Apple Watch Series 6 first impressions: A stretchy addition looks great
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Apple’s smartwatch made some major leaps forward in design and functionality over the past two years, but the new Series 6 is more of a modest improvement this time around.
The exterior of the watch retains the thinner design introduced two years ago and the brilliant always-on display from the 2019 models. There’s a few new sensors, and the software has made strides, but maybe the best new feature is the line of new one-piece watchbands Apple calls the Solo Loop.
I’ve been using a review unit supplied by Apple for just about one day (in the new blue aluminum color), so consider this a first impressions review. It’s too soon to tell you much about battery life or the new built-in sleep tracking feature, and I’ll need more time to render a long-term verdict.
In terms of design, Apple made a few tweaks to the materials and colors available this year. The high-priced ceramic case option is gone, but now there are four more colors of cases: red and blue aluminum, as well as graphite and gold stainless steel. The aluminum models start at $400, stainless steel at $700, and titanium at $800, all the same as last year (Apple didn’t send Fortune one of its cheaper new $280 SE models to review).
Those new colors are just fine, but I can tell you right away that the new Solo Loop bands, which also fit some older models of the watch, are a big winner. The bands are made of a stretchy rubbery material so you can just slip the watch on without needing to bother with clasps, pins, or buckles. They come in two versions, a liquid silicone rubber that looks a lot like Apple’s original Sport Band and a braided version made from recycled yarn that truly sparkles. The blue braided band Apple sent me to go with the blue watch creates a dazzling look, for example.
The Solo bands are available as an option on the new Series 6 models or for purchase separately, at $50 for the rubber version and $100 for the braided band.
There’s one tricky aspect to the new bands, however. Since they are a single piece, Apple had to make them in multiple sizes—12 different sizes to be exact—to fit different-size wrists. The company made a little paper cutout you can use to figure out what your size is, but, like ordering many kinds of clothing online, you might want to order two different sizes, see which fits best, and return the other.
This year’s watches gained a couple of new sensors. The headliner is the latest health addition. Apple added the ability to measure blood oxygen levels, or SpO2. That can help track your overall wellness over time and eventually could help diagnose the onset of illnesses (maybe even COVID-19), though the app has not been approved for medical use as yet.
To take an SpO2 reading, there’s an app on the watch that triggers the 15-second process. It’s quick and easy, as the measurement occurs from the underside of the watch shining red and infrared light through your skin and using photodiodes to measure how much light is reflected back. In addition to taking manual readings, Apple says the watch can periodically take readings in the background to create a record for tracking trends. The results are available in the Health app on a linked iPhone.
I’ll need more time to figure out how useful the oxygen measurements really are. Apple says you have to keep the watch snug on your wrist for accurate readings, and I found that wasn’t always the case for my background readings.
There’s also a new altimeter to see how far above or below sea level you are. Kind of cool. In other hardware improvements, the always-on display is a bit brighter than last year, and the watch can now connect to 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks as well as 2.5 GHz networks. And charging speed has been improved. I was able to top up my charge by almost 50 percentage points in half an hour.
One hardware change isn’t so cool, though. Apple has removed the ability of the watch to sense deep presses on the screen, a feature it called 3D Touch on all previous models. This was a handy way to trigger various features, like clearing all notifications in one swoop. Now it’s gone, and the various replacement triggers are generally easy to find but not as convenient.
Apple’s software has added some improved features this year. There are new watch faces that look great. I particularly like the Artist face, featuring drawings by Geoff McFetridge, and the strange Typography face that lets you mess around with a whole bunch of font options. It’s also possible to add new faces for the first time straight from the watch. That used to require a trip to the watch app on the iPhone.
Elsewhere, the software feels a bit zippier than on the Series 5, thanks to Apple’s improved S6 processor chip. The new sleep tracking app appears less sophisticated than similar apps offered by third parties, but I’ll need to test it further. And there is still no Snoopy watch face. Apple, give a Gen Xer a break.
Maybe that’s the big feature for the Series 7?
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