Apple Watch Series 5 hands-on

Now with a compass and always-on display

The new Apple Watch is even harder to distinguish from its predecessor than the new iPhone. Given the fact that Fitbit’s smartwatches appear more and more Apple-like with every new generation, however, maybe the company’s onto something here. Like the iPhone, Apple hasn’t touched the Watch’s design for a while now, leading one to wonder if there’s much to be done on that front.

The new titanium and ceramic cases are nice to look at, but they’ll cost you. There are some nice new magnetic straps, as well, and Apple’s new in-store customization options will go a little ways toward helping wearers stand out from the crowd.

Apple Watch Series 5

On the whole, the Series 5 doesn’t feel like a huge step forward. There’s nothing on here that’s quite as radical a shift as the addition of LTE from a while back. The addition of sleep tracking, meanwhile, appears to have been put on the back burner for a bit — owing perhaps to battery constraints. The truth of the matter is that 18 hours is more than enough to get you through a day, but wearing the watch to sleep is another matter.

That said, there has been some battery improvement. The listed battery life is the same as the last model, but that time now factors in the always-on display. That’s probably the useful day to day addition for the new device. Even when you’re not actively engaging with it, the screen stays on.

Apple Watch Series 5

Like other smartwatches, it accomplishes this with the low-energy display. But the switch is less radical than on, say, the new Fitbit Versa. Instead, the faces invert while keeping complications and other features visible. I got a demo of the feature, which was triggered when either covering the light sensor with a hand or, more naturally, swinging your arm down to the side.

I’ve been using always on with the Fitbit and find it to be kind of a mixed bag. It sucks when sleeping (you’re better off turning it off at night) and would probably be a pain in, say, a movie theater. That said, there are plenty more instances when you just want to check the time without actively engaging the watch. Among other things, Apple appears to be laying the ground work for battery improvements and, hopefully, the aforementioned sleep tracking.

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The inclusion of the compass is nice. It’s easy to see how developers can leverage it, going forward. The best demo I got was Night Sky. The familiar star gazing app is neat when you can move the watch around to get a full spherical look at the constellations.

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the standard version and $499 for LTE. Titanium is around $700. Like the iPhone, they hit stores September 20.