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

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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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