Apple Watch Series 5 review roundup: All about the always-on

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There's no better smartwatch for iPhone owners.
Photo: Apple

Is Apple Watch Series 5 really worth the upgrade if you already have an older model? The answer is yes if you care about an always-on display, according to the first reviews out today.

Here’s what everyone is saying about Apple’s newest wearable.

Apple Watch Series 5 review roundup

The fifth-generation Apple Watch isn’t vastly different to last year’s Series 4. It looks exactly the same — there’s no chance there — but if you upgrade you will get a faster chip and a new display.

And it’s the latter that really separates Apple Watch Series 5 from its predecessors.

Always-on display is always great

Unlike other watches with always-on displays, Apple Watch Series 5 uses a new display technology dubbed LPTO that can adjust refresh rate from just 1Hz all the way up to 60Hz.

So, when you’re not using the device, the fancy animations — like sweeping second hands and Mickey Mouse’s tapping foot — disappear. Complications are also simplified.

This leaves you with the important information you really need to know, always available at a glance, without the frills that can sap battery life.

Dieter Bohn of The Verge, who calls the new Apple Watch the best smartwatch money can buy, says:

I love the always-on screen on the Series 5. Apple’s implementation is better than other smartwatches I’ve used for two reasons: it legitimately doesn’t hurt the battery life as much, and Apple keeps a little color visible in ambient mode.

I’ve never been able to get earlier Apple Watches to show their screens with subtle wrist movements. I’ve always had to cartoonishly raise my arm. An always-on screen means I am a little bit less of a jerk in conversations and meetings.

iMore’s Rene Ritchie is glad the always-on upgrade is finally here:

I’ve wanted always-on since day one … I wouldn’t have traded any of the other features Apple front loaded first, like cellular or the edge-to-edge display. But I’m incredibly glad always-on is here and I’m even happier with how it’s finally arrived.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball says the always-on display fixes his biggest complaint about Apple Watch:

Series 5’s always-on display solves my single biggest complaint about Apple Watch since day one. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough. No other feature or improvement to Apple Watch to date has ever made me this happy.

If you’re wondering, Apple Watch’s always-on display can be disabled. So if you’re worried about people reading your messages on the subway, you have the option to kill it in the Settings app.

Battery life remains … okay

Yes, Apple managed to pull off an always-on display that won’t leave you reaching for a charger at lunchtime. But battery life remains the same this year, which means it’s just okay.

Apple Watch will make it through the day with average use, but you’re probably not going to get a lot more than that.

Gruber continues:

I’ve been wearing a black stainless steel Series 5 since last Wednesday, on loan from Apple, and battery life has been more than fine … If you charge it overnight you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Bohn adds:

Apple claims it still gets 18 hours with standard use, and I have gotten that. So, box checked — except that the Series 4 usually outperformed that estimate. I won’t go so far as to say that the Series 5 gets notably worse battery life than the Series 4, but at best, it’s on par. You’ll be charging it every day.

Brian Heater of TechCrunch was pleased, but not blown away, by Apple Watch Series 5 battery life:

I found I was, indeed, able to get through a day no problem with standard use. My own usage had the product lasting closer to 20 hours without the need to recharge, but even so, the device needs to get charged once a day, regardless.

The compass is a nice addition

Few reviewers mention Apple Watch Series 5 performance, because there’s no significant improvement this year. But the new S5 chip does come with a digital compass.

Some reviewers think that’s great; others aren’t all that excited by it.

Ritchie says it’s a “cool” improvement:

The compass is cool. I was kind of blasé about it initially, because we’ve had one in the iPhone since the 3GS and I don’t really think about it any more. But having it on the watch now has made me realize all the stuff it does and all the stuff the Watch hasn’t been doing all this time without one.

Sure, there’s a compass app, which is fun and probably beneficial for hikers and campers … There’s also an API, an application programming interface so developers can use it in their own apps. Some are just ok, like food apps pointing you at the restaurant you’re reading about. Others are blow away, like astronomy apps highlighting the stars.

Gruber says the compass is a nice but non-essential addition. He also highlights a nice advantage it has over traditional compasses:

There’s a compass now, and while it’s fun to play with, I don’t recall ever needing a compass in my entire life. (Apple did show me a clever feature of the compass, though. Traditional compasses spin randomly when you bring a magnet near them. Series 5’s compass won’t do this, because it uses the gyroscope to see if you’re actually moving. The compass won’t be fooled by a magnet because it can tell the watch itself isn’t spinning around. Smart.)

The verdict on Apple Watch Series 5

It seems Apple Watch Series 5 is a nice upgrade over its predecessors — even the Series 4. It’s also better than anything else out there from rival smartwatch vendors.

But if you already have last year’s model, and you can live without an always-on screen, there’s little reason to spend another $399+ right now.

Bohn concludes:

It’s as if the Apple Watch is in high school and taking AP courses while everybody else is repeating the 7th grade for the third time. Sure, the Apple Watch Series 5 hasn’t reached anything close to its full potential yet, but right now, this thing is an overachiever.

Heater says:

For those who already own [an Apple Watch], there’s probably not enough here to warrant an upgrade from last year’s model, but some welcome new features like the always-on help keep the line fresh.

Are you planning to upgrade to Apple Watch Series 5 this year?