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TransferWise keeps growing money transfers despite global turbulence – TechCrunch

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You don’t have to follow the financial technology industry or work with developers in faraway lands to know TransferWise, arguably the world’s leading peer-to-peer money-transferring startup. Thanks to its presence in more than 70 countries, low-cost rates for moving money internationally and, of course, its famous “nothing to hide” PR campaign that featured its semi-naked employees running through the streets of London and New York, TransferWise has become one of the world’s most recognizable fintech brands. Along the way, the company helped usher in the age of the rebel-fintech adolescent startup that could compete and win against dusty incumbents on the basis of transparency, value, technology and, perhaps most importantly, moxy.

But today, the macroeconomic, business and political conditions that served as the feedstock to co-founders Kristo Käärman and Taavet Hinrikus when they launched TransferWise are ancient history. Can it keep scaling amidst heightened trade tensions, the unfortunate rise of xenophobia and capital controls? Will it continue to grow profits in the face of competition from other well-funded fintech startups and incumbents that look less dusty? Does the company, which has recently launched important partnerships, a revamped “borderless” business offering and a Mastercard debit card, have aspirations to provide other financial services? And, why isn’t TransferWise public? In the interview below, CEO Käärman addresses these questions head-on. In doing so, the Estonian native makes the case for his company’s future as a trusted partner for its dedicated (and growing) customer base.

Gregg Schoenberg: It’s good to connect, Kristo. I recently took a look at your financials, which show that despite your fairly large size, you’re still growing at a very fast pace.

Kristo Käärman: Yes, things are going very well. Tracking back to the very early days when we started, our hypothesis was that we can service customers about 10 times cheaper than banks. That was really proven out about two years ago when we reached break-even, which is an important proof point: tech that’s paying for itself. It’s not paid for with investors.

GS: So it actually works.

KK: Yes, this thing actually works. In fact, in our original hypothesis, we thought that we could probably do our biggest trade routes for 0.5 percent in fees. We’ve now revised this and are now operating at 0.3 percent in our largest routes.

GS: I assume that’s all in? Because TransferWise always uses the mid-market or spot rate.

KK: Yes, and from the beginning, we’ve taken the approach that we never hide anything in the spread.

GS: Before we leave the topic of your financials, is there any color that you would care to give on how things are going subsequent to when you reported your numbers?

KK: Things are going in the same direction, which is consistent with the mission of the company: Grow the volume and the customer base, which gives us more scale to enable us to charge skinnier and skinnier margins.

GS: Taavet has said that he knows the moment when TransferWise’s transaction volumes will surpass Western Union’s. When is that?

KK: We’re a little bit behind Western Union, but give us a few years.  

What’s more powerful? Anti-trade factions or the natural forces leading us to become more global?

GS: So it won’t be in 2019?

KK: It might be, but I doubt it. Actually, you can kind of work it out, because Western Union is a public company and their volumes aren’t really growing very much. Today, our volumes are still smaller than Western Union’s. Then again, Western Union’s volumes are not very big compared to Citibank’s or HSBC’s.

GS: Speaking of volume, do you disclose your biggest foreign exchange (FX) crosses? I couldn’t find them on your site.

KK: It’s not disclosed, but we make no secret about this either. Let me also preface this by saying that whenever we’re in the U.S., everyone’s brain immediately goes to U.S. to Mexico. But it’s not the biggest channel by far.

GS: Is dollar-peso high on the list?

KK: Definitely, but the volumes there are much smaller. Our biggest volumes are in between the large developed countries. So you’ve got pound-euro, euro-pound, euro-dollar, pound-dollar, dollar-euro. That’s the biggest triangle. Then you’ve got Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.

GS: On that note, how big of a concern is it to when you see a weakening of overall relations between the U.S. and Mexico and China and the Brexit saga? To me, TransferWise has always been predicated on more frictionless, cross-border commerce. As you know, geopolitical forces are reversing those trends.

KK: Certainly, if everyone decided that they weren’t going to trade in other currencies, there wouldn’t be a need for us. And I appreciate what you’re describing in terms of the public narrative that’s the intent of some factions. Whenever I get asked about trade tensions, I wonder, what’s more powerful? Anti-trade factions or the natural forces leading us to become more global? Technology is one of those forces. Because it’s very hard these days to be a local tech business. So while not every future business will be a tech business, most will either be tech or have a lot more tech elements, which are naturally more global.

