When I was originally debating whether to buy an Apple Watch, I spent a long time trawling the internet for a review aimed at amateur runners. I know it’s a bit of a niche review but for a smart watch that is being heavily marketed towards fitness enthusiasts and sportsmen & women, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a lot that I found useful. Here is the review I wish I had found.
I can’t write a review of a watch and not comment on what it looks like, we’ll get that out of the way first. If you don’t care and you just want to know how well it works then please skip ahead. You all know what an apple watch looks like, it hasn’t really changed visually since the first iteration in 2015. At first glance, the only model that you can differentiate from the others is the Series 3 LTE with the little red dot on the dial, other than that you wouldn’t be able to tell the latest Series 3 non-LTE from the Series 0 if you were walking past someone in the street. The watch itself is pleasing to look at and not quite as aggressive as some sports watches you can buy, this means it’s as acceptable to wear in your running gear as it is in your expensive suit.
The watch I am reviewing is the 42mm Series 3 LTE that I purchased with the silicon band and it does look pretty smart, I’ve made it look even smarter by adding a black stainless steel band that I purchased from Amazon UK. The wealth of bands out there, both official Apple and 3rd party, is just phenomenal, you can really make it match your personality, activity or outfit. I use the black silicon band when I’m doing sports and the black stainless steel band for the office. The bands are so simple to change, you just hold in the little button on the back and the band just slides out
On their website, Apple have a total of 57 different bands for the 42mm version and 61 for the 38mm, if you take the different colours of the Aluminium, Stainless Steel and Ceramic watches you end up with a total of 826 different combinations of straps and cases which is amazing. This number is almost doubled if you consider the red dot on the crown of the LTE version a customisation. Don’t take this number as an accurate representation of the line-up as there are also the Hermes and Nike editions that I haven’t taken into account, take it as an indicator as to the sheer customisability and practicality of the design – this is increased monumentally if you Google “3rd party Apple Watch band”. What’s great is that, at least for all current watch models, the straps are backwards compatible meaning you can use the nice strap you bought for your Series 0, on your Series 3.
Day to day usage
I’m someone who always likes to be connected. In my day job, I am a project manager working with various teams across dozens of countries across most timezones. In my private life I’m an expat father and a son meaning that most of my family are in another country. Having the Apple Watch on my wrist means I never miss the important call or email from my colleagues in India, the US or Poland. More importantly, it means that I never miss the ever-pleasing call or text from my family back in the UK or the new picture of my daughter that my wife has put on the family photo album. To some the thought of being reachable and online at all times is daunting; I’m not one of those people.
The watch is a way to remain connected, although it is in no way a replacement for a phone. Very rarely do I find myself replying to emails or text messages on my watch, rather I end up taking my phone out of my pocket or drawer and quickly typing something out. There are a few reasons:
- Using voice to text works pretty well but there are limitations when it comes to punctuation and of course Emojis (depending on who I’m messaging of course)
- As a millennial, my typing speed on my phone is up there with the best of them so it’s often quicker for me to type out a quick sentence on my phone than it is for me to press reply on my watch, speak the message and then press send.
- Finally and most importantly, very rarely am I in a situation where I wouldn’t look a little bit mental for talking into my wrist
Despite the flaws, I am still pleased with how well the watch handles the messages and emails. I am more than happy using the watch as an incoming alert system, allowing me to stay on top of the important mails and messages in my life. I don’t want to pull out my phone every time I feel it vibrate only to find it’s another reminder from my optician that I should order another batch of contact lenses.
I’m not the most organised person in the world; my calendar isn’t full to the brim but I don’t often get a chance to just kick back for 5 minutes and browse Reddit at my desk. For that reason, I am forever grateful for having my calendar on my wrist. It works in exactly the same way as the iPhone in that you get a reminder for your meeting however many minutes before the meeting the organiser decided that you needed to be reminded, it’s that simple. The calendar app on the watch also outlines your schedule for you during the day and you can scroll through it with the crown on the side or using your finger on the screen, I hate fingerprints so I personally use the crown.
The other bits
The watch isn’t just an email, messaging and calendar machine. It can do a lot more. Here are some of my most used apps on my watch:
- Carrot Weather – this is a fun little weather app that is as sassy as it is accurate. The stock weather app on the watch is fine but Carrot provides a lot more useful information on the screen in a more intuitive way.
- BBC News – self explanatory. This app links to the main iPhone app and provides you with the headlines of the most read articles, most shared articles and those from your chosen category.
- Photos – if I’m sitting there waiting for a meeting to start or I’m sitting on the train having already read the paper I find it nice to browse through the photos I’ve most recently taken. The Photos app also notifies me of any new photos, likes or comments in the family album and allows me to view them.
