Tech Drivers
Tech Drivers

The new Apple Watch's changes seem minor, but the always-on display is now a must-have

Key Points
  • We've been testing the Apple Watch Series 5 for several days.
  • It's a great time to buy one if you haven't already, especially with the new always-on display.
  • If you don't want to spend at least $399 for the new model, consider the Series 3, which is now $199.
The Apple Watch Series 5 has a nice bright display when it's on.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Apple Watch is an increasingly important product for Apple.

I've been testing the new $399 Apple Watch Series 5, which launches this Friday. I've been testing it for a week, and while it offers marginal upgrades over last year's model, it's the new one everyone should buy.

Apple has said that 75% of Apple Watch buyers haven't owned a previous model. So, unlike iPhones, the story isn't about whether people should upgrade from last year's model. It's about whether there's enough here to continue to attract folks to the Apple Watch.

There are a few new watch faces to pick from this year.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple's wearables category, which includes the Apple Watch, Beats headphones and AirPods, has become a huge growth area for the company. It's a business that, along with Apple's services segment, is helping to pick up the slack of declining iPhone revenues. According to a July analyst call, CEO Tim Cook said "wearables growth is accelerating to well over 50%."

The watch is light and thin enough to be comfortable all day, like earlier models.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The new Series 5 model will help Apple's wearables business, with a new always-on display that will attract a lot of people, and a compass that can help you find your way around.

More importantly, Apple also cut the cost of 2017's Series 3 to $199. That means Apple now has an option for people who aren't sure they want to commit $399 or more for the new model, or if they just want to dip their toes in and try the $199 option.

Here's what you need to know about the Series 5.

What's good

This is the always-on display mode, which dims the screen down to save battery life.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are two highlight features of the Apple Watch Series 5, and both are really useful. The first is an always-on display, and it's now a must-have feature for me. It means that instead of turning off when you're not looking at it, the screen dims and still shows you important information.

I liked that I could always see the time — important for a watch — without having to tilt my wrist and activate the screen. This also works for Apple's workout app, so you can always see how far you've run, your pace, elevation or whatever else is on the screen. Trust me, trying to get a watch to wake up while on a treadmill can be awfully finicky at times.

You can now see exactly which way you're facing, which is useful when you're walking around a city.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's now a new compass.

I know what you're thinking: Who cares? A compass? Well, sure, maybe it's useful for people during hikes if you need to know where to travel. But, more importantly, the magnetometer that enables the compass also allows you to open Apple Maps on the watch and see which way you're facing, just like on an iPhone. On models that don't have this, you just see a dot showing your location. With Series 5, there's a glowing arc showing exactly which way you're looking. It's super helpful when you get out of a subway and don't know which way to walk.

The new compass app on the Apple Watch Series 5.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Battery life is still rated at 18 hours, even with the always-on display. I mostly care about getting from about 6 a.m. until about 9 p.m., when I go to bed. It lasted that long for me with battery left over, but you may see battery life vary if you're using GPS longer during runs or relying on a cellular connection instead of your cellphone to stream music or make phone calls. Those features can drain the battery a lot faster.

New Apple Watches
Source: Apple

Also, this is really cool: Apple is selling the Series 5 in a new way that lets you select exactly what model and band you want. It's called "Apple Watch Studio." You start by selecting the size (40mm or 44mm). Then you pick the case: aluminum starts at $399; stainless steel starts at $699; titanium starts at $799 and ceramic starts at $1,299.

Next, you pick a band, either a sport loop or sport band. Or you can pay more for Apple's luxury bands, like the modern buckle or milanese loop. This works either online or in stores, and I like that I was able to pick the band I wanted to match the watch. Previously, you didn't get to pick the exact color. You sort of went with what Apple had for you and then bought whatever else you wanted. If you get a Nike or Hermes watch, you will select from those families of bands to match.

I love trying to close my rings, and using the iPhone app to check workouts, awards, and compete with friends.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, Apple just kicks butt at software for the Apple Watch. I still love trying to close my activity circles every day (even if I'm not active enough), that I can compete with friends on my activities and see when they complete workouts, and that the Apple Watch can show me things like my heart rate, how many calories I burned during a workout and more. It can still do all the things the Series 4 did, like run an EKG, alert you if your heart rate is too high or too low, automatically call emergency services if you fall and more.

What's bad

The software for managing Apple Watch is easy to use for managing watch faces and more.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Apple's watchOS 6 software introduces a lot of new features that will also hit older Apple Watches, like female health tracking, indications when your environment is loud enough that it could damage your hearing and fun new watch faces. Still, I was really hoping Apple would implement sleep tracking, as some reports suggested it would.

But Apple has long said it won't do sleep tracking until it thinks it can do it right, and that's fair. Other companies that do track sleep often do not give me enough information to tell me anything useful. A sleep score on a Fitbit, for example, would sometimes say I slept great even though I felt like junk in the morning. Or it would say I slept awful when I felt well rested the next day. I'm willing to wait for Apple to get this right and to make sure the battery lasts long enough through the night to do it. In the meantime, there are third-party apps that do track sleep, which you can try if you want to. I haven't found them to be that great though.

Like earlier models, I still love to try to close my rings. This always-on face shows them all day.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The always-on display works for the time and exercise, but it doesn't work for all apps. When I have driving directions on, for example, the always-on display defaults to a clock. I need to wake the watch to see the next turn. The Maps mode doesn't stay on, which would be useful for when I'm walking around the city. Apple Music also doesn't support always-on.

Finally, I've purchased every watch since the first model launched. My Series 2 watch had the sapphire display, which is only available on the more expensive stainless steel, titanium and ceramic models of the Series 4. I preferred this screen since it doesn't scratch as easily. But you need to be willing to pay a lot more for it instead of the strengthened ion X glass on the aluminum models, which can still scratch kind of easily.

Should you buy it?

Some apps just go back to the clock instead of supporting the always-on display.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Yes. Taking into consideration that 70% of Apple Watch buyers are new, then the Apple Watch Series 5 is worth buying. I don't think you need to upgrade from the Series 4, and I don't think Apple is really worried if people are planning to are not. I'm making the upgrade because I like the always-on display and the compass for navigating around the city. Some people won't care about that.

If the $399 starting price is too high, consider the Apple Watch Series 3. It's not as fast as the Series 5 and lacks some features, but it starts at just $199. That's a great way to see if the Apple Watch works for you and, if you dig it, you can buy next year's model.

Correction: This review has been updated with the correct percentage of Apple Watch sales that go to first-time customers.

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