November 4, 2018
by Ariel Adams
When the Apple Watch debuted four years ago, there was quite a bit of skepticism from the traditional watch industry, media, and enthusiasts alike. Personally, as many aBlogtoWatch readers know, I was enthusiastic about it from day one and continue to be so to this day. Now toward the end of 2018 Apple has recently released the AppleWatch Series 4 and for some time now has been able to claim that it sells more wristwatches than any other company in the world. The Apple Watch continues to be refined while enjoying massive sales. Having said that, the smartwatch category, in general, is still pretty young, having moved from infancy to a more toddler-like state of showing exceptional charm and promise.
The Apple Watch Series 4 inches forward in increasing utility and managing more data while still dealing with necessary restrictions such as battery life. There are many smartwatches out there but the Apple Watch Series 4 proves that good intuitive design is a necessary filter for the increasing amount of data that our wearables monitor. Technological restrictions aside, it’s still not perfect and I explain some of my easily remedied complaints later in this article. Overall, we are still in the early phase of a long iterative process, but I am happy with the Series 4 as delivered in 2018 and also optimistic about the future of the Apple Watch.
Given the iterative nature of how technology is produced, it goes without saying that the Apple Watch Series 4 is the best Apple Watch made to date. It is also the first serious redesign of the core look and shape of the Apple Watch since its debut. This article isn’t designed to redundantly discuss the new software and technical details.
Others can better explain the new and advanced heart monitoring functions that make the Apple Watch a serious health status tool, or some of the improvements in Siri that make voice commands and speaking to your Apple Watch, in general, more efficient and effective. Rather, I’m going to focus on giving you my opinion on how the Apple Watch is coming along as a watch.
Most traditional watch reviews almost entirely focus on the wearer’s visual and tactile experience. Thus, as most of our audience members are plainly aware, aBlogtoWatch watch reviews are mostly about a watch case and bracelet, as well as its dial. While the story of any electronically connected watch is mostly about functionality versus aesthetics, these conversations tend to be shorter with smartwatches as opposed to with traditional watches. Having said that, in order for consumers to closely connect with smartwatches, they need to really like how the product feels, looks, and operates before they take notice of what is going on in the screen.
Prior to the Apple Watch Series 4, the Apple Watch was already the best-made smartwatch on the market in terms of overall finishing and build quality. I’ve waxed poetic about how Apple did something even uncommon for them – and that is actually building a very durable product. It isn’t difficult to criticize many other Apple products such as laptops and phones for their relative fragility. I mean you more or less need a case to protect those products. With the Apple Watch, Apple has and continues to build an exceptionally durable product – especially if you can afford the best versions of the Apple Watch. These high-end versions have historically heavily borrowed from the world of traditional watches in terms of materials such as the use of sapphire crystal, ceramic, and of course high-quality metal alloys.
The Apple Watch Series 4 simplifies the Apple Watch collection by removing all the ceramic case options (even though parts of the watch are still in ceramic), which also implies the ritzier Apple Watch Edition has been retired. The Apple Watch Series 4 is available in steel or aluminum, with the steel models featuring a sapphire crystal and ceramic caseback. Apple offers a series of finishes for the Apple Watch as visual product differentiation is more important than ever to consumers.
Size-wise the Apple Watch grows a bit – which isn’t a bad thing. Having said that, the majority of smartwatches out there have dwindled in size and continue to do so as many of them were so large as to be uncomfortable. The once 42mm long or 38mm long Apple Watch has grown up to being 44mm long or 40mm long in the Apple Watch Series 4.
I don’t think most people will really notice the larger size. That is because not only is the screen larger on the Apple Watch Series 4 (meaning you see less of the case itself) but also because the case is a bit thinner at 10.7mm thick (versus 11.4mm thick for the previous Apple Watch case). Given that the Apple Watch is essentially a wearable screen, it is a good thing to have as much viewable space on your wrist as possible. Apple also boasts a new, faster S4 processor inside of the Apple Watch Series 4, and I believe it boasts more or less the same battery life.
