The Apple Watch Series 4 is a beautiful smartwatch that provides all the tech of the iPhone with a smattering of health and activity data thrown in for good measure. But as a dedicated tracker and GPS watch, it leaves much to be desired. This is especially true if you are an endurance athlete. For that purpose, the Series 4 is completely inadequate.
Apple Watch Series 4 Review
Cons: Not ideal for athletic training, need third-party apps for normal GPS watch functions
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Our Analysis and Test Results
We tested the Apple Watch Series 4 with cellular capability in the 44mm size, aka 44mm GPS + Cellular. Thus the price tag. The version without cellular is less expensive.
Technically you can say that the features list is almost unlimited on the Series 4 since new apps are created every day. That said, their function is limited by the hardware built into the watch, and by the regulations that Apple put into place regarding data and programming of new apps. But, because we tested this watch according to the requirements that athletes have for a GPS watch, and not based on what the average smartwatch user is looking for, the Series 4 did not score very well.
If you want to export your run activity into a computer as GPX data to modify it, you cannot do this without a third-party app, which you have to buy. Alternatively, Strava has an app you can use, but that forces you outside the Apple Activity/Health world. If you want to put your data into Strava and TrainingPeaks simultaneously, you need to use yet another app like Run Gap or Health Fit+.
The comparably priced Garmin Forerunner 945 supports GPS data uploads so you can put a route on your watch and just follow the line. This is an excellent feature when you are on a trail, as you can easily find your way on a pre-planned route or one that you download from a website such as GPSies. There might be an app out there that allows you to do this on the Series 4 but it is not an option on the watch itself.
The Series 4 does not offer advanced metrics and dynamics like the Polar, Suunto and Garmin watches do, such as recovery data and training load. It doesn't support uploading pre-designed workouts either. (Such workouts would tell you, during a swim session for example, when to do 200m freestyle or drills.) All of the similarly priced Garmins and Polars offer this feature over their online platforms or apps. You can't track things like your sleep or the number of stairs you climb without a separate app either.
In other words, the world is your oyster with the Series 4 — if you are willing to extensively research and download the apps you need to cover all the native functions of a similarly priced GPS watch from Garmin, Suunto or Polar. Due to this, we just could not rate the Series 4 very high in the features category. In our opinion, most of these options need to be native in a high priced GPS watch.
One big positive that we saw in this watch is its connectivity. You do not need your phone to make an emergency phone call while out on a run. This gave us and our loved ones peace of mind. That said, there are a lot of places throughout the USA, specifically trails, where we had no service anyway. The Series 4 also stores music within the device. We could easily have a music-filled but phone-free run. Not carrying a phone was really a freeing feeling for all of our testers!
Please note, your connectivity will only work in the Americas! The cellular bandwidths are different in Asia and Europe so do not expect to be able to use the LTE/UMTS connectivity outside of the Americas with your USA version Series 4.
Ease of Use
If you're an iPhone user, the Series 4 will probably come quite naturally to you. The daily usage emulates that of the phone but in a smaller package. Many of the swipes are the same, so the operation of the watch feels like a small iPhone.
The screen has a beautiful resolution and the size is ideal. It lets you glance down quickly and see the data you need. That said, all of us found it difficult to swipe while running. Usually, it resulted in over swiping a screen or not registering the swipe at all.
To put it bluntly, the Series 4 lost big-time in the battery category. If we ran for 1 hour a day, we had to charge it every day. If we didn't run and just used it as a normal smartwatch, it lasted 1.5 days. If you are not playing music, you might get over four hours of activity use out of it. Apple states up to five hours, but we could never get it there.
The sad thing is, if you were an ultra-athlete who loved the Series 4 and did not want to own two watches, Apple could have just made the charger compatible with an external battery. Then you could charge it on the go. But the Series 4 charger blocks this possibility in not one, but TWO ways, namely, the watch sits on the charger. It will not stay on it if you, for example, have it in your backpack. It literally must sit still on a table or floor to charge, or it will fall off. Secondly, putting the watch on the charger disrupts the activity. This made us sad.
To save battery life, Apple designed the screen to turn off and on with a raise of the wrist. This function works really well, but some users wanted to have the time and their data always available. The high-resolution screen just drains too much battery to allow this though.
For many of our readers, battery life will automatically eliminate the Series 4 from their consideration. For ultra-endurance athletes, day hikers and even most marathoners, this watch will simply not last long enough to track your data.
Accuracy is not an easy thing to test due to all of the variables that come into play. We tested the accuracy of the GPS function by comparing its recorded distances to the other watches as well as reviewing the mapped routes against one another.
The Series 4 was a bit difficult to judge due to one issue — when you start an activity, it has a countdown but does not confirm if it has acquired GPS signal or heart rate. (It uses a different heart rate algorithm during activities than it does during daily use.)
When it did acquire the heart rate immediately at the start of an activity, it proved to be a very reliable optical heart rate monitor. (We compared to our HRM Garmin Run chest strap, which is purported to be very accurate.) Perhaps this is because Apple uses an optimized algorithm for activities or perhaps it is simply because the Series 4 fit all of our testers wonderfully. Optical heart rate monitor reliability is very dependent on the fit of the watch, as well as skin pigments, hair density, tattoos, etc.
Regarding the GPS… well, we had mixed results. We noticed in the data after our runs that there was an occasional lack of GPS signal for the first few minutes. And on shorter runs, like the one in the chart below, there was sometimes a sort of smoothing out of the run track in the mapping — but not always. When it did happen, it made a difference in the calculated distance. This is what we could not figure out. It was either really close to our other watches or up to 11% off. Such discrepancies were rare among the weeks and weeks of testing, but it did occur often enough (about 10% of the time) that it was noticeable.
Ease of Set-Up
You must own an iPhone to set-up an Apple watch. If you own an iPhone, the actual set-up is easy, as each step is described to you on the screen. What bothered us was the timeline involved. It took us over 2 hours to download the updates. That was the longest download time of all the watches we tested. During this two hour period, we noted that the back of the watch and charger were really hot. Maybe this is insignificant, but it made us a bit nervous since it was right out of the box!
In our opinion, this is where the Series 4 wins the big cookie. It is a beautiful looking watch both in and out of the office. Every tester, regardless of wrist size, commented that it was probably the comfiest watch they had ever worn. The screen resolution is super crisp and the colors vibrant.
There are a huge variety of watch casings and wristbands that you can choose from to customize your Series 4. You can also place the crown of buttons on either side — no more crowns jabbing into the backs of our hands during push-ups!
The value of the Series 4 as a smartwatch is excellent, but the value purely as a GPS watch is limited. It just does not deliver a lot of things natively that virtually all other GPS watches in that price category deliver. That said, if the battery life is not a problem for you and you do not need many of the GPS watch functions that other watches deliver natively, then the Series 4 might just be your dream watch…it certainly is aesthetically pleasing and comfortable!
Endurance athletes and athletes looking for a long list of metrics should choose another watch, but if you do not fall into these two categories and you own an iPhone, this might be your best choice.
— Larin McPeak