DC Rainmaker

Apple Watch Series 3: Sport & Fitness In-Depth Review

Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been wearing the Apple Watch Series 3 Cellular edition to see how well it works not just in daily use, but more importantly sport and fitness use.  This review is all about sport and fitness, since there’s a gazillion other places you can read about general stuff like looking at the pretty apps screen above.  Or just general apps.  Or talking to Siri.  Of course, I’ll briefly touch on those things below, but my focus here is how well this performs while working out or racing.

Of course, in many ways the Apple Watch Series 3 isn’t appreciably different for sports usage than the previous Apple Watch Series 2 unit.  In theory, it’s got the same heart rate sensor, as well as the same GPS capabilities.  What it gains though in ‘GPS+Cellular’ edition is…well…cellular service (and the associated magical red dot).  It also gains an altimeter, for better tracking of elevation. But in reality, most of the new features actually came with watchOS 4, which was introduced at the same time.  Most of those features got rolled out to previous Apple Watch units as well, as I outlined here.  So do consider that in many ways you can achieve almost everything in this review with previous generation Apple Watches and save a few bucks.

Note that I went out and bought my own Apple Watch Series 3 Cellular unit, at an Apple Store on launch morning.  With that – let’s dive into things!

Unboxing:

Not feelin’ like text and photos?  No worries, we can start off with an uber-detailed unboxing video I put together of the Apple Watch Series 3. I cover weights, size comparisons, and tons more.

Still want some photos though?  No problem!  First off, we’ve got the box itself, which sits behind all the things I took out of the box.  Namely because I forgot to take a picture before I started the video.

Inside you’ll find the watch itself.  The red dot on the digital crown means it’s the cellular version.  It’s how you can spot the cellular version a million miles away.

Then there’s the charging cable.  This is the same as all past Apple Watch charging cables.  So if you’ve got those lying around from previous editions – then you’re well positioned for multi-location charging:

Then there’s a small USB wall adapter.  If in Europe or elsewhere you’ll get the plug for your local country.

Then there’s the watch itself.  But you’re gonna get like 5 million photos by the end of this review, so here’s what it looks like chillin’ in the box:

And finally, you’ll have noticed the secondary band.  The watch comes with a small and large band, which slides off by pressing the small button under the watch band.

As usual from Apple – super clean box setup.  There’s also, of course, the paper manual and quick start guide that you saw in the video, but those somehow ended up flying off the table during the unboxing video and didn’t get photographed.  They were shy.  As always though, you won’t need the manual by the time you finish reading this post.

Weights and Sizes:

Taking a quick detour to look at the sizes and weights of the watches, I’ve lined up the Apple Watch Series 3 LTE with the Fitbit Ionic and Garmin Vivoactive 3.  Essentially, what are likely to be the three most popular fitness/sports focused watches this fall for the mid-range market.

Here’s how the three look side by side:

As you can see, they’re all fairly similar in sizes.  The Garmin is a bit more rounded than the Apple Watch, while the Fitbit is a touch bit bigger in terms of face.  Ultimately though, they’re all fairly similar.

Here’s a look at them from a slightly different angle:

Then to take a crack at the weights, I put all three on the scale.  I used the sport band in the case of the Fitbit Ionic, merely because I hate the regular stock band.  You can check out that in-depth review though for weights of all the band types.

All the weights are in grams, with the Fitbit and Garmin units being identical at 43g, and the Apple Watch sitting in at 63g.  Keep in mind this is the 42mm Apple Watch, so it’d be slightly heavier than the 38mm variant.

The Basics:

To begin, we’ll start at the very beginning: The buttons.  I note this because when it comes to sport usage, this will become a clear item to pay attention to, especially for which apps you use to track your workout.  The Apple Watch has two buttons on the side.  One is a generic button towards the bottom, whereas the other is the digital crown, which can be both pressed and rotated (useful for zooming in and out or changing pages in an app).

In addition of course is the touchscreen, used for navigation within the watch. Further of note is that the watch can ‘sense’ whether or not it’s on your wrist.  So when it’s removed from your wrist and put back on, it’ll require you enter a pin to access it.

Apps are installed on your watch using your phone (only iPhones by the way), where you can select which watch apps in the ‘Watch’ app on your phone to sync to your watch.  Most iPhone apps offer Watch apps, merely because Apple has a long-standing practice of penalizing those phone apps that don’t offer a watch app, by generally skipping over them in ‘featured’ areas of the App Store.

 

You can enable/disable individual apps on your watch (seen above), but generally speaking, any configuration of a specific app occurs within the phone app for that watch.  So, for example, you configure the Stryd Apple Watch app from within the Stryd iPhone app.  And so on.

Beyond the installation of apps, you’ll do most of your general setup of your watch from the phone app.  You can see some of these configuration options below.  These include things like the watch face (which you can also tweak from the watch itself), as well as more detailed features like how text message responses work.

  

And it’s through some of these more detailed features that you really differentiate the Apple Watch compared to more sport-focused watches (Garmin/Suunto/Polar/Fitbit).  Take for example the text message responses.  First off, you can actually respond to text messages (something you can’t do on the other four brands I noted).  Not only that, but you can customize those responses and/or pick from a ton of pre-canned ones.

