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Hands on: Apple Watch 5 review

The Watch 5 finally brings a key feature to the range

What is a hands on review?
Apple Watch 5 review

Early Verdict

If it wasn't for an always-on display, the Apple Watch 5 would be one of the most minuscule updates for an Apple product yet. However, not needing to wake the display is a real boost for the Watch 5, and worth a whole new launch.

For

  • Smart, always-on display
  • Feature-rich device

Against

  • Same design as Apple Watch 4
  • No sleep tracking

The Apple Watch Series 5 isn’t going to blow you away in the same manner as the Apple Watch 4 did – but it does pack one, very key, upgrade over last year’s model.

While the iPhone is feeling very similar year-on-year these days, the Apple Watch underwent a big overhaul in 2018, so not a lot was expected in terms of improvements this time around.

However, there has been one big change: the the Apple Watch 5 display doesn’t turn off. Its new always-on display feature allows you to glance down at your Watch - whether that’s in a meeting or in a workout - and see what’s on the screen.

We've had a short amount of time to try out the new Apple Watch 5, and here are our first thoughts of the latest Apple smartwatch.

Apple Watch 5 release date and price

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Introduced alongside the iPhone 11 range on September 10, you'll be able to buy the new Apple Watch alongside the new iPhones on September 20. If you want the Nike edition, you'll have to wait until October 4.

It's set to cost $399 / £399 / AU$649 / AED 1,599 for the GPS-only model in the smaller 40mm size. It's a bit more for the 44mm size at $429 / £429 / AU$699 / AED 1,729.

The cellular model in 40mm starts at $499 / £499 / AU$799 / AED 1,999, and goes up to $529 / £529 / AU$849 / AED 2,129 for the 44mm model. Most people don't need the LTE version if they're always carrying their iPhone with them, but the larger 44m size usually nets you better battery life and larger touch points on the slightly bigger screen.

The Apple Watch 5 starting price is for the aluminum case, which comes in three familiar finishes: Gold, Space Black, and Silver. One new perk is that this year's case is made of 100% recycled aluminum.

The Hermes edition of the Apple Watch 5

The Hermes edition of the Apple Watch 5

(Image credit: Future)

You can also pick it up in stainless steel for a higher price – $699 with a sport loop or sport band, $749 with a Milanese loop, or $799 with a leather loop. The all-new titanium Apple Watch 5, in light and dark finishes, starts at $799 with a sport loop and goes up to $899 with a leather loop.

The Watch will once again come in a white Ceramic finish, starting at $1,299 with a sport loop and going up to $1399 with a leather loop.

There are new Nike models with additional bands, loops and faces. There are also Hermes models, with Space Black stainless steel cases and noir leather bands. Apple didn't announce whether these models would be available in both GPS-only and cellular.

Design and display

Sticking with the same OLED technology that’s served it so well over the years, the Apple Watch Series 5 comes with a bright and vivid display that’s easy to see on the wrist.

Here’s the big change: Apple has dropped the ‘raise to wake’ functionality to see the time or a notification (where you have to flick or raise your wrist to turn on the display). 

We’ve always been impressed with how accurate the previous line of Watches have been at knowing when you’re looking at the screen, but now that’s all over. You can either see the display in great, bright detail, or the OLED display will dim but you’ll be able to still see key information.

Scroll through the images below to see how 'on' and 'ambient' styles look side by side:

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Aple Watch 5 review

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In our tests with it, it was certainly an effective skill for the watch to gain. Of particular benefit was the fact it works in the Workout app, as you can now just see what’s on the screen without having to flick the wrist.

In a strength workout or fast run, you don’t need that extra hassle - and it’s great to see Apple find a new way to display information. However, it’s not clear how this will work with third-party apps, so we’ll need to try that out in our full review.

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But the viewing angles, in particular, are impressive when the Watch 5 is dim - you can see it from pretty much any way you want to squint at it, and that’s something really needed on a smartwatch.

The larger 40mm and 44mm designs from last year’s Apple Watch 4 remain, which again is expected for a couple of reasons: firstly, Apple keeps similar designs for years when iterating on its products, and otherwise it would mean even more sizes of bands and accessories on the market.

Keeping things simple makes the third-party market more vibrant and mature, so there’s a good reason to retain the large 44mm and 40mm models.

The design of the Watch 5 is as most would expect: rounded edges with the small speaker grilles in (which, remember, can now speak to you to tell you lap or split times as you run around) as well as water resistance up to 5ATM pressure - so swimming with this watch is easy.

The biggest change design-wise is in the materials used - Apple has unveiled the Watch 5 in new ceramic and titanium variants (although the former has been used in older models), in a bid to increase the range of price points it can sell its smartwatch at.

(Image credit: Future)

These feel nice on the wrist, although we weren’t impressed with the ceramic option when it first came out. Well, perhaps we could rephrase that - it felt premium for sure, but it didn’t quite feel worth the extra cash Apple was asking for it.

But then again, perhaps we’re not the target market of bling that this device is aimed at. Even though the cost of the titanium model is a little steep, offering the Apple Watch in a new material might, again, entice the upgrade. 

There’s not a lot of difference at all between the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 5 - this is mostly just an update to that model, but the large display and rounded edges still feel nice on the wrist, and the burgeoning range of bands (not just from Apple) make it a decent choice for iPhone owners.

Fitness features

Apple hasn’t added much in the way of fitness capability with the new Watch 5, thanks to there not being a huge amount of new hardware to work with.

The ECG monitor remains, but that was the headline of last year and it’s beginning to get medical approval in a number of countries now.

The much-vaunted sleep tracking didn’t materialize, which makes sense when the battery life hasn't improved, but you’ll obviously be able to track the full range of fitness options (from running to swimming to yoga) from the watch - as well as track your output on gym equipment like steppers or treadmills.

Beyond that we’re going to need to test out the fitness prowess of the Apple Watch 5 in the real world - even an improved GPS is hard to assess, as the Watch has never let you know when it’s locked onto a satellite, leaving you to just hope that it roughly knows where it is.

Apple Watch Series 5 battery life

(Image credit: Future)

Apple, once again, hasn’t increased the battery life of its Watch series, sticking with the same 18-hour life that it’s promised (and over-delivered on) since the inception of the range. 

How this translates into real-world use, with an improved processor inside to help make things more efficient, remains to be seen – but we’re looking forward to seeing if it can match the burgeoning battery life of the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 and friends.

The key change here is that always-on display – for Apple to increase the amount of time the display can stay on without needing to drop the battery life is something we didn’t expect, although it will be interesting to test whether the day-and-a-half battery life we get with the Apple Watch 4 remains.

Early verdict

(Image credit: Future)

If you were excited for an all-new Apple Watch, you can open up the box marked ‘2020’ and slide that enthusiasm in there, before storing it dustily under the bed for another 12 months.

For the Apple Watch 5 is merely iterative, a minor upgrade on the Watch 4 in so many ways. The one key improvement is to the always-on display, which is something we didn’t expect to see this year and really does deliver.

But anyone hoping for something more dramatic and new in 2019 will be disappointed. This is effectively the Apple Watch 4S with a new screen, something a little different to last year’s model.

That’s not to say it’s a bad watch at all - any improvements are always welcome - but one suspects there’s more that Apple can do - and arguably needs to do - if it’s to continue as one of the frontrunners in the smartwatch stakes.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.