This fall marks the fifth anniversary of the original Apple Watch. Other than the basic design itself -- a square display with a digital crown and mostly familiar lineup of wrist straps -- a lot has changed. Gone is the $10,000 solid gold edition that Apple tried selling when the watch first debuted. Nowadays, you can buy an older Apple Watch for as little $199; the new Watch SE starts at $279. Meanwhile, the fashion executive hired to position the watch as a luxury status symbol has left the company, and the watch is instead being pitched as a health device.
Indeed, the company’s latest flagship model, the $399 Series 6, has mostly gotten attention for its blood oxygen sensor. On the software side, watchOS 7 can now track your sleep and handwashing habits and give you cycling directions. Then, later this year, Apple is launching its Fitness+ subscription service, available on older Apple Watches as well.
I’ve been testing the Series 6 since last week, and though I recommend it as much as I did last year’s model, I actually think it’s the less visible under-the-hood upgrades -- the faster performance, brighter display, faster charging -- that will be more compelling to most shoppers. As for watchOS 7, which can run on Apple Watches as old as the Series 3, it brings enough new features to make it a fun and worthwhile upgrade -- even for people who have no intention of trading in their device anytime soon.
There’s nothing really new or surprising about the Series 6’s design, but the optional LTE and range of colors, materials, sizes and band options can potentially make the selection feel overwhelming (and the pricing confusing). So let’s get that out of the way first.
The entry-level watch still starts at $399 for an aluminum model with a 40mm case. The larger 44mm version still goes from $429. You can still find it in familiar colors like silver, gold and Space Gray, but this year you get two additional choices: blue and a Product RED edition, with a portion of the proceeds going toward HIV/AIDS nonprofits in Africa. Of course, there’s also a Nike edition, which starts at the same price as the plain aluminum Series 6.
As before, you can get the Series 6 with LTE for an extra $100. Reasons you might consider cellular: even when you’ve stepped away from your phone, you’ll still enjoy on-device dictation, Siri translations, App Store downloads, texting and calling. Just remember that in addition to the $100 extra up-front you’ll also have to pay for data.
Next up is the stainless steel edition, starting at $699 for the 40mm case and $749 for the 44mm. That comes in more serious colors: silver, a new gold hue, and “Graphite Gray,” which replaces Space Black.
The next tier is the titanium model, which starts at $749 or $849, depending on which of the two sizes you pick. Then, at the top and out of reach for most people, is the highest tier of all: the Hermes edition, which is also made from stainless steel, but starts at $1,249. That’s partly due to the higher quality of the leather bands, I’m sure, and also because, well, a luxury retailer like Hermes can get away with it.
As ever, it would not be an Apple Watch launch without some new bands. The one you’ve probably read the most about is the new Solo Loop, Apple’s first band without a clasp or buckle. Because it’s non-adjustable, Apple had to release it in a wide range of sizes -- nine, to be exact. From there, you have a choice of two Solo Loop designs: a plainer silicone version for $49, and a braided recycled-yarn style for $99. Also new this year is the $99 Leather Link strap, which uses magnets to fasten around your wrist.
The Solo Loop received just as much press for its confusing sizing chart and frustrating return policy as its minimal design. At launch, Apple was forcing shoppers who purchased an ill-fitting Solo Loop to return the whole package, watch included. (Worth clarifying here that the Solo Loop is sold individually too, and can be paired with older Apple Watches as well.) Since then, Apple seems to have backtracked. Even so, buying a Solo Loop without access to a physical Apple Store seems risky. John Gruber at Daring Fireball has a helpful explainer but there’s still plenty of room for second-guessing.
What you can see
Physically, the Series 6 is all but identical to the Series 5. The most obvious tell would be if you’re rocking one of the new case colors, which I am (blue with a matching sport band). The always-on display is also two and a half times brighter: 500 nits, up from 200 on last year’s model. Summer is already behind us, but the display was easily readable during afternoon runs and picnics on sunny days.
Besides that, the sensor array on the back side has been rearranged to make room for a blood oxygen sensor measuring oxygen saturation. That abbreviation is SpO2, not to be confused with VO2 Max (maximal oxygen intake, another common metric measured by high-end sport and smartwatches). Whereas VO2 Max is a key metric for athletes in training, SpO2 tracks something much more basic: how well your lungs are delivering oxygenated blood throughout the body.
