The entry-level Apple Watch doesn’t have the larger always-on screen you’ll find on newer versions, and the HR and GPS tracking is less accurate, but it’s still a great option for those who want a sporty smartwatch for less.
- Attractive design
- Engaging activity tracking
- Huge app store
- Short battery life
- Poor GPS tracking
- Basic sleep tracking
You can trust Coach We give honest reviews and recommendations based on in-depth knowledge and real-world experience. Find out more about how we review and recommend products.
If you just want the best Apple Watch, then buy the latest. The Series 5 costs £399 and is the first Apple Watch to have an always-on screen, and also has a far better heart rate monitor than the Series 3 and a bigger screen. Otherwise, though, you’re not missing out on much by going for the cheaper, older watch, which runs the same software – the recently-released watchOS 6.
The Apple Watch Series 3 fares well against the smartwatch competition at its £199 price. The Fitbit Versa 2 is the same price and doesn’t have built-in GPS or anything close to the range of apps available on the Apple App Store.
Garmin’s cheapest smartwatch is the Vivoactive 4 and that starts from £239.99 for the 4S, a version with a smaller screen, or £259.99 for the standard watch. As with Fitbit, Garmin’s smartwatches are nothing like as smart as the Apple Watch when it comes to apps or features like making contactless payments or keeping tickets to hand; on the other hand Garmin’s watches do outperform all Apple Watches when it comes to native sports tracking, offering more detailed stats and accuracy.
Like all Apple models, the Series 3 won’t work with an Android phone, but in contrast, Android devices will generally work with iPhones. However, the Apple Watch is demonstrably superior, even if WearOS devices weren’t limited in the features they offer when paired with an iPhone.
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 To Track Activity
Everyday fitness tracking has always been done superbly on the Apple Watch. Filling the three rings of health and fitness – Move, Exercise and Stand – is incredibly addictive. So addictive, in fact, that the day I broke my streak of hitting all three (due to a night out where clearly I didn’t dance as much as I should have) still sticks in my craw many months later.
The Move goal represents active calories, so not the ones you burn by simply sitting. You can set this to whatever target you like, with 500 calories the default, and the watch will suggest adjustments to your target at the start of each week depending on what you managed the previous week.
The Exercise goal, in contrast, is fixed at 30 minutes and the Stand target at 12 hours. You’ll get reminders to stand and move ten minutes before the end of an hour when you’ve been sedentary. Make sure you do – there’s nothing worse than smashing your Move and Exercise goals out of the park with a big run, then missing out on all three rings because you sat at your desk for the rest of the day.
Apple has now added smart coaching features to the rings system, where you’ll get various notifications to help you fill them. This could be an alert in the morning saying that you’d normally have made more progress on your rings by that time, or a message at the end of the day giving the details of what activity you’d still need to do to fill the rings. I tended to ignore these, because my burning desire to see all three rings filled needed no extra impetus.
The rings system is an excellent approach that’s well designed to motivate and engage. For my money, it’s the best everyday tracking system around.
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 For Running
The first decision you have to make as an Apple Watch-owning runner is which app you’re going to use. The native Workout app does a decent job of presenting the key stats – time, distance, current and average pace, heart rate, elevation and calories – but, crucially, won’t upload your workout to Strava or any other running app you might use. You can work around this with another app, RunGap, but it’s a faff.
Fortunately, there is a dedicated Strava app for the watch, and a Nike+ Run Club app, and a Runkeeper app. Indeed there’s pretty much every popular app you can think of, which is the Apple Watch’s great strength. Most of these just give the basic stats on your run as you go, but you can find apps that mimic the abilities of dedicated running watches. My favourite is iSmoothRun, which lets you create structured workouts to follow on the watch, as well as showing more in-depth running data fields like cadence and a ghost pace to race against.
One pretty big issue I had with the Apple Watch 3 was that I didn't find it’s GPS readings to be as accurate as on running watches. It can be as much as 500m out after 10K of running (sometimes much less, of course – this was the worst discrepancy I experienced). How much of a bother this is will vary from person to person. It really grinds my gears, but I am a very stat-obsessed runner.
You can see on the route map given in the Activity app after the run how much smoothing the Apple Watch has done. If you’ve been zigzagging through city streets your run can be shortened considerably because the route recorded will have you cutting corners and ploughing straight through buildings rather than running around them. All GPS trackers have this issue to some extent, but I found it more pronounced on the Apple Watch.
