Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

Series 4 or Series 5? We help you decide whether you need to make the upgrade
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The Apple Watch Series 5 is here and it's the best smartwatch you can buy right now according to our definitive guide.

But given the deals around on the Apple Watch Series 4, we've had plenty of readers asking what the big differences are between the Series 5, and whether it's still worth buying.

And that's a great question, given the Series 4 benefits from the newer shape, ECG and fall detection features.

Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 5 review vs Apple Watch Series 4 review

So, what are the differences between the Series 5 and Series 4 that really matter?

We've done the work for you and highlighted the big points of comparison - read on for what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: What's new?

1. The always-on retina display

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

If there's a key difference between the Series 5 and Series 4 day-to-day, it's that the Series 5 is the first Apple Watch to offer an always-on display.

This means the screen will remain on and dimmed even when your wrist isn't up – a change from previous models, which only saw the display light up when touched or when the wrist was raised.

This feature is made possible thanks to a new low-temperature polysilicone and oxide display (LTPO), ultra-low power display driver and an ambient light sensor. This display tech can reduce the refresh rate to stop the screen sucking all the power. This isn't just a software change, so you won't be seeing it rolled out onto older Apple Watch models.

You can disable that always-on mode if you choose, and even select if some complications are visible when you're not looking at the screen. For example, if you've got a calendar appointment you don't need on show, you can hide it. It's a feature we've been asking for since the first Apple Watch and we're glad it's finally been added.

2. New finishes

Apple has stuck to the same 40mm and 44mm case options that it moved to with the Series 4.

You still get a rectangular-looking watch with an improved heart rate sensor tech around the back, a digital crown with haptic feedback like the Series 4 and a physical button below that crown. Both are also available in LTE and GPS/LTE models.

However, while the Series 4 and 5 watches look near identical, you do now have the option to pick the Watch up in two new finishes. Well, it's actually one new finish, with Apple bringing back a ceramic option that was last present in the Series 3.

The new one? A titanium case. And, as you might expect, this is a finish exclusive to the new Series 5.

3. A built-in compass

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

The Apple Watch is a pretty solid sports watch, and it's improving its powers for when you're out on an adventure.

Like the Series 4, the Series 5 offers comprehensive satellite mapping support, an altimeter to track elevation but on top of that also adds in a compass.

The arrival of that Compass sensor and a dedicated app means you should see richer mapping features to improve your tracking letting you see details about latitude, longitude, heading and incline. This will no doubt be most useful for developers building Apple Watch apps where compass data would prove useful.

Apple has warned that certain bands could affect the accuracy of the new compass feature. The company clarified to us that problem arises with its Leather Loop, Milanese Loop, and Modern Buckle bands. It also applies to earlier Sport Loop bands, which contained magnetic materials.

4. More built-in storage

You won't physically be able to see this difference, but, if you love hoarding apps and music, the increased storage on the Series 5 might be a big deal for you.

Both the GPS and the GPS + Cellular/LTE version of the Series now offer 32GB of storage. That's double of what you get on the Series 4.

5. Improved emergency calling

One difference that Apple highlighted is available to users who purchase the Series 5 with a cellular plan and model – international emergency calling.

This means that when you're travelling, you can choose to activate it (or enable it if your watch detects a hard fall followed by immobility) and call the emergency services right from your wrist with no phone required at all. The Series 4, on the other hand, only let you call emergency services in the country you bought it in.

It's not something we've managed to put to the test, but if those safety features are a big deal for you, this is something you may want at your disposal.

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: What is the same?

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

1. Battery life is still just 18 hours

Despite the addition of an always-on display, Apple states the same 18-hour battery life that the Series 4 manages without the feature.

While it was certainly disappointing to not see more juice added to the smartwatch line, the fact Apple is managing to bring a substantial display improvement while maintaining old standards is an achievement – even if it's a small one.

Read this: Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 3

But, having the Watch in always-on mode does reduce battery life performance based on our time using it. You should still get a day's use out of it and maybe stretch to a couple of days depending on usage.

2. The display has changed, but not the overall design

We now have new technology and software powering the Always-On Retina Display, but the physical design of the Apple Watch Series 5 is the same as the Series 4 as we've already mentioned.

The 40mm Series 4 watch has a 324 x 394 resolution, while the 44mm version of the Series 4 brings you 368 x 448. Where form factor is concerned, the Series 5 also measures in at 10.7mm thick.

The Series 4 also introduced a change to Apple's digital crown, giving it haptic feedback and building electrodes into it to allow for ECG readings. These features return for the Series 5, along with that red ring to help distinguish the models from the older Series 3.

3. Old bands will still work with the new model

Just like with the Series 4, Apple has been careful to make sure that all of its Apple Watch accessories work between generations of the wearable, and that's set to continue.

Providing that they're for the same size of watch, your Apple Watch straps should work across all generations of the Apple Watch.

You can see our favourites here in our roundup of the best Apple Watch bands.

4. Picking up an Apple Watch still costs the same

Apple has resisted the urge to increase the price between generations, with the starting price of the Series 5 exactly in line with what the Series 4 was previously – .

The Series 3 got a price cut as a result of the Series 5's launch, down to $199, and the Series 4 will no longer be sold by Apple – though it will still be available through third-party retailers.

Expect prices to fall as the holiday season approaches.

5. Both will run the same software and features

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

Both Apple Watch models run on watchOS 6, the very latest version of Apple's smartwatch operating system. Given the two watches have identical display sizing and designs, there's little to no drop off in the features.

On both, you can use Apple Pay, automatic activity and sports tracking with GPS tracking, ECG monitoring through the optical heart sensor and 4G/LTE to cut the tether from your iPhone.

In our experience, those features work in a very similar fashion as they do on the Series 4. GPS and heart rate tracking serve up solid results and smartwatch features like notification support and Siri integration offer up a familiar feel too.

On top of that, the same range of Apple Watch apps are available across both watches. One of the major additions to watchOS 6 is coming in the health department, as Apple goes even further in its commitment to health tracking.

A forthcoming app, Research, will allow users to opt in to providing data for ongoing health studies, and some of these will use your Apple Watch to harvest information.

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Which is best?

Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4: Pick the right watch for you

If it wasn't already apparent, the differences between the Series 5 and the Series 4 are minimal - perhaps as minimal as we've ever seen between Apple Watch generation.

For us, it really all boils down to how much you value the Always-On Display, on-board compass and extra storage. If these things aren't a big deal for you, then actually saving some money and picking up a Series 4 might be the best option.

It's still one of the best smartwatches - arguably the second best watch you can buy - and you're still getting ECG readings, the same software smarts and all the watch band options you can dream of.

If you're opting for the Series 5, you are getting some nice extras that may well make a difference in your daily interactions. The improved display is excellent, and the new finish options may be a lure, as well.

How we test

Conor Allison


Conor moved to Wareable Media Group in 2017, initially covering all the latest developments in smartwatches, fitness trackers, and VR. He made a name for himself writing about trying out translation earbuds on a first date and cycling with a wearable airbag, as well as covering the industry’s latest releases.

Following a stint as Reviews Editor at Pocket-lint, Conor returned to Wareable Media Group in 2022 as Editor-at-Large. Conor has become a wearables expert, and helps people get more from their wearable tech, via Wareable's considerable how-to-based guides. 

He has also contributed to British GQ, Wired, Metro, The Independent, and The Mirror. 

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