Apple Watch Series 5 review

Always-on display and new finishes bring a healthy dose of style
Apple Watch Series 5
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With the Apple Watch Series 5, Apple's smartwatch has finally hit its stride.

It's easy to forget the Apple Watch hasn't been around for very long, and the Series 4 represented its biggest leap forward in that short timeline. Yeah, the Series 3 added a cellular connection, but while Apple’s application of this tech was impressive, it was nothing new.

The Series 4, however, introduced an ECG that could detect signs of atrial fibrillation, meaning it could literally saves lives, while also changing the dimensions and shape of the smartwatch.

Essential reading: Apple Watch Series 5 v Series 4

The Series 5? Well, it can tell you the time. It has an always-on display, you see.

But we jest a little, because with the Series 5 Apple has bounded ahead so far it has the luxury of focusing on more subtle improvements.

Amazon: Apple Watch Series 5
Amazon: Apple Watch Series 5

We’ve been living with it for a short while. We’ve run with it. We’ve danced with it on our wrist. We’ve slept with it. We’ve lived with the Apple Watch Series 5 – here’s our full verdict.

Apple Watch Series 5: Design and always-on watch display

Apple Watch Series 5 review

The Series 4 bumped up the sizes of the Watch to 40mm and 44mm, and Apple’s sticking with that again on the Series 5.

Read this: Best Apple Watch bands to buy now

In fact, put the Series 4 and Series 5 next to one another and you won't spot a difference in the overall design. What is different is the new line-up of materials and colors to choose from, including a new brushed titanium finish, which comes in black or grey, and weighs a little less (but costs $100 more) than the stainless steel, which is still doing its thing.

Ceramic also makes a comeback on Series 5 but will cost you $1,299, while the cheapest Series 5 you can get is $399, which is the GPS-only in aluminum.

And with each model you have the choice of GPS-only or cellular, the latter of which will cost more, and starts at $499

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

Not only do we now have the ceramic and titanium options, but there are leather bands and even a Milanese gold loop as well. There are a lot more ways to customize your Watch, and in fact Apple has changed the purchase process, online and in-store, so you can buy your Apple Watch with any band you choose.

Apple's also continuing its partnerships with Nike and Hermès, offering bespoke bands and watch faces for both once again.

Want an Apple Watch and don't mind missing some of the latest features? The Series 3 is now the cheapest entry point at $199. Our hot take: that's Apple's killer move with this product cycle, and should give Fitbit and others plenty of reason to worry.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

But the biggest new feature on the Series 5 is the always-on screen, something made possible by the new low-temperature polycrystalline oxide display, aka LTPO, which can reduce the refresh rate to stop the screen sucking all the power.

When it kicks in – either by putting your wrist down by your side or covering the screen with a hand – the display will dim, and certain animations, such as the second hand, will stop. Apple says it knocks down the refresh rate from 60Hz to as low as 1Hz, so you'll still see complications update and the minute/hour hands move, but that's it.

An always-on display might not seem like a reason to upgrade, and for those with a Series 4 or Series 3, we’d recommend holding out for Series 6; however, it does have the desired effect of making the Apple Watch feel less like a computer and more like a real watch. You can glance at the watch subtly and still see the time, which was an annoying part of having the screen turn off on Series 0-4.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

Apple’s reworked some of its own apps to make use of this new feature too. For example, in the Workout app, information like the seconds disappear for a simpler display.

If an app hasn’t been designed to do anything with the always-on screen (and that covers all the third-party apps right now) it will simply blur what's on the display and give you an overlay of a digital clock.

Apple Watch Series 5: Features & watchOS 6

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

The always-on display is the biggest new feature here, but not the only one. With each new Apple Watch we also get an update to watchOS, which this year comes in the form of watchOS 6 and has now rolled out to all Series bar the very first.

Essential reading: Best Apple Watch faces to try out

However, the new compass feature is exclusive to Series 5 models. This works, well, just like a compass, and lives in a separate app. Along with elevation and incline measurements, the compass also gives you a cone of confidence to convey how accurately it's reading.

One thing to be wary of: certain magnetic bands can interfere with the accuracy. More on that here.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

The compass doesn't feel like a must-have feature for anyone but the most ardent of hikers. If you’re lost deep in the wilderness and relying on a smartwatch that barely offers over a day of battery life… we don't fancy your chances.

On the plus side, the Series 5's SOS function is now improved, and it will now let you call the emergency services in any country you're in, so long as you have the cellular version, and will connect you with the appropriate first responders.

So if that compass isn't going to save you, there's a backup option at least.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

Another new feature is Apple's Noise app, which monitors sound around you and gives you a notification if you're being exposed to noise levels that could damage your hearing.

We only had it warn us on two occasions. Once while on the dance floor at a wedding, having grooved our way right near the speakers, the second time when we were wearing the Apple Watch in the shower and – we suspect – the water hit the mic directly.

