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Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire
Always-on display is a nice real-watch update
Noise App is watching out for your ears
Excellent health and fitness tracking
The model you want will probably cost over $700
Apple Watch gets a little more watch-like with an always-on display and even better at helping you find your way in the world with Compass. Apple Watch Series 5 is a small but useful update to an already good smartwatch.
It’s a testament to the utility of the Apple Watch that, despite having drawers full of classic, functioning analog watches, I wear the Apple Watch every single day.
It fulfills the basic needs of at-a-glance time and date but looks sharp enough that I never feel like I’m sacrificing wrist-bound design for intelligence.
Sure, there have been some concessions. The square body has never been my favorite watch case style (95% of all the watches I own have round faces) and I really prefer a thinner watch. Still, features like turn-by-turn navigation that gently (hapticly, actually) tap my wrist to inform me in advance of the next turn, its canny ability to sense when I’ve entered a brisk walk workout before I even realize it, notifications for social media, appointments, and email, and the ability to quickly respond to a text by tapping an emoji have all have become invaluable. I've even grown fond of its frequent reminders that I stand up. (Not so much with the "Breathe" reminders.)
Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t wear a watch. And, according to an interview with Jony Ive (Apple's former Chief Design Officer), the idea for creating the company's first wearable didn't even come about until 2012. Even so, Apple clearly likes and appreciates watches and, with each iteration, including the new Apple Watch Series 5, has worked to make its best-selling wearable more watch-like.
If you were looking for a wholesale redesign of Apple Watch or the watchOS subsystem, this is not your year. The Apple Watch Series 5 chassis is unchanged from last year, as are the majority of the components (including the 394x324 display). Apple Watch Series 5 still comes in 40mm and 44 mm varieties. My test unit is a 44mm Stainless Steel Apple Watch Series 5. I was a little sad I didn’t get to try the new Titanium material (or the return of ceramic!). Similarly, Apple watchOS 6 offers a number of valuable updates, but it's no redesign.
Apple Watch Series 5’s biggest change is the Always-On Retina Display. For me, an avowed, old-school watch fan, this is a big deal.
When I wore my traditional watches, they were always running and quite visible to others no matter how I held my wrist. Heck, that’s part of the reason I loved wearing classic timepieces: People would notice the faces and ask me about them (I had an awesome Beethoven one where his piano-playing hands were also the hour and minute hands).
Up to now, Apple Watch’s face was only on when you raised your wrist. It was a smart move, allowing Apple to promise nearly 18-hours of smartwatch battery life, but when I lowered my wrist, the watch turned into an inert piece of metal with a black glass (or sapphire crystal) face.
The Always-On display is not just a “leave it on and hope battery life isn’t terrible technology.” I like how Apple thought this through by using a combination of technologies to keep the face lit and glanceable no matter what.
Last year, Apple introduced LPTO (Low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide) technology to its OLED Retina display as part of its larger display (it also curved the corners). Not one talked about what benefits might be gained from LTPO tech.
It's LTPO that allows the Apple Watch Series 5 to slow its refresh rate from 60 Hz per to 1 Hz (basically from 60 times per second to 1 time per second). This gives it a much slower and less power consuming display refresh rate. As a result, the display will only change for, say, an appointment or important notification or just once per minute. In the case of the Infograph watch face that normally has a secondhand cruising around the face as it ticks off seconds, the second hand disappears in the Always-On mode and the minute hand only changes at minute intervals.
The more obvious change in Always On mode is that the bright white backgrounds turn black on some faces. In others, bright colors go more muted. Apple adjusted all its watch faces to work in Always On mode. The Mickey Mouse watch face, for example, turns off a lot of the colors and brightness, but leaves Mickey's white gloves on the hands. Overall, the brightness diminishes by what appears to be about 50 percent. The result is a watch face that appears to be resting but can still be read even when I just glance down at my wrist.
Keeping the screen on all the time naturally means the Apple Watch display consumes more battery life, but Apple combined the LTPO tech with a new low-power display driver, a more energy-efficient power management integrated circuit, and a much more aware ambient light sensor.
The last has the added benefit of keeping the Apple Watch Series 5 from turning into a power-draining beacon in, say, a darkened theater or dinner spot. The sensor pays better attention to its light environment and I noticed that it even muted the display brightness in my living room where I’d dimmed the lights to watch TV.
