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

Always-on display and new finishes bring a healthy dose of style
First look: Apple Watch Series 5

The Apple Watch Series 5 has arrived, and we've got one on our wrist for testing.

Unlike the Series 3 and Series 4, which brought a data connection and ECG to the Watch respectively, the Series 5 is less of a leap forward and more of a step.

The changes here are more measured and almost entirely focused on design – but they improve the Apple Watch where it counts.

Read this: Apple Watch Series 5 – what we didn't see

Below you'll find our review in progress. We want to make sure we test it thoroughly, and we'll be spending the next few days putting the Series 5 through its paces. Expect our full verdict soon.

New colors, new flourishes

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

The Series 4 also changed the dimensions of the Apple Watch, knocking up both size options by 2mm, and the Series 5 again comes in 40mm and 44mm sizes.

In fact, there's absolutely zero difference in shape and size between the Series 4 and Series 5. What is different is the new line-up of materials and colors to choose from. Ceramic is back, but it also costs £1,299.

The new brushed titanium finish, which comes in black or grey, is a little more reasonable at £799, but still £100 more expensive than the stainless steel model, which is still doing its thing. But you also have the choice of GPS-only or cellular, the latter of which will cost more.

The cheapest Series 5 you can get is £399, which is the GPS-only in aluminum. £499 will get you an LTE model. The model you see in the picture is that exact one, in Space Grey.

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. My hot take: that's Apple's killer move this year. If I was any other company in the wearables space right now, I'd be terrified.

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

It’s interesting to see some of these new flourishes and designs in the Series 5. If you recall the very first Watch, Apple poured a lot into its premium finishes, including a staggeringly-expensive 18-karat gold version. Then, some of those went away as Apple honed its focus on fitness, the aluminum model being an obvious champion of that cause.

It's always offered nicer options like the stainless steel, sure, but with the Series 5, it feels more like Apple's putting the focus back on the Watch as a fashion accessory.

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. 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.

A screen that’s never off

Apple Watch Series 5 first look: A better imitation of a 'real' watch
Screen in dimmed mode (left) and fully on (right)

The Apple Watch could already save your life. Now it can tell you the time. Apple has finally given us an always-on screen with the Series 5, thanks to the low-temperature polycrystalline oxide display (LTPO).

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, like 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.

The Watch uses an ambient sensor to adjust how bright the dimmed state is. Right now my thinking is that it could go dimmer. I wore it out to dinner in a dimly lit restaurant, and it was the perfect brightness to be noticeable but not distracting. But walking home in the dark I couldn't help but notice it was drawing more attention to my wrist.

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

I'll need more time with this. But these niggles aside, it really helps the Apple Watch feel like more of... a watch.

Apple is also claiming this won't hammer the battery, stating you should still get up to 18 hours. However, there is definitely an impact on stamina here, and Apple says that anyone who's used to getting more than the quoted 18 hours (which we often have on the Series 4 when we use it less intensively) will see a reduction.

We need more time with the Series 5 to fully understand how the always-on display can affect battery life, but so far it's minimal at best.

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

The always-on feature applies to all faces, but some offer more than others in the dimmed state. Some of the more animated ones, like the Toy Story face, will just show the digital clock in the corner.

Also, the always-on display will still work if you're in another app (such as the music player) but it will just give you a digital readout of the time, nothing more.

You can also turn off the always-on display if you'd prefer to have it go off completely. We'll be testing to see if this extends the battery life too. Watch this space.

Hey there, watchOS 6

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

Of course, new Watch, new software. The Series 5 comes with watchOS 6, but so long as you have an Apple Watch Series 1 or later (and an iPhone running iOS 13) you can get it too.

Some of the new features are exclusive to the latest watch. One of those is the compass, which works… well, like a compass. Contrary to expectations, it does not always point to Tim Cook's "North Star", but actual north – and has worked great so far in our testing.

While news of a compass might not thrill you, Apple says developers will be able to tap into it for their own apps, which would be great for outdoors features.

The Series 5's SOS function is also better, as it will now let you call the emergency services in any country you're in, and it will connect you with the appropriate first responders.

In terms of other new features, watchOS 6 brings a bunch of new watch faces (again, all support always-on mode), new women's health features, and on-Watch App Store. There's also Apple's Noise app, which monitors sound around you and tells you if you're being exposed to noise levels that could damage your hearing. One of the new watch faces actually has this baked into it.

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

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

Early verdict

The Series 4 was a huge moment in the Apple Watch timeline; the Series 5 may seem underwhelming by comparison, with not enough at first look to justify an upgrade for Series 4 owners.

But for those who have finally convinced themselves to buy an Apple Watch, the Series 5 improves and refines in several places, and offers more customization than ever before. But I'll say it again: It's that £199 Series 3 that's going to help Apple eat up a market it already dominates.

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  • 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.