TransferWise’s borderless account mobile card

GS: You’re saying that the global game of tariff-chicken and overall decline in immigration between certain major countries isn’t on your CEO headache list and that they haven’t impacted flows?

KK: No and no. Here’s a practical example: China has put into place capital controls, preventing residents from taking more than $50,000 U.S. dollars per year out of the country. As a result, they have already closed down the country from some aspects of money movement. I might disagree with that, but it’s their right.

GS: That sounds like it can create quite a headache for you guys.

KK: It’s a bit of a headache for us, but we’re not that worried about compliance requirements. We just won’t bother with the Chinese market. I mean, we’re operating in so many countries around the world. It’s business as usual for us.

GS: Is a global recession and/or a global shock higher up your list?

KK: I’ll answer that question by telling you about the month of the Brexit vote, which was an outsized month for us in terms of volumes.

GS: High volume?

KK: Yes, incredibly high volume, but we didn’t market anything and we didn’t do anything. In fact, we closed down the service. Actually, you’ll appreciate this as a Wall Street guy

GS: Ex.

KK: Ha, my apologies. So a couple of days before the vote happened, we knew that whichever way the vote would go, there was going to be volatility that night, and when volatility happens, the price rises, the smarter banks make a lot of money, which is usually not the case for consumers.

GS: Of course.

KK: A few days beforehand, we told our customers that a storm is coming, and that if they needed to move money between pound and euro or pound and something else, do it in the next 24 hours because we’re going to shut things down.

GS: You gave people fair warning.

KK: Yes, but we were actually very stressed on the day we put out the notice. Would people accuse us of crippling the service? Instead, people started thinking about how exchange rates were going to move. It ended up going really well and earned us kudos when things calmed down.

GS: What you’re saying is that in a recession, which will likely accompany global freak-outs, you’ll protect your customers. But what you’re also saying is that volatility can be a good thing from the standpoint of trade flows going higher.

KK: Yes, but I don’t like a recession.

There are cases where people who can transact internationally can switch from PayPal to us. If they can, they’re jubilant.

GS: Of course not. But some of the criticism hurled at TransferWise is that it’s a great service for when the weather is nice. And while large institutions charge too much for FX when times are good, in periods of volatility, they have more tools to manage risk and ease volatility.

KK: In financial services, risk is expensive, and if we’re building a product where margins are getting thinner and thinner — and we think they can get close to zero — it means that we see zero risk involved in it. So everything that we do is designed in a way that would take as little risk as possible. And I think you’re referring to mostly FX exposure, which is one of the types of risk that emerges if you don’t have balance on both sides.

GS: Right.

KK: Then you either leave some people waiting for a little bit until you can match it out somehow on the market, or you’re willing to cover that position until you’re able to take it off.

GS: Yes.

KK: So your assumption is correct, and it can be worth it to make payments instant by taking a very tiny bit of a position. We’ve comfortably managed that. I can’t disclose the numbers, but you’d be surprised how small that position is compared to our volumes. Now, in the early days, when we were running the company on my money and Taavet’s, we had no way to put up capital to facilitate transfers. But we had a trick we used then, because we often had more transfers coming in from, say pounds to euros than from euros to pounds.

GS: A big mismatch.

KK: We basically made a very large limit on the euro side — I think you could transfer like 50,000 euros at a single time — and a smaller limit on the pound side, so you could only transfer 3.000 pounds.

GS: Is that something that you would still do if a mismatch got bad enough?

KK: We haven’t done this now for five or six years, but it’s an idea to create a balance synthetically.

GS: Let’s talk about where the business is headed. I’ve seen a number of announcements that you guys have made. On one hand, you’ve hooked up with BCPE, and have deals in place with some challenger banks to help them facilitate FX transactions. These partnerships can enhance your volumes and take you one step closer to becoming the Amazon of FX for retail. But you also now offer a “borderless” multi-currency account for people and businesses that can be linked to a Mastercard debit card, which seems to constitute an expansion of your relationship with some customers.

KK: In terms of integrations with the customers of our banking partners, they now see how much they’re actually paying for a transfer. Plus, they get the same pricing as they would on TransferWise but with greater transparency.

GS: You’re trading margin for dollars, right? Because you have to share the fees with partners like BPCE, but that’s okay because they’re bringing you lots of customers.

KK: Yes, but they also share in the cost. In terms of the debit card, it comes from two ideas. Think of an individual customer who often sends money to their own account abroad, or to their family. Why do they do this? The answer is that they probably have a student loan or a mortgage to pay back at home.

