Still The Best Smartwatch, But The Gap Is Closing

Last year’s Apple Watch Series 5 was one of the most minor iterative updates I could remember for a high profiled tech product. It was basically an Apple Watch 4 but with a screen that could stay on consistently. Everything else from build to chip was the same. It was particularly jarring considering the Series 4 had made huge improvements over the Series 3. But still, despite the minimal upgrade, the Series 4 was still the best smartwatch on the market.

The improvements made this year from the Series 5 to brand new Series 6, while still not huge, is more relevant than last year’s. We get a new chip inside this time, and one new health feature (well, new for Apple anyway) that can be considered crucial for health.

But even if the annual Watch improvements have become incremental—perhaps a testament to how far ahead of the industry the Apple Watch had reached by Series 4—it’s not a big issue. This is a problem only for reviewers and hardcore enthusiasts who upgrade annually. For most consumers considering the Series 6, they’re likely jumping from Series 2, 3, or 4; or perhaps a first timer. And for them, there’s more than enough to satisfy. After all, the Apple Watch Series 6 is still the best smartwatch on the market—although the competition has closed the gap.

What’s new?

Here’s what’s new with the Series 6 compared to last year’s device: that aforementioned new S6 chip, which improves charging times and app launch speeds—the former at a noticeable level, while the latter is subtle. This chip also helps boost a brighter “always-on” display that makes it easier to see even when the watch is not fully active (meaning when the wearer’s arm/wrist is below chest level and not moving much). According to Apple, it’s 2.5x brighter in this non-active situation. It does look to be about twice as bright to my eyes.

But the most important update is a new blood-oxygen sensor that detects oxygen saturation levels in our blood, otherwise known as SpO2. Yes, this feature has been available for at least a couple of years on Fitbit’s top-end wearables, as well as recent smartwatches from Huawei and Samsung. But you’ve probably heard the popular tech saying: “Apple’s never the first to do anything, but when they do it, they do it better.”

The blood-oxygen sensor of the Watch Series 6 works by shooting red and infrared lights into the back of our wrists and detecting the reflection. This is similar tech as the sensors seen in other watches, but Apple’s device beats others because not only can a test be started manually, but the device can also do it passively in the background sporadically throughout the day, including when we sleep. This plays into Apple’s vision (and, let’s face it, marketing angle) of the Apple Watch as a companion that can alert you of potential health problems.

From my testing, the blood-oxygen scanning feature is faster than other devices. The entire process takes about 15 seconds, whereas other watches tend to take 20-30 seconds.

That Apple products are so mainstream and are almost the “default device for the average person” in many countries like the U.S. and Japan is important, because by virtue of a blood-oxygen sensor being on new Apple Watches, it means millions more “average people” have gained access and awareness to the feature.

Still the best smartwatch, but the gap has closed

Outside of the new chip and blood-oxygen sensor, the rest of the Watch Series 6 remains almost identical to the Series 5, which is not a bad thing: this means you’re getting a gorgeous OLED screen that blends seamlessly into a sturdy chassis crafted out of aluminum, stainless steel or titanium (depending on what you’re willing to pay). It’s still arguably the best crafted smartwatch, although Huawei’s new Watch GT2 Pro and the Oppo Watch both feel very premium too, and it has the best smartwatch software on the market.

The latter point, I’ve been preaching for years. WatchOS that runs on the Apple Watches can do most important things faster and better than Google’s WearOS, Samsung’s TizenOS, Fitbit’s FitbitOS or Huawei’s own software. These features include automatic digital assistant activation: with the Apple Watch, if I bring the device up to near my mouth and start speaking, the watch knows I’m trying to give a command to Siri and will listen and respond accordingly. No other smartwatch can do this. To activate Google Assistant or Samsung’s Bixby on rival watches require a physical press of a button or at least saying a trigger phrase like “Hey Google.”

