New Apple product categories often take a few iterations to begin to realize their potential and for users to figure out just what they’re good for. But even more than the original iPhone or iPad, the first Apple Watch felt like a prototype or proof of concept as opposed to a polished, practical device. It was, in short, a device only an early adopter could love.
It had texting and calling features but no cellular connectivity of its own. Its battery lasted no more than a day. Though expensive and thoughtfully designed, it still looked clunky, in the way that the first iPhone, iPad, and iPod did in comparison to later versions. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Apple Watch—as with most other smartwatches, to be fair—was the difficulty of interacting with it. It came with an abundance of controls, from taps to presses to swipes to twists of the digital crown, plus voice controls. But they all added up to a maddeningly complex, and at times counterintuitive, experience, especially for a gizmo that was supposed to be all about convenience.
In retrospect, the Apple Watch’s most compelling features were its health and fitness–tracking functions. And so, with last year’s Apple Watch Series 2, the company wisely built on these and reframed the watch as more of a fitness tracker and iPhone accessory than a wrist computer. That worked: CEO Tim Cook said Tuesday that the Apple Watch is now “the No. 1 watch in the world,” though the company still declines to disclose sales figures. That progress accords with my initial review of the Apple Watch, which was that it would ultimately succeed as a watch, per se, rather than as a new kind of mobile platform.
On Tuesday, however, Apple announced a new version of the watch that might actually restore some of the device’s original promise as a handy, lightweight gadget that’s capable and powerful in its own right. In the meantime, the evolution of other portions of Apple’s product lineup—notably Siri and the AirPods—has conspired to make the smartwatch much easier to control than before. The dreamer might even dare to say that the Apple Watch could yet become the iPhone successor that the company has long sought. At the very least, it could become a key part of the system that succeeds the iPhone—a wrist-mounted control center for your personal cloud.
The Apple Watch Series 3 improves on its predecessors in one crucial way, plus a couple of smaller ones that might be more important than they sound.
The big news is that it finally comes with its own cellular LTE data connection. That means you can make calls, send texts, and even stream music on it without your iPhone nearby. That’s big. (But not physically big: Apple proudly announced that the Series 3 will be no larger than the Series 2, despite the additional hardware that was needed for cellular connectivity. That’s thanks to some gee-whiz hardware design, which uses the Watch display itself as part of the antenna system.)
It’s no accident that fitness and health tracking were the Watch’s first killer app; it was the one that you could use without being tethered to your phone. Now that’s true of a much broader range of Watch functions.
The Series 3 will also get an S3 dual-core processor that is supposed to make it 70 percent faster, while also enabling Siri to talk out loud using the built-in speaker. And Apple says that upgrades to the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth systems will make the former faster and both more power-efficient. (One other new hardware feature is a built-in barometric altimeter, which will facilitate better fitness tracking.)
These under-the-face improvements aren’t revolutionary in themselves. Yet, taken together, they might add up to a significant change in how people use the watch. It’s been clear from early on that swiping, tapping, and twisting the Apple Watch is never going to be a lot of fun. Short of some kind of holographic projection, the device is just inherently too small to use like an iPhone.
In theory, the ideal way to command the watch would be by voice—the same way more and more people are commanding their Amazon Echos and their cars’ in-dash entertainment systems. So far, however, using Siri on the Apple Watch has been a bit of a chore. It’s partly that people really don’t want to walk around talking to their wrists, any more than they want to do that with their phones. (I’ve long been one of the dorky exceptions to this rule.) And it’s partly that Siri itself often seemed even buggier and laggier on the Watch than it is on the iPhone.
It’s too soon to say whether that has entirely changed with the Series 3. Processor, battery, and Bluetooth constraints could linger, even with the latest improvements. But thanks to the AirPods—Apple’s most underrated innovation of the past five years—all the makings are finally in place for a watch that you can use and command intuitively, wirelessly, by voice.
Between an LTE-enabled smartwatch, wireless Bluetooth headphone speakers, and Siri, you can now stream music, take calls, listen to podcasts, and dictate text messages, all hands-free, and all without your phone. At its launch event Tuesday, Apple showed off some of these functions in a live demo in which Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams called Watch team member Dieidre Calbeck on her Watch as she paddleboarded on a lake, talking to him through her AirPods.
In short, for better or worse, combining the Watch Series 3 with AirPods will bring you another step closer to the characters in Her who walk around engrossed in their own digital worlds without any visible signs of the hardware they’re using.
None of this will come particularly cheap, of course. The Series 3 with GPS + Cellular, which is available for order on Friday and will begin shipping Sept. 22, starts at $399. AirPods are another $159. And then you’ll need a streaming service like Apple Music, plus your wireless data service, all on top of the iPhone that you almost certainly already have. (Unless, of course, you’re planning to spring for the new iPhone X, which will set you back another grand.) And that’s why Apple is the most valuable company in the world.
One caveat: Just because all of these new uses are possible with the Watch doesn’t mean they’ll work flawlessly. The original Apple Watch looked awfully impressive in the launch demos, too. A possible sticking point could be battery life: Apple maintains the device will still last you a full day, but streaming music and talking to Siri are power-intensive propositions.
But even if the Series 3 isn’t quite yet ready to fill in for your iPhone over long stretches, the Apple Watch’s path to blockbuster-hit status looks a lot clearer than it did a year or two ago. Maybe Apple is ready for a post-iPhone future after all.