Year after year, the Apple Watch has gained some excellent new features, but it continues to remain in the shadows relative to the iPhone. The iPhone 11 series has dominated the news cycle for the better part of this year, with almost all its specifications leaked, whereas the Apple Watch Series 5's headline feature — an always-on display — took many by surprise when it was announced at the same keynote.
When compared with the Series 4 (Review), the Apple Watch Series 5 has three important new features — the always-on display, an in-built compass, and international emergency calling. There are some other nifty additions such as a new (and hopefully faster) processor, an app to measure ambient noise (also available on Series 4), and 32GB of in-built storage (as opposed to 16GB on Series 4). The Apple Watch Series 5 has been launched at the same price as the Series 4, which has been discontinued, but do these new features work as advertised? Let's find out.
The Apple Watch Series 5 is identical to the Series 4. The digital crown is on the right along with the microphone and the side button. Cellular-enabled variants of the Apple Watch Series 5 have a red ring on the digital crown — just like before. The base of the watch has the optical and electrical heart rate sensors (the former to log your heart rate and the latter for ECGs). The speaker is on the left.
There are two size variants — 40mm and 44mm — and each of them is available in GPS or GPS + Cellular options as well as several choices of body material, colour, and band. We had the 44mm aluminium Series 5 for review with the Sport band. Here's the full list of Apple Watch Series 5 variants in India with prices. The aluminium and stainless steel finishes are available in India, but not the titanium or ceramic ones. At the time of writing, Apple Watch Studio, which allows you to pair any finish with any of Apple's official bands wasn't available in India.
The cellular variants of the Apple Watch Series 5 allow you to make and receive phone calls even when your phone is not with you. This is a nice feature to have, but it works only with Airtel and Reliance Jio in India as of now because other telcos don't support eSIMs yet. You can link your existing phone number to the watch — it continues to work on your iPhone and also the watch. The setup process for this is extremely easy; we just needed to tap a couple of buttons during the setup process to link our phone number to the watch, and the process was complete within seconds.
The device uses the same good old magnetic charging cradle that every other Apple Watch so far has used. Way too many brands keep designing new chargers for each new iteration of their wearables, and we're glad to see that Apple settled on one charger on its first attempt.
The standout feature of the Apple Watch Series 5 is its always-on display. The screen becomes brighter and shows more data when it's active, and dims but stays on when inactive. The transition is pretty smooth when using almost any watch face, and it looks really cool. Sadly, if the display becomes inactive when an app is running, the effect is not as cool. When dimmed, the screen simply shows the time overlaid over the blurred out app like you'd see it on any digital watch.
When the display is inactive, “live” complications (the Apple term for widgets) don't show up on watch faces. This includes the Compass and the new Noise app. However, the weather, battery level, and time can be seen even when the screen is dimmed.
Sometimes it is hard to tell when the watch face is dimmed and when it is not. We found ourselves trying to swipe upwards on the dimmed display (to open the Control Centre) plenty of times, but this does nothing. You need to wake the display before you can do this, which can take some getting used to.
Once you have an Apple Watch with an always-on display, it is hard to go back to any previous model — where the screen is completely off when the device is inactive. Unfortunately, the always-on display negatively impacts battery life, and we'll get to that later in this review.
Having used the Apple Watch Series 5 extensively now, it's becoming increasingly clear that Apple wants its watches to become independent devices that don't rely on iPhones at all. The App Store in watchOS 6 is one example of this, but the company still has some way to go. We'd like to have had the ability to set up the Apple Watch without an iPhone, or to use it without pairing a smartphone at all, among other things.
As of now, the Apple Watch Series 5 is a reasonably independent device but it's still a companion for your iPhone. You can now install apps directly using the device itself, which is great. However, if you want to purchase a paid app, you'll have to enter your Apple ID password. You'll definitely want to use your phone to enter your password, because while you can use the Scribble feature to trace one character at a time on the Apple Watch and that is incredibly tedious to say the least. It might be a bit too much to expect Face ID on the Apple Watch right now, but who knows what the future holds?
There are a few new watch faces that you might want to try, but we found ourselves returning to the familiar Infograph more than using any others. You can tap the time with two fingers on any watch face, and the device will read the time aloud, although this works only when the display is active.
Siri can also do more with watchOS 6, such as identify which song is playing wherever you are. You can raise your watch to your lips and say Hey Siri to activate the assistant, then issue your request and hope it works. Our experience with Siri on Apple Watches has always been spotty, and this time was no different. We asked it to play a song, and while it was able to understand our request without any issue, it didn't play the song and just returned us to our watch face. The same request did work when we tried it later, but we still think Siri has a long way to go before it replaces touchscreen controls for us.
We also tried making and receiving phone calls using the Apple Watch Series 5, and found the experience to be good overall. If you're wearing a pair of Bluetooth earphones, then there's no hassle whatsoever. However, if you are using the watch's built-in microphone and speaker to have a conversation, it looks awkward and is uncomfortable because holding your wrist up for long conversations is painful. That said, the quality of conversations conducted using the Apple Watch was on par with what we usually hear when using our iPhone or AirPods. People we called didn't complain about call quality and were surprised to know that we were calling via a watch.
Our experience overall with watchOS 6 — which also brings Cycle Tracking and a host of other features — was excellent for various reasons. It felt very responsive on the Series 5, there are several more types of workouts that you can now log, and the App Store is a great addition. The ability to store podcasts and audiobooks on the watch is great too, even if we didn't use it much. The app ecosystem is still pretty weak outside of fitness apps, but that probably reflects what most people use the Apple Watches for.