  

I’ve long said that the best ‘smartwatch’ from a business/day to day standpoint is the Apple Watch, and that remains the same with the Apple Watch Series 3.  Where we see a divergence though is the sport and fitness pieces, which is essentially where the Apple Watch isn’t as strong as the other options on the market (as I’ll cover in depth here).

Switching a little bit into the health realm, one of the new features that was introduced with watchOS 4 is the elevated heart rate notifications.  This allows you to be alerted when your HR rises above a given threshold while your watch says that you’ve been inactive.  This can be indicative of a heart-related issue.  It’s actually a feature I often hear readers ask for, and two members of my extended family had been looking for similar features as well.

 

Now that said, I’ve found this feature does often trigger false positives, about once per week or so.  Almost always in the shower.  My HR will not actually be above 120BPM, but it thinks it is.  And it also thinks I’m inactive.  Of course, a false positive here isn’t a huge deal, since you can easily re-check your HR via the watch or other means.

When it comes to daily activity tracking, the unit monitors steps and heart rate, as well as your standing time.  It doesn’t consider flights of stairs one of the rings, but you can see it within the phone and watch activity apps.  You can configure some options for activity tracking within the Watch configuration app, but most activity tracking is done via the ‘Activity’ app on your phone (left – watch app, right, activity app):

 

Which is of course seen on your watch, even as a watch face if you want it to.

You can also see a more textual version of the same thing:

The ultimate goal on your Apple Watch is to complete the ‘rings’.  Each ring represents a different daily goal to reach.  Pink/Red for Move goal, Green for Exercise Goal, and Blue for Standing goal.  Each goal differs, but if you complete all three goals you get a puppy.

The watch itself will remind you at ten minutes to the top of the hour (i.e. 5:50PM) to complete your standing goal, if you haven’t done so yet:

Actually, to back up a bit you don’t get a puppy when you unlock all your goals for the day, but you can unlock achievement badges which are non-motivating icons that have the same amount of excitement as a fake 99 cent police officer’s badge for Halloween.

 

Still, I do very much like the history pane within the app, as it makes it simple (painfully or otherwise) to see your long-term progress.  You’ll also note the tiny green dot above certain days.  That shows a specific workout (as opposed to stuff grouped into the exercise category, such as just a brisk walk to the store).

 

Finally, you can compete in sharing for challenges and daily activity stats within the app itself.  In fact, when you add contacts, Apple is even smart enough to know which of them have the Apple Watch and which don’t.  Regrettably, I don’t have too many friends with the Apple Watch.

Sport Usage:

It’s fair to say that a significant chunk of Apple’s marketing resources on the Apple Watch are aimed at courting the fitness crowd.  You’ll see that through the company’s numerous ads.  Of course, there are some slight nuances between a more general wellness focused slant versus an athletic/sport focused slant.  And some of that becomes quickly apparent when you start using the Apple Watch (any model).

Part of the appeal of the Apple Watch and other smartwatch platforms that have app stores is the ability to go beyond the basics of the built-in apps and go with 3rd party apps to fill gaps.  And as you’ll see in this section, that’s a darn good thing – because the default Apple sports experience leaves a lot to be desired.  As such, this section is fully on the default experience.  Whereas if you scroll down a bunch, I touch on some apps and filling in those gaps with much better 3rd party experiences (albeit, at a cost).

In any event, to start with using the default workout settings, you’ll dig around the colorful dots on your watch and find the neon green/yellowish colored one with a little runner icon:

After tapping it you’ll see a list of sports.  The last sport you used will show up first in the list, along with the duration spent in that sport.

In total, the available native sports are: Outdoor Walk, Outdoor Run, Outdoor Cycle, Indoor Walk, Indoor Run, Indoor Cycle, Elliptical, Rower, Stair Stepper, High Intensity Interval Training, Pool Swim, Open Water Swim, and Other.

You can scroll through the sports to select them on your watch.  Additionally, within the Watch app on your phone, you can tweak a handful of settings.  These include Running Auto Pause, Power Save Mode (turns off optical HR), as well as workout playlists.  I personally leave the power save mode and running pause off, since I want all the data!

 

You can also slightly choose which data fields to use in the default app for each sport.  Up to five fields in total can be added.  If you want other fields you need to remove a given field to make room:

 

In any case, back to the watch, and to select a sport – in this case Outdoor Run.  You can configure goals for your workout, like time or duration, which will give you progress towards that goal mid-workout.

Once you do so it’ll start at that moment to search for satellites and acquire your HR.  And this is super important to understand: It doesn’t tell you it’s doing this, nor does it tell you the status of that.  Why does this matter? Because the watch implies that it’s ready to go the moment you tap that icon and gives a three-second count-down.

But in reality, it’s not at all ready.  In fact, if you look at most of your workouts, you’ll notice a 2-3 minute gap until it acquires heart rate, sometimes satellite too (as I’ll cover within my accuracy sections later).

And this happens over and over and over again.  Not just for me, but many people.  Part of the ‘issue’ here is that if you go for a workout with your phone, the Apple Watch will leverage that for GPS, not the watch itself.  But if you leave your phone behind and walk out the door, the handoff there telling the watch to look for GPS lags significantly, so it’s almost as if it’s caught off-guard. Note that it doesn’t appear to leverage cellular service for GPS acquisition.

