Apple Watch Series 6 review
Quick verdict: Apple's slow refinement of the Apple Watch continues, and while it's still a great smartwatch, we'd really like to see something new from Apple.
- Blood Oxygen monitoring
- Blue Aluminium case looks nice
- Sleep tracking is present
- Still can't build your own watch faces
- Sleep tracking is pretty basic
- Blood Oxygen monitoring can be fussy
- Only a marginal bump over prior watches
- Cheaper Apple Watches do almost everything the Series 6 does
Apple has long held the crown of having the "best" smartwatch by most reviewer's estimations, and that's rather led the company to slow down the pace of innovation in its wearables category.
The Apple Watch Series 6 is indeed a better smartwatch than the Apple Watch Series 5.
There would be something seriously wrong if that wasn't the case, after all, but the reality is that the improvements this time around are fairly marginal, and they cover areas already explored by other smartwatches.
To further complicate matters, Apple has not one but two cheaper Apple Watch models that you could opt for, making the premium-priced Apple Watch Series 6 a more complex device to settle upon.
- 44mm or 40mm sizes
- New colour schemes
- So very many band options
Where its competitors target the market of watch wearers who want a watch with a traditional round shape, Apple has stuck to its rectangular design language with the Apple Watch Series 6, although it has altered the colour options available when you buy one.
You can still opt for silver, space grey and gold finishes to match your iPhone colour, or optionally a (PRODUCT) RED variant that comes with an exclusive red band, but this year Apple has also introduced a blue aluminium finish to the mix. For the stainless steel variants, you've got the pick of three colours (silver, gold and graphite) or finally, you could pick between two titanium colours, either titanium or space black titanium. Get ready to open up your wallet extra wide for those ones, however.
I'm a sucker for tech products that come in blue hues, and while I admit that's a totally subjective factor, I really do like the blue Apple Watch Series 6, even though that's a finish that only really runs around the sides of the watch body.
The Apple Watch Series 6 comes with either a 40mm or 44mm rectangular display, although Apple claims that the Series 6 can provide a brighter display than the Series 5, with better clarity in outdoor environments.
Buying an Apple Watch isn't just a question of watch bodies though, with Apple providing an incredibly wide range of band options to compliment your Apple watch and personal style.
New this year is a range of flexible "Solo Bands" that eschew any kind of clasp or connector for tightening, which means you've got to carefully measure your wrist to ensure you get the correct size. Because Apple hasn't changed the core connectors for Apple Watch with the Apple Watch Series 6, any existing Apple Watch bands you've got should still work just fine.
Don't mention it to Apple, but the wide array of third party bands should be fine too.
- S6 processor is apparently faster, but might not be noticeable
- Blood Oxygen sensor is very fussy
- Sleep tracking is quite basic
- Still no user watch faces
- We're simply never getting that ECG feature in Australia
Under the display of the Apple Watch Series 6 rests Apple's new S6 platform, which the company claims is up to 20% faster than the previous generation Apple Watch. Faster is always a welcome feature, but the way that Apple Watch apps actually function means that you probably wouldn't notice that unless you were upgrading from a much older Apple Watch model.
If you're jumping from, say, a first generation Apple Watch, then it'd be quite apparent. But the complicating factor here is that alongside the Apple Watch Series 6, Apple is also offering an Apple Watch SE, as well as continuing to sell the Apple Watch Series 3 model for even less. Are they going to be slower than the Apple Watch Series 6? Almost certainly, but only likely to a level that you'd pick if you were wearing multiple Apple Watches.
I'm not going to tell you not to do that, but for everyday users, unless Apple radically reinvents what the Apple Watch does, future speed upgrades are going to become less critical.
In every respect, the Apple Watch Series 6 still runs like an Apple Watch, which means that it pairs only with an iPhone, not any other competing smartphone platform, and works with a range of apps, largely if they have a watchOS equivalent to an existing iOS app already on your iPhone.
So what's new this time around? Apple has included an always-on altimeter in the Apple Watch Series 6 which could be handy for outdoors hiking types, as well as a new blood oxygen monitor. This can take ongoing readings during your day, or more manual readings if you want an indication of your oxygen saturation levels at a given moment.
Or at least it should be able to, but the process is both convoluted and very prone to failure based on my testing.
You have to hold your wrist very still for 15 seconds with the Apple Watch Series 6 tightened on your wrist, and then hope it actually does manage a reading.
