Apple Watch Series 5 review: Small refinements make for a better smartwatch
Apple has only lightly tweaked the Apple Watch in its 5th iteration, but it's still the best smartwatch money can buy.
Owners of existing Apple Watch generations don't need to upgrade, but Apple continues to lead the pack in the smartwatch space with a timepiece that's both stylish and very easy to use.
- Plentiful design choices depending on style and budget.
- Quick response.
- International emergency calling.
- Plenty of compatible apps.
- Always-on display.
- Still no custom watch faces.
- Some watch and band combinations are stupidly expensive.
- Battery life still needs improvement.
- Low impetus to upgrade.
- No Android compatibility.
If you look at Apple's iPhone line, there's a strong push towards upgrading as soon as possible.
As Apple would have it, you must upgrade to an iPhone 11 Pro Max as soon as possible, or you're badly missing out.
That's long been a debatable prospect, but it's even more shaky for the company's signature timepiece, the Apple Watch. Since its inception we've seen five generations of Apple Watch.
If you went back that far in iPhone history, you're on the very edge of what Apple still supports with iOS updates, with the excuse being that the technology in every iPhone has improved massively in that timespan.
It turns out that time ticks a little slower for the Apple Watch. It's still quite easily the best smart watch on the market, but the improvements this year are relatively marginal over last year's Apple Watch Series 4.
Apple Watch Series 5: Design
- Familiar digital crown-led design.
- Always-on display.
- Range of design materials and bands available.
- Every Apple Watch is the same – but the price isn't.
While Sir Jony Ive has now formally departed Apple, and fans can debate whether the 3-camera array on the iPhone 11 Pro would have met his approval, there's one area of his design nous that seems to last eternally. That's the Apple Watch, which looks exactly like it did when it first launched to all but the most discerning eyes.
There are tiny tweaks, and of course the rear of the watch body does have tiny, hard-to-read script that identifies it as an Apple Watch Series 5, but in all essential respects you're not going to stand out from anyone wearing just about any other Apple Watch generation.
What you can do with the Apple Watch Series 5 is a serious level of personalisation and customisation when it comes to material builds. It's important to remember that beauty here really is only skin deep. The internal technology on an entry level Apple Watch is exactly the same as one you drop north of $2,000 on. All you're changing is the chassis material, moving from Aluminium up to Stainless Steel or for the very cashed-up types, Titanium or Ceramic Finishes. You'll pay quite a lot more for those, but then Apple does position the Apple Watch line as a fashion brand.
It's a familiar story with the bands as well, from the cheapest sports bands up to the fashion styled bands and watch faces. If you order directly from Apple's website, you can use its online Apple Watch Studio to mix and match watch sizes – the familiar 40 or 44mm sizes – alongside materials and bands to suit your taste. You won't see quite the same choice at a retail level, but then the same bands that Apple has sold since the first generation will also fit neatly onto any Apple Watch Series 5 model.
The new design element that does jump out at you once you've set up the Apple Watch Series 5 is the inclusion of an always-on display.
This dims in a slightly different way for each watch face when the watch is covered or unused for a period of time, and it does make for a more functional actual watch. It's easily the biggest reason that you might want to upgrade from an older Apple Watch generation, because you don't have to tap at it if the screen is off simply to tell the time.
The one potential downside here is that you may want to consider your choice of watch faces and complications carefully, because they're essentially always visible.Back to top
Apple Watch Series 5: Performance
- A slick smartwatch experience.
- App store directly on the watch.
- Compass for the hiking types.
- Cycle tracking has genuine utility.
- Emergency calling across much of the planet.
- ECG measuring is still notably absent.
- Can we please have some custom watch faces?
- No Android support, but that's not a surprise.
If you're familiar with the Apple Watch of the past few generations, then there's an awful lot in the Apple Watch Series 5 that's essentially familiar.
There's still support for eSIM if you buy the GPS+Cellular model and want to pair it with your phone plan for easy calling and Apple Pay usage without your phone present.
There's still a genuinely slick UI that covers the essentials of the smartwatch experience better than any other smartwatch I've tested to date. The new processor in the Apple Watch Series 5 is claimed to be even faster, but coming from an Apple Watch Series 4, I struggled to see any noticeable differences.
You could literally go back and read my Apple Watch Series 4 review, and you'd get a very good feel for 95% of what the Apple Watch Series 5 can do.
So what has actually changed in the new model? There's the always-on display, which is the most easily apparent feature. The app store for watchOS apps is now on the watch itself, although browsing this way isn't the most comfortable matter due to that smaller display screen.
The internal storage has been bumped up to 32GB, although you're not super-likely to notice that unless you stuff it with music for your daily run. There's an integrated compass which could have some utility for those who favour outdoor pursuits of all types, and Apple says the underlying technology is open to third-party app makers.
Cycle tracking is a great step for those tracking their fertility but it probably should have been there on day one.
Apple is also introducing a cycle app for tracking menstruation cycles with the Apple Watch Series 5. Cycle tracking is a great step for those tracking their fertility for any reason, although it also feels like a feature that probably should have been there on day one. I can recall reviewing mobile phones 20 years ago that included cycle tracking, Apple! Being of the male persuasion I won't claim to have tested it out on the Apple Watch Series 5, just to be clear.