Responding to notifications is another key win for Apple. To me, the main reason to use a smartwatch is to reduce the number of times I need to reach for my phone. The Apple Watch allows me to respond to incoming chat messages with accurate voice dictation or intuitive “scribbling” (using finger swipes to “draw” individual letters on the screen). Other smartwatches, again, do not handle these features as well, with some wearable software (Huawei’s and Xiaomi’s are two that come to mind) not letting me respond to messages at all.

The good news is the gap has closed. I tested Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 recently and was pleasantly surprised by the improved voice dictation and the new addition of scribbling (this feature was not available prior to the Watch 3). The voice dictation on Samsung’s watch still can’t pick up my words as fast or accurately as Apple’s software, however. Fitbit’s OS has also gotten better and will soon support Google Assistant, so perhaps it will have better voice dictation algorithms, too.

But does this matter to existing Apple Watch wearers? I always feel like Apple products are review-proof for techies like me, because I have the luxury of jumping between platforms and devices. For the majority of people, once they’ve gone Apple they tend to be quite satisfied with it, and for them, the only comparison they care to learn is how the newest Apple product compares to the last version of the same Apple product.

Battery life and other features

Endurance with the Apple Watch Series 6 remains unchanged from last year: about 18 hours of use on a single charge, which is annoying in my opinion because you still have to charge it at least once a day, and if you want to track your sleep, you have to find time during the day to do it. The Fitbit Versa 2, by comparison, can go five or six days on a charge, and Huawei’s Watch GT2 Pro can go two weeks.

Still, Apple did technically improve power efficiency, because the Watch 6, as mentioned, has a brighter “always on” display and didn’t lose endurance. And you’ll want to have the screen to stay on because WatchOS 7 brings a bunch of fun and attractive watch faces. I particularly love the artistic one with illustration by artist Geoff McFetridge. These will change color depending on if the watch is in resting mode or active mode. And most watch faces will have whimsical animations. You can also use your own “Memoji” (Apple’s animated avatar) as a watch face, too.

As an all-in-one fitness tracker and exercise companion the Apple Watch does a fine job, with all the required sensors including the usual heart rate sensor, EKG sensor, accelerometer for fall detection, built-in GPS, and an altimeter for altitude detection (and a new watch face that will show elevation constantly on the screen as you’re climbing or hiking). There’s also sleep tracking now, a new feature of WatchOS 7, which seems to work accurately.

The whole Apple eco-system

The Apple Watch Series 6 is relatively pricey with a starting price of $399, and I would not recommend anyone who already own a Series 5 to make the jump unless they really want to track their blood-oxygen levels. But anyone using a Series 4 or older, or looking to try an Apple Watch, the Series 6 won’t leave you disappointed. Buying an Apple product has always meant paying a higher price, but in return you get seamless connectivity (if you’re using other Apple products). It’s so helpful to be able to record a voice memo by directly speaking to my Apple Watch, and have that same recording be available on my iPhone or MacBook just minutes later from the seamless cloud transfer of data.

There are other benefits the Apple Watch brings over competitors, like a far superior app ecosystem and third-party accessory options. For example, if you buy a Xiaomi watch, you may have two types of screen protector and eight different brands of watch straps to choose from. If you buy an Apple Watch, you have 100 options of each.

This will likely never change: there are just much more incentives for app developers and accessory makers to focus on Apple products first, because Apple users tend to have much higher spending levels and come from higher income classes in many parts of the world.

If the $399 price is too high, Apple also released at the same time a $279 Apple Watch SE that, as the name implies, is a mid-tier level product. This one runs on an older S5 chip (the same chip in the Apple Watch Series 5) so it doesn’t have an always on display, and also misses the blood-oxygen sensor. But that’s a good option to consider for those on a tighter budget.

Those who’ve read my older smartwatch reviews from around 2018 may remember I constantly complained that nothing in the Android space came close to the Apple Watch. The good news for Android users is that’s not true anymore, as Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 and Fitbit Versa 2 are both excellent. But the Apple Watch still edges it out, and the Series 6 is still the best smartwatch on the market.

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