Apple’s got a brand new Watch Series 6. But is it the right Apple Watch for you?
That… question actually has a couple of different answers. One, if you’ve never had an Apple Watch before and the other… if you have, up to and including last year’s Series 5.
So, I’m going to break down everything that’s new with the Apple Watch Series 6, and then dive into everything that’s critical if the Apple Watch in general is new to you.
And I’m going to do it right now.
Apple Watch Series 6
Ok. So. Real talk. 99.9% of the tech chatter you’re going to hear this month is whether or not the Apple Watch Series 6 is a worthwhile upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 5. You’re going to hear it over and over and over and over and — you get the idea.
But here’s the thing. Most people… the vast majority of people in the world, still don’t even have an Apple Watch. Like not at all. Of the small amount that do, most don’t have the previous Apple Watch. And of the even smaller amount that do have it, the ones talking about it, are all enthusiasts and industry types who often upgrade every year regardless, just to have the latest and greatest, because latest and greatest.
The rest… the rest though, maybe you, probably some of your friends and family, have been waiting on very specific features to either buy in for the first time, or upgrade regardless of which model they have. For me, that was the always-on display. See, for years… for years… I’d been complaining in my reviews that the Apple Watch was excellent at many things but not at all at being a watch. Getting always-on… that fixed everything for me… that made the series 5 an instant-upgrade. For me.
For others it was fall detection or ECG. Meaningless to some, critical to a few.
This year, with the Apple Watch Series 6, it’s going to be exactly the same thing. Just with completely different features.
Namely, new red and blue aluminum and graphite and gold steel finishes. A new sensor to measure blood oxygen levels, or SpO2, using a reflective pulse oximeter, the ability to measure low range VO2 Max, a 2.5x brighter, 500 nit always-on display, a new always-on altimeter, 5 Ghz Wi-Fi, U1 ultra Wideband, and faster charging so you can better make use of the new sleep tracking feature in watchOS 7.
The new Product RED aluminum looks terrific. Way better than I expected it would. It’s a deep, metallic red. An Iron Man red. Maybe even… a Canadian RED. It’s opinionated though, not neutral, so it may restrict your band choices if clashing isn’t your vibe. Also, aluminum Series 6 still have Ion exchange, chemically hardened glass displays, not sapphire like the steel and titanium models. So what you gain in lightness you lose just a bit of in durability. I’ve come to appreciate the tradeoff but you decide you.
I haven’t seen the Blue Series 6 yet, but my friend Justine unboxed it in her video and I like it a lot as well. It’s also deep and metallic. A Royal Navy blue more than Quebec blue. Or, of course, like Pepper Potts’ Rescue Armor from Endgame.
John Gruber is reviewing the Graphite Series 6 and has already written up a few thousand words on the differences between space black and graphite steel. Because John Gruber. And it does indeed look less like something from Krypton and more like something from… Frank Millar’s Gotham?
Apple Insider compared the new gold steel to the previous gold finishes, and it’s indeed a richer, more 18k, k as in karat or… whatever… Karashian. Kardasian like Kim… not like Deep space 9. Which is the closest Apple has ventured back to that shade since the original really real gold of the OG Watch.
I’m not sold on it, at least not yet, but let me know what you think about it, and all the other new finishes, in the comments.
Health and Fitness
For me, the new health and fitness features are by far the biggest deals — and differentiators — for the Series 6. But, while I find them interesting and informative to test, I think for athletes, especially extreme athletes, they’re going to be beyond compelling.
Now a few quick caveats. While the Apple Watch can now measure low range V02 Max, the new Low Cardio Alert feature that warns you if your VO2 Max is falling into the lower range is only coming later this year.
For SpO2, while the Apple Watch Series 6 functions similarly to a finger tip reader, instead of using transmittance to determine the color of your blood through your nail and finger, it uses reflectance to do the same job on one side of your wrist.
If you’re interested in how all these technologies work, I covered them in my explainer video, link in the description.
