Frontrunners commonly face the challenge of maintaining their leads without knowing just how far ahead they are — an obstacle tackled, at their peril, by looking back at those behind them. That’s Apple heading into the Apple Watch’s fifth year: It’s the smartwatch industry’s clear leader, but the length of its lead and next steps are both ambiguous.

A desire to eliminate the remaining advantages of key rivals might explain why the new Apple Watch Series 5 is less of a sequel to the Apple Watch Series 4 than a tiny bump. Without changing much else, it adds the always-on screen feature found in Samsung (and other) smartwatches and a compass akin to Garmin devices. Unfortunately, they’re not as well-executed as one might expect from Apple.

I was enthusiastic in recommending last year’s model both to new customers and to upgraders, but after testing Series 5, I was less impressed. Here’s a quick look at what you need to know before considering a purchase.

It’s still an iPhone accessory

As its name suggests, the Apple Watch is indeed a timepiece, but its primary value comes from tracking physical activities and displaying notifications from an iPhone. You can customize how it looks using a still too limited collection of Apple-designed watch faces, and navigate through apps using a tiny grid of icons. Over time, heart rate monitoring and ECG measurement have emerged as two of its signature health features, alongside tracking of everything from steps to swim strokes to various exercises.

Even after multiple generations, the Series 5 isn’t ready to be used completely on its own. The wrist-based wearable wirelessly pairs with your iPhone for most of its daily data needs, but it can be used for stretches as a standalone audio player — assuming you supply AirPods or other Bluetooth headphones.

Apple continues to promise 18-hour battery life before charges and recommends placing the device on a wireless charger as you refuel your iPhone (and possibly AirPods) at night. Third parties stepped in to create convenient two- or three-in-one wireless chargers for this purpose after Apple cancelled its own multi-charger, AirPower.

Above: Mophie’s 3-in-1 wireless charging pad is a $140 alternative to Apple’s cancelled AirPower.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

Series 5 ships with watchOS 6.0, which goes the furthest toward freeing the wearable from constant dependency on an iPhone — adding an on-device App Store and additional tweaks that let the new Watch (and its two predecessors) work briefly on their own if you spend the extra cash for a cellular model. Even so, you’ll need to use an iPhone to manage the Watch and make full use of its features.

The first Apple Watch without a major boost

Every year since the Apple Watch Series 1 replaced the all-but-forgotten Series 0 model, Apple has bumped the S-series processor’s performance by up to 2 times compared with the previous year’s model. Those boosts mattered, too: Each new Apple Watch started up noticeably faster than the last one — something that early adopters know made a difference — while becoming snappier with app loading, Siri requests, and updating software.

Apple Watch Series 5 has an S5 chip inside, but you’d barely know it from Apple’s introduction of the device. The company doesn’t offer any tech specs for the processor but apparently opted to reuse the CPU and GPU found in last year’s S4. I had hoped Apple would use an off year to shrink and cut power consumption of the prior chip while holding performance constant, but that apparently hasn’t happened with Series 5.

During my testing, Series 5’s battery life was noticeably worse than Series 4’s. After a normal day of use, the new watch was at 35%, while its predecessor had twice the remaining power. So while Apple’s promise of “all-day” battery life is still accurate this year, that’s only because the official 18-hour number hasn’t changed, despite undisclosed annual advances in prior models. Unless Apple improves watchOS, it looks like you’ll have to avoid using Series 5’s new features to get Series 4-like battery results.

The always-on screen is a key difference

There were a few obvious omissions in Apple Watches, compared with rivals, but two have stood out for years: the lack of an always-on screen and sleep tracking. In both cases, power drain was the culprit, as keeping the screen on and/or running the sensors overnight were apparently too much for the Watches’ little batteries. Rather than further impacting longevity, Apple just said no.

Series 5’s single biggest upgrade is a persistent screen, which Apple has accomplished in two ways. The display now cuts its refresh rate when the screen’s not facing you, conserving power, while software dims and reduces the complexity of screen content to keep fewer of the OLED pixels “on.”

Above: This is what a classic watch face normally looks like, with no screen dimming applied.

In practice, this means you can “steal a glance” at the display from off angles. The watch face I’ve used for years, Motion, devolves and slightly shrinks from bright white text with a colorful animated jellyfish into gray text with no background or movement. Turn the Series 5 to face you, and the shrinkage reverses, with dim text going bright and background animation returning.

Above: This is what the always-on Series 5 screen looks like off angle, with automatic dimming, blurring, and zoom-out effects applied.

It’s a cool feature — sort of. If you’re using an app when your wrist turns away, it becomes a deliberately obscured blur in the background until your wrist turns back. I can understand why Apple did this from a user experience standpoint, as there may be a need to quickly return back and restore focus to the app, but it often doesn’t look great. My personal take is that the zoom-in transition effect is too jarring, actively reminding you that the screen is shifting modes when it should just be happening magically without calling attention to itself.

