The Apple Watch has come a long way in its short life. The Apple Watch 5 was a stunning smartwatch, and now there’s an even better version. The Apple Watch 6 is - at least on paper - the best smartwatch, and the best health device, Apple has ever made.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Apple Watch 6 is the Apple Watch you should buy, however. Every time Apple updates the Watch it also offers a more affordable choice, and this time around it offers two: the Apple Watch 3, and the brand new Apple Watch SE. If you don’t need all the new features of the latest model, that means you can get all the power and features you need for considerably less cash.
Below we've covered the key differences between the Apple Watch 6 and the Apple Watch 5, while further down you'll find a brief look at your other options - the new Watch SE and the still-on-sale Watch 3.
Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5 design and display
The 5th generation Apple Watch introduced the much-requested always-on display and came in a range of materials: aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic, and titanium. The Apple Watch 6 introduces two new colors for the aluminum models: a nice deep blue and a vivid Product Red.
The big news for us is that the Apple Watch 6’s always-on display is 2.5 times brighter than before, which means it’s much easier to see in sunlight.
The Apple Watch 6 also introduces a new kind of strap, the Solo Loop. There’s no clasp, no buckle, and no parts; it’s a single, stretchable band available in a range of sizes and seven different colors.
There’s also a braided version made from recycled yarn and silicone threads. That’s coming in 5 colors. The leather band and Nike bands have been updated and there are new Hermes bands too.
That aside, the design and sizing of the two models is much the same - so you can pick up either in 40mm or 44mm.
Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5 fitness and features
In addition to its electrocardiogram (EKG), fall detection, accelerometer, altimeter, and gyroscope, the Apple Watch 5 added a compass for better navigation and updated its emergency SOS feature in the cellular model to deliver automated emergency calling in 150 different countries.
The Apple Watch 6 retains all of these fitness and health features, makes the altimeter a real-time sensor, and it adds VO2 max sensing based on your motion and heart rate. It’s a powerful predictor of your overall health, and in a software update later this year it will warn you if your VO2 max levels are dropping below a certain level.
As expected, the Apple Watch 6 also includes a blood oxygen sensor. It shines red and infrared light on your wrist, calculates the color of your blood, and works out how much oxygen’s in your blood.
The whole thing takes just 15 seconds, and it also captures periodic background measurements. It even works while you sleep, and can help indicate whether you might have COVID -19 or another respiratory condition.
Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5 OS, power, and battery
A new Apple Watch means a new watchOS. Last year’s Series 5 came with watchOS 6, and this year’s came with watchOS 7. However, you can update your Series 5 and some older Apple Watches to watchOS 7, so the software is much the same on both models.
watchOS 7 includes sleep tracking, better noise analysis, better complications and new Fitness workouts including Dance, Functional Strength Training, and Core Training, plus the new Apple Fitness Plus service.
The new Family Setup meanwhile enables you to set up Watches (cellular models only, from Series 4 onwards) for your family without them having to have their own phones. We’re not entirely sure we want our kids to have expensive watches, but it’s certainly useful for families who do: there’s a school time mode with do not disturb and restrictions to stop them messing around when they shouldn’t be.
As for the hardware, the Apple Watch 5’s chipset is a 64-bit dual-core Apple S5 with a claimed 18 hours of battery life. It achieved that with improved power management and a more energy-efficient variant of OLED called LTPO (Low Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide).
The Series 6 has Apple’s S6 chipset, based on the A13 silicon in the iPhone 11. It’s more energy-efficient than before, so the new brighter display hopefully shouldn’t have a negative effect on your battery life - though we'll have to put the watch through a full review to find out for sure.
Introducing the Apple Watch SE
The Apple Watch SE is a cut-down version of the Apple Watch 6 with the same display, accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter and fall detection as the Watch 6 but with the same chipset as the Apple Watch 5 – so it’s faster than the Apple Watch 3 but not as fast as the Apple Watch 6.
It doesn’t have the VO2 or blood oxygen sensors of the Apple Watch 6 and there was no mention of ECG sensing in Apple’s presentation.
There are now three current models of Apple Watch: the Apple Watch 3, the Apple Watch 6 and the Apple Watch SE. Let's start with the cheapest first. The Apple Watch 3 starts at $199 / £199 / AU$299.
The Apple Watch SE slots in slightly above it with a starting price of $279 / £269 / AU$429. The Apple Watch 6 meanwhile starts at $399 / £379 / AU$599.
Apple will offer Apple Card financing, enabling you to pay over up to 24 months.
We haven't mentioned the Apple Watch 5 because it's been discontinued, but some third-party stores will probably stock it for a while - it did start at $399 / £399 / AU$649, but it's likely to start being discounted now.
Which Apple Watch should you buy?
This year’s Apple Watch isn’t as dramatically different as last year’s model: the Series 5’s move to an always-on display was one of the biggest changes since the first generation.
But there are some important new features here, and if you really love your Watch we think the new sensors and the much brighter display mean you’ll already be on the Apple Store site ordering an Apple Watch 6.
The choice is harder with the Apple Watch SE and the Apple Watch 3. If we’re talking the most affordable then the Watch 3 is the best choice. But it’s not significantly more money to get a bigger, better display and a better chipset - so the Apple Watch SE could end up being better value, but we'll let you know when we've fully tested it.
Given that in theory the Apple Watch 5 costs just as much as the Apple Watch 6 there's little point in buying that now at full price, but with a hefty discount it could still be a decent option, and with this year's upgrades being relatively minor there's not necessarily any need to upgrade if you're already rocking a 5.
As ever, buying the newest Apple device means paying quite a lot of money for it. If you can afford the Series 6 you’ll love it, but if you can’t then we don’t think the cheaper Apple Watch models will disappoint either. watchOS 7 is full of genuinely useful improvements and means even older Apple Watch models still feel bang up to date.
- Check out our guide to the best Apple Watches