Apple Watch Series 5: Always-on hands-on

Apple Watch Series 5 Hermes
Apple Watch Series 5 Hermes (Image credit: iMore)

it's here: The Apple Watch Series 5. was there ever really any doubt?

1. Apple Watch Series 5: New Ceramic & Titanium Finishes

The aluminum Apple Watch Series 5 comes in roughly the same shades as before — silver, and anodized space gray and gold. Roughly because Apple's exact shade of gold seems to vary slightly year to year.

Stainless steel is also the same: Polished and DLC-coated space black. They have expanded things slightly, though: You can now get the Hermes version in space black as well.

Making its return is white ceramic, which originally debuted with Apple Watch Series 2 but was absent last year on the Series 4. And, brand new for Series 5, titanium in brushed metal and DLC-coated space black.

Because it's brushed rather than polished, the titanium looks quite different than the steel. Not quite the same as the aluminum, but somewhere in between.

Enough, at least, to trigger anyone who insists their lugs match their casings exactly.

Titanium also weighs less than steel. Quite a bit in my brief time holding them in the hands-on area.

Because it's slightly more expensive than stainless steel, it's more for fans of the material than anyone else. And fans of light watches, not heavier the better ones, of course.

But I love that Apple continues to experiment and try out new versions of old classics. It's part of what makes the Apple Watch a watch.

2. Apple Watch Series 5: New Bands

Apple's been updating the Apple Watch bands pretty much every spring, summer, and fall since the original launched. Sometimes with new styles, always with new colors. Increasingly with new combinations.

There's no ceramic or titanium bracelet, alas. But there are some hot new Nike looks, Hermes prints, and two-tone sport loops that I can't wait to add to my already ludicrously large collection.

3. Apple Watch Series 5: Apple Watch Studio

For years, Apple has been offering pre-set pairs for the Watch. Certain cases with certain bands, and if the combination you wanted wasn't offered, you had to buy one that was and get another band separately to make it yourself.

And, for years, we've all been asking to just let us mix and match.

Last year, Apple teased us by shipping the Apple Watch cases and bands separately, even when you bought them, as you had to, as part of a pre-set pair.

This year, they tease us no longer. With Apple Watch Studio, you can go online or to your local Apple store, choose almost any case, almost any band, and make your own pair.

I say almost because things like Hermes stick to Hermes, but otherwise, we can knock ourselves out and make any knockout combo we want.

Love this.

4. Apple Watch Series 5: Always On

The biggest new feature of the Apple Watch Series 5 is legit one I've been waiting years for. However many it's been since the watch first launched. The one that makes the watch truly, finally, a watch:

Always-on display.

Apple did implement it in typical Apple fashion though. They didn't do it first. They didn't graft it on. They didn't make it a user problem to manage.

They made it an intrinsic, pretty much intuitive part of the Apple Watch experience.

Where, before the watch display would turn off, now it goes into a lower power mode instead. That's all thanks to a whole new technology stack that starts with a low power LTPO display, a new low power driver, a low power management system, and a ton of software support.

Second hands disappear so they don't have to be animated. Filled colors become closer to outlines so the all those pixels don't have to stay powered. Whites turn black. Colors dim. Mickey stops stamping. Woody disappears.

Workouts will also stay on but the milliseconds go away.

That it's every watch face and every workout, and no some special display or mode or face is terrific. It just feels so well integrated.

It doesn't work with other apps, including third party apps, though. Those will just switch back to the last watch face when going low power.

Complications keep on functioning, though. So the data from those apps will still get to you. Apple is being privacy-conscious enough to mute very personal notifications, like health-related ones, but others will still pop up for you as well. Just dim until you decide you want to see them.

A new ambient light sensor helps it all work. And if it detects a dark room, like a movie theater, it'll dim so as not to disturb others. And, yeah, there's still a theater mode if you want to take it a step further, or you can just turn the whole thing off in settings if the whole thing turns you off.

Again, I've been waiting years for this, so I really hope it works as expected.

5. Apple Watch Series 5: Digital compass

Yes, the Apple Watch Series 5 has a new S5 system-in-package. It's still 64-bit and dual-core. Apple's not increasing the power envelop here because everything is being thrown into the always-on display this generation.

But they are adding in a magnetometer or digital compass. The iPhone got it with the 3GS but it's basically what lets that little arrow in maps show you which way you're going. It can also tell you, or pass along to apps, your incline, elevation, and latitude and longitude.

That means a food rec app can point you right at the restaurant, an astronomy app can highlight the stars as you spin around axis, and workout apps can deliver whole new ways to quantify what you're doing and how.

6. Apple Watch Series 5: Emergency everywhere

The Apple Watch has never been able to roam on cellular internationally because the tiny modem inside it has yet to be able to support enough bands to make it remotely feasible.

But, for Series 5, Apple has added just enough support for just enough bands to let it make emergency calls in pretty much every country where Apple Watch works.

I don't know if that's thanks to the new W3 wireless chip or something else, but it means, if you're traveling, and you trigger fall detection or hit SOS, even if you're at home but just don't have a cellular plan, it'll still call for help for you.

I've said it countless times already, but I consider Apple Watch the most important device Apple has ever made because it deliberately, intentionally, by design, saves lives.

International emergency calling is just one more in a long list of ways Apple's made that happen.

7. Apple Watch... Series 3

Legit some of the biggest Apple Watch news at the event wasn't Series 5 at all. It was Series 3. Apple is keeping it around at an even lower base price: $199.

That's like entry-level iPad great.

As much as some with breathlessly bemoan the lack of reasons to update year-over-year, most people in the world still haven't bought a single Apple Watch.

The play here isn't upgrading, it's on boarding, and Apple just gave a lot of people 199 reasons to think about the Watch for the first time. Especially as we enter the holidays.

Well played.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.