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Apple Watch Series 5 review: A small but significant upgrade

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
400

The Apple Watch Series 5 is the best smartwatch out there but only for iPhone users

Pros 
Always-on screen
Impeccable heart-rate tracking
Excellent performance
Cons 
Shorter battery life than the Series 4
No sleep tracking
Always-on screen doesn't work with third-party apps
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Apple has never opted to make sweeping changes to the Apple Watch with its yearly iterations but even by those standards the Series 5 is a small upgrade, with the only major new feature being its always-on screen. However, that’s still a significant, and long-awaited, update to what was already an excellent wearable and one that more firmly establishes the Apple Watch as the best smartwatch you can buy right now.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: What you need to know

The Watch 5 can still only be paired with an iPhone, which is really all you need to know if you’re an Android phone owner. I wasn’t expecting Apple to change its approach here, but it’s still a little disappointing if you’re not heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem. Like the Series 4, the Apple Watch 5 comes in two sizes – 40mm and 44mm – and with either you can pick between a GPS-only model and one that also has cellular connectivity, the latter of which is supported by EE, O2 and Vodafone in the UK.

While the always-on screen is the key new feature on the Apple Watch Series 5, it’s not the only change to the hardware. It comes with 32GB of storage, increased from 16GB, and it has a built-in magnetic compass and an upgraded altimeter, which measures your actual elevation as well as overall changes in elevation. The cellular variant can also make emergency calls worldwide, rather than only in the country it was purchased in. That's an update that’s easy to miss but could prove a lifesaver.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: Price and competition

The Series 5 starts at £399 for the 40mm GPS version, which rises to £429 for the 44mm Watch. If you want 4G, you can add £100 to that price, and more still depending on your choice of materials. The cheapest is aluminium, while Apple has reintroduced a white ceramic version of the Watch, which starts at £1,299.

In a move that has no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of its rivals, Apple has kept the Apple Watch Series 3 in its line-up, and reduced the price to just £199 for the 38mm watch (the 42mm watch starts at £229). The Series 3 has a smaller screen than the Series 5, and a much less reliable heart-rate monitor but it might be the most compelling competition for the latest model.

Outside of Apple's own products, Garmin’s new Venu smartwatch (£330) is the company’s first device with an AMOLED screen and it also has all Garmin’s brilliant native sports tracking. The Venu doesn’t have anything like the range of apps available on an Apple Watch but Garmin claims it’ll last up to five days between charges, compared to the Apple Watch’s 18 hours.

If you have an Android phone then the Huawei Watch 2 (£169) is still our pick of the best WearOS smartwatches. The new Huawei Watch GT 2 doesn’t run WearOS, but has monster battery life and has impressed in our early testing despite the uncertainty around the Chinese company. Samsung’s premium Galaxy Watch (from £279) and sporty Galaxy Watch Active2 (from £269) are other good options whether you’re an Android or iPhone user.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: Design and new features

The Series 5 has the same advertised 18 hours of battery life as the Series 4 despite having an always-on Retina display and that’s thanks to Apple's excellent low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) screen technology. The screen can use different refresh rates to improve efficiency, switching between 60fps when in use to 1fps when not.

When you’re not looking directly at the watch, the display dims and the data shown on complications and during workouts refreshes more slowly. Turn your wrist to look at the Watch and it brightens instantly. However, for now, this feature only works on the main watch face and Apple’s Workout app. With other apps, the display blurs and a simple digital time is shown when not in use.

Other than the new screen, the design is the same as on the Series 4 with no difference in weight between the GPS-only and GPS+Cellular variants. The aluminium watch weighs 30.8g for the 40mm model without a strap, and 36.5g for the 44mm, with both measuring 10.7mm thick – slightly slimmer than the 11.4mm Apple Watch Series 3.

If you ever use the Apple Watch to navigate your way around town, the new compass should prove a very useful addition. Instead of the simple blue dot showing your position in the Maps app, you can now see which direction you’re facing, making following routes much easier.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: Fitness tracking and apps

The everyday activity tracking on the Apple Watch has always been excellent, with many owners hooked by the concept of filling three activity rings each day. The same system is in place on the Series 5 but one new feature in watchOS 6 is activity trends. This identifies patterns in your activity over long periods of time. It takes 90 days for this to kick in, so I’ll update this review in due course with my findings, but it’s a welcome addition in that the Watch 5 can now do more with the swatches of data it collects daily.

Apple has also tweaked its Health smartphone app to be better at showing useful information at a glance, with a new summary section of your day, and highlights of your recent activity, including recent workouts. I’d be keen to see some of this data make its way onto the Watch itself, though; it’d be great to be able to view recent workouts in detail from your wrist, for instance.

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When it comes to sports tracking, you can pick from basically any app you want to use on the Watch itself. Strava, Nike+ Run Club, Endomondo and many more are all there, which is one of the great strengths of Apple compared to its rivals. However, since the always-on screen is only available in the native Workouts app, that’s the one most people will use, and it’s far from perfect.

The GPS tracking, in particular, is where the Workout app stumbles, with corners being "smoothed" and sections of my runs being missed entirely at times. Indeed, during one 30km run that only included six turns, the Watch cut 0.8km from the total distance. However, I did find that this only happened when the Watch was connected to my phone and presumably piggybacking off its GPS. When I turned off Bluetooth, or left my phone behind, the Watch’s distance readings matched up well with a Garmin running watch linked to a calibrated footpod.

Another complaint is that the Workout app still won’t interface with other apps like Strava natively. You can get around this through the use of a third-party app like RunGap, which you have to pay for, but you really shouldn’t need to. 

However, the always-on screen works well, dimming and reducing the amount of info shown when you’re not looking directly at it – the workout duration doesn’t show milliseconds, for example. This is a major improvement because during exercise it not always easy to turn and hold the screen in place for a second to wake it up. Whether you’re running, cycling, or holding a plank position, being able to glance at the screen from any angle is a major plus.

Another major benefit is the accuracy of Apple’s heart rate monitor. The Series 4 was the most accurate wrist heart-rate monitor I’ve tested, and the Series 5 has matched it in this regard, logging readings within a beat or two of a chest strap throughout several runs and workouts.

Apple has expanded its health-tracking features with watchOS 6 by adding in both menstrual health tracking and a noise monitor. The latter is useful in showing the decibel level of the environment you’re in, and whether it poses a risk to your hearing. It does make riding the London Underground a pretty terrifying experience, though; during my commute to work, sound levels were consistently above 80 decibels, which can lead to hearing damage in the long term.

Alongside the noise and period tracking features, watchOS 6 also brings a dedicated App Store to the Watch, which allows you to browse and download apps without your phone, at least in most cases – some apps require your phone to be nearby. Having screenshots of the apps to view on the Watch itself makes it easier to visualise how they will actually look when installed, but it’s still easier to hunt down new apps on a large screen with a keyboard rather than scribbling on a watch display or using dictation.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: Performance and battery life

The Apple Watch 5 has the same 64-bit dual-core processor as the Series 4 – although confusingly its been renamed as an S5 chip – and it’s brilliantly smooth and fast to use at all times. Switching between apps is snappy, and even when tracking a run with music playing from the Watch, there was no lag when jumping between apps.

Apple still promises all-day battery life from the Watch despite it now having an always-on screen, and I found that to be true, but it does drain a little quicker than the Series 4. With the latter I’d usually have 40-50% of juice left at the end of a day, using the watch to record outdoor runs and play podcasts throughout the day. Under the same conditions, the Watch 5 is normally down to 30-35% at the end of the day.

In other words, it’s still enough to make it through a working day reasonably comfortably, but you’ll certainly need to charge it every night. That’s nothing new – the Apple Watch 4 needs daily charging under fairly heavy use – but it's still a little bit of a letdown considering that there are other smartwatches like the Fitbit Versa 2 and Mobvoi Ticwatch S2 with always-on displays that last longer than a day.

Apple Watch Series 5 review: Verdict

The Apple Watch Series 4 was the best smartwatch we’d ever tested until the Apple Watch 5 came along, so it’s no bad thing that Apple has merely tweaked its blueprint for its new wearable. The always-on screen is the key update and improves the user experience significantly, especially during workouts, although I’d like to see it extended to third-party apps as soon as possible.

Aside from that, the improvements are minor, but Apple has done enough to retain its top-dog status in the smartwatch world. It has the best range of apps, a gorgeous design and is exceptionally easy and fun to use. Let’s just hope the next generation can deliver an improvement in battery life.

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