Traditionally, it's any new iPhones which are the highlight of Apple's fall product launches. However, for this year's “Gather Round” event, it was the Apple Watch Series 4 which was the star of the show for me. It was in my opinion the most ground-breaking in terms of product evolution; and, whereas I was somewhat underwhelmed by the three new iPhones, the Apple Watch had me impressed and perhaps even a little excited.
That was a somewhat surprising reaction, as I am not an Apple Watch devotee. I've previously owned what's now referred to as the Apple Watch Series 0. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience; found no compelling apps or functionality for my use case; and can honestly say that I had not missed an Apple Watch in the two years since I last used one.
Reflecting on my reaction to the launch event and knowing that there are many in our community who rave about their Apple Watch, made me think that maybe it was time to give it a second chance.
After two weeks living with a 44mm Series 4, I am happy to report that I have not been disappointed by that decision. Not only have I found that the Apple Watch now has something to offer me, but I have enjoyed the experience of using it. Of course, it helps that Apple Watch Series 4 is quite a different beast to the model I last used - the design has been refined; the performance much improved; the health and fitness tracking capabilities expanded; and features and apps have become more mature and focused.
With the iPhone XS Max I have also been using for the past two weeks, I have struggled to find any significant advantages of its large display for me as somebody who relies completely on VoiceOver. The same is definitely not true for Apple Watch Series 4. The benefits of its extra screen real estate - 30% greater than on previous models - were immediate and dramatic. Combine this with its more powerful S4 chip and better speakers, and the experience of using VoiceOver on the Series 4 doesn't fall too far short of VoiceOver on an iPhone.
Before I share further thoughts and experiences, I want to make it clear that what follows is not intended to be a deep-dive review of the Series 4, or one that's informed by recent and comparative experience with other Apple Watch models. Accordingly, I would encourage readers to regard everything below as nothing more than a somewhat random collection of thoughts and experiences; some of which may prove to be incomplete - or even downright wrong - after more time and use of the Apple Watch Series 4. Pick out of it what you wish, and also please share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Design, Hardware and Features
As the iPhone X was for the iPhone last year, the Series 4 is a significant step forward for the Apple Watch in terms of design, hardware and features.
The Series 4 brings the first physical redesign of the Apple Watch since its launch. It has a slightly larger footprint than the Series 3, but is also slightly thinner. The Digital Crown is smaller, whilst the Side Button now sits flush with the case of the Apple Watch.
However, most of us will probably agree with Apple that it's the larger display which is the “defining feature” of Apple Watch Series 4:
The display is the defining feature of Apple Watch, and Series 4 pushes it further than ever. The challenge was to make it bigger without noticeably increasing the size of the case or compromising the battery life. Narrower borders enable a viewing area that’s over 30 per cent larger, while a new display technology called LTPO improves power efficiency, helping you get through the day on a single charge.
Curved corners precisely match the radius of the case, creating a more pleasing, continuous appearance. This also allows imagery and the touch surface to extend to the furthest reaches of the screen.
To accommodate these design changes, the Apple Watch Series 4 is offered in two new size options - 40mm or 44mm.
Good news for existing Apple Watch owners, is that despite the design and size changes, Apple has ensured that all of your existing Apple Watch straps can be used with the Series 4. The only thing to note, is that the 40mm Series 4 is compatible with 38mm straps; the 44mm with 42mm straps. So, if you currently own a 42mm Apple Watch and are considering replacing it with a 40mm Series 4 because it would be a better fit for your wrist but not at the sacrifice of screen size, you should bear in mind that none of your existing straps will fit.
Another notable design change of the Series 4, are the speakers, which are much larger than those on previous models. Because these now fill most of the side of the Watch, the microphone has been relocated to the opposite side where it now sits between the Digital Crown and the Side Button. Apple says that another reason for moving the microphone is that this reduces echo from the speaker during calls. I don't have an earlier Series of Apple Watch available to perform a direct comparison to determine if this claim stands up, but neither me or the person at the other end of my test calls experienced any noticeable problems with echoing during use.
The new speakers are stated by Apple as being 50% louder than those of previous Apple Watch models and delivering “dramatically improved audio quality”. Again, I can't perform a direct comparison, but the VoiceOver and Siri voices both struck me as louder and clearer to how I remember them being on the Apple Watch Series 0. However, this view is based upon how I ‘think’ something performed 2 years ago, so it would be great to have some opinions in the replies to this post from people who can perform a side by side comparison.
