Apple Watch Series 4 can help keep tickers ticking

Along with its refreshed iPhones, Apple debuted its latest Apple Watch today. The Apple Watch Series 4 introduces larger displays in new 40-mm and 44-mm models, a faster system-in-package for more responsive wrist computing, a case that's both thinner and better-suited to letting cellular transmissions and other radio waves through, and a sophisticated heartbeat-sensor array that can keep an eagle eye on just how well your ticker is ticking.

The Watch's own heart is a new system-in-package (which Apple confusingly refers to as a "silicon-in-package" chip) called the S4. The CPU on board is a dual-core, 64-bit affair that Apple claims is good for double the performance of the heart of the Apple Watch Series 3. To improve both cellular transmission and reception, Apple clad the back of the Series 4 in a ceramic-and-sapphire-crystal cover that the company says lets the S4 SIP transmit signals through both the display cover and back of the device.

Any smart watch lives or dies by its display, and Apple not only increased the size of the screen on the Watch Series 4, it also implemented rounded corners similar to those of the iPhone X to make more of the available real estate. The company also says the rounded corners improve the way watchOS looks. Apps and complications now appear as though they stretch to the edges of the Watch's surface, and the touch-sensitive part of the display has a larger active area, as well. The display panel itself is a low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) OLED affair that Apple says is good for improved power efficiency.

Thanks to the stretched-out display, the Watch Series 4 can now show more at a glance. Apple has designed some new watchOS faces that can display as many as eight "complications" at once, including combinations of different time zones, pictures of close friends or family that users can tap to quickly message, watchOS' activity rings, music, heart rate, air quality, UV index, weather, and much more. The "digital crown" that controls certain elements of the watchOS UI now offers haptic feedback for more precise adjustment and scrolling, too.

Apple Watches were already capable wrist-worn heart-rate monitors, but the Series 4 has some new tricks in that regard. For one, Series 4 Watches will regularly keep an eye on the wearer's heart rate in the background, and they'll automatically inform the wearer if their heartbeat shows signs of atrial fibrillation. On top of that monitoring capability, Apple augmented the optical heartbeat sensor of the Series 4 Watch with an electrical heartbeat sensor that's capable of producing detailed electrocardiograms of the user's heartbeat. Folks who want an ECG need only touch a finger to the Watch's crown for 30 seconds to let the device gather the necessary data from its sensors. The watch will then let the user know whether their heart is beating in a healthy sinus pattern or exhibiting signs of atrial fibrillation.

It's worth emphasizing that Apple isn't just using fancy names for fluffy features here, either. The company sought and received US Food and Drug Administration de novo classification for both the atrial fibrillation monitoring feature and the electrocardiogram testing that's possible with the Series 4. The company says that both the electrocardiogram app and atrial-fibrillation monitoring capability for the Watch Series 4 will arrive later this year.

Heartbeat monitoring isn't the only way Apple wants to help Watch owners get help when they need it. The company says it studied the movement patterns produced by people who fall, trip, and slip. It uses that data in tandem with an improved accelerometer and gyroscope to let the Apple Watch Series 4 recognize when its wearer has fallen. When the Watch thinks it's detected a fall, it'll pop up a prompt to trigger Emergency SOS, a feature that places a call to 911, messages emergency contacts, broadcasts your current location, and shows a pre-configured Medical ID to first responders. If the wearer doesn't respond within one minute, the Series 4 Watch will automatically begin the Emergency SOS process.

For all that's new in the Apple Watch Series 4, the company says the improvements it made will have no effect on battery life. Apple claims the Watch Series 4 will still run for 18 hours in everyday use, while workout tracking will be possible for as many as six hours.

Prices for the aluminum Apple Watch Series 4 with an elastomer sport band will begin at $399 for the 40-mm model and $429 for the 44-mm model with GPS. Cellular models with aluminum cases and a sport band will start at $499 for a 40-mm Watch and $529 for the 44-mm version. Apple will continue to offer the Apple Watch Series 3 at a lower starting price of $279.

Pre-orders for the Apple Watch Series 4 will begin this Friday, although buyers may find themselves waiting until later to get one on their wrist depending on their country or territory and the type of connectivity they want inside. The Watch Series 4 will be available in some countries starting September 21, and global availability will follow later this year.

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