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.
The Apple Watch Series 5 costs anywhere from 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 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 depending on size. There’s also a stainless steel model in black, gold, or silver (only available in GPS and cellular) that ranges from depending on the case size and watch strap. A titanium model starts at while a ceramic watch starts at . And if you want an Hermès edition, it can go all the way to
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.
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.