The Apple Watch Series 3 was unveiled on 12 Sept 2017, and hit the shops 10 days later. But we're already looking ahead to Apple's next trick: when will the Series 4 be released, and what new features and tech specs should we expect?
In this article we sift through the evidence and predict what new features and technologies the Series 4 will offer (such as a round screen and gesture controls), as well as discussing what we would like to see next.
Three generations in, we're starting to get a feel for Apple's smartwatch launch schedule, which was irregular early on but appears to be settling down into an annual event.
These are onsale launch dates; the first model in particular was announced a long time ahead of this.
- Apple Watch (first-gen): 24 Apr 2015
- Apple Watch Series 1 & Series 2: 16 Sept 2016
- Apple Watch Series 3: 22 Sept 2017
- Apple Watch Series 4: Sept 2018?
There has been a separate rumour that Apple could release a between-full-updates 'S' edition of the Apple Watch: presumably a Series 3S, which would add extra storage options the Series 3 and come out before the Series 4. But until we see concrete evidence, we're not convinced by this.
Apple has kept the same design for three generations in a row (aside from some minor cosmetic tweaks, such as a new material and colour options, and a red spot on the cellular model). Having added a significant new feature in 2017 - cellular connectivity - we think the company will focus instead on an all-new design in 2018.
The longest Apple has stuck to the same design in its iPhone line-up, as a comparison, is three generations, from the iPhone 6 (via the 6s) to the iPhone 7 - the next update featured a major redesign for the iPhone X. Apple may feel that the watch sector is more aesthetically conservative than the phone one, but it would still be a surprise to us if the company broke its record and had four essentially identical smartwatches on the spin.
A recurrent rumour suggests that Apple will give the watch a round face, much like a traditional analogue wristwatch. To be honest we've never much liked the way this approach affects the interface on Android Wear watches (text gets squeezed at top and bottom, and usually ends up unattractively centre-justified), but patent activity suggests that Apple is at least considering the idea.
Patent 9,940,866, for an "electronic device having a display with curved edges" (as spotted by Apple World), argues that "circular displays or other displays with curved edges" would be a more efficient use of space in terms of pixel arrays.
Here's another patent diagram that gives a possible design for a round Apple Watch, although bear in mind that this patent is actually related to a strap tech, which we discuss below.
Lots of Android Wear smartwatches have round faces. The Huawei Watch 2, Moto 360 2 and LG G Watch R all look like traditional watches with completely digital, circular displays and are extremely popular. (Read our comparison of the Apple Watch 2 and Huawei Watch 2 here).
This is the most plausible significant design change, supported by no less than Ming-Chi Kuo, the popular and generally reliable analyst. In a report published in March 2018, he predicted that the Series 4 would have 15 percent more screen space than the Series 3.
It's not clear how this would affect the overall design - namely, whether the chassis would get bigger too, or if Apple would shrink the bezels around the edge. But Kuo also predicts a larger battery capacity, which is usually linked to a larger device body.
The analyst thinks it's going to be a sharp design, however: he forecasts that a "more trendy form factor" will lead to improved sales.
Modular straps or smart bands
This is one of the more prominent rumours we're hearing. The idea is that Apple is considering producing new multi-function smart bands that it will sell with the Watch.
By moving some of the technologies from inside the watch face and into these smart bands Apple would be able to add new features without being as limited by the small size of the Watch face. This would enable Apple to add such features as a camera, or a bigger battery.
A number of patents have appeared suggesting that Apple has been working on this idea for some time. For example, a patent, originally filed in 2015, shows off a design for a band with its own battery.
The band could also house other components in a modular design, with each link performing a separate function. Users would be able to swap out modules depending on their requirements.
Another patent surfaced in May 2017 and was also filed in 2015. That patent is for "Display Module and System Applications", discovered by Patently Apple, shows an Apple Watch with a continuous display running from the watch face through the band. In the description that accompanies the image the patent states: "A flexible display panel #215, #315 (noted above) may be integrated into the smartwatch so that it spans both the watch face and band." This suggests that the watch face could extend into the band.
The patent also describes how a "module within the watch includes a processor and memory" and may also include a module to "communicate with a wide area network including a cellular data network".
Modular strap could also be useful for health monitoring.
Back in 2015, Cook said that while Apple had a keen interest in health-focused products, it decided against adding sensors to the watch because of concerns about FDA approval, which "would hold [Apple] back from innovating too much, the cycles are too long"; although Cook hinted at an accessory or app that could sit alongside it.
"But you can begin to envision other things that might be adjacent to it," he teased. "Maybe an app, maybe something else."
An interchangeable smart band would allow Apple to add health features to the Apple Watch. One area that the company is said to be interested in developing is glucose monitoring, and this could be offered via one of these smart bands. Smart bands should allow Apple to avoid submitting the watch for FDA approval: instead, only the band would need approval.