What’s strange here is that every GPS watch made in the last half-decade has two things:

A) A GPS status indicator/icon: This lets you know it’s found GPS and ready to go
B) GPS Satellite cache: This helps the watch acquire GPS signal in a couple seconds

But the Apple Watch definitely doesn’t have item A above, instead you just have to guess.  And for item B above, it doesn’t seem to work well.  It shouldn’t take 2-3 minutes to acquire GPS outdoors.  That’s like the days of 2008-2011 for GPS watch acquisition times.

Either way, my recommendation is wait a minute or so after opening the ‘Workouts’ app on your watch, but before starting a workout, if you want the most accurate data.  With that, pressing start begins your workout and starts showing you data:

The unit will show you pace and distance and HR in real-time.  Even if it hasn’t locked onto satellites yet, it’ll use the accelerometer for pace and distance.  Whereas for HR it’ll show an empty/swirling heart icon if you don’t have that locked yet.

If you’ve enabled features like auto-lap, it’ll trigger notifications every kilometer or mile.  Note that the Apple Watch can connect to 3rd party Bluetooth Smart heart rate straps, in the event you don’t trust the optical HR sensor.  It cannot connect to ANT+ straps though.  Of course, many straps these days are dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart, like the Wahoo TICKR series or 4iiiii Viiiiva.

When it comes to sport settings, for other sports like pool swimming, it’ll also ask you to confirm the pool size:

Pool swimming won’t use GPS of course, but rather the accelerometer internally, so it needs to know the length of the pool to be able to determine the total distance.  But there are some quirks to be aware of with the default.  First is that the pool size can only be whole numbers – like 25 meters or 35 yards.  It can’t be partial numbers.  In Europe, a 33 and 1/3rd meter pool is somewhat common, and there isn’t a way to set that within the app.  So I end up with weird distance at the end of the swim since it shaves off a third of a meter each length.  All other swim watches known to mankind take into account these sorts of pool size quirks.

More importantly is that using the default app the screen turns off automatically when you start swimming.  So if you’re accustomed to tilting your wrist just slightly underwater when you push off the wall to see pacing, time, or distance, you can’t do that.  The screen will remain black/off.  So it’s really only useful after a set when you’re at the wall.

When it comes to openwater swimming, it’ll use GPS then.  Given the time of year and travel schedule I wasn’t able to get in an openwater swim with it.  However, since the GPS hardware is identical to the Apple Watch Series 2, I will note that I’ve actually seen fantastic GPS accuracy there.  And even better is that since watchOS4, you can now actually export openwater swims.  Woot!

No matter the sport, you can swipe to the left to pause/stop/lock or create a multisport activity.  When in swimming mode, it’ll automatically lock the touchscreen.

While it does technically support a multisport activity, it’s a little bit wonky.  The way it works is by letting you change to another workout type, but it’s not quite as automated as you’d see in a typical triathlon setup.

Once you’ve completed your workout, you’ll get a simplified summary page of the workout stats.  Nothing fancy, but just top-line stats.

You can though get a bit more detail on aspects like HR charts and recovery graphs within the heart icon (for HR data) on the watch itself:

And then finally, on the ‘Activity’ app on your phone you’ll see the workout listed in the workouts section:

  

Again, the information is somewhat basic here compared to most other sport watches on the market, but it also covers much of the core stuff you’d be looking for.  Of course again, if you use 3rd party apps on the Apple Watch, then you’ll get more detail and more options.  I discuss that after we chat about accuracy.

Heart Rate Accuracy:

Next up we’ve got heart rate accuracy.  Apple says there have been no physical sensor changes between the Series 2 and Series 3 watches, though undoubtedly they’ve continued to tweak algorithms like all manufacturers do.  Accuracy roughly falls into two buckets: 24×7 HR, and workout HR.  As is usually the case with most devices these days, I see no tangible issues with 24×7 HR.  It works well across both normal daily routines as well as things like sleep.  Speaking of which, I talk about RHR values and 24×7 monitoring here and why it’s interesting.

When it comes to 24×7 HR, the Apple Watch measures at a rate of once every 5-6 minutes while at rest, and slightly more frequently if on the move).  This data can be seen on the watch itself (above), as well as within the Apple Health app on your phone (different from the Activity app):

   

You’ll notice above that it actually separates it out into a few categories: Heart Rate (all day stats), Resting Heart Rate (per day), Walking heart rate, and Heart Rate Variability.  From a timing standpoint, once every 5-6 minutes is actually less than almost all companies these days (which are now mostly at once every 1-2 seconds).  But I don’t think it’s a huge deal either.  You can trend pretty well off of every 5 minutes, as long as it’s truly that frequent (and it does seem to be).

Before we move on to the test results, note that optical HR sensor accuracy is rather varied from individual to individual.  Aspects such as skin color, hair density, and position can impact accuracy.  Position, and how the band is worn, are *the most important* pieces.  A unit with an optical HR sensor should be snug.  It doesn’t need to leave marks, but you shouldn’t be able to slide a finger under the band (at least during workouts).  You can wear it a tiny bit looser the rest of the day.