GS: Just like you did.

KK: Right. So we asked ourselves, why don’t we make it easier for our customers to do it directly? Avoid this hop from their bank in the U.S. to TransferWise, then from TransferWise to their bank in the U.K. and then from their bank in the U.K. to pay the mortgage. Why don’t we let them do it from within TransferWise? Because we actually have the payments infrastructure in 70 countries.

GS: Let’s talk about your small business customers specifically.

KK: From the beginning, we’ve always accepted businesses as users. Over time, maybe the small business side has gotten more focus because it’s a little trickier and it needs more features. Specifically, while freelancers and businesses have always been very happy to use TransferWise to pay their suppliers, they still have an issue when they get paid, or when they invoice their customers.

GS: Can you give me an example?

KK: Let’s take a Swedish furniture maker, when they sell their beautiful tables in the U.S. like the one we’re sitting at. That company would put their Swedish account number on the invoice, and then depending on how bold they are, they would ask you to pay it in either Swedish krona or in U.S. dollars. Either way, one of the banks is going to do that conversion, while the customer is going to pay three or four percent of the invoice value. So now, with the borderless account, the furniture maker can hold the balance in different currencies.

GS: That’s helpful, but not unique.

KK: It’s not exciting. HSBC has been able to do this for decades. But what they also get is a local account number in many countries, eventually in 40 countries. So now, they put their TransferWise account number on the invoice and it gets paid as a local business in the U.S.

GS: So you’re not trying to compete against domestic-oriented banks, or for that matter, even PayPal. It’s just an outgrowth of who your clients are that you offer this.

KK: That’s fair, but I think we’ll overlap with PayPal a little bit. There are cases where people who can transact internationally can switch from PayPal to us. If they can, they’re jubilant.

I think the journey of money could be something similar to email.

GS: Well, they like your fees, right?

KK: Yes, exactly. On a related point, the card is a way to give people access to that money that they have in the borderless account. So the thought process wasn’t to do a bank and start with a card. The thought process was to make it easier to facilitate international lives and international flows within the borderless account.

GS: You can’t even pay interest on that cash, because you’re not a bank.

KK: Correct.

GS: Taavet likes to give interesting quotes. One was, “We want to be as cheap as email one day.” As we all know, email is free. We also all know that when something is free, you’re the customer. It’s true in search and in trading stocks. With this in mind, have you been approached yet to sell your data?

KK: No one’s ever approached me on data, and yes, we would like to be as cheap as email one day. Actually, I think the journey of money could be something similar to email. But to be honest, my visibility goes from being able to move from a 0.5 percent charge to a 0.3 percent charge. I also think I know how to get from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent. But going from 0.2 percent to 0.1 percent is going to be really hard, I can tell you that now. And going from 0.1 percent to 0, that I don’t have an answer for.

TransferWise’s Mastercard debit card

GS: If you want to remain transparent, it will be tough. I mean, you guys used to parade through London without your clothes on to make the point that there’s no secret to how you earn money.

KK: Well, I don’t know if we need to get to zero cost; maybe 0.1 percent is completely fine. But if some people want zero for some reason, then we could also transparently subsidize it from something else that they are willing to pay for, or maybe someone else is willing to pay for them.

GS: Let’s talk about the future, then. Why aren’t you public?

KK: But, why?

GS: To do acquisitions, motivate employees, raise capital. There are all sorts of reasons why it could make sense for a growing, diversified company like TransferWise. I guess you’ve dipped your toe in those waters a little on the debt side, and I recognize that being public isn’t a walk in the park. Still, I’m sure you’re well aware that some megafund VC out there might one day pump mounds of equity into a competitor.

KK: It’s a fair and relevant question, and we do want to be pragmatic about this. So the first question we’ve asked ourselves is: Do our customers care if we’re a public company or not? The answer is that they don’t care too much. Then, we’ve asked ourselves whether it will enable us to do more. Of course, being public probably makes our capital cheaper, but we’re not really capital-intensive. You’re right that we might need that currency to make acquisitions—

Everyone had to create something so that they could live.

GS: —But I understand that it reduces your flexibility and long-term planning a lot.

KK: Regarding a fund that would put a huge amount of money into a competitor, let’s say a half a billion dollars, for example. I think if it was important, I should’ve done this already, but we haven’t. Plus, in order to deploy 500 million pounds, our customers are going to be paying interest on this, eventually. So we’d have to have a bloody good place to deploy that kind of capital.

