Apple Watch Series 5 is a big iterative improvement over its predecessor, maybe more so than any other update to Apple Watch so far. In fact, it has so much in common with the Apple Watch Series 4 that outside of a few obvious differences they can easily be confused for the same watch.
Although Apple Watch Series 5 is ultimately a big step for the hardware in the right direction, such growth is not entirely devoid of growing pain. Do you need to upgrade from a previous Apple Watch generation? The specifics are given by our hands-on Apple Watch Series 5 video review.
- Always-on display
- Magnetometer for compass functionality
- 64-bit dual-core S5 processor
- Up to 18 hours of battery life
- 32GB of storage
- New titanium case finishes
- Available ceramic finish
- Starts at $399
New case finishes
The most notable visual exterior difference between the finishes used in the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 5. For the first time, two titanium options join the Apple Watch range, and ceramic returns after the Series 4 lineup has been omitted.
For those who want something more than aluminum, the two titanium options— a natural finish and a space black finish— offer a more premium option but don’t feel like going down the traditional stainless steel path. All titanium options come under the’ Edition’ mark from Apple, which is on the top end of the pricing range of the Apple Watch configuration starting at $799.
I selected the space black titanium finish for my personal Apple Watch, which uses the same process of diamond-like coating used for space black stainless steel.
While space black titanium feels more substantial than aluminum, the space black color is too close for my taste to Apple’s gray aluminum case color option. You can easily tell the difference between the two finishes only when you get up close and personal with the watch case.
The natural titanium color choice, on the other hand, offers a more recognizable, premium look that comes with a special surface coating to help resist yellowing, staining and fingerprints.
More so than any other Apple product, if you’re curious, I strongly recommend going to an Apple Store and trying the titanium watches for yourself. Configurations of Apple Watch are highly subjective, especially as they are worn on your wrist and feature various finishes coupled with all kinds of potential band combinations. There’s really no right or wrong answer here, but I preferred to have selected the natural titanium finish at the end of the day instead.
Ceramic makes is coming back
With its Series 4 series of watches, after omitting ceramic as an option, it returns with Apple Watch Series 5, albeit only in white.
Apple’s white ceramic watch is absolutely amazing to see in person, and I think it’s by far Apple’s best-looking watch. The concern is that it begins at an eye-watering $1,300 dollars and does nothing else outside the finish to differentiate itself from the entry-level aluminum Apple Watch.
If this were a mechanical watch that could last a lifetime, it would be one thing, but the Apple Watch is driven primarily by the technology below its case. In other words, once Series 5 is outdated from a technological point of view, its value is quickly lost. It is difficult to justify paying so much for a machine that in half a decade will be essentially worthless.
One of the Apple Watch’s most annoying features so far was that its display was timed-out after a couple of seconds of use. You had to either lift your hand, tap the screen, or turn or press the Digital Crown to wake up the screen.
You couldn’t just take a look at the current time with devices prior to Series 5 without interacting with the watch in some way. This resulted in the need to take one of the above actions, which may be annoying at its most benign. In other situations, when you check your watch when engaging for conversation, it may seem rude.
Due to its always-on display, Apple Watch Series 5 removes the need to take action to show the face of the watch, and it is a significant change that, in my opinion, makes it much easier to watch. The always-on display ensures that when you look at your wrist the time is always clear. Just like a regular watch, you can simply cut your eyes and use your peripheral vision to catch a quick glimpse of the current time or other details through complications of the watch face.
Apple redesigned the pixel architecture of the LTPO OLED Retina display to allow the refresh rate to go from regular 60Hz all the way down to 1Hz to better navigate around the major battery life implications of an always-on display. It, combined with screen dimming, allows users to view current time and other relevant information while, during inactivity periods, becoming slightly less taxing on the battery.
When users happen to be in an app when the display is off and drops down to 1Hz, a basic clock will be shown, with the application being blurred in the background beneath. It is not the most elegant system, but it allows users to retain meaning as to what will be shown when the computer is completely woken, while at the same time providing the advantage of always being able to see the time.
