If you are in the market to purchase an Apple Watch Series 4, it is very likely that you’ve already heard about its new EKG feature and fall detection, but hopefully you won’t have to use these features on a daily basis, or at all. What you may use regularly are its fitness features.
The Apple Watch Series 4 has added better training features for athletes, automatic workout detection with competitions and goals to motivate you to ever improve.
But these are mostly software features you can get on its cheaper predecessors (Series 1 and up) with the WatchOS 5 update. The cheapest 40 mm Series 4 model with the aluminum frame and no LTE starts at $400, $120 more than its older brother – the Series 3. (For international pricing, see our Apple Watch Series 4 review.)
After testing out the Apple Watch Series 4 together with the Series 3 for three weeks in a row now, we have noticed only two major advantages over its predecessors when it comes to working out with it – it’s screen size and it’s battery life.
Bigger, bolder, better
The first thing you would notice when you will take the new Apple Watch Series 4 for a run will be how much easier it is to read the numbers. It’s one of those things you never notice until it’s improvement comes upon, and all of a sudden I found it very easier to track my heart BPM and check my pace and the distance I traveled, without having to squint at the screen and risk a use of the Fall Detection feature.
The Series 4 has undergone a complete redesign from the previous Apple Watch models. The screen have gotten bigger, from 38mm to 40mm (for the smaller version), and 42mm to 44mm (for the larger). Plus, the bezels are thinner, so you are getting a lot more usable screen space on your wrist despite the fact that the actual body of the watch is not that much bigger. This means that all of your data (including activity stats) shows bigger and bolder on the Series 4, which makes a huge difference when you’re in motion.
The Apple Watch Series 4 also has a slightly slimmer body than its older brother – the series 3, and I found the little sensors on the back of it feels more comfortable when it is strapped on tighter around my wrist.
But where the Apple Watch Series 4 really pulls ahead is in it’s battery life. Apple claims that it can last up to 6 hours of outdoor activity tracking in a row, compared with the roughly 4 hours you could get on the Series 3. It’s still much less than other specialized tracker watches on the market, such as those from Garmin and Polar, but it is a big boost for distance athletes considering an Apple Watch.
During the first testing week, I didn’t notice much of a difference in the battery life between the Apple Watch 4 and 3. I would finish the day with about 40 percent battery life left on the Watch 4 after a regular day usage and maybe an hour worth of activity tracking thrown in there. Bottom line: the watch was still needed to be charged on a daily basis, so I was skeptical about the 6-hour tracking claim.
To test it out, I took both the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 3 on a 6-hour hike up at Mountain Tamalpais, about an hour from San Francisco.
Both watches batteries were at 100 percent when I got out of the car at the head of the trail parking lot near Stinson Beach, California. Before I began the hike, I put both on airplane mode at full brightness, with the Series 4 on my left wrist and the Series 3 on my right, and started the hiking session.
The hike up from Stinson Beach to the top of the mountain is steep. You start out among the redwoods, traverse up a stream with a few waterfalls along the way and there’s even a point where you have to climb up a ladder to move on. So while my pace wasn’t very fast, I was continuously using the GPS, altimeter and heart BPM.
At the hour mark I paused to check the watches battery levels and take a few shots of the screens: The Series 3 battery was at 75 percent and the Series 4 was at 87 percent.
Three hours in, I reached the summit and chomped on a sandwich as I walked (stopping was not an option for my test). The Series 3 battery life was at 25 percent while the Series 4 was going strong at 65 percent. At that point I began to worry that I would have to stay on the mountain past sunset.
I knew the way down would be faster then the way up, so I went on a few other trails at the top to kill some time before I started my descent. Exactly 4 hours in the test, I got a low-battery alert on the Series 3 watch. I dismissed it and continued the test, and then saw that all of my progress have disappeared from the screen as the older Watch switched to it’s Power Reserve. Meanwhile the Series 4 was still going strong with about 45 percent battery life. At that point it had already won, but I pressed on to see how long it would last.
