Apple Watch Series 6 review: still the greatest but with one big pitfall

Want to understand the success of the Apple Watch? Sure, you could look at how it has, for some time, outsold the entire Swiss watch industry. Or you could look at the number of copycats.
For starters there’s the Amazfit Bip S, the Huawei Watch Fit and the Xiaomi Mi Watch. Oppo likes the Apple Watch so much that it doesn’t just look similar, it’s also got the same name: Oppo Watch. Say it quickly and it even sounds the same.

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So what do you do as the clear frontrunner? You make your product better without stuffing up your lead. Such a mentality is not the friend of radical redesign, of course. This explains the Series 6: a new key health feature, a new S6 chip and iterative upgrades aplenty.
Who’s it for?

The Apple Watch 6 is primarily for newcomers looking to buy the top-of-the-range model. It starts at £379, but you can go up to £1,449 with the lux Hermès versions. However, as many of the updates are included in watchOS 7, anyone with a Series 5 or 3 will be able to access most of the new features such as Family Setup, cycle directions (when they appear in the UK) and sleep tracking, so unless you want the new stuff exclusive to the Series 6 there is little point in existing Watch owners upgrading.
That is unless you are a Series 3 owner and want an ECG app, which was previously only in the 5. For 5 owners, you will have to be excited by the admittedly impressive additions of the blood oxygen sensor and U1 chip to be convinced to upgrade. Lastly, if you felt that your old Watch was a tad slow, then the S6 chip may well sway those annoyed by sub-second delays in certain watchOS navigations. For this you pay £110 more than you would for the new second-tier model, the Watch SE.

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Design

It looks like an Apple Watch. That’s it.
What else? Well, the Series 6 comes in 11 colours and three materials: aluminium, polished stainless steel and brushed titanium. Graphite stainless steel replaces ‘Space Black’ now, though. And there’s a new gold stainless steel finish which is “jewellery inspired… to achieve the colour and brightness without using actual gold mineral”. Also known as fake gold. Looks bling, though. Our favourites? The new blue and red aluminium models have a winning aesthetic, the latter being Apple’s first Product Redwatch.
Living with it
First off, that new S6 chip makes a noticeable difference. Apple claims it’s up to 20 per cent faster than the S5, and has a more energy efficient design, too. You can certainly see an uptick in speed navigating around the different apps with the Series 6, and it is most welcome.

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As for more efficient, running the 6 all night for sleep tracking robbed it of just 14 per cent charge – which was topped up, thanks to the new faster charging, in the time it takes for any morning ablutions. How much faster? It’s 60 minutes from flat to 80 per cent, or 90 minutes up to full charge – about a third less than on the Series 5.
But it’s the addition of the U1 chip, previously seen in the iPhone 11, that really excites. You won’t be able to use it now, really – it’s more a promise of things to come. It is this ultra wideband (UWB) tech that Apple has described as “GPS on room scale” and promises to become more important in the coming years. This, for example, is the wizardry that will let you use your Apple Watch to open and start your car just by walking up to the vehicle – no gesturing or tapping necessary.
Killer feature(s)

Day-to-day it’s going to be two things: that improved battery performance and the fact that now the always-on Retina display is 2.5 times brighter than Series 5 (500 nits instead of 200). These two features make the Apple Watch Series 6 easier to live with. We’ve never had an issue with battery life on the Watch, so Apple could have been forgiven for leaving performance here as it was, but extra power and a clearer, brighter display is always going to improve matters.
The big new feature, especially in these pandemic times, is that blood oxygen sensor. During a measurement the LEDs on the back shine infrared light through your skin onto the blood vessels in your wrist. Photodiodes capture the light that is reflected back to detect the colour of your blood. It is this colour that indicates how oxygenated your blood is (bright red blood is more saturated, dark red is less).
The whole thing takes 15 seconds and you get a nice animation to watch while it’s all going on. The system also periodically measures your blood oxygen level throughout the day in the background – but only when you’re not moving.
Yes, blood oxygen is less dramatic than the ECG feature, but it adds yet another health capability to the Watch, confirming that this more a wellbeing device, as far as Apple is concerned, than a mini iPhone on your wrist, as the initial intention may have been.
Why oh why…

This is the interesting bit. There is one part of the Watch that Apple has neglected to fix for years – and it still hasn’t done so on the Series 6.
What is this glaring failing? Organising your music and podcasts that are downloaded to the Watch remains an absolute nightmare. It’s practically impossible. The Watch, if you toggle the right options, is meant to download the latest episodes of your subscribed podcasts, for example. But it doesn’t do so reliably. Sometimes it does, others it doesn’t. What’s more, you normally find this out only once you are outside on a run, have chosen to leave your phone behind because you can play the media you want directly off the Watch. As for music? You can still only add whole albums or whole playlists. Want a particular song? Forget it.
Deleting things is equally hard. I’ve tried a number of times to bin old podcasts only to have them reappear like cockroaches. This negates a key selling point for the Apple Watch. If you live or train in a place where phone reception is poor, or you have Apple’s wearable without the eSIM, then downloading audio to the Watch is your only option if you want to go running without your phone.
Would it really be so very hard to develop the Watch app sufficiently so that it could organise and manage songs and podcasts so that you know exactly what was on there and in the order you wanted? Rumour has it Spotify has the jump on Apple here and is trialling downloadable content for Apple Watch.
So, should I buy it?
The answer to this question is much tricker when it comes to the Watch SE. Have you got a Series 5? Are you happy with it? If the answer is yes to both these questions we’d have to advise sticking where you are for now.
But if you are new to Apple Watch, or have an older model and are thinking about upgrading, then this is most definitely a good buy – especially for £379, which, incidentally, is the price of our pick, the Product Red watch. The new, faster chip alongside the brighter screen, better battery life and faster charging are worth it. How much you get out of continually tracking your blood oxygen is a matter for individuals to assess over time.
Apple has done what it needed to do with the Series 6: improvements not embellishments. There may be increasingly more Apple Watch clones coming to market, but you still can’t beat the real thing.

The Apple Watch Series 6 is available now from £379 via Apple, Amazon and Argos.

Jeremy White is WIRED’s executive editor. He tweets from @jeremywired
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