Also, unlike the ECG app, which Apple is slowly rolling out region by region in coordination with local medical regulation authorities like the FDA and Health Canada, Apple isn’t submitting the Blood Oxygen app as a medical feature at all. Instead, they’re putting it out as a wellness feature, which means it can go into pretty much every region pretty much immediately. Apple just can’t say it’s for medical use, and can’t send out alerts for low blood oxygen levels. You can start the app whenever you want, and it will check periodically during the day and at night if you’re using the new sleep tracking feature, but that’s it. Totally pull for now. No push.
Likewise, because wellness and not medical, Apple can’t even legally say how accurate it is. Which is legit weird.
Now, I do really want that accuracy stated and those alerts sent my way, but I also straight up hated having to wait for the ECG app to get approved as well. For anyone outside the U.S., we often feel like second class citizens when we get features late or, often enough, not at all. So let me know what you think of that tradeoff.
Meanwhile, I’ve asked around and the people I’ve spoken with seem to think Apple Watch pulse ox is as accurate as the finger tip tools and, for me, I’m consistently between 96 and 100%, which is normal. But I’ll keep testing and comparing over the next couple of weeks and let you know how it holds up and measures up in my follow up review.
Battery life for me on the Series 6 has been outstanding. As in I don’t even understand it.
Apple says the slightly bigger battery and much better efficiency, even with all the new features, should give you the same general battery life, as well as an hour of extra local music playback or workout tracking. But I’ve been getting 36 hours on minimal load. By that I mean, charging it, wearing it, and just seeing how long it’ll last, both during the day and over night with sleep tracking. I didn’t believe it at first but I repeated it and same result. When I start workouts more often, it cuts into that, of course, more and more with each one, but overall, it’s still terrific. I’ll have to see if it’s an outlier and if it lasts, though.
Also, sleep tracking in general is still a mixed bag for me. Wind down, low battery and charged alerts, good morning, all of that is fine. Great even. But it just doesn’t provide a lot of data for the actual sleep tracking itself. Just total time slept. Which is much less than apps that break it down by light, heavy, and REM sleep.
I get that Apple prefers to baseline new features rather than Sherlock, or obsolete whole app categories in general, but sleep tracking fits with the core services of the Watch so much that it should be as fully featured as possible.
The new faster charging though… that I all caps love. Especially with sleep tracking, I can just wake up, put it on the charger, go about my daily ablutions, and half-an-hour later it’s well past half full again. It’ll go from zero to about 80% in an hour and full charge in about an hour and a half total.
Now, I know some people just can’t wrap their head’s around charging a watch every day or so. Like it’s a crime against nature and horology or something. But here’s the way I think about it:
It’s no different than charging your phone every day or so. Back when we had rotary phones hard-lined into walls — ask your parents or watch the Matrix or something — you never had to charge them. Then we got cordless phones and had to put them back on the chargers every night. Then we got the early cell phones, feature phones, and they lastd a good while on a charge. Then we got smart phones and were back to charging every day or so.
Likewise, we used to have to wind our old mechanical watches, even if they kept terrible time. Then we got self-winding, kinetic watches, but also digital watches that needed the battery changed every once in a good long while. And now we have smart watches and, just like smart phones, we have to charge them every day or so.
Because, with phones or watches or any computerized gizmo, the price you pay for features is power. Literally. The more you can do the more battery it takes to do it.
Big, bright display, powerful chipset, LTE, Bluetooth, ultra Wideband, Wi-Fi, LTE, heart rate and blood oxygen sensors, compass, gyroscope, and accelerometers, and the list goes on and on.
Take away features and add size and the battery will last longer. But, honestly, where some people can’t understand why anyone would want to charge a watch every day — even as they plug in their phones every night — I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be willing to give up life changing, even life saving features like this, just to get out of having to plug it in next to your phone.
Your mileage — or watch-age — will, of course, vary.
Apple is cramming silicon around the bands grooves now, basically into every nook and cranny they can get inside the Series 6 casing. Like a kid just piping way too much custard into a donut. Joking. No such thing.
It makes the S6 system-in-package 9% bigger and, along with new A13-derived processor cores — A13 as in the iPhone 11 chipset, which still melts my brain a little bit — makes it 20% faster even at greater efficiency.