From where I stand, the always-on screen arrives at a time when it couldn’t matter less to most — underscore most — prior Apple Watch buyers. The majority of Apple’s existing users have come to accept, perhaps not even grudgingly, that the display will remain off when you’re not looking at it and will almost always turn on the moment it’s in the “right” orientation to be seen. But there are use cases such as while riding a bike or otherwise unable to move your arm when the feature could be handy, and Apple might win over holdout customers with the feature.

You can turn the always-on screen off and add several extra hours of battery life to Series 5 in the process. While I suspect most new Apple Watch users won’t do so, it’s nice that it’s an option, and there might be good reason to consider doing so next year.

Rumors ahead of the Series 5 introduction suggested that sleep tracking was coming to this year’s Watch, but nothing was announced at Apple’s media event. It could show up in watchOS 7 as an option for some Watch models, including Series 5, such that you’ll have to choose between always-on screen use during the day or sleep tracking throughout the night. That’s just speculation, but it would explain why this year’s Series 5 sales pitch was so bare in features — no one wants to be told up front that they have to choose which new Watch ability to use.

Finally, a compass

Apple added GPS to the Apple Watch so long ago — Series 2 — it’s surprising that compass hardware (also known as a magnetometer) hasn’t come to the platform until now. GPS and compass hardware debuted sequentially in the 2008 iPhone 3G and 2009 iPhone 3GS, so Apple has precedent for adding the features separately, even though doing so can strip a GPS map user of immediate, precise orientation data.

It’s worth noting that iPhones continued to have modest orientation problems years after Apple added the first compass: To recalibrate the magnetometer you sometimes had to wave the device in a figure-eight motion. Even today, when my car relies on an iPhone’s CarPlay for GPS navigation, I frequently find that the iPhone’s compass initially points in the wrong direction, and iOS seems to wait on movement data to determine where it’s actually heading.

Hidden inside one of the least intuitively designed tiny Apple Watch icons Apple has yet come up with, the Series 5 compass app looks really nice — far more like compasses in watches than the unpleasantly minimalist, airplane-styled compass found on iOS. It combines elevation, incline, and latitude/longitude coordinates with seemingly degree-precise digital and analog compass directions.

With a firm press on the screen, the Compass app lets you set a red visual bearing on the outer ring, so you can know if you’re headed in the right direction. You can also see orientation data within the Maps app, in the form of a blue arc that starts wide with possible orientations and narrows as it becomes more confident about your direction. (The map doesn’t currently spin to match your current orientation as it does on the iPhone.)

There’s a caveat, though. The company notes in small print on its site and in a pre-app warning that the Series 5’s compass is subject to interference from magnetic watch bands. Unfortunately, magnetic Apple Watch bands aren’t just numerous — they’re some of the best options available, including the Milanese Loops, Leather Loops, and Modern Buckles sold in Apple Watch bundles at premium prices. What value is a compass that doesn’t reliably point in the right direction?

In my personal testing with the Compass, the difference between the iPhone 11 Pro and Apple Watch compass readings was generally between 3 and 25 degrees, most often swaying in the 5 to 10 degree range. When both devices were set to “use true north” and the Watch wasn’t using a magnetic band, the difference was in the 4-5 degree range.

But with my (official Apple) Milanese Band on, the Compass apps showed differences as profound as the iPhone pointing east while the Apple Watch pointed west. The Maps apps showed the iPhone having a seemingly high degree of confidence (a narrow arc) that I was facing Main Street, while the Series 5 was somewhat less sure (a wide arc) I was facing the opposite way. If I took off the band, a shrinking arc suggested that the Watch confidence increased.

Here’s hoping a software update improves the accuracy. Until then, compass users might want to consider using a basic band, which I don’t see as a good solution.

A note on cellular

Ever since the Series 3 model debuted two years ago, the Apple Watch  has come in two versions: a “GPS” model reliant on Wi-Fi and a “GPS + Cellular” model with Wi-Fi and 4G. The cellular version sells for a $100 premium over the aluminum model’s base price and enables the Watch to access data and — for a mere 1.5 hours — make phone calls even without a nearby iPhone or Wi-Fi network.

Apple has only spotlighted one minor addition to the Series 5’s cellular functionality: a new ability to automatically contact the correct local emergency services when you’re traveling with the cellular feature turned on. I’ve had a Series 4 with cellular functionality for a year, but I refuse to pay a $10-$15 monthly carrier charge to use what’s at best a limited, battery-killing feature; I certainly wouldn’t expect to activate it on the Series 5 during travel, given that its battery life is already iffy.

Cellular battery life remains generally unimpressive in this year’s model: Apple promises only 1.5 hours of phone calling time, 4 hours of independent LTE data connectivity, 5 hours of GPS and LTE outdoor workout (read: run or bike) tracking, or 7 hours of audio playlist streaming from a full battery charge. In other words, use any or all of these features frequently and you’ll probably have to recharge the watch mid-day, rather than overnight.

That said, an issue that impacts the iPhone 11 this year — its lack of 5G network support — isn’t a competitive problem for the latest Apple Watch, which would get little benefit at this stage from a higher-bandwidth connection. As wearables evolve into smartphone alternatives, and potentially the processing sources for AR glasses, higher-capacity wireless capabilities will become more important.

