The Apple Watch 5 looks very similar to the Apple Watch 4, but there are some very significant changes under the glass – starting with the fact that at long last Apple has made an Apple Watch that tells the time all the time. The smartwatch now has an always-on display.
We expected Apple to ditch the Series 3 and make the Series 4 the entry level, but that hasn’t happened. Instead it’s the Series 4 that’s disappeared from the store, with the Series 3 now in position as the more affordable Apple Watch.
- Check out our thoughts on the Apple Watch 5
- Read our full review of the Apple Watch 4
- These are the best smartwatches
You might not be able to buy a Series 4 from Apple any more, but it’s much better than the Series 3 and there should be some decent deals on the second-hand market as retailers offload stock and early adopters do their early adopting thing, flooding eBay with year-old devices.
Let’s not forget that until relatively recently, the Apple Watch Series 4 was the best smartwatch in the world. Does the Series 5 have enough power and practicality to make it the better buy, or should you be scouring the second-hand sellers for a Series 4? Let’s find out.
Design and display
The Series 4 grew slightly compared to the Series 3, with the 38mm model becoming 40mm and the 42mm becoming 44mm. Those sizes have been retained for the Series 5, which looks identical until you power it on.
That’s when you’ll see the most dramatic difference between the Series 5 and the Series 4: the Series 5 Apple Watch has a very clever always-on display that dims but doesn’t completely disappear when the Watch display isn’t active. The faces for it have been designed in such a way that when the display is dim the time is still perfectly legible.
The Series 5 also comes in a wider range of colours and materials than the Series 4 – the range now encompasses aluminium, stainless steel, ceramic and titanium – and there are new Nike and Hermes models too, including a black Hermes model.
Fitness and features
The Series 4 introduced an electrocardiogram (EKG) that can help detect heart issues such as atrial fibrillation. It also introduced fall detection and improved both the accelerometer and the gyroscope, and came in both standard and LTE varieties.
The Series 5 takes all of that and adds a compass for better navigation, and it enhances the emergency SOS feature that can be activated automatically on cellular models: the Series 5 Cellular offers international emergency calling (without requiring an iPhone to be tethered to it) n 150 different countries.
As the Series 5 runs watchOS 6 it also has the new noise detection feature that can warn you if the noise levels are potentially dangerous for your health but that’s a software feature, not a hardware one.
OS, power and battery
The Series 4 ran WatchOS 5, and the Series 5 has WatchOS 6. You can upgrade the older Watch to the latest OS.
The chipset in the Series 4 is the Apple S4, supported with 16GB of storage for apps or music. Battery life was supposedly 18 hours, according to Apple, which seemed accurate enough in our year of use: we’ve been able to eke two days out of our 44mm without too much effort.
The Series 5 gets a 64-bit, dual core S5 processor (the amount of storage hasn’t been announced) and once again Apple has claimed 18 hours of battery life. It’s managed to achieve that without the always-on display using up the battery life thanks to new power management and the excitingly-named Low Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide (LTPO) display, a variant of OLED that’s much more energy efficient than the OLED used in the Series 4. This tech did exist in the Series 4, but the wearable wasn't programmed to make the most of it.
LTPO uses less energy to keep the screen updated, and it’s particularly effective at lower refresh rates: during the keynote we were told that it can move effortlessly from refresh rates as high as 60Hz to a positively sloth-like 1Hz, depending on what you need.
The entry prices for the Series 5 are identical to the Series 4: $399 / £399 / AU$599 for the 40mm and $429 / £429 / AU$649 for the 44mm watch. If you want to go cellular the prices start at $499 / £499 / AU$749 and $529 / £529 / AU$799 for the 40mm and 44mm models respectively.
Those prices are for the aluminium models. If you want a stainless steel one the prices start $100 higher, and if you fancy a ceramic or Hermes one then perhaps you should get your butler to enquire discreetly about the price (as Apple hasn't told us so far).
The Series 3 is now very affordable, with the smallest 38mm version priced at $199 / £199 / AU$319 for the standard model and $299 / £299 / AU$469 for cellular, so if the Apple Watch 5 price is too high, this is a viable alternative for you.
Apple had us at “always on”, which has been at the very top of our wishlist since the very first generation. The Series 4 is much quicker to turn on than any previous Apple Watch display, but having to wake up our watch still annoys us, and makes it almost impossible to check the time surreptitiously when we’re bored in meetings. For that feature alone, we'd argue the Series 5 is better than the Series 4.
But there’s more to the Apple Watch 5 than just the display, as great as that is. The compass makes any kind of navigation – land, sea or air – that little bit better. There’s a wider choice of materials and colours, even if some of them are so hilariously expensive most of us won’t even glance at their section of the Apple Store. And it’s going to be that little bit smoother thanks to its S5 processor.
The Series 4 remains a great smartwatch and a strong second-hand buy, but the Series 5 is that little bit better. Did we mention that the display’s always turned on?
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Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.