Tech Guide

The new Apple Watch finally freed me from my phone

Apple Watch Series 3 hands-on review
Apple Watch Series 3 hands-on review

I had this weird moment the other night where I finally took the time to listen to the crickets around me as I took my dog for a walk.

I wasn't staring down at my iPhone browsing Twitter or Instagram or chatting needlessly to try to fight some boredom I'd created in my head, because I didn't bring my phone along.

Instead, I had the Apple Watch Series 3, which was bizarrely freeing.


The red on the digital crown indicates this is the cellular model
Todd Haselton | CNBC

This is the life the tech industry has created for us. We're constantly tracking a package, looking at a friend's photos and reading the news. Look in any elevator, and the entire car is filled with folks staring down at their smartphones.

The Apple Watch Series 3 doesn't disconnect us from that world entirely, but it also very much creates a sense of freedom.

Nobody says you need to carry your phone when you leave the house to walk your dog, but we all do. Or I do, anyway. And with the Apple Watch and its cellular connection, I knew that anyone who had to reach me in case of an emergency could. My wife would still ask if I wanted to go out to eat and I'd still be able to reply before she picked up food at the grocery store on her way home from work.

I'd still have connectivity if I locked myself out. But I didn't need my phone with me.


Placing a phone call with the Apple Watch Series 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you've used a Series 2 Apple Watch, the one Apple launched last year, you can expect really similar performance on the Apple Watch Series 3. There's a faster processor that's supposed to make things feel more fluid, but I didn't really notice.

The new cellular connectivity is a big change, though, and might be enough reason to upgrade. Apple built antennas into the screen that allow you to place and receive phone calls and text messages, call up Siri for questions and, soon, even stream music from Apple Music. In my tests on T-Mobile, this worked really well.

You should know that it will cost extra if you want the cellular connection. Depending on your carrier of choice, you're looking at around $10 to $15 per month. That's at least $120 of additional cost per year, which might be too much to swallow for some folks.

You can send a text even without your phone nearby
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a bit of a delay when you leave your phone before the watch connects to a cellular network. You can tell when it's connected because green dots showing the signal strength appear on the watch face. On one occasion the Apple Watch connected to T-Mobile after I'd walked my dog past four houses in my neighborhood and on another it took me 10 houses. That's anywhere from 2-5 minutes or so, I guess. The delay wasn't too bothersome, but the hand-off between your phone and a wireless network certainly isn't immediate.

The green dots show your cellular signal strength
Todd Haselton | CNBC

But it worked really well once a connection was established. The Apple Watch speaker isn't great and I felt really lame speaking into my wrist, but my boss on the other end said I sounded like I was using a phone.

The experience is much better through a set of Bluetooth headphones. I tested with a personal set of AirPods and a pair of BeatsX headphones, and both worked just fine. You can also use headphones to play music that you can sync with the Apple Watch, which lets it serve as a sort of mini iPod on your wrist. Soon you'll be able to stream millions of songs from Apple Music, though I still wish there was a Spotify app.

Speakers on the Apple Watch Series 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple said there's a fix coming for problems some users had connecting. The problem arises when the Apple Watch automatically tries to connect to saved networks in places like Starbucks or a hotel, where you might have once logged in using a web browser on your iPhone or Mac. I didn't run into any of these issues, but if you find yourself frequently in hotels on business and logging into these networks, you might experience Apple Watch connectivity issues until a future patch is made. Just a heads up.

Finally, battery life seemed to be right on a par with last year's model. You'll drain it really fast if you're using cellular, though, so relying on it is best for taking a dog on a walk or running out to the store. It's not meant to be your phone for a day, and wouldn't get you close to dinnertime on a charge without your iPhone nearby.

The other stuff

The new list view of apps in watchOS 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Apple Watch Series 3 runs Apple's latest watchOS 4 operating system, which is also available for earlier models.

There are lots of changes, like a new list view that replaces the honeycomb view of apps. This makes it much easier to find what you're looking for, and you can scroll through apps using the digital crown.

The new Siri watch face in watchOS 4
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple also added a new Siri watch face that shows you news articles, upcoming reminders, photos it thinks you might want to see and more. I like it, but mostly found Siri wasn't very good at showing me what I wanted to see. The only time I was pleasantly surprised was when I saw a picture of my wife and I on our honeymoon on my wrist, thanks to Siri. Otherwise, getting random pictures of my friends on my wrist just felt weird. You can manage what you see, but I began to prefer more traditional watch faces.

The Apple Watch Series 3 has all sorts of workout tracking capabilities
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are all sorts of exercise apps included. I'm not a fitness nut but I like closing my "Activity" loops, which are goals for standing, moving and walking throughout the day. If you row or swim or are a generally active person, you'll find all sorts of tracking capabilities here.

Apple fine-tuned the heart rate tracking capabilities
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The heart rate monitor seemed accurate -- at least it spiked when I was moving and knew when I was at rest. (In fact, Apple is working with Stanford on a study that it hopes will help folks start to recognize if there are early signs of potential heart problems.) You can also set the watch to alert you if your heart rate spikes to a certain level (Apple recommends 120bpm) when you haven't been moving.

The back of the Apple Watch Series 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Should you buy it?

The Apple Watch Series 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I bought one of the nicer Apple Watch Series 2 models last year with a metal band and the steel casing, because I liked that it looked more premium than the aluminum sport models. I had absolutely no intention of upgrading to the new model, but I just did.

The Apple Watch Series 2 was the first smartwatch that I continued to wear and that didn't just end up shoved in a drawer somewhere. And I've owned or reviewed many, many smartwatches.

The experience I had walking my dog with the Series 3 and its cellular connectivity, knowing that I didn't need my phone with me but could at least reach someone or be reached in an emergency, was really freeing for me. I know I can always just leave my phone behind but then... what if?

If you don't care about that or you're able to disconnect better than I can, then you don't need the cellular option. Just buy the standard Series 3 model. And if you have a Series 2 and don't care about cellular, there's no need to upgrade. I really didn't see any discernible difference in day-to-day use.

If you have a Series 1, sure, maybe now is a good time to get that performance bump.