Apple Watch Series 3, End-of-Life Review

Oct 12, 2021 • Extra Ordinary



In 2017, the Apple Watch Series 3 was first released unto the world. This is only the second entry in my end-of-life review series and I have already hit a snag with the format: four years later and it is still being released unto the world. The premise of this series is to serve as a longer-term review than what the constraints of tech journalism allow, offering a retrospective look at how the latest generation products of several years ago may work today. But this is a review of a current product.

Weirdness aside, here is a rundown of the headline marketing features of the Apple Watch Series 3 from its release.

Cellular

Nothing ships feature-complete. Every version-one product—hardware or software—typically ships without a few obvious features. Even if it’s a really obvious feature people will complain about, you have to draw the line somewhere, decide enough is enough and ship something. Real artists ship.

Apple has shown time and time again that if you sell people well enough on the premise—notifications and health tracking on your wrist—they don’t sweat the details. Just like people still loved the iPhone because they could see it was a platform for the future, even if it was a platform that didn’t have cut, copy and paste on day one.

Cellular was the obvious next feature of the Apple Watch. A device that makes and takes calls should be able to do it all on its own. It’s no surprise there was an unreleased prototype Apple Watch Series 2 with cellular—I’m sure they were experimenting with this on the original, too.

It’s rarer that an obvious-next-step feature everyone is asking for turns out to not matter that much. The ability to make calls without a phone is hardly a life-saving feature when people have their phone within Bluetooth and Wi-Fi range 99% of their lives anyways, even if it makes for an awesome demo.

There are three costs to the cellular model:

  1. The literal monetary cost of $10 per month ($120 per year) most carriers charge for an add-on device and the $100 upgrade to an LTE model.
  2. The big red dot on the crown.
  3. The reduced battery life.

If any two of those are hard to stomach, I do not recommend a cellular model. This mostly still holds true today: the red dot is now a red ring; while some gains were made in battery life, the always-on display seemingly ate them back up; and of course, cell carriers are still charging $120 a year.

Performance

For a device as functionally narrow as the Apple Watch, battery life and processor speed are so closely intertwined that they tell the same story—performance. A trade-off engineers make between speed and endurance.

The S3 chip in the Series 3 is dual-core, an Apple Watch first. For better or worse, this brings the performance from unreasonably slow all the way down to barely tolerable. Four years later and it is painfully clear the Series 3 is unsuitable for watchOS 8. Tapping a message thread, checking off an item in Reminders, opening the Mail app—performing basic functions will make the device completely unresponsive for a few seconds either with a loading spinner on the screen if you’re lucky, or, no visual feedback at all as the display sits frozen.

The benefit to the sluggish performance is obvious: while it can’t do very much, it can do that all day. It takes an unusually long and active day to even receive a warning that battery life is getting low.

The smallest acceptable amount of battery life is one days’ worth, whatever that may be. It can be plugged in every night as a routine. It takes at least three days’ worth of battery life to break free of the charge-nightly routine. Anything less and the mental overhead of paying attention to the battery isn’t worth the small cost of putting it on the charger at night.

Perhaps one day a future Apple Watch will reach its peak of functionality well enough to become a charge-weekly device. Until then, it is comfortable in the charge-daily category, which is honestly impressive for a device as small and old as it is.

Design

The design of the Apple Watch has been tweaked since the Series 3 to be rounder but is largely unchanged, despite the rumors otherwise. As I wrote earlier:

I, for one, am glad the edges are still rounded and not completely flat a la the iPhone 12. Flat edges are easier to catch on corners and surfaces. All of the scuffs on my watch are right on the bend of the glass—were the watch flat on the edges, these minor impacts may have dinged a straight line corner.

Colors and materials

The Apple Watch Edition in ceramic looks gorgeous, as does its matching two-tone Sport Band. I much prefer it over the Titanium. While I didn’t have the $1,000+ to spend then and certainly still don’t now, the ceramic cases diversified the lineup.

For a brief period, it seemed as though Apple had a coordinated plan for colors. The Series 3 aluminum colors were Apple’s standard aluminum colors of the time: silver, gray, gold and rose gold. Their accessory colors had a few constants as well: Midnight Blue, Saddle Brown and Charcoal Gray were available across several band styles and several iPhone and iPad cases.

By the time of the Series 3, they began adding slightly different versions of the same color. Just to pick on blue as an example, they added Cosmos Blue, Blue Cobalt and Dark Teal. In your head, without looking up those colors, do they sound different to you? I have a hard time imagining someone distressed at the notion that Midnight Blue is not as saturated of a blue as they want, relieved upon finding Blue Cobalt. If such a person existed, surely they would want a matching Blue Cobalt iPhone case, but Apple only made a Cosmos Blue case that year.

The color trouble would only continue to cook over time. Seriously now, what’s the deal with Starlight? Neutral silver unadorned aluminum has been a staple of the Apple product lineup for nearly 20 years. The color czar at Apple must be playing a petty chaotic-evil game, adding a fleck of yellow into their neutral silver, slightly ruining all the neutral silver bands.

What is undoubtedly an improvement compared to 2017 is that any Apple Watch can be ordered with any band—a necessary hurdle to cross in order to be able to offer Solo Loops, which come in dozens of colors and nine sizes.

The Solo Loop: the no-buckle watch band, brought to you by the folks behind the no-button mouse.

Bands

The band options have only continued to diversify. While the Leather Loop is now the Leather Link and the Classic Buckle watches are no more, Apple has not slowed down with more radically different band styles—like the aforementioned Solo Loop, available in braided yarn, for some reason. The watch band team must be a fun group to work with.

Apple has been burned too many times by the public reaction when they change the charging cable on the MacBooks and the one time they changed to the Lightning port on the iPhone to ever change the band connector on the Apple Watch. Apple seems to understand how deeply they are locked into this particular design—bands are completely backwards- and forwards-compatible even after changing the shape of the size of the case twice.

Longevity

Every phone is measured against the iPhone. Every pair of wireless ear buds are measured against AirPods. Other smart watches aren’t cross-shopped against the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch is simply the best, without a doubt, far and away, hands down. Whatever the latest Apple Watch is, that is the best smartwatch you can buy for your iPhone.

Yet, for some ungodly reason, Apple believes it is acceptable to continue selling Series 3 models brand new in October 2021. Four years later. Meeting the $200 price point is more important to them than selling a good product. The performance is bad. The software update experience is infuriating. I would love to see Tim Cook’s customer satisfaction rating for people buying a Series 3 in 2021.

This was once an excellent Apple Watch. Now it is an ugly sore that remains a product in Apple’s lineup.

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