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Apple Watch Series 5 Hands-on Review – Tom’s Guide

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For

  • Always-on display
  • International emergency SOS calls
  • New titanium and ceramic finishes

Against

  • Still no sleep-tracking
  • 18-hour battery life

I took off my aluminum Apple Watch Series 4 and slipped the ceramic white Series 5 on my wrist in a crowded demo area at Apple’s September event in Cupertino. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “It’s beautiful. But also kind of the same.”

And it’s true. The Series 5 is a beautiful smartwatch, particularly the fresh titanium and throwback ceramic finishes, and the new always-on display gives you even more to look at. (More on that in a second.) But when the marquee feature aside from the display — an admittedly important, much-anticipated change — is a built-in compass, instead of, say, sleep-tracking or two-day battery life, well…I’m not sold. Yet.

Apple Watch Series 5 price and release date

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the 40-millimeter GPS model and $499 for the LTE version. The watch is available to preorder now and goes on sale Sept. 20.

The watch comes in a larger size, 44mm, just like the Series 4, though last year’s model is no longer on sale. (Apple is still carrying the Series 3, which has been discounted to $199.)

Apple Watch 5 display: Always-on OLED

(Image credit: Future)

The Series 5 looks identical to its predecessor at first glance. Both come in two size options in a variety of finishes and shades with a plethora of band options for endless customization. But when I dropped my arm to my side, a funny thing happened: The Series 5’s watch face stayed on. It dimmed from a completely white background to a black one, but the time and the complications around the dial remained visible.

It’s clear that the Apple Watch Series 5’s version of always on is far more advanced than other smartwatches.

The new Apple Watch’s always-on Retina OLED display is a thing of beauty, even if the always-on part is an example of Apple lagging years behind its smartwatch rivals. Was it worth the wait? Well, in my hands-on time with the Series 5, it’s clear that this watch’s version of always on is far more advanced than other watches. For instance, I could still see complications, or shortcuts to most-used apps with snippets of information, on my wrist as it hung down by my side. You won’t find that on Android smartwatches built on Google’s Wear OS platform.

When I raised my wrist, the watch face brightened. Apple says the new display uses an ambient light sensor, low-temperature polysilicone and oxide display, ultra-low power display driver and efficient power management integrated circuit, combined with software, to keep the Series 5’s battery life at 18 hours, just like its predecessors. I plan to put that to the test in my full review.

Apple Watch Series 5 design: More polished

(Image credit: Future)

The aluminum and stainless steel Series 5 models look identical to the Series 4, down to the red ring around the Digital Crown to denote cellular connectivity. But the space black and brushed titanium versions of the Series 5 are downright stunning, and Apple brought back the classic ceramic white for old-school Apple Watch fans (old-school as in four years ago, but old-school nonetheless). I tried on the ceramic version, and it definitely feels more high-end than the rose gold aluminum Series 4 I’m currently wearing.

Apple is also making it easier to customize your Apple Watch with a new in-store studio that allows you to mix and match finishes and bands. Instead of being forced to buy an aluminum watch with a sport band out of the box, you can choose your own style for a truly personalized device.

Research App: A leap forward for health science

Apple hasn’t been shy about the Apple Watch’s use for monitoring your health and fitness. Now it’s opening up the watch to reputable research institutions with the launch of three new studies. The Apple Women’s Health Study with Harvard and the NIH; the Apple Heart and Movement Study with the American Heart Association and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and the Apple Hearing Study with the University of Michigan will allow Apple Watch users to opt into sharing their data on the new Research app.

By enrolling in one of the studies, you can contribute data about your heart health, periods and hearing — the latter two using new features coming in watchOS 6 that allow you to track cycles and symptoms and measure noise decibels right on your wrist.

Other features: Compass and international SOS

(Image credit: Future)

After the always-on display, Apple hyped the new Compass tool as the Series 5’s most useful feature. That announcement felt underwhelming, though seeing the Compass app in action on its own and its data used in a third-party app like Night Sky is pretty cool. The watch instantly knows when it’s pointing due north (or an incredibly specific longitude and latitude), which is useful when you’re on outdoor adventures.

For Series 5 owners who opt for cellular connectivity, the watch’s international emergency SOS feature could be a literal life-saver. Now when you’re traveling overseas and long press the side button to call up the SOS feature, which dials 911 and your emergency contacts, the watch will call the emergency services number specific to that country. You don’t even have to have your iPhone nearby. This will be incredibly useful for travelers with health concerns or those who like to gallivant around the world solo.

Outlook

Aside from the always-on display, which is a huge leap forward for both the look and usefulness of the Apple Watch, the Series 5 is an incremental upgrade from the Series 4, which is probably why Apple is discontinuing that model. The new watch is a bigger upgrade from the Series 3, which lacks an ECG sensor for detecting atrial fibrillation, fall detection, a large display or a fast processor. 

The Series 5 seems like a solid smartwatch, though underwhelming compared to what might have been. Stay tuned for a full review to see if the new display makes it a must-buy.

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