So perhaps an Apple Watch of the future could move some components into the strap, freeing up the watch face for other technologies.
Thinner & lighter
One of the bonuses of the modular bands described above is that it could free up the watch face, enabling Apple to make that thinner and lighter. (On the other hand, the whole watch could end up heavier if you include the pimped-up strap.)
New display design
Some illustrations in an Apple patent for "Display Module and System Applications," published in May 2017 by the US Patent and Trademark Office and discovered by Patently Apple, show what looks like it could be a new design for the Apple Watch. If you'd like to have an Apple Watch with a continuous display running from the face through the band, you might be pleased.
New wristband design
There are also patents that relate to the design of the wrist band: first spotted by AppleInsider in 2016, Apple has filed a patent for a Magnetic Wristband. The patent details a wristband for the Apple Watch that would feature a set of magnets embedded into it, allowing the two sides to join together.
For consumers, this means that when worn, the magnets would hold the Apple Watch in place (much like Apple's Milanese Loop) - but it's when the watch is taken off that the new band comes into its own.
The strap could be wrapped around the watch, which would suspend the screen in the middle of the straps: ideal for protection when being stored or transported. As well as offering additional protection, the strap could also double up as a stand (ideal for Apple's nightstand mode) as it's been designed to roll up behind the watch, propping it up.
Now you've got a good idea of what the next Apple Watch will look like, we'll look at possible Apple Watch Series 4 hardware features.
More clues from patent activity: patent 9,939,899, which relates to "motion and gesture input from a wearable device", defines various ways in which a smartwatch could sense and respond to user gestures when voice and touch inputs are not practical.
The gestures include a clenched fist and a "hand flap". Via Apple World.
The current Apple Watch can be used as a camera viewfinder so that you can take a remote photograph with your iPhone, but it can't actually take photos itself or make video calls. However, if the rumours about the modular straps are correct, a camera could find its way into the Apple Watch soon.
Apple has patents for a wearable device that features a front-facing camera. It was rumoured to appear in the Series 2 and 3, but the feature wasn't announced. It's likely we could see this feature being included in the next iteration.
Opinions differ on whether this is intended to cater for FaceTime or selfies (or both), and whether it will offer video or just stills photography. The new camera would be integrated into the top bezel of the watch.
This feature does sound interesting, though we're not too sure how many people would actively FaceTime via a watch. It would be painful holding up the wrist for more than a few minutes, for one thing.
Still, Apple has already made its watch partially FaceTime-ready: watchOS 2 brought support for FaceTime audio calls. Does that indicate that it'll soon move on to video calls? Perhaps.
Patently Apple, meanwhile, has spotted an Apple patent that appears to support the inclusion of a selfie camera - a front-facing stills camera, in other words; not necessarily one that's capable of FaceTime video - in an Apple Watch in the future.
Patent 20160174025, which pertains in seemingly broad terms to methods for 'facilitating access to location-specific information using wireless devices', but actually focuses on wearables, contains a reference to digital photography and its use "to capture images of the user". Also see: How to write apps for the Apple Watch.
The idea of a camera on the Apple Watch seemed a bit niche... right up until Apple launched the iPhone X. Now it seems possible that at some point we will get Face ID on our wrists, and be able to unlock the device by just glancing at the built-in camera.
Patently Apple has done some more excellent detective work, spotting two quiet mentions of "user identification" in a lengthy patent application that mostly talks about band sensors but clearly includes the word "camera" in its interface diagram.
It should be pointed out that Apple Watches do not need to be unlocked as often as iPhones: you unlock it once at the start of the day - often by unlocking the paired smartphone - and then it remains unlocked until you take it off. So Face ID is less of a convenience here than on the iPhone X.
Perhaps ancillary elements of the experience such as Animoji and Portrait Mode selfies will be part of the sell, as well as having FaceTime on the watch.
Better battery life
Calls for the Apple Watch battery to improve were answered with the release of the Apple Watch Series 2, which features a battery that should last two days between charges (the original Apple Watch needed charging every day).
Better battery life also opens up more functionality in the Apple Watch, mainly with regards to sleep tracking. One problem with the Apple Watch battery is that the necessity of charging it at night means that people can't use it for sleep tracking. With a longer battery life, users could wear the Apple Watch to bed and get accurate stats about their sleep - information that's pretty popular, judging by the success of sleep-tracking apps such as Sleep Cycle.
Fortunately, it looks like Apple may be taking note. According to Economic Daily News Apple's focus with the Watch 3 is battery life, as per a January 2017 report on 9to5Mac.