Certain apps, such as the fitness app, have a custom inactive state that continues to show current time, heart rate, expended calories, and additional stats. Instead of displaying a “live” view in the upper left corner with an animated character, the app downshifts to a still very usable one-second static character upgrade interval. It enables you to track your progress even while running, weight lifting, spinning, etc.
Be sure to watch our above hands-on video as we go through how each face of the watch looks in both active and inactive states. They also look at apps in their inactive states, such as the Workout app.
While the always-on showcase is a noteworthy change for the better, it is not cost-free. Battery life on the Apple Watch Series 5 has taken a substantial hit, and although it has improved slightly from what it was originally, many users would certainly have a hard time making it through a full day.
The 44 mm Apple Watch Series 5 received a 1.4% improvement in battery capacity, while the 40 mm version received a 10% increase more significantly. It tells me that the smaller Series 5 Apple Watch needed extra battery to get close to providing the 18-hour battery life promised, while the larger case had enough of a surplus to require only a minimal increase.
I have selected the smaller case sizes of 38/40 mm in the past because I thought it looked better on my hand, but this time I went with the larger 44 mm case with the larger battery, because I realized that the always-on display would pose a greater demand for battery life. After a month of use, I definitely recommend that most users go for the 44 mm case if they can do so without looking utterly ridiculous, since Series 5 may see a difficult time making it through a full day without dying.
If you’re only using your Apple Watch to tell time and receive notifications, the 44 mm Apple Watch is likely to survive until the end of the day. On the other hand, if you’re doing workouts, listening to music, talking on the phone, or doing anything else on the battery, there’s a high probability that your Apple Watch will be dead before nightfall, at least that’s my experience.
The always-on display has a noticeable impact on battery life, similar to the original Apple Watch (Series 0), which in my experience has also struggled to maintain its life throughout a full day. You can do some things to reduce the hit to the battery life, and you can even go as far as switching off the always-on display. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, however, because it’s the Apple Watch Series 5’s main selling point.
The Apple Watch comes with an integrated magnetometer for the very first time, which means the watch can now calculate the magnetic north and switch to the true north automatically. A built-in Compass app and accompanying complication comes with the magnetometer, which is exclusive to the Apple Watch Series 5.
The Compass works as intended, although Apple notes that the accuracy of the compass can be interfered with by magnetic watch bands such as the Milanese Loop. I considered the compass reasonably accurate in my testing with the Sport band, although it always seemed to be a degree or two off my iPhone 11 Pro Max from the compass reading.
Of course, the stock maps app can use the compass to tell you the way you are pointing to a chart that lets you navigate. The compass data can also be used by third-party apps. For example, in relation to the location of the restaurant you are researching Yelp shows your current direction in the bottom right corner of the display.
The inclusion of a compass is an obvious and overdue feature, but it is not the kind of addition that you should consider upgrading from previous versions to the Apple Watch Series 5 on your own.
Increased storage space
The addition of 32 GB of onboard user-accessible storage space is one of the low-key updates to the fifth-generation Apple Watch. This is twice as much storage space as Apple Watch Series 4 includes.
The added storage space helps you to save even more music on Apple Watch for offline playback. Theoretically, this should help with battery life, as doing so would mean less reliance on battery-hungry streaming data from a paired iPhone or via Wi-Fi or cell phone.
No speed increase
The Apple Watch Series 5 comes with a new S5 system in a box bundled with the improved space and compass features listed above. But the S5 uses the same CPU and GPU used in the Apple Watch Series 4, so the primary components are essentially the same as their predecessor, although it is technically a new package.
You won’t notice any speed gains with Apple Watch Series 5, as is usually the case with year-over-year upgrades to Apple Watch’s hardware. Luckily, from a pace perspective, the Apple Watch Series 4 has proven to be more than capable, and although on the surface this may seem surprising, it’s not really a big deal.
The annual software upgrade for Apple Watch this year, watchOS 6, is arguably bigger news than the Apple Watch Series 5 itself. It introduces major improvements to the wearable of Apple, such as the ability to download apps from the App Store directly without using a paired iPhone as a middle man.