GS: To close, I want to ask you about Estonia, because I’ve never asked an Estonian this question: Your small nation has hatched Skype, Pipedrive and Taxify in addition to TransferWise. What’s in the water in your home country? Because not all former Soviet republics have had Estonia’s success. And while Israel may be known as the startup nation, I think Estonia could also lay claim to that title.

KK: That’s a three-hour discussion by itself. I’ll say this: When I was a kid, the economy didn’t matter for people; independence mattered. And after having another country rule over you for 50 years, against your will, you don’t really care about how you’re going to eat next month.

GS: And then the Soviet Union collapsed.

KK: Which resulted in half the population basically becoming unemployed. Plus, we didn’t have an industry that was useful for putting food on the table or making a living at that time. Everyone had to create something so that they could live.

GS: You’re saying that it was a combination of this fierce independent streak that was embedded into Estonia’s DNA combined with the lack of industry to rely on.

KK: Yes. It’s called entrepreneurship.

GS: Ha, well in your case, it was perhaps a gift. Thanks for your time, Kristo, and great luck.

KK: Thank you, Gregg.

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iPhone 14 – Things we know so far

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Rumors about the iPhone 14 started popping up online before the iPhone 13 was announced — and though we don’t yet know what Apple has planned, there’s enough info floating around to speculate. The company is rumored to be working on a foldable iPhone, at least based on certain patents, but there’s no guarantee a folding model is in the pipeline at this time. In all likeliness, the next iteration of the iPhone will be called the iPhone 14 and it’ll stick to the trusted form factor from previous years.

Based on the rumors coming in, the iPhone 14 is likely to ditch the notch (which is thinner on the iPhone 13 lineup) and it may not have a camera bump on the rear. These are the two most interesting assumptions amid the other expectations that should pique your interest.

iPhone 14 display and body

Jon Prosser

The iPhone 14 is likely to share the same flat-edged design as the iPhone 13 with some changes in the display and body. The iPhone 13 brought a 120Hz ProMotion display to the iPhone Pro variants and rumors suggest that all four iPhone 14 models may come with this display tech. This isn’t guaranteed, however, as The Elec reported that ProMotion will be a Pro model exclusive and the standard iPhone 14 could feature an LTPS OLED display without the 120Hz ProMotion option.

There is a twist to the possible models the iPhone 14 could arrive in, however. Reportedly, the smaller 5.4-inch iPhone 13 mini will not have a successor in 2022; Apple may leave this size out of the equation and focus on larger-screen options. Instead of the mini, Apple may release the iPhone 14 Max with a 6.7-inch display – same as that of the iPhone 13 Pro Max – delivering a bigger screen model with a possibly larger battery, as well.

This means there would be four models in the iPhone 14 lineup but without the smaller screen option available in the iPhone 12 and 13 product lines. Based on the leaks, the upcoming product line may feature a 6.1-inch iPhone 14 and 14 Pro, as well as a larger 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Max and 14 Pro Max.

When it comes to the body design, meanwhile, prominent leaker Jon Prosser believes Apple will eliminate the camera bulge on the back of the iPhone 14 by using a thicker chassis. Some allegedly leaked images of the iPhone 14 Pro show a design resemblance to the iPhone 4 right from its front and back to the flat sides and the circular volume buttons.

Additionally, rumors also claim the iPhone 14 will feature a titanium alloy chassis, including a JP Morgan Chase report, as noted by Patently Apple. Titanium, which is stronger and more scratch-resistant than aluminum, has already been introduced on the Apple Watch and it may finally arrive on the iPhone line next year.

The notchless design

iPhone 14

Jon Prosser

If there is one thing that Apple fans want the iPhone to do away with, it’s the notch. The iPhone 13 was rumored to ditch this annoying design choice, but ultimately it remained — though its overall size was trimmed a bit from previous models.

With the launch of the iPhone 14, Apple is likely to herald the future of notch-less design, at least with the Pro models. Removal of the notch doesn’t mean a change in functionality, mind. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes Apple will ditch the notch and replace it with a hole-punch selfie camera instead.