- Hue – this allows me to choose between the various scenes I have set up around my home with my Philipps Hue lights. You can’t do any customisation of the scenes within the watch app but it’s great if you’re about to watch a movie and you want to switch the lights to your chosen movie lights scene
- Music – with the LTE watch I am able to stream music from Apple Music or Apple Radio straight to my AirPods, more on this later.
- Activity – allows me to keep track of my steps, active calories burned and my “Stand Hours” throughout the day, it also allows me to feed my competitive side
The Apple Watch has a built in activity tracker that is able to track your steps, your active calories burned throughout the day, your exercise minutes and your stand hours. It’s that simple. The nice bit is how the information is presented to you, shown in the video below:
When you first open the Activity app you are presented with three rings, a red one, a green one and a blue one.
- Red – Active Calories – This ring measures the estimated number of calories that you have burned through general activity. This is different from other devices such as the Garmin Fenix 3, which measured total number of calories burned including resting calories. This means that where you might have been provided with a figure around 2200-2500 on the Garmin, you are going to be provided with a figure of 200-500 on the Apple Watch (depending on activity levels and body measurements of course)
- Green – Exercise Minutes – This ring measures the number of minutes of exercise you have completed in the day and can be filled by either choosing a specific workout in the Workout app or just by moving around at a quick pace.
- Blue – Stand – This ring measures the number of hours in a day in which you have stood up and moved around for at least a minute. If you haven’t moved around during the hour you will get a notification 10 minutes before the hour is up to “Stand up and move a little for one minute”, once you’ve done this you will get another notification congratulating you for earning another hour towards your stand goal.
Scrolling down a little you are able to see a more detailed look at the stats showing you the exact number of active calories burned, number of exercise minutes and stand hours as well as the percentages of the totals that are set. Further down you can see little bar charts showing you the progress throughout the day. I have to say, while the bar charts are nice looking, I’ve never actually found them to be useful for anything, my memory isn’t so bad that I forgot that I walked to the station in the morning and that I had a two hour meeting in the afternoon where I didn’t get a chance to stand up. You might find them more useful than I. Scroll down once more an you are presented with the distance moved in miles or kilometres, the number of steps you have made and the number of imaginary flights of stairs you have climbed that day.
Like I have said, all of the above is very pretty but all you’re limited to is numbers – this is where the phone companion app comes into play. This app is where all of your data is stored and when combined with the Apple Health App, it is quite a useful tool for tracking your activity.
The Activity App has four main screens, the History screen, the Workouts screen, the Achievements screen and the Sharing screen.
The History screen shows exactly what you would expect. It shows a history of your activity from the day and can be expanded to show you month by month in a scrolling calendar, as demonstrated in the video below.
The Workouts section of the app, again, shows you would expect – the workouts that you have completed using the workout app or any apps that you have connected to Apple Health. The section is first broken down by month and shows you how many workouts you have completed in a month with the total amount of time and the total number of calories. It also shows you an average time and calories burned of each workout that month.
You can then select an individual month, this will list all of the workouts completed that month giving you the opportunity to look into each of the workouts and view some of the more detailed stats you would expect. These stats include split times, average heartrate and heart rate across the workout. I will go into this in a bit more detail in the workout sections below.
Achievements are what the app uses to keep you motivated and there are plenty. For example, you can earn an achievement for the most calories burned while cycling, this is the same for most of the other sports. You can also earn achievements for move streaks, this involves hitting your move/active calorie goal for multiple days in a row. If you hit it every day for a month you get an achievement for that month…it’s a nice thing to see when it does pop up. Apple also have monthly achievements, these may not be the same from one person to the next but it’s always something a little different. In January this year I had to walk/run at least 316.1km in a month, in February I had to do at least 16 workouts in the month and last month I had to double my move goal eight times. The achievements are a good way to keep you going but become a bit old after a while and do start to lose their charm when you get to the 95th day streak of reaching your move goal. Nevertheless, I have found myself putting on my shoes at 11pm and going for a quick walk round the village just to get in those last 15 calories I need to reach the move goal.
The sharing section is only any use if you have friends or family with an Apple Watch, this screen shows you a leader board of people with whom you have connected. You can sort this by name, calories burned, exercise minutes, steps or number of workouts. It’s a great way to feed the competitive beast inside of you, it also allows you to congratulate people on their workouts and for reaching their move goals which a nice thing to do…I guess.
I have found the Apple Watch to be an acceptable fitness tracker, it doesn’t offer all the bells and whistles that the other devices and their companion apps offer but it does give you the information that you need to be able to make sure you’re staying active. What I would like to see in the future is an iPad or Mac version of the Activity app, something that will allow me to view everything on a bigger screen with more detail. That’s the main thing that is missing for me, Apple have put all of this effort into making sure that your data is protected and that your privacy is maintained at all times that you can’t help but feel a bit enclosed. I want to be able to choose to wear my Garmin for a day in the mountains and not have to worry that none of the information will transfer over properly or that it’s going to double everything because I have Strava linked to both Garmin Connect and Apple Health etc etc. It could just be a cleaner and easier process.
