Apple Watch Series 4 vs Apple Watch Series 5: What's the difference (and should you upgrade)?

Apple Watch titanium
Apple Watch titanium (Image credit: iMore)

Apple doesn't usually make massive changes from one Apple Watch to the next and this year is no different. The most compelling reason to upgrade to Apple Watch Series 5 is the always-on display. If you want the absolute newest look this year, the titanium model wins the day.

Old vs new: Is an upgrade really necessary this year?

If you're reading this, that means you're considering it. Should you upgrade? Apple doesn't offer an Apple Watch Upgrade Program so replacing it year after year isn't as financially justifiable, especially when a lot of the same features from Series 5 are also in the older Series 4. To give you a breakdown of just how similar they are, here's a handy dandy spec table.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 Series 5Series 4
Starting price$399$349 (and dropping)
Case materialsAluminumStainless steelTitaniumCeramicAluminumStainless steel
Battery performanceUp to 18 hoursUp to 18 hours
Screen material- Sapphire Crystal (Stainless Steel, Titanium, Ceramic)- Ion X glass (Aluminum)Sapphire Crystal (Stainless Steel)- Ion X glass (Aluminum)
Display qualityTLTPO OLED display (1000 nits)LTPO OLED display (1000 nits)
ProcessorS5 with 64-bit dual-core processorS4 with 64-bit dual-core processor
Wireless chipsetW3W3
Water resistance50 meters50 meters
SensorsBarometric altimeterOptical heart sensorElectrical heart sensorAccelerometer up to 32 g-forcesGyroscopeAmbient light sensor (improved)Barometric altimeterOptical heart sensorElectrical heart sensorAccelerometer up to 32 g-forcesGyroscopeAmbient light sensor
Storage capacity32GB16GB

Always-on Display

Of course, the biggest feature difference between Series 4 and Series 5 is that always-on display. In the marketing video for Series 5, Apple notes, "This Watch tells time." Humorous, because that's been the biggest complaint about Apple Watch since its inception. You couldn't just look down at your wrist to see the time. You'd have to lift and swish, basically, to wake the screen to see the time. It's been the single reason some people have avoided Apple Watch altogether.

Not any longer. With the always-on display of Series 5, even if your wrist is down by your side and your arm is immovable, you can glance at it to see what time it is.

If you just upgraded your Apple Watch to Series 4, but always felt cheated by the fact that you couldn't just see the time without big, noticeable swings of your arm, you may want to consider making the upgrade. Your wait is finally over because this Watch tells time.

If an always-on display has been a nice idea to you, but it's not something you long for, you probably don't need to upgrade this over the Series 5. It's the biggest feature addition from last year's model.

Titanium (and ceramic is back)

Since the very first Apple Watch, there have only been a total of four material types for the case of the Apple Watch; aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic, and the short-lived 18K gold. With the Series 5, Apple has introduced titanium to the Edition line (that's right, even though it's only $100 more than the stainless steel Apple Watch, it's categorized as an Edition model).

Titanium is a darker, brushed metal design. A more refined contrast to the brushed metal on the aluminum case, but not as shiny as the polished metal of the stainless steel.

Because titanium is considered an Edition model Apple Watch, there's no guarantee that it'll be around next year. Apple tends to make Edition Apple Watches a more exclusive experience. They don't usually last very long.

Apple launched the ceramic Apple Watch Edition in 2017 and promptly removed it from the lineup the following year. It's back with the Series 5, but is a perfect example of the limited nature of Edition Apple Watch models.

If you're fashion-forward and always need the newest look, the titanium Apple Watch Edition is your "fall showcase" and you'll be the trendiest kid on the block.

Twice the storage capacity

Apple Watch Series 5 is packing 32GB of storage capacity. While its great news for anyone wanting to download music, podcasts, or audiobooks for offline listening on their Apple Watch, a big storage capacity isn't really a wow-factor feature on Apple Watch. We don't play video games or watch movies on our wrist, for the most part, so we don't really need that kind of room.

The increased storage capacity in the latest model may have something to do with a dedicated App Store in watchOS 6. You won't need to install apps on your iPhone in order to use them on your iPhone any longer.

As of this writing, 32GB of storage capacity seems like overkill for the Apple Watch, but we haven't had a dedicated App Store for Apple Watch before, so this may prove to be more important later.

Built-in compass

Some may not consider an onboard compass that big of a deal on Apple Watch, but I'm very impressed with how Apple could have possibly fit yet another sensor into that tiny little device. Series 5 has a magnetometer built in, so you can find True North, magnetically, right on your wrist. It doesn't use GPS. You don't need to be online.

It may not be a compelling reason to upgrade from Series 4 to Series 5, but it's pretty cool just the same.

So should you upgrade from Series 4 to Series 5?

My personal opinion is, no. The differences between the two just aren't enough to justify upgrading this year over last. It makes more sense to postpone until the Apple Watch gets a bigger design and feature upgrade. After all, the Series 4, in my opinion, perfected the Apple Watch design and the always-on display is the only significant improvement over last year's model that could justify upgrading.

If you need an always-on display. If all you ever wanted was for your Apple Watch to tell time, it might be worth it to you to upgrade from the Series 4.

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).