New health sensors
Ahead of its original launch back in April 2015, there was a lot of talk regarding Apple's plans for the wearable and specifically that it'd be loaded with health sensors. So far that's not proven to be the case, with heart-rate and activity tracking offering a standard level of fitness tracking, but nothing more. There were reports at the time of launch suggesting that the sensors available at the time just weren't accurate enough - and no risks can be taken when it comes to health monitoring.
In an interview with The Telegraph in November 2015, Tim Cook hinted that the company may make a medically approved device, but it wouldn't be the Apple Watch. Cook explained that the disruption that FDA accreditation would cause to the product release cycle ultimately put him off having the Apple Watch vetted for full-blown health use. Although with this being said, it hasn't completely put him off the idea of building a product for use in the medical world:
"We don't want to put the watch through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process. I wouldn't mind putting something adjacent to the watch through it, but not the watch, because it would hold us back from innovating too much, the cycles are too long. But you can begin to envision other things that might be adjacent to it - maybe an app, maybe something else."
As we discussed earlier in this piece, the company may have found a way around the need for FDA approval, by placing these health related sensors in interchangeable straps that can be worn with the watch.
In December 2017, Bloomberg reported that Apple was working on embedding sophisticated EKG technology in the watch itself (which brings back the FDA issue, so this might be one for the Series 5). Whereas the current watch line-up are capable of monitoring present heart activity and collating past data, this feature would make the watch far more capable at predicting upcoming heart-related problems.
Citing "people familiar with the plan", the site said that one version being tested "requires users to squeeze the frame of the Apple Watch with two fingers [which] then passes an imperceptible current across the person's chest to track electrical signals in the heart and detect any abnormalities like irregular heart rates."
The company is certainly showing interest in health. In December 2015 and January 2016, Apple posted two listings looking for biomedical engineers with a background in "medical, health, wellness and/or fitness sensors, devices and applications". Although there is no mention of the Apple Watch in the listings, it's widely assumed that the roles are related to the listing for a fitness software engineering manager, which went up in November and is specifically for the Apple Watch.
BuzzFeed News also reported that over the last three months, Apple has stolen employees from all over the medical field. An example given by the news outlet is Anne Shelchuk, who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering. Shelchuk left the ultrasound software company ZONARE Medical Systems back in November to work with Apple's health technology team, according to her LinkedIn.
Along with Shelchuk, Apple has reportedly snapped up medical engineer Craig Slyfield, system design engineer Nathan Clark, who has a patent for a device that separates cells, Jay Mung, who worked on sensor algorithms for Medtronic's continuous glucose monitoring systems and Jennifer Hillier, a former exercise physiologist at the University of California.
The company is said to have been investigating ways in which the watch would be able to "non-invasively monitoring blood glucose", according to a CNBC report, and the company is said to have hired 200 health PhDs to help it innovate in this area. Reports suggest that the next Apple Watch could offer blood sugar monitoring.
Whatever design and features the next Apple Watch sports, we assume it'll boast watchOS 5. According to the usual schedule this will be announced at WWDC 2018 in June, and released the following autumn.
watchOS 5 will bring a range of new features and interface tweaks to the Apple Watch. These will be optimised to run best on the new Series 4 hardware, but owners of most or perhaps even all Apple Watch models will be able to upgrade and get the new features for free. This may not be the best of ideas in some case, since our original model has slowed down noticeably since upgrading to watchOS 4 and even our Series 2 is not what it used to be.
It's very early to speculate about the Series 4's innards, but we've heard a couple of credible rumours:
In March 2018 Bloomberg reported that Apple was making and testing MicroLED screens, at a secret facility in California, for possible use in future product updates.
The current line-up uses OLED screens. Switching to MicroLED would offer a number of benefits: screens of this kind are thinner and tougher, and they produce a brighter image while using less power. But it's a new tech and an unproven one, and the screens are harder to make than OLEDs. It may not be a practical choice for this year's update.
Indeed, Dongbu Securities analyst SR Kwon put it more starkly than that: "At this point, this seems to me that Apple wants to show off - it's more look what we can do rather than a realistic alternative."
Liquid crystal polymer antenna
Ming-Chi Kuo has published a report predicting that the liquid crystal polymer (LCP) circuit board tech currently used in the iPhone X and iPhone 8 will be rolled out across the Mac and Apple Watch ranges. In the case of the next watch this will be used in the cellular antenna.
LCP is more resistant to heat and moisture than other technologies, but when used in the antenna it adds the benefits of a more stable frequency signal transmission.
At time of writing, the Apple Watch Series 3 starts at £399 (with cellular) or £329 (without) in the UK; in the US the equivalent figures are the same, only in dollars.
Depending on how radically Apple rethinks the Series 4, we'd expect pricing to remain the same or almost the same when the new models are released; any previous-generation watches that remain on sale will get a juicy price cut.