Ok, so in my testing, I simply use the watch throughout my normal workouts.  Those workouts include a wide variety of intensities and conditions, making them great for accuracy testing.  I’ve got steady runs, interval workouts on both bike and running, as well as tempo runs and rides – and even running up and down a mountain.

For each test, I’m wearing additional devices, usually 3-4 in total, which capture data from other sensors.  Typically I’d wear a chest strap (usually the Garmin HRM-TRI or Wahoo TICKR X), as well as another optical HR sensor watch on the other wrist (many models during this testing period).  Note that the numbers you see in the upper right corner are *not* the averages, but rather just the exact point my mouse is sitting over.  Note all this data is analyzed using the DCR Analyzer, details here if you want to use it yourself.

First up we’ve got a relatively simplistic run from two weekends ago.  It was with a baby stroller, which adds a bit more complexity to optical HR measurement, thus, it’s an interesting test.  Along for the ride were three other Garmin watches connected to a Wahoo TICKR-X HR strap, as well as the new Epson 307 optical HR-enabled watch.  So basically three HR data sources.  Here’s the overview (and the DCR Analyzer set here if you want to dig deeper):

What I want you to pay particularly close attention to is that the blue line for the Apple Watch starts about two minutes into the run.  You’ll see this for almost every workout you do.  This is because the Apple Watch takes 2-3 minutes to acquire your HR.  And during that time it won’t record anything until it gets a lock.  Most other watches tell you the status of HR lock prior to starting the workout, but the Apple Watch doesn’t.

Now, the next thing you’ll notice is that the Epson watch got off to a bad start for some unknown reason, perhaps related to the stroller.  However, after that point all of the watches were very close.  And in fact, looking at the rest of the plot despite some variability in intensity, it stayed on quite nicely.  I could dig deeper into the above plot, but honestly there’s little reason to since it looks fine.  So let’s switch to another one.

Next, we’ve got a run with some nice intervals at the end of it.  Along for this run is the Apple Watch Series 3 with the Samsung Gear Sport, as well as two Garmin watches tethered to the Wahoo TICKR X HR strap.  Here’s the full data set.

In this run I had to wait forever for the Samsung device to find GPS signal, which caused the chest strap to dry out and I forgot to wet it again (cold day).  So you see the ‘blocky’ looking start to the chest strap.  You also see that the Apple Watch doesn’t’ start until about 4-5 minutes in this time.  After that point the units are largely the same, except there’s the catch.

The Samsung Gear Sport might ‘look’ to be accurate here for the first 70% or so, but it’s only by luck.  That’s because my HR intensity was very even.  In reality, it only plotted about 5 HR data points that entire first 38 minutes.  That’s far more visible once you look at the last 15 or so minutes that I do some sprints in.

The scale kinda makes these look wonky, but essentially I’m going from 160bpm to about 182-186bpm for each interval.  What you notice on this is that the Samsung just cuts a straight line through it all, plotting one point at the peak and one at the base of each interval, then it connects the dots.

The Apple Watch does reasonably well actually throughout this, following the ebb and flow until the last interval, the hardest, in which case it incorrectly plots a 199bpm HR as my max.  That’s a tell-tale sign of HR cadence lock, when your HR locks onto your cadence.  This often happens when going down hills, or in sprints (as was the case here).  The actual HR was about 185, per the TICKR-X.  Of course, the TICKR also showed a few hiccups in there on the previous one.

Next, we’ve got another run, this one with a bunch of stops and starts in it.  Again, despite waiting for 5 minutes outdoors for the Apple Watch (on the workout screen) to find HR, it still waited another 5 minutes into the run to actually lock and record that.  Here’s the full data set.  In this set, we have the Garmin Vivoactive 3 optical HR up against the Apple Watch 3, compared to a chest strap.

What you notice is that at a high level things do look pretty good across the board.  Where it does struggle a little bit though is when I stopped, each time you can see it delay catching the HR dropping down.  The TICKR (chest strap) is fastest, and the Vivoactive 3 is a little behind that on some (and less fast on others).  Whereas the Apple Watch seems to almost spike a little bit each time.

Next, let’s switch gears to some cycling. Cycling is actually really hard for optical HR sensors to get right when worn on the wrist.  This is because your wrist is usually flexed tight, and further opens up the band to light getting in.  Additionally, bumps on the road can be impactful as well.  Here’s an hour ride across the city to do some loops at a park before coming back.  I’ve got a Garmin Vivoactive 3 on one wrist, the Apple Watch 3 on the other, and then the chest HR strap paired to a flotilla of bike head units for some power meter tests (it’s why you see multiple copies of the TICKR X listed below).  Here’s the full data set.

As always, the Apple Watch takes about 2-3 minutes to lock HR.  I do want to be clear here: If this was any other company, people would crucify them for this.  Yet somehow everyone is giving Apple a pass on this year.  Still, moving along you’ll see that the first 15 or so minutes things are kinda mixed in stop and go cycling.  This is usually what I see with optical HR sensors in this type of riding.

However, once I get to less trafficked areas around the 15-minute marker, you see near perfect alignment until the 52-minute marker as I get back into the city again.

The one thing you’ll see if you look really closely on some of my sprints, is the slight delay that both the Vivoactive 3 and Apple Watch exhibit coming off the sprint (going easy again).