Aside from the larger size and slightly modified case shape, the wearing experience for the Apple Watch remains very similar. I will, however, point out the new Digital Crown that is probably the most complicated part of the Apple Watch that gets the least amount of attention.
Apple has this nifty “explosion” view of the new Digital Crown with a haptic feedback system on their website which neatly illustrates the sheer number of parts that go into such a small space. For most people the Digital Crown on the Apple Watch Series 4 will simply look a bit thinner (in profile) with a red ring on it as opposed to a red dot (which debuted on the Apple Watch Series 3). One of the new features of the Digital Crown is that it can apparently be used to activate the heart rate monitor – and accordingly has a titanium cap which is used because of titanium’s non-conductivity. I’m more interested in the “haptic feedback” system, which I think is very useful and I’ve never seen such a system engineered in such a small package.
The purpose of the haptic feedback feature in the Digital Crown is to create small clicks or notches when turning the crown as needed by the software that the crown is currently controlling. This implies that sometimes when you turn the crown it will spin more or less freely, but in some applications, it will deliver small stops or clicks depending on the context of what you are doing.
Let’s say you are scrolling through menu items – then the haptic feedback system will deliver a tactile send of clicks or small stops on each of those menu items. I’ve used scroll/jog wheels on some computers and in some cars which do the same thing – albeit in a much larger package. Apple didn’t invent this technology, but I think it is very smart to have engineered it into the comparatively tiny space of a watch crown.
Such innovation reminds me of what the traditional watch industry received accolades for during much of the 20th century. Even though the wristwatch industry didn’t invent a lot of horological systems and mechanisms, they did invent ways of putting systems originally designed for larger clocks or other mechanical systems into the small confines of a machine on your wrist.
Similarly, Apple and other participating smartwatch makers should receive considerable accolades not just for inventing new technology, but also for their ongoing efforts to miniaturize existing good ideas and systems. Going back to the new Digital Crown on the Apple Watch Series 4 – it isn’t going to change the way you use your Apple Watch, but once you experience it, it will be hard to go back or give it up.
The Infograph digital watch face comes in traditional and modular forms for the Apple Watch Series 4’s new operating system. Both of these faces I like, and they share the ability to display a series of new complications that previously were not available on the Apple Watch. I am going to focus on the standard Infograph dial to finish this article on the Apple Watch Series 4 since it best tells the story I want to discuss.
Let me back up and reiterate my two primary complaints related to the Apple Watch at this time. And these complaints have persisted since the original Apple Watch debuted and carry through with the Apple Watch Series 4. Fortunately, these problems are related to style and creativity as opposed to quality or functionality.
The first complaint is that compared to most other serious smartwatch makers, Apple has relatively few watch face options. Unlike the Android Wear app store market which has countless smartwatch faces available, Apple only lets you use the watch faces it makes available. No doubt there are a number of reasons for this, but the result is that some of the creative magic that can result from a community working on wholly new watch faces is lost.
Apple does allow developers in some instances to create new “complications” which can be displayed on Apple’s watch dials, but for the time being unless you just want to plaster an image from your phone as the background on a whimsical watch face – you don’t really have the ability to use someone’s interesting futuristic or otherwise creative watch face for the Apple Watch.
Apple’s response to this is likely sound – being that getting a watch face to be both attractive and legible is challenging and that they have a vested interest in ensuring a high-quality user experience – even if that means a more limited selection of watch faces. Apple seems to want to connect the experience of using an Apple Watch case and exterior with matching software. I’m not unhappy with Apple’s watch faces in general, but contemporary tech has trained me to seek variety and personalization. I can sometimes get impatient to see new watch faces for my still favorite smartwatch and I do hope at some point in the future Apple at least considers accepting possible new Apple Watch dials from third-party developers.