Apple Watch Series 5 review: the king of smartwatches

Always-on screen completes the package kicking competitors to the curb and becoming a top reason to buy an iPhone

When Apple launched its smartwatch in 2015 to a lukewarm reception, some critics claimed it would never take off like the iPod or iPhone. But sales of the Apple Watch quickly eclipsed every other smartwatch and with wearable technology sales soaring it is expected this year to outsell all of the Swiss watchmakers combined.

The latest Apple Watch Series 5 iteration, though still pricey at 399 and up, looks likely to continue the firms domination of the smartwatch market and deservedly so.

If you are unfamiliar with Apples smartwatches, they only work if you also have an Apple iPhone 6S or newer connecting to the smartphone via Bluetooth. Its a genius link-up that ties buyers into the Apple ecosphere, while adding an important alternative revenue stream as people hold onto their phones. But that doesnt take away from the extraordinary qualities of this watch.

apple
Each of the watch faces, such as the Numerals Duo shown here, now has a low-power version that displays when youre not actively using the watch. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Series 5 builds on last years larger-screen redesign of the Apple Watch, making one small but important change: the screen now stays on all the time.

Its a feature every other smartwatch has had for years and is important for actually telling the time, which is absolutely essential for something to have a permanent place on my wrist.

Until now Apple Watch owners had to either tap the face or do an elaborate wrist rotation gesture to get the screen to light up and it never worked when I really needed it to, such as when running for a train. Now you can see the time at a glance at any time or angle.

The rest of the Apple Watch has always been top notch. Equipped with the right strap if you havent tried the Sport Loop or one of its many clones you absolutely must the Apple Watch is the most comfortable timepiece Ive had the pleasure of strapping to my wrist, beating some of the very best the Swiss watchmakers have to offer.

apple
The Apple Watch is just over 1cm thick, but wears its depth well, fitting under most shirt cuffs. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Its neither heavy nor light, and hides the heart rate sensor in a curved lump on its belly comfortably sitting atop your wrist. It fits easily under shirt cuffs, which some larger smartwatches dont. Its water resistant to depths of 50m, which means youll likely never have to worry about it when you take a dip in the pool.

The screen is bright and crisp, clearly visible in all circumstances. Ive never been a massive fan of the rectangular shape, preferring my watches to be of the circular variety, but the Series 5 has won me round over the last month.

Apple still leads the way on haptics the little vibrations and taps the watch makes to let you know something has happened. I loved them with the original in 2015, and theyre still miles better than anything else on the market five generations later.

Victim of its own success

apple
The digital crown, side button and the ability to press harder into the screen to activate functions augment simple taps and swipes on the touchscreen. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

One thing you might not appreciate until you strap one to your wrist is that there are so many of them out there in the wild, all looking the same. Im not one to conform to any particular fashion or club, so I often get that twinge of embarrassment you feel when you walk into a room and spot someone wearing the same shirt or dress.

Its made a little better with the Series 5 now you can have the screen on all the time and pick a slightly different face, but by putting one on you instantly become one of the Apple Watch people.

Apple provides loads of watch faces, which are all infinitely tweakable in colour, with many having dial customisation. Then theres a sizeable collection of widgets for things like timers, the weather, activity and others called complications. But Ive found theres always something not quite perfect about each face that I cant change. I love the new Numerals Duo face, but I wish it could have the date on it too. I really like the Meridian analogue face too, but wish it had an option for numerals not just ticks.

I also find the round analogue faces hard to read at a glance even on the 44mm Series 5 because theyre just bit too small. Im being picky here, but thats the thing about something you wear if its not quite how you want it youre going to notice it and be annoyed by it over and over.

Apps and things

apple
Theres a calculator. Its a bit small, but will do in a pinch. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Of course the Apple Watch does more than just tell the time.

Notifications are a high point. A little tap on the wrist and you know something has happened. Most you can interact with in some way. All of Apples apps work well, of course, but so do third-party apps. The Nest and Ring apps show photos of events from cameras for instance.

Messaging apps including Signal and WhatsApp can be marked as read or replied to straight from your wrist. You can dictate what you want to Siri, draw out letters one at a time or send canned responses or emojis.

Most Apple Watch apps arent up to much, but one that bucks the trend is the Spotify app, which gives you full control of playback on your iPhone from your wrist, including volume control using the digital crown. But it cant store music offline unlike the Apple Music app.

Apple Pay and Siri

apple
Siri on the Apple Watch is unsurprisingly similar to Siri on the iPhone, with the same strengths and weaknesses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Apple Pay on your wrist is great too. Double press the big side button to bring up the card and then just put it near the reader as you would a phone or contactless credit card.

Siri is great when it works, but can be hamstrung by poor network conditions.

Hey, Siri works fine, but activates fairly often when I dont want it to, ditto for raising your wrist to speak to Siri. I deactivated both features and didnt miss them. Setting timers, reminders, alarms and other bits via Siri work great, but things start to fall apart with more complex tasks or questions. Its the same on an iPhone, more or less.

Theres no Google Maps app on the Apple Watch, which is disappointing. Apple Maps is getting better, but its really not that great in the UK. Citymapper offers an Apple Watch app, which is certainly better for getting around London and other major cities.

