Great fitness tracking
Excellent health features
No Android support
Battery needs daily charging
As the best-selling watch on the planet, Apple is clearly doing something right with the Apple Watch. It’s a fact that’s even more impressive when you consider that the Apple Watch requires an iPhone to partner with, so there’s no point in anyone who uses an Android phone buying it. Apple has gradually improved the basic design and, as the name implies, the Apple Watch is now in its fifth generation.
Wear the Apple Watch Series 5 for just a few days and the reasons for its dominance become obvious. Comfortable to wear, with elegant design in both hardware and software, the Apple Watch Series 5 has all the fitness tracking and smartphone companion features you could want. It even boasts a few extras you didn’t realize you needed. Like each of its predecessors, the Apple Watch Series 5 succeeds the throne to rule as the smartwatch king.
About the Apple Watch Series 5
There’s a bewildering array of configurations available when you buy a new Apple Watch Series 5. It comes in two case sizes, finished in various materials and colors, and there are loads of bands. Here’s an idea of the pricing starting with the cheapest Apple Watch Series 5 models and going up to the most expensive:
- 40mm Aluminum Case with Sport Band is $399
- 44mm Aluminum Case with Sport Band is $429
- 40mm Stainless Steel Case with Modern Buckle is $799
- 44mm Stainless Steel Case with Milanese Loop is $799
- 40mm Titanium Case with Milanese Loop is $849
- 44mm Titanium Case with Leather Loop is $899
- 40mm Ceramic Case with Milanese Loop is $1,349
- 44mm Ceramic Case with Link Bracelet is $1,649
You also have the option of going for a GPS model or a GPS + Cellular model. The GPS models are WiFi only and must be in close proximity to a paired iPhone to connect to the internet when you’re away from WiFi. The GPS + Cellular models have LTE connectivity, so they can get online directly, which means you can leave your iPhone at home when you go out jogging, for example.
GPS + Cellular adds $100 to the price, but you will also have to add your Apple Watch to your carrier plan, which will likely cost around $10 per month. It’s also worth noting that a cellular connection requires more battery life, so the GPS + Cellular models won’t last as long between charges as the GPS models.
While there are many options for the exterior of your Apple Watch Series 5, the tech inside is identical whichever model you choose.
Display: LTPO OLED Always-On Retina display with Force Touch (44mm is 368 x 448 pixels, 40mm is 324 x 394 pixels)
Processor: S5 64-bit dual-core processor
- Connection: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS
- Water resistance: Up to 50 meters
- Audio: Microphone and speaker
- Battery: Up to 18 hours
- Storage: 32GB of storage
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Ambient light sensor
- Compass, Barometric altimeter
- Apple Pay
What We Like
The headline feature that sets the Apple Watch Series 5 apart from previous models is the always-on display. Older Apple Watch screens blink to life when you raise your arm to look at them, then shut off again to conserve battery, but the Apple Watch Series 5 is always lit (literally). It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way towards making it feel like a real watch. It’s nice to be able to glance down at the display whenever you like, without the need for any gesture.
The Series 5’s OLED display is sharp, always legible, and very responsive. Peak brightness is 1,000 nits, which is enough to stay readable in direct sunlight, while an ambient light sensor automatically drops the brightness when it’s darker. Touches and swipes register first time, every time, and the digital crown on the side offers finer control for scrolling up and down through menus or messages.
Fitness and health tracking
An essential component for any smartwatch, fitness tracking on the Apple Watch is perfectly pitched for the average person looking to stay healthy. Set your daily goals and your Apple Watch will give you gentle reminders throughout the day. Goals are divided into Move, Exercise, and Stand. The completion of each one is marked by a gentle buzz on your wrist and a ring-closing animation, with badges awarded for hitting targets. It’s surprisingly effective at motivating you.
There’s GPS tracking and heart rate monitoring on board, both of which are accurate. You can also record various kinds of workouts, including walking, cycling, and swimming. We also appreciate the option to record indoor workouts on exercise bikes, rowing machines, and ellipticals. Starting a workout should trigger recognition in the Apple Watch after ten minutes, sparking automatic recording, but we found that we sometimes had to start sessions manually, particularly for indoor exercise.
You can review daily progress on the Apple Watch, but you’ll want to dig into the Activity app on your iPhone to track your performance over time. There’s enough information there for most people, but athletes in training might prefer something more in-depth, like some of the specialist Garmin smartwatches for different activities.
The Apple Watch Series 5’s health features are what really set it apart, though. The electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor is a rare fixture in smartwatches, and we found it quick and easy to use the built-in ECG app. All the data is collected in the Health app on your iPhone and you can share it with your doctor. Even better, the Apple Watch will warn you if it detects atrial fibrillation, alerting you to an irregular heartbeat that could signal a health issue.
The Series 5’s fall detection can also be enormously useful in alerting your closest contacts or emergency services if you fall over and don’t move for a while. Apple has also introduced menstrual cycle tracking for women, which ties in with the Health app on your iPhone. Finally, there’s a new noise detection app that warns you if your surroundings are so loud that your hearing could be damaged.
