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Apple Watch Series 5 review: The always-on display is great

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The Apple Watch Series 5 isn't super affordable, starting at $399 (£399, AU$649), and in many ways it's nearly the same watch that last year's Apple Watch Series 4 was. But its always-on display delivers one of the key features I've been waiting for. I notice it a lot because now I can glance at the time when I'm typing. Or casually watching TV. Or driving. No more weird arm twists. 

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8.3

Apple Watch Series 5

The Good

The Apple Watch Series 5 adds an always-on display, so it can show the time all the time. An added compass aids navigation and improves elevation readings. Cellular models gain an international SOS mode.

The Bad

Battery life remains a day and a half at best. No new health features, and the watch lacks native sleep tracking. Needs an iPhone to set up and work. Offers only Apple's growing but limited selection of watch faces.

The Bottom Line

Apple's subtly improved watch adds a key overdue feature and improved software with this update, but it remains largely the same great smartwatch as last year.

It's a feature that's long overdue: The PebbleAmazfit Bip, Fitbit Versa 2Samsung Galaxy Watch and Google Wear OS have had always-on modes for years. Always-on doesn't improve battery life -- in fact, it makes things a bit worse. But among smartwatches, the Apple Watch stands as the most feature-filled, well-performing wearable in existence.

Read more: 13 Apple Watch bands to get on Amazon

You still need an iPhone to use the Apple Watch, but if you have one, it's almost certainly your best bet. It's hard to find any other smartwatch that's as glanceable or as quick to respond to messages and calls. As most of the competition has disappeared, the Apple Watch's position as the best iOS watch keeps strengthening. 

I've worn the Series 5 for a few months now, and it's handled my needs in all ways (except for lasting more than a day on a charge). It's a not a perfect device, but in the world of wearables, it's about as close as you can get.

Just understand: The always-on display is the only key new feature in the Apple Watch Series 5. You don't need that feature, but other than better battery life, it's the one thing I was looking for.

If you want an Apple Watch for less, if you can find last year's Series 4 on sale, it should feel nearly the same apart from the always-on screen. And the Series 3, at half the price, is well worth considering too.

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The Solar Dial watch face, maybe one of my new favorites (you can get it with WatchOS 6, you don't need a new watch for this).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The other main upgrades are:

  • A compass (magnetometer), which points you in the right direction when navigating with maps -- the iPhone has had one since the 3GS
  • An international SOS trigger on cellular watches (no cellular contract needed)
  • New premium (more expensive) finishes in titanium and ceramic

That's it. If you're not interested in any of these features, you can now get last year's Apple Watch Series 4 on clearance from plenty of retailers. (Right now savings seem to be about $50, but other deals could pop up over the holidays.) If you don't need ECG or the Series 4's larger 40 or 44mm display, Apple still sells the 38mm and 42mm Series 3 at the new official price of $199, which is basically what the watch's sale price was for most of the last year.

Read: 13 Apple Watch bands to get on Amazon  

All that said, the new display is a killer feature. I've been wearing an aluminum Apple Watch Series 5, and I fell in love with the always-on addition. It's now weird to look at the older models without it. But it's not always what you might think it is.

Always-on makes me feel more normal

I'm now using the Apple Watch more like a normal watch. And I keep thinking about all the people everywhere with Apple Watches on, showing blank dark screens. That's eventually going to change. Interesting watch faces will show up. Maybe ones that match the watches' bands.

The new watch faces in Apple's newest version of its watch software, WatchOS 6, are great. There are 34 watch faces now, with hundreds of variations. A solar dial face shows sunset and sunrise, with room for adding other bits of info such as the weather or the date. Fresh information-rich watch faces such as Meridian and Modular Compact offer new mixes of shortcuts to apps. Download WatchOS 6 before you get a new Apple Watch, because its added features, which include podcasts and an ambient noise meter, could make your old watch feel new.

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Always-on mode dims the display, and changes some watch faces slightly.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But even with these options, I find myself getting bored and looking for novelty. I'd like a watch face store for third-party developers to add unique designs, and that still hasn't arrived. The always-on feature further cements that desire. Maybe this will pave the way for Apple to allow third-party watch faces. Perhaps a curated collection from well-known designers to start? I'd buy a few.

Apple's making the always-on display work via new OLED display technology that slows and dims the display, freezing animations but offering up that always-on readout. One side benefit: The screen autoadjusts better in low light, like in movie theaters. It'll be interesting to see if this display tech ends up in other devices, including future iPhones -- which a lot of people still use as their main device for telling time. (Just for comparison, Samsung first launched an always-on display feature in its phones with the Galaxy S7 in 2016.)