Which is to say, it seems to work as it should do, and you can even have it as a complication on certain faces.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

watchOS 6 also finally brings a menstrual cycle tracking app to the Apple Watch, but it's been deployed carefully. The app can predict both your period and your fertility window, but it won't display any of this information in a complication (many people would not want this seen by prying eyes).

Speaking of which, we also get a bunch of new watch faces and an on-watch App Store, the latter of which is another major step forward in breaking up with the iPhone.

It means that, so long as there's a connection either to your phone or directly over cellular, you can search for and download apps directly onto the Apple Watch without installing them on your iPhone first. You can search using dictation or by scribbling words in one letter at a time.

What's less smart about this move is that Apple has removed the App Store from within the Watch iOS app, so the only way to browse is on your wrist. It wants developers to build Watch apps that run independently of an iPhone app, but it's far easier to search and browse on a phone than it is on a tiny watch screen.

For a more detailed look at the new software, check out our full watchOS 6 guide.

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch

Apple Watch Series 5: Heart rate and GPS performance

In terms of heart rate performance, we’re looking at a similar situation to the Series 4. We performed a number of side-by-side tests against a chest strap – and found that on steady runs, performance of the Apple Watch’s optical sensor largely mirrored that of a Garmin chest strap.

Essential reading: Putting the Apple Watch Series 5 to the marathon test

We ran several training runs at various paces, including a 5K race in which we spent most of the run in zone 4 – and couldn’t find fault with the heart rate tracking. The average for the 24 minute run was the same on chest strap and Apple Watch, and the sensor had no problems keeping up with our bpm climbing through the gears.

However, like Apple Watch smartwatches before it – and every single other optical device out there – we didn’t get quite the same experience for our HIIT sessions. Explosive rises in heart rate aren’t tracked as accurately, especially when flexes of the arm are involved.

Apple Watch Series 5 review

The analysis of heart rate is much better, though, and you can review workouts in the Activity app on your iPhone. It’s not as easy to explore the data as in Garmin Connect, which points to perhaps a less prosumer audience – although curiously the information is presented with some quite cryptic data about heart rate recovery, while it wasn’t really clear how to read it.

Not shown in the Activity app – but present in Apple Health – is VO2 Max data. This isn’t new to Series 5 but is presented more centrally in Apple Health. We haven’t validated the Apple Watch’s reading against a treadmill, but we have had a VO2 Max test.

We’d expect this number to be between 47 and 50, which is also our reading from the Garmin Fenix 5S (49ml/kg/min) which we found to be most accurate against the test. Apple’s reading was 42ml/kg/min – a lot lower.

Resting heart rate averaged 49, which is in line with both Fitbit, Garmin and chest strap readings.

In short, the Apple Watch is as good an optical heart rate sensor as any sports watch on the market. If you’re into HIIT classes and really focus on the minutiae of your performance data, you will need a chest strap. That’s the same for any device. But the key fact is that in terms of heart rate tracking, you’re just as well off with a Series 5 as any other wrist-worn wearable.

When it comes to distance accuracy we didn't have any complaints, but it's important to note that the Apple Watch Series 5 will default to your iPhone's GPS if it's present. If that device is placed in a poor location for GPS signal (bag, running belt etc) it could cause squiffy results.

To counter act this (and the wider issue of GPS being flakey as a technology) the Apple Watch will learn your gait to make up for pacing when GPS gets patchy – but this can take a few runs to build up. These two factors can combine for distancing issues in your first couple of runs. However, quickly our Apple Watch Series 5 became a decent GPS and running companion – as witnessed in our marathon test – and we have completed numerous accredited races, each tracked perfectly.

Apple Watch Series 5: Battery life

Apple claims the Series 5 can achieve the same 18 hours as the Series 4.

The addition of that always-on display mode (if you choose to have it turned on) does still reduce that battery life. While Apple does claim that your Apple Watch should roughly last the same amount of time, we did notice a 10% reduction in longevity.

Read this: How to improve Apple Watch battery life

It will still last for a full day of moderate use, and we can still stretch that to a day and a half with less interactivity, but while we would often be able to manage our Series 4 through two days, that’s no longer the case on the Series 5.

Amazon: Apple Watch Series 5
Amazon: Apple Watch Series 5


Apple Watch Series 5
By Apple
The Series 5 is a small upgrade on paper, but the always-on display has the desired effect of making this feel much closer to a real watch. You do sacrifice some battery life for it, but not drastically so. Otherwise, the biggest changes come with watchOS 6 – most of which older Watch owners can still enjoy.

Hit
  • Always-on display
  • Menstrual-cycle tracking
  • More options than ever
Miss
  • Battery life takes a cut
  • Very minor upgrade


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2 comments

  • DCRunner·

    So far, I'm not impressed with mine, it eats battery faster than my 4. I really dislike Watch OS6. It's a mess.

  • ssallen·

    Except after 5 iterations its still derpy looking. Why won't Apple redesign it? Its embarrassing to wear!