I also found that the heart rate readings jumped all over the place when I ran, especially when I stepped up the pace. While it’s not a problem that only Apple suffers – and you can solve the issue by pairing the watch with a chest strap – it does throw the calorie readings out of whack, not to mention giving you quite the scare when you glance down to see your heart rate is apparently 200bpm when you’re taking it easy.
The heart rate tended to settle down after the first mile or so, when it was usually very high, and from then on it would be reasonably accurate – within 5bpm of a chest strap – on steady runs at least. However, if I sped up suddenly it would jump off the scale again, or stop giving a reading entirely for long sections.
What the Apple Watch Series 3 does allow you to do that a dedicated fitness tracker doesn’t is to stay connected to the world without your phone, thanks to its cellular capability. If you have an EE sim (and only an EE sim for the moment) the watch will pick up on mobile networks and let you take calls, receive messages and emails, and stream music without your phone.
In my experience, this worked extremely well and the signal was strong. This is an especially useful tool if you run during your lunch hour, giving you a convenient way to see if you have any urgent emails and messages (whether you’re the type of runner who cuts your session short to deal with them is up to you).
Using the sim does hit battery hard and if you went for a whole day without your phone you might struggle to make bedtime without an extra charge. However, it’s ideal for popping out for an hour’s exercise without your phone , because the battery will still comfortably last until nightfall.
A major plus of the Apple Watch is that you don’t have to wait around for GPS to lock on at the start of a run – it’s always ready to go. You don’t get any alert to say GPS is recording, but you can start runs and cycles instantly, safe in the knowledge you’ll get a map of your route at the end.
One more quick note on running or doing any activity with the Apple Watch. If, like me, you dislike the fact you have to swipe and press on the touchscreen to pause an activity (which can be tricky with sweaty hands) there is a better way – press both of the buttons on the side at once to pause and restart your workout.
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 For Cycling
As with running you can pick between using the native Workout app or a third-party option for your cycle tracking on the Apple Watch. The display is again generally limited to key stats like distance and speed, and you can turn on an auto-pause feature.
When you complete a workout you can review the stats and a map of your route on the Activity iPhone app. To reiterate, you can’t sync this over to Strava or anywhere else without investing in another third-party app – something that Apple really needs to sort if it wants people to use the native app, because if it isn’t on Strava, did your ride even happen?
It’s a shame because I found that generally the native app was faster to load and smoother to use for running and cycling than third-party apps. You can also control your music through the app by swiping over from the main activity screen – that’s music on the watch itself or your phone – which is very handy.
However, you can turn to third-party apps on the watch, including Strava and Cyclemeter, for more in-depth stats and connectivity with other apps.
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 As A Heart Rate Monitor
Apple has expanded the heart rate tracking features on the watch with the release of watchOS 4, with all versions but the original Apple Watch getting an expanded heart rate app that shows a graph of your heart rate over the course of the day as well as your resting heart rate and average heart rate during walking. Resting heart rate is a good indicator of overall fitness, so it’s a particularly welcome addition.
Most of these are standard on many devices, but one more interesting new addition is the recovery heart rate feature. This shows how quickly your heart rate drops back to its normal rate after exercise, with a shorter recovery time an indication of good health. However, Apple could do with giving more detail on what a good recovery time is in the app.
Another new feature is elevated heart rate notifications, which will alert you if your heart rate hits an unexpected high point when you’re not exercising. You can set the threshold at which you’ll get an alert in the partner Watch app.
All these useful features are undermined a little by the inaccuracy of the heart rate monitor during exercise. While the Apple Watch was reliable in monitoring my heart rate during the day and mild activity like walking, as soon as I stepped up my effort level it struggled to get an accurate fix on my heart rate. If I was doing a HIIT session or an interval run based on heart rate zones, I found I had to link the watch with a chest strap sensor for reliable info.
Many wrist-based HR trackers have similar problems, of course, but I have found that Garmin, Fitbit and Polar’s recent wearables have all been at least consistently accurate enough to use, while the Apple Watch’s issues mean I would lean towards turning off heart rate tracking during exercise, because the extra battery life you get as a result is more useful.
RECOMMENDED: The Best Heart Rate Monitors
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 For Swimming
Apple’s swim tracking features have been beefed up with the release of watchOS 4, with the watch now counting sets automatically (essentially allowing you to pause for a breather without stopping and starting a new session) and recording distance for each stroke type you did in the pool.