The blood oxygen sensor works much like another medical gadget you may have encountered: a pulse oximeter, which sends a combination of LED red and infrared light through the skin in your fingertip to detect the color of the blood, which signals saturation levels. You can manually take a reading using a dedicated app on the phone which takes 15 seconds (you’ll get better results if you place your wrist on a desk or some other flat surface). But, the watch also takes periodic measurements in the background, including while you’re asleep. If you open the watch app you’ll see your most recent reading; for historical data you’ll need to open the iOS app, where you’ll also see some easy-to-read graphs.
Apple, at least, says a normal rating falls somewhere between 95 and 99 percent. That’s where all of my ratings ranked, though I’m aware that some otherwise healthy reviewers have reported numbers that were inconsistent and/or alarmingly low. My colleague Valentina Palladino, too, reported that she needed to try it more than half a dozen times before getting the hang of how to hold her wrist, and how far up her arm to place the sensor.
Apple does say that altitude, skin temperature, the watch’s position on the wrist, and skin perfusion (local blood pressure) can all potentially affect someone’s SpO2 reading. Though, in my experience, the sensor worked as advertised without me having to go out of my way to adjust the watch. Most of my numbers fell between 95 and 100 percent, with 94 percent being the lowest I got. Interestingly, those rare times tended to coincide with moments where I had gone a long time without eating.
What you can’t see
But as I said at the top of this review, it’s what you can’t see that might make the biggest day-to-day difference. The Series 6 uses the new S6 chip, whose dual-core processor is similar to the A13 Bionic chip inside the iPhone 11 and Apple claims it’s 20 percent faster than last year’s S5. Valentina, who has a Series 5 and was able to do side-by-side testing, confirms that the Series 6 is indeed speedier, not just for app launches, but swiping through watch faces as well.
The watch is also more energy efficient than last year, which explains why it can have a display that’s 2.5 times brighter, without any hit to battery life. In fact, Apple is claiming slightly longer battery life: an extra hour of audio (locally stored music) or an extra hour of workout tracking. All told, you’re looking at up to 11 hours of audio or indoor workouts (up to seven hours outdoors with GPS, and six if you use LTE). In one typical day, I had 61 percent left after about an 11-hour stretch of working from home with a roughly 35-minute run somewhere in between.
In addition to the longer battery life, Apple is promising faster charging: from zero to 80 percent in 60 minutes, and a full charge in 90 minutes. That’s at least a 33 percent (30-minute) improvement over the Series 5. In one of my charging tests, I saw a 51 percent increase after a timed half-hour of charging.
Rounding out the list, the Series 6 has a U1 chip that supports 5GHz WiFI (as opposed to just 2.4GHz bands). The U1 also brings ultrawideband antennas (UWB), an automotive industry standard that allows you to lock and unlock your car with your watch. Lastly, while the Apple Watch has had an altimeter since the Series 3, it’s now always-on, and there’s a new complication to match.
Apple didn't promise any improvements to the GPS, but run tracking seemed ever so slightly more accurate. It's possible the company quietly tweaked its algorithm or that the new always-on altimeter gives the watch a more complete picture of your location.
With the exception of those few hardware changes, most of what makes the Series 6 feel different is watchOS 7 which will actually run on watches as old as the Series 3. But, keep in mind, you also need a device running iOS 14, which itself requires an iPhone 6s or newer.
One of the more timely new features is a handwashing timer, which when it detects particular hand motions and the sound of running water automatically starts a 20-second countdown.
You’ll feel a haptic tick both when the timer starts and ends. Cleverly, the countdown pauses if you prematurely stop washing your hands, meaning you can’t just space out for 20 seconds while the faucet runs. I did notice at times that the effort didn’t always “count” if I was washing the back of my hands, though.
The handwashing feature is disabled by fault; you’ll need to turn it on in the Apple Watch app. If it turns out you like it, you can also enable reminders if you’ve gone several hours without washing your hands.
Also new in watchOS 7 is a long-requested sleep tracking feature. Unfortunately it’s pretty useless. While the watch has some awareness of how long you were in bed and unconscious, there’s no data on the quality of your slumber -- nothing on how much deep, dreamy sleep you got versus a light doze. As my colleague Cherlynn Low noted in her Watch SE review, Fitbit and Samsung have a leg up on Apple here, and use heart rate data to map out the user’s sleep cycle. It’s a shame, too, because the watch itself is surprisingly comfortable to wear to bed.
