THE APPLE WATCH SERIES 3
A Rough Road Ahead
Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled THE APPLE WATCH: A Roadblock to Its Future. It referenced an article from Bloomberg Technology that began, “Apple Inc. has hit roadblocks in making major changes that would connect its Watch to cellular networks and make it less dependent on the iPhone.” The article concluded that, “The source of the delay is that current cellular chips consume too much battery life, reducing the product’s effectiveness and limiting user appeal.”
When the Apple Watch 2 was announced a few weeks later, in September 2016, as predicted, it did not include cellular connectivity. It was, and still is, a widely held belief that the key to large-scale adoption of the Apple Watch (and smartwatches, in general) is having its own always-on internet connection. But the factor most limiting that potential was the battery.
Last week it appeared that Apple had removed this roadblock. On September 12, 2017, a press release stated, “Apple today introduced Apple Watch Series 3, adding built-in cellular to the world’s number one watch. Whether users are out for a run, at the pool or just trying to be more active throughout their day, Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular allows them to stay connected, make calls, receive texts and more, even without iPhone nearby.”
At Enovix, we’ve been extremely curious as to how they solved the battery problem. But this week, the reviews were not as positive as the initial news. While a roadblock may have been removed, it appears that there is a rough road left to travel before the Apple Watch can function independent of an iPhone or avoid a recharging station during a typical consumer’s day.
On September 20, Steve Kovach, of Business Insider, summarized the news with his article, Reviewers say the new Apple Watch is pretty bad. The article states:
The new $399 Apple Watch Series 3, which goes on sale Friday, is the first Apple Watch that can work without being tethered to the iPhone, thanks to an LTE connection from your wireless carrier. It’s the one feature Apple Watch users have been asking for since the product launched over two years ago.
But reviewers complained that the Series 3 had issues connecting to LTE, meaning that using Siri, retrieving data, and making phone calls didn’t work on the device when it wasn’t connected to an iPhone. And when LTE did connect, it quickly drained the battery.
The article references initial reviews from The Verge, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and BuzzFeed. The primary complaint from some reviewers was LTE connectivity problems. According to Insider Business:
Apple released a statement about some of the issues reviewers had with the Apple Watch. Here’s what a company representative said about the LTE connectivity problems: “When Apple Watch Series 3 joins unauthenticated Wi-Fi networks without connectivity, it may at times prevent the watch from using cellular. We are investigating a fix for a future software release.”
No doubt, Apple will quickly address the LTE connectivity issue. However, a closer reading of the reviews reveals that the underlying problem of battery performance still persists. Lauren Goode’s review for The Verge, “APPLE WATCH SERIES 3 WITH LTE REVIEW: MISSED CONNECTIONS,” describes her experiences with two watches provided by Apple. Regarding the first Apple Watch 3, she relates her morning filled with connectivity problems, and ends with the following:
Phone calls did sometimes work from the Watch, but I had to manually tap through my contacts or recent calls list on the Watch and initiate the call that way. By 11:42 that morning, after 60 minutes of working out with LTE, multiple attempts to use Siri, and two seven-minute phone calls, the Watch’s battery had drained to 27 percent.
Apple quickly replaced her first Watch with a second. She describes her improved, but less than ideal, experience with it, including the battery performance.
Not surprisingly, using LTE impacted battery life on the Series 3, although the second review unit showed battery life that was much more in line with what I expected. We spent a whole morning shooting video last week, with the Watch operating independently of the phone — about three hours of intermittent LTE usage. By noon, the Watch had drained to 30 percent. So I had to charge it later that afternoon.
Joanna Stern’s review for The Wall Street Journal, “Apple Watch Series 3 Review: Untethered… and Unreliable,” sounds similar alarms.
You’re lucky if the battery allows you to roam on cellular for longer than half a day—especially if you’re making calls.
Apple itself promises only one hour of talk time on LTE, and I confirmed this in my testing. Also, the watch becomes noticeably warm during longer calls.
Unless you plan to carry around a 5-pound backup battery in your bag, living a full day with just the Apple watch isn’t happening.
The Series 3 is the strongest indicator yet of what Apple believes the watch ultimately can be: a stand-alone tiny wrist computer that doesn’t need your iPhone. But if the Series 3 is any indicator of how that’s coming along, we should all hold off until, say, Series X.
Brian X. Chen, reviewing for The New York Times, provides the most positive review, although he still views the Apple Watch as a work in progress.
So the final verdict? The Apple Watch Series 3 is the first sign that wearable computers are maturing and may eventually become a staple in consumer electronics.
Nicole Nguyen, reviewing for BuzzFeed, provides a glass half empty and glass half full summary in a section of her review titled, “The problem with the Apple Watch is — and always has been — its limited battery life.”
Yes, the watch has an “all-day” battery mode that keeps GPS and cellular turned off, but that often feels insufficient. I want my watch to read my heart rate while I’m sleeping and wake me up without bothering my partner every morning — but it can’t, because it needs to be charged every night.
The new cellular capability puts even more of a strain on the device’s battery. Other smartwatch makers, like LG, compensated for this by slapping on HUGE batteries, making the device practically unwearable for anyone who isn’t The Rock. The Apple Watch handles this issue by moving only to cellular only when necessary and otherwise relying on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The 18-hour battery life claim includes just four hours of LTE connectivity.
This is consistent with my tests. With cellular on, and your phone at home, your watch will last the entire day — as long as you don’t put it into a running, biking, or swimming mode, which will turn on GPS and heart rate.
But, generally, the battery performance is pretty poor: Talk time is three hours using your phone’s Bluetooth connection or Wi-Fi, without LTE, and one hour with. With GPS and heart rate sensing, it’s five hours without, four hours with. If you want to go on a daylong hike or bike ride, you’re better off bringing your phone.
There are different views of the smartwatch’s ultimate function. In a March 2016 webinar, Gartner’s perspective was that the smartwatch is presently a smartphone accessory, and mass adoption will require it to become an untethered device that creates essential value within the internet of things (IoT) ecosystem.
David Singleton, Google’s director of Android Wear, has a vision that, “The smartwatch will feed you information before you ask for it, act as your ‘agent’ in the internet-connected world around you, and keep you healthy—even talking to your doctor before you ever realize you’re sick. We think that wearables can really act as you for the technology around you…we think that the one thing long-term that will actually be your representative will be your watch.”
But no one wants to recharge their wristwatch halfway through the day. Low-power chips and sophisticated power management systems are stretching the performance of today’s Li-ion battery as far as it can go, but that is still far short of satisfactory. The Apple Watch, smartwatches, in general, and other sophisticated wearable devices require significantly better battery performance if they are to realize the aspirations of designers and the expectations of consumers.