Coming as a surprise to absolutely no one, the Apple Watch Series 7 is the best smartwatch out there. The thing is, in 2021, that’s not really saying much. Apple has a years-long lead on its smartwatch competition, so the new Apple Watch is really competing against past versions of itself.
That’s how you get this paradox: The Series 7 is the best smartwatch you can buy and also probably the least exciting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worn the Series 7 for about a week now and it’s been great. But while the Series 7 is an upgrade from its predecessors, you don’t necessarily feel that when you’re using the device every day. In many ways, it’s almost like using the Series 6 or the Series 5. The question of whether the Series 7 is worth it depends on whether you want the best smartwatch possible — or whether you want to hold out for an interesting one.
Sight for Sore Eyes
I have garbage eyesight. Without glasses I can’t see two inches in front of me, I’ve got severe astigmatism, and at coffee shops, I have to take a picture of the menu and zoom in on my phone. My eye doctor shrugged when she wrote my latest prescription. Some people, she said, have to settle for as close to 20/20 as they can get. In short: I need big text, and I cannot lie.
The Series 7’s larger display is the Big Upgrade this time around and it was made for people like me. It’s got 20% more screen real estate than the Series 6, and the bezels are 40% thinner at 1.7mm. I wasn’t completely sold when Apple announced the news, even though I knew I’d likely benefit. Bezels get smaller each year — big whoop. But after actually using the Series 7, I deeply appreciate the expanded screen real estate.
The larger screen means I can really crank up the text size — and that in turn has made it so much easier for me to read my notifications and messages at a glance. My eyes are thankful, and I don’t have to squint at my wrist so much. It also enables a pint-sized QWERTY keyboard for texting, a feature that’s exclusive to the Series 7. It’s still too small to type accurately, but that’s not a major issue because of autocorrect. I suspect most people will still prefer using Siri to dictate texts, but I appreciated this for shooting off messages that aren’t included in quick replies. I’d still grab my phone for longer texts, though. One odd thing: If you have your phone on hand when using the keyboard, a notification will pop up on your phone that leads to a small window where you can more easily correct typos or write. Which… kind of defeats the purpose?
There are also two new watch faces that specifically make use of the larger screen: Modular Duo, which adds a second large complication, and Contour, which wraps the clock numbers around the edges. I’m a big fan of the former. The more complications, the better.
Rumours leading up to the Series 7’s launch indicated this would be the biggest redesign the Apple Watch has seen, but the reality is more subdued. The case sizes have marginally increased from 40mm to 41mm on the smaller watch and 44mm to 45mm on the larger. Thankfully, you can still use your older straps. Side by side, it’s hard to tell the difference between my Watch SE and the Series 7 in terms of size. You can, however, see the Series 7’s thinner bezels more clearly. Instead of the flat edges that were rumoured, we ended up with slightly more rounded edges. Apple revamped the colours, so now we have Midnight (it’s black), Starlight (it’s basically silver), green, red, and blue. My review unit was the green watch, but it’s much subtler in person than the renders would have you believe. Under most lighting, it looked black unless the sunlight hits it at just the right angle.
Otherwise, the Series 7 doesn’t really add any new sensors. The S7 chip does make some changes to the S6, but more in how elements on the SiP are arranged. You’re basically getting the same processor performance as the Series 6. The Series 7 is also supposedly more durable and is the first with an IPX6 rating. I have yet to destroy an Apple Watch, but it did survive multiple showers, dish and hand washing, and a few tumbles to the floor from my butterfingers.
Battery life is an estimated 18 hours, so the dream of a multi-day Apple Watch remains just that. In practice, I got a maximum of about 24 hours on a single charge with roughly an hour of GPS activity and the always-on display enabled. The Series 7 adds fast charging, but only if you use the charging cable included in the box. It’s a handy feature, especially if you want to use the Apple Watch for sleep tracking. You can top off for about 10-15 minutes before bed and it’ll last you through the night. It doesn’t change the fact that you have to be strategic about when you charge your Apple Watch, but you do get more wiggle room.
Excellent Fitness and Health-Tracking
watchOS 8 has a distinct focus on mindfulness. So much so that the Breathing app has been replaced by the Mindfulness app, which encourages you to take part in Reflect sessions and Audio Meditations on Fitness+. (You can still do breathing sessions, too.) Like Time to Walk sessions, you can play the Audio Meditations directly from the wrist so long as you have a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Sessions range from five to 20 minutes, and centre on topics like “kindness,” “gratitude,” and “focus.” I am not into woo-woo stuff, but it’s been a stressful two years. If it helps you to set intentions or reflect on “one thing that made you grateful,” then these are useful tools. It’s also in line with a trend toward more mindful wearables, as we’ve seen with features introduced by Oura Ring and Fitbit.
