It took what seemed an interminably long two weeks — but it's now (nearly) safe to buy a Series 3 LTE Apple Watch. Last week, Apple issued its WatchOS v4.0.1 update, which solved a series of embarrassing connectivity issues that plagued early adopters.
However, a further boost to WatchOS 4.1 is still in the wings, which will supposedly provide all of Watch Series 3 LTE's promised wireless functionality. Those considering a Watch Series 3, therefore, may want to wait.
To recap, Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE is a PC for your wrist, designed to operate independently of an iPhone.
The phone costs $399, plus $10 per month, including some free months, for cellular connectivity from all four major U.S. carriers, with varying amount of data.
Early reviewers disturbingly discovered that Watch 3 would try – and fail – to connect to nearby (and often unauthenticated) Wi-Fi networks if LTE wasn't available. Users also found the device would sometimes be unable to make or receive calls, or couldn't receive or send iMessage/SMS texts without a paired iPhone nearby: Sometimes there was a combination of all these communication hiccups.
My own Watch 3 glitch was the latter – no independent iMessage or SMS text receipt or even sending. Across five different phone support sessions (three with T-Mobile and two with Apple), I was asked to reconnect the Watch's cell service twice and re-pair the Watch to my iPhone once. When none of this worked I was told I'd get a replacement Watch – except they were out of stock.
These varying customer service calls used about eight hours of my time over the course of five days. Finally, installing the WatchOS 4.0.1 update seemed to solve most of the issues.
However, even with 4.0.1, it's not clear if all of Watch 3's issues have been solved for everyone; connecting calls in either direction continues to be a hit-or-miss proposition for me, for instance. Your results may differ, of course.
But assuming Apple has adequately addressed Watch 3's connectivity inadequacies – or will with WatchOS 4.1, here are the top 7 reasons for opting for Apple Watch Series 3 LTE (Watch 3).
1. Leave Your iPhone at Home.
Being able to leave your iPhone at home is the whole raison d'être for buying the Watch 3. But the giant caveat is, you should rely solely on your Watch 3 only for short iPhone-free forays and not all day substitution. Why? Music listening and cellular phone chats (yes, there's a keypad on the phone app so you can dial from the Watch 3) could burn through your battery faster (see "Battery" section below). Also, Watch 3 can't do everything your phone does; for instance, you won't be able to check Twitter (which removed its Apple Watch app. But you can get some Twitter action via Tapbots' Tweetbot app. For short stints of a few hours away from home, feel free to venture forth with just an Watch 3 on your wrist.
*Caveat: If you're going to use your Watch 3 independently of your iPhone, leave your iPhone powered on and connected via Wi-Fi or cellular at home. Even though your carrier assigns a separate phone number to your Watch 3 it uses your iPhone's primary number, and your Watch is somehow therefore tethered to your iPhone to deliver calls and texts. Turning off your iPhone or putting it into Airplane mode could block you from receiving calls or SMS and MMS texts when using the Watch.
Also, to make sure you receive Apple iMessage texts via LTE on your Watch 3, go to Settings > Messages > Send & Receive on your iPhone and make sure you have both your cellular phone number AND your Apple ID email address checked. If your Apple ID isn't checked, check it; if it isn't there, add it.
2. iPhone Backup.
While Watch 3 could be an iPhone replacement, it makes a better iPhone lifeboat. If you're a heavy iPhone user, you know you'll be running on lithium-ion fumes by the end of a long, busy day. Instead of scrambling to find an outlet to re-juice your iPhone or ending an important call because you're running low on juice, simply stick your iPhone into low power mode and conduct your calls and texts via the Watch 3.
*Caveat: This belt-suspenders philosophy will cost you $10/month, which you could consider a connectivity/battery insurance policy.
3. Longer Battery Life.
In my tests, after 47 hours and some LTE activity, the Watch 3's battery still retained 29 percent of its power, while the battery on my Watch Series 2 on Wi-Fi with no activity had dwindled to 15 percent. This is somewhat surprising since the Series 2 battery is actually more copious than the power cell on the Watch 3 (334mAh vs. 273mAh). Apple says Watch 3 should last for 18 hours of "mixed usage," but obviously some usage is more mixed than others. If you use your Watch 3 primarily as a supplement to your iPhone rather than separately, turn off its LTE connection to pick up even more battery life to draw from when your iPhone battery begins to fade.
