Time to go for bigger screen, ECG, fall detection

Time to go for bigger screen, ECG, fall detection

  19 Sep 2018

Funny thing about the handsome new Apple Watch Series 4 I’ve been wearing on my wrist for several days. You hope you never actually need to use some of its most noteworthy features. And yet these features – fall detection, an ECG – are primary reasons for considering Apple’s latest timepiece.

At the risk of stereotyping, it’s safe to assume that Apple is grabbing at an older demographic, customers who, by and large, may have been more dismissive of earlier smart watches.

As with most Apple products, Apple Watches don’t come cheap. The Series 4 starts at $399 and can climb to $1,249 on higher, for a version with watch faces and bands designed by Hermes. 

More: Apple Watch heart monitoring and fall detection: Are they lifesavers?

More: iPhone XS and XS Max review: Apple’s beautiful big-screen beasts exact a small ransom

My review presented challenges. Did I really want to go all Chevy Chase and land awkwardly just to prove the new fall detection feature works the way Apple says it does?  (If I’m dating myself, Chase, as an original SNL cast member, made his career out of his pratfalls.) Actually no.

But the watch does leverage an accelerometer and gyroscope to detect hard falls, factoring in the acceleration during an impact and the trajectory of your wrist. 

It’s after such a fall that the watch can come to the rescue. If you conk your head and black out after slipping or tripping, or are otherwise injured and unable to respond, the watch can automatically dispatch an SOS 911 call and message designated contacts with your location.

To help prevent accidental 911 calls, you’ll start to hear ever-louder beeps 45 seconds after the fall occurs – much like those home-based medical emergency systems – alerting you that the 911 call is about to made.

Now consider another feature you would just as soon never encounter – though you’re glad it is available just in case. The Apple Watch can send an alert if your heart rate drops to a dangerously low level, 40 bpm for at least 10 minutes by default. In fact, this new feature came to all Apple Watch models, not just the Series 4, through the watchOS 5 software update that was made available earlier this week. (Last year’s watchOS update gave you an alert if your heart rate was too high). 

 

A third new health feature, which does require Series 4, won’t turn up until later this year. It is the FDA-cleared app that will let you take an electrocardiogram or ECG from your wrist. ECGs measure the timing and strength of the electrical signals that keep your heart pumping. 

You’ll activate the ECG feature by placing your finger on the digital crown. Electrodes are built into the digital crown and back sapphire crystal. According to Apple, the process takes about 30 seconds, after which the ECG will classify your heart rhythm as either normal (sinus rhythm) or irregular (atrial fibrillation).

I question how this will work with real people in the real world. Will there be a high incidence of false positives? Will consumers even understand the results? The onus is on Apple to make this simple and to explain it in terms that won’t freak watch wearers out. A waveform will be sent to the Health app on your iPhone, which you can share as a PDF with your doctor. 

There’s also controversy about the value of the ECG screens themselves, but I’ll leave that debate for now to medical professionals.

Beyond health

While the aforementioned health features are important and even potential lifesavers, I suspect most would-be Series 4 buyers or upgraders are looking to the basic features that have been at the core of the Apple Watch since day one: tracking fitness workouts, glancing at notifications, paying for stuff through Apple Pay. 

Aside from the new health features, one reason I’m seriously thinking about an upgrade comes with an edge-to-edge display that provides more than 30 percent extra screen real estate, whether you opt for the bigger 44mm case or the 40mm version. On a modest size screen, 30 percent is a lot, and the payoff for consumers comes with larger text and bigger buttons (again, a potential boon for older people).

The new watch feels zippier, too; there’s an updated processor. The speaker is considerably louder, as well, a benefit when you’re listening to Siri or communicating via the new Walkie-Talkie app that arrived with watchOS 5. The Walkie-Talkie app – each person presses an onscreen button on their respective watch screens to talk – might come in handy when it is better to convey something by voice rather than text. 

Phone calls are louder, too – though, frankly, I still struggled to hear my wife during a call in my car, and struggled as well during another call when I was indoors.

One nice new watchOS 5 feature worth highlighting – all Apple Watch models can take advantage – is that the Workout app can detect a potential workout even if you haven’t launched the app. This kicked in the other day when I got a notification to start a workout just because I was walking briskly to try and catch a bus. If you do launch the Workout app when you receive such a notification, you’ll get retroactive credit for the calories you burned, the steps you took and so on, from the time the watch detected your pumped up activity.

Along these lines, the software will also determine when you’ve finished a workout, even if you fail to manually end it.

Apple has added a few new watch faces as well, including an “Infograph” unique to the larger display of Series 4 which lets you display up to eight “complications,’ watch-speak for various functions that don’t have to do with telling time (a favorite contact to call, air quality index, and so on).  

Despite the larger display, older Apple Watch bands still fit, as do bands produced by third-party companies. I didn’t have any trouble fitting any of mine.

I didn’t test the cellular connection of my loaner watch – relying instead on my nearby iPhone. As before, you can buy an Apple Watch with or without LTE. 

During my regular mixed usage, I got about a day and a half of battery life, same as on my Series 2 watch. I’d love more, but I am used to the routine of pretty much charging a watch every night.

Those of you who buy Series 4 will appreciate its larger display, louder speaker and such. But Apple has been pushing the new watch as a guardian for your health and that is arguably the most important reason to buy it. Even if your goal is never to have to use those features.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

 

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