Apple Watch Series 5 hands-on review: Still the best

Apple Watch Series 5 hands-on review: Still the best

“The Apple Watch Series 5 is on track to be the best smartwatch.”

  • Always-on display improves usability
  • Tons of options to personalize
  • Comfortable, elegant design
  • watchOS 6 adds plenty of new features
  • ECG is still groundbreaking
  • No sleep tracking

Apple didn’t need to make an Apple Watch Series 5, because last year’s Series 4 is still well ahead of the competition in terms of features, app support, and overall polish. But why stop there? The new Series 5 adds an always-on display, which makes the best smartwatch even better.

Always-on screen, more case options

Apple is late to the game with an always-on smartwatch display. Google’s Wear OS smartwatches have had this feature for years, and it indeed has been sorely missed on previous Apple Watches. But it’s finally here, and it elevates Apple’s smartwatch.

Switching from the main screen to the always-on display is slick, and it’s still easy to see the time in this new mode. You don’t need to raise your wrist or tap the screen every time you want to see something on the watch, whether that’s the time or your fitness data.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It solves a real problem. Often, while standing on the subway, my watch buzzes. I can’t see what the alert is about without risking my balance. With the Apple Watch Series 5, this is no longer an issue.

Better yet, the always-on screen doesn’t mean worse battery life. Apple says you should see the same 18-hour battery life on the Series 5. I do think Apple could have gone a step further and dramatically upgraded the battery life on the smartwatch, as it has done with its latest iPhones, but maybe I’m wishing for too much.

A large part of how Apple is able to maintain the battery life despite having an always-on screen is because of the LTPO display, which switches the refresh rate of the screen from 60Hz to 1Hz, enabling less power draw.

The always-on screen doesn’t mean worse battery life.

The Apple Watch Series 5 still comes in a 40mm and 44mm case size options, and there are new watch faces to choose from. There’s now four case materials: aluminum (which is 100% recycled), stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic. Ceramic is making a return and it’s arguably the best looking of the lot, especially in the white color. The titanium option is new, and while it’s more durable (and more expensive), I didn’t see any noticeable differences between it and the aluminum and stainless steel models.

Just like the Series 4, the Apple Watch Series 5 is comfortable on the wrist, lightweight, and has a slim profile so it can easily hide under shirt cuffs. The interchangeable bands are dead simple to swap out, and there are many band options to choose from.

Built-in compass, access to emergency services

A built-in compass might not sound like a big deal, but if you frequently navigate with the Apple Watch, you’ll be happy to see even more precise positioning. In my brief time using the new compass app, the positioning looked accurate as I moved around different directions.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

What’s neat is this compass works with third-party apps already, and I scanned the horizon with my wrist to see constellations using an app called Night Sky; it worked flawlessly.

It’s not the only new feature. You can already access emergency services by pressing and holding on the power button on existing Apple Watch models, but now Apple is expanding the feature to work anywhere in the world, as the watch can automatically connect to local emergency services wherever you are. If you have the cellular model, it also works if you don’t have your iPhone on you. It’s a handy addition that makes the Apple Watch a worthwhile trip buddy.

Same great features, and watchOS 6 adds more

There’s not much else new with the Apple Watch Series 5 — you still get access to the electrocardiogram from the Series 4 — but that’s without talking about the new features in watchOS 6, the next version of Apple’s smartwatch operating system. WatchOS 6 adds Cycle, a new period-tracking app, as well as Noise, an app that can measure the loudness of your surroundings. There’s also finally a dedicated App Store on the Apple Watch, so you don’t need to install the app on your iPhone to access it on the watch. You can check out all the new watchOS 6 features in our guide.

All of this is powered by a new processor, likely called the Apple Watch S5 chip, though Apple hasn’t confirmed the name. Operating the watch is smooth, unlike my experience with most Wear OS smartwatches.

Price and availability

The Apple Watch Series 5 is $399 for the GPS aluminum model and $499 for the cellular aluminum version (you’ll need to pay for a monthly data plan from you carrier, too). The price goes up if you opt for different case materials, with the titanium starting at $799 and the ceramic at $1,299. You can pre-order it now, and sales start on September 20.

If you’re having trouble choosing a model, Apple has a new feature called Apple Watch Studio on its website that lets you “build” the watch from scratch, choosing size, materials, and strap as you go along perusing through all the options. It reminds me of Motorola’s Moto Maker for its original Moto X smartphone, which is a good thing.

Wrap up

The biggest omission on the Apple Watch Series 5 is sleep tracking, especially as there were a ton of rumors suggesting the feature was arriving on the new watch. Samsung’s Galaxy Watch range and most Fitbit devices track sleep, and with all the sensors packed into the Apple Watch, it should be more than capable. Perhaps Apple is trying to bump the battery life up first before trying to add the feature in. Whatever the reason, it’s well past overdue.

Despite the lack of sleep tracking, the Apple Watch Series 5 is still on track to be the best smartwatch around.