Apple is also including emergency calling features for the GPS+Cellular variant that work in most countries across the planet, even if you don't have any roaming capability from a paired iPhone. Specifically, you should be able to emergency dial services from every country in the world except (at the time of writing) Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, Namibia, Palestine, Puerto Rico, South Africa or Tunisia.
That's a weird mix of places where you might expect emergency services to be perhaps compromised and (presumably) places where Apple couldn't cut deals with local telco providers.
You'll still need to know the local lingo to tell the ambulance you've broken your leg or to inform the police you've been mugged. I'm somewhat thankful I've not been able to test this feature; since the Apple Watch Series 5 launch the only country I've travelled to has been Japan, which isn't covered anyway.
The good and fine people of Guam can have ECG on their Apple Watch, but we can't.
Technically speaking, just as the Apple Watch Series 4 did, the Apple Watch Series 5 can handle ECG (electrocardiograph) readings.
I say technically, because while the hardware is very much present to give a potentially more complete picture of your circulatory health, it's still not been through regulatory approval here in Australia. Indeed, according to reports at Gizmodo, Apple hasn't even applied to have the Apple Watch family regulated in this way. The good and fine people of Guam can have ECG on their Apple Watch, but we can't.
It's also just a little bit galling that five years in, Apple still doesn't trust third-party developers to make their own Apple Watch watch face designs. It seems like such an easy concept to offer true individuality via the onboard app store, but all you get is what Apple says is good for the Apple Watch. Which is, let's face it, a very Apple way of viewing the world.
Likewise, it's no surprise at all that the Apple Watch is a device that only works with Apple's own technology. You absolutely must have an Apple iPhone of qualifying recency to even set up the Apple Watch Series 5, with Android completely blocked from the equation.
The Apple Watch Series 5 really is that far ahead of the competition in the smartwatch space, and it feels like money left on the table for Apple to keep it within its walled garden this way. Apple Music has already spread to Android and nobody died, so how about it, Apple?Back to top
Apple Watch Series 5: Battery life
- 18-hour battery life can stretch to multiple days.
- Custom charger is still a nuisance.
The Apple Watch Series 5 has essentially the same size as its predecessors, which does limit the quantity of batteries that Apple can stuff into it. The presence of that always-on display will of course have an impact on the overall battery life of the Apple Watch Series 5. Apple's claim is that it's capable of "up to 18 hours" of battery life, which is exactly the same claim it made for the Apple Watch Series 4.
So how true is that? It totally depends on how heavily you use it. Like the Apple Watch Series 4, to date I've found that it is feasible to stretch the Apple Watch Series 5 to multiple days of battery life if you're only using it moderately.
It's not the most scientific of tests – I lacked a Series 4 watch with a fresh battery to directly test it against, for a start – but where I could generally stretch to 3 days for the Series 4, 2 days seems to be the end point for where the Apple Watch Series 5 can manage in most situations. It's the one area where Apple lags behind its competition, because many of them do offer multi-day battery life, and thus sleep tracking, as standard.
Apple has made no changes to how the Apple Watch Series charges, with the same disc-based charger that you're meant to drop the Apple Watch onto. Continuity in charger design isn't a bad thing per se, but it'd be really nice if Apple could incorporate proper Qi charging or even (gasp!) USB-C charging so that you don't have to take the charger with you when you travel.Back to top
Apple Watch Series 5: Should you buy it?
- Easily the best smartwatch on the market today.
- But there's not much here to push an upgrade.
The gap between the Apple Watch and its competitors hasn't closed that much in recent times, even though the Apple Watch Series 5 doesn't represent a huge jump in capabilities. If you're an existing iPhone user, it's your best bet for a flexible and highly functional smartwatch, although it does predictably carry an Apple premium price.
If you've got an existing Apple Watch in good order, though, there's not a whole lot here that really pushes the argument that you should rush to upgrade just for the sake of it. The always-on display is easily the best feature, but it's hard to suggest it's worth dropping $649 (or possibly much more) just to get that.
It's also worth keeping in mind that while Apple has dropped the Series 4 watch family entirely, the Apple Watch Series 3 is still available, with pricing starting at just $319. For many, that might be enough Apple Watch for now.Back to top
Apple Watch Series 5: Pricing and availability
The Apple Watch Series 5 sells in a frankly dizzying array of combinations. The cheapest Apple Watch is the 40mm model with a sports band, which will cost you $649 in the GPS configuration, or $699 with the 44mm casing.
The GPS+Cellular version, which enables eSIM features along with a qualifying mobile plan will cost you $799, or $849 with the 44mm case.
From there you can spend a bit more, or quite a lot more. The most expensive model in the market at the time of writing is the 44mm White Ceramic Case with the Space Black Link Bracelet, which will set you back a wallet-worrying $2,719.
That's actually more than the most expensive Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max model, so it's quite the fashion statement to invest in.Buy now at The Good Guys
Apple Watch Series 5: Specifications
- Product Name
- Apple Watch Series 5
- Case Size
- 40mm/44mm case
- Display size
- 759/977 sq mm.
- 324 by 394 pixels/368 by 448 pixels
- Apple S5
- Aluminium, Stainless Steel, Titanium, Ceramic
- TBC, expected 32GB/128GB or higher
- Operating System
- 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz, 4G LTE (GPS+Cellular model only)
- Up to 18 hours
- From $649