It seems Apple instead used its resources to build out so-called wind-down and wake-up routines. Using the Health app, you can set goals, like how much sleep you want, or when you’d like to get in bed each night. Dig deeper into the settings and you can decide to have your phone automatically enter sleep mode and turn on Do Not Disturb when Wind Down time begins. Additionally, you can opt to still show the time on your phone and watch during sleep mode and, separately, opt into sleep reminders.
If you set a wake-up alarm, you’ll hear a more gentle sound by default and feel a haptic buzz -- that’s mostly for your sake, but also potentially your bedmate. I found it was a little too easy to set an alarm for each day of the week all at once (hello, 7am Saturday wake-up call!) and a tad difficult to delete one for a day other than today.
Other watchOS 7 features include Family Setup and face sharing. No, not your actual face, but the ability to share watch faces you like through Mail and Messages. Speaking of, watchOS 7 keeps with tradition by ushering in some new watch faces, including Stripes, Typograph and the pretty Artist face, my new personal favorite. You might also enjoy the animated Memoji face, which lets you choose between tons of standard characters -- a cat, dog, alien, pig, unicorn, ghost, pile of poo, and so many more. Or you can select whatever personalized avatars you already had on your phone. Meanwhile, Count Up, GMT Chronograph Pro each rock an old-school analog look. Lastly, you’ll also find new color filters in the Photos face, while new complications include Shortcuts and Sleep.
Most of these faces can be installed on devices as old as the Apple Watch Series 4, though Stripes goes all the way back to Series 3.
On the fitness side, there are four new workout types: dance, functional strength training, core training and “Cooldown.” You can also look up cycling directions in the maps app. Then there are all the health and safety features already offered in previous Apple Watches, including an electrocardiogram (ECG) test, menstrual cycle tracking, emergency SOS, emergency international calling, fall detection and a hearing health feature to monitor exposure to dangerously loud decibel levels.
What’s yet to come
If watchOS 7 feels like a modest update, it’s worth noting that some of the most ambitious features are yet to come. Apple plans to add alerts for when it detects low VO2 Max (aka a low cardiorespiratory fitness level). Additionally, later this year, Apple will launch Fitness+, a Peloton-like subscription service offering workouts and classes for $10 a month or $80 a year. You’re meant to follow along with the program on your iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, but the watch itself does the necessary tracking. (The service will work on watches as old as the Series 3.)
LTPO OLED Retina, always-on
LTPO OLED Retina
LTPO OLED Retina
802.11b/g/n, 2.4 GHz
GPS, GNSS, compass
GPS, GNSS, compass
Heart rate, blood oxygen, ECG
Up to 18 hours
Up to 18 hours
Up to 18 hours
Stacking up the Apple Watch against competing smartwatches from Fitbit and Samsung always feels fruitless: The Apple Watch is clearly the best option for iOS users. You’ll need an iPhone to use it, that goes without saying. And assuming you do, the Apple Watch will feel more deeply integrated with the rest of your experience than, say, the $400 Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 or $330 Fitbit Sense, both of which offer more features to Android users.
You could purchase either watch, and I would even go so far as to suggest that if sleep tracking matters, you’ll get more out of the Sense. Setting aside that specific use case, though, why would you spend $400 on a gadget if some features were restricted off the bat? That’s not to discount what Samsung and Fitbit have to offer, but they’re at their best when catering to Android users, a group Apple isn’t even bothering to court.
If you’re an iOS user choosing between three Apple Watches -- the $199 Series 3, the $279 Apple Watch and the $399 Series 6 -- let me make this easy. No one should buy the Series 3; it’s too slow and won’t be eligible for watchOS upgrades for much longer. The Watch SE isn’t a bad choice (our score of 88 should make that clear), but it’s best as a first-time watch for, uh, the watch-curious. I also expect a lot of people to buy it as a gift this holiday season.
If you’re shopping for yourself, however, and you can afford it, I’d recommend the Series 6. Not because I think you need a blood oxygen sensor, but because if you’re going to be using this watch for years to come, choose the one that’s noticeably faster and quicker to charge. The Series 6 is also the only one of the three with an ECG test -- a more essential health tracking tool than even the blood oxygen sensor.
I’d argue, too, that its GPS tracking seems more accurate, even if Apple isn’t claiming any changes there. The things I like best about the Series 6 are generally not visible, and not necessarily the things I think Apple wanted to showcase at its recent launch event. That doesn’t make for the most exciting unboxing experience, but it definitely makes for a smart purchase.