Apple Watch Series 5 review: A better, more independent timepiece

At this point, we all know what an Apple Watch is and what it does well. Apple knows that, too. So with the $399 Apple Watch Series 5, the company homed in on small features that could make a big difference when using the Watch on a daily basis.

You won’t find a radically different looking smartwatch here, nor will you find a smartwatch with a lot of new moving parts or even a dramatically upgraded CPU.

The Series 5 and watchOS 6 refine little details and push the Apple Watch even closer to being an independent device—and this is quite possibly the closest it will ever get to separating itself from the iPhone.

I’ve spent about one week with the Apple Watch Series 5 so far, and I can tell you up front that everything you liked about the Series 4 (and all models before it) still stands. Given that overlap, let’s instead focus on the new features and improvements, which are almost all (unsurprisingly) solid but may not warrant an upgrade for those happy with their Series 3 or Series 4 Watches.

Table of Contents

New hardware

Always-on Retina screen

There’s little difference in hardware between the Series 5 and Series 4 Watches, but the parts that are different may be very appealing to some users. Namely, the Apple Watch Series 5 has a new display sub-system that allows its OLED panel to remain on all the time. The display itself is the same LTPO panel that’s on the Series 4, but the Series 5 has new and improved internals that help the display support an always-on mode without sacrificing battery life.

According to Apple, the Series 5 has an ultra-low power display driver, a new power-management circuit, and a new ambient light sensor. All of those components work together to power the display all day long, allowing you to see information (most importantly, the time) even when your wrist is turned downward.

All of these changes are internal, so users won’t “see” them in action, but they might notice the improvements when they observe the Series 5’s display brightness. Previously, the Apple Watch’s display would go completely black when not in use, turning on when a user turns their wrist upward to check the time. Now, the Series 5’s display will still turn on full brightness when you check the time, but it will automatically dim (not turn off) and lower its refresh rate when you put your wrist down.

The display will also automatically adjust in brightness depending on your environment. The new ambient light sensor is essentially always on, whereas in previous Watch models it was not. The always-on display uses this ambient light sensor to constantly check the brightness of your environment so it can dynamically adjust the screen’s brightness appropriately.

Apple Watch Series 5

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For example, if you’re in a particularly dark room like a movie theater, the always-on display will not shine too brightly so as to distract you or others around you. The Apple Watch still has theater mode that you can enable at any time to prevent distractions like this in specific environments, but the convenience of the Series 5 is that you don’t have to do that, and you can still check the time just by glancing at your resting wrist.

But as anyone who has used an Apple Watch (or any other smartwatch) knows, the display shows much more than the time. It can show information via complications (depending on your selected watch face) and via app and smartphone alerts. Apple had to reconfigure many of these things to make them both compatible and appropriate with an always-on display.

The company edited aspects of almost every watch face available for the Series 5 (all of which are designed by Apple because it still does not allow third-party developers to make watch faces) so that they don’t draw excess power when you’re not actively looking at them. The new Meridian watch face, striking with its white background and black and red crawling watch hands, will basically invert its color scheme when your wrist is turned down. The white background turns black and the black hands turn white and become more visible, allowing the watch to retain its design and continue to show the time while consuming less power.

When a notification from your smartphone arrives on your wrist on the Series 5, it will still cause the watch to vibrate and make a noise (if you have sound turned on), but the details of that alert will not appear on the screen until you turn your wrist upward. That means you won’t have to worry about peeking eyes around you reading information from a text message or a sensitive email if they look at your watch.

Complications, or those tiny spaces on watch faces that display information from various apps, didn’t need as much reconfiguration because they were so small that they could remain largely untouched and not draw excess power. However, like smartphone notifications, there are some complications that display information, like the next meeting on your calendar, that you may not want the world to be able to see. To fix that, Apple added the new high-sensitivity complications mode that you can toggle on or off—when on, it blurs out sensitive complication information so only you can see it when you turn your wrist upward and actively look at the Watch’s display.

Battery life

An always-on display is a feature beloved by many wearables users, and many will rejoice that the Apple Watch finally has it. But the Apple Watch has one of the most accurate raise-to-wake features I’ve ever used in a smartwatch, so I never found myself dreaming of an Apple Watch with an always-on display.

Still, others have been dreaming of such a feature, and it certainly makes the Watch a better timepiece. Smartwatches are often criticized for doing things that humans don’t necessarily need while neglecting the most inherent aspect of a watch—the ability to tell time. So the Apple Watch Series 5, for its always-on display alone, is likely the best version of the smartwatch that Apple has ever made, particularly for timepiece purists.

Apple claims the Series 5 will continue to get 18 hours of battery life even with its always-on display, and I’m pleased to say that my Series 5 lasted almost exactly 18 hours (I wore it all day, through the night, and into the next day only taking it off to shower).

But I was more excited about the fact that you can turn off always-on mode whenever you want. This will make the Series 5’s display act like that of the Series 4—the panel will only turn on when you raise your wrist. Considering the battery life remains roughly the same as the Series 4 when the Series 5 has the always-on display active, it’s possible to get even more than 18 hours of life with the Series 5 if you turn off the always-on display mode.

Apple says that users shouldn’t expect gains in battery life if they do this, and in our talks, representatives appeared convinced that Series 5 users would love the always-on display mode so much that few would opt to turn it off. But for those who do turn it off, I found that you can gain many hours of battery life depending on how much you use the Watch.

My Series 5 delivers all of my smartphone alerts to my wrist (in addition to call and text alerts), and I track at least one hour of exercise per day with it. I don’t make calls using LTE very often, and I keep audio listening to my iPhone rather than my Watch. With my regular use (plus a little extra attention while I was testing out all the new watchOS 6 features) and always-on display mode turned off, I wore the Watch all day and all night and got roughly 33 hours of battery life.

Apple may be correct in assuming that those who buy a Series 5 will never want to turn off always-on display mode because it indeed makes the Watch look and feel more like an actual watch. It presents fewer compromises when using it purely as a timepiece rather than a device that can do much more. But for those who do often take advantage of the other things the Apple Watch can do, turning off always-on display mode paves the way for things like more convenient sleep tracking and easier periods of extended use.

Now, users essentially have two battery-saving methods: turning the always-on display mode off and the existing power reserve mode, which I’ve often used on previous version of the Watch to preserve some power overnight to use the next morning when I didn’t have the charger with me.

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