Hands On Apple Watch Series 5

A couple of changes make a big difference for the popular wearable

An Apple Watch Series 5 on a man's wrist.
Apple Watch Series 5 displays the new Meridian face.

Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

When something’s going well, as Apple’s Watch business clearly is, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, a smart move is to change things a little as possible, and lean into what customers like most and fix small, niggling issues.

That’s the Apple Watch Series 5 in a nutshell. Externally, it’s the same size and shape as the Apple Watch Series 4, but Apple has made a handful of changes which current (and future) Apple Watch fans will appreciate.

The most obvious is the always-on display. I’ve been wearing Apple Watches for years and for as much as I like them, I never liked that the display went completely dark when I lowered my arm. Perhaps this is because of the seconds in which I would notice it black when I wanted to steal a quick, even surreptitious, glance for the time (“This meeting is going on forever, AMIRIGHT?”).

Tim Cook at stage at Apple's September 10, 2019 product announcement event.
Tim Cook unveils the new Apple Watch. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

It was also a little embarrassing. Real watches never turn off, even digital ones. The time and anything else they can offer is always visible. But allowances had to be made for smart watches which do a heck of a lot more than an old-school watch and have a lot of complex, power-hungry components in them, but just an itty-bitty battery.

This Watch Is Always On

Apple’s solution here is pretty cool. The Apple Watch Series 5 screen automatically switches from full brightness and full color to a somewhat dimmer when you lower your wrist. What you'll then see is a mostly black background display with lighter colors for elements you still want and need to see like the time and date. When you raise your wrist, the displays changes back to full color.

Apple Watch Series 5 on a man's wrist with the display in low power mode.
Apple Watch Series 5 displaying the Meridian face in Alwasy On Mode. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Behind the scenes (Or should I say, “screen”?) is something called low temperature polysilicon and oxide (LTPO) display. In Always-On Mode, the LPTO changes the screen refresh rate from a more power hungry 60 Hz to 1 Hz. As a result, the low-power always-on screen will, for instance, only change the second hand on your Apple Watch display once every second.

When the always-on screen feature is enabled (again, by lowering your wrist) it removes much of the bright white from most Apple Watch faces, but it doesn’t remove complications. Those features all still appear, though they update on a second-by-second basis.

When I tried the new screen in the demo space, I was surprised at how well the screen switched from active mode to always-on mode simply by me raising and lowering my hand.

Apple also addressed one of my other Apple Watch frustrations: the too bright screen in the very dark room. Now the ambient light sensor is constantly scanning for different light situations and will be much dimmer in, say, a movie theater than it would be outside.

Which Way Do I Go?

As a directionally challenged person, I’m probably more excited about the Apple Watch Series 5’s new compass capabilities and app than I should be. I like my watch can tell me not just the direction of the North Pole, but true north. Apparently, the Apple Watch will adjust for seasonal variations of the poles, so you don’t get “kind of” north. You get the real deal. The app itself is simple and worked perfectly in the demo space. I scrolled up on the Compass App screen and noticed it also displays a sea-level altitude reading.

Obviously, the compass is far more useful when it’s integrated into other apps, like Apple’s own maps app. Now the Apple Watch map display will have the same “which way am I facing?” arrow as it does on the iPhone. In addition, third-party companies, like Yelp, can integrate the same arrow so you know which way to go to find that awesome Thai restaurant.

Apple Watch Series 5 displaying the new Compass app.
Apple Watch Series 5 displaying the new Compass app. Lance Ulanoff / Lifewire

Apple didn’t do a lot with the Apple Watch Series 5 safety features, but did add the ability for the cellular models of the Apple Watch to dial emergency services (think 911 in the U.S. or 112 in Spain) in 150 different countries. So, if you take a fall in China, the watch can detect it and call local authorities.

Choose Your Design

I never had a problem with Apple selling matched pairings of the Apple Watch and band, but apparently some people thought they needed more choices. A feature Apple calls Apple Studio (in store or online) will let you choose your Apple Watch material and bands separately for a real mix-and-match experience. Pre-matched watches and bands are still available, too.

Also, it’s worth noting while the Apple Watch starts at $399 (GPS, only), you can quickly ramp up by choosing stainless steel, brushed titanium (which is lighter and yet stronger than stainless steel), or even ceramic (which is gorgeous).

If you want the option of a $199 Apple Watch, you’ll need to go back the still-available Series 3. It’s a good product but won’t have a compass or the new always-on display.

The new Apple Watch Series 5 is available to order now.