In the lead-up to Wednesday’s Apple event, the Apple Watch seemed like it would be a sideshow. The device would get some minor updates, while the new iPhones would be the focus. Apple may have intended that to be the case, but the iPhone updates were mostly iterative and unsurprising (though technically impressive). Instead, the new version of the Apple Watch, already the leading smartwatch in the world, emerged as the most exciting announcement from the company.
The Apple Watch Series 4 seems like an incremental update with an initial glance at its new features. The watch has a slightly larger display with 30 percent more screen real estate on both the 40 mm and 44 mm variants. The back of the device is made of black ceramic and sapphire crystal, and the digital crown now includes haptic feedback for a more satisfying response as you turn its dial to navigate on screen. Its speaker is 50 percent more powerful, and its microphone has been moved to the opposite side of the device to help improve phone call quality. While its overall battery life is the same as its predecessor (18 hours), its new operating system, watchOS 5, allows for improved performance when tracking fitness activities like running, which you can now do for up to six hours.
It’s the watch’s improvements in the health arena that are most noteworthy. The Apple Watch Series 4 is the first commercial “over the counter” device to gain Food and Drug Administration clearance for taking electrocardiogram readings. The device has electrodes on its sapphire underside and in the digital crown; by touching the digital crown for 30 seconds, you can take an EKG reading anytime.
Once the reading is complete, Apple’s EKG app tells you your heart rate and whether you have a sinus heart rhythm, which is normal, or atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. It’s not a replacement for a doctor, but it has FDA approval. It’s accurate enough to be taken seriously, and that’s a huge step for a consumer wearable device. The watch also keeps track of your EKG readings in the Health app, so if you do have some irregular readings, you can export them as a PDF to share with your doctor for further analysis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter of deaths in the U.S. each year are due to heart disease, and somewhere between 2.7 million and 6.1 million citizens have atrial fibrillation. This condition increases a person’s risk of stroke by four to five times. By identifying this heart condition earlier, individuals could start to make lifestyle changes that can reduce their chance of stroke or seek treatment earlier, before hospitalization is needed. Apple’s new health and heart rate tracking features could also be useful for those who experience other unusual cardiac events, such as an unusually elevated or unusually low heart rate. By capturing that data in a form you can directly share with a physician, you may be able to identify whether you have a heart condition or not.
Over the years, Apple’s smartwatch has evolved. At first, it seemed primarily a device for techies aimed at keeping us connected 24/7. It then became more of a lifestyle item, a style piece with all manner of apps available from the App Store. In its third generation, Apple focused on fitness, adding GPS, making it waterproof, and expanding its fitness-tracking capabilities. Now Apple seems to be rounding out the experience with health-focused features. The device has utility no matter which of these scenarios suits your needs, but its developments in the health sector set apart the product from other consumer-grade smartwatches and wearables on the market. Now, it doesn’t just track your heart rate—it can help accurately diagnose a common, sometimes deadly heart condition. This is a huge step for wearables, and a positive move at a time when so much of the tech world feels like it’s harming society these days.