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Finally, The Apple Watch Is Great For Running, Thanks To LTE And AirPods

Working out sans iPhone is great, and necessary. The new (LTE) Apple Watch Series makes it doable.

Finally, The Apple Watch Is Great For Running, Thanks To LTE And AirPods
[Photos: courtesy of Apple]

The Apple Watch Series 3 (with LTE) combined with the AirPods earbuds, for my money, is the best consumer technology Apple has created in years.

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The main reason the LTE Watch is interesting is not because it’s a phone replacement (it’s not) but because it’s a far more useful workout tool. The new Watch connects with the AirPods earbuds much better, the Workout app is more user-friendly, and the cellular connectivity completely negates the need to drag an iPhone along on workouts.

Bluetooth Pain Before Series 3

Every Apple Watch I’ve tested has been great with heart rate accuracy, step counting, and, in the Series 2‘s case, GPS tracking of runs. But the Series 1 and Series 2 watches I’ve used have been pretty terrible about cueing up the right music at the right times for workouts, and about connecting easily and constantly with the AirPods. The older Watches held only one playlist, and getting my old MP3s transferred from iTunes to the phone to the Watch seemed fraught with pitfalls and friction points (part of that is the fault of iTunes, which I believe is a mess).

After I finally had a playlist ready to go, it was often hard to get the Watch to let go of the phone and play music from the playlist stored in its own memory. I often learned something was wrong only after the Watch went outside the iPhone’s Bluetooth range. This usually happened outside when I was about 10 steps into my run. I’d then have to come back inside and fiddle with everything again.

Connecting the AirPods was also a problem. You had to have the iPhone’s Bluetooth on to get the two to connect, but because of that the AirPods often would stay connected to the phone and not with the Watch. And all this fiddling around came at that crucial time just before a workout when you just need to get yourself out the door and DO IT.  On top of that the AirPods fit only loosely in my ears, causing me to constantly jamming them into place during my run.

Eventually I went back to my old workout set-up, which consisted of single wired Logitech earbud (I cut the left side off) duct-taped to my shirt and powered by an old beat-up iPod Shuffle clipped to my waist band. Not elegant, but sturdy and reliable. I knew the Watch/AirPods was better technology (and certainly better looking), but it was just too much work to make it work.

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Pain Is Over

As I got ready for my run last night, I put my iPhone into airplane mode to shut down its cellular connection. I put my AirPods in. When I selected the music app on the watch a screen popped up asking where I wanted to the music played. I chose “Mark’s AirPods” and music began to play through the earbuds almost immediately. With watchOS 4, your most-played music files (on your phone) are loaded onto your Watch for you. You can still make your own playlists, too.

The AirPods no longer seemed confused about whether to connect to the Watch or the phone. Nor was there confusion about whether the Watch was playing music stored on its own memory or if it was merely remote controlling the playback of music stored on the phone. If there’s music cued up on both the phone and the watch, a Now Playing screen on the Watch asks you which you want to play, and the AirPods seem to connect to the device you choose. As I left the house and left the the iPhone’s Bluetooth range, the music kept right on playing (from the Watch). Now the Watch was helping me work out, not keeping me from it.

Also, during runs, my old Watch, the Series 2 (running watchOS 3) often had trouble maintaining an uninterrupted connection with my AirPods. I’d hear sudden breaks in the music of up to a second in length. Apple must have put a better Bluetooth radio in the new Series 3 watch or, perhaps, made some software changes to strengthen the connection between the Watch and the AirPods. I heard just one tiny breakup about three minutes into my first run with the Series 3, but no more after that.

I placed several calls during that first run–all successful. The person on the other end of the line said my voice sounded clear and loud enough (however, note that there was no wind at the time). My friend’s voice in the AirPods sounded clear and full-bodied, just like on calls placed through my iPhone.

It was also nice to get messages at a glance on the phone during my run. So far I’ve gotten several notes and notifications during runs, none of them important enough to require immediate attention. Had I seen anything urgent, I could have just paused the Workout app and messaged back or called in.

And the LTE Watch + AirPods killer app hasn’t even been turned on yet. Sometime this month Apple will turn on the ability to stream music from Apple Music directly to the Watch to the AirPods. If this works well, cueing up the perfect music for workouts could get still easier, and the possibilities for staying pumped up during workouts will widen a lot.

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LTE Is No Problem

Some of the first reviewers of the Series 3 reported that the Watch was prone to letting go of the LTE network and trying to connect to the internet via public Wi-Fi networks it happened to pass by (such as Starbucks or hotel networks). Apple has now sent out a software update to correct the problem of the Watch jumping onto familiar networks.

Here’s the thing. The LTE radio in the Watch is a battery hog. So the Watch is always looking for ways to let go of the LTE connection and latch on to a Wi-Fi network. Apple engineers were apparently so worried about the Watch’s battery life that they made it pretty much impossible to toggle off the (more power-efficient) Wi-Fi radio and default to the LTE radio.

The Watch prefers to connect to the internet via the paired phone, but when you’re out on a run that’s not a factor. It’s next choice is to connect to a Wi-Fi network that the user’s phone, Mac, or Watch has connected to before. Failing that, it’ll turn on the LTE radio.

For me, once I was away from the house, my Watch stayed ready to connect to LTE. I passed within the range of at least one public Wi-Fi network but the Watch held on to LTE.

As for the battery, I had my Watch on for about six hours of regular use before my first run with it. During the run I made a couple of phone calls and kept the GPS radio on throughout. When I got home, the battery level was at 63%. I can live with that.

When I was done with that run, I stopped a few blocks from home and asked Siri where the nearest Walgreens was. I asked it whether they were still open. She gave me the hours and asked me if I wanted directions to the place. I knew where it was but wanted to make sure the GPS service would guide me there correctly. It did. Just to complete the picture I picked up a water in the store and then used Apple Pay on the Watch to pay for it.

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Looking at my phone later at home, I saw that the route of my run had been correctly mapped by the GPS. Also, watchOS 4 is doing more with the heart rate sensor data now. You can see your resting heart rate, your heart rate during runs, and the rate at which your heart rate returns to normal afterwards. All of this data is transferred into the Health app, where I keep my dietary and sleep data.

The new Exercise app in watchOS 4 is a real step up. I clicked the app open once I got outside, hit “Outdoor Run,” and the countdown started. You don’t have to tap “Start” anymore. While you’re running, you can swipe to the left to bring up the music controls (in case a bummer song comes on), or swipe to the right to pause or end the workout or lock the controls.

The app works well with the AirPods. Instead of feeling little buzzes on my wrist when I passed a mile on my run, I heard pleasant little synthetic bells in my ears. Yes, the little things matter. They contribute to the more polished feel of the whole experience.

Now my only pain point with the Watch+AirPods combo for running is that I have to put little foam covers around the AirPods to make them fit snugly inside my ears. Otherwise they rattle around in my ears or even fall out. No big deal, as long as everything else works.

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I believe running and other forms of workouts are the best use case for the LTE connected Watch. I know people who run with the big iPhone forearm sleeve, but I hate the feel of them and I hate the weight of the device on my arm. Leaving the phone at home (and the sleeve in the garbage can) is great.

There are many other life scenarios (driving to work, mowing the lawn, going shopping, etc.) where having your phone along with you just isn’t a problem. That’s why I think the new LTE Watch is best understood as a more autonomous fitness device, and I expect Apple to keep marketing it that way.

We’ll know after the first of next year how many runners and fitness types think the Watch’s new cellular tricks are worth the $399 starting price. I’m guessing large numbers of them will.