I’ve gotten so used to the sometimes-over-bright Apple Watch face that this more sensible display has taken some getting used to. When I first glanced at the now more tactful interface, I felt like I was straining a bit to see it. This was a “me” problem, not an “Apple Watch” problem. It wasn’t long before I got used to the more responsive Apple Watch Series 5 display. I also have the option of raising the default screen brightness, though that might adversely impact my battery life.
One thing I do not like, though, is that the transition back from Always On to truly on is a little slow. It can take a beat for the Apple Watch Series 5 to return to full brightness.
Apple does, however, succeed in its effort to create an always-on display in an Apple Watch that lasts 18 hours on a single charge. I have worn the Apple Watch Series 5 all day long without ever running out of power before I seated it back on the wireless charging base at night.
As I mentioned, one of my favorite Apple Watch features is its navigational capabilities, driven by Apple Maps. I can’t imaging traveling without it and those turn-by-turn directions. As a navigationally impaired human, I appreciate the addition of a compass component and a live Compass App. The app lives in the watch and can tell me exactly which direction I’m facing. The interface is like a physical compass in digital form. Swiping up on the interface gives me access to more specific location details, including latitude, longitude, and ground elevation. I didn’t have the opportunity to climb any mountains, but, according to the Apple Watch Series 5 compass, I’m at about 20 ft above sea level in my home and, on the sixth floor of my Manhattan office building, about 60 ft above sea level.
Overall, having access to this detail screen makes it feel like I’ve tapped into a direct feed from the Apple Watch Series 5 sensors.
I liked the compass so much that I added it as a complication (that’s a little detail of extra information on a watch face, like the date or your appointments) on my go-to watch face. No one will ever be able to point me in the wrong direction again.
There are a handful of other interesting updates on Apple Watch Series 5. Siri now has Shazam-like capabilities. When I hear music, I can lift my hand and ask Siri, “What’s that song?” The smartwatch uses its mics to listen and, in my tests, properly identifies songs, even displaying album covers.
Siri can also search the web and display a list of search results on the watch. Of course, Siri has to understand you. When I asked for the capitol of Montana, I got a perfect result (it’s Helena). But when I asked Siri to show me Apple iPhone reviews, she told me to go online to find out more information about Apple TV+.
There are a number of new safety features which are almost impossible for me to test. My favorite though, is Noise. It can tell you the current ambient noise level in decibels and whether long-term exposure to it will damage your hearing. You can also set up the Apple Watch Series 5 to warn you if you’re in a situation (for more than a few minutes) with ear-drum-damaging noise levels. I didn’t attend any death metal concerts this week, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to test this.
There’s also the ability to make International Emergency calls through the watch in over 150 countries. Sounds like a great feature I hope to never use.
It’s worth reiterating that the Apple Watch Series 5 is also a great stand-alone digital companion. It has built-in GPS, so you always know where you’re going, the aforementioned Compass, storage for your own music content (32 GB), built-in Apple Pay, and, depending on the model, cellular service for calls, text and data (this usually costs roughly $12 a month extra on your mobile bill).
Speaking of going it alone, Apple Watch now has direct access to the App Store on the watch, or rather it will. This feature wasn’t available during testing. It will launch with watchOS 6, which means that other Apple Watch models will also gain access to the store.
It’s also an excellent health and fitness device, intelligently detecting when I start a workout and tapping my wrist to not only let me start, but to give me credit for all the time I was working out before the notification. It has excellent Activity tracking. My wife (she has the Apple Watch Series 3) and I now live in a world where closing our rings means something.
Integrated with that health tracking is Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor, so I always know what kind of exercise, resting and recovery heart rates I’m achieving. It's also watching for irregular and high heart rates. And then there’s that built in electro-cardiogram and ECG App. To use it, I make sure the watch is snug on my wrist and the place one finger on the digital crown. After 30 seconds I know if I have sinus rhythm (good) or need to visit a doctor.
Apple Watch Series 5 is still ready for a swim and can handle gentle surf in about up to 50M of water.
The Apple Watch Series 5 I tested, a 44 mm stainless steel model with a Milanese loop band and cellular support, costs $799, but you can buy a 38mm GPS-only model with a sport band for as little as $399.
Cellular connectivity is nice to have, as are the high-end materials, but I think the 38mm Apple Watch Series 5 is a great value and you still get the Always-On display, map access, the compass and all the health and activity features.
Apple Watch Series 5 doesn't necessarily raise the bar for smartwatches but, with it, Apple has polished its already excellent wearable. I remain a fan.