Materials, capacities, and pricing

The only other changes this year are in materials, storage capacities, and pricing, though collectively these shifts are relatively minor. Most notably, there are two new body materials, bringing this year’s tally to four:

  1. Aluminum: $399 (40mm) / $429 (44mm) with GPS and either Sport Band or Sport Loop. Add $100 for Cellular.
  2. Stainless Steel: $699 (40mm) / $749 (44mm) with GPS + Cellular and either Sport Band or Sport Loop. Cellular is always included.
  3. Titanium: $799 (40mm) / $849 (44mm) with GPS + Cellular and Sport Loop. Cellular is always included.
  4. Ceramic: $1,299 (40mm) / $1,349 (44mm) with GPS + Cellular and Sport Loop. Cellular is always included.

As expected, Apple is offering the titanium and ceramic models at steep premiums over their predecessors, positioning both as Edition versions — the first time Apple has offered two materials in that questionably deluxe category. Titanium comes in forgettably metallic silver and black versions, each coated for cosmetic reasons, and it remains to be seen how well they’ll stand up over time. Ceramic is back to a glossy white color that looks a lot like plastic. I’ve never been sure who these Edition watches are really made for, but the prices and materials don’t appeal much to me.

Over the years, I’ve found myself struggling to choose between aluminum and steel models for one primary reason: I strongly prefer the look, feel, and durability of Apple’s steel Watches, but their sky-high prices (especially compared with rival smartwatches) make it hard to upgrade frequently — especially as Apple’s old Watch trade-in prices are awful, peaking at $110. That’s not even enough to bump an aluminum purchase to steel or to cover even half the cost of a new flagship model, so you’re better off handing down your old Watch than trading it in.

As shown below, this year’s “space gray” aluminum model is as close to black as I’ve yet seen, and a really nice match with Apple’s official black Milanese loop. If you don’t mind that its screen uses an unnamed, scratchable version of Gorilla Glass rather than scratch-resistant sapphire and that its body is also more likely to show scratches and dents than the carbon-coated “space black” steel watch, there’s every reason to save the money and pick aluminum.

It’s also worth briefly noting that Apple has dropped the Milanese Loop’s price from $149 to $99, and bundles with that band now carry only a $50 premium rather than the prior $100. In my view, this is the best and most practical band Apple sells, but its prior pricing enabled no-name $15 knockoffs to capture most of the market share. If you’re looking for a black or gold band that won’t tarnish like the knock-offs, Apple’s version is now a more reasonable option. Just bear the aforementioned compass issue in mind.

Last but not least, all Series 5 models have been bumped from 16GB to 32GB of storage capacity — a change no one was asking for but everyone can be happy about. watchOS 6 users have access to 27GB of storage once formatting and OS needs are taken into account. Since earlier Apple Watches with 8GB of capacity are rapidly getting to the point where watchOS is eating up most of their storage space, the extra breathing room for music and apps is welcome, especially if Apple is holding last year’s prices (largely) constant.

Conclusions

I began this review by mentioning the interplay between frontrunners and followers — the fact that a leader might look back to check on the rest of the pack, rather than staying focused on what’s ahead. With the Apple Watch, it feels like Apple is using the $400+ Series 5 to catch up with sub-$300 options from Samsung and Garmin instead of blazing a new trail of its own. If you’re the type of person who looks at feature lists and checks off boxes before making a purchase, this year’s model eliminates a few more gaps between Apple’s wearables and rivals.

Series 5 doesn’t move the needle, though: There’s nothing as paradigm-changing as last year’s ECG feature to push the platform forward, and depending on your situation, even the all-new compass might not be a reliable tool until software (hopefully) improves its performance. Similarly, the always-on screen is a big draw for Apple Watch holdouts, but I suspect that its implementation will split prior Watch owners into pleased and disappointed camps.

So if you’re in that “holdout” category, consider the Series 5. Apple’s smartwatch is a mature product that delivers enough value to be worthy of its entry price, and if you are concerned about your heart’s health, it could be a godsend. That said, skip the more expensive models, particularly the Edition ones, unless you are okay either skipping “must have” future upgrades or don’t mind dropping $700 or more each time a new watch comes out.

Small tweaks and lower Series 3 pricing might well bring new people to the Apple Watch platform over the next year, but there’s no need for current Series 4 users to upgrade to Series 5. As a Series 4 user who seriously considered upgrading for the screen alone, I ultimately decided to pass after real-world testing, instead waiting to see what Apple releases in 2020. Unfortunately, Apple’s direction for the Watch going forward is a question mark, so I’m hoping — once again — for better battery life, faster processing, and better communication speeds, plus third-party watch faces and subtle refinements to Series 5’s new features.

If you can hold out, consider doing so until Series 6, or at least until there’s a nice sale on the Series 5. A lot will change over the next year or so, and even if you don’t want to wait that long to see what happens, a little patience will probably save you some money.