Apple Watch Series 5 review: A smartwatch close to perfection

Even with small changes, the Apple Watch Series 5 remains the best smartwatch

Apple Watch Series 5 review: A smartwatch close to perfection

“Nearly perfect, the Apple Watch Series 5 is the best smartwatch you can wear right now.”
  • Stylish design
  • Comprehensive fitness features
  • Health features are genuinely helpful
  • Useful always-on display
  • Cellular model can replace your phone for a short time
  • No major changes over the Series 4
  • No native sleep tracking

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The only product I’ve given a perfect review score to is the Apple Watch. The 2018 Series 4 Apple Watch, to be exact, as it was not just Apple’s best product of the year, but also the best smartwatch you could buy.

Apple has updated the Watch to the Series 5, bringing with it a handful of new features yet still retaining the same design.

Does this mean it’s no longer the best smartwatch you can buy? Don’t be silly. It’s still miles ahead of the competition.

Same iconic design

The Apple Watch Series 5 is visually unchanged compared to the Series 4. It comes in either a 44mm case size or a slightly smaller 40mm for those who have slimmer wrists. The case is still a svelte 10.7mm, and the 44mm model — which I’m wearing in the pictures — weighs only 36 grams. It’s barely noticeable on your wrist, never gets caught under a shirt cuff, and the curvy case is wonderfully ergonomic.

Sounds like it’s designed by someone who knows watches right? Yes, it was, and it really shows. The days of the getting upset over the Apple Watch not being round should have long gone. It has become a piece of iconic timepiece design, and Apple’s refinements for the Series 4, where the visible area of the screen was increased without enlarging the body, have made it properly attractive. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to see a circular Apple Watch (I’d love to see how it approached one), but I definitely don’t think we need one. This design has become a classic.

apple watch series 5 review crop

Then there’s the build quality and the presentation. It comes in an elongated box that’s an occasion to open, with the case wrapped in a tiny, soft, protective bag. The strap is separate, and if you get the Sport Band version, it even has medium and long size options in the box. The case is delicate but durable, and even the aluminum model, which is the cheapest, feels exceptionally high quality. The matte finish space grey case, paired here with the white Sport Band, is simple, stylish, and wonderfully made. It’s as premium as mobile products get.

The design of the Apple Watch Series 5 hasn’t changed because there is simply no need.

Want to splash out for the stainless steel, titanium, or ceramic Apple Watch? Sure, go for it, but there isn’t a hugely tangible difference in texture or build. Yes, they’re more durable, and you do get extra “boast” points, but that’s about it. No one will know unless you tell them, so stick with the aluminum (it’s 100% recycled so it’s better for the environment anyway) and spend the rest of the money on building a collection of alternative straps instead.

The design of the Apple Watch Series 5 hasn’t changed because there is simply no need. The only way to go from here is, when the technology allows, to make the case even slimmer and the bezels smaller. Until then, it’s fabulous.

An always-on display

Here’s the big change for the Series 5 over the Series 4 — it has an always-on display, which means it always shows the time. It sounds a bit silly, but this has never been an option on the Apple Watch until now. It wasn’t a huge problem, as the Watch responded so quickly when you raised your wrist, but it does cure the pain point of not being able to give it a quick glance to see the time. A not-so-subtle wrist-raise to see the time was not always appropriate after all.

This rings true during fitness tracking: if you’re doing push-ups and want to check the watch to see your data without stopping, it was previously impossible. Workouts are now displayed on the always-on display alleviating yet another pain point.

apple watch series 5 review 2 ambient wrist
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The Series 5’s always-on display is more than just a skeleton-style ambient mode. Choose the right watch face, and it’s an almost identical copy of the usual version. Apple had to overcome battery life considerations to make it work.

Speaking of watch faces, there is a selection of new ones, almost all of which are customizable; there are several standout winners. The California watch face is attractive, but the bold simplicity of the Numerals Duo is my favorite. It’s easy to match the color of the numbers with the strap on your watch for a really put-together look.

