Updating an Apple Watch Series 3 is a nightmare in 2021


First released in September 2017, the Apple Watch Series 3 brought fitness improvements and a faster processor. Nearly four years later, in 2021, Apple is still selling the Series 3 as an entry-level Apple Watch starting at $ 199, a savings of $ 80 compared to the more recent Apple Watch SE. However, as I recently learned, “still selling” and “reasonably supporting” are two very different things, and updating an Apple Watch Series 3 in 2021 is a nightmare of raging technological hoops to jump through.

Normally updating an Apple Watch is a tediously long but simple process – you charge your watch up to 50 percent, plug it in, and wait for the slow process of transferring and installing the update to your smartwatch.

But the non-cellular Apple Watch Series 3 has a tiny 8GB of internal storage, quite a bit of which is taken up by the operating system and other critical software. So installing a major update – like the recently released watchOS 7.4 – is something like this:

  1. Unpair and swipe your Apple Watch to factory settings
  2. Reset Apple Watch and restore from backup
  3. Realize that you shouldn’t have restored from your backup yet
  4. Watch one or two episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine while you wait for the backup to finish restoring
  5. Start over from step one, but as a brand new Apple Watch, without restoring from an existing backup
  6. Update a brand new Apple Watch, which now has enough free memory to update
  7. Think how much you actually want to use this face unlock feature, everyone keeps hypnotizing in the first place
  8. Unplug the Apple Watch a third time and wipe it clean
  9. Restore from your backup and use normally in the end

And the problem seems to apply whether you have a bunch of apps installed or not. Apple’s support website doesn’t even recommend it that Series 3 owners go to the trouble of freeing up space – it just makes the case for going straight to the aforementioned reset cycle.

It is clear that the current process is unsustainable.

I am an editor at a technology news site and am willing to put in the comical amount of time and energy to get this done, frustrating as it may be. But if you’re a more casual user – the same one who probably has an older, outdated watch in the first place – why on earth would you bother with the worst update mechanism since GE’s smart bulb reset instructions? And being able to update your hardware’s software is important: the just-released watchOS 7.4.1 fixes a critical security flaw, for example. But because it’s so difficult to install, chances are many Series 3 owners won’t bother.

I know Apple loves to claim support for as many older generations of hardware with every new update. It’s one of the biggest draws of Apple products, compared to the mediocre pace of updates on competing Android phones (like the just-outdated Galaxy S8).

But the wretched update process for the Series 3 is a strong argument that Apple is a bit too generous with what it considers “current” hardware. Keeping the Series 3 as long as possible has always been a cash grab, a way for Apple to clean up old inventory and take advantage of mature manufacturing processes that have long ceased to work to appeal to users who really can’t afford the extra $ 80 for the significantly better Apple Watch SE. It’s a similar trend to the inexplicable, still-for-sale Apple TV HD, which is nearly six years old and costs just $ 30 less than the all-new 4K model. (As with the Series 3, don’t buy a new Apple TV HD in 2021, either.)

But hopefully, with the announcement of watchOS 8 almost certainly just around the corner at WWDC in June, the company will consider the basic functionality of its hardware when considering what it will and won’t support. Because if Apple wants to push for the sale of a product that old in the future, it will have to be much more aware of how it actually deals with the software support.