Which Apple Watch should you buy?


Apple’s big iPhone reveal on Tuesday was a hardware extravaganza, with the new $999 iPhone X sucking up a lot of the air in the company’s lavish new Steve Jobs Theatre. But the Apple Watch, more so than any of the less-prominent (and less-expensive) Apple products shown off, earned some significant onstage time, thanks to an introduction of the new LTE-capable Apple Watch Series 3.

We pretty much knew the device was coming, just as we all had a good idea of what the iPhone X would look like and how much it would cost. (It helps, too, that an image the Apple Watch Series 3 could be dug up in a firmware leak of iOS 11 last weekend.) Still, now we have all the details about how Apple managed to fit LTE into its smartwatch and preserve battery life (a better wireless chip), as well as how much it will cost you to get a standalone computing device on your wrist.

We know all four major US carriers are charging an extra $10 a month to add the Apple Watch to your current phone plan, with the device using the same phone number as your iPhone. We also know all the new specs and configuration details with each tier of the Watch. But the most important question remains: which is the best Apple Watch to buy right now?

There are a number of factors to consider beyond just the LTE addition, from water resistance to a faster processor and Wi-Fi chip to the ability to better communicate and hear from Siri directly through the Watch itself. Let’s start with a spec showdown, however, to make it abundantly clear what your money is getting you with each version of the Watch:

You might be wondering what happened to the Apple Watch Series 2. It turns out, Apple is discontinuing the product entirely in favor of the non-LTE version of the Series 3. It’s an interesting choice, since it will surely upsell some folks from the Series 1, otherwise known as the original 2015 Apple Watch. That device is slower and less capable in almost every way than its newer counterparts.

But more reasonable is the notion that Apple would have a hard time selling a one-year-old device against an only incrementally better competitor in the same device family. So it ditched the Series 2, leaving customers with a more simple choice to make.

First and foremost is the decision of whether you want LTE. If you’re the kind of person who’s longed to leave their phone behind on quick errands outside the apartment or when you’re going for a run or to the gym, a standalone Apple Watch could be a big draw. The device not only has GPS built in, but it can also take and receive calls and access music on the go (so long as you’re an Apple Music subscriber).

But the extra $10 a month to ensure the device has connectivity is a hefty purchase, adding up to an additional $120 a year just for the small sliver of times you might be without your phone. The next best option is the standard, non-LTE Apple Watch Series 3, which comes with nearly every single benefit of the more expensive Series 3, save the standalone connectivity.

Photo by Lauren Goode / The Verge
The LTE-equipped Series 3 weighs slightly more than the non-LTE option, with a slightly thicker heart rate sensor, but that’s one of the only differences.

You still get the built-in GPS and barometric altimeter in the event you’re an avid runner, as well as the new second-generation OLED Retina display with two times the brightness. You also get the S3 dual-core processor, which Apple says is 70 percent faster than the previous generation for tasks like app launching and Siri, and the new W2 wireless chip, which grants you 85 percent faster Wi-Fi connectivity and 50 percent more power efficiency than last year’s S2 chip.

There are a few minor differences (and one major one) that differentiate the two Series 3 devices. There’s a lighter case on the non-LTE option and half the internal storage, with the LTE Series 3 coming with 16GB compared with the standard Series 3’s 8GB. The major change that may irk some potential buyers is the lack of case options for the non-LTE Series 3, which is restricted to the aluminum model. You’ll have to shell out for the LTE version, even if you don’t want to pay the carrier fee to make it work without your phone, just to get an Apple Watch with a stainless steel case or, for the high rollers, the Hermès version or the luxury $1,299 Apple Watch Edition.

Beyond that rather confounding case restriction, one likely governed by Apple’s more maddening revenue-making strategies, the two Series 3 devices are largely identical, save the ability to work with or without a phone. A slightly more difficult pair of choices is whether you should upgrade from the Series 2, which came out only just last year sporting water resistance for the first time, or buy the Series 1 when the Series 3 costs just $100 more. Jumping from the Series 2 to the Series 3 is not all that advisable, especially when all you’re getting is a slightly faster chip set, while the latter choice really depends on only few things, principally why you want an Apple Watch at all.

If you’re interested in an Apple Watch because you’ve always wanted a smartwatch, own an iPhone, and mostly want it to tell the time or to check notifications, then you’re probably better off with a Series 1. If you care about the speed of the device and checking and using apps often throughout the day, then the extra $100 for the faster processor and wireless chip is worth the money. The Series 3 also comes with a bunch of new heart rate monitor options and an improved heart rate sensor, so that’s a factor to consider, too. It’s a tough decision, because not very many consumers can get a reliable grasp on what they’ll use a smartwatch for until they actually wear one.

For me personally, I’ve mostly used my Series 1 device for the last two years for checking the time and staying on top of Facebook Messenger, Slack, text, and email notifications. I hardly ever use apps directly on the device itself, and I rarely use the Glance feature to control music or check the weather when those are tasks I’d more easily be able to do from my phone screen.

So I don’t think I’ll be getting a Series 3, at least not while the device on my wrist today keeps functioning at more or less the same efficiency. (This might not be true with watchOS 4 or future updates down the line.) So going forward, up until the Series 3 starts shipping on September 22nd, it’s worth asking yourself why you want an Apple Watch, what you hope to get out of the device, and whether certain style options or the possibility of future LTE connectivity (if you want it) appeals to you.

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