The Apple Watch is truly a product of iteration—every year, it gets better just enough to stay ahead of the competition. This year, the Apple Watch Series 5 doesn’t come with any aesthetic changes or improvements to battery life, and its starting price of $399 remains unchanged. So what’s different? In addition to a new processor, the Series 5 comes with a Compass app and an International Emergency Calling feature, and watchOS 6 brings new apps like Cycle Tracking for women and a Noise app that measures sound exposure. These are welcome additions, but the most transformative feature this go-round is an always-on display, so you you can see the time, workout stats, and other information at a glance. The rest of the experience remains the same, but these changes are enough to keep Apple at the head of the pack, and earn the Series 5 our Editors’ Choice for smartwatches.
Apple Watch Pricing
The Apple Watch Series 5 costs anywhere from $399 to $1,399, depending on the model you choose. The GPS-only model with an aluminum case in gray, silver, or gold and starts at $399 for the 40mm size or $429 for 44mm, both of which come with your choice of Apple’s classic rubber Sport Band or fabric Sport Loop Band.
For the GPS and cellular model, pricing ranges from $499 to $529 depending on size. There’s also a stainless steel model in black, gold, or silver (only available in GPS and cellular) that ranges from $699 to $799 depending on the case size and watch strap. A titanium model starts at $799, while a ceramic watch starts at $1,299. And if you want an Hermès edition, it can go all the way to $1,399.
I tested the 40mm aluminum case (with GPS and cellular) with a white Sport Band. For the GPS and cellular model, it’s important to note that you also need to pay for a data plan with your cell service provider.
Same Design and Battery Life, New Display
In terms of design, the Series 5 looks virtually identical to the Series 4—when placed next to one another, it’s hard to tell the difference. The right side of the case is home to the Digital Crown (which features a red dot on the cellular version), above the microphone and side button. The left side holds the speaker, which gets loud enough to easily hear phone calls and Siri.
When your wrist is stagnant or down, the display goes into ambient mode, which shows a barebones version of your watch face. If you have an app open, like Spotify or iMessage, the watch goes into ambient mode by blurring the background and displaying the time instead.
Of course, this raises some concerns about battery life, but Apple uses a low-temperature, polysilicone and oxide display, an ultra-low power display driver, and a new ambient light sensor to help keep the Series 5 keep the same 18-hour battery life as its predecessors. It’s not nearly as strong as the Fitbit Versa 2’s five days of power, but it’s enough to comfortably get you through the day.
Following a three-hour workout in the morning, a few phone calls throughout the day, and lots of music streaming, I still had about 50 percent of juice left by the end of the day. During another day of testing, without working out, the watch was also able to make it through the night (with the always-on display turned off and Do Not Disturb mode turned on when I went to bed), leaving me with 25 percent of power when I woke up the next morning.
Finally, the Series 5 packs Apple’s new S5 chip under the hood. It delivers smooth, snappy performance. Scrolling through menus feels fluid and apps load very quickly.
More Apps and an Updated OS
New to the Series 5 is Apple’s highly touted International Emergency Calling feature. No matter where you are, the watch can make calls to emergency services, even if you’re in another country or if your cellular plan isn’t activated. The watch can also automatically place an emergency call if it senses that you’ve fallen and remain motionless for 60 seconds. It’s important to note that this feature is only available on the cellular model, however.
The Compass app is another new feature exclusive to the Series 5. In conjunction with the updated Maps app, you can use the Compass to navigate your surroundings. It shows information like heading, incline, latitude, longitude, and elevation. There are also three Compass complications that you can add to your watch face so that you don’t have to open the app each time.
WatchOS 6 brings along new apps as well. Unfortunately, sleep tracking remains missing from the list, but the latest additions are still useful. Following in the footsteps of Fitbit and Garmin, a Cycle Tracking app is now available for women to track their menstrual cycles. But unlike Fitbit and Garmin, Apple’s app doesn’t strictly display predictions. It also allows you to directly log your period, along with any symptoms and notes, right from the watch rather than having to use phone. That said, I found the predictions were quite off from the Fitbit app and a third-party period tracking app I use, but hopefully the algorithm will improve as I continue to log my cycles.