Of course, once I get back to stop and go riding, everything goes to crap:

The Apple Watch appeared to simply get lazy at times and ignore any efforts, while the Vivoactive 3 seemed distracted.  Meanwhile, the chest strap did seem on-point here for what my efforts were.

Ultimately, what I see here is about the same as the Garmin optical-HR enabled watches for accuracy.  It’s generally good for me for running, save occasionally minor quirks.  And it’s generally good for me for cycling as long as I’m consistently riding.  Whereas if I’m in stop and go type situations for riding, then it’s rougher (true of both Garmin and Apple).

Of course again, no other watch I’ve ever tested has the issue of just ignoring the first 3-5 minutes of HR.  This is 100% because Apple doesn’t turn on the optical HR sensor until you start a workout, at which point that’s the absolute worst time to try and acquire HR since it’s got to de-noise things like arm movement, running cadence, and who knows what else you’re doing.  This would be trivial to solve if Apple just did HR lock on the screen prior to pressing to start a workout.

GPS Accuracy:

There’s likely no topic that stirs as much discussion and passion as GPS accuracy.  A watch could fall apart and give you dire electrical shocks while doing so, but if it shows you on the wrong side of the road?  Oh hell no, bring on the fury of the internet!

GPS accuracy can be looked at in a number of different ways, but I prefer to look at it using a number of devices in real-world scenarios across a vast number of activities.  I use 2-6 other devices at once, trying to get a clear picture of how a given set of devices handles conditions on a certain day.  Conditions include everything from tree/building cover to weather.

Over the years I’ve continued to tweak my GPS testing methodology.  For example, I try to not place two units next to each other on my wrists, as that can impact signal. If I do so, I’ll put a thin fabric spacer of about 1”/3cm between them (I didn’t do that on any of my Apple Watch 3 workouts).  But often I’ll simply carry other units by the straps, or attach them to the shoulder straps of my CamelBak.  Plus, wearing multiple watches on the same wrist is well known to impact optical HR accuracy.

Next, as noted, I use just my daily training routes.  Using a single route over and over again isn’t really indicative of real-world conditions, it’s just indicative of one trail.  The workouts you see here are just my normal daily workouts.

I’ve had quite a bit of variety of terrain within the time period of Apple Watch testing.  Be it from major mountains and trails of the Alberta (Canada), to the deserts of Las Vegas, to the streets of Paris.  It’s been everywhere!

First up we’ll start with a city run I did yesterday.  Nothing too long, just a simple lunchtime run.  My route includes being next to buildings, under bridges, through tunnels, and past panda bears.  All of which could impact accuracy.  The watches for this run are listed below.  And as with all my data here, here’s the link to the DCR Analyzer page for this set, if you want to zoom in more.

At a high level, things mostly look pretty good.  Let’s start by zooming in though.  In this case the Apple Watch did acquire GPS from the very beginning.  In large part because I stood around freezing my ass off for 12 minutes waiting for the Samsung Gear Sport to acquire GPS, which gave the Apple Watch plenty of time to do so as well.

In any event, the first five minutes or so along the river were just fine.  Then it was into the gardens for some loops.  What’s funny about these gardens (besides the real-life panda bears), is that they often trip up so many GPS units I test.  I think it’s because the garden pathways are so sharp that it makes it silly easy to spot GPS accuracy issues.  The trees are present, but not super dense.

Looking at the above I’ve highlighted four areas of concern.  The upper and left ones are areas of concern on the Apple Watch, where it either cut corners (left), or dove into the bushes (top).  Meanwhile, the lower two were for the Vivoactive 3 where it also went bush-diving for no apparent reason.  What’s interesting is that it actually did it both loops in the exact same spot, which typically implies some sort of interference type issue.

As I exited the park I ran across the street and across the bridge.  The FR935 was most accurate here, and both the Apple Watch and Vivoactive 3 tracks ran through traffic and buses randomly, while all three watches nailed the bridge spot-on itself.

Next, we’ve got the tunnel.  It’s perhaps 200-300m long.  It’s a great test of how a GPS unit handles losing signal, as well as regaining it.  Ideally you’d get a clean break/drop at the entrance to the tunnel, and then the same thing at the exit.

While the Apple Watch gets close to that, it’s actually slightly offset from the real tunnel.  The Garmin units meanwhile get the entrance/exits closer, but then do a kinda odd ‘bend’ mid-tunnel.  None of which add more than a handful of meters either way, so it’s not something I’d nitpick too much.

Finally, you can see below where I turn onto the bridge, that the Apple Watch misses the ramp I have to run up, and shortcuts the whole situation.  The Garmins get it correct.  Meanwhile, a short distance later at the bottom of the picture you’ll see the Apple Watch stays perfectly on the road whereas the Garmins go through some buildings by a few meters.

Overall though, in the above run, that’s largely nitpicking – but that’s what I do when tracks are mostly pretty good.

Next, let’s take a look at a run I did a few weeks back on an Island.  This was the same trio of watches, and here’s the full dataset.

