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Comment: Apple Watch Series 3 could solve these problems with a cellular option

The challenges and benefits of a cellular Apple Watch is something I’ve considered throughout different pieces before, but I haven’t always been sure one actually needs to exist yet. I’ve continued thinking about this possibility, however, and now a cellular option is at the top of my wish list for the Apple Watch Series 3. A cellular option could solve specific problems that the faster, GPS-equipped Apple Watch Series 2 hasn’t resolved.

At a high level, a cellular option for Apple Watch offers two things: greater independence from iPhone and less redundancy for features. Cellular connectivity is the main reason you need an iPhone to make Apple Watch stay connected away from Wi-Fi. Some tasks that are convenient on Apple Watch can be done on the iPhone that’s required to use it too; greater independence means less redundancy and more purpose.

More specifically, cellular connectivity could greatly improve the audio playback experience on Apple Watch.

Right now it takes a long time to sync music to Apple Watch for offline playback (not to mention the arbitrary restrictions that are in place). You can’t just buy a new Apple Watch, quickly sync a playlist, and go for a run with that music and no iPhone in under half an hour. Expect the process to take hours.

You also can’t sync music from iPhone to Apple Watch without a (good) Wi-Fi connection. Play an album in the car from Apple Watch and want to pick up from Apple Watch during a run without iPhone? Not happening unless you already synced that album.

Apple could develop a much faster transfer process (and should), but offering a cellular option could enable streaming any Apple Music from over the Internet to Apple Watch paired with AirPods or other Bluetooth audio. That solves syncing duration, the playlist restriction, and choosing what to sync by approaching the problem from a different direction.

You can’t sync podcasts to Apple Watch yet either. I believe that’s because podcast feeds update so frequently, syncing playback position is a challenge, and syncing large audio files really does take a long time. A cellular option that supported podcast episode streaming addresses all of these challenges.

Same situation with audiobooks, only the audio length can be dramatically longer. Syncing playback position and streaming over cellular to Apple Watch could work especially if you’re only streaming during workouts or brief trips away from your iPhone.

Apple Watch Series 2 added an embedded GPS that enables offline location tracking for outdoor workouts like running, cycling, and swimming.

I wasn’t sure I would use this feature since going on an outdoor workout with just Apple Watch means missing important phone calls and messages from iPhone. My default outdoor run no longer involves the iPhone, however, since running with just the Apple Watch is less of a hassle.

I haven’t missed any emergency alerts yet, but the thought still concerns me when I’m offline. This limitation is surely a deal breaker for other people. I wouldn’t want every phone call and text message to interrupt me during an outdoor workout, but Apple’s Do Not Disturb rules of only letting favorited contacts and repeated contact attempts pass through would work fine.

People already think you can make phone calls and send and receive messages from Apple Watch from anywhere without iPhone. Blame Dick Tracy. If it were actually possible, safety would increase and I wouldn’t find myself explaining the iPhone requirement limitation when people ask about Apple Watch.

If Apple does introduce a cellular option with Apple Watch Series 3 this year, how would they charge for the hardware and how would you pay for the data?

My guess is we would see models with cellular and models without cellular just like we see with iPads today. Not everyone will want the cellular option and including the extra hardware will be more expensive. Apple already segments the Apple Watch lineup by price with Series 1 and Series 2 with the primary difference being the GPS.

A 42mm Apple Watch Series 2 currently starts at $399; Apple could maintain that price point with an aluminum Apple Watch Series 3 but offer a cellular option at $529. That’s still cheaper than the base stainless steel version at $599 which could include cellular for $729.

Payment could also work like iPads today. For example, I can pay my carrier $10/month as an access fee to connect a cellular iPad to my account and use my 15GB data pool. There are also a lot of “unlimited” data plans popping up now which could be a factor.

In terms of data consumption, my personal usage could work with my existing data pool. I would usually have my iPhone with me, but during the 30 to 60 minute outdoor workouts with Apple Watch, the data would be useful.

Relying on iPhone for the majority of the day and Apple Watch with a small but important fraction of the day would also help with battery life.

If you used Apple Watch on its own all day long for cellular data consumption, you would certainly use more data from your pool and knock out your battery much faster. But relying on the cellular connection for an hour a day could probably work within today’s battery life constraints before factoring in more efficient processors coming in the future.

Apple Watch gaining cellular has been rumored before but obviously hasn’t shipped yet. Now that I’ve seen the benefits of a faster, GPS-equipped Apple Watch Series 2 over the last several months, cellular coming to Apple Watch Series 3 is on the very top of my wish list.

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Avatar for Zac Hall Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news for 9to5Mac and hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour and 9to5Mac Watch Time podcasts.