While Apple Watch is now five years old, it's still a relatively young product and one that’s still maturing at a relatively quick clip. Each year doesn't just mean a faster chip set or more battery life – it means a reimagining of the scope and purpose of the Apple Watch and the way it can fit into customers' lives. That's something worth getting excited about.
Because 2018's Apple Watch Series 4 was such a massive leap forward, consensus in the lead-up to the Series 5 launch was that this year's release would be much more minor. In hindsight that feels foolish and the Apple Watch Series 5 is yet another big jump in fit, finish, and overall experience.
I've spent a week with the Apple Watch Series 5 Edition in the new titanium case, and it's given me an awful lot to think about.
Apple's premium Edition
The version of the Series 5 that Apple loaned me for this review is the brand new Edition model in brushed titanium. We'll get into all the details of what this means later, but it's worth taking a minute to look back at the Apple Watch Edition lineup over and how this collection of premium Watch models has changed over the last half-decade.
When the first Apple Watch was announced on September 9, 2014, one of the things that got the most media attention was Apple's decision to release a whole collection of models in solid gold. You totally forgot about that, right? Well, they did it.
The first Apple Watch Edition models were made in solid 18k rose and yellow gold with matching buckles, special straps, and higher-end packaging. Prices started at US$10,000 and ran right up to US$17,000.
This was a clear shot across the bow from Apple that the Watch was a luxury fashion product as much as it was a technology product. Apple is home to some of the greatest marketing minds on the planet and this is a great example of their genius.
From photos of Beyoncé and Karl Lagerfeld wearing gold Apple Watches on custom gold bracelets to massive spreads in Vogue, the Apple Watch was instantly a part of the conversation. Sure, they caught flack in some circles and others thought the whole thing was a stunt, but it got people talking.
From gold to ceramic
When the Series 2 debuted in 2016, these models were suspiciously absent. Apple mostly declined to comment about it, simply saying that the collection would be evolving over the years and this was part of that.
We still don't know how many gold Apple Watches were sold, but most analysts think the number was pretty small, relatively speaking. When you're talking about Apple, "small numbers" could easily mean tens or hundreds of thousands of units.
Then with the Series 3 we got a pair of ceramic models in white and space grey. The Apple Watch's curvy design is perfectly suited to polished ceramic. These Edition Watches were priced just a hair over US$1,000, so they were still more than twice the price of the introductory models, but they weren't anywhere near the original gold models.
That's exactly why I was disappointed to see the Edition collection disappear yet again last year with the release of Series 4. Instead, we got the new gold-colored steel model, which seemed to step in as last year's most luxe option. I like that Apple Watch plenty, but it doesn't have quite the same gravitas as the ceramic.
And that brings us to today. For Series 5, Apple re-introduced a white ceramic Edition model (though space grey ceramic is still absent) as well as a pair of Edition models in titanium, one in a matte natural color and one in DLC space black.
Apple tech with a titanium twist
This is the first time we've seen a titanium Apple Watch and it's an interesting move from Apple. It sits between the steel and ceramic models in terms of price and it offers a more luxurious option that’s still a great choice for people using their Watch as a fitness device. This fusion of function and indulgence fits in extremely well with Apple's current thinking on the Apple Watch as simultaneously a wellness and fashion product.
The big question still looms though: Do you really want, or need, premium materials and increased prices in a device that you're most likely going to want to replace annually (at least for the next few year)?
I think that’s still very much a personal decision and it's hard to fault people for coming down on either side. Materials like ceramic and titanium, being both functional and still relatively affordable, make much more sense to me than solid gold at this point, but I'd be very surprised if we didn't continue to see the Edition collection ebb and flow over the coming years.
The Apple Watch Series 5 was kind of a surprise. Sure, we obviously knew that Apple was going to release a new Watch this month, that was all but 100% confirmed. But what wasn't expected was the big technological leap that we got. There was chatter about new case materials and maybe some new health tracking features ahead of the release, but the introduction of the always-on display was a big surprise and it's as big a change to the Apple Watch as we've seen so far.
