As it enters its seventh generation, the Apple Watch has reached an interesting point in its evolution. It’s still the world’s best-selling smartwatch by far (total sales are estimated to have passed the 100 million mark in June), but where do you go when you’ve already sat at the top of the smartwatch tree for several years?
In recent years, Apple has doubled down on the tough challenge of trying to convince dedicated fitness fans that its watch is every bit as capable as the likes of Garmin and Polar’s smartwatches at tracking their activities, while simultaneously catering to the more general user who likes receiving message alerts directly on their wrist.
It’s a tall order trying to be all things to two very different types of user, and the new Apple Watch Series 7 model is the company’s latest stab at trying to be all things to all people. So what’s new?
What does it look like?
Like its predecessors, the Apple Watch Series 7 looks fundamentally very similar to the model that forewent it. The always-on display is still square, the digital crown and side button are still in place and the detachable straps click into place the same way.
This is hardly a surprising development – Apple rarely overhauls any of its devices in a way that could be considered even remotely radical, but it does, as I’ve written previously, make it harder to tell the difference between subsequent models at a glance. Apple probably doesn’t care much about this, but it’s a bit dull for consumers to be presented with what’s essentially the same product year after year, aesthetically at least.
Larger screen is this year’s major feature
The year’s model’s key selling point is its largest screen – one that’s been ‘completely re-engineered’ and the largest any Apple Watch has had to date, jumping from 40mm and 44mm to 41mm and 45mm. While this isn’t a huge physical adjustment the black bezel that borders the display has been considerably slimmed down by 40 per cent, which makes the display area look dramatically larger (close to 20 per cent bigger, in fact) even though the hardware itself has barely changed.
For the first time, the Watch’s screen has what Apple calls a unique refractive edge: gently rounding the glass corners and flattening the curvature where the glass meets the Watch case.
New watch face Contour is the best way to show off the way text and images are now able to ‘bend’ around the display’s edge – a subtle design change which, again, isn’t immediately obvious at first glance.
Apple also claims the overall screen area has increased by more than 50 per cent compared to 2017’s Apple Watch Series 3 and that it’s more durable than previous models thanks to its newly enforced crystal screen.
Bigger display means bigger icons
A larger screen equals more space for Apple Watch developers to play around with, meaning app icons and buttons have also increased in size for easier tapping.
Longer texts or WhatsApps are now easier to read as you don’t have to scroll the digital crown to reach the rest of the message, and the newly larger keyboard for replying to messages is also surprisingly easy to use: whether tapping each letter individually or sliding from letter to letter using QuickPath (a feature that allows you to spell out words without lifting your finger from the screen).
While QuickPath generally works really well, intelligently predicting what you want to spell out even with words such as ‘actually’ which feature consecutive double letters, the same can’t be said for Scribble – Apple’s handwriting recognition feature. Accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, Scribble is supposed to convert your harried finger swipes into discernible letters but really struggled to recognise cursive handwriting.
“Hey” became “M”, “Hello” was translated as “Me” and “How are you?” was condensed into “Wup”. It’s much more accurate at recognising singular letters, but having to tap the Space button between words massively slowed down the process, meaning it was much faster to either use QuickPath or to dictate a message reply via Siri.
This isn’t so much a complaint with Apple as it is an observation about text input on very small user interfaces, even if they are larger than they’ve been previously.
QuickPath has taken a lot of the agro out of tapping out a message by hand, but it’s still a fiddly process that doesn’t feel entirely natural and will require a lot of perseverance to make it worthwhile.
My first impression was that the screen could look freakishly big on smaller wrists, particularly on the larger 45mm model. Thankfully Apple’s watch straps are always comfortable and snug, meaning it’s unlikely the larger screens could inch round your wrist and end up digging into you at an uncomfortable angle, but it’s still a consideration to bear in mind when choosing between the larger and smaller sizes.
The aluminium Series 7 comes in five colours: new midnight (navy/black), starlight (gold/silver), green, blue and red, while the stainless steel finish comes in a choice of graphite, silver, gold, space black or titanium.
How much does it cost?
As usual, this year’s Apple Watches come in two versions: GPS-only and GPS with cellular connectivity – which allows you to make calls and send and receive messages independently of your iPhone providing you’ve set up a plan with either EE, O2 or Vodafone (Three is not supported).
The GPS-only Series 7 model costs £369 while the cellular + GPS version is £100 more at £469. Unless you’re confident you want to regularly leave the house for prolonged periods of time without your phone, I’d recommend saving yourself the cash and going for the cheaper Watch.
What about the battery life?
While the Apple Watch’s battery life has always been pretty decent, this year’s model is largely on par with the Series 6. As with previous years, Apple has provided a vague ‘all day’ estimation of battery life, which it chalks up to around 18 hours.
In reality, this is closer to around 36 hours depending on what you’ve been using it for – long runs or other forms of arduous exercise seem to drain it more quickly than other tasks.
Battery life easily lasts into the next day
I found around 16 hours of wear (receiving WhastApps, texts, Slacks and Instagram notifications and controlling music during an hour’s run) reduced it by around 50 per cent on average, taking me comfortably through into the next day. Because I don’t tend to use my Apple Watch for sleep tracking a great deal, overnight is the most natural time to charge it for me, and running out of charge before I slap it on the charging puck each evening is never a concern.
So, should you buy the Apple Watch Series 7?
The toughest thing about writing this review was considering what really sets the Apple Watch Series 7 apart from its predecessors. While Series 6’s big selling point was its blood oxygen sensor and altimeter and Series 5 was the first Apple Watch with an always-on display and compass, this year’s model is relying solely upon its bigger, tougher display to entice shoppers.
This lack of killer features makes it difficult to recommend as a standalone purchase: if you’re looking to upgrade from a Series 3 model – or older – you’re unlikely to be disappointed by the display, which is sharp and bright, but owners of more recent models probably won’t see much here to persuade them to part with more cash.
While the Apple Watch Series 7 is a fantastic smartwatch in its own right, there is a sense that Apple’s treading water here. There’s nothing new in terms of unique fitness features that would give Garmin or Polar owners reason to consider making the switch (bar the fact it can recognise when you’re riding a bike and automatically starting the appropriate activity), and the other key considerations battery life, performance and speed are on par with last year’s Series 6. Unless you’re desperate to update your ageing Apple Watch or you’re bedazzled by the thought of a larger screen, my advice would be to stay put.
The Apple Watch Series 7 is on sale from 15 October priced from £369