Now what you’ll notice immediately is the wonky gap or straight line that the Apple Watch did for the first few minutes (it’s that red line you see across the middle of the picture).  That’s a perfect example of the unit briefly finding and losing GPS at the start.  See, it was within range of the AirBNB house, and thus my phone.  Yet, as soon as I started running away from it, it lost phone Bluetooth Smart signal and had to re-acquire GPS from the watch.  I’m actually surprised it had enough range on Bluetooth Smart since the phone was inside the house, but go figure.

The not acquiring GPS at the start isn’t unusual.  The secondary quirk you’ll see with the Apple Watch GPS is the just sorta ‘gliding’ around corners.  It’s like Mario Kart where it just drifts around.  Take for example this section later in the run:

The Apple Watch just casually floats through this whole section like a bird, ignoring the buildings and the path we took.  This is a super common occurrence, and oddly is exaggerated in the Apple Workouts/Activity app itself, where everything seems to be tweaked to make it more ‘flowy’.  The weird thing is that the above corner cutting doesn’t always happen, as you can see in the very same picture above, where the other turn along the beach was fine.

  

Through lots of trial and error, what I’ve somewhat figured out is that workouts where you take your phone with you (and thus, it leverages the phone’s GPS) exhibit FAR more swinging/cut corners, than those with just the watch by itself.

Finally, I’ve got a bunch of cycling workouts, but the simple reality is that all of them are boring from a GPS standpoint.  They’re boring for two reasons: First, is that when cycling I have my phone on me, so it’s actually using the phone’s GPS.  And second, the data looks just fine and dandy.  Here’s one set for example.

If you zoom in a bit here and there you’ll find examples of cut corners, again, with leveraging the phone as the GPS source since it’s within range.

Overall though, the Apple Watch GPS accuracy isn’t bad.  It’s not spectacular, but it’s also not bad.  It’s roughly on-par with other mid-range GPS watches that I’ve tested, each having their pros and cons.  The one catch though is the start of a workout.  It’s really best to wait a bit outside, away from your phone (if you aren’t running/cycling/whatever with it), to ensure it gets GPS from the very beginning.

Data, Apps and Cellular:

Now up until this point I’ve talked totally a native Apple Watch 3 experience.  No 3rd party apps up till now were used to capture the workouts or daily activity data seen above in the analytics sections.  I do that mostly because I want to ensure that mistakes made by 3rd parties in relation to GPS or HR recording aren’t reflecting on the base device.

However, there are a number of cool apps out there that I’ve used or toyed with that I want to briefly highlight.  First is the main app I use for getting data off the watch.  As it stands natively, the Apple Watch doesn’t integrate with any 3rd parties like Strava or TrainingPeaks or anything.  So to get data off of it you need 3rd party apps.  My favorite lately is a super simple app called HealthFIT+, which simply takes your workouts and exports them as industry standard .FIT files.  It can upload those to Strava, TrainingPeaks, Dropbox (as of tomorrow or so), e-mail, and Apple Cloud.

  

The app costs $2, and is what I’ve used for all of the data analysis you see above.  Note, another app that’s similar in this vein is RunGap.  And that works well too (you can read a better review of that here).  But I find the swimming pieces and such just work better with HealthFIT+.  Also, I’m kinda a simple person. Just give me the files and let me do my own thing.  Whereas RunGap has more options/details.

Next, I used Stryd a bit, which connects to their Stryd running power meter footpod.  This app was just released, and is a good option if you’re more geeky endurance focused and want to get into running power but don’t have a Garmin or Suunto watch to pair to it to do so meaningfully.  The app is free, and is loaded as part their regular phone app.  Of course, you need their footpod, which is pretty pricey.

 

If you’re looking to replace a portion of the mapping/navigation features of a Garmin or Suunto watch, check out the WorkOutDoors app.  It has things like importing GPX routes to navigate with, as well as caching of maps offline so you don’t need a phone or cellular service.  That’s actually really impressive.  Heck, your $600 Garmin Fenix 5 (non-5X) can’t do that level of mapping/caching.  And even the 5X doesn’t allow you to cache different map types like this beyond what’s on the unit already for your region.  It’s neat.

  

And here it is on the watch:

Note there’s other fitness apps I use from time to time like iSmoothRun and RunMeter/CycleMeter, though I didn’t use them as much this go around.

(Note: I don’t have any paid/whatever affiliation with any of the above apps. I paid my two bucks or what-not for all of them…and plenty more.)

Finally, a brief word on cellular capabilities.  I bought the cellular edition, largely in thinking that I might end up using those capabilities, primarily in running.  But I found that over time I didn’t actually use them much.  On the cycling front, I always have my phone in my back pocket anyway.  And in running, well, I didn’t much care what was going on in the outside world.  That said, most of my runs the last month or so have been shorter (under 90 minutes), and thus the need to get ahold of me in that time period is less.  Whereas if I was training for a marathon right now with 2-2.5hr long runs, then it would probably be handy to be more reachable (especially with a wife due any hour now).

I will note that getting the cellular pieces set up on launch day/weekend was kinda messy, and required multiple attempts with ATT (my provider).  But once set up it worked well enough in day to day scenarios.  However, it broke again when I went to Canada (so I fixed it again), and then it broke again when I went overseas to France (and once again, I had to attempt to fix it).  All of which is mostly understandable, but at the same time the ATT agents don’t seem to know how to deal with the international pieces very well for the watch, even when you call the international services support desk.