WatchOS 6, installed on the Series 5 and available for previous generations too, has some fun new additions. I love the little tap on your wrist to mark the hour, it’s a wonderful callback to the “beep beep” hourly sound on a digital watch from my childhood, without the annoyance such a feature would cause today.

I’ve set up every Apple Watch since Series 0, and it has always worked the first time, every time.

The Noise app is an interesting continuation of Apple’s commitment to health. It will warn you when you’re in a loud environment, and how continued exposure to the sound could damage your hearing. The app measured around 74 decibels (db) in a busy pub and will provide a warning when sound levels reach 100db. It’s one of those features that isn’t instantly helpful but provides an extra level of awareness regarding our surroundings.

The Apple Watch and WatchOS 6 work so well together, with excellent performance and a simple quick-to-learn user experience, it puts all other wearable platforms to shame. It’s also fun to use. I love the haptic feedback, which is impressively tactile against your wrist or finger, and using the Digital Crown to zoom in and out of the app screen still looks great even after all this time. It’s all so cohesive and smart.

apple watch series 5 review 2 noise
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

It’s not without problems though. When the Watch face sleeps over a viewed notification or an app like the new Compass, the background blurs and the time is shown in the top right-hand corner. It’s not attractive. Waking the watch and performing your first task does demand a little patience, as you need to pause for a second before interacting with the screen after tapping the display. It’s the only time the software is slow.

These are just small niggles, not real problems. Even the setup process is faultless, taking about 10 minutes to complete after scanning the Watch’s first screen with your iPhone’s camera. It’s so easy. There’s no messing around during pairing, no spinning graphics while you wait for “updates” either. I’ve set up every Apple Watch since Series 0, and it has always worked the first time, every time.

Fitness and health tracking

Unless you’re hyper-focused on one particular sport, like running marathons or another form of intense training where you need specific metrics, the Apple Watch is the only fitness and health tracker you’ll ever need to wear. It takes care of steps, calories, hourly movement, relaxation, VO2 Max data, hours spent standing, and workout tracking for everything including swimming and biking, and more unusual activities like yoga and elliptical training.

apple watch series 5 review 2 heart rate sensor
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

All this is available elsewhere, but where Apple succeeds is the comprehensive picture it builds up of your health over time, and the supplementary tracking that has actually saved lives. It all adds up to a strong reason to continue wearing the Apple Watch, and that’s not something you can say about any other smartwatch. The longer you wear it, the more information is gathered, and the more trends become apparent, helping you change your lifestyle for the better.

There is quite literally a new trends tab in the Activity app on your iPhone (it requires 180 days of activity data to start seeing these trends), but it provides rich data on your activity level over time.

The Series 5 Apple Watch did not add sleep tracking, a long-rumored new feature. Whether this is considered a downside depends on the importance you place on it. There are apps which will monitor sleep using the Apple Watch, but both these and any future official Apple feature, require you to wear the watch in bed. This means making alternative plans to charge the Watch, other than overnight. Is it a major oversight? In my opinion, no, but it would be welcome in the future.

The Series 5 Apple Watch did not add sleep tracking, a long-rumored new feature.

Data is stored and collated in the Activity app on your iPhone, and when it notices you’ve been slacking, it suggests ways to improve. There’s plenty of daily motivational tools too, where “closing the rings” (a reference to meeting your activity goals) becomes addictive, and missing a target one day is frustrating. It works because it’s simple, yet the simplicity does not mean you lose interest or miss out on valuable data.

