The majority of Apple Watch Series 3 reviews focus on the cellular model, but the one most people should get is the less-expensive GPS version. While it’s amazing you can place calls from your wrist without a phone, the GPS-only version does almost everything the fancier one does, and it doesn’t add a $17-a-month fee to your bill (I explain why it costs this much later in the post).
This is a hands-on review of the new Apple Watch Series 3 GPS that was written after three weeks of non-stop usage — and it’s coming from a person who had never used an Apple Watch before. It’s an unbiased look at this lust-worthy and slightly puzzling gadget.
Why did I buy an Apple Watch?
I work at a fitness software company, and for the first two years of its existence, Apple Watch wasn’t compatible with our platform. Thankfully, with Apple’s introduction of watchOS 4, there is finally a way to export Apple Watch workouts to our product.
When it was first announced in 2015, I desperately wanted an Apple Watch. The urge to purchase was nearly overwhelming, but I resisted. After the first wave of somewhat unenthusiastic reviews were published, my desire eased slightly. Soon I realized there was no way to use it with my employer’s product — which made me decisively decide not to buy one.
Several months after the original Apple Watch hit the market, I was satisfied that I didn’t give-in to temptation. It’s usually wise to skip the first generation of a new tech product, and Apple hardware is no exception. Plus, during this time I started testing a Garmin Forerunner 230 for work, which had some smartwatch features. My lust for one gadget was satisfied by the unexpected arrival of another.
When the Apple Watch Series 2 was announced in 2016, I was much less interested. I liked that it had built-in GPS, but I was surprised it had grown slightly larger in size. I would occasionally research if it was possible to export its workout files to use them in SportTracks, but this never was the case.
I used the Garmin 230 to track all of my runs, bike rides, and swims, but I also particularly liked its smartwatch features. I could screen iPhone calls from my wrist, read notifications, and check the weather. It was nice, but very limited. Using it made me realize I would truly enjoy having an Apple Watch.
This fall, shortly before the next generation of Apple Watch was expected to be announced, I researched yet again if it was possible to export Apple Watch files. This time I struck oil. I learned how Apple had made it possible with their watchOS 4 software beta.
When the Apple Watch Series 3 was officially announced in September 2017, I was blindsided with desire to buy one. Originally, I looked into buying a used Series 2. However, the people selling them on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace wanted too much money for them. Plus, buying a used, wrist-worn thing seemed kind of yucky.
I scoured the Refurbished and Clearance section of Apple’s website several times a day like a madman. (Pro Tip: Before you buy any new Apple product, always check what’s available in the Refurbished section). Apple was actually selling the Series 2 aluminum 42mm a couple of times for $275, but it never lined up with when I was ready to pull the trigger.
The thing that finally made me decide to get a new Series 3 was that reputable sources claimed that its faster S3 processor was a vast improvement over the Series 2. It was the first Apple Watch to deliver on the promise of the original. If it takes too long to do something on the watch, why bother? Just do it on your phone. Lo and behold, the speed of the Series 3 was finally faster than digging a phone out of a pocket. I was sold.
So, what does bleeding-edge wearable tech get you in late 2017?
It’s an okay flashlight
Since its introduction, reviewers have said Apple Watch is an enigma. It’s not exceedingly clear why it exists, or why you should buy one. An obvious answer is that it’s a fitness tracker; an excellent device for tracking steps and monitoring heart rate. But there are drastically less expensive fitness trackers available that people truly enjoy owning.
With Apple Watch you can quickly see notifications and answer calls on your wrist (as long as your phone is nearby), but this is stuff you do on your smartphone everyday. Why pay lots of money for an Apple Watch?
After three weeks of use, I’ve found that it’s the little details — the little delights — that make it worthwhile. For example, when you swipe up from the bottom of the Apple Watch screen, you can hit a little button that turns it into a flashlight. This is the same thing you do with your phone all the time, but the watch is attached to your body which means two significant things:
- You don’t need to dig it out of a pocket — you can access it faster
- You aren’t holding it, so both of your hands are free
When I was deciding which Apple Watch to buy, I was tempted by the more expensive cellular model. However, the only use I have for it is when I’m running. I prefer not to bring my phone when I run, and it would be nice to place and receive calls from my wife.
