Honest Review: Apple Watch Series 3 Review 5 (233)

Apple Watch Series 3 Review
Screenshot 2021 01 14 at 12.00.50 Honest Review: Apple Watch Series 3 Review

The Apple Watch Series 3 is now two generations old, and due to the older, boxier screen shape and display technology, it feels a tad dated.

Apple Watch Series 6 vs Series 3 vs Apple Watch SE

Update: Initially published in 2017, this review has been updated to reflect the arrival of the Series 5 and Apple's price drop, plus comparisons to more recent budget smartwatches.

1 Honest Review: Apple Watch Series 3 Review
Apple Watch Series 3 Design

Apple Watch Series 3 key specs
Fits with iPhone only
Accessible in sizes 38 and 42mm
Thick 11.4mm
Sensor optical heart rate
Open GPS and GPS/Cellular versions
Usable only in aluminum
Water resistant up to a depth of 50 metres
Pay for Apple
Battery life of up to eighteen hours
The Series 3 looks boxier and bigger compared to other Apple smartwatches, mainly due to the black space around the edge.

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There are no two ways to do it, because of the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 5, which offer a more refined design and different case sizes, the Series 3 lags in design against the 2019 competition. It's still better looking and made from more premium products for our money than the competition, though.

Series 3 comes in sizes of 38mm and 42mm, which through Series 4 changed to 40mm and 44mm. That means the Series 3 is the last smartwatch from Apple that you can purchase in the smallest size, which can be a draw for those with smaller wrists.

We had to live with the 42mm model, and it is still a lovely, comfortable fit. There are no wearability concerns, and the smartwatch has always been an incredibly comfortable one.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review: Design

Otherwise, this is the same Apple Watch, as rich as it has ever been, with a respectable 1,000-nit panel. Despite the pixel density boost, the monitor on the newer Series 4 or Series 5 is not significantly brighter or sharper.

However, one thing that it doesn't have is the option of an always-on monitor. That means you will have to lift your wrist in order to wake up (or tap on the display).

In addition to GPS, the optical heart rate monitor, a stunning display and waterproof construction, the Series 3 was also the first time Apple managed to cram in LTE, all without decreasing battery life (with exceptions that we can come across). The Series 3 was the first strong example of that extra connectivity can still be combined with an elegantly designed device – although you will have to buy a more expensive model and foot an extra data bill. That extra edge of connectivity is worth it for some individuals, but we're not hyper-connected enough to feel the need.

In terms of choice of finish, you only have aluminum to pick from, in Silver and Space Grey, while new Watch devices also come in stainless steel, ceramic and titanium options.

This is a slightly more chunky watch that comes without ECG compared to the Series 5, a digital crown with haptic feedback, a display with an always-on mode. If those aren't biggies for you, there's still a whole lot to like about the look of the Series 3.

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Apple Watch Series 3: Features
 

We'll talk more below via LTE, but as far as what's new on the feature front is concerned, there's not a whole lot different from Series 2.

Smartwatch basics are still there, such as changing faces and customizing them with complications, and the Digital Crown also operates the same way, pushing you through the menu of the app and allowing you to scroll through menus and updates.

The button below, too, moves you to the dock, which, like the iPhone, is now vertically oriented rather than horizontally. The Watch feels much more intuitive with these minor tweaks.

 

The S3 processor, which makes the Watch easier to use than older editions, is also helping. Switching between apps is easier on the Series 3 than the Series 2, as is talking to Siri, which becomes a bigger deal with standalone connectivity.

Notifications are still very much at the core of what the Watch does, and it does them really well, moving to the smarts. First- and third-party apps are supported, and in the companion app you can add to or cull your flow.

You can swipe down on the phone to show the most recent ones if you've missed a notification. The slick approach of Apple to notification help remains a key reason we like to wear the Watch.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

Whether it's reacting to tweets or taking a call when it comes to contact, not much is different from newer ones. As long as the call quality is good, you can still make your best Dick Tracy impression, although you can struggle to listen in noisier environments.

