Apple Watch Series 7 review: time and time again

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The most important questions to ask about the new Apple Watch Series 7 aren’t about the Apple Watch Series 7, they’re about the Apple Watch you may already have.

That’s a gentle way of saying that if there’s nothing wrong with your current watch, there’s nothing in the Series 7 that should compel you to upgrade. If you’ve been waiting for some key feature before buying your first Apple Watch, I don’t know that it’s here, either. I wrote very nearly the same thing last year about the Series 6 and I think that’s just what we should expect from the Apple Watch series going forward: iterative updates that will be great when you replace your current watch, but not a reason to upgrade.

The Apple Watch Series 7 is great. The larger screen and faster charging are the two headline features and both are welcome. The Apple Watch is in a class entirely of its own right now. Nothing else is as good for iPhone users and nothing like it is available for Android users.

The screen is 20 percent larger on the Apple Watch Series 7

The screen is 20 percent larger on the Apple Watch Series 7.

Apple Watch design and screen

The Apple Watch Series 7 didn’t get the major redesign that had been rumored. Instead, it looks almost identical to previous Apple Watches and maintains compatibility with all previous Apple Watch straps, although there are incredibly subtle changes in its overall size and curves.

There are new color options available, including midnight (which apparently has a hint of blue in it), starlight (a cross between silver and gold), and a dark green. Apple sent me the green one and in most light it just looks gray — but every now and then it’ll pop and look visibly green.

Apple Watch Series 7 (left) and Series 5 (right)

Apple Watch Series 7 (left) and Series 5 (right).

The front glass is thicker and more crack resistant, with a “refractive” edge and smaller bezels.

The front glass is thicker and more crack resistant, with a “refractive” edge and smaller bezels.

The biggest change is the screen; it’s 20 percent larger than the last few iterations of the Apple Watch. It does the thing all screen upgrades tend to do: make the older screen with its larger bezels look small.

When Apple first made the screen bigger way back on the Apple Watch Series 4, I thought it made an appreciable difference in the experience and would even be worth upgrading for. Here, on the Series 7, I just think the screen is really nice and looks better, but isn’t enough to justify an upgrade.

Apple has kept the always-on screen and says that it is brighter in ambient mode when indoors. That is: the overall max brightness hasn’t changed, but when you’re inside, the screen should look a little less dim.

The other design change on the Series 7 is that it’s more durable. The front crystal on all models is thicker and stronger against cracking. (It’s also more refractive, so you can catch a glimpse of some pixels at extreme angles.) The whole watch adds IP6X dust resistance for the first time and maintains the same water resistance to 50 meters.

Apple didn’t add any new health sensors to the Series 7. It still tracks heart rate and has a blood oxygen monitor and EKG. None of these sensors should be used for diagnostic purposes as the Apple Watch is not a medical device.

The Apple Watch Series 7 charges faster but has the same overall battery life.

The Apple Watch Series 7 charges faster but has the same overall battery life.

Apple Watch charging and battery

Apple is still targeting 18 hours of battery life on the Apple Watch Series 7. It’s enough to get through a day — maybe two if you turn off the always-on screen and don’t work out. In my tests, those numbers are borne out. I need to charge the Series 7 only a little less often than I need to charge my old Series 5 (which is starting to lose its battery capacity a bit).

I wish Apple had done more to improve battery life on the Series 7, especially since this is technically a redesign. I would have even taken the same size screen as last year’s model if it had meant getting longer battery life instead. There’s nothing wrong with the Apple Watch’s battery life, but I do wish that it aimed higher like the new iPhones did this year.

Instead, we got faster charging thanks to a redesigned charging puck that also uses USB-C. Lots of people have those wall adapters but may need to pick up a second one (or a multi-charger), since it’s not included in the box. (As an aside, the actual plug part of the Apple Watch charger is longer now, which Apple says is to manage heat.)

The charging is faster. Apple claims it’s 33 percent faster than the older cable and that sounds right to me. I have been able to juice up 20 percent in just ten minutes several times and it has been easier to top off to a full charge in the morning while I putter around with coffee and breakfast. It makes it slightly more convenient to use the watch for sleep tracking since it’s easier to fit a quick charging session in.

