Last month, Apple announced a suite of new products, including upgraded versions of the iPhone, the iPad, and the Apple Watch. There were a lot of new features to parse through with those products, but the new Apple Watch Series 5 caught my eye for two big updates in particular: an always-on display and a new built-in compass. Combined with its waterproof design, deep roster of apps, and robust activity tracking, it seemed like a smartwatch that checks all the boxes, so we decided to put the Series 5 to the test.
What It Is: The Series 5 is the latest version of the Apple Watch. The most noticeable change is the always-on display, which means the watch always shows the time in a dimmed power-saving mode until you turn your wrist to look at it. When you do that, the watch wakes up and the screen brightens. There are new ways to customize the look of your watch, too: Apple released an all-new titanium case material and brought back the ceramic case option for the Series 5, and the watch is available in 44mm and 40mm case sizes. On the inside, it’s powered by an S5 dual-core processor, is rated for 18 hours of battery life, and boasts 32 gigabytes of storage, so there’s plenty of room for downloading music. Other new features include the aforementioned built-in compass (and an accompanying compass app), international emergency calling on cellular-enabled watches, and a noise app that measures sound levels around you. There’s also “activity trends,” a recently released feature in the phone-based activity app that gives you a long-term overview of your activity levels after 180 days of wear.
Why We Like It: There are quite a few new and notable features on the Series 5, but the ones that stood out most include the always-on display (obviously), the compass, activity tracking, and overall ease-of-use.
The always-on display makes the Series 5 feel more like a real watch than a wrist computer. That was a big plus for me, as I usually wear, and prefer the look of, an analog watch. The display is crystal clear and easy to read, even when dimmed. The always-on function also works when using the built-in activity app, which I found really helpful. I could see my elapsed time, heart rate, and other stats at a glance while working out, without having to tap on the screen with sweaty fingers.
Although it seems basic, the compass is another nice addition. Most users will see the benefit in the maps app, where the compass data is used to show which way you’re facing (via a cone projected out of the blue location dot) on the map. But the standalone compass app also has its merits. While on a trail run in the mountains, the app gave clear and consistent readings without spinning or calibrating, and it worked no matter how I oriented my wrist. The app also displays helpful metrics like elevation, latitude, and longitude.
Apple’s strong lineup of health tracking features is another big draw. There are tracking modes for all kinds of workouts, and combined with the activity app on my iPhone, I received lots of data on how much I’m moving during the day. I normally record my exercise on Strava, but the activity app combined with the Series 5’s suite of trackers (GPS, an optical heart rate monitor, and an ECG monitor are all standard), gave me a much fuller picture of my health. If you’ve tried earlier Apple Watches, that won’t be news to you, but the addition of long-term activity trends in the iPhone app should make the data even more helpful. It gives you benchmarks for everything from average time spent standing to your VO2 max.
Overall, the Series 5 was easy to use and wear. Setup took just a few minutes, the touchscreen was easy to navigate, and I loved that the watch is waterproof. Whether I was doing the dishes or swimming at the beach, I never had to worry about taking it off. If you need a tough, well designed, and highly capable smartwatch for everyday wear, it’ll be hard to beat the Series 5.
It’s also worth noting that Apple bumped down the price on the popular Series 3, so that it could be more affordable get an Apple Watch on your wrist. (Prices for GPS models start at $199, and GPS + cellular models start at $299.)
Nitpick: The Series 5 is rated for 18 hours of battery life, which puts it far below other exercise-focused smartwatches like the Garmin Fenix 6. If days-long endurance is a must for you, you might consider looking elsewhere—or be prepared for a more rigorous charging schedule.
[Apple Watch Series 5 GPS: $399; Apple Watch Series 5 GPS + Cellular: $499; apple.com]
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