The Apple Watch Series 3 was released at the end of September. As you may have read in our writeup at the time, the most important addition for runners was the implementation of an LTE chip that allows users to leave their phone at home, and to make calls, browse Instagram, and stream music from their Apple Watch Series 3. After a few weeks of running with the Apple Watch Series 3, Todd Wiesel put together his thoughts on how the watch performs, and to help answer the fundamental question: What’s it like to run with the Apple Watch Series 3?
As time goes on, and as marathon season rolls around, we’ll be adding to this review.
Fit and Finish
The Apple Watch Series 3 looks pretty much the same as previous versions of the Watch. It doesn’t have the same rugged sort of build as, say, the Garmin 235 or Suunto Ambit 3, but you also wouldn’t use the Apple Watch for the same kind of rugged ultra or trail activities that the aforementioned watches are built for.
In my experience, I was able to take the watch out on quick run basically every day for lunch (of say, 2 – 5 miles), and while using GPS to track my run, I would get dinged by just a few percentage points. Longer runs would take more off, but more on that below.
For example, last week, I took my Apple Watch off its charger at 7am, and used it all day for calls, iMessages, and alerts. I took it on a ~2 mile jog during lunch. I finally took it off at 10:20pm, and it still had 45% battery left, which is pretty impressive.
Running with the Apple Watch Series 3 for outings of around seven to ten miles are sort of its sweet spot – long enough for the run to be challenging and the watch to be useful for music and phone calls, but still short enough to avoid “range anxiety.”
In all of my experience running with the Apple Watch Series 3, and based on what I’ve seen in other reviews, it serves to reason that you’ll get about 2.5 – 3 hours of runtime if you burn the candle all the way down – good enough for a half-marathon, but insufficient for all but the fastest marathoners.
Consider the Apple Watch Series 3 to be an excellent watch for lunchtime or longer, casual training runs, but not (yet) up to marathon-grade.
You’ll get about 2.5 – 3 hours of runtime, good enough for a half-marathon, but insufficient for all but the fastest marathoners. Consider the Apple Watch Series 3 to be an excellent watch for lunchtime or casual training runs, but not (yet) up to marathon-grade.
It feels disingenuous to a certain degree that fitness activities feature so prominently in the Apple Watch’s marketing materials, and yet you can’t squeeze out anything resembling a marathon while running with the Apple Watch Series 3, and also, say, stream music at the same time. I understand why this is, and I understand the complexity of powering an LTE modem, GPS receiver, Bluetooth chipset, accelerometer and more, inside something the size of a matchbook.
It feels disingenuous to a certain degree that fitness activities feature so prominently in the Apple Watch’s marketing materials, and yet you can’t squeeze out anything resembling a marathon while using the Apple watch to track your run and, say, stream music.
But it also means that, for any hustle longer than, say, 10 miles, you’re best advised to wear something like a Garmin Fenix instead of running with the Apple Watch Series 3, and content yourself with the music of nature, rather than try to stream that new, ubiquitous Portugal. The Man song.
First, a few significant dislikes. You cannot stream podcasts via Apple Podcasts. There is no Spotify streaming (yet). You cannot remove memory-hogging apps like contacts or stocks. These are extremely frustrating, and really limit the utility of the watch. If you’re like the millions of people who exclusively use Spotify – Welcome back, Tay-tay! – you’re S-O-L until those fine folks in Sweden shoot an update our way. Until then, I’ll be listening to my 2008-era playlists, preloaded on the Apple Watch.
You cannot stream podcasts via Apple Podcasts. There is no Spotify streaming (yet). You cannot remove memory-hogging apps like contacts or stocks. These are extremely frustrating, and really limit the utility of the watch.
You also cannot use the Apple Watch’s cellular features overseas. If you’re like me, and you had the dream of jetting off to Mont Blanc and running those beautiful Alps whilst streaming The Hills Are Alive at full volume while roaming on France’s Orange LTE network…well, you’d be disappointed. Sure, you can use wifi or GPS while overseas, but on international running trips, you’ll need to stay tethered to your phone, for the time being, which defeats the point of it being a Series 3. I am not sure if this is the kind of thing that can be fixed through updates to the device’s eSIM, international roaming contracts, or both. (If you have thoughts on this, please ping me).
