Apple Watch Series 4 review: The biggest upgrade yet

Series 4 takes Apple Watch from good to great, and feels like the Watch we’ve been waiting for all along.

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If you’re into gold, you’ll be glad to see a new gold-colored stainless steel model. (The Series 3 only offered the gold color on aluminum watches.) And the cellular models are no longer adorned with a big red dot on the digital crown—there’s a subtle red ring, instead. You can thank the electrical pad required for the ECG for that.

The digital crown now has haptic response, too. There’s a gentle, subtle “tick” feeling as you scroll with it, giving it the feeling of little detents. It always puts a little smile on my face; just the sort of tiny detail I didn’t know I wanted until I had it.

For that matter, all of the haptics feel better, signaling possible improvements to the Taptic Engine. For example, I’ve always known the haptic signal for unlocking my Mac with my Apple Watch as a little double-wrist-tap. Tik-Tik. With the Series 4, it the two taps feel distinctly different and mimic the feel of a lock unlocking. Ca-click.

apple watch s4 mic Jason Cross/IDG

With the mic moved to the right side of the Watch, and a much louder speaker, making brief calls on your Apple Watch could become a habit.

The speaker is a lot louder than on earlier Apple Watch models, and the microphone has moved to the other side of the casing. This, along with better noise cancelling, have made making phone calls from your wrist a real possibility. I made three phone calls of various lengths and the people on the other end couldn’t tell I was talking on my Apple Watch at all until I told them. The speaker is now loud enough that you can hear it without holding your wrist up to your ear.

While making phone calls is not a new feature, the Series 4 takes it from a gimmick I’ll never really use to a legitimately useful feature. If I have a very short phone call to make, I'd have no issue making it from my wrist.

For all that the Series 4 and watchOS 5 add to Apple Watch, there are still a few features offered by competing products that we still don't have. I think you get good enough enough battery life to allow for built-in sleep tracking, for example. Apps like AutoSleep do a good job, but I want an integrated solution, preferably one that puts the watch into a special super-low-power sleep tracking state.

I'd also love to see an option to burn a little of that extra battery life with always-on watch faces. It’s a shame that this attractive hardware just turns into a blank, black slate when you're not using it. WatchOS 6 should give every watch face an optional always-on mode that eliminates complications, colors, and excess animations in favor of simple designs that look good but don’t cause the OLED display to use much power.

Just about everyone wants third-party watch faces, too. Apple obviously doesn’t want to open the floodgates to a bunch of ugly or trademark-infringing stuff, but surely some thoughtfully-constrained tools could let developers use a set of templates and features along with limited custom artwork and animations to make new watch faces that satisfy Apple’s standards?

The Apple Watch we’ve been waiting for

If you’ve been waiting for a big improvement to the Apple Watch to add one to your wrist, now is the time. No single new feature is groundbreaking by itself, but the combined experience feels like a night-and-day improvement over previous Apple Watches. If you have a Series 2 or earlier, you’re going to feel like you’re upgrading from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone XS. If you have a Series 3, it’s going to be harder to justify a $399+ purchase less than a year later. With all the new features in watchOS 5 and the solid performance of the Series 3 hardware, you can probably wait another year.

Going back to any prior Apple Watch after using the Series 4 feels like tying my shoelaces together. Why does everything take a second or two to respond? Why is the screen so cramped? What happened to the little tick feeling when I scroll the crown? Is that app still loading or did it freeze?

It seems a little trite to say that the Series 4 is just the same Apple Watch with a bigger display, better sensors, and a faster processor, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s fantastic. Every other Apple Watch felt full of promise, but Series 4 feels like promise fulfilled.

At a Glance
  • The Apple Watch takes its biggest leap forward yet, and finally feels like it delivers on the promise and potential we've seen over the last few years. We still want sleep tracking and custom watch faces, though.

    Pros

    • Lightning fast
    • Much larger display
    • New and improved health features

    Cons

    • The price jumped up a lot
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