In terms of workouts, a new Pilates algorithm makes tracking those sessions more accurate, and there’s also a new Pilates section in Fitness+. If you happen to practice tai chi, you can track that more accurately now, too. What’s probably most useful are new cycling algorithms, which have been tweaked to better differentiate between e-bikes and regular bikes (the latter of which burn more calories when you ride them than the electric kind do). I didn’t really have a way to test this, but I guess that’s good news for cyclers who prize hyper-accuracy. I did risk my life to test the addition of automatic cycling-tracking — I should never be allowed near bicycles — and I’m happy to say it works.
Like the Series 6, the Series 7 lets you track blood oxygen levels and take federally-cleared ECGs. Heart rate and GPS tracked during two outdoor runs and three outdoor walks were right on par with my phone and Polar H10 chest strap. Apple continues to refine Fitness+ with new classes, but it hasn’t changed how it interacts with the Apple Watch itself. In the Health app, you can also now see your respiratory rate, but sleep tracking remains disappointingly basic.
One nice Health app update is Trends. The Health app has generally been a dumping ground of metrics, and that’s fine if you’re a self-quantifying nerd. However, Trends contextualizes metrics like Active Energy, Cardio Fitness, Walking Average Heart Rate, etc., and notifies you if there’s been a significant change over a certain period of time.
The other thing I dug was how the Apple Watch now interacts with iOS 15’s Focus modes. It is a small update, but I cannot tell you how much I love the fact that starting a workout or Fitness+ class will automatically trigger Fitness Mode. I hate getting interrupted by texts, notifications, and calls mid-run, so this was an A+ integration in my book.
Most of these are software updates, however. That means any Apple Watch that supports watchOS 8 will get the majority of these features. Of course, it’ll run better on newer watches, but it’s worth noting that very few things are exclusive to the Series 7.
Is It Worth Upgrading?
The last time the Apple Watch really made us sit up and take notice was with the Series 4, which introduced FDA-cleared electrocardiograms for diagnosing atrial fibrillation, and also increased the screen size for the first time. Ever since then, we’ve seen moderate updates that are great, but overall incremental year-to-year. The Series 5 brought us the always-on display, the Series 6 added the SpO2 sensors, and the budget-oriented Watch SE was arguably novel in that it offered a bunch of features for less than the flagship watches. And now, the Series 7 adds a bigger screen and faster charging.
These incremental updates add up over time. If you have a Series 3 or 4 and upgrade to the Series 7, you’ll absolutely have a brand new experience. All of a sudden, you’ll get SpO2 readings, an always-on screen, faster charging, speedier performance, and a bigger display. (Though, personally, I’d probably hold out for the Series 8.) If you have a Series 5 or 6, it’s not really worth upgrading — unless you’re someone with low vision or suffer from eye strain. Then I’d say the bigger text sizes and display are worth the investment. If you’ve never used a smartwatch and want to test the waters, I still recommend the cheaper Watch SE.
We’re at an interesting point in time when it comes to wearable technology. There’s so much more potential, from health tech advances to ambient computing. Hell, Apple itself is rumoured to be adding a body temperature sensor for fertility-tracking to the Series 8 and is said to be working on blood glucose-monitoring and blood pressure-tracking for future watches. Smartwatches have been shown to be capable of early detection of infectious diseases. But many of these advances haven’t come to pass yet due to technological limitations and regulatory restrictions. As a result, year-to-year updates are likely to be iterative in the short term. This is especially true with the Apple Watch, which as mentioned earlier, has a years-long lead on much of its smartwatch competition. (Though Samsung is doing its damnedest to close that gap.)
The Series 7 is still an excellent smartwatch. It’s just not redefining the smartwatch category, which is perhaps too lofty a goal for Apple to hit every single year (or even every other year). If you want the best smartwatch for iOS users, you’ll be very happy with the Series 7. If you want a more exciting watch, hold out for the Series 8. There’s no guarantee it’ll be drastically different, but there’s at least the chance for a truly noteworthy update. Plus, next year’s smartwatch will always be at least a little better.