The facial scanning tech, meanwhile, will likely find a new home. The Face ID on iPhone 14, at least according to the rumors, will be placed under the display. Apple is believed to be working on the possibility of under-display Face ID, a claim that has been substantiated by multiple analysts, including Mark Gurman of Bloomberg.

iPhone 14 camera

iPhone 14

Jon Prosser

A new iPhone is always launched with better camera technology and the iPhone 14 isn’t likely to be an exception. This model will reportedly feature a tweaked appearance with a bump-free rear camera model — it’ll be built flush into the glass body, the leaks allege.

Analyst Kuo believes the iPhone 14 Pro models could beef up the main camera to 48-megapixel. Also rumored is the possibility of a periscope zoom lens and 8K video recording. From how the other OEMs are seeing the camera space, Apple could join the league with a quad-camera for the Pro models and a triple camera on the standard iPhone 14 models.

A powerful chip

iPhone

Each new iPhone comes with a more powerful and efficient processor. With that in mind, the A16 Bionic chipset is expected to power the iPhone 14. This will reportedly be built either on a 3nm or 4nm process by TSMC. Initially, it was believed that the chip would be based on a 3nm process, but there’s reason to believe that plan may have changed.

TSMC has talked about a shortage of 3nm chips, which means the iPhone 14 could feature a chip built on the 4nm process. This would offer certain advantages over the 5nm A15 chip in the iPhone 13 (via Tom’s Guide).

Other notable possibilities

iOS 15.1

Apple

The iPhone 12 made 5G on smartphones more acceptable. With the iPhone 13, it was all about network speed. Consumers have even bigger expectations for the iPhone 14. Apple could take on the challenge by utilizing the first 10-gigabit 5G modem – Snapdragon X65 – to offer improvements in both speed and connectivity.

Though the European Union proposes mandatory USB-C on all devices – including iPhones – Apple is likely to continue without it. Instead, rumors indicate the company may eliminate the iPhone’s Lightning port in favor of MagSafe charging to get rid of the port entirely.

With user safety in mind, Apple is also reportedly working on a crash detection feature for the iPhone 14. This alleged feature would detect an accident using the phone’s sensors and accelerometer, then instantly dial emergency services for help (via WSJ).

Final thoughts

Apple made some hearts skip a beat when it launched the new MacBook Pro models at almost twice the cost of their predecessors. Something similar is likely not in the works for the new iPhone, but things could change by the time the iPhone 14 is actually launched. The iPhone 14 lineup is expected to launch in September 2022 based on Apple’s history, but that may depend heavily on the wider industry’s status at that time and whether chip shortages remain an issue.

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Microsoft’s DNA storage research just hit a huge milestone

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Microsoft has detailed a major breakthrough in its work on synthetic DNA storage, specifically on improving data throughput. The proof-of-concept is the subject of a new study from Microsoft Research and a team at the University of Washington’s Molecular Information Systems Laboratory (MISL), paving the way for a future in which the world’s data is stored on lab-made DNA, not tapes and hard drives.

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Old tech still dominates

Microsoft has spent years working on synthetic DNA data storage, a promising technology that aims to address growing storage demands. The company paints an elaborate, if not mind-boggling, picture centered around present-day and future data needs — the huge quantity of information that already exists, the amount produced every day, and growth predictions over the next two years.

Assuming those predictions are accurate, there will be approximately 8.9 zettabytes of data in storage around the world by 2024, according to IDC. That works out to around 9 million petabytes of data, which is still more than the average person can visualize. Microsoft translates that figure into a more relatable context: a single zettabyte would be equivalent to installing Windows 11 on more than 15 billion computers.

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Multiple types of data storage are commonly used, and though they seem positively archaic at this point, tape cartridges remain the most appealing commercial option due to their density (via IBM).

Magnetic tape has been around for several decades and offers some distinct benefits for companies that produce vast amounts of data: they help keep information secured away from hackers and can pack hundreds of terabytes of data in a small form factor. IBM says one tape cartridge utilizing its latest tech has a 580TB capacity, which would require more than three-quarters of a million CDs to store.

Using tape cartridges for data archival is a practice that will stick around for years, but there’s strong demand for a modern alternative that offers even greater density while eliminating many of the old tech’s problems. That, Microsoft says, is where synthetic DNA data storage comes in.

Why DNA?

Tape cartridges need to be rewritten every three or so decades at most, which is a short period of time when it comes to long-term data archiving. Synthetic DNA, on the other hand, is far more durable, Microsoft says, with the potential to preserve data for thousands of years. On top of that, synthetic DNA will likely drastically reduce the environmental impact of data centers, with Microsoft citing evidence that indicates lower water and energy use, as well as decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

Synthetic DNA data storage can only be a viable option if certain big hurdles are addressed, however. The technology is currently limited by low data throughput, specifically the rate at which data can be written. This, Microsoft notes, is a big stumbling block to large-scale synthetic DNA storage, not to mention the costs associated with the tech at this.

