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Using the Apple watch in fringe areas

Sorry, non-nerds. This is a nerd post.

Technology companies these days assume that everyone, everywhere, has fast Internet and good cell phone coverage. In rural America, that is not the case. Millions of us have been left behind. In the 10 years that I have lived here in the woods, things have gotten better. But I still have sketchy cellular service (the nearest tower is about 2.75 miles away). For Internet, I now have HughesNet satellite service. It’s fast, but it’s expensive. I get only so many gigabytes a month. And a half-second delay is built into everything you do, just because of the speed of light and the round trip to the satellite (46,000 miles).

A week ago, when I bought an Apple Watch 4, I knew that I was taking a risk and that some of the features might not work well in a fringe area. For example, by default, if the watch’s owner is more than 65 years old (I am), then fall detection is turned on. If the watch’s internal sensors think that you have taken a fall, and if you don’t move and don’t respond to the watch for a minute, then the watch will call emergency services and send texts to your emergency contacts. I wanted that feature not only for fall detection, but also so that I always would have on my wrist a way to call 911.

I am happy to report that, when I did a walkaround today, the watch was able to make calls from anywhere on abbey property — the woods as well as the yard, garden, and orchard. However, to make that happen, I had to order a WIFI range extender and mount it in the abbey’s attic. It took a lot of fussing, experimenting, and reading to figure out why a WIFI range extender was necessary in my situation.

My watch is paired with a new iPhone XR. The phone actually is quite a good cell phone, much better than my now-retired iPhone 5, which was six years old. I’m on the Verizon network. The iPhone XR will make an LTE connection to Verizon if it can. That’s the fastest kind of connection, but LTE also requires better signal strength. If the nearest Verizon tower is too far away to support LTE, then the iPhone will fall back to 3G, or CDMA-EVDO, which is slower but totally useful. If the signal strength is too weak to support 3G, then the iPhone will fall back to CDMA-1x, which is very slow but good enough for phone calls and even slow, slow, data. The iPhone even has another option. If WIFI is available, then the iPhone can make phone calls using WIFI, routed through Verizon’s “VZW-Wifi” system. In short, the iPhone XR has options for how it connects to the nearest tower, it has decent antennas, and it has enough power to be a pretty good cell phone. The iPhone also has the option of routing calls over WIFI.

The Apple watch can function as a cell phone even when its paired iPhone is not nearby. The watch can connect directly to Verizon. But the watch is not a powerful cell phone. The watch has low power and tiny antennas. Even worse, the watch supports only LTE, so it cannot fall back to 3G or 1x when signals are weak. Apple watches love the city. But there is a limit to what they can do in rural areas with fringe cellular coverage. However, if the watch’s paired iPhone is nearby, then the watch will make its calls through the iPhone, using a Bluetooth connection to the iPhone. That provides some options for people like me who are in fringe areas — as long as the iPhone is within Bluetooth or WIFI range of the watch.

So, what if I’m out mowing the yard, the mower turns over on a steep bank, I’m thrown off and land hard, and I don’t respond when the Apple watch asks if I’m OK. As long as the iPhone is in my pocket, the Apple watch will connect to the iPhone, and the iPhone will make the call and send the texts. Depending on where I am on abbey property, the iPhone might make its emergency call using LTE, 3G, or WIFI. By walking around the entire property, including into the woods and up the ridge, I determined that the iPhone always has an option for making the call. LTE works up on the ridge, for example. But down by the stream, and in most of the yard, the iPhone chooses WIFI.

About the watch: I love it! I actually like wearing a watch. The Apple watch will always be accurate to a fraction of a second, because it gets the time from network time servers. I was somewhat skeptical about whether the fitness features of the watch (and of the iPhone XR) would be useful, but they are, not least because the watch gently encourages you to keep moving. I also learned that my old-fashioned rural lifestyle is more active than I realized. Even on a sedentary day, I cover two miles and 25 flights of stairs. Four miles a day is easy to achieve. Because the watch helps you calculate the number of calories you’ve burned each day, it provides decently accurate advice on how much you can eat without gaining weight. It’s also nice to know that my resting heart rate is in a very healthy range. The new Apple Watch 4 has new features that obviously are aimed at older people. The geniuses at Apple are geniuses at separating us from our money, even our retirement income.

To test the watch’s ability to make phone calls anywhere on abbey property, I used the number that anyone can call to hear BBC’s audio — (605) 781-9836.


  1. DCS wrote:

    >>> The geniuses at Apple are geniuses at separating us from our money.