You also cannot use the Apple Watch’s cellular features overseas. If you’re like me, and you had the dream of jetting off to Mont Blanc and running those beautiful Alps whilst streaming The Hills Are Alive at full volume while roaming on France’s Orange LTE network…well, you’d be disappointed.
It’s obvious that these are the very early days of wrist-based LTE devices, and so I do hope to see these issues remedied, hopefully in future software updates, or in contractual negotiations with international cellular providers.
Now for the likes.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is built to be used with Airpods. And, sure, enough, running with the Apple Watch and Airpods combo is pretty fantastic. You can load up playlists from Apple Music, take calls using the Airpods‘ pretty impressive mic, and track your run using Strava or Apple’s built-in Workouts app. To run without your phone is profoundly freeing. Many of us are used to 5 or 6 ounces of plastic and metal strapped to our upper arms, and so it’s a truly welcome shift to run sans iPhone. I can’t understate how much of a shift this is.
The Apple Watch Series 3 represents the future for how most runners will run. There will always be those who need or prefer the functionality of more specialized running watches, but for many of us, the Apple Watch checks the necessary running boxes — the ability to stream music (once Apple and Spotify get their stuff together), to broadcast our location to contacts, to track one’s run — and to do it all in a package that looks pretty good in board meetings, too.
Yes, the battery life is limiting, but I think it’s worth considering how frequently you run more than the 10 or 15 miles the Apple Watch can track.
Yes, the battery life is extremely limiting, but I think it’s worth considering how frequently you run more than the 10 or 15 miles the Apple Watch can track. If, say, 80% of your runs are less than a dozen miles, it’s worth giving the Apple Watch Series 3 a close look.
In my experience, the Apple Watch’s GPS and HR readings seemed fairly accurate, but I do know that it will vary based on your location and your wrist size/shape. I’ve read reviews that trashed the Watch’s GPS accuracy, but I’ve read others that felt it was reasonably on target. I assume your mileage may vary, so be sure to test it within the return window.
Pricing and Fine Print
Running with the Apple Watch Series 3 is not a cheap proposition. The 42mm watch is $429, and if you spring for a pair of Airpods, that’ll be an extra $159. You could always go for a pair of basic bluetooth earbuds – there are solid offerings in the $25-range – but you’ll lose a lot of the exclusive features – auto-pause, mobile charging, painless pairing, iCloud syncing, etc – that the Airpods come with. Also bear in mind that you’ll be paying another $10/month for cell service to keep those Instagram photos scrolling.
Let’s say you choose to use the Apple Watch as your go-to watch for two years. (I don’t believe Apple will obsolete this device in that time, but I do believe that there will be a bigger delta in improvement between the Apple Watch Series 3 and Series 5, and, say, the current Garmin 235, and what I imagine will be the Garmin 245 in 2019). If you factor in the Airpods and monthly cell service, you’re looking at something like $800 over 24 months. It’s a heck of a lot less than your iPhone and its monthly service fees, but it’s worth noting the premium that you are paying for (substantial) convenience.
Is It Worth It?
As with all things, it depends. I’d argue that if
(a) most of your running is in the sub-half-marathon range, and
(b) you really like music or podcasts and
(c) you want to be able to receive calls, texts, or send safety alerts without your phone
— then yes, the Series 3 is for you.
If, however, you routinely run marathon and ultra-marathon distances, or if you want something that feels more rugged, or if music and LTE-connectivity are unnecessary – or even, perhaps, a distraction – then the Apple Watch is far from your jam, and you’ll want to look in the direction of a more traditional GPS running watch like a Fenix or an Ambit.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s early days yet for wrist-based LTE devices. I imagine that we will, before long, see various LTE-packing Android devices at a variety of price points and sporting a variety of features. But running with the Apple Watch Series 3 gave me a strong sense that this really marks the beginning of a whole new way of working out.
It will be interesting to see if the trifecta of running watch producers – Garmin, Suunto, and Tomtom – incorporate modems and music playback into their devices. We may see an LTE-enabled Ambit soon, but it’s also possible that these firms will wait until they have a better battery management before going to market with cellular versions. Bear in mind, however, that Apple has unique sway with cellular carriers, and so any issues with eSIMs or international service are likely to be a challenge for other manufacturers.
Ultimately, running with the Apple Watch Series 3 offers a vision of the future of device-enhanced fitness. It’s still far from perfect, but it’s an impressive running start.