Having been an Apple Watch user for the last three years, surprisingly it hasn’t made me pull my hair out like every other smartwatch eventually does, and strangely, I’m also not bored of its poker-faced looks.
Maybe it’s the huge variety of bands that Apple keeps refreshing faster than season changes. Not an inexpensive buy-in but cheaper than indulging in a new model every year. The cellular version that is making it to India will be available on the Airtel and Jio networks to begin with and the only real visually distinguishing feature it has is the red dot on the digital crown. Loud enough to scream its more aloof nature than the regular Watch Series 3, yes, that one that latches on your iPhone like struggling actors to coffee shops. Oh, there is a new watchface called the Explorer that denotes the 4G signal strength with 4 red dots so you know at all times that you’re connected. Or not. The cellular version also gets a ceramic back as opposed to the composite back of the regular version.
But all that’s secondary compared to its e-SIM. It’s a pretty big deal considering that every 3G-enabled wearable that has come before it has met the fate of the Dodo.
Getting it right, again.
While there were many who scoffed at the square face of the Apple Watch, no one has ever complained about its comfort. Thankfully, nothing has changed on that front and while the Series 3 added a tad bit of bulk to the chassis, it’s not noticeable upon wearing and certainly not to the naked eye when comparing it to the previous generation. As a bonus, the Series 3 adds the barometric altimeter to more accurately calculate stair climbing, a dual-core processor to speed up apps and a faster WiFi chip. Activating the e-SIM on the Watch is as simple as just informing your telco and waiting for instructions. We were up and running in a couple of minutes and post that 30 mins until Airtel activated the connection on the watch.
The brilliant little 1.65in OLED screen is the same as on the regular Series 3 and that is to say, the best in the business. Visibility outdoors is fantastic and never have I needed to struggle to read notifications even on the brightest of days. It works well on a variety of Apple and third-party apps with real-world uses as an Apple TV remote, boarding pass scanner and tracking your Uber or OLA ride. With this cellular version, you can even order a ride just by asking Siri!
Apple’s own Health app is pretty comprehensive when it comes to collecting and collating data and presenting it in a fashion that is understandable to geeks and not just a sports physician. There was always a doubt regarding the real use of a smartwatch and Apple has chosen fitness as a hook to convert those sitting on the fence. Having some of the most comprehensive suite of sensors of any wearable at the moment, its accuracy has been improving at a rapid pace. I occasionally swim, work out everyday and climb stairs multiple times a day and it has never missed tracking any of these activities.
Three rings to rule them all
While Goqii has an innovative coaching method for its fitness soldiers by entrusting a human coach with monitoring your weekly progress, Apple’s approach is more passive aggressive. The three rings that form the backbone of its fitness strategy have worked wonders for me, personally. Closing the Move, Exercise and Stand rings everyday has become a mission and although not as palpably sweaty as a gym coach, it does play mind games and persuade you into following its instructions. As with any regime, you have to be consistent and once you start seeing even small results, it quickly becomes an addiction, feeding the cycle until you achieve a momentum that is unbreakable.
Habit-forming is what the Apple Watch is good at and that starts from wearing it. The constant companionship is addictive, including the precisely judged Taptic feedbacks that become a way of everyday life. The cellular version only adds to its appeal further by cutting the umbilical cord to the phone. You can now go running with just your AirPods (or any Bluetooth headphones) and yet be connected to your email, WhatsApp notifications, iMessage, news updates and of course phone calls should you have the FOMO.
Calling Mr. Spock
Flip phones made it seem possible but with the Apple Watch now, the future definitely feels within our reach. The premise of having a wristwatch being able to carry out a two-way communication is every nerd-boy’s fantasy and until we get FaceTime on Watch Series 5 (may be?), we’ll happily take phone calls. There is potential for a lot of things to go wrong and while not perfect, it does its primary job very efficiently and effectively.