But, I’m rarely out running for more than an hour (the majority of my runs are 30 to 45 minutes). Plus, if the battery dies on your iPhone, even if you’re very far away from it, the phone-call capabilities of the Apple Watch Series 3 Cellular do not work. Same applies if you accidentally destroy your iPhone. Even if your iPhone is simply turned off, you can’t make calls with the watch.
To use the cellular version of Apple Watch in the United States, it was thought that it would typically cost around $10 a month. However, the people who purchased this model just started to receive their first phone bills, and the cost is significantly higher. Remember all of those ambiguous little taxes and fees you pay on your phone bill every month? They all need to be paid for the watch as well. So the service is likely closer to $17 to $18 a month.
As pricy as it is here in the USA, I do think it’s worth it for some people. For example, it might be a reassuring thing to wear for someone who takes care of children all day, or for people who work on their feet that can’t whip out a smartphone. For my personal needs, it’s a luxury I can live without. Simply put: most people should buy the Series 3 GPS.
Apple Watch found a space station in my front yard
When you get an Apple Watch, you first need to set it up with your iPhone. At one point during this process, the phone asks if you want to add the of the Apple Watch apps that match apps you have on your phone. I agreed to do this, and I’m glad I did.
One thing I’ve found interesting about this review process is how often I use third-party apps on my Apple Watch. This is the opposite of what I was expecting, thanks to the countless reviews I’ve read, and from commentary by podcasters like John Gruber.
A good example of this happened the other night. After I finished washing the dishes, I got a notification on my wrist from the app Night Sky. If you haven’t tried this app on your iPhone, I recommend it. You basically turn it on and point your phone in any direction. The app shows you what the heavens look like all around, and points out constellations and space craft.
The notification I received alerted me that the International Space Station was about to fly over my house in five minutes. I’ve had Night Sky on my iPhone for a long time, but I always seem to miss these notifications. In fact, my phone was in my pocket at the time, and I didn’t notice the notification there, but on my Apple Watch it immediately got my attention.
Among the crickets and darkness, I walked out to my front yard, launched Night Sky on my Apple Watch, and realized very quickly that its tiny screen was seriously lackluster for the function of this app. So, I pulled my phone out and launched Night Sky on it. Within a minute or two, I spotted the ISS cruising overhead. It was the first time I’d seen it with a naked eye, and it was fun. It looked more like a high-flying airplane than what I was expecting, but it was still a thrill, and I have my Apple Watch to thank.
There are plenty of bad apps, too
There’s one thing you must remember about Apple Watch: the screen is no larger than a postage stamp. This seriously limits what you can do, and many apps suffer. The best example of this is Instagram. On smartphones, this app is beloved. It has 500 million daily active users. 500 million! However, all of its engaging power is completely lost on Apple Watch. The photos, no matter how glorious they were intended to be, look like washed-out refrigerator magnets.
Just weeks before I bought my Series 3, Twitter abruptly pulled its app from the Apple Watch platform. A lot of people don’t understand or appreciate Twitter, but I’m one someone who does. This certainly would have been an app I tried out. Apparently, this app took a long time to launch. It’s a shame because this isn’t an issue with Series 3. Apps launch as quickly as they do on my iPhone 6S. They’re legit.
Google, Amazon, and Target recently eliminated their Apple Watch apps, too. But that’s fine, because it’s the little things that matter on Apple Watch. My favorite weather app, Dark Sky, sends alerts to let me know that it’s going to start raining in 15 minutes. I love these alerts on my smartphone, but they’re even more helpful on my wrist. Similarly, the Apple Watch app of my favorite podcast player, Overcast, just appears on my watch when I start listening to a podcast on my iPhone. I love being able to easily hit the pause button on the watch, and quickly skip incessant Squarespace and Casper ads.
You don’t want a noisy watch when your wearing Speedos
Fitness is a central focus of Apple Watch, so I had high hopes for this aspect of the device. So far I’ve done a bunch of bike rides, a few runs, and two lap pool swims. The workout features are decent when you’re actually using them, but I find the launching process a bit wonky.