Apple has also added a new health and wellness element in the form of a Noise app, which measures the environmental sound levels around you periodically throughout the day. You can choose a decibel threshold, and the Apple Watch will notify you if the average sound level around you exceeds it. I tested the Noise app outside of my New York City apartment building. After opening the app, I watched as it measured 62 decibels, indicating an OK rating, which means the noise won’t affect my hearing.
The Noise app also measures headphone audio levels. It works with any headphones (wireless or wired), but the Health app states you’ll get the most accurate results when using Apple or Beats headphones. In testing, I used AirPods, and found that over the course of seven days, my average audio levels were at 84dB, also an OK rating.
To help paint a better overall picture of your health and fitness, there’s a new Activity Trends app. I have yet to test out the feature, since it takes 180 days of activity to start your trends. But it essentially gives you a long-term view of your activity patterns to help make sense of your progress.
Lastly, watchOS 6 brings along a new App Store. Now, you can download and browse through apps right from the watch itself, rather than having to use the Watch app on your phone. Simply specify the app you’re looking for, using Dictation or Scribble, and results will begin to populate. Once you select an app, it automatically begins to download to the watch.
As for the Apple Watch’s app ecosystem, it remains unrivaled. Apple offers the widest selection of third-party apps of any smartwatch. I was able to find a majority of the apps I use on my phone on a regular basis, including Bank of America, Facebook Messenger, PolarBeat, Spotify, Stryd, Uber, and more. You simply can’t do this with any smartwatch ecosystem, including Google’s Wear OS.
Health and Fitness Accuracy
The Apple Watch Series 5 delivers excellent accuracy in the health and fitness department. In testing, I wore a 3D TriMax pedometer and a Fitbit Versa 2 to compare results. During a one-mile walk on the treadmill, the Series 5 logged 2,098 steps to the pedometer’s 2,303 and the Versa’s 2,154 steps. After a one-mile run on the treadmill, the watch logged 1,967 steps to the pedometer’s 2,390 and the Versa’s 2,154 steps. During a one-mile run outside, the Series 5 logged 2,180 steps to the pedometer’s 2,263, for a difference of only 83 steps.
As for distance tracking, I compared the Series 5 against a Stryd footpod. During a one-mile walk on the treadmill, the watch logged 1.0 mile to the footpod’s 1.03 miles. When the Apple Watch hit 1.0 mile during a run on the treadmill, the Stryd logged 0.97 miles; I got the exact same result for a one-mile run outdoors.
The Series 5 was also spot-on when testing heart rate. I wore a Polar H10 chest strap to compare results, and during a one-mile walk, the watch recorded 141bpm to the Polar’s 140bpm. During a one-mile run, both the watch and chest strap logged 157bpm. Results remains consistent during a one-mile run outdoors, where both the Apple Watch and Polar logged 167bpm.
Still Reigns Supreme
The Apple Watch Series 5 packs a ton of functionality into a stylish, proven design. Not only is it good enough to replace your dedicated fitness tracker, it comes with a variety of health-related features you may not even have thought about, like International Emergency Calling, Cycle Tracking, and the Noise app. Add in an unrivaled app experience and the always-on display, and the Series 5 is Apple’s best smartwatch yet, as well as our Editors’ Choice.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the hefty price tag, especially when you can pick up an Apple Watch Series 3 for half the price. While it doesn’t come with ECG capability, fall detection, or an always-on display, both watches share a lot of similarities when it comes to battery life, design, and features. Like the Series 5, the Series 3 is available in GPS-only or cellular models. And it’s compatible with watchOS 6, so you have access to the same health and fitness apps as well. It’s worth considering if you’re just starting out, or if you have no use for some of the Series 5-specific features.
If you aren’t an iOS user, meanwhile, we recommend the $200 Fitbit Versa 2. While it doesn’t feature nearly as much in the way of apps as the Apple Watch, it offers an always-on display, accurate fitness tracking, and up to five days of battery life.