Apple Watch Series 4 back on my wrist: Unnecessary, but indispensable

I try out a lot of wearables, but keep coming back to the Apple Watch for my smartwatch needs. It's not quite enough to replace my Garmin for serious run tracking, but does everything else better than all the other smartwatches so it is back on my left wrist.

In September 2018, I reviewed the Apple Watch Series 4, but then returned it because I wasn't sure I would be using an iPhone as my primary smartphone and I thought the Galaxy Watch better met my device agnostic needs. It turns out that the Apple Watch just does so much more...and much better.

After trying all three new iPhone X variants and choosing to stick with the iPhone XS, I decided to also pick up a LTE model Apple Watch Series 4 Nike+ Edition. After two weeks, I realize it is the best smartwatch available today for a number of reasons.

The Apple Watch Series 4 is actually so good, it will likely keep me using an iPhone when in the past I might jump back to an Android and just use an iPhone for testing purposes to cover here on ZDNet. These last couple weeks of discovery and diving deep into using the Apple Watch has given me an appreciation for it that I haven't had for a while. I even went for the LTE version to use with T-Mobile DIGITS, thanks in part to ZDNet's Jason Cipriani's take on cellular functionality.

Also: Apple Watch Series 4 review: Best for iPhone owners, but not the best smartwatch

As I stated in the title, the Apple Watch is not required to get work done and make it through the day, but it has become so convenient in so many areas that I don't want to take it off. I've been running these last couple of weeks with the Apple Watch on my left wrist and my Garmin Fenix 5 Plus on my right wrist. Apple cannot yet challenge these Garmin GPS sportwatches when it comes to custom training plans and advanced metrics, but the Garmin is also barely acceptable as a smartwatch. For now, I'll wear both when I run and the Apple Watch for daily smartwatch functionality.

Many of the same things I do on the Apple Watch can be done on an iPhone, but picking up and using an iPhone for some of these apps ends up leading me down a rabbit hole of apps and notifications that consume more time than simply interacting with the app on an Apple Watch. Relying on the Apple Watch should indeed reduce the amount of time spent on an iPhone. Here are several reasons I find the Apple Watch indispensable:

  1. Apps: In the past I stated that only key apps were important for a watch, but after using the Apple Watch again I find there are so many excellent apps available that blow away what is offered on the Galaxy Watch. Outlook can accept/decline appointments, reply to email, and create notes to self. With the Nest app I can view screenshots of activity from my cameras right on the watch or control my thermostat. FB Messenger gives nearly full functionality for conversations and as my family's primary messaging platform it is essential. Watch faces are extremely capable with a large number of complications and an easy ability to change the watch face for different times of the day or events. Dark Sky provides real-time weather updates and since I travel 40 miles to and from work with a micro-climate in Puget Sound where I could need a rain coat in one location and not in the other this app is used multiple times a day.
  2. Apple Health: This app is the backbone for storing data captured from an Apple Watch, but I've been stunned to find so much in there that the iPhone may now become as critical to me as an Apple Watch. VO2 Max may not be shown on the Apple Watch in any app, but the data captured on the Apple Watch is recorded and presented in Apple Health. Flights climbed is also shown here. I also just discovered that my medical records from my doctor sync to Apple Health so I am now made more aware of my health status.
  3. ECG app: Apple released an update in early December that added the ECG capability to the Apple Watch. It was one of the first things I tested and, unlike ZDNet's Jason Perlow, my readings were normal. It is still a useful functionality and will aid me in monitoring my health as I pass 50.
  4. Closure of the rings: As silly as it may sound, there is something motivating about closing those blue, green, and red rings in the Activity app. Regular motivation to close them will have a positive impact on your lifestyle and as much as others try to copy it, there is nothing like it in terms of consistency. I also find earning badges and participating in challenges to be fun and motivating. However, I am so competitive by nature that it is tough for me to not win a challenge.
  5. Stryd app: I've been testing out a Stryd power meter for a couple of months, review coming soon, and while I have it connected to my Garmin Fenix GPS watch it wasn't until I connected it to the Apple Watch that I was motivated to run to a power level. The Stryd app on the Apple Watch gives you an easy way to see your current power so you speed up or slow down to hit the right level. Apple and Stryd have done a great job optimizing the experience for the Apple Watch.
  6. Cellular connectivity: I started carrying an emergency response phone 24/7 on a duty rotation this year and thus it is critical that I receive incoming calls. The LTE integration provides that capability when I want to run without a phone. As I approach 50 and run at night, it is also important to have the ability to call for help if needed.
  7. Long battery life: Most smartwatches require that I wear it all day and then top off a bit before I go for a run. With the Apple Watch, I can wear it all day long and still have more than enough juice left to go for an hour or hour and a half run at night. Many times I have forgotten to take it off and charge it overnight, but it's gone two full days of use without a charge.
  8. Apple Pay and Starbucks: In the winter time, the inconvenience with digging a phone out of a jacket or bag while bundled up is apparent. With the Apple Watch, I can easily pay for a purchase or a coffee just with my wrist. This method also reduces the possibility of dropping my phone at a retail location as I hand it over or reach out to scan it.
  9. Podcast and music playback controller: I listen to a lot of podcasts and Spotify music. While I cannot yet download Spotify music to the Apple Watch, it works perfectly as a controller for my music and podcasts. Thus, my iPhone stays safe in a pocket while music is controlled via the Apple Watch.
  10. Black Nike Sport Loop: There is no price difference to pick up a Nike+ Edition of the Apple Watch so given my desire for run support I decided to try out one with the Black Nike Sport Loop. This band is only available if you buy this particular edition and after a couple weeks of use it may be my favorite Apple Watch band ever. It is lightweight and so comfortable that I barely notice I am wearing a watch, which has actually led to me sleeping with my Apple Watch on a few nights. The band has some reflective threads in it too so it offers yet another safety item on my body since I run mostly at night and in the winter and spring that means I am running in the dark.