This is the big one for me, I’m a runner, a cyclist and I enjoy hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. I wanted something that I can trust to capture everything accurately and present it in such a way that I can sit back at home on the sofa with my laptop or iPad and analyse my workouts. In short – it’s not too bad but it’s not amazing. Here’s why:
Choosing a workout
The workout app is naturally your next step once you’ve donned your running shoes and you’ve walked out of the door. Thanks to the Apple Watch being rather intuitive, you are able to put a shortcut to the Workouts app on your home screen so there’s no trawling through menus to get you there, you just raise your wrist to wake the screen, tap the app icon and you’re presented with this screen.
Here you can choose from a number of activities but let’s choose Outdoor Run as I guess that is probably the most used mode.
You have two options here, you can either just tap on the workout to repeat the same activity you chose last or you can press the small dotted circle in the corner of the workout and choose from four options: Open Ended, Calorie Goal, Distance Goal or Time Goal. My chosen is usually open goal, when I’m not training for something I don’t like to be restricted by a limit or feel like I have to go further that I want. Once you have chosen your preferred mode the countdown starts immediately, this is my first small complaint.
With there being no physical buttons that you can use to start or stop a workout, you really do feel like you’re thrown right in there before you are ready. It seems like a very small thing to complain about but a simple screen that says “Tap to Start” would make it so much nicer, no one needs a 3 second countdown when going for a run. Just let me choose my workout, choose my goal and then press start when I’m ready to start. Then comes the next issue, myself being ready to go surprisingly doesn’t mean my watch is ready.
There is no symbol or notification to tell you once you have a GPS lock on, you just have to start and hope for the best. When your watch is connected to your iPhone it will use the GPS from the phone to determine your location, once you walk away from your phone it switches over to the built in GPS on the watch. This is something that the Garmin watches do well, they clearly say if you do or don’t have a GPS lock on meaning that you can simply press start once you and your watch are ready. The GPS notification means that I can open the workout app and put the watch on the door step while I put my shoes, all in the knowledge that I will be ready to press start once my laces are done up. With the Apple Watch there is nothing, I have no idea whether it is recording my route or not until I get back and see that the first 500-600 metres is missing. I’m no professional athlete but it’s still infuriating that I’m missing accurate data from what can be 10% of my run.
These two points aside, choosing a workout is easy. The menu system is intuitive and it is easy to get to, it’s also nice and smooth and I’ve never had any lag when selecting or navigating a workout.
You’ve chosen your workout, you’ve chosen your goal, you guess that your GPS is working and you’re on your way.
During the workout you’re provided with the information you choose to be provided with, this information can be chosen in the watch companion app on the iPhone. You can choose up to five metrics from the following (I have the top 5 on my screen):
- Current Pace
- Heart Rate
- Average Pace
- Active Calories
- Total Calories
- Elevation Gain
A swipe to the screen on the left gives you four options, Water Lock (to stop rainwater from “pressing” the screen, New Workout (for a triathlon for example), End Workout and Pause/Resume Workout. Having these options is good, the tappable buttons are big enough for you to be able to see and there’s nothing missing. If you’re wondering where the lap/segment button is you just double tap the main mid-workout screen. The only gripe I have here is that while the buttons are big, I still struggle to end a workout with just one tap. This has led to occasions where I’ve been standing stationary with the clock ticking and my pace at zero while I’m trying to end or pause a workout even with auto-pause turned on – it shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do. This is another drawback of using a smartwatch with fitness features rather than a fitness watch with smart features.
Many people like to listen to music while they run; this is where the Apple Watch really stands out against most other watches. If you swipe to the screen on the right side of the workout app you reach the music control screen, this controls either the music that is playing from your phone if you have it with you, or the music that is playing directly from the watch on your wrist. The LTE version of the watch also has the ability to stream music so you are able to listen to one of the 45 Million songs that Apple has on Apple Music. If you don’t have the LTE version you can still easily load music onto your watch to play automatically through your headphones once you start your workout. This is assuming of course that you’re not already listening to something, that would be a bit intrusive. This is one of my favourite features of the watch. The main let down for me around the streaming, however, is the inability to stream or store audiobooks on your watch meaning that you’re either stuck with music or the very limited number of questionable quality audiobooks on Apple Music. I would be over the moon if Apple were to allow Audible audiobooks to stream over LTE to the watch.