The Digital Crown on the Series 4 is 30% smaller, and now offers haptic feedback which delivers a “click-like feel as you scroll”. I have more to say about this feature later, but for now I will say that it does add something to the user experience … just don't expect it to be as precise or satisfying as a traditional mechanical watch.
One final design change of note, is that the Side Button on the Series 4 is flush with the case of the Watch, whereas on previous models it stuck out. This may make it less obvious and immediate to locate by touch when exploring an Apple Watch for the first time. However, in use, the way that this button sinks into the case when pressed is distinct and very tactile. You just need to know it's there.
Overall, the design of Apple Watch Series 4 feels more polished and refined than previous models.
Inside, the Apple Watch Series 4 has a new S4 chip which is stated by Apple to be up to 2x faster than the S3 chip in the Series 3. I have found apps to open instantly. This and the overall responsiveness of the Series 4 are a night and day difference to my previous Series 0, where the lag and long wait for apps to become usable was probably the main reason I walked away from the Apple Watch. If you currently own an Apple Watch other than the Series 3, my expectation is that you would also be blown away by the performance of the Series 4. It truly does feel close to what you would expect from a recent iPhone.
Apple Watch Series 4 includes a next-generation accelerometer and gyroscope, which amongst other things can detect a hard fall by analysing wrist trajectory and impact acceleration. When a hard fall is detected, an alert is delivered, and you can either initiate a call to emergency services or dismiss the alert. If you’re unresponsive after 60 seconds, the emergency call will be placed automatically and a message sent to your emergency contacts. This feature is automatically enabled for those who have entered their age as 65 or over in the Health app, otherwise you will need to manually enable it.
Once its received the necessary approvals from regulatory agencies, the Apple Watch Series 4 will be able to take an electrocardiogram at any time by utilizing the electrodes now built into the Digital Crown and new electrical heart rate sensor:
Apple Watch Series 4 enables customers to take an ECG reading right from the wrist using the new ECG app, which takes advantage of the electrodes built into the Digital Crown and new electrical heart rate sensor in the back crystal. With the app, users touch the Digital Crown and after 30 seconds, receive a heart rhythm classification. It can classify if the heart is beating in a normal pattern or whether there are signs of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), a heart condition that could lead to major health complications. All recordings, their associated classifications and any noted symptoms are stored in the Health app in a PDF that can be shared with physicians.
As I said at the start of this post, my intention is not a deep-dive review of Apple Watch Series 4, so I will close this section by simply listing some other notable design, hardware and feature changes:
- Like the iPhone XS and XS Max, Apple Watch Series 4 is available in a brand new stainless steel gold color.
- Apple Watch Series 4 offers “all-day battery life”, which should average around 18 hours with normal use.
- Stainless steel models of Apple Watch Series 4 have sapphire glass screens, which should be resistant to scratching in normal use; while all aluminum models use Ion-X glass, which isn't quite as scratch resistant.
- All Series 4 models have a black ceramic and sapphire crystal backing, which is claimed to improve cellular connectivity by allowing radio waves to penetrate the front and back of the Apple Watch.
- All models of the Apple Watch Series 4 have 16GB of storage. Previously, only the cellular versions had 16GB, with non-cellular models having 8GB.
- Apple Watch Series 4 supports Bluetooth 5.0, which should result in more speed, better range, and lower power consumption when used with devices that also support this standard.
Three Apple Watch Series 4 Changes Which Transform the VoiceOver User Experience
There's a lot to like about Apple Watch Series 4 - including a new and more refined design; faster and more powerful hardware; and new and enhanced health and fitness tracking capabilities. However, I want to focus here on the three changes which I believe are the most significant for VoiceOver users:
- The larger display.
- The faster and more powerful S4 chip.
- The improved speakers.
As I said right at the start of this review, I believe the larger display of the Series 4 truly transforms the Apple Watch user experience for VoiceOver users. Life is just so much easier with that extra screen real estate - whether it's the increased spacing between elements when exploring the screen by touch, or simply having more space available for performing multitouch gestures.
If you want good examples, locating by touch the numbers on the passcode screen and using the 2-finger double-tap, hold and drag to change VoiceOver volume both show how much easier life has become. In the case of the latter, on the 44mm Series 4 I can go all the way from 0-100% - that's a long drag - and still have some screen space left.
