Last year it was waterproof. What happens next?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple’s September 12 event will undoubtedly be dominated by the iPhone. But let’s not forget: a new Apple TV and new Apple Watch are widely expected to be unveiled, too. While smartwatches seem to have gone into a slumber lately, many companies have suddenly gotten back in the game: Fitbit has a new fitness smartwatch. Garmin’s got one, too. Samsung’s beefed up its watch line with overdue and practical improvements (and removed a few too).

That’s where smartwatches are right now: practical features rather than jaw-dropping ideas. Maybe that’s a good thing, since smartwatches seem like the least practical gadget in the tech menagerie. This week’s Red Sox cheating scandal involving Apple Watches triggered the much-repeated joke that, well, at least someone’s found a use for them.

Smartwatches are really, really hard to enthusiastically recommend to the average person. They don’t do a ton that’s essential, especially in comparison to a phone. And that’s maybe what Apple could focus on with the next watch. Practical things. And if there are stand-alone phone functions in the new Apple Watch, they’re going to have to feel a lot less gimmicky than the ones I’ve tried on other smartwatches.

To that end: Here’s what we know about the next Apple Watch, what we expect, and what I’d still like to see.

Known: WatchOS 4 improvements

We have no idea if there’s a new Apple Watch at all, but Apple is definitely improving the software on existing models. WatchOS 4 was previewed in June and should arrive this fall with a bunch of improvements. Some notable ones:

It’ll be a better iPod. WatchOS 4 promises an overhauled way of syncing music to the Apple Watch, which is good, because most people have no idea how to put music on it in the first place. To date, smartwatches have all been pretty terrible at storing and transferring music, but the competition in ramping up: Fitbit’s Ionic has Pandora, Samsung’s Gear Sport will have Spotify support and Android Wear watches have added Google Play music. The Apple Watch is no iPod, but it could approach being a good Nano stand-in. That’s doubly important now that Apple killed the bulk of its iPod line earlier this year.

GymKit: Tapping to connect to things. Watch OS 4 also adds GymKit, which will enable Apple Watches to sync to NFC-equipped gym equipment, allowing treadmills, elliptical machines and cycles to show watch readouts on their screens, almost like CarPlay for the gym. But what about other appliances, or cars, or doors? Could Apple enable tap-to-connect functions for the watch? Maybe it stays with GymKit this year, but it could be the key to making the Apple Watch a key down the road.

Siri mode. There’s a new Siri watch face with Google Now-like notification cards for daily reminders and heads-up info. Will it really help Apple Watch be more of an assistant? We’ll see.


Samsung Gear S3 had LTE phone functions a year ago.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Expected: Phone-free with LTE

The only big rumor about the next Apple Watch is that it will fold in LTE connection and a cellular antenna, finally turning the Apple Watch into an iPhone-free device.

Other smartwatches have added standalone phone functions over the last few years. I’ve worn most of them. Samsung’s Gear S3 and the LG Watch Sport are the most recent. But they often feel like downgrades: Battery life is worse, they’re bulkier, and the phone functions feel pointless.

How will Apple answer these issues? Maybe the Apple Watch Series 3 is a specialist step-up device, doubling down on being a runner’s watch. (Like iPads, a non-cellular model would almost certainly still be available.) Maybe Apple pushes the idea of instant assistance for medical emergencies, or as an emergency-ready phone for children. (All three of those are among the increasingly narrow use cases for people who don’t always carry a phone.) On that latter example, the Watch could possibly double as a kid tracker for parents: Qualcomm is developing wearables that are advancing always-on tracking features and longer battery life.

Can Apple allow a phone-enabled Apple Watch to not drain battery? And can Apple avoid the extra monthly charge for LTE-connected watches that carriers normally require? I ask this because I don’t think it’s worth paying 5-10 dollars a month for a phone-enabled watch. But maybe Apple’s marketing muscle could be focused on justifying that monthly bill hike by by pitching Apple Watch as Apple’s most affordable, smallest iPhone.


New watchfaces, please.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What I want

The Apple Watch has clear areas for improvement. Here are a few I’d like to see.

Better battery, or more efficient one. Last year, Apple added swim-tracking and breathing exercises to the Apple health picture. This year, sleep tracking seems overdue. Other trackers can track and analyze sleep, and the only thing holding the Apple Watch back is having enough battery life. Could the new watch eke out 3 days of battery life somehow and make sleep tracking possible? If the watch can better switch between lower-powered modes for fitness and watch and only activate others when needed, maybe the watch could survive a few days longer on a charge. Fitbit’s newest Ionic watch lasts longer, and so did last year’s Samsung Gear S3.

Where’s that watch face store? Every other smartwatch I can think of has watch face store: Samsung, Android Wear, even Pebble and the upcoming Fitbit Ionic. Apple doesn’t. It’s time to change that. New watch faces are cosmetic but also practical. They’re about design and function, depending on the new display ideas and complications and information they could supply. Watch faces are the most important part of a smartwatch. Apple’s collection of faces aren’t enough for me. If a store launched with a chance to add plenty of new faces, it would impact my daily Apple Watch use more than any other software update. I don’t use apps much, but I live off my watch face.

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A lower price. Cellular-enabled iPads cost $130 more than equivalent Wi-Fi models. If Apple Watch follows the same pricing model, that would put a 42mm LTE model north of $500 — ouch. In a perfect world, a 42mm “Series 3” model would include the LTE feature at the existing $399 price point, while existing Series 2 and even Series 1 models would get a price cut. To date, they’re still more expensive than they ultimately should be. 

Better wireless range. Maybe Bluetooth 5 could help next-gen Apple Watches stay connected better at longer distances from iPhones, although that may not be needed if there’s also onboard LTE.

Could it be round? I like round watches better. Odds are slim that Apple makes the next Apple Watch round. But you never know.

We’ll be at Apple’s September 12 event: follow along with us, and we’ll see soon enough what happens.

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