Normally, when we review products at Lifehacker, we try to follow a set format that focuses on the main things that matter; purpose, specs, what's good, what's bad and a recommendation. And while we've already reviewed the Apple Watch, I've had the chance to use it in a situation I didn't really anticipate - as a replacement for an iPhone. This is the first Apple Watch I've had with cellular comms so I decided to use it differently to previous versions.
Like many people, I can have a hard time disconnecting from work, even when I'm on leave. But that was the situation I faced last week when I took three days off to celebrate my wedding anniversary. In order to completely focus on relaxing, I decided to leave the laptop, tablet and smartphone at home. But, with five kids to consider, I didn't want to be completely out of contact.
The Apple Watch Series 4, which is the fifth major product version of Apple's smartwatch platform, offers a number of substantial changes over its predecessor while retaining much of what has made it the most popular smartwatch around. While it is an evolution on previous versions, it represents, perhaps, the first compelling reason for early adopters to consider an upgrade.
I'm running the new Apple Watch Series 4 with cellular data. With its integrated eSIM and the Telstra One Number service (an extra $5 per month), when calls or texts come to my phone, they simultaneously arrive on the Apple Watch even when my phone and watch are far apart. And, as where we stayed had no WiFi, I was completely dependent on cellular comms when using the watch for anything.
Getting Control Of Notifications
One of the keys to optimising the smartwatch experience, on any platform, is getting notifications right. In my case, I only wanted to know about calls and texts from particular people, not receive social media messages or random pings from other apps.
Getting those settings right takes some effort but is worth it. For example, most of the time I kept things in "Do not disturb" mode so only people in my VIP list could call. And I've turned off notifications for all but the apps I deem essential.
Living completely on cellular data highlighted how much more power hungry LTE and 4G are compared to WiFi. Most days, I go through between 40%-70% of a full charge depending on what I'm doing. But most days I'm working in places where there's plenty of access to decent WiFi.
While I was away and relying solely on cellular comms, the Apple Watch churned through about 15% of its charge every couple of hours. That's nowhere near as good as any smartphone I've tested over the last couple of years.
In short, if you're planning on leaving the phone at home, make sure you have a portable charging solution on hand if mains power isn't easily accessible.
Good Enough App Access
I've intentionally not installed lots of apps to the Apple Watch. The only extras I have are:
- Pillow: for monitoring my sleep
- TripIt: for checking my upcoming travel and getting alerts of flight changes
- Uber: I've got to get around!
- Facebook Messenger: It's a key comms channel for work (but I have notifications disabled)
I was a Strava user but can get by with Apple's workout app as I don't really need the social engagement of Strava to validate my exercise habits.
The inbuilt app I did occasionally check while away was Mail. The new Apple Watch's larger display makes it possible to read and reply to email. But my main use of the app was to scan subjects and delete messages I didn't need to do anything about.
Can It Replace Your Phone?
Apple clearly sees their smartwatch as complementing their phone and not replacing it. You can't set up an Apple Watch without an iPhone and you need the phone for installing apps and managing system updates.
But if you need to leave the phone behind and stay connected, the Apple Watch Series 4 with cellular data lets you stay in touch and remain, largely, distraction free as long as you tame your notifications.
In my case, I was able to get by easily for three days without my iPhone. And while there were moments I did think of reaching for it - to play a round of Words with Friends or check social media - I really didn't miss it. I did occasionally want to snap a photo but took a compact digital camera with me that was more than adequate for that task.