Apps and iPhone notifications
The Apple Watch Series 5 is designed to be paired with an iPhone and you can configure everything through the iOS Watch app. It’s worth taking some time to decide on the apps that should trigger alerts on your wrist, and what form those alerts should take. You can decide whether apps should trigger a sound, vibration, or nothing at all, and we appreciate the granular control.
You can easily read incoming messages, but you’ll likely want to pick up your iPhone to reply. We were impressed by the audio quality on the Apple Watch for making and taking calls, which is a handy feature when your hands are full.
In addition to the usual suspects from your iPhone, there’s also support for third-party apps on the Apple Watch. You can get companion apps for everything from Uber to Evernote. The best apps offer tiny scaled-down versions, which Apple calls Complications. Up to eight can be displayed on your chosen watch face, showing at-a-glance info, and you can tap for a full-screen breakdown. These work especially well for fitness and weather apps.
Press down on the digital crown and you can launch Siri. Apple’s assistant works just the same on your wrist as it does on your phone, allowing you to ask questions, set reminders, start workouts, open apps, and more.
There are two more nifty features that make the most of the partnership with the iPhone. Firstly, the ability to remotely trigger the camera shutter from the Apple Watch is great for getting everyone into group photos. We also appreciate the option to ping your iPhone and make it play a sound, so you can dig it out of the back of the couch (or wherever it has ended up) quickly.
Navigation and Apple Pay
We’ve always found the Apple Watch to be handy for navigation. You can track your location or get directions on Apple Maps right on your wrist. If you’re cycling, or maybe in a strange neighborhood, you don’t necessarily want to be pulling your phone out of your pocket all the time. Apple has improved navigation in the Apple Watch Series 5 with the addition of a compass, so you can see which way you are facing and always head in the right direction.
Being able to make payments from your wrist can also be enormously handy at times. With Apple Pay, you can add credit and debit cards on your iPhone and then pay using your Apple Watch by simply double-clicking the side button and holding your wrist next to the contactless reader. You can also access tickets in your Apple Wallet app.
What We Don’t Like
Battery life is still an issue
The big challenge for Apple in adding the always-on display was to maintain good battery life. Apple found some clever ways to reduce the inevitable impact, such as dropping some details, like milliseconds during a workout, from the display until you raise your wrist to look. That way you still get the time with a glance. The refresh rate also varies from 60Hz, where the image is refreshing at 60 frames per second, all the way down to 1Hz, where it refreshes once per second, but it’s not something we noticed during testing.
Apple suggests you’ll get up to 18 hours of mixed use on a single charge, and that’s in line with our testing. Much depends on how you use your Apple Watch, but on an average day, we had 20 to 30 percent left in the tank at bedtime. As a result, you tend to get into the routine of putting your Apple Watch on the charger every night, but there’s no denying it would be nice to have longer battery life.
No love for Android
If you’re looking for other flaws, the lack of sleep tracking might figure, though it seems moot when the Apple Watch requires nightly charging.
Perhaps the greatest shame is that the Apple Watch can’t be used with Android phones, because, as good as it is, we’re not sure it will tempt comfortable Android users to buy an iPhone. On the other hand, if you're looking to upgrade more than your watch anyway, the critically acclaimed $400 iPhone SE could make for a compelling brand swap for some.
Should You Buy It?
If you’re an iPhone owner, absolutely
The Apple Watch Series 5 is the perfect iPhone accompaniment. It’s a smartwatch that’s there when you need it, but it melts into the background when you don’t. Reaching the end of the test period I was reticent to take it off.
No other smartwatch we’ve tested has come close to the Apple Watch in terms of the feature list or the overall experience. It can be very expensive, but the entry-level models are easily good enough, so you don’t have to spend more than $399 for the 40mm, or $429 for the 44mm. If you want to go running and leave the iPhone at home, spring an extra $100 for the cellular connectivity and add the Apple Watch to your plan.
If you already own an earlier model of the Apple Watch, the Series 5 may be a tougher sell. A lot of the features that were introduced with the Series 5 came as part of the watchOS 6 update, which also rolled out to every previous model, apart from the original Apple Watch from 2015. Apple still sells the Series 3, and it’s a great, cheaper alternative to the Series 5.
Anyone primarily interested in fitness features might look at Garmin and Fitbit smartwatches. If you don’t own an iPhone, you should check out Samsung’s Galaxy watch range and consider the latest Wear OS devices.
Ultimately, the Apple Watch Series 5 is easy to recommend. It’s rare to have a category leader that’s this far ahead of the pack, and even though the gap is starting to close, we think the Apple Watch will remain the smartwatch to beat for some time to come.
Meet the tester
Simon Hill is a freelance technology journalist with a decade of writing experience covering everything from smartphones to smart home gadgets. For the last few years, he served as Associate Editor at Digital Trends where he wrote features, reviews, analysis, how-tos, and more.
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