My current default Apple Watch face is the analog Infograph, which is new on the Series 4 and offers another good example of where the extra screen real estate is welcome. With this face capable of displaying up to eight complications, it's been described on numerous websites as ‘information dense” or even “information overload” when all of those complication slots are occupied. Visually this might be the case, but it hasn't felt dense or overloaded to me when exploring the face by touch.
As you can tell, I have enjoyed and benefited from every single millimetre of the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4. Although aesthetically the 40mm version would be a better choice for my wrist size, function definitely wins here over appearance; and is why I would strongly recommend that anybody considering buying an Apple Watch Series 4 spends some time using each size beforehand if at all possible.
I can't speak from personal experience, but it seems reasonable to assume that the larger display of Apple Watch Series 4 will also benefit low vision users.
Writing on iMore about what the Apple Watch Series 4 means for accessibility, Steven Aquino discusses the obvious benefit of a larger display for low vision users, but also highlights one possible downside:
For accessibility, the benefit of a larger display is obvious: it's easier to see content on a larger canvas. For people with low vision, this is especially true. But bigger screens benefit everyone, regardless of their visual acuity—more screen is precisely why the iPhone Plus (now Max) models have proven so immensely popular the last few years. As the adage goes, bigger is better.
One potential downside to the larger display is the increased information density. Apple showed off several new watch faces that are heavy on complications, which isn't bad in and of itself, but there is some cause for concern. For many visually impaired users, too much information on screen can be jarring on the eyes because the interface can feel "cluttered"—that is to say, pinpointing a piece of information like, say, the current temperature can be difficult if there is a multitude of other elements on screen at once. The same principle applies to too much color. For some, too much color can make the screen feel like one washed out rainbow. I have yet to confirm this with Apple, but my assumption is users will be able to customize just how dense they want their face. Maybe there will be a setting to use a monochrome color scheme as well.
Granted, no one is forced to use these info-dense watch faces if they don't care for them, but the point is nonetheless valid. Here's hoping for some level of customization there.
Apple has confirmed that the larger display of the Series 4 has allowed them to increase the text size used by 2 points, so this should be another benefit to low vision users.
As I mentioned earlier, Apple Watch Series 4 has a new S4 chip which is stated by Apple to be up to 2x faster than the S3 chip in the Series 3. I said that apps now open instantly and the Apple Watch is fast and responsive in general use. This also goes for VoiceOver performance, which has been fast and responsive in my experience. There has been no noticeable lag, and the overall experience of VoiceOver on Apple Watch Series 4 hasn't felt too different to how it performs on any recent iPhone.
Of the three changes that I said I was going to discuss in this section, the improved speaker of Apple Watch Series 4 is probably the least significant. However, it's certainly not insignificant.
Apple claims that the speaker on the Series 4 is 50% louder than that of previous models. I can't perform a direct comparison, but I have no reason to dispute Apple's claim. In use with VoiceOver and Siri, I have found audio output from the speaker to be loud and clear in all but the noisiest of settings. I now typically have VoiceOver volume set to between 30% and 40%, whereas on my Series 0 it was 50-60%.
It's another opinion that's subjective and based upon memories of how something ‘might’ have been two years ago, but I do believe that the quality of the audio output from the speaker is also improved and that this has VoiceOver and Siri sounding better. Again, please share your own thoughts on this by posting a comment below.
The Not So Good
What's good about Apple Watch Series 4 is really good. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't also some problems and niggles.
Before I share some of my thoughts and experiences of where things aren't so good, it's probably appropriate to remind readers again that I am not a longterm user of an Apple Watch, and that none of what follows is informed by recent experience of other Apple Watch models. Accordingly, I cannot vouch for the completeness and accuracy of everything below.
I should also make it clear from the get-go, that I do not believe that anything here comes close to being a “deal-breaker” if considering an Apple Watch Series 4. However, as each person's circumstances and use case will be unique, people's views on this may vary.
With the disclaimers out of the way, let's take a look at where I think there's room and need for improvement.
I want to start with a grumble about something which Apple seems to be increasingly doing, and that's marketing new products off the back of features which are not actually available when that product initially ships. Recent examples have included Airplay 2, Messages in iCloud, and the dual-SIM capabilities of the latest iPhones.
I feel that Apple has taken things to a new level with Apple Watch Series 4.
If you listened to the launch event or have read the subsequent media coverage, you would probably have come away believing that the new and improved heart monitoring capabilities of Apple Watch Series 4 were its headline features. However, you should not confuse Apple ‘announcing’ features with Apple ‘shipping’ features, as neither the atrial fibrillation monitoring or electrocardiogram are usable with the Series 4 on its public release.
Head over to Apple's Watch Series 4 health page, and somewhat tucked away in the small print you will discover that “ECG app coming later this year” and “Irregular rhythm notification coming later this year”.
I am sorry Apple, but I can't help but feel that this is approaching “bait and switch” territory; perhaps even more so for those of us outside of the United States, where gaining the necessary approval for these features from regulatory agencies may be a lengthy process or a lower priority for you compared to your major markets.
What are the chances that there will be an Apple Watch Series 5 before some of us have access to all of the capabilities of the Series 4?
But, let's get back to some of the features which are available.
I have found with some Apple Watch complications that VoiceOver labels seem to come and go at random. For example, with the Heart app complication VoiceOver will generally speak “Heart Rate” when focus lands on it, but it's not uncommon for there to be nothing spoken, just a “clunk” tone. I just went to double-check this behaviour, and currently it's the Workout app that's missing a label. Perhaps it's off on a workout of its own, and will be back shortly. Gotta love these type of glitches which have no obvious pattern and seem to come and go at will. My guess is that it's going to relate to the Watch face and complication slot used, but the number of possible combinations of these is so dizzying that the thought of putting my hypotheses to the test is rather daunting.
I have encountered problems interacting with some app notifications. For the most part notifications work as expected, but on occasions I am unable to interact with a notification when it is first displayed. Tapping, swiping or trying to use the VoiceOver Actions menu does nothing and I get no feedback from VoiceOVer. In some cases the scrub gesture will return me to the Watch face. However, there are times when this also doesn't work, and only a press of either the Digital Crown or Side Button will return the Watch to a responsive state.
I have had somebody test for what happens if disabling VoiceOver when one of these unresponsive notifications is on screen, and they report that everything seems to work as expected. So, this seems to be a VoiceOver-specific issue, but one where I have yet to determine a pattern or means to reproduce the behaviour. If this is something that others have also seen, please let me know your experience by adding a comment below, as this will help to get complete and helpful feedback to Apple.
One thing to make clear about the above issue, is that everything works as expected if I access the notification via the Notification Center. It's only when the alert first comes through, that there can be problems.
One of the features new with Apple Watch Series 4 is the option to receive haptic feedback when turning the Digital Crown. However, for VoiceOver users, Apple has confirmed that this feedback is automatically turned off if Digital Crown navigation is enabled. For now, this expected behaviour does not work consistently, meaning that on some screens the haptic feedback is present even though Digital Crown navigation is enabled. Examples include the Control Center, some subpages in the Settings app, and the Carrot Weather and Weather Gods apps; although the pattern of behaviour with these isn't consistent. I have also regularly seem the haptic feedback spontaneously appear, and then go away as soon as I move to another screen. This all makes for a somewhat confusing and compromised user experience.
Whether haptic feedback should automatically be disabled when Digital Crown navigation is enabled, is open to debate, and I would love to hear your own opinions on this in the replies to this post.
And, as I've recently mentioned the Control Center, let's mention a niggle that I currently have with this.
Specifically, it's the reliability of the system-wide gesture you use to access the Control Center - touching the bottom edge of the Apple Watch screen until you receive haptic feedback, and then sliding your finger up the screen. For me, it's only the bottom right corner of the screen where I can consistently touch and get the expected haptic feedback. Anywhere else along the bottom edge of the screen, and things become very hit and miss (mostly “miss” to be frank). However, I can touch anywhere along the top edge of the screen to initiate the gesture to access the Notification Center. Perhaps it's just me. I don't think it's a hardware fault, as the behaviour is consistent across all Apple Watch orientation options. I would certainly love to hear if anybody else is experiencing this or something similar.
A more significant problem with the Control Center, is that on occasions it is impossible to toggle any of its controls. It appears that whenever the Control Center is in this unresponsive state, you also cannot locate with VoiceOver the two elements which are typically at the top of this screen - “Connected over iPhone” and “Location tracking on”. Although these aren't controls themselves, them being invisible to VoiceOver is a reliable indicator that none of the toggles on the Control Center are going to work.
Some times I can resolve this issue by using the Digital Crown to turn VoiceOver off and back on again. Some times it is necessary to touch on the screen whilst VoiceOver is off. A more extreme solution is to turn the Apple Watch off and back on again.