Of course, another benefit of having an LTE watch with a SIM plan included is that you’re reachable on your run. Once or twice I’ve had my wife call and ask me to take a shortcut home because my daughter is ill or she needs to go somewhere. Both she and I are also happy in the knowledge that should I fall over and break my leg while on a run I can all her to come and pick me up. The call quality is great too. There are no drawbacks to this at all and I would argue to the death with anyone who said that having a running watch with which you can make and receive phone calls is a bad idea.
If you’re not listening to anything and you have the sound turned up on your watch, you will hear a beep every mile or kilometre. It’s useful but it would be great if Siri would tell you what you want to know rather than having to raise your wrist to look at it and read it. It just seems odd that a watch with an assistant that can speak to you can’t tell you your distance through your headphones that you have connected or through the speaker on the watch. There aren’t any other watches that I know of that can tell you your pace so it’s not really something that it can be marked down for, it’s just strange.
So you’ve heard enough of the KM beeps, your legs are tired and you’ve finally managed to press the button to finish your run. The next step for most runners it to grab a drink and open Strava to look at how the run went.
But wait, of course it isn’t that simple. Like I mentioned in the Activity section above, you’re very much enclosed into the Apple ecosystem with the Apple Watch when it comes to fitness and workouts. Exporting the workouts to Strava or MapMyRun or whatever you use isn’t impossible, but it’s not exactly a seamless or at least streamlined process.
Apple doesn’t let you automatically export to Strava, all you can export to Strava is your date of birth, your gender and your weight – none of which are actually any use as they don’t autoupdate, you still have to update your weight manually in the settings on the Strava website. To be able to export your workouts you will need an app in the middle, my chosen one is RunGap. The process is as follows:
- Complete workout
- Open RunGap on iPhone
- Refresh RunGap
- Select workout and choose what to call workout or add a description etc
- Options > Export> Strava
- Open Strava & view run
This isn’t the end of the world but it’s far too convoluted for a company that grew on the slogan “It just works”, yes it does work but you have to do this, that and the other to make it. Oh and you also have to pay £1.99 every 3 months with RunGap to make it work. RunGap isn’t the only app out there, there are probably free apps but this is the easiest app that I have found and it gets all of the necessary data across to be visualised.
Once you have eventually exported to Strava you are presented with all of the information you would expect, nothing is missing as the Apple Watch measures everything that even Strava Premium is able to calculate and display.
The above isn’t to say that you have to use Strava, I use Strava as I have friends that don’t use an Apple Watch, I also use Strava as I prefer to look at my workouts on the big screen rather than the small screen of the iPhone.
In the Activity app you will find the aforementioned Workouts screen, this allows you to view your metrics on your phone without having to go through the process of exporting to another app. Here are a couple of screenshots from the Activity app.
The metrics are a lot more basic but they’re great for those who don’t care about every little bit of data. In my opinion they are missing a few things that I’ve come to love from Strava. It could do with the following:
- Elevation to pace chart
- Heart Rate to pace chart
- Estimated effort
- Elevation to cadence chart
- Fitness level
Verdict on the Apple Watch as a Fitness Watch
The Apple Watch Series 3 is OK as a fitness watch, there are some things I love, like, dislike and hate about the watch.
What I love:
- The screen is really easy to read in all weather conditions and the numbers displaying the stats are nice and big
- It’s light and comfortable to run with with the silicon strap, even when you’re sweaty
- The ability to listen to music through your headphones without your phone there is great
- Having the ability to make and receive phone calls without your phone is potentially lifesaving
What I like:
- It’s an easy workout system to navigate, everything is where you would expect it to be
- It’s smooth and there is no lag when in a workout or choosing a workout
What I dislike:
- The post-workout isn’t quite as in depth as I’ve grown accustomed to with 3rd party sites like Strava and even MapMyRun
- Siri isn’t smart enough to tell you your pace and distance per kilometre when running
- There’s no function to sync audiobooks or podcasts for longer runs where music just won’t cut it
- There’s no tap to start function to start a workout, only a countdown
- The battery life isn’t enough to get me through a marathon so I would need to use my Garmin
What I hate:
- Lack of physical buttons mean that there’s no just reaching to your wrist and letting muscle memory direct you to the start/stop button
- Lack of GPS indicator means that I start running without knowing whether my watch has found GPS signal
Who is it for?
This is a watch for people who need to stay connected but also want tomaintain a healthy level of fitness at the same time
Who isn’t it for?
This watch isn’t for people who take their sports seriously and need something that is going to last them a marathon or Gran Fondo, they would be better off looking at a dedicated multi-sports watch like the Garmin Fenix 5 or the Suunto Spartan Sport.
The Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE is an outstanding smartwatch with acceptable fitness and workout tracking features. I would not go so far as to recommend it as a dedicated workout watch as there are a lot of features missing and a lot of features that just don’t work how one would hope that they work.