And when it comes to functionality, certainly there are elements like Apple Music streaming that was just turned on last week, but for most other apps it doesn’t matter…yet.  Especially fitness apps.  Perhaps down the road we’ll see companies like Strava get around to adding truly live segments to their app, but for now, the cellular pieces aren’t leveraged much in the fitness realm.

Plus, you can find tons of other reviews out there about music, Siri, cellular, Apple Pay, text messaging, and so on.  As I said at the beginning, I’m all about the sports here!  Plus, I’ve covered things like Apple Pay and others in past posts.

Product Comparison:

I’ve added in the Apple Watch Series 3 into the product comparison database.  This allows you to compare it against other fitness/sport watches that I’ve reviewed.  Not for watches like the Samsung Gear Sport, I haven’t quite put it in the database, likely this week.  The good news is that you can make your own comparison here if you want against any watch in the database, which is pretty massive.

For the purposes of below I’ve compared it against the Fitbit Ionic and the Garmin Vivoactive 3, which are the ones most people will be comparing it against (plus the Samsung Gear Sport once I add it in).  Also note, with a unit like the Apple Watch specifically, there are many cases below where “with 3rd party apps” can be used.  The same is largely true of Garmin, and eventually Fitbit.  I’ve tried to thread the needle of apps that I roughly know exist where I’ve listed that.  But it’s not a perfection in terms of knowing every app on earth.  Ultimately, I don’t think any consumer does (or should).

Function/FeatureApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated November 16th, 2017 @ 9:55 amNew Window
Price$329/$399 (cellular)$299$299
Product Announcement DateSept 12th, 2017Aug 28th, 2017Aug 31st, 2017
Actual Availability/Shipping DateSept 22nd, 2017Oct 1st, 2017September 2017
GPS Recording FunctionalityYesYesYes
Data TransferBluetooth SmartBluetooth SmartUSB, BLUETOOTH SMART
Waterproofing50m50m50 meters
Battery Life (GPS)5hrs GPS on time (24-48hrs standby)6 hoursUp to 13 hours GPS
Recording IntervalVaries1-second1s or Smart Recording
Satellite Pre-Loading via ComputerYes (but seems questionable)YesYes
Quick Satellite ReceptionNot generallyGreatGreat
AlertsVibration/Audio/VisualVisual/VibrateVibrate/Visual
Backlight GreatnessGreatGreat
Ability to download custom apps to unit/deviceYesYesYes
Acts as daily activity monitor (steps, etc...)YesYesYes
Can control phone musicYesYesYes
Has music storage and playbackYesYesNo
ConnectivityApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Bluetooth Legacy (pre-4.0) to PhoneNoNoNo
Bluetooth Smart (4.0+) to Phone UploadingYesYesYes
Phone Notifications to unit (i.e. texts/calls/etc...)YesYesYes
Live Tracking (streaming location to website)With 3rd party appsNoYes
Group trackingNoNoNo
Emergency/SOS Message Notification (from watch to contacts)YesNoNo
Built-in cellular chip (no phone required)Yes (with cellular version)NoNo
CyclingApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Designed for cyclingYesYesYes
Power Meter CapableNoNoWith some Connect IQ apps
Speed/Cadence Sensor CapableNoNoYes
Strava segments live on deviceNoNoNo
Crash detectionNoNoNo
RunningApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Designed for runningYesYesYes
Footpod Capable (For treadmills)With 3rd party appsNo (but has treadmill functionality)Yes
Running Dynamics (vertical oscillation, ground contact time, etc...)NoNoNo
VO2Max EstimationYesYes via appYes
Race PredictorNoNoNo
Recovery AdvisorNoNoNo
Run/Walk ModeWith 3rd party appsNoYes
SwimmingApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Designed for swimmingYesYesYes
Openwater swimming modeYEsNoNo
Lap/Indoor Distance TrackingYesYesYes
Record HR underwaterYesNoNo
Openwater Metrics (Stroke/etc.)Basic stroke type onlyYesNo
Indoor Metrics (Stroke/etc.)Basic stroke type onlyYesYes
Indoor Drill ModeNoNoNo
Indoor auto-pause featureYesNoNo
Change pool sizeYesYesYes
Indoor Min/Max Pool Lengths1y/m to 1,500y/m+10m/y-100m/y17M/18Y TO 150Y/M
Ability to customize data fieldsVery limitedYesYes
Can change yards to metersYesYesYes
Captures per length data - indoorsYesYes
Indoor AlertsYes (goals)Yes (distance)Yes
TriathlonApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Designed for triathlonNot reallyNoNo
Multisport modeYesNoNo
WorkoutsApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Create/Follow custom workoutsWith 3rd party appsNo (Premium Coached only)Yes
On-unit interval FeatureWith 3rd party appsNoSorta (2 preloaded ones, but no customization)
Training Calendar FunctionalityWith 3rd party appsNoYes
FunctionsApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Auto Start/StopYesYesYes
Virtual Partner FeatureNoNoNo
Virtual Racer FeatureNoNoNo
Records PR's - Personal Records (diff than history)NoNoYes
Day to day watch abilityYesYesYes
Hunting/Fishing/Ocean DataNoNoNo
Tidal Tables (Tide Information)NoNoNo
Jumpmaster mode (Parachuting)NoNoNo
GeocachingNoNoNo
Weather Display (live data)YesYesYes
NavigateApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Follow GPS Track (Courses/Waypoints)With 3rd party appsNoNo (but some 3rd party apps can)
Markers/Waypoint DirectionWith 3rd party appsNoYes (to pre-saved spots)
Routable/Visual Maps (like car GPS)With 3rd party appsNoNo
Back to startWith 3rd party appsNoYEs
Impromptu Round Trip Route CreationWith 3rd party appsNoNo
Download courses/routes from phone to unitWith 3rd party appsNoNO
SensorsApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Altimeter TypeBarometricBarometricBarometric
Compass TypeN/AN/AMagnetic
Optical Heart Rate Sensor internallyYesYesYes
Heart Rate Strap CompatibleYesNoYes
ANT+ Heart Rate Strap CapableNoNoYEs
ANT+ Speed/Cadence CapablenoNoYes
ANT+ Footpod CapableNoNoYes
ANT+ Power Meter CapableNoNoNo
ANT+ Weight Scale CapableNoNoNo
ANT+ Fitness Equipment (Gym)NoNoNo
ANT+ Lighting ControlNoNoYes
ANT+ Bike Radar IntegrationNoNoNo
ANT+ Trainer Control (FE-C)NoNoNo
ANT+ Remote ControlNoNoNo (Yes for VIRB camera control)
ANT+ eBike CompatibilityNoNoNo
ANT+ Muscle Oxygen (i.e. Moxy/BSX)NoNono
ANT+ Gear Shifting (i.e. SRAM ETAP)NoNoNo
Shimano Di2 ShiftingNoNoNo
Bluetooth Smart HR Strap CapableYesNoYEs
Bluetooth Smart Speed/Cadence CapableNoNoYes
Bluetooth Smart Footpod CapableNoNoYes
Bluetooth Smart Power Meter CapableNoNoNo
Temp Recording (internal sensor)NoNoNo
Temp Recording (external sensor)NoNoYes
Compatible with Firstbeat HR toolsNoN/A-
SoftwareApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
PC ApplicationNonePC/MacGarmin Express
Web ApplicationNoneYesGarmin Connect
Phone AppiOS onlyiOS/Android/WindowsiOS/Android/Windows
Ability to Export SettingsNoNoNo
PurchaseApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Amazon LinkLinkLinkLink
Clever Training - Save a bunch with Clever Training VIP programN/ALinkLink
Clever Training - Save a bunch with Clever Training VIP programN/ALink
DCRainmakerApple Watch Series 3Fitbit IonicGarmin Vivoactive 3
Review LinkLinkLink

