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USA TODAY Tech Columnist Ed Baig breaks down the perks and quirks of Apple’s newest watches.
USA TODAY

The latest Apple Watch clocks in with cellular. And that increases the way you can use it without your iPhone.

Case in point: I don’t typically wear a wristwatch in the shower or hot tub at my gym, even with a watch like this one that you can swim with. And I surely don’t do so just to make calls or receive notifications when I’m all wet. But I did so to test the cellular capabilities of Apple Watch Series 3, the first smart timepiece from Apple to add such functionality.

My tests were successful, so long as I had decent coverage, notwithstanding the fact that the sound through the speaker inside the watch was drowned out by the whirlpool and shower noises.

The new Apple Watch Series 3 is displayed during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12, 2017 in Cupertino, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

The concept behind a smartwatch with cellular—and Apple’s isn’t the first—is to free you up from having to rely on Wi-Fi or having the iPhone in your pocket or close by. So even after ditching the phone, you can make or receive calls, send texts, get notifications (hands-free via Siri at that), or hail a ride through the watch.

I can hear the cheers from runners, hikers, and gym rats for whom carrying a phone is a drag.

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There are limits to cellular, of course:  for example, while you can swim with Apple Watch Series 3 (just like the Series 2 Watch that will now be discontinued) you won’t get a signal under water. And as with the Series 2, the watch isn’t protected if you are scuba diving or water skiing.

Paying for cellular    

The Apple Watch Series 3 comes with cellular LTE. You’ll pay extra on your wireless plan. (Photo: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Moreover, while cellular will be enthusiastically welcomed by some, you will have to pay for the convenience. The starting prices for Series 3 watches with cellular and GPS are $399 for a model with a 38mm case and $429 for a 42mm model. Prices can swell well past four-figures for Apple Watch models with fancy Hermes bands or those with gray or white ceramic cases. (You can also buy Series 3 with GPS only, starting at $329).

On top of those prices for the cellular models, you’ll have to pay about $10 a month for cellular service from your wireless provider, and yes, the watch provider needs to be the same carrier as your iPhone. The phone and watch share the same phone number; I conducted my tests through AT&T. Apple also cautions that roaming is not available outside your network coverage area.

The now reduced Series 1 models that remain in the lineup—not only do they lack cellular, but are also not swim proof—start at $249 and $279, respectively.

When the phone isn’t nearby

There’s always been things you could do while wearing older Apple Watch’s sans cellular. 

For example, you could store music on the watch, and listen via wireless Bluetooth headphones, since the built-in speaker on the watch isn’t ideal for that purpose.

What you could not do however was stream. The ability to do so is coming to watch wearers who are Apple Music subscribers next month. Apple says subscribers will be able to stream any of 40 million songs, but I was not able to test the experience yet. For its part, Spotify wouldn’t disclose whether it intends to add its own streaming service to the Apple Watch.

Meantime, without a connection, you could also always use a credit card stored in Apple Watch to pay for stuff at retail using Apple Pay, one of my favorite reasons for wearing the watch.

Design 

The Series 3 has a similar design to its predecessors, and can accommodate all the same watch bands. As before, the display is rectangular, but one major difference is that Apple has managed to use the display itself as the cellular antenna. Apple says the watch will automatically switch to the most power efficient wireless available, which helps to preserve the all-day battery life I experienced. But you will experience a hit to the battery if you rely on cellular a lot. And though I didn’t run into the problem, some reviewers reported a snag in which the watch will try to connect to an unknown Wi-Fi network instead of LTE. Apple is said to be working on a fix.

Inside the watch is a faster processor, more energy-efficient wireless chip and barometric altimeter that helps supply data to exercise apps that measure elevation.

One giveaway that a person is wearing the Apple Watch with cellular is the red digital crown. There’s also a new Explorer watch face that reveals the cellular strength.

New software improves old watches, too

The new watch runs the latest watchOS 4 software. But watch OS4 is available as a free download for older models as well. It adds some clever new watch faces, including a kaleidoscope that you can alter by twisting the digital crown, and another with Buzz Lightyear and other Toy Story characters. There’s a new Siri watch face, too, and on the Series 3, Siri can speak audibly for the first time.

The Apple Watch has always emphasized health and fitness, and makes improvements through the latest software to the heart rate monitor app. Newly detailed measurements include your resting heart rate and walking heart rate. And the watch can send potential lifesaving notifications that can warn you when your heart rate exceeds a designated threshold during a period in which you are otherwise inactive for 10 minutes.

One other feature I’m eager to try when it becomes available later this fall: you’ll be able to pair the watch via NFC to a treadmill, elliptical machine, and other compatible exercise equipment in your health club to share workout data with the watch.

The new Apple Watch arrives with a high price tag. But for some workout fiends the most liberating thing is that you can now leave your phone at home or in the locker.  

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

The bottom line

Apple Watch Series 3 GPS + Cellular

$399 on up; www.apple.com

Pro. You can use the watch in more places without your phone or Wi-Fi.

Con. Models cost more and add a monthly tab.

 

 

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