DNA storage graph

Image: Microsoft Research

The newly announced breakthrough revolves around throughput, presenting a proof-of-concept molecular controller. The researchers describe this innovation as a “tiny DNA storage writing mechanism on a chip,” which drastically improves how tightly DNA-synthesis spots are packed. The result is proof that higher levels of writing throughput are possible.

At its core, synthetic DNA storage involves moving data back and forth from molecules to bits. Microsoft explains that two things are critical for making DNA a viable commercial-scale storage option:

The first requires translating digital bits (ones and zeros) into strands of synthetic DNA representing these bits with encoding software and a DNA synthesizer. The second is to read and decode the information back into bits to recover that information into digital form again with a DNA sequencer and decoding software.

The company goes into extensive details about the new development and the wider processes involved in synthetic DNA storage in a new blog post. Storing data in DNA requires the information (in the form of digital bits) to be embedded in a DNA sequence’s A/C/T/G bases. The DNA chain is then synthesized, which typically involves a photochemical process.

Microsoft goes on to explain that electrochemical DNA synthesis side-steps some of the limitations inherent to photochemistry; it involves an array, electrodes, and cathodes. The new work details a synthesis method that successfully increased the rate at which the data was written in synthetic DNA, therefore boosting the throughput and, by proxy, decreasing the costs associated with synthesizing the DNA.

Though synthetic DNA storage isn’t yet ready to replace magnetic tape, Microsoft sees this latest development as a key step toward that reality. In its blog post detailing the study, Microsoft explained:

A natural next step is to embed digital logic in the chip to allow individual control of millions of electrode spots to write kilobytes per second of data in DNA. From there, we foresee the technology reaching arrays containing billions of electrodes capable of storing megabytes per second of data in DNA. This will bring DNA data storage performance and cost significantly closer to tape.

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Apple Watch Series 7 Review

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Nobody can deny that the Apple Watch won the smartwatch wars, and the latest Apple Watch Series 7 only extends that lead. A collection of endearing enhancements rather than the all-out reinvention that some expected, 2021’s version blends a bigger display with the improvements of watchOS 8, for a result that, though predictable, is no less impressive for it.

Both watch and display are slightly larger, though the former’s mild growth is not something you’re going to notice day to day. The latter, though, is more obvious. The 41mm (from $399) and 45mm (from $429) versions have a screen that’s nearly 20-percent bigger than on the previous-generation Apple Watch. It’s still a beautiful OLED panel, crisp and easy to read, and Apple says the always-on mode – when the smartwatch is in standby rather than raised up – is brighter than before. Just how much brighter, a new algorithm decides.

Honestly, I’m not sure the Apple Watch display needed to be any bigger. Not for my (corrected) eyesight, anyway, though I’ll concede that if you typically wear reading glasses then the larger fonts of the Series 7 probably are an improvement. Still, it’s worth noting that you’ve been able to increase font size and weight in watchOS for some time now.

What’s turned out to make a bigger difference is, quite literally, the edge cases. The Apple Watch’s screen now continues under the curved sides of its cover glass; viewed off-angle, it gives a fascinating three-dimensional effect, akin to stacked physical complications on a mechanical watch face.

Unless you’re the sort of – brave – person who wears two watches at once, one on each wrist, most of us make a singular decision about what graces their arm. I have a few “nice” mechanical watches already, but I choose to wear the Apple Watch for a user-experience the others can’t deliver. The trade-off is that the digital watch, with its accommodations to functionality, has never quite felt like a piece of charming jewelry in the same way that a traditional timepiece might.

Call me crazy, but the way the Apple Watch Series 7’s screen melds so interestingly into the curvature of the glass feels like a nod back to one of the key lures of old-school watches. Something that’s not necessarily a functional decision, but which elevates the smartwatch nonetheless. No, the dedicated Rolex or IWC owner may still not find that enough to make the switch, but it’s enough to have caught my eye when I glance down at my angled wrist.

The rest of the hardware feels very familiar. Apple says the front crystal is tougher than before, and the whole watch now has IP6X certification for dust resistance along with WR50 water resistance. It means you can take it swimming and wear it without concern on the beach, though I’d still – as with any watch – be cautious about banging it against hard objects.