Still and all, I would have preferred standard Qi charging to faster charging (if I had to choose). Qi charging mats are cheap and plentiful now, but integrating an Apple Watch charger adds cost and complexity. Older Apple Watch chargers will work just fine with the Series 7, but at the slightly slower charging speed.

There are a few Series 7 exclusive features in WatchOS 8, including a keyboard.

There are a few Series 7 exclusive features in WatchOS 8, including a keyboard.

WatchOS 8

There are a few features in WatchOS 8 that are exclusive to the Series 7, ostensibly because its larger screen makes them possible. The watch can fit just a little more text when reading a message, for example.

The two watchfaces custom to the Series 7 are called “Contour” and “Modular Duo.” The former just puts numbers out on the edges of the screen and would apparently look bad on screens with larger bezels, while the latter allows you to have two full-width complications stacked instead of just one.

The larger screen also allows for a new text-entry option: a miniature keyboard. You can tap or swipe on it and as long as autocorrect is doing its thing correctly, it works fine. It’s about as good as any smartwatch keyboard I’ve used, but I still prefer dictating messages via Siri whenever possible. I wish I could compare it to the FlickType app that was kicked out of the App Store in January 2019, but it’s not back (and there’s a lawsuit pending).

The Modular Duo face lets the Series 7 (right) have two full-width complications.

The Modular Duo face lets the Series 7 (right) have two full-width complications.

The Contour watch face is exclusive to the Series 7.

The Contour watchface is exclusive to the Series 7.

Those are the Series 7-specific features, but WatchOS 8 has a few more things worth covering. It’s able to auto-detect outdoor bike workouts — and in my testing it managed to do that very well, even when I was hitting stoplights at every block. I wish Apple would make it easier to integrate the Watch’s workout data with cadence or power sensors on a bike, but cyclists are still on their own to figure out how to do that.

Apple says it’s also adjusting your calorie metrics if the watch believes you’re riding an e-bike. There’s no setting for it, it just detects if your heart rate is suspiciously low and your speed is remarkably high as you cruise up a hill. There’s also no indicator in your results if your calorie metrics were adjusted.

WatchOS 8 has a redesigned photos app and lets you send photos directly from the watch. It has an updated “Mindfulness” app with a “Reflect” feature that gives you some kind of prompt to meditate on, like “Recall a challenge you’ve overcome” and “Think about what sparks your creative energy.” As you can probably tell from the unnecessary scare quotes in the previous sentence, I don’t like it. I think meditation is a deeply personal — and for many people spiritual or religious — thing, and so I recoil whenever I see tech companies reducing the practice down to anodyne apps.

I’ve left the best for last: the Apple Watch lets you set multiple timers. You can set them in the timer app. You can set them with Siri. You can use Siri to name each timer. You can see all your timers stacked one after the other. It’s magical. It’s wonderful. It’s hilarious that it took until 2021 to make this happen and even more hilarious that the iPhone itself still can’t do it.

Seriously, though, multiple timers on the Apple Watch is great, especially for cooking. It means I don’t need to stay within earshot of the smart speaker in my kitchen if I’ve got something in the oven.

The Apple Watch Series 7 in green.

The Apple Watch Series 7 in green.

I have said this every year for several years now because it’s true every year: the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch for iPhone users, by far. There are fitness trackers that fulfill niches not filled by the Apple Watch like Garmins for more serious athletes or Fitbits for people who want something simpler. But as a general computer-on-your-wrist, the Apple Watch Series 7 is challenged only by older Apple Watches.

If you have one of those older Apple Watches, I don’t think there’s anything here that should compel an upgrade. All the new features are very nice but not necessary. If there is something that’s bothering you about your current watch, then by all means go for it if you can afford it. Also, while the Series 3 is still kicking around for cheap, I don’t think it’s a great buy anymore. The Apple Watch SE is a better value.

There’s no reason that we should have an expectation of major year-on-year updates for the Apple Watch. These smaller iterations might not be what we’ve been hoping for — a big redesign with much more battery — but that doesn’t make the Series 7 bad on its own merits.

It’s a great watch — again, the best smartwatch. If it’s time for you to replace your watch (or buy your first one), you’ll love it. If it’s not time to replace your watch, it’s not time to replace your watch.

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