The Siri watch face suddenly comes into its own on the cellular version since it becomes the primary input method for most tasks that you would want to carry out on the watch, untethered from your iPhone. Sure, Siri still has its quirks and doesn’t always carry out your requests with the level of efficacy that the Google Assistant can and that can get infuriating at times - pulling out your phone from its hiding spot and defeating the purpose of a cellular watch. But give it simpler tasks and names to call and it provides satisfactory results, especially playing music directly over the air. The thought of having 45 million songs to choose from and all on your wrist is a hugely liberating thought for a music lover or a long distance runner.
The Radio app released in the last Watch OS update comes into its own here, emphasizing the freedom an LTE connected device can bring to your life. There’s more on-board storage too if you want to keep your playlists offline too. 16GB compared to the 8GB on the standard Watch S3 to be precise.
How Apple managed to cram in so much tech within the same chassis is one of those engineering marvels that sometimes get taken for granted. Using the screen glass as an antenna and embedding an e-SIM into the bowels of the Watch, getting global carriers on board to adapt their systems and servers to support the e-SIM, it’s both painstaking and slow as a process. It’s a matter of when and not if, for other big telcos to get onboard so Vodafone users, hang in there with your fingers crossed.
How is the actual phone call quality you ask? Not bad at all. Every person I called couldn’t tell the difference between me talking from the iPhone or the Watch. Of course, I had a challenging time deciphering the words coming out the Watch speaker in noisy environments. Inevitably you will hold the Watch close to your mouth and ear alternatingly during a conversation so your voice is never an issue to the caller. Indoors, I could regain a more relaxed posture and have a conversation while my hands were fretting away on the laptop. The voice was surprisingly clear out of the tiny Watch speaker and more impressive was the microphone that picked up even the slightest of whispered jibes. If you use BT headphones though, of course, all these issues just melt away and you will never realise the difference between call quality from a phone or the watch.
One of the quirks of the Watch Cellular is that you cannot handover the conversation seamlessly from the watch to your iPhone when you get back in proximity. You will have to end the call on the Watch and make a new one via the iPhone should you choose to switch devices. While this scenario won’t occur frequently, it’s one of those features that you know will make it to a future update. Luckily, for Indian Airtel or Jio subscribers, there is no additional cost for activating the e-SIM on the Apple Watch and you shouldn’t see any difference in your monthly billing amount too. This isn’t the case with some international markets where the Watch cellular has made its debut, again cementing the fact that India is one of the cheapest countries in the world when it comes to 4G data.
Interestingly, the Apple Watch Cellular toggles between Bluetooth, WiFi and 4G connections, depending on the proximity of the iPhone and known WiFi networks. This happens in the background, with no user interjection and is completely seamless. If you do want to override the WiFi and go completely 4G, you can do so with a swipe up to open the control panel and toggling the WiFi option off. During my tests, I had to toggle the mobile data slider on/off a couple of times just to ensure it latched on to the Airtel network but I presume that is as good or bad as any phone going in and out of coverage areas.
The Watch S3 had no issues with lasting well beyond a day and the cellular version doesn’t make any discounts either. After a day full of buzzing, powering my AirPods with music for a 60-minute outdoor activity and making a few phone calls, it still went to rest on the dock showing 27%, which is pretty generous for a smartwatch with this much functionality and horsepower under the hood. You can throttle back all sorts of things like brightness, haptic feedback strength etc to eke out more, but I doubt anyone signing up for a digital wearable lifestyle will ever dare to be that far from a power outlet for that long.
While it still remains an indulgence and not a necessity, the cellular version of the Apple Watch makes a stronger case for itself than it ever did. Especially, if you’re a fitness freak or just a regular runner, breaking the shackles of having a phone strapped to your arm or carrying a sling bag is reason enough to own one. Unfortunately, it still needs you to have an iPhone to use (or even set-up) one so Android fanboys can only appreciate it from a distance or join the FitBit camp. It’s not cheap but considering its range of talents compared to the competition’s, it still leads the pack of nascent wearable technology. Add the genius of changing straps and bands as your mood or occasion dictates and you also have a fashion statement that encapsulates the essence of everything that Apple does, beautifully in a wrist-top gadget. Unfortunately, it remains the indulgence of the rich and famous.