Apple added a cellular Apple Watch to its line up in 2017 with the release of the Series 3 model. The predominant advert for it was of a woman on a surfboard, proudly still connected while catching a sweet wave, iPhone back in the locker at the surf club.
I have been testing the cellular Apple Watch Series 5 and I'm less snarky about it now. In fact I'm more than ever convinced it should be a table stakes feature of smartwatches, rather than a pricey add-on option.
Being able to go out without your iPhone is the pitch, but after time with the cellular Apple Watch Series 5 I don’t think that’s the thing we should get hung up on. Realistically, there are very few occasions where I would leave the house without my iPhone. But it’s simply knowing that it’s an option is what has swung it for me – the Apple Watch acts as a tether to your friends and family while shedding the distractions of a smartphone.
If Apple can make the Watch’s battery last longer, then I’m all for crowning the product Apple’s best. The biggest barriers to Apple Watch adoption are needing to own a (traditionally expensive) iPhone and the fact a dead phone used to equal a dead watch.
Cell it to me
With cellular, I’ve popped to the gym with my AirPods (call me Mr Apple) and, predictably, not received a call or a text. But I was safe in the knowledge that if my partner needed to contact me, it’d come straight through.
With AirPods connected, I can answer a call and the caller is none the wiser that my iPhone is on my desk at home. This applies to a cellular Wear OS or Samsung Tizen watch with any wireless headphones, too.
With Bluetooth-only wearables of which the regular Apple Watch is one, your phone must come with you, tethered to your person in a more inconvenient way than the simplicity of an always-connected watch. Because bringing your phone with you even if you don’t need it (the gym, the cinema, the corner shop) is derived from our now built-in instinct that we must always be within reach.
And from extreme social FOMO, of course.
Watch this space
I’ve taken real comfort from the Apple Watch being able to place and take calls and texts and learned that I’m not going to miss the call of my iPhone to unlock it for no real reason. With cellular, my Apple Watch can stream from Apple Music or quickly look up the next bus times. The addition of the compass on the Series 5 most usefully has also added the direction you’re facing in Maps – something we all need, whether we confess to it or not.
It’s a shame that I can’t stream from my preferred Spotify, or compose a WhatsApp message (you can only action a reply when you receive a message) but hey, what do you expect from the Apple ecosystem? Apple wants you to use Music and Messages and it’s a small price to pay for the convenience of an excellent connected wearable experience.
Power to the people
The Apple Watch has never had great battery life, and it remains its Achilles’ heel. It promises 18 hours of use, which always got me through a day and sometimes into a second. But if you’re out camping, say, that’s not long before you must dig your power bank out and charge the Watch up.
This is where longer battery life would allow the true benefit of a cellular Apple Watch to shine – both for sedentary workers like me right up to outdoor professionals who could treat it as a genuinely useful field tool. It’d help adoption, just as the fleets of enterprise workers with iPads helped that product grow to stratospheric levels as much as people who wanted to watch Netflix in bed.
Until then, the cellular Apple Watch is an excellent product with one battery shaped flaw. I have loved every day I’ve used it so far, and plan to stay using an iPhone because of it. That is the dastardly genius of the Watch – if the iPhone has stagnated like some analysts will tell you it has then the personal value and, whisper it, joy I have got out of the cellular Apple Watch means I won’t be going back to an Android phone for a while.
That’s easy for me to say as a tech journalist with a few phones hanging around. But Apple continues to show that the Watch and its products can build an ecosystem where regular folks never buy an Android phone again.
The cellular Watch is more expensive than the regular model and data plans are currently an additional cost, but I’m more convinced than ever that if smartwatches are here to stay, they all need to be cellular. There are Android-friendly alternatives, but none come close to the seamless integration the Apple Watch offers iPhone users.
Apple is so far ahead. Let's hope other companies catch up.