On the watch, that’s most noticeable in things like how fast apps launch and how much on-device machine learning the core features can crunch through.
5Ghz Wi-Fi has been a long time coming and it’s actually impressive Apple has been able to continually amp up Watch connectivity while preserving, even pushing batter life.
No one is going to be downloading or streaming large video files on the Apple Watch — at least not yet… a nerd can dream! — but it does mean we can retire our old, clogged, congested 2.4Gz routers or bands maybe just a little bit sooner.
U1 is more interesting. Apple debuted the ultra Wideband spacial and location positioning chip last year with the iPhone 11, but totally kept it on the down low.
Broadly speaking, they’ve said it’ll enable more and better features in the future. Things like CarKey support on Apple Watch, so you can open and drive your car with just your watch, like you’re starting to be able to do with your iPhone.
I think everyone’s just waiting for the next step in Apple’s Find My network to go live, though. Being able to precisely track down all your stuff just using your watch would be just… super cool.
Along with all the new features, if you don’t already have an Apple Watch, or a recent Apple Watch, you get everything Apple’s spent the last few years adding to the platform as well.
That includes all the communication features like email, iMessage, and FaceTime. And if you get an LTE model, call and sms relay as well. Even emergency calling if you’re in an accident or fall down and don’t have or can’t reach your phone. International emergency calling even. No international roaming plan needed.
I love it because, even when I just don’t want to be distracted by my iPhone and all the Twitter and YouTube and other apps on it that I can fall into just endlessly, I can put it away and just use my Apple Watch. Stay connected. Never miss an event. But eliminate any form of distraction or discombobulation.
There’s also a heart rate monitor, and notifications for low, high, or irregular heart rate rhythms. And in some countries, including the U.S. and Canada, an ECG app so you can coordinate with your doctor and get much better data, much more often. This stuff has literally been life saving for a lot of people.
And then there are all the fitness features, from Activity Rings that coach and coax you into standing and moving, burning calories, and working out every day, to the Workout app proper that measures pretty much everything you can imagine across an increasing array of indoor and outdoor exercise types. Including, now, dance, dance, dance.
Coming later this year, the Apple Watch will sync you up to Apple’s new Fitness+ subscription service as well, where you can take classes and measure your progress on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV.
None of these features are perfect. None of them will be all things to all people. Some of them might have no value at all to you. And that’s totally fine. Not, like, dog drinking coffee in a burning office fine, but legit fine.
The idea is to figure out if any or enough of them are valuable, how valuable they are, and whether or not, in sum or in part, they make the Apple Watch valuable enough for you to want to get it or upgrade to it.
For me, it’s definitely the sum of the parts. Always-on display, especially the new, brighter version, makes it even more useful purely as a watch.
The Infographic Modular face is just the perfect glanceable daily dashboard with the time, my next event, the current weather, my activity rings, and anything else I want to keep track of.
I can glance at, and feel, thanks to the Taptic Engine, notifications as they come in, so I can decide if I need to stop what I’m doing and act on anything important or just abide and carry on with my task at hand. Which means editing more videos. So always.
I can use Maps with the compass to walk, especially in places that are new to me, without having to keep my phone out and my head down.
I can use Siri to control all the HomeKit accessories in my house. Including all the lights in this studio.
I can unlock my Mac without having to type in the password. And tap to pay without having to reach for my phone, much less wallet.
I can dictate video ideas and have them show up on my Mac for editing later. And I have the peace of mind of knowing if it detects anything wrong with my heart rate, or I fall down, or I can’t reach my phone, the Apple Watch will let me know, or let emergency services know.
That’s all extremely valuable to me, and nothing else on the market that I’ve seen even comes close, not across all those vectors.
Is the Apple Watch worth it to you, as your first Apple Watch, as an upgrade from an older Apple Watch, maybe even a recent one? Starting at $399 U.S. and going up from there based on the size, material, and Wi-Fi or LTE options, you’re going to have to do the same value calculation.
Also, compared to the less expensive but not quite feature rich Apple Watch SE and the entry-level, much less expensive but much less feature rich Series 3.
I’ll be doing reviews for both of those models, as well as a comparison to help you decide.