Fortunately, Bluetooth headphones can be combined to assist with that, especially useful when calling over LTE. And using AirPods makes it ridiculously easy.

The built-in microphone can also be used to dictate responses to texts, show your emoji skills and draw letters to type messages.

And Apple still provides the most detailed and efficient ways to do it from your wrist, as far as being able to respond to alerts is concerned.

It should also be noticed that the new watchOS 6 ships with the Apple Watch Series 3. A dedicated app store, women's health monitoring features and new watch faces are supported with the current version of Apple's smartwatch OS.

It also feels like the most refined of the smartwatch operating systems, compared to Wear OS, Fitbit OS and Tizen. It's not fine, but it's the one we probably have the least grip on.

Apple Watch Series 3: LTE availability

 

The LTE edition, which has its own cellular link, is alongside the cheaper, GPS-only Apple Watch Series 3. Series 3 uses an eSIM, which ensures that you do not have to insert a SIM card and, depending on your carrier, also allows you to share your number with your iPhone.

However, don't think that means it doesn't cost money. Despite sharing a telephone number with your mobile, you would still need to sign a contract with a carrier to get LTE connectivity.

So, what's it doing? Along with having all of your other updates, you will take and make calls. You'll still be able to directly access Apple Music from the watch, so you can go out for an iPhone-free workout and still be able to stream tunes without pre-downloading. That, along with taking calls when your iPhone's not around, is the biggest draw for LTE.

Apple Watch Series 3 availability with LTE carrier plans is now reasonably universal, although far from worldwide. It is sponsored, among others, by the likes of Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

The likes of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon in the US provide support for Series 3 LTE connectivity. Similar support in the UK is provided by EE, O2 and Vodafone.

Apple Watch Series 3: Living with LTE

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

When separated from your iPhone, just how good is the Apple Watch? Next, let's talk in general about LTE.

This isn't the only cellular networking smartwatch that lets you use it away from your smartphone. Some watches from Wear OS and Samsung got to the mark first.

If you opt for an LTE path, your Watch will turn to its cellular link only if the connection to your iPhone is lost, otherwise Bluetooth will default.

In practice, the pace of the hand-off has varied a little, with the watch almost immediately picking up cellular bars occasionally, and in other cases taking a while longer to lock on.

Because the cell icon in the Control Center will turn orange, you'll know it's connected, and Apple has a new watch face that will show you how many signal bars you have.

You are able to make and receive calls and messages from there. Your number will be shown on the other end as it would usually be for the user, and there should be no giveaway that you contact them on a smartwatch and not a phone.

Is LTE worth it?

 

Will cutting free make the experience of the Watch any better? We went through usual everyday activities without a smartphone to find out, including a shopping outing, an evening out with friends, and a few workouts.

All of which helped illuminate how we really use a smartphone-and where the holes in the cellular smartwatch of Apple still lie.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

How helpful you find LTE on your Apple Watch may depend on how your phone is being used. The Watch offers an obvious advantage for those of you who are into fitness in that it encourages you to go out without your mobile for a jog, swim or bike ride.

Cutting the cord was pure heaven for the occasions we took it to run and swim, as it was when we had worked out using cellular smartwatches before.

The microphone on the watch is impressive as far as calling is concerned. They said we sounded just like we were using a smartphone when we phoned a friend, and the speaker on our end was also fine.

When we made a call from a busy street, it wasn't so good for us, as the speaker struggled to break through the din, but the person on the other end said we were still coming through crisp and clear.

You'll want to pair some Bluetooth headphones for those cases. You can start a call from your wrist by selecting a contact from your address book, or by using the keyboard.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

We believe a lot of people are still persuaded that the future is talking to their wrists, but many of the features of the Series 3 feel better with headphones, particularly because Siri can now talk back so that you don't even need to look at the watch to get any details. It is almost as if, in anticipation of all this, the AirPods were released.