Also: Looking back at 2018: Why I changed my mind about the Apple Watch's data plan

No device I test is perfect and as we look ahead to 2019 and what may come to future Apple Watches, I offer the following suggestions. Some things can be provided through third party apps as Apple supports them too.

  • Apple Workout website: Fitbit, Garmin, and others offer a website for users to view data captured by these wearables. This is very handy for viewing trends, developing reports, archiving the data for training, and syncing that data to other services. Like Samsung Health, the data captured by the Apple Watch is only viewable in the Activity app so it has limited use outside of the iPhone. I would love to see an Apple Workout or Apple Health website in the future.
  • Sleep tracking: There are third party apps that provide sleep data from the Apple Watch, but they do not include REM sleep mode and are limited. Apple may be holding back on this due to battery life, but my Apple Watch can easily go for two days between charges so it could be used to track my sleep at night. I would love to see the same advanced sleep metrics we get on Fitbit, Garmin, and Samsung wearables on the Apple Watch.
  • Blood pressure measurements: Apple beat all the others to ECG measurements. Samsung showed off a beta blood pressure capability with the Galaxy Watch. With a normal beating heart, my primary health concern at the moment is blood pressure and it would be great to see if Apple can provide this through the Apple Watch.
  • Advanced run data: Apple Workout and the plethora of running apps provides just a couple custom data fields to be viewed on the display while working out while I can select from many more on the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus. Each person has different needs for data to view while working out, thus I would love to see more fields added to Workout or other third party apps like Strava.

The Apple Watch is the best smartwatch available today and it's a shame that only about 20 percent of the smartphone market, iPhone users, can take advantage of all that an Apple Watch has to offer. Like Samsung wearables, it would be wonderful to see the Apple Watch support use on Android phones, even if that meant there were some limitations.

Previous and related coverage

We compare Samsung Galaxy Watch vs Apple Watch Series 4: Best doesn't always win

Both are excellent smartwatches with a focus on health and fitness, and while one is a better value, the other is likely to sell millions more.

Apple Watch Series 4: Cheat sheet TechRepublic

The Apple Watch Series 4 includes a 30% larger screen, an updated UI, and a number of business-friendly and health features, including the ability to take an ECG. 

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Bigger, faster, even more health-conscious CNET

The Apple Watch Series 4 is the fastest, most connected and best overall smartwatch around, but its battery life and watch face options often fall short of the competition.