Apple Watch Series 4: Final Test Results

CR evaluates this smartwatch's step counting, heart-rate tracking, durability, and new features

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New Apple iWatch Series 4 Tercius Bufete/Consumer Reports

The Apple Watch Series 4 gets a big thumbs-up from Consumer Reports' testers, thanks to its growing arsenal of useful features coupled with accurate tracking and durable design.

Like other top models from Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin, the new Apple watch excelled in our heart-rate and step-tracking tests. But the Apple Watch Series 4 also distinguished itself with expanded sports-tracking capabilities and a new sensor that one day soon will allow the watch to take an electrocardiogram (ECG), a recording of your heart's electrical activity.

Apple also managed to stretch the screen toward the edges of the watch face, creating a bigger display for texts, emails, and photos—all while keeping the watch itself relatively similar in size to the Apple Watch Series 3 models.

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But those new features make the Series 4 watches costlier than last year’s models, too.

Prices start at $400 for a 40mm aluminum finish model with GPS. Add cellular connectivity to take phone calls on the go and you're out another $100. And then there are extras such as a larger face and a fancy stainless steel finish.

Too rich for your blood? Don’t worry. Series 3 Apple Watches remain readily available, and the manufacturer has cut the starting price for those to $280.

Before we dig into the final results, it's worth noting that CR recently updated its smartwatch testing protocol to make it better reflect the strengths of watches that have hit the market in recent years. In particular, we’ve added a new Versatility score, which basically evaluates the myriad tasks a given smartwatch can perform.

That allows us to reward models with advanced sensors, novel fitness-tracking features, and other handy improvements with higher scores.

So how did the Apple Watch Series 4 do? Take a look.

New Features

Restyled look: The watch face is not only bigger but also flatter, making it less bulky. And, thanks to sleeker bezels, there's no big, black border surrounding the enlarged display (shown below.)

The difference in size is noticeable right away. I found I could read emails and texts easier. And when I viewed texted pictures of my young nephews, I could now tell who was who. But I have pretty good close-up vision. People who wear reading glasses might still have trouble reading the display without them.

And, like earlier models, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a champ when it comes to readability in bright and low-light situations.

ECG sensor: Apple has yet to turn on this feature—the company says it will happen later this year—so we weren't able to check it out. Once it’s live, though, users will be able to take their own electrocardiogram, store the readings in Apple's Health app, then send them to their doctor. But, though the feature has been cleared for use by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s not intended for use in monitoring people diagnosed with a cardiac condition.

New Apple iWatch Series 4
The face on the Apple Watch Series 4 is bigger and flatter.

Tercius Bufete/Consumer Reports Tercius Bufete/Consumer Reports

Fall detection: The watch’s improved gyroscope and accelerometer can be used to detect when a user falls, trips, or slips, Apple says. The watch will also contact emergency services and notify an emergency contact at your request.

The feature, which is automatically enabled for users 65 and older, proved difficult to test with any rigor, because it's hard to simulate realistic spills. We were able to intentionally trigger an alert once, though, with a fairly intense simulated fall. And we accidentally triggered another alert when a tester tossed the watch into a plastic storage bin. We did not involve emergency responders in either case.

More sports tracking: The watch’s Workout app will now track activities such as yoga and hiking, and it automatically kicks into action when it suspects that you’ve started to exercise.

I take a 2- to 3-mile walk just about every morning. And, in most cases, the app did detect that I was in the midst of an outdoor walk and offer to track it, giving me credit for the time and distance I’d already traveled.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that other smartwatches, including the considerably cheaper Fitbit Versa, have this capability, too.

Test Results

Heart rate and step tracking: The Series 3 Watch was great at monitoring both of these things, so it should come as no surprise that this watch is, too. Every sample we tested earned high marks for accuracy in tracking the two metrics.

Durability: The Series 4 watches also performed well in our scratch and water-resistance tests.

The Ion-X glass on the aluminum finish watches and the Sapphire Glass on the stainless steel versions both earned favorable scores from our testers after we ran picks of various hardness across the watch faces.

And the watches all survived a simulated plunge of about 164 feet in our pressured dunk tank, making good on their promise to be water resistant up to 50 meters, which means it’s okay to take them for a swim.

How CR Tests Smartwatches

From tracking workouts to keeping an eye on texts and emails, people are using smartwatches for everything. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports’ expert Bree Fowler explains to host Jack Rico the scientific methods CR uses to test these popular devices.

Bree Fowler

Bree Fowler

I write about all things "cyber" and your right to privacy. Before joining Consumer Reports, I spent 16 years reporting for The Associated Press. What I enjoy: cooking and learning to code with my kids. I've lived in the Bronx for more than a decade, but as a proud Michigan native, I will always be a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan no matter how much my family and I get harassed at Yankee Stadium. Follow me on Twitter (@BreeJFowler).