    Exactly. And exactly the problem for me. I would love to have an iPhone and iWatch combination for exactly the reasons you describe here. I already wear a watch seven days a week, so the health and fall-alert functions would seamlessly fit into my life without alterations.

    But, oh, the prices — $1,000 for a phone? And now we see the headlines: Apple is abandoning the mass market and focusing exclusively on the high-end market. AARP discounts won’t make a dent.

    Maybe you’ll sell me your iPhone 5 at a good price. 🙂


    Friday, November 16, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: The iPhone 5 still works perfectly well except that the battery is failing rapidly.

    Apple’s prices are stratospheric, that’s for sure. The iPhone XR, however, got very good reviews and is somewhat less expensive than the other X’s. It lacks the 2nd camera lens, which is 2x telescopic, but I suppose I can live without that. Because my iPhone 5 is small, the extra real estate on the XR screen makes a huge difference. I can actually type on it and comfortably read books or articles on it. But the size also makes it much more awkward to carry. When out and about, I probably will leave the phone in the car and just use the watch, which, like the phone, can do Apple Pay.

    Friday, November 16, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  3. DCS wrote:

    Reviewing Apple’s site, replacement batteries are not that expensive — proving that we do not have to treat these tech gadgets as disposable, though we do. I little time, effort and money, and these things could last forever — and not pollute our landfills.

    It’s like my old Nissan Altima: a great car that I kept on the road for 17 years and 223,000 miles with only usual care and service. Only reason it’s not still running was the incompetence of a quick lube oil place, which didn’t fasten the oil plug properly.

    Last question: Do you think the old iPhone 5 would synchronize with the iWatch adequately to perform the functions we are talking about?


    Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: I believe that Apple stores will replace iPhone batteries — sometimes while you wait. Unfortunately, one of the limitations of the iPhone 5 is that it is orphaned at version 10.3.3 of iOS. The current version of iOS is 12.1. Because of software versions and possibly other reasons relating to hardware, the iPhone 5 will not pair with Apple watches. I was forced to do a phone upgrade to get an Apple watch.

    Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  5. DCS wrote:

    Boom, there it is. Apple has abandoned the mass market to focus on the high end, as the recent headlines said. They intentionally make the older models obsolete, so no matter how much care and attention you give to them, you are stuck with buying a newer model. Sigh.


    Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: Though it’s certain that Apple’s obsolescence schedule is partly driven by marketing, there still are technological reasons for why it is impossible to support older products indefinitely. Processors get faster, memory gets cheaper, displays get better, and new and better chips are built that not only do legacy things better and faster, but that also do new things that previously were not possible. There are software tradeoffs as well. Many functions in an operating system are hardware-specific, so retaining old code for too long becomes legacy cruft in new versions of the operating system, cruft that is needed by fewer and fewer people.

    Apple’s products are so well made that they keep running, even when they can’t be upgraded. I got eight years out of my previous iMac and six years out of an iPhone 5. So I would argue that Apple products actually have good longevity.

    Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  7. Jo wrote:

    Interesting exchange. Newer technology is available for those who need/want it. I, too, have had a great experience with iPhone – also iPad. As for cars, have found Toyotas will run a very long time with regular maintenance. Same with Honda’s. Would like to see American cars compete. In the meantime, drive a Toyota which was manufactured in USA. Ironic!

    Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  8. Tom wrote:

    In my case I am fortunate enough to have a partner beside me at almost all times who would call 911 should I need help. Otherwise I would be tempted. As it is I recently succumbed to a Chromebook on black Friday. For $179 plus tax I now have a zippy little laptop with a keyboard and touch screen. So far I can do everything that I did with my 8 year old Macbook Pro which admittedly isn’t much beyond browsing and streaming video. But still what cost $1400 now replaceable for $179?

    Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  9. daltoni wrote:

    As long as we have a good conversation going here on product longevity, I might also mention that my Apple iPad will be seven years old in March. It still works as well as it ever did, and its battery seems to be holding up fine. I still use it regularly for reading, checking email, and browsing.

    Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  10. Tom wrote:

    I have an old Ipod that I took to London in April ’09 as my only internet device. It lives on plugged into the aux port in my car and comes to life every time I turn on the ignition key. I think I got my $$ worth from that purchase.

    Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  11. Henry wrote:

    You’re a Nerd alright

    I get the thing with Kirby vacuums – it’s bright, shiny, looks like it could be a plane or car and maybe a dragster


    re Apple Watch…I tried it but ended up gifted it to my wife – she really gets into the features. I still have my grandads Bulova wind, wind, wind and not accurate at all


    Tuesday, November 20, 2018 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

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