The Apple Watch Series 5 is the ultimate iPhone smartwatch -- a true delight with its great integration, beautiful interface and great apps. The question is whether it's the best smartwatch overall?
- Always-on screen, new to the Series 5
- Lightweight, comfortable watch
- Speaker, microphone for calls
- Siri voice assistant
- Reply to notifications
Apple likes to do things its way and they are very good at it.
The Apple Watch Series 5 will not play nice with Android phones. Other smartwatches at least try, even if they have shortcomings in interaction, but not Apple.
It won’t take no scrubs either. iPhone 6? Can’t get no love. You need to have at least an iPhone 6S to mate with it because it requires the iOS 13 and Apple won’t update anything older to such that iOS version.
If you put it in a lineup of smartwatches, you’ll notice that it’s one of the smallest smartwatches. It looks very similar to the Fitbit Versa 2 with its almost-square display, flat profile and minimal buttons but comes in about thrice the price of the Versa. Why?
Hard to understand if we judge a book by its cover. Size doesn’t matter in this case because Apple has packed the same level of technology into this watch as you would find in the elite tier of watches from Samsung, Fossil and other smartwatch manufacturers.
The watch comes in a 40mm or 44mm case. For this review, we based it on the base model with GPS. Base mode watches comes with an aluminum case in Space Grey, Silver and Gold with a bunch of colours for the Sport Band.
If you are willing to pony up and go from $399 for the base model to over $700, you can get the watch in a stainless steel, titanium or ceramic case and a bunch of fancier bands made from leather, textile or stainless steel.
I am not a fan of using Sport Band. Unlike most watches where you have a buckle, the Watch doesn’t. Instead, you push a pin into one of the adjustment holes on the strap to set the diameter of the band and tuck the strap underneath. I find this system takes more time to do correctly.
You can also add cellular functionality by buying the GPS + Cellular version of the Watch. This allows you to have cellular connectivity even if you do not have your iPhone with you which means you can call, text and stream Apple Music. Not all carriers are supported so check here https://www.apple.com/ca/watch/cellular/#table-series-5.
One of the best features that the Apple Watch Series 5 comes with is a feature that almost every other smartwatch has had for a while now — the always-on display. Any Watch that’s older will not have this option.
The always-on display is powered by a beautiful screen that will dim and reduce its refresh rate upon entering the always-on power saving mode. Upon twisting your arm to view the watch, the screen will light up again and function normally.
It isn’t miles ahead of the competition, but it’s miles ahead of the Series 4 watches because of this feature.
When I went from an Android to an iPhone, I immediately felt lost because iPhones did not have widgets on their home screens. On an Android, widgets are mini-apps that you can stick to your home screen which you can use to play music, display the weather or pin notes in a very obvious place.
Well, what do you know? The Apple Watch comes with widgets all over! Apple calls it “Complications” which can tell you the weather, date, daily activity and also serve as shortcut to certain apps. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch Series 5 will not allow you to constantly monitor your heart rate — it is usually an option on other smartwatches.
Some more interesting Complications include an air quality index meter, a compass, noise level and solar system map. But compared to Android widgets, the abilities of these Complications do not compare as they can’t be used to change a song, for example. They occupy the space somewhere between a widget and an app shortcut.
Otherwise, the Watch has a range of analog and digital watch faces to accompany it with different layouts, designs, and the number of Complications the watch face can hold. There is also a Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Toy Story watch face, which are nice additions if you are a fan.
The approximately 30 watch faces that you get with the WatchOS is all you will be getting because Apple has not allowed any third-party watch faces.
The Apple Watch Series 5 is a charge-once-a-day watch. If you use it lightly, meaning no phone calls, some texting, and no workout-tracking, you’ll have 30-50% left by the end of a 16 hour day. If you use it to track over an hour of workouts, make phone calls, you will have about 20% battery life.
The Apple Watch Series 5 comes with an S5 processor. Compared to its predecessor, the new update focuses on extending the battery life. With the extra drain from the always-on screen, I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to battery life, “there is no replacement for displacement,” as muscle car enthusiasts would say.
The Apple Watch Series 5 is an excellent sports watch because it has an integrated GPS and is water-resistant for swimming. Yes, you can take this $400 watch into the water without fear and you can go running without bringing a phone (for the phone’s GPS).
The Watch also comes with 32GB of storage space which means you can store your music files and use it as a standalone music player with Bluetooth earphones.
The workout app has about 60 workouts you can choose from which is a bit of an overkill but on the bright side, you can select workouts such as Tai Chi, hunting, and fitness gaming. If you do not find what you need, there’s always the “Other” option.
Your choice of workout influences the information displayed on the screen. For example, if you chose “Pool Swim,” the Watch will calculate your distance covered using its algorithm, whereas if you chose “Outdoor Cycle” it will use its GPS to calculate your distance traveled, average speed, and elevation gain.
The one thing that it won’t tell you is your current speed, which was a bit mystifying because all other smartwatches offer this information. But remember that Apple does things it’s way.
Heart Rate Monitor
The heart rate monitor on this watch is superb. It’s user-friendly, fairly accurate and the charts are great. I noticed once in a while it would report slightly lower RPM than the exercise equipment sensors in my gym but it would only be down one to two beats per minute. I’m not sure if the exercise equipment is wrong (although the Samsung Galaxy Active2 always reported the exact same rate as the exercise equipment).