In case you're not familiar, all past Apple Watch models featured displays that would go dark when you weren't looking at them.
To show the time, you would raise your wrist and an accelerometer inside the watch would tell it to turn on. This saved power and was key to Apple's "18-hour, all day battery life" promise. Sure, there have been tons of other smartwatches from other makers who have had low-power modes and various always-on displays, but this quirky feature was baked into the Apple Watch from day one.
The key thing here though is that Apple added this new display without changing the physical size of the Watch models or the battery life.
The 44mm and 40mm watches are exactly the same dimensions (which are 44mm x 38mm x 10.7mm for the larger model) as they were in the Series 4, and you still get 18-hour/all-day battery life. This solves what might be the most-heard complaint about the Apple Watch, which is that people don't like having to flick their wrists to read the time.
Same size, smarter power usage
That gesture is so baked into our culture and oftentimes has a rude connotation to it – notice how you feel next time someone overtly checks their watch while you're talking to them, if you have any doubts. Now, a quick glance is all you need and you're good to go.
This meant a lot of software changes for watchOS 6 too. Most importantly, Apple's design team has to reimagine the various watch faces to be flexible enough to run at full power when you’re looking at the watch and in a low-power mode for when the watch is at your side or resting on your desk.
For many faces, this means that colors disappear, seconds hands might vanish, and overall brightness diminishes. However, in most cases you still get all (or most) of the key information you need. I'll get into the practical benefits of this in a minute, but spoiler alert: it's a huge deal.
I won't get too nerdy here, but the technology that enables this is called a Low-Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide (LTPO) display. It's still an OLED-based Retina display but it has a dynamic refresh rate, meaning that when the display is in low-power mode it can adjust to refresh just once per second instead of 60+ times per second. That's how you still get all that battery life without sacrificing quality and legibility.
There are a few new faces, including the Meridian, Numerals Duo, and Solar Dial, and the faces in general are even more customizable than they used to be.
As Apple's offering of straps expands, you've got all kinds of color choices for the watch faces to match. My favorite of the bunch is a new California dial that shows there are some real watch nerds on the Apple design team. I've had mine set in the special "Edition" color, which is a great shade of taupe that's only available on the Edition models.
Apple has previously had exclusive colors and faces on the Hermès models and Nike+ models, but not the other Edition watches. The fact that it's taupe doesn't hurt anything.
There are a few other new features, both hardware and software, but whether or not you'll get a lot of value out of them will depend on how you use your Apple Watch (things like a compass, menstrual cycle tracking, and a noise metering app). But no matter what you do, the always-on display is, without a doubt, the most important update the Apple Watch has seen in years.
As far as pricing goes, the titanium Edition models occupy a nice middle ground between the steel and the ceramic, starting at $1,259 for the 40mm and $1,339 for the 44mm. Those prices include either a Sport Loop or Sport Band, but you can now swap one of those out for a leather or metal strap for an up-charge instead of having to just purchase additional straps later.
Personally, I've always thought that the Sport Bands are the best all-purpose Apple Watch bands and some of the new colors are really great, so for my money I'd stick with the basics.
Style with substance
I've spent the last week wearing the Apple Watch Series 5 Edition in the 44mm natural titanium variation. When I first took it out of the box and strapped it on, I could immediately feel the difference between this and the more classic steel version that I've been wearing on and off for the last year.
The former weighs in at 41.7 grams, while the latter weighs in at 47.8 grams – a difference of 7.1 grams. That might not sound like a not, but it's about 13% and you really do feel it.
There's still substance to the titanium Edition though. My complaint with the aluminum models has always been that they’re too light. They feel insubstantial. This is comfortable while still letting you know that you've got something on your wrist.