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It gets a little hard to see the dimmer always-on display in bright light (raising wrist/tapping sometimes needed).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Here are some quick facts about the Apple Watch's always-on display:

  • It will cause a dip in battery life, but turning it off could increase battery. Apple promises 18 hours of battery life with always-on enabled by default. The new OLED display cycles down its refresh rate and the display lowers its brightness and reduces animations. So far, I've been getting roughly a day and a half. You could turn off always-on, and I'm testing that next to see how much better the battery life could be. Originally, I said "it won't affect battery life," and as I've kept using it, I've seen it limp to the end of a day with less remaining battery life than on the Series 4: on average, maybe I'll be in the 20% or less territory. Turning off always-on, however, brings it to exactly the battery life of the Series 4. Either way, the watch needs a recharge at night. Pick your poison.
  • It's only always-on for watch faces and the Workout app. Apple didn't allow other apps to stay always-on. Which means, when they're open, after a few seconds they'll disappear and a small generic digital watch face will pop up. If you had a dream of having anything on the watch stay always-on, you're out of luck. This can be helpful, though, if you have sensitive info on your watch. Turning it away will cloud it from view, like a privacy screen.
  • Always-on only works on your wrist. The watch waits to sense skin contact before triggering always-on. When it's off your wrist (or charging) the display still turns off.
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Most apps end up frosting off and showing a basic clock face after a few seconds.

Scott Stein/CNET
  • Every watch face has an ambient, dimmed always-on mode that kicks in. Much like Samsung or Wear OS watch faces, Apple's transform in the ambient always-on state. Moving second hands disappear. Background colors tend to fade to black or dim. Readouts shrink a bit. Some watch faces just look dimmed while others take on a second cool identity. Some are just boring analog watch hands.
  • The watch needs to "wake up" before swiping, which takes a half second. You might see the watch face and want to swipe up a new one, or peek at notifications. But the always-on display needs to activate from sleep. Tapping wakes it up. It's a small delay, but be prepared.
  • Active complications, like the new compass or noise levels, go dark. These things still need a wrist-turn to waken.
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The new Compass app, similar to what's on the iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Compass appears to work well

Hard to believe, but Apple Watches didn't have compasses before. Now there's the novelty of seeing your direction on your wrist. There's a new watch complication -- that's the name for those glanceable readouts that you can stick on the Apple Watch -- that lets you view the compass at a glance, or an app that can lock in your bearing. It's also helpful with the Maps app, where there's finally a blue cone of direction that appears, just like on the iPhone.

The compass seems steady, but coming out of restaurants or subways can still confuse it for a moment, leading to that hey-where-am-I-going feeling. Yes, it's annoying. But, like always-on displays, a compass on a smartwatch is good to have.

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That little blue cone shows direction in the Maps app, just like on the iPhone.

Scott Stein/CNET

International SOS works like the US SOS did before

If you're paying up for a cellular Apple Watch, you're paying $100 for the capability, plus a monthly fee of around $10. You can use the SOS mode by pressing and holding the side button to call 911 or the local equivalent. It works in about 150 countries on the Series 5, and doesn't need a cellular plan. This seems like a helpful travel tool. My phone service doesn't work outside of the US so I might be more in need of assistance in case of emergency. I haven't tested this feature because I'm not overseas right now, and I'm not planning to be for a while.

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An always-on dimmer display should be followed up with longer battery life... someday.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's still missing

These few additions to the Series 5 are helpful, but there's more I want to see. Battery life remains two days max, and many watches and fitness trackers do better. I'd like to see days, maybe a week -- even if that means going into a low-power state more often.

If Apple offered longer battery life, maybe that could also mean sleep tracking. Apple still hasn't included built-in sleep tracking with any of its watches. Other smartwatches have been tracking sleep for years, and Fitbit now has an improved Sleep Score feature on its app that will grade a night's rest on several factors, including heart rate.

Apple acquired the sleep tech company Beddit, but sleep still hasn't emerged on the Apple Watch yet. Apple is quick to remind watch owners that there are apps for that. But, the battery life on the Apple Watch means sleeping with it leaves you to worry if you'll have a full charge the next day.

And speaking of charging, the Apple Watch still uses its own proprietary charger. Samsung found a way to charge its watches through the back of the Galaxy S10 phones, offering help for those moments when a charger might be at home -- which happens for me all the time. If the Apple Watch is really going to become a watch for everyone, it needs to last longer on a charge and there needs to be more ways to charge it.

Last but not least, it shouldn't require an iPhone to pair with it. WatchOS 6 takes a step in the right direction by launching its own App Store for the Watch, but there are still miles to go. The Apple Watch continues to be one of the best smartwatches, but it remains limited by being an iPhone accessory for now.

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8.3

Apple Watch Series 5

Score Breakdown

Design 9Battery 6Performance 9Software 9Features 8