Apple Watch Series 3 Review: Untethered... and Unreliable

By Joanna Stern Features Dow Jones Newswires

There's this moment in "Dick Tracy" where the fearless detective, chasing down a villainous gang, taps his magical wristwatch to call for backup. Then, realizing the battery is down to 8% and that cellular isn't connecting, he ducks under a desk to find a power outlet and futz with the settings.

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Poor Dick, he upgraded to the cellular version of the Apple Watch Series 3.

Apple's latest has all the ingredients of the future we were promised. Crammed inside that familiar flattened-marshmallow rounded square is the power to make calls from anywhere, connect to an always-listening personal assistant and check in on your health with biometric sensors -- all without depending on an iPhone for connectivity.

Except, after I spent a week testing these new models -- denoted by a red dot on their dials -- the future feels even further away. You're lucky if the battery allows you to roam on cellular for longer than half a day -- especially if you're making calls. And only a limited number of third-party apps work without the phone close by. (No Instagram, Twitter, Uber.)

Most worryingly, my colleague Geoffrey Fowler and I experienced cellular connectivity issues on three separate pre-production models, in two different states, on two different 4G LTE carriers.

On the AT&T-connected models, the cellular connection dropped, calls were often choppy and Siri sometimes failed to connect. On the one that ran on T-Mobile, I experienced several dropped connections.

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When I asked Apple about these issues, a spokesman said, "We haven't seen this in any of our testing and we're looking into it."

After publication of this review, Apple provided the following statement: "We have discovered that when Apple Watch Series 3 joins unauthenticated Wi-Fi networks without connectivity, it may at times prevent the watch from using cellular. We are investigating a fix for a future software release."

Apple provided the same statement to the Verge, which also experienced LTE connection problems with two AT&T models.

That's a lot of baggage for a device that costs $400 -- $70 more than the noncellular Series 3. And don't forget the extra $10 a month you'll need to pay your carrier for the cellular service.

A cellular device is, sometimes literally, a lifeline. That's why I can't recommend the cellular Apple Watch Series 3 until the connectivity is more reliable. Even then, the battery life could be a buzz kill for some. Apple itself promises only one hour of talk time on LTE, and I confirmed this in my testing. Also, the watch becomes noticeably warm during longer calls.

However, when the Watch was performing as it should, I discovered the enjoyment of being untethered from my iPhone. In my video I experimented with living a jam-packed day with just a cellular Apple Watch. It isn't possible. But there are three types of shorter-lived scenarios where I found it could be useful:

Workouts. The one thing that has had me yearning for a cellular edition for years is the prospect of finally burying my chunky, smelly iPhone running armband.

On Saturday morning, with just the Apple Watch on my wrist and AirPods in my ears, I tracked my mile-and-a-half run, texted my wife to ask if she wanted coffee and then paid for two iced lattes at a local shop with Apple Pay. And once Apple's streaming music service hits the watch next month, I'll be able to demand that Siri play "Taylor's new single" or any other song that comes to mind. For now, you still need to download music.

The same can apply to hiking, biking, golfing -- whatever your land sport of choice. But depending on how much time you spend out, you may need to turn off the cellular connectivity to conserve battery life. Don't expect to stream music or receive motivational texts through a whole marathon.

New to both the cellular and noncellular versions of the Series 3 are real-time heart-rate reporting and an altimeter. To test both, I decided to conquer my fear of heights and climbed up a 23-foot-high trapeze tower. Apple correctly measured my petrifying walk up the ladder at two flights. (A flight of stairs is 10 feet of elevation gain.) When I reached the top, my heart rate registered 153 beats per minute. Yes, I was that frightened about stepping off the ledge.

Because I was actively climbing up to that point, I didn't receive an elevated heart-rate notification, which it sends when it doesn't understand why your heart is racing.

Water Activities. Confirmed: You can call or text from an Apple Watch while sitting on a Jet Ski in the middle of the Hudson River. Also confirmed: The water is still gross. That experience may sound unusual, but you'd definitely want a cellular Apple Watch for water activities.

Whether it be surfing, sailing, kayaking, swimming or sitting in the kiddie pool, the ability to stay reachable without handling a phone, even a water-resistant one, is freeing. Unfortunately, with no camera on the watch, there's no way to snap photos.

The cellular and noncellular versions of the Series 3 are water- resistant up to 50 meters. And no, you can't make calls from under water. I've tried.

Walkabouts. Unless you plan to carry around a 5-pound backup battery in your bag, living a full day with just the Apple Watch isn't happening. But it can be great for short departures from the iPhone to walk the dog, run to the supermarket, go to a meeting in the office or move the car. In all those situations, I received messages and emails and quickly responded via voice-to-text, which has become more accurate, even in noisy environments. I've also been impressed with Siri's quick response time to my "Hey Siri" prompts. I'm still less than impressed with Siri's ability to help.

One major frustration: If you begin a phone call on your watch with phone connected and then leave the phone behind, the call will drop. Even though it's the same phone number, the handoff to the watch's cellular isn't seamless. I found it generally took a little less than a minute. Apple acknowledges this was typical. When you are in a Wi-Fi area or in proximity to your phone, the watch connects to either of those instead of cellular to save battery.

If any of these scenarios appeals to you, you should still wait until the cellular experience improves. If you just want an Apple Watch, go for the noncellular Series 3, which still has GPS and runs up to a day and a half on a charge. If you have the previous Series 2, stick with it and just upgrade to Watch OS 4, which gives older Apple Watches the new heart-rate features and workout tracking improvements.

The Series 3 is the strongest indicator yet of what Apple believes the watch ultimately can be: a stand-alone tiny wrist computer that doesn't need your iPhone. But if the Series 3 is any indicator of how that's coming along, we should all hold off until, say, Series X.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 20, 2017 12:18 ET (16:18 GMT)