There are aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium cases to choose from, in a variety of colors depending on the metal. Factor in the growing array of Apple’s own and third-party bands, and you can feasible take your Apple Watch from the gym to the office to a fancy wedding without it looking out of place. I’m rather partial to the blue aluminum of my review unit, though the green version is striking, too.

Battery life is about the same – 18 hours of typical use – but there’s a new charger included in the box. That promises up to 33-percent speedier recharging, though only with the Series 7, since it also relies on changes Apple made inside the watch itself. We’re still not quite at supercharge levels yet, but it did trim down a top-up when I forgot to recharge the Apple Watch overnight as I normally would. If you’re in the habit of tracking sleep with the wearable then the improvements are likely even more useful; in the time it would take to have a leisurely shower, you could more than likely add sufficient juice for the rest of the day.

If there’s one place the larger screen pays dividends, it’s Apple’s addition of an on-screen QWERTY keyboard to watchOS. Until now, Siri and voice-to-text dictation was the primary text input method for Apple Watch, bar a handful of canned responses to messages and the like. It works okay, but I doubt I’m the only person who feels self-conscious talking into their watch like a wannabe Dick Tracy. Or, you could scribble a letter at a time, a quieter if more time-consuming system.

The on-screen keyboard offers another approach. It uses the same autocorrect as on iPhone, along with auto-complete, to minimize the amount of tapping and swiping you’ll need to do. You can peck at each letter, or drag your fingertip around and let the mighty algorithm do its decoding. Most of the time, I’ve found, it’s been accurate.

You’re not going to be sending lengthy emails or writing term papers this way, but it’s another welcome step toward the Apple Watch feeling like a standalone device in its own right, rather than an adjunct to the iPhone. It’s worth noting that only the Series 7 gets the QWERTY keyboard, one of a handful of watchOS 8 features exclusive to the newer, larger model.

One of the reasons I wear an Apple Watch daily is fitness tracking. I’m not a fan of working out, and so watchOS’ needling reminders to close my move, stand, and exercise rings are one of those things that I hate-appreciate. The array of sensors is not really changed from last year’s watch: blood oxygen saturation, which is very dependent on where the Apple Watch is positioned on your wrist; heart rate tracking; ECG for signs of irregular heart rhythm; and an always-on altimeter that tracks height. Tempting as it is to think of the Apple Watch as a mini doctor on your wrist, though, it’s not a medical device.

Improvements in watchOS have made tracking cycling more accurate, Apple says, as well as better figuring out just how much effort you’re actually putting in if you’ve got an e-bike. Fall detection should handle falls from while cycling more intelligently, too. Since I’m usually clipped into a Peloton instead, however, I’ve not noticed those improvements in daily life.

Similarly, if I had one of the latest BMW’s with their support for digital key, I could use the Apple Watch Series 7 and its U1 chip to unlock the car when I got close. Sadly I do not, though Apple does say it’s working with other automakers on implementing the technology. Given the rate of change of the car industry versus the tech world, mind, you could probably wait for the Apple Watch Series 8 or 9 before there’s a much bigger choice in vehicles.

Attempting to aid your patience there is the new Mindfulness app. It absorbs the functionality of the old Breathe app – which would periodically, infuriatingly, remind you to breathe – and adds a Reflect mode, which encourages 1-5 minutes of meditation. I could probably do with taking time out for that as much as any other middle-aged man who spends too much of the day online, but there’s something about the Apple Watch’s prompts that pumps my blood pressure instead. You can, of course, turn those notifications off.

Apple Watch Series 7 Verdict

On the one hand, the Apple Watch Series 7 is another incremental upgrade. If you already have a Series 6 on your wrist, or even a Series 5, you could realistically sit 2021’s version out and simply upgrade watchOS for many of the newer improvements. All the same, it’s a testament to just how good the Apple Watch was, and is, that Apple hasn’t really needed to reinvent the wheel in order to maintain its lead. I know a fair few people who stick with their iPhone predominantly because they don’t want to give up their Apple Watch, and I can’t say I blame them.

If you’re in that group, then the new watchOS is probably the best place to start. Those yet to dive into Apple Watch ownership, however, should begin their journey here. Apple may not have made vast changes to this generation of wearable, but the Apple Watch is still the best smartwatch, and the Apple Watch Series 7 is the best of the best.

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