Early in the year, I got a pretty awesome promotion at work, and as a gift to myself, I bought an Apple Watch Series 4 in Stainless Steel with a Milanese Loop band.
I have been wearing an Apple Watch on and off since the release of the original, but after purchasing the Series 3, I got bored of the same old design that it shared with the first two versions. So I sold the watch and used a Seiko 5 dumb-watch for almost a year before I decided to buy myself the Series 4.
My Apple Watch Series 4 in Stainless Steel.
Since February this watch has been on my wrist every single day, besides while sleeping — not into sleep tracking yet.
It is the best Apple Watch since the original, and I have enjoyed using it for everything like time (of course), weather, workouts, notifications, podcast playback, adding to my to-do list, and, most of all, timers!
So when the Series 5 was announced, and it was the same old Apple Watch I loved, but with a new and better screen that allowed an “Always-On” display, my first reaction was excitement until I started thinking about it more.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Apple was able to get the display not only to be always-on but to also, almost¹, keep the overall style of the watch face by keeping all of the colors and complications always available for view is pretty great.
The biggest thing you lose, which isn’t at all that big of a deal, is the screen goes from 60Hz to 1Hz when in dim mode, meaning the refresh rate drops to help with power consumption.
Another thing that you may lose, though, which is still coming in from early users, is the battery life not being great on these watches. It is hard to know if it is the watch itself, the always-on screen, or something else like a bug in iOS.
Regardless, if you want the Apple Watch Series 5, the most significant selling point is this new Always-On display. So I bought a Series 5 and put it to the test for a few days to see if it is worth the hype.
Is it worth upgrading from a Series 4, like some are suggesting, or even an early model?
Apple describes the new screen in the Apple Watch Series 5 as an Ultra-low-power LTPO display. This is an excerpt from their website describing it in more detail:
The low temperature poly-silicon and oxide display features a reinvented pixel architecture that lets the screen refresh rate dip from 60Hz to a power-sipping 1Hz when the watch is inactive. A new low-power driver, ultra-efficient power management, and a new ambient light sensor work together so the display can stay always on with up to 18 hours of battery life.
Close up shot of the Apple Watch Series 5 in dim-mode.
If you turned off the always-on display on the Series 5, it would look identical to the Series 4. The new screen technology is only there to assist in the always-on feature. So my goal in testing this out was to see if the always-on was that useful and if it is worth upgrading from any other previous model of Apple’s smartwatches.
SoI wore the watch for a few workdays and tested to see how much I would benefit from having the time and complications always available to me on my wrist.
Usually, at work, I sit a desk with a keyboard and mouse. Lately, I have been using a laptop more with a monitor so I can jump around to meetings and other buildings more efficiently. As I sit at my laptop using the keyboard, it was nice to be able to look down at my wrist and see the time without having to lift my arm.
Always-on display, in dim-mode, on Apple Watch Series 5 can be seen when typing using a laptop.
But honestly, how useful is this really?
When I am on my computer or laptop, I usually look at the time on the screen. I touch type, so I am never looking down at my keyboard when I am typing. So looking down at my watch, as the picture is suggesting I am doing above, is not typical for me. So to me, this isn’t that useful, it’s nice that it is there, but overall I don’t see a huge benefit.
When walking back and forth to meetings, I sometimes have to travel outside to other buildings. I wanted to see how useful the always-on display was when walking in the sun, especially when holding something, like a coffee or laptop, that wouldn’t allow me to raise my wrist.
Outside holding a coffee with the Apple Watch Series 5 in dim-mode.
As you can see in the image above the screen isn’t that visible. I will admit that a picture doesn’t necessarily do any of this justice. I did give the Apple Watch the benefit of the doubt though by taking this picture while in a shady spot outside, and my grip on my coffee was a bit unnatural to get the shot.
The thing is I could see the time, but not that great. If I was in direct sunlight, I doubt I would see much at all and honestly at this angle do we really need to see the time? If I really wanted to look at my watch, I would have lifted my arm, which would bring it out of dim-mode, or set my coffee down.
The next test I wanted to try was going to the gym. I wanted to see how beneficial it would be to use the Series 5 while running on the treadmill inside. When you are sweating, breathing heavy and in motion, lifting your watch sometimes can be a burden. I may be exaggerating a bit, but it would be nice to glance down at your wrist while jogging instead of having to lift your arm to see your progress.
The left is the Apple Watch Series 5 in dim-mode while the right shows the Series 5 screen when I lift my arm.
This, I will say, was the biggest sell for me to move to the Series 5 from my Series 4. As you can see in the image above the always-on display when in dim-mode shows everything I need to know when wanting to glance down to see my progress. My heart rate, miles run, the time elapsed, calories, and I can see the actual time in the top right corner easily.
I am sure outside the display would be a little less visible, but overall I think this is an excellent use of the always-on display. Using it at the gym would be a massive benefit whether you are running, lifting, or even stretching to be able to glance at your wrist without having to stop the activity you are doing.
Overall I think the Apple Watch Series 5 is the same excellent Series 4 with a feature I don’t feel is necessarily worth the upgrade.
If you have a Series 3 or older, sure, the new Series 5 will be a considerable upgrade. Not only for the always-on display but the display itself with it being larger and rounded in the corners like the Series 4. It is way better than the boxy older models.
But if your main goal in purchasing this watch is to use it as an ordinary dumb-watch, I don’t think it is worth it. A non-smartwatch is in a whole different category from smartwatches in the sense that a smartwatch does more than tell you the time. I would argue time is the lowest priority when buying a smartwatch.
It is the same when buying a smartphone over a dump-phone. Most don’t buy a smartphone to make calls and send text messages; they use it for all of the other excellent features that a smartphone offers.
I do understand that you are getting more than just the time with an always-on display. You can see other complications like weather and your activity rings. But for me, if I want to check a timer or the weather or see my activity progress on my watch, I will raise it to my face.
The intention of wanting to see something will drive me to want to lift my arm. Causally looking down at our watch is something we do when we are in a meeting or something people do casually while doing something else. If I intend to get information off of my watch, I’ll raise it to my face. Even while admitting that at the gym it is really useful, I don’t think that is enough to get it.
So if you’re in the market for a smartwatch and you want one from Apple, get the Series 5.
It is a great watch.
But if you already have one that is still working fine and you are like me and don’t see the real need of an always-on display, I would say your better off not upgrading.
When I do upgrade my Series 4 in a couple of years I am sure the always-on display will be on that new watch, I am sure it will be even better² than it is on the Series 5, and I will probably love it.
But for now, I love my stainless steel Series 4 and the black screen that is there when I look down as I type this doesn’t bother me at all.
1. Apart from the dimming of some elements — like the white-colored face to black.
2. I don’t know how, but Apple always finds a way to improve everything.