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Apple Watch Series 6 review: Smarter than ever

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
379
inc VAT

Not a huge update, and battery life is still poor, but the Apple Watch is still the best smartwatch you can buy

Pros 
Brighter always on display
Great fitness tracking accuracy
Stylish and responsive
Cons 
Short battery life
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I’m going to get this out of the way right away: the Apple Watch Series 6 is the best smartwatch you can buy. No rivals have appeared over the past 12 months that seriously challenge its position and several improvements this time around mean it’s even more firmly ensconced at the top of the wearables sector.

Android phone owners still aren’t really catered for, despite the new Family Setup feature (more on which below) but if you do own an iPhone there’s nothing – not in terms of all-round capabilities – that even comes close.

READ NEXT: Apple releases new affordable Watch SE

Apple Watch Series 6 review: What you need to know

The new features that Apple has introduced are various but none of them are particularly groundbreaking. Battery life is still the same (around a day) as is the form factor and Apple hasn’t made huge changes to the UI, either.

Instead, there’s a selection of new things to track (blood oxygen saturation and sleep) a new, more efficient S6 processor that means the watch’s always-on screen can now be brighter, and an always-on altimeter. Before, the altimeter would only update every 15 minutes or so to save power.

There’s also something called Family Setup, which allows you to set up a second Apple Watch that doesn’t need to be connected to an iPhone, which could come in handy if you want to set one up for a child or older relative.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Price and competition

The price hasn’t changed, either, and that starts at £379 for the 40mm Wi-Fi only version, £409 for the 44mm Wi-Fi model, with the 4G models costing £100 extra.

At these prices, the main rivals in the smartwatch space are the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 (from £399), the Fitbit Sense (£299), and there’s a huge amount of choice if it’s more of a fitness-focused watch that you're looking for.

You can now pick up a Garmin Fenix 6 for around £430, for instance, which is the base model in Garmin’s high-end sports tracking range. There are all sorts of choices at lower prices as well, from the general-purpose Vivoactive 4 to the more running-orientated Garmin Forerunner 245.

Don't discount the Apple Watch SE, either. It does 90% of what the Series 6 can do, and looks just as good, for £110 less.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Design and hardware

From the front, the Apple Watch Series 6 looks no different from the last two generations. The digital crown is still there with the side button just below it and the AMOLED display is the same size and resolution as before, too.

It measures 1.57in across the diagonal on the 40mm watch and has a resolution of 394 x 324 pixels. On the 44mm watch, it’s 1.78in across and has a resolution of 448 x 368.

There are some new colours - the dark blue (pictured here) is particularly attractive, plus there’s a new, more realistic stainless steel gold model and a Product Red version for those of a more exhibitionist bent.

Elsewhere, there are a couple of new stretchy one-piece straps called the Solo Loop and the Braided Solo Loop. And there are some nice new watch faces - Typograph, Chronograph Pro, Stripes - but both straps and watch faces work with older models anyway.

Flip it over and you get your first signal that this is a new device with a new configuration of eight LEDs and sensors arranged in a square at the rear instead of the old central sensor surrounded with a ring of LEDs.

Lastly, behind the scenes, the Apple Watch Series 6 has a new chip powering things: the more efficient, more powerful S6, which is based on the A13 Bionic chip first used in the iPhone 11.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Sleep tracking, SpO2

That’s it for physical features. What’s really interesting is what these changes mean for the Apple Watch Series 6’s tracking capabilities and, on this front, Sleep and SpO2 measurements are the headliners.

We’ve been asking for the former for what seems like years and, although it’s late to the party, Apple’s sleep features are already cleverly implemented.

Rather than simply track your sleep patterns, Apple’s implementation ties it into a special bedtime mode, which includes setting a daily alarm and a target number of hours for sleep, and choosing a wind-down period.

Once Bedtime mode is enabled - accessed with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen - the watch goes into low power mode, the display dims right down and notifications are disabled. You can still check the time in the middle of the night with a tap but it won’t blind you when you do. And, when your alarm goes off and you clear it, you’re instantly presented with a summary of data on how you slept. 

The downside is that the sleep analysis is surprisingly light on detail compared with rivals. The Apple Watch will tell you how much time you spent asleep, your average this week compared with the previous week and that's pretty much it. The Fitbit Sense, for example, will tell you how much deep, light and REM sleep you got, what your heart rate variability was and give you an overall score based on those details among other things. Polar's sports watches do something similar, basing sleep quality on sleep stages and heart rate data. 

The SpO2 tracking is trickier to gauge but appears to be well implemented. It’s part of a trend among activity trackers that has only gathered pace as Covid-19 has taken hold. With the Coronavirus' ability to quietly starve the body of oxygen), keeping tabs on your SpO2 levels could help you to realise that you’re unwell, even if you’re asymptomatic.

Apple is careful to point out that the SpO2 readings generated by the Watch Series 6 should not be used in this way. And the watch doesn’t generate any kind of alert or offer assistance in interpreting the results, either.

Being able to keep tabs on your blood oxygen levels can also help those taking part in high-altitude sports to see how well, or poorly, their bodies are acclimatising to altitude. Indeed, many high-altitude mountaineering expedition groups will take a pocket pulse oximeter with them to check their SpO2 levels as they ascend the mountain and, as some studies have found, pulse oximetry can be a way of predicting acute mountain sickness.

Readings are, however, relatively easy to do. For a spot check, all you do is fire up the Blood O2 app on the watch, place your wrist on a table or in your lap and sit still for 15 seconds.

The watch will also take readings in the background from time to time, allowing you to build an overall picture of your blood-oxygen levels, so you should be able to spot any trends within the Apple Health app.