*Caveat: If you use your Watch independently, you'll need to carefully track battery usage of both the Watch 3 – since you just can't plug it in with a Lightning cable to recharge it – and especially your Bluetooth headphone/earbuds. In my unscientific tests, I got nearly 20 hours of non-streaming music playback – which means most Bluetooth headphones and all wireless Bluetooth earbuds will run short of juice way before your Watch 3 does – and around 7 hours of cellular conversation, also longer than most Bluetooth buds.
4. More Powerful.
Apple says standard functions are 70 percent faster; I couldn't measure that, but Watch 3 is obviously far more responsive for everything it does than previous Watch editions, evidence of its more powerful processor. In addition, Apple has boosted both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth performance by 85 and 50 percent, respectively.
*Caveat: Whether or not you'll detect these improvements sans a direct comparison is questionable.
5. Music Playback.
Yes, you could store a limited amount of music in Watch 2's 8GB memory, but you can store twice as much in Watch 3's 16GB silicon bin, around 2,000-2,500 tracks depending on bit rate. And with the pending WatchOS 4.1 upgrade, currently in beta, you'll be able to access and stream the 40 million tracks from Apple iMusic, or from your iMatch music library or any Apple radio station via LTE.
*Caveat: Because your iPhone connects with your watch via Bluetooth 4.2 and, mysteriously, not the latest and faster Bluetooth 5 (available in both the new iPhone 8 and the upcoming iPhone X), syncing music to your Watch 3 is S-L-O-W – it took more than 24 hours to load an 8GB playlist onto my Watch 3.
As to streaming, the question is: when will WatchOS 4.1 become available? "Sometime this fall" is the vague response I got from an Apple rep. And, of course, streaming music could further erode battery life since you're using both LTE and music playback while listening – Apple estimates up to 4 hours of streaming music battery life vs. 20 via playback from synced tunes. Plus, streaming music over LTE will suck data from your monthly data allotment (depending on the carrier), and might interfere with incoming LTE calls. We'll update this section once we've had a chance to test WatchOS 4.1 with streaming music.
6. Bluetooth headphones.
You can pair any set of Bluetooth earphones with the Watch, especially Apple's own AirPods. Once paired with your phone, your AirPods also are automatically paired with your Watch – no further pairing necessary.
*Caveat: In addition to the Watch 3/Bluetooth earbud battery life discrepancy, you can converse via cellular sans headphones, but this entails holding the Watch up to your cheek for lengthy periods of time, which will result in a sore arm and looking ridiculous. And you can't listen to music without headphones paired and operating, even though the Watch 3 includes a built-in speaker.
7. Swappable Bands.
This may also sound like an obvious point, at first, since you could swap bands on the first two Watch iterations. But some LTE-connected smartwatches integrate their cellular antenna into the band, meaning you can't swap it out. Apple has cleverly imbedded its LTE antenna into the Watch face so you can continue to indulge your wrist fashion choices.
*Caveat: Apple's Watch bands cost a ridiculous $50. Your wallet will be happier with the plethora of perfectly compatible sub-$20 bands you'll find online.
What about the supposed improved health and fitness, Siri and HomeKit functions? These are all WatchOS 4 upgrades, available when you update your Watch Series 1 or 2. Watch 2 also has the same GPS and waterproofing as the Watch 3, removing other rationales for switching, although Watch 3 adds an altimeter so rock and mountain climbers can track their height.
Considering these seven advantages, and even with the associated aforementioned caveats, Apple's Watch Series 3 LTE could be the smartwatch iPhone owners have been waiting for – if Apple manages to get everything working the way they're supposed to.
Pros: Can be used without an iPhone to make calls, get texts and get online, can pair with any Bluetooth headphones, LTE connectivity is in the Watch face, so you can swap bands.
Cons: The new cellular service does come with an extra monthly fee, syncing music is slow, connectivity issues are problematic which include not being able to send or get calls, texts and having the phone drop connections while searching for Wi-Fi.