Introduced in WatchOS 5 and on the Series 4 Apple Watch, electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring is now available for most owners around the world, following an early U.S.-only launch. It’s easy to use but is really only designed for use when you feel an irregularity in your heart rate. It’s not like the heart rate monitor — which is useful for fitness tracking as well as for medical purposes — and instead falls into the same category as the Watch’s fall detection mode: something you may not know you need until you do. Having it there will provide peace of mind to anyone with concerns over an irregular heartbeat, as it will send a notification if one is detected.

apple watch series 5 review 2 ecg
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The Watch’s data facilitates the Activity and Health app’s helpfulness on your iPhone. The information it shows is simple to understand, there’s a wealth of statistical data and information on your daily activity, and even after just a few days of wearing the Watch, it’ll tell you where improvements can be made. Everything is easy to use, the menus are large and clearly laid out, and the apps on the iPhone are both informative and attractive. There is no other fitness tracking system that’s as well presented, instantly accessible, properly motivational, and that encourages longevity as the Apple Watch.

Battery and performance

Has the always-on screen ruined the battery life? No. It’s possible to get a full day (about 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and then half the following day out of a single charge. Re-charging takes about an hour, and a top-up mid-day would easily see it last for the remainder of the second day of use. Your own use will vary, and expect battery life to decrease if you use the call features on a cellular Apple Watch, or an extended period of fitness tracking with GPS and heart rate monitoring. Even then, a day should still be possible. This is also the case with the smaller 40mm Apple Watch, which we also tested.

While it’s natural to charge a smartwatch each day, and there are new features putting extra pressure on the battery in the Series 5, it’s disappointing the new model hasn’t managed to stretch the battery out to two days with regular use. Increasing the use-time like this would also make the addition of sleep monitoring more likely.

apple watch series 5 review 2 crown
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Early examples of the Apple Watch didn’t have the required level of performance. That has changed, and the Series 5 never suffers greatly unless under considerable strain when using apps that require data. It’s smooth, fast, and never frustrating, but the S5 chip inside doesn’t offer performance gains and focuses on efficiency instead.

What’s neat is you can use apps on the Watch if you want, and at setup, the iPhone will automatically add the Watch version of apps already installed on your phone. You don’t need to install the iOS version of an app on your iPhone if you don’t want to because the App Store is now available on the Watch itself, courtesy of WatchOS 6.

What else can the Apple Watch do? It works with Apple Pay, you can store music on it locally (or use Spotify/Apple Music), pair Bluetooth headphones with it, make calls and leave your phone at home with the cellular model, chat with Siri after long-pressing the Digital Crown, respond to messages and email, check the weather, use it as a remote camera shutter button, and even practice mindfulness with the Breathe feature. It’s no exaggeration to call the Apple Watch the most fully-rounded, feature-packed, everyday-usable smartwatch you can wear.

Price and availability

The Apple Watch Series 5 is available from Apple’s online store, its retail stores, and partner locations now. The aluminum body costs $400 for the 42mm and $430 for the 44mm, or $500 for the GPS + Cellular 42mm model and $530 for the 44mm version. The stainless steel Apple Watch starts at $700, the titanium model from $800, the ceramic from $1,300, and the Hermés version from $1,250.

Apple provides a one-year warranty against manufacturing defects but also offers AppleCare+ for a more comprehensive coverage plan, but this will cost you $50 for two years.

Our take

The Apple Watch Series 5 is the best smartwatch you can wear right now. No other smartwatch comes close to offering the same level of fitness tracking, convenience, performance, or wearability.

Apple Watch Series 4 owners don’t really need to upgrade, but those who didn’t buy the last Apple Watch should jump on this one.

Is there a better alternative?

No.

You’d only consider another smartwatch if you have an Android phone and want a WearOS device for better integration. There’s a problem with that, however; WearOS is lightyears behind WatchOS.

How long will it last?

Three years, if not more. The Apple Watch Series 4 is a year old and going strong. If you own an Apple Watch Series 2 it will receive the latest software, so there’s no reason why the Series 5 shouldn’t be happy on your wrist until 2021 and beyond.

Should you buy one?

Yes. Absolutely, completely, 100% yes.

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