As an older person, my risk of falling is far greater than it was when I was younger. Moreover, the consequences can be very severe. Apple Watch 4 and 5 have built in fall detection that contacts emergency services and your specified contacts if you don’t respond when contacted. That’s terrific peace of mind.
My friends and I have talked about the cost of that protection. If your other option would be to do nothing, the cost of an Apple Watch with that feature is high. But we’re comparing it to one-use devices with names like medic-alert. In that case, the comparison is between the one-time cost of an Apple Watch 4 or 5 and the ongoing monthly charge for a limited product. If you have good wifi coverage in your home and nearby, the comparison is that simple. If you need to get the cellular version of the Apple Watch, there is a $10/month charge which slightly complicates the math.
For me the fall protection was a significant factor in upgrading to Apple Watch 4, but I also appreciate the many, many other features. Now that the Apple Watch 5 is offered at the same price as the discontinued 4, I wouldn’t hesitate to get the 5 once you’ve made the above comparison. If you don’t want to use it for anything else, there’s an icon that makes your iPhone ping if within a reasonable distance. Bet you’ll love the fall protection but use that silly pinger.
Why buy when you can just glance down at your neighbor’s Series 5 and see the time on the new always-on display? That’s what someone did to me the other day on the subway. I’m basically the Mother Teresa of giving people the time.
Joking aside, if you bought last year’s Apple Watch Series 4, I give you permission to stop reading. The biggest hardware change to this year’s Series 5—that always-on display—is useful and cool. It just isn’t a reason to ditch your Series 4. In fact, if you turn off the new display setting, you’ll get slightly longer battery life. And unless you’re a real outdoorsy person, I can’t see the new compass being a reason, either.
Plus, the new WatchOS 6 operating system, available for Series 3 and 4 now and later this fall for Series 1 and 2, adds a bunch of features that will make your old watch feel new.
It’s a different story if you’re considering an Apple Watch for the first time, or upgrading from a Series 3 or earlier. Part fitness tracker, part health monitor, part daily minder and personal assistant, the Watch has evolved into a useful accessory. But given that the two-year-old Series 3 now costs $200—half the price of the Series 5—this year’s buying decision comes down to how much money you’d spend…to possibly save your life. At least, that’s how Apple is pitching it.
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What’s New Here
For Apple Watch owners, it has become muscle memory: Tap the screen—even with your nose—or lift your wrist to wake the display. The Series 5 allows you to break that habit, with a screen that always shows the time but dims nonvital information and graphics until you wake it up.
Two technical changes allow the screen to be on all day without killing the battery: a new screen component that adjusts the refresh rate, along with optimized watch faces that go bare bones when not in use. Mickey Mouse, for instance, still points to the hour and minute, but stops tapping his foot to count out every second. Apple optimized all watch faces to support this.
I’ve already found the always-on helpful in some situations. When racing through the airport, for example, coffee in one hand, roller-bag handle in the other, I could glance down at my arm to see if I had time to grab a snack. When running, I found the dimmer, optimized version of the Workout app great for tracking my pace—though bright sunlight made it harder to see.
With the always-on display, I was able to make it through a full day—7 a.m. to 11 p.m.—with just under 10% battery left. But when I disabled the always-on feature in settings, I had 30% remaining—just like with my Series 4. (I have been testing the smaller 40mm model—not the larger 44mm model.)
I have so far used the trusty compass, enabled by the watch’s new magnetometer, just once. I was coming out of the subway and wanted to make sure I was headed in the right direction.
What Matters Here
The Series 5 is, otherwise, just like the Series 4. And that’s a great thing. The Series 4’s bigger screen and health features made it the first watch I could confidently recommend to all. (If you weren’t confused enough: The 4 is no longer on sale; Apple replaced it with the 5, which costs the same amount.)
The upgrade from the 4 to 5 isn’t going to be worth it for most, though. The big question is for new buyers of the Watch. Do you get the starting-at-$200 Series 3, or the starting-at-$400 Series 5?
Both watches can run the new WatchOS 6 software, which is itself a big upgrade. It includes new watch faces, the ability to download apps right to the watch itself, track more fitness activities—and menstrual cycles—and alert you to dangerously loud noises. Oh, there’s also, finally, a calculator, marking the official return of the ’80s.
Hardware-wise, the Series 3 has a smaller screen but is still water-resistant, and an able fitness tracker in its own right. The extra $200 for the Series 5 buys you a bigger, always-on screen, thinner design and better battery life—plus more sophisticated health monitoring.
The Series 5’s ECG app records your heartbeat using an embedded electrical heart sensor and can check for atrial fibrillation (AFib). It also can detect falls and alert emergency contacts. I did some extensive testing of that last year and found it worked as promise
With those differences, and the $200 price delta, you’re faced with an unusual gadget buying decision: How much are you willing to pay to save your life? Apple is even marketing the life-saving capabilities in videos like this. It feels a bit icky to have to make that decision.
What’s Missing Here
The Series 5 (like the Series 4) is another refinement of the best smartwatch you can buy. Unlike with earlier generations of the Apple Watch, I don’t really wish it did something else or something better—OK, maybe I do:
•The Apple Watch’s battery can last all night long, yet unlike other popular fitness trackers like those from Fitbit , there is still no built-in sleep tracking. You can download sleep-tracking apps for the Apple Watch, but they are clunky.
•It still isn’t possible to set up the Apple Watch or update its software without an iPhone.
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•The continued reliance on a magnetic charging disc requires you to travel with an extra, harder-to-replace cord. Why not charge with the same type of wireless charger that works with my iPhone and AirPods?
•Before heading out for a run, I was stuck syncing music and pairing AirPods with lots of taps and settings adjustments. I wish syncing everything were simpler.
As expected, Apple declined to comment on future products and features. Translation: See you next watch!