I have always been a Garmin and Suunto kind of guy. Big burly looking trail watches with endless amounts of battery life were my thing. I loved the fact that I could run a 100k and still have battery left at the end. I also like toting around a 90-gram anchor as a badge of honor, to show everyone I was an endurance runner. The Apple Watch was never my thing. Too square, too thin, too light, no battery life, and too “mainstream.” But I also am a curious tech nerd and when I heard the Apple Watch 4 had a heart rate sensor good enough to take an ECG (electrocardiogram) and had to see it for myself. I also read reviews stating that its battery was much improved as well as its GPS tracking. So, I headed down to my local Apple Store and purchased the Nike Apple Watch 4 Cellular version in silver colored aluminum.
For my review, I won’t go into all the things the Apple watch will do for you on a daily basis. Just think of it as a tiny iPhone on your wrist. It does voice-to-text, has Siri, stores pictures, your calendar, gives you the weather, etc, etc. What I do want to discuss is its performance as a heart rate tracker, health device, and running watch.
First of all, for a heart rate monitor, there is nothing better in my opinion other than possibly a heart rate strap around your chest. In my testing over the last couple of months, I have found the Apple Watch 4 to be simply incredible. I have worn it on long trail runs, short interval sessions, hill repeats, and road runs. And every time it seems to work wonderfully. In fact, no longer do I take a heart rate strap with me on high-intensity running sessions because the sensor on the Apple Watch 4 does great. And does it take a legitimate ECG? In my opinion, the results look incredible. I even showed my doctor my Apple Watch ECG and he agreed it looked spot on. It’s really too bad Suunto or Garmin didn’t create an HR sensor like the Apple Watch because neither company has produced much to write home about. If you are someone who really loves to train according to heart rate, the Apple Watch 4 could be what you are looking for.
As far as battery life, I have had great results with the Apple Watch 4. In my testing, I am seeing roughly a 6-7 hour battery life with GPS and HR sensor enabled. This is also with the Bluetooth on and cellular service enabled. When you carry your iPhone, the AW4 uses your phone’s GPS for tracking and I am seeing about 10 hours or more of battery life. So far I haven’t been on any training run where I needed more battery life from the watch. I also tend to use my Airpods for music, but this significantly degrades battery life. You can probably expect a bit over 3 hours of music play while using the GPS on the AW4. However, if you are carrying your iPhone, you can use the watch as a controller of your playlists, thus giving you 8-10 hours of watch battery life. I recently ran 2 hr 40 min on the trail with GPS and music streaming from my iPhone in my pack, and the watch burned roughly 30% of its battery. Even streaming music from the watch itself (16 GB capacity) and running, I have not had a training run to date where I ran out of battery. In short, for most runners out there the AW4 has plenty of battery for day to day training. My daily routine usually includes about 1.5 hours of running with GPS and music. With normal use of the watch, I am still seeing about 20% battery left when I go to bed and put it on its charger. One thing to note, you can recharge the AW4 while recording an activity, so if you plan to go long or race an Ultra, you can recharge the watch on the go. This is a huge plus over earlier AW versions.
As far as GPS accuracy is concerned, my AW4 seems to track as good or better than any Garmin or Suunto I own. Apple advertises the AW4 as having GLONASS as well as Galileo satellite reception, the same as the other new sports watches out there. I have run around buildings, tall trees, and canyons, and have not seen a GPS drop out to date. I also use Stryd with my AW4 and it works very well with the iRunsmooth App. I feel the AW4 does a great job as a trail watch and tracks location and elevation data quite well. The AW4 has a barometric altimeter onboard, and in my testing, the altimeter is very accurate. On all my know courses I have run, the vertical gain always comes out very close to what it should read. Another great thing about the AW4 is mapping. I use an app called WorkOutDoors. It allows you to download maps in the areas you plan on running. This includes fairly detailed trail maps that I have found very useful. You can also plan routes with EasyRoute and upload them to WorkOutDoors when running in unfamiliar territory. I recently found this useful on a run around town in Billings, MT. If are a Strava user, you can use the Strava App on the AW4 to record your runs, but I have found that the app lacks data field customization. The WorkOurDoors App really gives you the freedom to display running parameters that look and feel like a Garmin or Suunto watch.
As far as a health monitoring device, I feel the AW4 is the best watch out there. It monitors all your health parameters and stores it on your iPhone. It keeps a history of your heart rate, resting heart rate, HRV (heart rate variability), and VO2 Max. You can take an ECG with the AW4 as well, but you must be very still while holding a finger on the crown of the watch for 30 seconds. It then stores the ECG on your iPhone and you can email it directly to your doctor or print out the pdf graph to examine later. The AW4 also looks at your HR 1 min and 2 min after you complete an exercise, so you can see how fast you recover from a workout. Another nice thing about the Health App on your iPhone is that you can tell it to import your workouts from your Garmin or Suunto apps, so it can be a log of all your activities regardless of the device you use. I run with a Garmin, a Suunto, and the AW4 but my Health App keeps everything in one spot which is quite handy.
In summary, the AW4 has really surprised me. I find myself almost always choosing it as my daily running device, and I always wear it as a daily timekeeper. The 16GB of onboard music synced from iTunes really is great for running when combined with Bluetooth headphones. It works great with my Stryd pod too. There are also excellent apps to download for running, with WorkOutDoors and iSmoothRun being my two favorites. The Strava App is convenient but pretty basic in its format. The Workout App that comes installed on the watch works well too, but it smoothes out your GPS track too much for the typical trail runner. The heart rate is always spot on as well, so it can be an amazing training tool if you are someone who relies on HR for your training targets. The battery life seems to be enough for almost all my training runs, still leaving me enough battery to finish the day before I head to bed around 10 pm. It collects your heart rate data and activity data in the Health App on your iPhone and is very handy to look at when monitoring your resting HR, steps, resting and active calorie burn, and many other parameters. And as far as convenience is concerned, the AW4 takes the cake. You can answer the phone on your watch while out on a run, reply to texts, check the weather, look at a map, and stream your iTunes music to name only a few. It’s also very lightweight, comfortable, and unassuming. You can wear it to the office, swimming, running, or hiking. You can also quickly change the straps on it to fit any occasion. It pretty much can do everything when putting it to the challenge, but you might feel a bit naked without your 90 gram Garmin or Suunto dangling off your wrist for everyone to notice. I know I do. But then I just put my Airpods back in, look at the gorgeous screen on my Apple Watch 4, and keep running. And I may just order a pizza to pick up after my run, right from my wrist.