Health

apple
The Apple Watch is one of the best consumer heart trackers available. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Apple has slowly turned its smartwatch into one of the best multipurpose fitness trackers available. You name it, the Apple Watch can track or record it, apart from one glaring omission: sleep.

The workout app has modes to track a huge list of activities and sports, from your usual running, walking, hiking, cycling and swimming to yoga, tai chi, dance, football, badminton, hockey, table tennis and even fishing.

The Apple Watch automatically looks out for some workouts too. I get a notification to track an outdoor walk twice a day on my commute, which I found annoying enough to turn the feature off.

For running the Apple Watch is surprisingly good, tracking everything a mid-range dedicated Garmin running watch would, including performance stats such as VO2 Max. Its got a long enough battery life with everything going to track a marathon, but I certainly feel it more as a lump on my wrist than my go-to Garmin Forerunner 235. Theres a dedicated Strava app for the Apple Watch if thats your jam.

Day-to-day health tracking is solid. The heart rate sensor measures your beats per minute throughout the day, logging it upwards of 12 times an hour or on-demand for you to view in the newly revitalised health app on your phone. But it can also notify you of abnormal heart rates, which are typically high when youre not doing anything.

You can also manually take an electrocardiogram (ECG) by placing your finger on the crown for 30 seconds or so. The apps shows you the waveform in real time and notifies you if your heart beat looks irregular.

apple
The noise app helps you be aware of noisy environments that may permanently damage your hearing. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Other daily activity tracking takes the form of Apples activity rings: move in calories, exercise in minutes and stand in hours, complete with nags to stand up each hour if you havent already. Steps and distance are also recorded, along with flights of stairs climbed, and you get awards if you beat your goals. Exporting your activity is fairly restricted, but as all the data is stored in Apple Health you can connect to third-party apps.

Included too are menstrual cycle tracking and fall detection. New for the Series 5 is the noise app, which monitors environmental noise and warns you if youre in conditions that could damage your health. It also measures headphone volume on the iPhone, which may be just as useful for those listening to music too loudly.

Battery life

apple
The Series 5 uses the same magnetic wireless charging puck as the first generation. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Battery life was the key worry for the Apple Watch with an always-on screen. Thankfully, I can report in day-to-day usage I was left with no less than 40% battery at the end of a day. It wont manage two 7am till 11pm days, but it wont fail you if you go for a run during the day or similar.

An 18-minute, 4km run with GPS, heart rate monitoring, pace alerts and the screen always on consumed only 3% battery so marathons should be no bother.

Observations

apple
Swapping out straps is super quick and easy with quick-release buttons on either side of the watch. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

  • The default app view is still the old honeycomb matrix of apps, which is hard to use, but can be switched to an easier and faster simple list with a hard press

  • Taking calls on your wrist is novel and works amazingly well, but embarrassing when people stare at you in public (which is similar to attempting to talk to Siri)

  • 4G is only useful if you happen to go out without your phone, so you can stay in touch seeing notifications, receiving messages and calls, or using maps if youre lost

Price

The Apple Watch Series 5 comes in two sizes, various different materials and models with the option of 4G.

The aluminium or Nike versions are available with or without 4G. The 40mm costs 399 or 499 with 4G. The 44mm costs 429 or 529 with 4G.

All other Apple Watch versions support 4G. The stainless steel model costs 699 (40mm) or 749 (44mm), while the titanium Edition starts at 799, the ceramic Edition starts at 1,299 and the Hermes starts at 1,249.

For comparison, Samsungs Galaxy Watch Active 2 starts at 269, the Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch starts at 279, the Huawei Watch GT 2 costs 200 and the Fitbit Versa 2 starts at 200.

Verdict

Since its second generation the Apple Watch has been the best smartwatch for the iPhone. But for the Series 5 thats changed. Its not just the best smartwatch for the iPhone. The Apple Watch is now a solid reason to buy an iPhone in the first place.

The screen being on all the time that was the last piece in the Apple Watch puzzle. What started out as a bit of a let down in 2015 has since been refined, sped up and had meaningful features added to it that make it far more than the sum of its parts.

After five generations Apple has finally nailed it, but thats not to say the Series 5 is perfect. It would be great to have sleep tracking to close the circle on health tracking. It would be better if it lasted at least two days so you could go on a weekend away without bringing the charger.

I wish there was a circular version too for variety, and it would be better for everyone if they didnt all look the same like some sort of clone army. Strap one of these to your wrist and you become part of a tribe: the Apple Watch wearers.

Then theres the price. At 399 and up the Apple Watch Series 5 is in no way cheap. The Series 3 is still on sale from 199, but doesnt do it for me with that mostly-off screen. With the competition mostly coming in at under 300 the Series 5 has Apples typical premium but its a premium anyone considering an Apple Watch has already paid for their iPhone.

Simply put, the Apple Watch Series 5 is the best smartwatch you can buy right now. You might just need to also buy an iPhone to get it.

Pros: excellent haptics, always-on screen, ECG, great health tracking, great activity tracking, solid running watch, 50m water resistance, all-day battery life, offline music, loads of watch faces, quick-swap straps, comfortable, Apple Pay

Cons: expensive, only works with an iPhone, no sleep tracking, too popular

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/oct/23/apple-watch-series-5-review-the-king-of-smartwatches

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *