Tech review: Apple watch series 5
Always-on display broadens appeal of smartwatch sector's flag-bearer
If you've never worn a smartwatch before - or have dabbled with a Fitbit - Apple's Watch seems like a logical place to start. I've been wearing its just-launched Series 5 model for a week and I have no doubt on one key point: this is easily, by some distance, the most feature-packed smartwatch on the market.
So if you're an iPhone user and want a range of uses from a smartwatch, as opposed to a narrower fitness band with longer battery life between charges, this is your clear choice. Apple's updated smartwatch adds a pivotal main feature and one I've been waiting for for five years: an always-on display. This means that you can glance at it without having to twist your wrist around to 'wake' it, as was the case with previous Watch models. The display is dimmed, but still clearly visible; the actual brightness level on the dimmed display depends on the ambient light levels around it.
To me, this is genuinely a big deal. Having to wake the Watch's display into life has been the thing that bugged me most about previous models.
Sometimes you had to do it twice for the sensor to kick in, making you feel like there was a 'right' and 'wrong' way to tell the time with it.
That said, this whole screen limitation was always there for a reason: battery life. That bright, colourful 40mm (1.6-inch) or 44mm (1.8-inch) touchscreen inevitably uses power. By restricting the display's energy to the moments you actively want to look at it, you save precious battery life.
What Apple has managed to do with the Series 5 is to bring to a bare minimum the amount of energy used in its dimmed mode, through the adjustment of the display's refresh rate down to 1Hz (from a high of 60Hz). There's a physical componentry element, too, with Apple putting in what it calls a low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide display.
Even with this minimal power exerted, won't there be some bit of battery life used up?
While Apple says that overall battery life is the same for the Series 5 as previous versions, I think I've noticed a slight impact. I have so far found that I get two days (maximum) from it, with a low battery warning by teatime on the second day.
With the previous Series 3 and Series 4 models, I almost always got two solid days, with a few extra hours into a third day. To be fair, the Series 5 is still a great deal better with battery life than either the original Watch or its Series 2 successor.
Even if it wasn't, the trade-off for me would still be well worth it. Having the always-on display gives the Watch much, much more aesthetic appeal than a blank glass rectangle. Speaking of aesthetics, I'm also a fan of the new watch faces that come with WatchOS 6 (the operating system Apple uses for the Watch), especially the California and Meridian variants.
As for other selling points, there are a couple of things worth noting. The first is a new built-in compass. This is useful for health and fitness data, but the main benefit for me is that it means the Watch now shows me which way I'm facing in Maps. I use this feature on the phone all the time when I'm trying to understand which way to go to get somewhere.
The Series 5 model extends SOS calls to 150 countries if you have one of the cellular versions, and it works with the fall detection feature.
Apple has also released WatchOS 6, although you don't need a Series 5 Watch to avail of its features. These include cycle tracking, a nicely visualised system for keeping tabs on a woman's menstruation cycle, and it may possibly be used as a reminder for couples trying to conceive.
There's also a new noise app, which alerts you if the din around you exceeds 90 decibels.
On a practical note, I'd urge you to consider carefully which size to get. I have the larger 44mm Watch. I was sure this would be the right size. But I now think the smaller version might suit better.
When Apple's Watch first came out, it came in two sizes: 38mm and 42mm. Predictably, women mostly went with 38mm and men mostly went with 42mm. Personally, the 42mm model looked and felt right on my (slim) wrist. Two years ago, the sizes increased slightly to 40mm and 44mm.
Although it's the display and not the overall size of the device that has increased, it now looks considerably bigger. In retrospect, I think I'd go for the 40mm version instead of the 44mm version. So if you're a man reading this review, don't assume you'll want the larger size: try one on first.
Unfortunately, other than size, you won't have as much choice here as in the UK or other countries as to the material your Watch is made of. In larger markets, Apple sells aluminium, steel, titanium and ceramic versions. In Ireland, it's just the aluminium model (the basic version).
There is also still no deal in place with an Irish mobile operator to use a cellular version of the Watch, which is an ongoing sore.
Finally, there's a broader point about smartwatches. It's about making the switch for those who love analogue watches. Can you love a smartwatch? Can you silently luxuriate in it when you glance at it? Can you feel it adorning you? That's for another column. But if you want a smartwatch, this is the Parthenon.