All that said, while Siri might be improving, she's still too hit-and-missing her dictation to make us want to answer to watch messages, AirPods or no AirPods. Alternatively, you may scribble out every single letter or use one of the personalized Apple replies, but they're not ideal. Ultimately, before Siri gets there, we don't think these experiences will change.

We had a number of "a-ha" moments during the day when it made sense to focus on the watch away from the phone, but there were also occasions when we came up against walls with the capabilities of the watch.

Maps, for instance, are something we always rely on our phones for, and because of the limitations of Siri and Apple Maps, the experience is compromised on the Watch, making it a little too fiddly.

Another thing is the lack of a camera; as our primary photo takers, we've come to depend on our smartphones, and there were moments when we tried to snap a shot with the Watch and couldn't. It's hardly a critique because we don't think there's an argument for just sticking a camera on the Apple Watch, but it was an interesting observation.

These are stuff that it will ultimately have to think about if Apple wants to keep moving us further to the wrist. In specific, LTE makes a case for better navigation (hey Google, can we get the app back for Maps?).

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

The supported third-party applications are more of an urgent worry. The number of apps that operate with a standalone cellular link is still very limited, and when you're separated from your phone, any app that doesn't have an Apple Watch app, like WhatsApp, won't give you much. That's a massive bummer, because it means you're out of luck if you don't want to rely solely on Apple's services.

All of which is to say, we agree that the advantages of Series 3 would differ significantly between individuals and the reasons they wear a smartwatch. Siri isn't nice enough to be able to rely on Series 3 as much as we'd like without a screen, but there were still some revelatory moments in cutting that tie to the phone, many revolving around fitness or short trips away from our desks at work.

The problem is how, when other smartwatches have not, Apple will make LTE on the wrist convincing. The response largely comes down to the intersection of hardware and software managed so well by Apple, making LTE feel more seamless and better incorporated into the experience of Apple Watch. Did Apple turn it into a must-have? Not yet, but for it, it makes a more plausible argument than we have seen to date.

Apple Watch Series 3: Fitness, sports tracking and heart rate accuracy

Activity tracking

When you need a little boost to reach your target, it's all about filling out those activity rings and giving you a reminder nudge. Sharing activity data, recently added, remains a fantastic tool for this and the fitness tracking experience of Apple as a whole is very solid.

In one major area, however, Apple is behind: sleep monitoring. Some years ago, with Apple's acquisition of Beddit, we hoped to see native sleep tracking features surface. Even with the launch of Series 5, despite supposed knowledge of Apple's sleep monitoring features seemingly leaked out, it still hasn't turned up.

Battery life is the obvious obstruction here, and it seems unlikely it would want to sell us on a feature that would be too compromised before Apple can stretch that out.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review

We wore it with the Fitbit Ionic smartwatch as far as precision is concerned, and although both pack in comparable sensors, they work to measure distance and steps using their own different algorithms. Despite that, there was a gap of 500-1,000 steps in total, although the distance covered was almost spot on.

Notifications of inactivity and milestone markers have also come up at the same time. We never expected the two to be the same, but there seems to be no need to sound the alarm that the Watch Series 3 does not do a good tracking job.

Apple does a very good job, but in order to have the kind of incentive that will pay off in the long run, it might be time for a more actionable approach to the data it records.

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Running
We got the built-in GPS we needed on the Series 2, and on the Watch Series 3 it's as easy as it was on the now-retired predecessor to pick up a signal. Performance-wise, things have not, luckily, changed all that much, although the Watch now monitors the rise in elevation. We still think there's some work to be done from a tech perspective, though.

The Fitness app is still your call port to track a run, but you have the option of a host of third-party apps and you're definitely going to want to explore those choices. A newly announced collaboration means Strava works with Apple Healthkit, so you can use the Fitness app and still get the best of both worlds with your Segments results. A good third-party Strava app is also available, which demonstrates how flexible the Apple Watch can be.

