The Apple Watch has been the best smartwatch for anybody with an iPhone for years, but it feels like the fifth-generation model, the Apple Watch Series 5 ($399+), has the most to live up to. That’s because its predecessor, the Series 4, set the bar so darn high. It was the first Apple Watch to look different, with a larger edge-to-edge display and a thinner, lighter body; plus Apple gave it a bunch of innovative features (like fall detection and an electrical heart sensor) and basically upgraded it in every way.
Now that the Series 5 is here, you’ll notice that it looks strikingly similar to the Series 4. It’s the same size and thinness; it has the same rotating crown dial with a little red circle; and it has many of the same sensors and health tracking features. But the differences are there. The Series 5 is the first Apple Watch to have an always-on display. It’s the first Apple Watch to have a built-in compass. And it’s the first Apple Watch to come in four different finishes, including aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic and all-new titanium.
The Apple Watch Series 5 is available in GPS-only and cellular models, and starts at $399.
The photographed Apple Watch Series 5 has the all-new titanium case. It’s a 44mm model and goes for $849.
The Good: The always-on Retina display is the standout feature of the Series 5. Even for people who have worn an Apple Watch for years, like myself, it’s going to feel like a big deal because it actually changes the way you interact with the Apple Watch. With the always-on display, there’s no need to rotate your wrist to see check the time or see that your workout is still tracking – it’s just there. It also will probably prevent many social faux pas that were caused by previous Apple Watch models; seeing other person check the time or look at their watch can be distracting, after all.
It’s true that the always-on Retina display is always-on, but it’s not always bright. The watch face still lights up when you raise your wrist, just like it did with the Series 4, but it then transitions to an idle dark mode when you lower your wrist back down; what’s happening is that the display’s refresh rate gets lowered to one screen refresh per second (or 1Hz), which allows the Series 5 to use very little battery life and give the appearance of always being on. This allows the Series 5 to get the same full-day battery life as its predecessor. Apple updated all its old Apple Watch faces so they work with the Series 5’s always-on display – pretty cool – plus they added quite a few new ones, too.
The Series 5 is the first Apple Watch to have a built-in compass. There’s a dedicated compass app on the Series 4, but other Apple Watch apps, like Apple Maps, take advantage of it.
As mentioned before, Apple is offering the Series 5 in more options than ever. The aluminum version of the Series 5 is the most affordable and is the only one that can be purchased without cellular. The stainless steel version is heavier and more durable, so it feels more premium, but it starts at $699. The brand-new titanium version is significantly lighter than the stainless steel version, and it’s also more scratch-resistant, corrosion-resistant and hypoallergenic. And then there’s the ceramic version, which a high-end material that’s usually reserved for luxury watches. If you purchase any Series 5 through Apple Watch Studio (meaning online or in an Apple Store), you can pair it with almost any watch band you want (there are some restrictions).
The Series 5 is the first Apple Watch to have a built-in compass. There’s a dedicated compass app that you can access, which I rarely used, but the real benefit of the compass is how it works with other Apple Watch apps, such as Apple Maps. For example, when you’re using Apple Maps you can now see which direction just by looking at your Series 5. You’ll see the “field-of-view cone” rotate with direction you’re looking, which makes Apple Maps on the Series 5 feel way trustworthy. (Previously, you’d have to take out your iPhone to get the same sense of direction.) For those who are easily disoriented when navigating from A to B, like me, or have difficulty grasping your bearings when getting off the subway – like me – this new Apple Watch feature will save you a headache and a five-minute walk in the wrong direction.
The best part of the Series 5, and maybe you’ll roll your eyes, is that it feels like an Apple Watch – familiar – and it has all the best features of the Series 4. You can still pair it with your AirPods and listen to music sans iPhone. It still has the heart rate sensors and built-in ECG. It still has fall detection and Emergency SOS. It still has a GPS and it can track your runs. It’s waterproof enough so you can wear it swimming. It still tracks your steps and other metrics so you can complete your activity rings. And, of course, it works super well with iMessage.
The last thing to note is that all Series 5 models have 32GB of internal memory, which is actually twice as much as the 16GB on the Series 4. This might not be a huge deal for people who don’t plan on downloading music or a bunch of extra apps on the Series 5, but if you do, or if your current Apple Watch is already nearing its max storage, it might make sense to upgrade to the Series 5.
Who It’s For: Any iPhone owner who wants Apple’s best-ever smartwatch. Or if they desperately want an Apple Watch with an always-on display. Or if they want one of the Series 5’s higher-end finishes (and they’re willing to pay for it). The last big reason to get the Series 5 is if they’re going to take advantage of the Series 5’s built-in compass.
Watch Out For: No matter which Apple Watch Series 5 you buy, aside from the obvious difference between cellular and GPS-only models, they’re all going to have the same functionality. That means that the $1,300 ceramic model and the $399 aluminum model are built with the same internals and will keep track of the same metrics. There’s little downside to getting the cheaper models, other than how their aluminum finish looks and feels. (Although the stainless steel and titanium models are slightly more durable.)
One thing that I’ve been hoping for awhile is that the Apple Watch will start playing better with Spotify. Yes, there’s a Spotify app for the Apple Watch. And yes, if you have an LTE model you can stream music, but I wish the Spotify app would allow you to download albums and playlists for offline listening, similar to what several Garmin and Samsung smartwatches can do. As with previous Apple Watch models, the Series 5 is really only designed to download and store playlists from Apple Music.
Alternatives: The Apple Watch Series 4 is the most obvious alternative, but Apple did something a little bit sneaky this year – they stopped selling it. You can still purchase the Series 4 for third-party sellers like Amazon or Best Buy, for a slightly discounted rate. The Series 4 looks and feels (especially the aluminum models) very similar to the Series 5, and it’s a great option for Apple Watch wearers who don’t need always-on display.
If you don’t want to pay that much for a Series 5 (or Series 4), Apple is still selling the Series 3 but it lowered the starting price to just $199 – it’s undoubtedly the best entry-level smartwatch for people with an iPhone. The trade-offs are pretty clear, however, as the Series 3 doesn’t have the large nice display, the slim design or the many fancy sensors that enable a lot of the Apple Watch’s newer features. The Series 3 does have a built-in GPS and it’ll still accurately track your runs.
Verdict: The Apple Watch Series 5 is undoubtedly the best smartwatch that Apple has ever made, and it comes with the feature – an always-on display – that most people having been asking for. That said, with a few spec bumps and a few new capabilities, the Series 5 is admittedly an iterative upgrade over last year’s Series 4. If you’re not swayed by the premium materials, like the new titanium case, it really comes down to Series 5’s always-on display and how much you want it.
Case sizes: 40mm or 44mm
Case options: Aluminum, stainless steel, titanium and ceramic
Display: Always-On Retina display
Processor: 64-bit dual-core S5 processor
Sensors: electrical and optical heart rate sensors, gyroscope, accelerometer, compass
Water resistance: 50 meters
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Apple provided this product for review.