You set the pool length at the start of a swimming session, then hit go and the watch automatically puts itself into waterproof mode. From then on you can pause the workout by pressing both side buttons at the same time – if you want to do anything else on the watch, you’ll have to take it out of waterproof mode by turning the digital crown.
The Apple Watch will count lengths automatically to give you a total distance and it will also attempt to break down distance swum by stroke type. I found it did both accurately, but occasionally got confused when I mixed up the strokes. That said, I was in a very small pool so turning frequently and my technique on each stroke is a long way from perfect (in fact, it’s terrible) which probably confused matters more.
If you opt for an outdoor swim you’ll get a GPS map of your workout, but the GPS can only take readings when the watch is out of the water, which has an unavoidable negative effect on accuracy.
Triathletes will also enjoy the new quick start workout feature, which allows you to stop one workout and start a new one immediately, changing the activity type along the way. Those activities will still be recorded separately, so it’s not exactly the equivalent of a triathlon mode, but it speeds up the transition between swimming, cycling and running.
As with running and cycling, there are third-party apps you can use to improve your swimming experience such as MySwimPro, which allows you to follow workouts in the water.
RECOMMENDED: The Best Waterproof Fitness Trackers For Swimmers
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 As A Smartwatch
There has been a slew of new fitness-focused smartwatches released of late, including the Fitbit Ionic and Garmin Vivoactive 3. While some might edge out the Apple Watch on fitness tracking capabilities, they fall short when it comes to smartwatch features.
The acid test of smartwatch is that you keep using it when the novelty wears off, and the Apple Watch smashes this test. I use it to board all TfL transport, pay for things at the supermarket and store my cinema tickets. I’m not confident enough to use the plane boarding pass feature, but you can do that too and there’s no reason to believe it doesn’t work perfectly.
The cellular features boost the Apple Watch’s smartwatch credentials because it can now act as a proper phone replacement for extended periods. Part of the reason for that is you can interact with notifications – reply to texts or delete emails, for example – which is something most other smartwatches simply don’t do. Basic notifications are useful, but if you then have to get your phone out to deal with them, you are still tethered to the phone.
One gripe I have always had with the Apple Watch is that there isn’t a native podcasts app for the watch – you can get around this with third-party apps, but shouldn’t have to. That gripe remains with the Series 3, but the Music app is much improved. Apple automatically syncs your most listened-to and recently added albums to the watch when it’s plugged in at night, which is useful because I tend to forget to put any new music on the thing and end up running to the same tracks every time.
Using The Apple Watch Series 3 For Sleep Tracking
There is no native sleep tracking on the Apple Watch and with good reason – you have to charge it every night. However, it you’re exceptionally keen on sleep tracking with the watch you could charge it in the day and use a third-party app at night. Auto Sleep is a good pick, as is Sleep++.
The Apple Health And Activity Apps
Apple’s Health app will round up all your activity stats from the day and it’s the best place to view your heart rate data. It will also give you a VO2 max estimation, and it’s impressive in sourcing data from a vast range of apps and devices, but its in-depth approach can be tough to navigate.
In contrast the Activity app is very simple to use, but leaves you a bit short in terms of data. You can see your recent workouts and your progress towards filling your activity rings, but the latter is easily done on the Watch itself and you get more info on individual runs in apps like Strava, which I suspect is where most people will view it.
You can also view achievement badges in the Activity app. Most are standard, like setting a new Move ring record or filling your rings every day in a week, but Apple occasionally offers special challenges. One example was the National Park Challenge, which involved completing a 5.6km workout – the distance of the Old Faithful to Mallard Lake hike in Yellowstone National Park – on a specific day. I like these one-off challenges a lot, but they’re not available regularly, which is a shame.
With light use the Watch can stretch to a couple of days, but it’s really best to charge it every night. Given the extensive feature set and bright screen on the watch, especially if you’re using it with cellular, GPS and heart rate tracking all on, it’s perhaps not surprising that it drains the battery quickly. But rival smartwatches from Fitbit, Garmin and others are now offering a few days of battery life. This is not only convenient, but allows you to track your sleep without having to charge the watch during the day.
Depending on what strap you go for, the Apple Watch is fit for all occasions. I’m a huge fan of the sleek, square design, and the range of straps is excellent. The new sports loop is very comfortable and, to my surprise, dries quickly enough that you can use it for workouts without suffering soggy fabric on your wrist for the rest of the day. That said, I’d still recommend the full silicone strap for your sweatiest outings.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.