Six hours and 20 minutes, 12.75 miles and 2,570 feet of elevation later, I finally decided to call it a day and stop the test hike. I still had about 5 percent of battery life left on the Apple Watch Series 4. After turning off the activity tracking, I had enough power to get me back to my car and drive an hour back home before it went into it’s Power Reserve.
Needless to say, Apple delivered on their 6-hour activity tracking claim, and then some. Sure I didn’t have cell signal turned on and I wasn’t playing any music, but it was at maximum brightness and it definitely out-hiked the Series 3 by at least 2 full hours. This means that the Series 4 can probably get you through a full marathon easily.
And while the battery boost is mostly for activity tracking, it may be worth the upgrade for athletes.
But, if you are not planning on signing up for any marathons or 6-hour hikes, many of the fitness upgrades are still available on older models.
WatchOS 5 makes the Apple Watch a better workout buddy
With the update to WatchOS 5, the Apple Watch can now detect when you are actually working out, regardless of whether or not you remembered to give it a heads-up. Within minutes of starting you’ll get an alert and vibration prompting you to begin tracking and it will continue to alert you until you will accept or dismiss it. If you accept halfway through your session, you will get retroactive credit for anything you did up until you got the alert.
Also, it knows what kind of activity you are doing. I didn’t try all of these features, but it can theoretically distinguish between running (indoor or outdoor), walking (indoor or outdoor), swimming (open or pool), elliptical and rowing machine, though there is no cycling option yet. It also knows when you have finished your workout, and reminds you to end your session with an alert and a notification regardless of what kind of exercise you have been doing.
This is a feature that Fitbit devices have had for a while now, but it is nice to finally get it on the Apple WatchOS 5.
My only real complaint was that it kept nudging and alerting me to record my walk to work as a run. The first couple of times I forgave it, because I actually and legitimately running, but I figured that after a week of dismissing that exact alert at the exact same time it would figure out that I wasn’t really running, just walking fast and sprinting between stoplights.
As well as hiking, WatchOS 5 added yoga to the roster of modes and activities you can select on the Watch. Granted you could always track under the Others category and then label it accordingly in the Activity app, but having a designated category means the tracking algorithm is customized for that specific sport.
Activities that are tracked in the ‘Others’ category are tracked similarly to a brisk walk and I noticed it now records more calories burned during hikes (not just the 6-hour ones).
Training tools for runners
If you are a runner like me, you are also getting a new set of tools to help you reach and overcome your personal record. You can now keep track of cadence (steps per minute) and rolling mile pace (how fast was your previous mile) while you are out pounding the pavement. My favorite feature is the pace alert, which makes the watch nudge in vibrations when you are under or above the target pace you have determined earlier. It is definitely kept me from falling behind from my usual 4-mile running route pace and I can really see it being beneficial for races and achievers.
You can also race against your friends. WatchOS 5 added a competitive streaks to the Sharing tab on the Activity app by allowing you to challenge your friends to a weekly ring-closing competitions.
You get one point for every percent of the ring you complete. The winner gets an award that is unique to your competition.
But lets be honest, if you share your activity with your friends, you were probably already getting a little competitive about it. I know I was. This is just a way for Apple to make it official and raise the stakes. This feature definitely motivated me to step up my game and close my move rings more often than before, but I also get borderline obsessive about winning that virtual medal during those seven days.
Like its older brothers, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a worthy fitness companion for all training levels. The longer battery and better screen are great incentives for distance runners who were waiting to make the change to an Apple Watch or just looking to upgrade from an older model. But 6 hours of tracking is still miles behind other dedicated fitness watches that can go for days on a charge.
The biggest selling point of the Apple Watch is that it does so much more than just fitness. The added cell connectivity means you can comfortably leave your phone behind on a run and still have all the essentials: music, messages, calls or car service.
And with the Series 4 you have new health features like the EKG, irregular heart rate notifications and fall detection. Be sure to check out our review before making a final decision.