An Apple Watch 4 arrived the other day, a one-month loaner from Verizon. I’ve given it a try and find myself still waiting for a reason to splash out $399 to wear a computer on my wrist. Apple has promised to turn the Watch into a sophisticated personal health monitor but has yet to deliver the exciting applications that would distinguish this smartwatch from so much other wearable tech candy.
Watch 4 is supposed to have software that can monitor the heart condition called atrial fibrillation or “Afib,” as well as a portable electrocardiogram that can provide a reliable spot check on the condition of your heart. But there’s no sign of those applications from Apple, so I remain a skeptic.
These absent upgrades strike me as far more interesting than the improvements to the new Apple iPhones. The iPhone Xs Max has a bigger screen, better camera, and more powerful processor. But unless you hurled your phone against the wall while watching the Patriots lose two in a row, those upgrades don’t justify the $1,099 or more for the Xs Max.
While I generally don’t like watches, there’s a lot to be said for a wearable device capable of continuously monitoring a person’s well-being.
The previous edition of Apple Watch was able to identify Afib, a warning sign of stroke with more than 90 percent accuracy, according to recent studies from the University of California at San Francisco and the Cleveland Clinic. However, you had to download a third-party app and run it in the background to get the Afib readings. Watch 4 is supposed to have Afib detection as a standard feature: People who might not know they have Afib until it is too late instead will receive a heads-up flashing on the watch screen. No need to set up special software.
The US Food and Drug Administration has cleared Apple’s Afib software as safe and effective for casual use, though not as a substitute for a trip to the doctor. The same goes for the electrocardiogram system, a new addition to the Watch hardware.
An electrocardiogram measures the electrical activity of the heart muscle. This is usually done by attaching multiple electrodes to a patient’s body, but a basic EKG can be obtained through just one electrode. The Watch has a built-in electrode — the little wheel on the side of the watch. Unlike the heart rate monitor, EKG isn’t always on. Holding the little wheel for 30 seconds generates detailed information on what your heart is up to.
Anyway, that’s what the watch will do, once the necessary EKG software is available. But Apple has not said when the health apps will become available.
Watch 4 does have a fun new health feature that’s ready to go, a modern take on the old “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” system. It uses the Apple Watch’s motion-detection system to pick up the unique movement pattern of a person falling and staying down.
So I gave it a test, flinging myself face-down onto a well-padded sofa in the office. If the wearer doesn’t move for one minute, the watch is supposed to use its built-in cellphone to call for help. No such luck for me, which was probably good news for the local paramedics. After all, this feature could make big trouble if it generated too many false positives. Clearly it takes more than a make-believe bellyflop to set it off. Thankfully, the fall-detection app is turned off by default, so if you’re unusually clumsy maybe you should keep it that way.
There are a bunch more tweaks — a bigger, brighter screen, the rotating wheel that gives off a satisfying haptic click when you turn it, and a better audio speaker than you would expect to find strapped to your wrist. The speaker should come in handy using the Siri voice-controlled personal assistant. Well, sometimes. Siri is supposed to launch as soon as you raise it to your lips. I found it did sometimes, but not others.
Watch 4 did nothing to undermine my preference for carrying an iPhone in my pocket rather than on my wrist. But I’m also not as young as I used to be, so the idea of a personal health monitor has a certain appeal. So, Apple, hurry up with the heart health apps. I’ve got to return this thing in a month.