 

We put it up against the Garmin Forerunner 935 and the Polar Beat iPhone app for many runs to compare GPS monitoring and running metrics accuracy and were typically satisfied with what it delivers.

As you can see from the screenshots above, Garmin and the Polar app are pretty much in line with distance and average speed.

Is this a ready-made substitute for a watch for running? We will say yes... as long as you don't get too serious. Battery life and metrics are the main drawbacks. More data to dig into and boost battery life will be provided by a dedicated running watch. Series 3 is about completing a marathon, but you can need to turn off features to make sure you get there. Weekend runners doing the occasional half marathon or 10K are not going to have a problem at all.

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Swimming

The Series 2 Apple Watch was excellent at counting distances, and we are pleased to say that the Series 3 is also impressively precise. The trick is to make sure that before your workout, you set the pool length correctly so that the watch can calibrate.

The Apple Watch was bang-on in detecting our multiple stroke forms in a test against the Fitbit Ionic. One lap was missed, but the Fitbit still matched the yard, so we weren't stolen from the effort. This was in a busy pool, with plenty of water treading between laps, so it did a fine job of keeping up and nailing those strokes at a distance.

Green optical sensors and water do not mix well, so do not rely on the Watch for heart rate readings, although it does try, and even if they were a little spotty, we could still see our readings during our swim. Hard to say, though, how accurate all of this is.

There is another advantage to the pool that Series 3 brings, and that's the LTE. Although in the pool, we were always able to receive messages, which was weird, but in a good way. You may want to switch off in those times, and there's nothing to stop you from turning off your mobile phone at any moment, so you should put the fear to rest for people who can't suffer from being disconnected from their alerts for too long.

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Heart rate accuracy

 

Apple approaches heart rate on the Watch Series 3 in two ways. The first is still highly geared to exercise and offers you a better workout strength measurement, and it can now calculate restful heart rate during the day as well. That's a good piece of knowledge because it's a powerful predictor of your current health condition. In case you were curious, a lower resting heart rate is certainly a positive thing.

The design of the sensor that makes this monitoring happen is almost similar to the one on the Watch Series 2, so the results should be almost the same. Nice and efficient, not ideal, though. The statement may, however, refer to several wrist-based heart rate monitors. Apple has introduced an improved optical sensor on the Series 5, but there is not a huge improvement in efficiency in our time testing it.

What we find is that another solid performer is the heart rate monitor, whether it's checking in during a treadmill session on your resting heart rate or real-time results. In general, average heart rate readings appear to be higher compared to the Polar H10 chest strap we use, tested it against, roughly 5-6bpm.

It provided readings that were only 1 or 2 bpm off the H10, for max heart readings. So, it's one of the best optical sensors we've tested overall. However, we still have doubts about its ability to manage exercise sessions of very high intensity in short bursts. It still seems fairly stable over longer periods, but HIIT fans could be left a little disappointed.

Apple Watch Series 3: Battery life

As we said, Apple doesn't drastically sacrifice battery life with the Series 3, and we've still got over a day of use while testing a combination of cellular and non-cellular functionality.

Apple quotes 18 hours, and with moderate use, you can possibly reach that easily enough, but when you begin hammering the LTE, you will find a faster drain.

Calling is extremely battery-intensive, and by using the Watch as a single phone, you'll only get an hour of talk time; up to three if it's combined with the iPhone.

So this isn't meant for your Auntie Nora's long catch-up calls, or just a few minutes here and there.

We'd hesitate to guarantee four hours of GPS without using power-saving modes in terms of running monitoring.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Series 4 v Series 5

For prospective Apple Watch buyers, maybe the hardest decision out there now is which one to actually buy-a tantalizing Apple Watch Series 3 offer should be of interest to a lot of people.

The Series 3 comes with WatchOS 6, GPS, and LTE support if you need it.

Only those who favor the Apple Watch Series 4 modified design or the Series 5 always-on mode or ECG technology should ignore a respectable Series 3 agreement that competes if it does not boost what else is available at this price.