4mm thick. Again, that might not sound like much, but the new 44mm model we were sent feels considerably less bulky on the wrist than its 42mm predecessor.

Despite this, both sizes of the Watch 4 are a little heavier than the equivalent Watch 3 models, weighing 30.1g and 36.7g without a strap respectively. Interestingly, there’s no difference in weight between the GPS-only and GPS+Cellular models this time around, though.

The other headline design change is that the Watch 4’s digital crown now has haptic feedback, which makes scrolling through menus and zooming in and out in the Maps app feel much more precise than before. As you’d expect, there’s a single, subtle vibration every time you jump from one item or page to another, which makes a drastic difference from only having visual cues on screen. Another more subtle change is that the digital crown now has only a red ring on its face, where it was filled with red on the Watch 3.

The side button is still situated below the digital crown – the only difference is it’s now flush with the rest of the casing instead of protruding slightly as it does on the Watch 3. The microphone, though, has been moved to the other side of the casing so it’s further away from the Watch Series 4’s new, louder speaker.

READ NEXT: Apple Watch 4 vs Apple Watch 3

Flip the watch over and you’ll see more evidence of change. The back of the casing is now made entirely from black ceramic and sapphire crystal, materials that are used more sparingly on the GPS+Cellular Watch 3. Although it’s more aesthetically pleasing, this is a change that Apple says has mostly been made with improved cellular reception in mind.

Apple Watch Series 4 review: ECGs and Fall detection

The feature that grabbed most column inches following Apple’s Watch 4 keynote was its ability to perform an ECG test from your wrist thanks to its new electrical heart-rate sensor. During the presentation, Tim Cook said the Watch is the first consumer device ever made with these capabilities, which is not in fact the case – AliveCor’s KaridaBand (for Apple Watch) and KardiaMobile (for iOS and Android) can lay claim to that title but it’s still mighty impressive to see such advanced technology being implemented in a mainstream smartwatch.

The ECG functionality wasn't ready when the watch first launched but it has since been rolled out to a significant collection of European countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, where it appeared as part of the watchOS 5.2 update.

The software, part of the watchOS 5.2 update, enables users to take an electrocardiogram right from their wrist, helping to capture heart rhythm when symptoms such as a rapid or skipped heartbeat are experienced. Apple claims this will "help to provide crucial data to physicians." It certainly appears to work pretty well, although you do have to sit still while you're taking your pulse, holding the tip of a finger on the top of the Watch 4's digital crown for 30 seconds before the report is ready. You can then choose to view the report via the Apple Health app on your iPhone or prep a PDF document to send to your doctor.

The irregular heart rhythm notification will now also occasionally check heart rhythms in the background and send a notification to the user if atrial fibrillation (AFib) is identified.

Other standout new features for the Watch 4 include fall detection, which is enabled by the device’s new, improved accelerometer and gyroscope. Should you trip or slip and not manage to stay on your feet, the device assesses the severity of your fall and will call emergency services directly from your wrist. This only happens if it doesn’t detect any movement from you within a minute of the fall, though, so you don’t need to worry about setting it off by accident. It’s also worth noting that fall detection isn’t turned on by default for under 65s.

There’s no doubt this could have a significant impact on people’s lives, especially among older users, where falls can have severe consequences. However, Apple warns that more physically active users are more likely to trigger Fall Detection by mistake during high-impact activities. If you find that to be the case, then you can simply turn the feature off from the Apple Watch iPhone app. Having said that, when I tried several times to simulate a fall – albeit with a soft mattress positioned below me – the Fall Detection wasn’t triggered once.

Apple Watch 4 review: Watch OS5

Other features new to the Watch 4 include the ability to notify you if your heart-rate drops too low, along with atrial fibrillation detection. Sadly the latter is again only offered in the US currently and because the low heart-rate detection has been added as part of Watch OS 5, it isn’t a Watch 4 exclusive. Watch 3 owners will get that when their watches update to the new operating system.

