Review: Apple Watch Series 5 Is Insanely Great
Steaming up Country Club Road on my bike, I was determined to set a personal record. It’s the steepest hill near my house in suburban Boston, popular with all the local cyclists, but for years it’s also been a potholed hellscape. This fall, it was finally repaved. And I wanted to take advantage of the smoother ride to beat my best time ever.
Glancing at my wrist, the new Apple Watch Series 5 reported my speed, current elevation, and heart rate. Midway through a steep early section, I could see I had some more cardiovascular headroom, so I stomped even harder on the pedals and accelerated. I couldn’t take my hands off the handlebars, but with the Series 5’s always-on display, I didn’t have to. During exercise, the display never shuts off completely, offering an only slightly dimmed read out of my efforts.
After wearing the Series 5 daily for the past month, that’s proven to be my favorite feature by far of this year’s update. Sure, there’s the new compass app, a sound meter, and a few other new bits I’ll discuss more below. But always on, as I said in my first impressions review, remains always great.
Sports isn’t the only occasions when I want to glance at my watch without the full arm lift and wrist flip that all prior Apple Watch models required to activate the display. There are those times when you’re carrying groceries and a notification comes in. Or walking the dog and drinking coffee. And, of course, at a dinner when you’re trying to be subtle and catch a glimpse of the time without being rude. Over and over again in the past month, I’ve been delighted to get some info from the watch with just a side glance. Frankly, I couldn’t bear to go back to an earlier model that didn’t have always on.
That’s not to say everything is perfect with the feature, however. Each of Apple’s various watch faces (yeah, they’re still all from Apple) performs differently when shown in always-on mode. Faces with big dials or giant digits, like the X-Large face, are easy to read even when dimmed. But some of the more text-heavy faces, like the original Modular face, are harder to make out unless you trigger the full brightness. And sometimes a too much wrist movement can make the display accidentally turn on and off a bit too quickly. But those are pretty minor gripes. Apple Watch’s always-on display is the best of any smartwatch and gives the king of the industry an even brighter crown.
Steel is real
Another new feature on this year’s watch lineup from Apple is a new case material—titanium. The usual aluminum Apple Watch starts at $400, or $500 with cellular connectivity. Stainless steel-cased watches, like the one I bought, start at $700, while titanium goes for $800 (both include cellular by default). There’s also still a white ceramic edition that’s totally bomb proof, but it starts at $1,300.
The steel version has a nice heaviness that I prefer and an attractive shiny exterior that ever so slightly shows some wear over time. The titanium is a little lighter, but the turn off for me is the brushed matte finish. Still, Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor of watch-focused site Hodinkee, prefers the titanium for its weight and how light bounces off the finish in “a cohesive way.” I’m saving the $100.
App store on the watch
Apple has been slowly making the watch less dependent on a linked iPhone. Two years ago, the first cellular models provided connectivity without a phone nearby. This year, Apple put an app store on my wrist. At first, you might think it’s crazy to offer access to thousands of watch-compatible apps via the watch’s relatively tiny screen. But Apple Watch has a few clever tricks to make searching and discovering pretty slick.
When you first open the watch app store, there’s a scrolling list of suggested apps put together by Apple’s app store editorial team. It’s typically updated weekly. But the search function is even more useful. You can enter the name of an app or of a category of apps either by using your finger to write words with the Scribble function or by using the dictation feature. There’s also a list of trending searches (every time I check it, “Starbucks” is trending so…coffee?).
It’s useful to have multiple places in the app store that provide suggestions, because the watch app ecosystem is still vibrant and changing, now with some 20,000 different choices—but without much coverage from tech reviewers. Thanks to the suggestions, I discovered that Moleskin, the notebook company that also makes mobile apps, had a watch app for its cool to-do list program called Actions, and I use it everyday now. Installing an app is a one-tap process—except when the watch needs your Apple account password. If you have a long and complicated password, it’s tedious to type in using Scribble. Sometimes the watch just wants my four digit PIN code, which is much easier.
This year’s watch has a couple of new built in apps from Apple, but they won’t blow you away. I’ve had precious few opportunities to really need the new compass app, although on a recent hike in Sleeping Giant State Park near New Haven, Conn., the compass helped me figure out which direction to clamber up the “chest” to get to the “knee.”
The noise meter is of even less use (maybe because I live in a quiet suburb). And when I was testing the water resistance of the Apple Watch Series 5 by jumping into the pool, I set off a warning that I was exposing my ears to a loud noise. I guess I’m a big splasher, but that’s not useful. The watch still performs well in the pool, and the always-on display when you’re swimming laps is always great (have I mentioned that?).
Battery life has also been excellent, at least by the standard of previous Apple watches. At a time when Fitbit sells smartwatches with five-day battery life, Apple’s claim of having 18 hours per charge is pretty weak. But even with the always-on display, I found I always got through the day with 25% or more power left, even on long days with long bike rides.
Like many Apple products, the Apple Watch was initially derided as too expensive and too limited. But the company has done what Apple does best: steadily iterating and improving year-by-year. Now the Apple Watch Series 5 is, as the late Steve Jobs might say, insanely great.
Oh, and about that ride up Country Club Road? I beat my previous record by 13 seconds.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Uber Eats’ hungry new strategy: dominate or exit
—The mobile price wars are on. Here’s how much you can save
—What works and about Apple’s new Beats Solo Pro headphones
—Google and Mozilla fight with internet providers over new protocol
—New bank offers 3% interest rate for “good behavior”
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.