I also really like the finish on the titanium. Apple describes it simply as "natural," but there's a bit of brushing to it so that the light bounces off of it in a cohesive way. I especially like the way that this brushing accents the curves around the corners and lug area of the case.
It has a slightly powdery feel to the touch, which is likely due to a combination of the finishing of the metal itself and a nano-coating that Apple applies to prevent patina from developing. Would I personally prefer a case that takes on some character over time? Sure. But I think I'm probably in the minority there and I appreciate Apples's attention to detail there.
Getting used to the Apple Watch Series 5
As I started wearing the watch around, I found the always-on screen a bit disorienting a first. After years of expecting there to be a shiny black void, I suddenly had something staring back at me even when I wasn't paying it deliberate attention. In a funny way, after the initial weirdness wore off, it actually made the Series 5 feel more natural and comfortable.
As someone who's most often wearing an analog watch of some kind or another, I'm very used to more subtle time-checking gestures and to always having my watch's hands and dial visible. Even beyond the functionality, this makes the Series 5 feel more like a watch than any previous Apple Watch.
Style with substance
I will say that one side effect of the always-on display is that I'm using simpler watch faces. This isn't all down to my mild obsession with the California dial, either. With the display always on, I don't necessarily want other people checking out my complications without my permission.
My vintage Rolex doesn’t tell people when my next appointment is and my modern IWC doesn't share my heart rate with passersby. This might not bother some people, but I've been keeping it simple and I don't think it negatively impacted my experience at all. If this really bothers you, there is the option to turn it off too.
As I've chatted with people about the Series 5 over the last week – some folks who saw the watches in the metal at last week's event and some who didn't – the question of whether this generation of Apple Watch is incremental or revolutionary keeps coming up.
I've gone back and forth on this point a few times, but ultimately I think it's much closer to a revolution than it might seem. The display staying on fundamentally changes how you use the watch and it's something you notice constantly. That, to me, is a pretty big deal.
I found myself largely having the same experience I have each September when a new Apple Watch comes out. It's very easy to get used to the instantaneous information pipeline, the easy-wearing nature of the Apple Watch, and all the ways it can bring genuine utility to daily tasks. I'm not sure for how much longer I'll be wearing the Series 5 on a daily basis, but I find that each year it takes me a bit longer to start phasing my mechanical watches back into rotation.
As someone who has been covering the Apple Watch since the day it was first unveiled, I find myself getting wrapped up in a lot of the more philosophical questions every time a new evolution is released.
How does Apple see this device fitting into its broader ecosystem? What does this version telegraph about how Apple sees the Watch growing in the future? What sorts of tough decisions had to be made and how can you see them manifested in the final product? By the end of any review, there’s really on one question that matters: Should I buy this thing?
If you're not yet an Apple Watch user and you're at all curious about the Apple Watch, I do think this is something you should try and need to experience to fully understand.
And while it might be tempting to opt for one of the entry level models or even to buy the less expensive Series 3 (which is still sticking around as the base offering, from a low $315), I don't think you're going to get the most out of the Apple Watch or enjoy it most if you go that route.
As a device that you wear on your body and touch frequently, the Apple Watch really benefits from materials like steel, titanium, and ceramic. The experience of wearing the titanium Edition versus an aluminum model is night and day.
If you already have an Apple Watch, even a Series 4, I still think this is a worthy upgrade. You're not going to get the full Apple Watch experience without that always-on display and the new watch faces.
With a product that's changing and growing as quickly as Apple Watch, annual upgrades are just part of the deal if you want to immerse yourself in it. If you're a casual user, your Series 4 is still going to be great, assuming you can keep the FOMO at bay.
For me, it’s pretty simple: this is the Apple Watch I've always wanted. The matte titanium case is the perfect middle ground for me between the sometimes-a-bit-much white ceramic and the highly polished steel, and the always-on display makes it feel more natural and watch-like in daily use.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's very clear to me that the days when the Apple Watch is nearly indispensable are coming – and probably faster than we think.