When you’re wearing all of your bike gear and you’re finally ready to ride, it feels wrong to delicately fiddle with Apple Watch before you start. I have to relearn how to launch the Workout app every time I’m ready to exercise. Do I push the side button? Do I push the Digital Crown? Do I swipe something? It’s more confusing than I expected.
When the Series 2 watch debuted in 2016, one of the most attention-getting features was how its new speaker intentionally expelled water from its sound hole using a tone. It is neat, in theory. In practice, I don’t like attracting attention to myself with loud, futuristic beep sounds at the poolside. Other swimmers find it annoying as well.
On the other hand, I truly appreciate that Apple Watch has advanced swim-tracking metrics like stroke count, stroke identification, pool length, and more. Tracking swims with Apple Watch is vastly superior to tracking them with my old Garmin 230. In fairness, the 230 is designed to be a running watch primarily. But the Apple Watch is a big improvement. It even records heart rate in the water.
Physical aesthetic: NASA all the way
When I see people wearing Apple Watch, it seems like men prefer the Space Gray model, whereas the ladies mix it up color-wise. I’ve had dark watches in the past, but I’ve found that I much prefer lighter colors. The body of my Garmin 230 was bright white plastic, and the band was purple. I enjoyed it much more than my previous watch, which was a black and red Garmin 220.
Knowing that I don’t like dark-colored watches, I purchased the 42mm Silver Apple Watch Series 3 GPS. This model ships with a Fog Sport Band, which is a light-gray color. This combination is in-offensive and plain, but I was surprised at how “space age” it looks. It screams lunar-era NASA. I feel like I’m getting ready to board a Saturn 5 every time I glance at it.
As a bit of a space nerd, this doesn’t bother me. But, Apple Watch is famous for being fashion centric. This color combination is more pencil-neck than Prada. Criticism aside, Apple Watch is still, by far, the best-looking smartwatch or fitness watch on the planet.
This watch can look much better with one key modification: it needs the separately available Electric Pink Sport Loop watch band. I tried it on at an Apple Store, and it looked and felt great. If you’re a dude… do it. Get a pink watch band! It’s rad. I’m sure it looks great on females, too.
What about all the other stuff Apple Watch does?
- I’ve answered and placed phone calls with it (you don’t need the cellular version to do this if you have your iPhone nearby).
- I’ve responded to text messages.
- I’ve used it as a remote viewfinder and shutter for the camera on my iPhone.
- I’ve customized watch faces (which isn’t obvious how to do… Hint: turn the Digital Crown).
- Myself and my children have had long conversations with Siri (I use her a lot more on my watch than I do on my iPhone).
- It’s buzzed on my arm to tell me to turn while driving when using the Apple Maps app on my iPhone.
- I’ve paid for stuff using Apple Pay. I dig it.
I haven’t loaded any music into it. I briefly looked into doing this, but it seemed very Apple-ecosystem focused. I don’t subscribe to Apple Music, and I don’t use iTunes for listening to music at all anymore, so it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
I also didn’t use Airpods with Apple Watch, namely because I don’t own them. I plan on buying them soon, so I’ll have an opinion on this in the near future. I’m assuming it’s going to be pretty cool, though.
Final verdict: Should you get the thing?
My overall feeling on the Apple Watch Series 3 GPS is positive. I can see why some people would buy it, spend a week with it, and decide that they don’t like it. I am not one of those people. I am going to keep my Apple Watch, and I am going to happily use it everyday.
There are drawbacks. Battery life isn’t great. I get around two days of usage on each charge. It’s not as lightweight as I would prefer (however, its weight isn’t an issue at all). I’m a little concerned that I’m going to crack its glass face. I would regularly accidentally whack my Garmin watches, and I’m not looking forward to this happening with my Apple Watch.
In the end, this watch is a winner. If you think you might like having an Apple Watch, I recommend buying the Series 3 GPS. It still takes a while to learn how to use it, but it’s worth your time. You might even see a spaceship in your front yard. 🚀
Thanks for reading all 2600 words of my review! If it was helpful, you can help me by clicking on these links before you buy something on Amazon, ebay, or B&H. I get a tiny commission when you do, even if you’re just buying iPod Socks.