The Apple Watch may be a smartwatch for iPhones, but it's found its niche with fitness enthusiasts. With watchOS 6, the Series 5 can log many more types of workouts including some unusual ones such as Fitness Gaming (looking at all you Just Dance fans), Rolling, Play, and Mind and Body. Each of these has a helpful icon that illustrates what the workout looks like.
The Apple Watch Series 5 still did a pretty good job of tracking our workouts, including some high-intensity interval training and running. Its heart rate sensor is very accurate and quite quick too. The data captured by the heart rate sensor did accurately reflect how we were feeling during our workouts, and a glance at it was enough to confirm that we were close to our maximum heart rate.
Apple Watch Series 5 can also take ECG readings just like the Series 4, a feature that was just recently enabled in India. The watch takes 30 seconds to log a reading and will tell you whether you have a sinus rhythm (normal) or atrial fibrillation. This feature worked well for us but it's important to note that the Apple Watch Series 5 is not a substitute for a visit to the doctor. It's meant to offer you a way to check if things are as expected, so you can share your concerns with a doctor. This is an excellent feature for those who need it, and even if you don't think you do, it is good to have.
We also ran our standard fitness tracking tests on the Apple Watch Series 5. First, we walked 1,000 steps and counted each one manually. We installed the Pedometer++ app on the Apple Watch just to be sure that the step tracking data we collected was from the watch and not the paired iPhone. The Apple Watch Series 5 logged 1,006 steps, which is very accurate.
Next we walked 1km — a distance measured using a car's odometer — in an area where lots of GPS devices struggle to return an accurate distance measurement. The Apple Watch Series 5 logged this distance as 1.07km, which is also pretty accurate. We then tested its GPS accuracy on a 4km run at a place where we've been training for years, and found the Series 5's measurements to be spot on.
The Apple Watch Series 5 also features an in-built compass, which is also available as a complication on your watch face. We did play around with this app and found it to be pretty accurate, but since we didn't go exploring any uncharted land during the course of this review, its utility was limited for us. It's likely to be useful to hikers, and the ability to edit your bearing so that the compass takes you in the direction you need to go is also pretty neat.
The Series 5 is swim-proof just like its predecessor. We weren't able to go for a swim during the review period but we did take the watch into a shower multiple times, and it survived. The device also supports fall detection and can alert emergency services if you don't move for 10 seconds after falling. We didn't fall during the course of this review, and never needed to use this feature, but it has proven to be life-saving for some.
It's a bit surprising to see that the Apple Watch still doesn't have native sleep tracking. We personally don't need this feature much, but if you do, you could use an app such as Sleep++ to get the job done.
On the other hand, noise is one factor that affects sleep and general well-being, and the Series 5 (or Series 4 with watchOS 6) can measure it pretty well. The noise data we saw on the Series 5 appeared to correspond with how loud our surroundings were. When sound levels cross 90db, you you'll receive a notification and the colour of the graph turns yellow, which is a nice touch. When sound levels are below 80db, it is green. In our time using this feature, we weren't exposed to sounds above 100db although we didn't walk to crowded roads or join any festive celebrations to see how loud it gets.
The Health app also logs your headphone audio levels (works with select headphones and earphones) and tells you if you're potentially at risk of damaging your hearing by keeping the volume too high for too long. This is an excellent iOS 13 feature that works even if you don't have an Apple Watch. It's nice to have, but if you've never opened the Health app, you might not discover it at all. This feature did make us more aware of how noisy some places are, and it also made us lower our headphone volume to preserve our hearing health.
Back to the Apple Watch Series 5, we still hope that Apple will eventually add built-in training plans to help people achieve their fitness goals. However, there's no shortage of apps that do this, and you can pick whichever you like.
We've mentioned the battery life of the Apple Watch Series 5 already, but here are some detailed stats to round off the performance section of this review. With the always-on display enabled but no cellular connection, the Series 5 lasted just over a day. With the cellular connection active, that dropped to just 15 hours. With the always-on display and cellular connectivity disabled, the Series 5 lasted two days, and a little less than a day and a half with cellular enabled. The battery figures for the Series 4 were two days without cellular and around six to eight hours with it. There's been an improvement in terms of cellular battery life, which is good to see.
The impact of always-on display on battery life is too big to ignore, and if you're planning to use the Series 5 for a few years, there's a chance that you'll have to permanently disable it as the battery ages. We hope this can be improved in future iterations of the Apple Watch.
This is a good time to consider who really needs the Apple Watch Series 5 (which starts at Rs. 40,900 for the 38mm version) over the Apple Watch Series 3 (which starts at Rs. 20,900). The best features of the Series 5 — as compared to the Series 3 — are the always-on display, bigger screen, ECG monitoring, more storage, fall detection, compass, and ability to measure ambient noise.
Of these, the always-on display and bigger screen are what most people will value the most, whereas the rest would potentially interest some buyers but not everyone. If you can live with a smaller screen and don't need the always-on display, the Apple Watch Series 3 still remains an excellent smartwatch, and is now a lot more affordable.
If you value any of the new features a lot, then the Series 5 will be very useful for you. It's an excellent new top-end model for the Apple Watch lineup, with the only major complaint being reduced battery life with the always-on display enabled. Its workout tracking accuracy is top-notch, and it still is the best smartwatch for iPhones thanks to watchOS 6 and its deep integration with iOS 13.
Ratings (out of 5)