It seems that this is another VoiceOver-specific problem, as the Control Center behaves as expected when VoiceOver is disabled.
Another VoiceOver problem is present on the Infograph face, where any complication placed in the top right slot does not behave as expected. When double-tapping the complication, nothing happens. Move that complication to another slot, and a double-tap will open the app as expected. This behavior has been consistent with all complications that I have tested in this slot.
Something else which fails in regard to reliability, is the “Raise to Speak” option for Siri. When it works, it's a nice feature. However, it currently fails to trigger so frequently that it has the making to be one of those features which you stop using and eventually forget exists. Shame, as there's a fun touch of the ‘Dick Tracy’ about this when it works as expected.
This certainly isn't an exhaustive list of issues, and it's likely that some are not specific to Apple Watch Series 4. However, it's the problems and niggles which have been most apparent and detrimental to the user experience during my first two weeks with a Series 4.
To help with completeness, please share in the comments any problems or niggles that you are encountering in your own use of an Apple Watch Series 4.
Before I close, here are some stray observations and experiences which didn’t fit naturally elsewhere in this review, but which I still wanted to mention in passing:
- I hadn’t realized how much I missed being able to use an Apple Watch to unlock my MacBook. This functionality appears to be faster and more reliable than I remember it being with my Series 0. It's nice to have it back.
- The change in packaging - (the Apple Watch and supplied strap are now in separate boxes) - has me wondering whether Apple plans to allow buyers a build-to-order option for paring Watch cases and straps.
- Some complications are only available in certain slots and some display different things depending upon the chosen slot, meaning that settling on the perfect Watch face can take a lot of time and experimentation.
- On the Series 0 I rarely used apps because it was typically quicker to reach for my iPhone than wait for them to load. Now, not only is this no longer the case, but in some instances the Apple Watch app provides a faster and more satisfying experience. Find My Friends is a good example, where not only is the data loaded as fast as it would be on my iPhone, but it's presented in a way that makes it quicker and easier to drill down to what I want to know.
- The one watchOS update released since I've had the Series 4, installed in what seemed like the same time an iOS update would take on my iPhone. Yes, it was a small update, but my memory of updating the Series 0 was to go find a book whilst waiting for it to complete.
- I wish that when using AirPods, there was a quick and easy way for VoiceOver users to switch audio between the Apple Watch and iPhone. Triggering and then cancelling Siri on the device you want to hear the audio output from, does sort of work, but it's far from ideal.
If you've been holding out on getting an Apple Watch, now is a great time to finally take the plunge. With the Series 4, you will get a design that's more refined and polished, whilst the speed and responsiveness is unlikely to disappoint. Its new and enhanced health monitoring capabilities build upon what the Apple Watch already offered as a fitness tracker, and could for some be justification on their own to now buy an Apple Watch. You should also not have concerns about the performance of VoiceOver, as any past issues with lag are gone and the VoiceOver user experience is something else that will not disappoint.
If you already have an Apple Watch, the Series 4 offers a very compelling case that it's time to upgrade. For owners of the Series 3, where the jump in speed and responsiveness will be less dramatic, it's likely to be all about how much you want that larger display.
For me, perhaps the biggest surprise from the past two weeks, is that I now find myself enjoying using an Apple Watch. Based upon my past experience, this truly was not something I anticipated. I knew that the Series 4 would be significantly better than the Series 0, and that I would probably now find uses for an Apple Watch. But, to actually enjoy using it was not at all expected.
Something else I wasn't expecting, is that with the Series 4 I have been able to offload some tasks from my iPhone to my wrist. In part this is simply because apps now open and refresh quickly on the Apple Watch. But, in several cases, what I want to do is faster and more efficient on the Watch. For example, checking the location of family members with the Find My Friends app; using Fantastical to view upcoming events; capturing thoughts with the Drafts app complication; viewing weather data with the truly excellent Weather Gods complication designed specifically for VoiceOver users; or viewing my Twitter timelines with the Chirp app.
As I said right at the start of this review, I am very pleased that I gave the Apple Watch a second chance; and I look forward to discovering other ways in which it can now offer me something. To that end, please share below anything that you think I should check out.
Apple Watch Series 4 is available in four variants: 40mm and 44mm sizes, and with or without LTE.
The GPS-only version starts at $399 for the 40mm aluminum model, and $429 for the 44mm one.
The cellular option starts at $499 for the 40mm aluminum model, and $529 for the 44mm version.