March 2022


Do You Need Cellular in Your Apple Watch?

As you may know, I’ve started a new independent venture called Apple Buying Advice to offer quick Apple product advice to regular people who want to buy Apple gear but aren’t technology hobbyists. Front-page picks are intended to satisfy most people, and short guides go into further detail with the Jobsian intent of narrowing Apple’s increasingly overwhelming list of options.

My front-page Apple Watch pick is the GPS-only Apple Watch Series 7, and in the accompanying guide, I explained why I felt cellular connectivity is a waste of money for most people. Hoo boy, were you quick to set me straight! Many readers pointed out that a cellular Apple Watch is valuable for those whose clothes lack or have insufficient pockets, those who want to be able to call 911 from their wrist if they feel threatened, and those for whom the fall-detection feature could be a lifesaver.

Apple Watch Series 7

In my defense, I didn’t discourage cellular Apple Watches entirely. For the Family Setup feature, which lets you set up an Apple Watch for a loved one who doesn’t have an iPhone, cellular is required, quite reasonably. But since an Apple Watch configured via Family Setup does not support ECG or irregular heart rhythm notifications (among much else), I recommend the cellular Apple Watch SE for that purpose. It doesn’t have those features anyway, and it’s quite a bit cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 7, so why pay more?

Also in my defense, my wife always has pockets, even when she’s wearing a dress. But she’s not a good example since she once owned an Apple Watch and doesn’t want another, regardless of how it communicates with the outside world.

So who should buy a cellular Apple Watch? And who should save their money?

Reasons to Avoid the Cellular Apple Watch

First off, a cellular Apple Watch isn’t generally a way to avoid owning an iPhone. Unless another person in your family sets up your Apple Watch with their iPhone, you’ll need an iPhone anyway. And as I mentioned, watches using Family Setup lack some potentially welcome features.

The base price of an aluminum Apple Watch Series 7 is $399, and the cellular model is $499, a whopping $100 more—25% more. But it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons across the Apple Watch line. For the $279 Apple Watch SE, cellular adds only $50—about 11% more. The luxury Apple Watch Edition and Apple Watch Hermès models are cellular-only, which simplifies things. So you can see—from a cost perspective—why I recommended the cellular Apple Watch SE but not the cellular Apple Watch Series 7.

Plus, you have to factor in the monthly service fee, which hovers around $10 per month or an extra $120 per year, plus taxes and fees. Although you’re fine if you use one of the Big Three carriers in the US—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—only a few smaller carriers and MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) support the Apple Watch, and even fewer of those support Family Setup. So if you’re like me or others who prefer to work with an MVNO that resells access to another carrier’s network, a cellular Apple Watch may not be an option (see “Consumer Cellular Offers Cheap, No-Nonsense Access to AT&T’s Cellular Network,” 12 July 2021).

Let’s say you buy a cellular Apple Watch Series 7 and pay for service for 4 years. That would increase the cost from $399 to $979—a $580 difference. Obviously, if you’re going to make use of that connectivity, it’s your money to spend, but if not, it’s a lot to waste.

Note that you can buy a cellular Apple Watch but choose not to activate it. Adam Engst took that path several years ago when he bought an Apple Watch Series 5 (see “Upgrading from an Apple Watch Series 2 to a Series 5,” 20 January 2020). That gave him the flexibility to pay for the cellular connectivity if it ever became useful to him (it hasn’t) and so he could pass it on to his wife Tonya, who relies heavily on the cellular capabilities of the Apple Watch (alas, she opted to buy a new cellular Apple Watch SE instead). The cellular capability might still improve the trade-in or resale value, and it will still call 911 if that ever becomes necessary for him.

Many people buy and activate a cellular Apple Watch only to change their minds later because the benefits don’t end up justifying the cost. In part, that’s because Apple’s built-in features like messaging and fitness tracking are the main win, not third-party apps (see “How I Finally Embraced the Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker,” 7 February 2022). For instance, you might think it would be helpful to be able to call an Uber from your wrist if you twisted an ankle while on a run, only to realize that Uber and other developers have given up on Apple Watch development.

Reasons to Get a Cellular Apple Watch

Let’s answer the core question: do you need cellular in your Apple Watch? My guess is probably not, but there are some good reasons to get it:

  • Separated from an iPhone: If you need to be out in the world without your iPhone, having a cellular Apple Watch gives you basic communication capabilities. This might be the case if you exercise without your iPhone or if you sometimes forget your iPhone due to a lack of sufficient pockets.
  • Increased safety: If you’re concerned about your personal safety while away from home, a cellular Apple Watch might enable you to place an emergency call more quickly or surreptitiously than with an iPhone. It could also help a family member see your location using Find My. And as noted, you can make 911 calls even without paying for an account.
  • Fall detection: If you’re concerned about falling and not being able to get up or call for help, the fall-detection feature on a cellular Apple Watch could trigger an automatic lifesaving call to emergency services or make it easier to initiate a manual call.
  • Family Setup: If you’re getting an Apple Watch for a child or senior who doesn’t have an iPhone, Family Setup requires a cellular Apple Watch.

Those are the most common reasons someone would need a cellular Apple Watch sufficiently to justify the expense. If you have other reasons—particularly apps that take advantage of cellular connectivity—please let us know what they are in the comments.

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