I put the Apple Watch Series 6 head to head with a cheap optical finger sensor, of the type you've probably encountered if you've been anywhere near a hospital recently. While they both indicated that I thankfully was still alive and healthy with a typical reading of 97-98% saturation, the cheap sensor was both faster and far more reliable than the Apple Watch Series 6 was, despite the massive price disparity between the two.
It's important to note that Apple isn't making clinical health claims about the accuracy of its blood oxygen sensor, and if you do have any concerns around its readings, you'd be well advised to head to a hospital post haste.
Also new with the Apple Watch Series 6 is the ability to track your sleep. Again this is a software part of watchOS 7, so you don't have to upgrade for it. Tracking sleep by keeping your Apple Watch Series 6 on does mean that you'd be sacrificing that precious overnight battery charging time to do so.
2020 hasn't been a stellar year for anyone's sleep patterns but the Apple Watch Series 6 managed a fair job of tracking my basic sleep patterns during my review period. The results it produces are fairly basic, and this does feel like an area where Apple needs to refine its approach.
The update to watchOS 7 does bring with it some new watch faces, but frustratingly beyond using your own photos as watch backgrounds, there's no capability for third party watch faces or large-scale user customisation. You get Apple's "complications" for watch faces, which are basically scrolling lists of features you could add to a watch face, but that's about it. I really don't get why Apple doesn't open up watch face development to its user base, if only because it could make money doing so, and Apple sure does love money.
The Apple Watch Series 6 is also technically capable of taking full ECG readings. I say technically, because I've never been able to get it to work, and Apple has seemingly never sought certification for it in Australia.
Residents of the USA, New Zealand, much of Europe and parts of the Middle East can use their Apple Watch ECG feature, but not here in Australia in any way. That's long been the case and while Apple infuriatingly will never say anything on the record about it, it doesn't take too much crystal ball gazing at this point to presume it's never going to bother. Presumably Australian heartbeats just aren't worth tracking in Apple's estimation.
Yes, that's a harsh call, but this isn't a new Apple Watch feature. It is one that could be extremely useful for all Australians, but we can't access it at all.
- A day's battery life – but that's about it
- Faster charging, as long as you remember your charging cable
The faster processor and always-on display of the Apple Watch Series 6 could be a real battery drainer for the device, and historically Apple's wearables have trailed the general market in terms of battery endurance. I've usually been able to get around a day's usage, maybe more if I wasn't using the Watch by itself a whole lot, but never much more than that.
Apple doesn't talk battery specifics, but iFixit's teardown suggests that the Apple Watch Series 6 runs with a 1.17Wh battery, slightly up from the 1.129Wh battery found in the Apple Watch Series 5. Despite that uptick, my own experience with the Apple Watch Series 6 has been essentially identical to other yearly Apple Watch iterations. I don't tend to use the embedded LTE features much, and the realities of 2020 have meant that my travel has been seriously restrained as well.
Still, I got a fine reminder of the need to pack the custom Apple Watch Series 6 charging cable on a recent trip to Wagga Wagga, because I plain forgot to bring it. I was fine for a day and a half of very conservative use, and then it became just a lump of dead glass and silicon. Nice to look at, but effectively just a fancy bracelet.
Should you buy the Apple Watch Series 6?
- Buy it if you want the premium Apple Watch with a view to longevity.
- Don't buy it if you just need the Apple Watch basics.
By itself, the Apple Watch Series 6 is a fine improvement over the Apple Watch Series 5, although nobody who bought that watch should even consider upgrading just yet. It's a good upgrade option for owners of older Apple Watches that may be struggling with battery power or outright failing, and it remains a supremely easy smart wearable, if a rather overly controlled one.
The challenge here is that any smartwatch is by its very nature a luxury buy, and a rather optional one. Beyond the health tracking, there's nothing that it does that your smartphone doesn't do, and you could pair up a much cheaper fitness tracker to the same effect.
That creates a problem for buyers of the Apple Watch Series 6, because you have choices. The Apple Watch Series 6 is a great smartwatch, but it's premium priced. That premium price should buy you maximum longevity and compatibility with future Apple watchOS upgrades, as well as more style choices along the way.
However, Apple has also got the cheaper Apple Watch SE and even cheaper Apple Watch Series 3 still in the market. You don't get the full suite of features, like the always-on display or blood oxygen meter, but if you just wanted that core watchOS experience, you can do the same things with those much cheaper smartwatches.
Pricing and availability
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman