The next version of the Apple Watch is here and … it’s pretty much the same as last year’s Series 4.
As expected, it’s a relatively boring year for the Apple Watch save for one major change: an always-on display. While Android smartwatches have had displays that dim but don’t sleep, one of the defining features of the Apple Watch has been that its display sleeps when not in use.
That is no longer the case. With the Series 5, Apple is introducing new watch faces that still display the time and some other data at all times. If you’re used to having your watch face go completely black when not in use, the change might take some getting used to, but I’m already a big fan of the change. It’s always seemed silly to me to have a watch that required you to physically lift your wrist in order to see the time.
Besides the display, there are two other significant changes: new finishes and a new compass app.
Besides the base-level aluminum (Apple’s cheapest watch material) and pricier stainless steel, Apple added two additional materials for Series 5: titanium, available in silver or black; and white ceramic, which was last available with the Series 3.
Both upgrades will cost significantly more than the base model Apple Watch, which starts at $399. Titanium starts at $799 (if you get a sport band, a leather band ups the price to $899) while white ceramic will run you $1299 (again, with a sport band, leather adds $100 to the price). There’s also a new Hermés-branded Apple Watch, made of stainless steel, which starts at $1249.
All of the more premium versions of the Series 5 look nice, but nice enough to justify the price. (Apple Notes the titanium finish is more scratch and stain resistant, though we haven’t been able to test these claims yet.)
Another welcome change that feels way overdue is the fact that Apple now allows you to pair any type of case with any type of band when you buy. That may seem obvious, but with previous versions, Apple limited the band based on what model you bought (you couldn’t buy the base-level Apple Watch Sport with a leather band, for instance), so it’s nice to see Apple finally giving buyers some flexibility.
The other notable change with Series 5 is the new compass app. At first, a compass is one of those features that seems like it shouldn’t really be that big of deal. And as a standalone app, it doesn’t seem like it is.
The new compass app looks slick, but unless you’re lost in the woods or something, I can’t imagine it being terribly useful on its own (I can’t recall ever using the iPhone’s native compass app on its own).
Where the compass really starts to matter though is in third-party apps. Because other apps can now take advantage of the compass, location-based services start to get much more useful. Maps can show you what direction to walk in, workout apps can understand more about where you’re at, like your current elevation. I saw a demo of the Yelp app, which can show you what direction to walk in order to find the restaurant you’re looking for.
There are a few other updates to look forward to: emergency calling now works in a lot more countries, and watchOS 6 will bring a host of upgrades of its own.
We’ll have more thoughts when we have an official review, but for now it looks like a relatively low-key year for the Apple Watch, despite some notable upgrades.