Alas, I do not have a medical-grade SpO2 monitor to hand to compare the Apple Watch with, so I can’t speak to its accuracy so far but I did notice that the readings varied quite widely depending on when I carried them out, the position of my arm and so on. While most of my readings were in what’s considered the normal range of 95% to 100%, there were a few worrying readings where it dipped down to 92%.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Family setup

Moving on from matters medical, the other big new feature is Family Setup, which allows you to set up an extra Apple Watch for a relative or child that doesn’t need to be connected to an iPhone.

The feature works on the cellular models of the Apple Watch Series 4 onwards, so it isn’t a Series 6 exclusive, but there are some useful features here.

The Ask to Buy feature, for instance, means you can screen and approve purchases from the App Store. Meanwhile, the Location Sharing feature allows you to keep tabs on the wearer’s location.

Finally, the Schooltime feature lets you set up a block of time (9:00 to 15:00 on weekdays, for instance) where access to apps and notifications is restricted.

A final thing to think about is that, while not essential, you’ll probably want to purchase a data plan for any watch you set up in this way, otherwise you’ll be severely restricting its functionality while out and about.

Apple Watch Series 6: Other new features

The rest of the new features are more subtle. First up, the always-on screen is now considerably brighter than on the Apple Watch Series 5, to the extent that there now isn’t much of a difference between the live and always-on display modes.

The Watch Series 6 has a more responsive altimeter this time around too, a feature Apple is calling the “always-on altimeter”. Effectively, the watch is now able to read the altitude more frequently than it did before when it was restricted to polling once every 15 minutes or so.

The feature doesn’t manifest itself in the form of an app, however. Instead, you’ll see evidence of it in workout modes when you have the metric enabled, and on watch faces with the new elevation complication enabled.

Finally, the watch’s new, more sensitive optical heart rate reader means it can calculate VO2 Max at lower ranges. It’s more accurate for less fit individuals, in other words.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Sports tracking

That’s a handy addition to the Watch’s sports tracking arsenal but other than this, the theme with Apple Watch Series 6 remains the same as it always has: to make sports tracking simple and accessible to all.

Thus, it won’t give you the in-workout customisability of a Garmin Forerunner or one of Polar’s high-end training watches, nor will it drown you in data, post-exercise.

However, it does everything else pretty well. When running, which is how I’ve been testing its fitness-tracking features, you can set distance, time or calorie targets for each workout and it’s also possible to chuck in things like pace alerts and customise the metrics shown on the watch face.

There’s a huge breadth of other activities you can track, too. All the core sports are here - cycling, walking, hiking, gym sessions and so on - plus pool and open-water swimming. And there’s a huge selection of more esoteric activities, from archery and kick-boxing to cross-country skiing. Even “fitness gaming” gets a look in, which is nice for all those people still using their Wii Fit Boards.

As far as accuracy goes, it’s excellent, both for heart rate tracking and GPS. I compared the former against a MyZone MZ-3 chest belt over the course of three runs totaling 25km and, so far, the heart rate on the Apple Watch has been pretty much bang on. I’d normally expect a wrist-based optical heart rate monitor to lag behind a chest belt, and be off by a few beats but the watch performed remarkably well. It wasn’t beat for beat exactly the same, but it was rarely more than two or three beats per minute low or high throughout.

For GPS testing, I compared the Apple Watch Series 6 with a Polar Grit X, which does have a tendency to read short and go for a bit of a wander when you run under trees and through forests. Here, the Apple Watch was much more consistent in its positional accuracy - you can see that in the screenshot below the groupings are much tighter around the three loops I ran in my local park. However, it did have a tendency to smooth off sharp corners, which is something the Polar did not do. All-in-all, though, I’d say the Apple Watch Series 6 was pretty much bang on here.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Battery life

Perhaps the one area of disappointment is battery life, which hasn’t changed at all for the Apple Watch Series 6.

Apple still says it has “all-day battery life”, which is, to quote Apple’s website, “based on 18 hours with the following use: 90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of app use, and a 60-minute workout with music playback from Apple Watch via Bluetooth, over the course of 18 hours”. This is with a continuous Bluetooth connection to an iPhone.

For workout-tracking, battery life is quoted at up to 11 hours for indoor workouts, 7 hours with GPS enabled (enough to get most people through a marathon) and 6 hours if you use GPS and 4G together.

Apple rarely oversells the battery life on its products and I found these claims largely tallied with my experience overall. Indeed, I was typically getting slightly longer than 24 hours out of it, even with the always-on display enabled and an hour or so of GPS usage.

It’s still not brilliant, though, especially not when manufacturers such as Garmin are producing luxury sports wearables that last weeks on a single charge. And although there are mitigating circumstances - such watches use much dimmer, less vibrant display technologies - it would be nice not to have to charge the watch every single day.

The only good news on this front is that charging times are improved so you can give your watch a top-up in the morning just after you wake up and have it ready to go before you travel to work. From empty, Apple quotes around an hour to 80% and around 1hr 30mins to 100%. Again, this chimes with my experience so far.

Apple Watch Series 6 review: Verdict

The battery life is a familiar complaint and, to be honest, it’s the only major one. In all other respects, the Apple Watch Series 6 is a superb product.

It isn't a huge upgrade, that much is true and, if you already own a Series 5 or a Series 4, there aren’t any big reasons to go out and drop another £379 on this, beyond simply having to own the very latest thing.

It's also worth considering if you can do without the Series 6's brighter always-on display, new blood oxygen monitoring and ECG heart tracker; if so, the cheaper Apple Watch SE makes a more sensible choice at £110 less.

However, the Apple Watch Series 6 in its latest guise remains the best smartwatch you can buy and a highly capable all-round fitness tracker to boot.

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