Again, remember you can make your own comparison charts here using the product comparison tool/database.

Summary:

In many ways the most important new features of the Apple Watch Series 3 aren’t at all new hardware.  Sure, cellular connectivity and its red dot gets all the attention, but I haven’t seen it be a huge deal for my day to day workouts.  Instead, it’s actually some of the new watchOS 4 items that are more interesting here, both the user-focused features like the heart rate charts and alerts, but also some of the developer focused features like finally being able to export/access swimming workout data (as an example).  All of these features combined make the Apple Watch (regardless of series) much more compelling than in the past, especially for more casual fitness and sport users.

The main strength of the Apple Watch as a fitness device is the app ecosystem.  But it’s also its main weakness.  Apple itself has made relatively small enhancements to the native fitness features specifically, year over year, compared to any of the big sport watch makers.  Instead, they rely on 3rd party apps to fill in those gaps and provide a more on-par experience to their hardware competitors.  And in many ways, that works out.  Sure, you’ll pay more for apps to get those features, but not more than a few visits to Starbucks would cost ya.  However, none of those apps boil the ocean in one fell swoop, in that no single app does it all.  So you end up with a motley collection of apps to equal what you might find on a similar product elsewhere.  In some cases the app might do it far better, whereas in other cases it might fall short and leave you with a fragmented experience.  It’s a mixed bag.

As such, it’s tough to recommend the Apple Watch 3 to compete in the endurance sport realm, partially because of aspects like usability in harder environmental conditions, and partially because for someone like a triathlete or endurance runner in the mountains you end up with a slew of apps to try and make it work, knowing that ultimately it doesn’t quite work as cleanly as other options.  Or you end up having to do a bunch of steps mid-race and still don’t capture things like transitions properly (or the start/ends of each sport). Or that the display makes it tricky to see while riding on a bike in a competitive situation because of the always-off nature, or while actively swimming.

Yet at the same time, for less complicated tasks like running a 5K/10K or even a marathon – it will fit the bill perfectly fine for most people.  And when you’re not doing those activities it continues to be the best all around smartwatch on the market.  No other device comes close to the level of polish that the Apple Watch exhibits.

And that’s what this is ultimately about – deciding what you value most.  If you’re looking for mostly an all-day watch that you use for less technically demanding sports, the Apple Watch 3 is an awesome bet.  Whereas if you’re the inverse of that, you may want to look elsewhere.

With that – thanks for reading!