In the clamour for smartphone supremacy, it’s all about eking more and more performance out of the cameras. With the Apple Watch there is another problem altogether.
Such is Apple’s smartwatch superiority, that far from there being a frantic battle for victory, lay observers may conclude that no one else has turned up to fight. Apple is left alone to best, well, itself.
The Apple Watch apparently accounted for half of all the 45 million smartwatch sales in 2018. To find out who took second place, you have to drop sales figures all the way to just 5.5m for Fitbit. Samsung came a slow third with 5.3m, with Garmin on 3.2m.
Rubbing salt in the wearable wound, Apple will supposedly sell more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry combined this year. Having casually won the smartwatch fight some time ago, the Apple Watch is now taking on the established watch world, and it’s winning.
I previously loved the Series 4, and as what Apple has mainly done here is to add improvements to that iteration, it’s safe to say I love this one, too. And I do. So let’s try and outline here what has been added, why and also nail the few things Apple has fumbled with the Series 5.
The main problem I had was with the first Apple Watch was the wake time on the screen. Apple sold it as practically instantaneous, but it was certainly not. Often you raised your wrist to check the time only to be greeted by a black slab of glass, and then a second or two later it would fire up. Mostly. Sometimes it refused to.
Now, over the years, and various updates and performance bumps, raise detection has undoubtedly improved a great deal. But it was never fixed completely. Incremental improvement is certainly progress, but an actual solution is ideal. Finally Apple has killed this bugbear once and for all by giving the 5 an always-on display.
Made possible by a new low-temperature polysilicon and oxide display, low-power display driver, better power management tech and a new ambient light sensor, there is no more waiting for the screen to wake, because it’s never off.
Cleverly, less important elements of the watch display are dropped when it is in low-power mode, and these then come back in when with raise detection. If they come back slightly after you have raised your wrist, it matters considerably less as you can still see the time.
Always-on is indeed always welcome, but it’s particularly useful while running or doing any other kind of exercise. However, there is a downside, more of which later.
Compass and navigation
What’s the best Apple Watch feature? Some might say calls and music streaming without a phone, and a small few might even say the relatively new ECG feature. But for me, since the beginning, it has always been navigation.
With the Watch’s ‘Taptic Engine’ tapping me on the wrist letting me know as I walk around any given city whether to turn left or right at the next junction, without the need to even look at the wearable, was, from the first version of the Watch, an absolute winner. It swiftly became the reason I wore the thing.
Now, Apple has improved this as well by adding a built-in compass. What does this mean? Well, the compass combines with an updated Maps app so you can see which way you are facing, so in turn you can see which way you should be heading. Direction at a glance is not to be sniffed at. How many times in an unfamiliar environment have you walked down a street a little just to ascertain which way you are walking?
But not any more. The Watch screen shows you clearly which way it is pointing so there is no need to wander around trying to get your bearings. Apple has made my single favourite feature of the Watch even better. What’s more, this improved ability will only be even more useful when, say, hiking or navigating cross-country.
However, a word of caution to the accessorisers, some watch bands, particularly ones with a magnet, will interfere with the 5’s built-in magnetometer that powers the compass feature. So if you are about to head off into the great outdoors to discover whatever you must, swap out that Milanese Loop for a Sport one, instead.
I’ve never had an issue with the battery life of the Apple Watch. I always found it to last way more than a day, and have frequently gone, with careful management and powering down over night, many days without having to recharge it.
With the 5, Apple states that thanks to a “combination of hardware innovation and software design” the Series 5 is still able to deliver an all-day 18-hour battery life.
However, I can say here that sadly the battery life on the new Watch is not quite as good as on previous versions. This is hardly surprising when you consider the added tech inside the 5 and, in particular, the always-on display. But when you consider what you gain for what you lose, I would still prefer to have this new model.
Now, rest assured, you certainly still get all-day battery life, but as opposed to old models where the Watch would sail towards the end of the day with plenty of charge to spare, the 5 makes it with much less in reserve. It makes for a little more ‘charge anxiety’ during the day, especially when travelling. And others have certainly been experiencing poor battery performance on the 5.
There is a solution, of course. To save precious power, you can switch off the ‘always-on’ display (open the Settings app and toggle it off under Display & Brightness). But I’m getting used to the change after a month with the new Watch, and much prefer to have the better display option and know that charging every night is now a must.
It’s not all gravy
There are a couple of other niggles with the Watch 5, aside from battery life. First, and no pun is intended, it is high time that the design was overhauled on the Watch. What we have here is a form factor that can still pass for the original version from 2015. Yes, no one is doing better, but that doesn’t mean that there should be such inertia when it comes to the look of the product.
Having said this, the return of the ceramic edition, alongside a new lightweight titanium version, is very welcome. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ceramic model, and the titanium option is a boon for the wearable if not that surprising as Swiss watches have been employing titanium cases for years.
Second, Apple has still not fixed the problem with exercise detection and recognition with the Watch. By now, the smartwatch should ideally be able to discern between many sorts of exercise beyond walking, running, elliptical training, rowing and swimming. But the real annoyance is the time the watch still takes to kick in and start automatically recording, say, walking.
Each weekday morning, I have to walk 15 minutes to one location, then 15 minutes to the railway station. Not one morning in the past month has the Watch 5 quickly realised my routine or the fact I am walking. It usually asks me if I am walking after roughly ten minutes of exercise. Usually. Many days it never gets the first 15-minute leg at all. On all other occasions you could offer a sweepstake on when the message would pop up, it is that unpredictable.
Lastly, still no native sleep detection. However, a recently leaked screenshot for the Apple Watch Alarms app supposedly showed a sleep feature that hasn’t launched yet. So, we’ll see.
Apple is slowly but surely demolishing all my complaints from the very first Watch with each iteration, in this case particularly with the always-on display, as well as adding in new features I hadn’t even considered (ECG) and improving ones I already loved (navigation). If it carries on there will be little to complain about for this wearable.
What’s more, if you don’t like the price of the 5, the Series 3 is now even cheaper and offers many of the features here and is still better than all the competitors. In this regard, Apple really is competing with itself in the smartwatch space.
What little there is to moan about will likely only be addressed when Samsung, Fitbit and Garmin get their collective act together and produce watches that come vaguely close to what the Apple Watch offers. But they are so far behind, and seemingly so dispirited at the gulf in market share that continues to widen, maybe they simply haven’t got any fight left in them.
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