CUPERTINO, Calif.—Apple ushered the Apple Watch Series 4 into the world today, just one year after introducing its first smartwatch with LTE. Rumors proved to be true: the Series 4 forgoes a complete overhaul (sorry, no round Watch yet) and instead sports a larger, edge-to-edge screen, improved hardware to make it a better calling device as well as a better health device.
After Apple debuted the Watch and the newest iPhones, we had a chance to go hands-on with the new Series 4 Watches. We played with its edge-to-edge displays, examined its new ECG electrodes, and learned more about its new “fall detection” feature.
New-ish sizes and that big screen
Arguably the most confusing things about the Apple Watch Series 4 are its sizes. It comes in 40mm and 44mm case sizes, but consumers who want to upgrade and keep their band collection don’t have to fret. The new models are compatible with all old bands: the old 38mm bands will work on the new 40mm watches, and the old 42mm bands will work on the new 44mm size.
Rather than the case dimensions, it’s the new, bigger screens that make the new models look and feel different from their antecedents. Apple says the edge-to-edge screens on the Series 4 Watches are at least 30 percent larger than those on previous models, and that’s most noticeable on the new 44mm watch. The larger Series 4 appears taller than its predecessor thanks to the enlarged screen area, and the amount of potential screen space that’s lost on a Series 3 device is immediately apparent.
The 40mm Series 4 has, what appears to be, subtle differences relative to a typical 38mm Series 3. The glossy screen area appears smaller on the Series 4, but Apple used the space more efficiently, so the amount of screen space is actually larger.
Apple’s new watch face (which can hold up to eight complications) fits perfectly with the new design of the Series 4. I use the modular watch face regularly on my 38mm Series 3, so I’m anxious to customize the new watch face with even more of my most used programs. I’ve found it to be convenient to have Calendar, Timer, Workout, and other apps available on the watch face so I don’t have to dig through the Dock or app cloud to quickly find exactly what I need. The new watch face on a larger screen will make this even more convenient.
Overall, both case sizes of the Series 4 are thinner than those of previous watches, but you probably won’t be able to tell unless you place two Watches side by side. The Series 4 feels quite light as well, especially when paired with one of the new woven sport bands. However, most Apple Watch models are light enough that they won’t bog down your wrist anyway. Apple also changed the back of the Watch to be all ceramic and sapphire crystal, which should allow for better cellular reception on the LTE models.
Even with the thinner cases, Apple claims the Series 4 Watches will have the same battery lives as existing models—up to 18 hours on a single charge. I’ve been able to get nearly two days on my Series 3 Watch (sometimes using Power Reserve for a couple hours), so I’m interested to see how the Series 4 with its updated processor handles my daily use.
ECG and fall detection
The heart-rate monitor on the Series 4 gains improvements through software, which will let it detect lower-than-normal heart rates as well as signs of atrial fibrillation. Previously, the Watch could detect when your pulse spiked and alert you to the sudden change—the Series 4 will build upon this by essentially detecting major drops in heart rate.
In addition to the Apple Watch’s optical heart-rate monitor, the Series 4 has new electrodes that help it take electrocardiograms (or ECG) readings. These electrodes live on the underside of the Watch, surrounding the heart-rate monitor’s optical sensors, and on the flat part of the digital crown. To take an ECG, the user just has to open the ECG app on the Watch while wearing it and press their finger to the digital crown.
These readings could be helpful for users who want to share heart-rhythm data with their doctors or who need to monitor such data frequently. An Apple Watch Series 4 will not replace any medical equipment or medical tests users need to have done, though—most professional ECG devices take readings using multiple leads (sensors) placed on various parts of the body. The Series 4 likely won’t be as accurate as such a medical device, but it’ll give regular consumers the option to take their own ECG readings between doctor’s visits.
I’m eager to test out the new ECG app for the Apple Watch, but unfortunately we didn’t even get to see it during our hands-on time. Although the ECG app will be available later this year, it won’t be when the Series 4 models go on sale or when watchOS 5 launches.
My ears perked up when Apple described the Series 4’s new fall detection feature. The feature uses the advanced accelerometer in the Watch to recognize when the user has fallen. When this happens, Series 4 Watches will wait one minute before calling 911 and sending a message to the user’s emergency contacts.
Apple claims this feature will be hard to trick because the improved accelerometer is constantly looking for specific types of fall-esque movements. Motion, orientation, impact, and other factors contribute to the Watch detecting when you’ve actually fallen or just moved in an awkward way. Also, fall detection is only on by default for users over 65 years. That way, younger users who do activities like break dancing, jiu jitsu, or surfing, won’t be wearing a Watch that’s always thinking they’ve fallen and can’t get up.
I’m not particularly clumsy, but I have elderly family members who would benefit from this feature. Fall detection isn’t just a great concept and a practical use for the tech inside the Apple Watch (most of which has been sequestered to the fitness side of things until now). It also combines with Wi-Fi and LTE to notify loved ones and emergency services immediately when necessary.
My first impressions of the Apple Watch Series 4 lead me to believe that it’s an update that will inspire envy in owners of existing Apple Watches. However, once that initial feeling of covetousness has subsided, it may not be enough to force current Watch owners into an upgrade. Those who have health issues that could be made easier by an at-home, FDA-cleared ECG device have the most compelling reason to get the Series 4, along with those still running on a Series 0 or Series 1 Watch.
I’m most disappointed in the stagnant nature of the Watch’s battery life. I was hoping for an improvement on this front, but it looks like we’ll have to wait a bit longer for Apple to make significant battery-life strides.
Stay tuned for Ars’ full review of the Apple Watch Series 4 in the coming weeks. The Apple Watch Series 4 will be available for preorder on September 14 and widely available on September 21, starting at $399 for the GPS-only models and $499 for the GPS and LTE models.