Opinion: why I think cellular is a backwards step for the Apple Watch

Apple’s smartwatch risks losing its sporting focus if it tries to do too much, argues Rob Leedham...

The greatest trick the Apple Watch ever pulled was convincing the world that it’s a sports watch.

And unlike Keyser Soze, it was no act of illusion – when the Series 2 added GPS, waterproofing and a cracking Workout app, it changed the game for smartwatches.

Before the Series 2, smartwatches had no idea what they wanted to be. Fashion wearable? Phone remote? Virtual doctor? None of it exactly had queues forming around the block.

But when Apple took a decisive turn down the path marked ‘smart, desirable sports watch’, it suddenly all made sense. So much so, the Apple Watch is now the world’s biggest-selling watch.

Which is why I’m a bit baffled by the cellular version of the new Series 3. Because cellular connectivity isn’t useful for sports, at all. In fact, I’d go as far saying it’s actually detrimental to the whole idea of a sports watch.

Let me just interrupt you there...

Let’s call on exhibit A – ‘Deidre the paddleboarder’, from Apple’s Series 3 keynote. Now, Deidre was out having a lovely, quiet paddleboarding session on a beautiful lake. That was, until Jeff Williams shattered the peace by calling her on her Series 3.

Don’t fall off, Deidre! Well, it’d be easier to keep my balance if you’d just, you know, waited until I called you later on, like we agreed! This wasn’t what Deidre said, but you could tell it’s what she was thinking.

In fairness to the flagship Series 3, it is possible to turn off cellular mode. But we all know how it works with phones – there’s an expectation of availability, and now that’s coming to your watch.

Most people who exercise in ways that the Apple Watch so brilliantly encourages use their runs, rides or swims as a kind of meditative alone time. At least, that’s what I do. And the last thing I want is the possibility of someone killing my Activity Ring-crushing momentum by butting in with one of Larry David’s feared ‘stop and chats’.

Frankly, anyone who claims they’re worried about missing out on ‘important phone calls’ during a half hour run needs to start a 12-step program for FOMO. In fact, I think there’s an Apple Watch app for that.

Fear of music

Ah, but what about streaming music on your smartwatch? Isn’t that the dream for smashing exercise PBs? I’ll admit, it’s amazing that we’ve gone from 1,000 songs in your pocket (with the iPod) to 40 million songs on your wrist (with the Watch Series 3).

But when it comes to tiny, exercise-friendly music players, less is more. Apple knew this when it made the iPod Shuffle, with its seemingly unnecessary but perfectly judged constraints. That was smart. Paralysing you with choice? Not so much.

When I’m running, I don’t want the burden or temptation of millions of songs. I want a couple of playlists, carefully compiled and sequenced by their BPM (don’t judge), without the threat of a momentum-derailing clanger to send me reaching for my wrist or pocket.

This is where offline music from streaming services comes in. You don’t need a contract, and the Apple Watch gives you just the right amount of storage (1GB, or 250 songs) for a marathon soundtrack. Right now, you can do this with Apple Music on the Watch, but it’s still a bit of a faff and there’s no sign of a Spotify app on the horizon either.

But isn’t cellular connectivity actually a carrot for non-sports fans? What about using it for texts, map directions, or emergency phone calls? Well, if I’m not going out to get a sweat on, I always have my phone with me. ‘Keys, wallet, phone’ sees to that. And Apple already introduced SOS phone calls on the Series 2, as demoed by the guy whose car flipped over and left his iPhone tantalisingly out of reach.

Still the greatest

Don’t get me wrong, Apple hasn’t yet been distracted from the fitness path it forged with the Series 2. In fact, the mix of new hardware and watchOS 4 has brought some excellent new fitness features.

Resting heart rate, recovery heart rate and irregular heart-rate detection? All brilliant additions. There’s also an altimeter, which will be handy for sports like skiing and cycling, plus watchOS 4 features like auto-counted swimming sets and a multi-sport mode.

But the cellular Series 3 just hints at the lack of focus that saw early smartwatches try to do everything, to their ultimate detriment.

Perhaps the Dick Tracy mode is simply Apple spotting some pretty serious smartwatch competition in its rearview mirror and putting on the tech afterburners. That red dot on the digital crown? It’s not a fashion statement – it’s a warning flag for the likes of Garmin and Fitbit.

Hitting the sweet spot

Of course, there is a solution to my issue with the cellular Series 3. I could just not buy it, and get the non-cellular version instead. I do think, at £329, that that version is definitely the Apple Watch sweet spot. And, almost certainly, the best smartwatch you can buy.

Its £399 cellular sibling is an incredible technical achievement, a genuine gadget marvel. It’s got an LTE antenna built into its screen, for crying out loud. But I’m not convinced it’s a helpful forward step for the Apple Watch.

As cheesy as the slogan is, the whole marketing thrust behind the Apple Watch has been about becoming a ‘better version of yourself’. And I just think the Apple Watch can become a better version of itself without the distraction of phone calls and cellular.