With the Apple Watch 5, you can customize the home screen to include the heart rate chart (which I love). When you go into the heart rate screen, you get a resting heart rate, current, and heart rate data for the workouts that day. Here are some screenshots:
Capitalists rejoice! Apple makes it easy for you to encourage competition in daily activities.
The Watch also has a few badges you can earn that encourage you in a video-game-like way. For example, you get a badge for reaching your daily activity requirement (also known as your Move Goal) and there are also Limited Edition Challenges. At the time of writing, it was the Heart Month Challenge which requires you to fulfill your daily exercise requirements for seven days between Feb. 8 to Feb. 14. I hope you can abandon your Valentine’s Day plans.
Every day, the watch will also send you a notification if you reach your Move, Exercise or Stand goals. For the latter, it will remind you every hour to stand up for a minute.
You can also compete against a friend who has an iPhone and a Watch. Quite the minority among my friends, but if you do find anyone, the Activity app will give you points for completing your daily exercise, standing, and movement goals. The person with the most points at the end wins and alerts will remind you if you are leading or falling behind.
No sleep tracking
What a pity that such a compact and the comfortable watch does not have any sleep tracking capability. Even the Fitbit Versa 2 has such functionality and it does it really well too.
Siri is a fantastic assistant that can help you with many tasks. I found it to be very convenient to have it on my wrist to help me set timers (so that I don’t burn my food to a crisp), identify songs, and set appointments on my agenda.
Siri competes against Google Assistant and Alexa in this space and I am happy to say that it’s one of the better voice assistants embedded in a smartwatch. Google Assistant is probably its closest competitor with many functions that put them neck and neck.
Oh, in case you didn’t know, the best part about Siri is the Australian accent that it can put on.
Calls, messages, and notifications
The integration between the iPhone and the Apple Watch is excellent. Notifications from your phone get forwarded onto the Watch and it’s easy to reply to them.
One small issue is that when friends send you images from Instagram or Facebook Messenger, you won’t be able to see them. However, in all other instances when it’s just texting, you will be able to handle most replies on your Watch.
When replying to a text, you can choose between sending an emoticon, sending a canned response, using Scribble (where you use your finger to write letters on the Watch), or using the speech-to-text system. Google’s approach is similar but instead of Scribble, you get a keyboard instead. Having tested both, I prefer using a keyboard rather than Scribble as the former is faster and more natural.
On the whole, the speech-to-text system will work fine for the most part but it will make a mistake once in a while.
Making calls on the app is almost as easy as making the call on your phone. You can access your contacts or use a keypad to call. The speaker’s quality is good and people who received my calls said the microphone was good.
Text messaging capability is amazing. The texts arrive in real-time. Reply options are great with the canned responses, emojis, or the draw-a-letter screen for custom responses. Also, you can put the text message icon alerting you of new messages on the home screen. Here are some screenshots:
The email app is great and despite my syncing it with Gmail, the promotion and social emails don’t filter out so I get a lot of emails that I’m not too keen to look at. All in all, I find the email function glitchy. Sometimes I have to wait a long time for the recent emails to arrive when I access the app. Then I have to wait for the email to load sufficiently in order to reply. Basically, I don’t use the email function on the Apple Watch 5 because it’s not all that great. Samsung Galaxy watches are waaaaay better with respect to email function.
Here are screenshots of the email screen:
The variety of apps that you can use on the watch is useful and practical. I especially liked that you can have an Apple Maps app. Having a map app really helped me when I am out of cycle commuting and need to follow a new route.
Some other interesting news apps include native support for Apple Music, a calculator, a camera remote control, and a new Noise app.
The Noise app is an interesting addition. It will remind you when the environment that you’re in is beyond a safe level. This is a feature not seen in any smartwatch I have reviewed.
Some other apps that are available on this phone are the Walkie Talkie app, which allows you to connect the Watch to another friend’s watch for instant voice messaging.
Series 5 also has a Compass app, which can also be used as a Complication. Not only will it tell you where you’re facing, but it will also tell you the incline you’re on and your altitude.
The App Store houses even more apps. The number of apps you can download definitely beats what Samsung or Fitbit has to offer and competes closely with what Google Wear OS has to offer. You can download apps for language translation, sleep tracking, and social media, just to name a few.
The Apple Watch is the ultimate smartwatch you can buy as a companion to the iPhone. Nothing else comes close because no other watch has the same level of integration with an iPhone. Plus, it’s a very comfortable and dynamic watch.
Reviewing the base model got me wondering if the cellular model would be worth it. The base model still relies on the iPhone for connectivity. If the watch had its own internet connection, then it could be used as a standalone device with access to calls, chat, and other programs.
Nonetheless, the base model is quite a great watch independent of the iPhone. For a few times, I took it out without the iPhone, and upon returning, it would sync all my exercise data immediately.
Having the Apple Watch on my wrist brought me great convenience so much so I could keep my phone away in my pocket for an extended period. I could do almost everything I needed on it. I’d highly recommend the Watch for all iPhone users.
Problem is, you need an iPhone.