The Apple Watch is a great smart watch and finally a good dumb one too

The new Series 5.
The new Series 5.
Image: Apple
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Following up something great is always tough to do. Some can achieve it—Toy Story 2 is just as great as the original—and some struggle—what did Dexy’s Midnight Runners ever get up to after Come on Eileen?

Perhaps following up the Apple Watch Series 4 wasn’t so dramatic—it was, after all, the fourth iteration of Apple’s first wearable. But Apple has a bit of a problem on its hands when it comes to the long-held dominance of the iPhone: Sales are slipping for the first time in over a decade, and it needs to find additional revenue wherever it can to keep up the level of profits investors have become used to. The Apple Watch has not hit the heights that past products have achieved, like the iPod, iPad, or the iPhone, but it’s proven itself over time to be a class-defining wearable that’s getting more useful each year. So a slip-up wouldn’t be welcome.

The Apple Watch Series 5, released in September, takes what’s great about the Series 4 and, for the most part, builds upon it. Quartz spent the better part of a month living with the new wearable to see how it stood up to the excellent standard the Series 4 set last year.

What’s good

Always-on display. The biggest single difference between the Series 5 and all Apple Watches before it is that the new model has an always-on screen. Instead of having to flick out your wrist to wake up the display (which often takes a split-second longer than you expect it to), the new watch leaves information on the screen at all times. For some watch faces, that’s a black-and-white version of the face, for others, it’s the same information, just dimmed down. It may seem silly after five generations to say, but Apple has finally built a watch that you can use to tell time whenever you look at it.

Apple Watch on wrist of biker
This watch is actually on.
Image: Apple

The compass is a great addition. The Series 5 features a built-in compass that can also tell you your elevation, incline, and geographic coordinates at any given moment. These are fun facts to have on you at all times, but they become invaluable pieces of information for runners and hikers—especially if you’re venturing out of the house without your phone.

Everything great about the Series 4. There was a lot to love in last year’s watch, and that’s all made it back into the 5. The built-in (if incomplete) electrocardiogram (ECG) heart-monitoring software, the lovely, large display, snappier processing, and louder speakers are all onboard. Then there’s stuff from earlier models that still works seamlessly on the 5, like Apple Pay, LTE connectivity, automatically tracking workouts, and streaming music from the watch to wireless headphones.

watchOS 6. Although it’s available on every just about Apple Watch model to date, the latest version of the operating system works best on the newer watches. Released along with the new watch, watchOS 6 features new faces (many of which are designed to alternate between the standby and active modes of the series 5), an app that will alert you if your environment is too loud, a menstrual-cycle tracking app, a calculator, and activity trends—among many other software goodies.

What’s not so good

Battery life is comparatively poor. If you’re coming straight from the Series 4, you’ll absolutely notice that the 5’s battery life is worse. Wearing a 4, I could easily get through an entire day with about 60% charge remaining, and usually could go at least two full days before needing to charge. With the 5, I’m finishing a day with around 30% battery, although my routine hasn’t changed at all. Long periods of activity seem to drain the battery faster than before as well. The most likely battery-draining culprit is the always-on screen, which is, obviously, always on, something older models didn’t have to deal with.

Many had expected Apple to release some sort of sleep-tracking functionality with the Series 5, given investments Apple has made in the technology, but considering the watch struggles to get through a day, it’s easy to see why that didn’t happen.

It looks the same as the 4. For a lot of other Apple gadgets, I’d knock on the company for producing models that look the same as the ones before it (remember how the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 all looked essentially the same?), but for a watch that’s meant to be worn with a slew of customizable bands, it wouldn’t be too helpful if the thing wasn’t the same basic shape every time.

App store on the watch. Apple has untethered watch apps from the iPhone, meaning you can download apps directly from the watch as you want them, rather than through your phone. But in reality, much like the ability to open websites on watchOS 6, it’s near-impossible to browse for extended periods of time as your wrist is raised to eye height.

Same old problems. Many of the issues that might have kept you from getting an Apple Watch in the past aren’t solved with the Series 5. The device is still expensive—the base models start at $399 and go up to $1,399—they’re still quite large on most people’s wrists, and I still struggle to activate Siri as consistently as I’m supposed to be able to by raising my wrist and speaking.

The new ceramic version of the watch.
The new, very expensive, ceramic version of the watch.
Image: Apple

Should you get one?

If you’re in the market for a wearable, this is the one I would recommend. It’s a solid upgrade over an excellent device, if you can get over the battery performance.  I love using it for tracking workouts, paying for things, getting notifications (though not too many!), and now, telling time whenever I actually want to know it. It will be a rough adjustment going back to the Series 4, which is usually a decent sign that the product makes a difference in your life.

If you can be responsible about charging your watch every night, definitely pick up the Series 5. If you don’t trust yourself enough and know there’s a high chance there are days where you’ll fall asleep with the watch still on your wrist, get (or stick with) the Series 4. It’ll be cheaper (where still on sale, it’s currently around $350), and it does much of what the 5 can do—apart from perpetually tell time, that is.