In short, that means all the new headline health features announced at the Watch 4 keynote, with the exception of fall detection, either aren’t available in the UK, or they’re also on the Watch 3. That’s not to say there’s nothing worth being excited about what’s in the new OS, though.

Apple has added activity competitions, where you can challenge a friend to a week-long competition to see who can close the most activity rings. There’s now automatic exercise detection, which detects when you’ve started working out and opens the Workout app for you, so you can log your exercise in its entirety.

This sprung into action the first time I made a brisk walk across London and when I forgot to stop the workout, it automatically prompted me to do so after I’d been seated for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it wasn't so proactive when I used a Boris Bike for around half an hour, though,  and never asked me if I wanted to log the ride as a workout.

There are more advanced workout features now, too. Yoga and hiking have been added to the existing workout modes and, during a run, you can set pace targets and also track your cadence (steps per minute) for the very first time. I’ve not had a chance to put these new features through their paces yet but I’ll be updating this review with more detail over the coming weeks.

For the first time, podcasts are also available on the Apple Watch and these sync with your phone automatically so the latest episodes of all your subscriptions will be on hand, even if you’ve left your phone at home. Then there’s the all-new Walkie Talkie app, which shows any of your regular contacts who own an Apple Watch and allows you start a voice call with them instantly with a single tap.

One feature that is exclusive to Watch 4 owners in Watch OS5 is its new, customisable watch faces. The Infograph watch face, for example, lets you add up to eight complications, where the most you could have on any face on the Watch 3 was five. That might sound fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things but the problem with most wrist-borne wearables is that anything hidden further away than the home screen very quickly gets forgotten about.

The total opposite is true with the Watch 4, though. Its new watch faces put all manner of information including world clocks, weather, calendar, activity and heart rate info front and centre, along with shortcuts to useful apps such as Music and Walkie Talkie in a way I’ve not seen on any other smartwatch. With the option to customise all the different complications, too, you can make the Watch 4 the timepiece you want it to be.

Apple Watch 4 review: Performance

The Watch 4 employs an all-new 64-bit, dual-core S4 processor that Apple claims is up to two times faster than the S3 chip in the Watch 3. There’s no reason to doubt the veracity of this statement because everything about the UI feels as fast and smooth as you could hope for. Having said that, if you’re happy with the speed of your Watch 3, then I don’t see the need to upgrade to the Watch 4 from a performance standpoint.

Elsewhere, performance improvements are much more marginal. The Watch 4’s speaker has had a 50% boost to its maximum volume and the device also now supports the newer Bluetooth 5 standard, which has a longer range and better power efficiency than Bluetooth 4.2.

There’s no drastic change as far as battery life is concerned, though, with Apple claiming the Watch 4 lasts the same 18 hours between charges as the Watch 3. In real-world use, I've found it usually well exceeds this figure, typically lasting at least 36 hours and sometimes as long as 48 hours. Of course, this depends heavily on how you use the Watch, but it's good that you can rely on the Watch getting through a day and night before konking out.

In fact, the only performance related concern I have after a couple of days with the watch is that the touchscreen buttons for space and backspace in the Telegram app weren’t working properly. However, I imagine this is a bug restricted to the Telegram app rather than something symptomatic of a wider flaw, and I’d be surprised if it’s not promptly fixed by a software update very soon indeed.

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Verdict

It’s disappointing that the Apple Watch 4’s groundbreaking new features won’t make an appearance in the UK anytime soon.

Despite this, however, and the fact we’ve only had a short time with the new timepiece, the Watch 4 looks to be better than its predecessor and indeed its rivals in every conceivable way.

From afar, the size change might not look significant but the larger screen makes Apple’s latest timepiece more of a pleasure to use and facilitates more sophisticated watch faces that put more useful information and shortcuts at your fingertips than ever before.

Consider that it’s also twice as fast as its predecessor and thinner too, and the only reason to put off buying the Apple Watch 4 is its predictably high price tag.