Our quick verdict on the Apple Watch Series 3 as a fitness tracker

More than two years since the original watch was announced, last month Apple finally launched the next generation of its wearable. The Apple Watch Series 3 as its called, delivers solid improvements over its predecessor, including a few updates which make it more useful for health and fitness tracking.

The first generation of the watch was a little pricey to buy purely for its activity monitoring features and this was a very big problem when viewing it as a fitness device. The watch was far too basic, and too expensive, to be considered as a rival to some of the dedicated fitness trackers on the market. It did, however, offer a gateway to the large proportion of the public that had not yet considered actively monitoring their health and fitness activity.

Version 2 delivered a 50% faster processor, a brighter screen, and most importantly GPS and waterproofing. That made it a more serious threat to the likes of Fitbit and Garmin. In many ways, it was what the 2015 version should have been.

This year we got a few more useful updates, including LTE compatibility, a faster processor/wireless chip and a barometric altimeter. What has remained constant throughout all three generations, however, is the battery life. With around 18-24 hours worth of juice, users still need to charge it pretty much every day. This means the watch does not track sleeping, with short battery life this feature would be kind of pointless.

In terms of fitness, the third generation device now tracks floors climbed and estimates your altitude, an obvious omission from the first two generations. This will no doubt be useful when it comes to tracking your ski workouts.

Other important changes are to do with the heart rate sensor. Thanks to an operating system update and a new complication, you are now be able to see your current heart rate just by raising your wrist. There is the addition of a “recovering heart rate” which shows how fast your heart rate drops after a workout, and the watch will alert you when it detects an abnormal spike in your readings.

For the first time, the Apple Watch is also able to tell you your resting heart rate. It is baffling that it took Apple three years to come up with this last one as its perhaps the most important indicator of your health and fitness.

Despite all these upgrades, the device still sits somewhat uncomfortably between an all purpose smartwatch and a sports-watch/fitness tracker. Sure the GPS means you can leave your phone behind when you go for a jog, but if you are a serious runner you are probably better off with a dedicated GPS sports-watch. This will provide you with more advanced performance analytics.

Sure, the water resistance means the watch will count laps, track average lap pace and auto-detect stroke type to measure active calorie burn. But again, while all this is excellent to have, if you are a serious swimmer and want more accurate data there are better options out there.

Essential reading: Top 10 GPS watches for running and training

What Apple has done this year is close the gap to dedicated fitness trackers. For the first time you get an altimeter and advanced heart rate analytics, along with a few other updates.

But the biggest obstacle to the Apple Watch becoming a true 24/7 fitness tracker remains battery life. With only 18-24 hours of juice, the Apple Watch is far behind its competitors. For example, most Garmin’s fitness tracker‘s and sports watches keep going at least a week between charges, and Fitbit is hovering around that mark as well.

Essential reading: Best fitness trackers and health gadgets you can buy today

Outside of sleep tracking, there are notable omissions such as Vo2Max, stress monitoring and active coaching. In an ever-expanding market, wearables manufactures will need to go beyond just displaying health metrics and look to provide much more meaningful analysis of our vitals data.

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Apple Watch Series 3
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Having said all this, you do need to keep in mind that Apple Watch offers many other things in addition to being a fitness tracker. Its health and fitness features should therefore be viewed as a bonus rather than the sole reason for purchase. Especially when you factor in the price. As a fully featured smartwatch, no device comes even close to the Apple Watch.

As a dedicated fitness tracker and sports watch? It is clear that with each passing year Apple is closing the gap on the likes of Fitbit and Garmin. The third generation device does a good job, but if you are after a fitness tracker or sports watch, there are better and more cost effective options out there. Even with the waterproofing, built-in GPS, an altimeter, and more advanced heart rate analytics, the Apple Watch still has a way to go.

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