Apple’s Series 5 Watch Will Have Always-on Display, drops price of Series 3 to $199

Like clockwork, today Apple announced the new Apple Watch Series 5, which includes one substantial change, and only a handful of other modest updates. However, perhaps far more important than that is Apple’s official pricing shift on the Series 3 units (with GPS & music)  to $199. Previously these units floated in the $279+ range, with only occasional sales to $199.

This shift in pricing is a massive blow to Fitbit and the new Versa 2, as well as a solid blow to Garmin’s new Venu watch (priced at $399), and even the Vivoactive 4 at $349. Plus others like Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 coming in at $279.  While each of Apple’s competitors compete on more than just price, the reality is that for the average consumer at a Best Buy display counter, those watches at their current respective price points will likely end up with an Apple Watch purchase. At least as long as you’re not an Android user (where Apple still isn’t quite yet compatible, though the gears are clearly turning there too).

First though, let’s do a quick recap of the Series 5 changes. I’ll have a review out later this month, but for now this post will serve as a bit of a placeholder and also as a gathering spot for questions. Also note that all imagery in this post is from Apple’s keynote or website. With Eurobike last week and a new Peanut due any day now, flying to California was not in my list of viable events.

Apple Watch Series 5:

The Series 5 keeps the same general form factor as the previous Apple Watch units, going with that smoothed rectangular look, shunning some rumors of a round Apple Watch. It’s offered in more or less the usual Apple materials/finishes (with a few new finishes as well), but the big change this year is the always-on display. One of the catches of an Apple Watch up until now, as well as most higher-end smart watches with pretty displays, is that the display turned itself off when you weren’t looking at it.

In order for the display to turn on, you had to turn your wrist or press a button. While that was mostly fine for day to day usage, it has always presented itself as a bit of a challenge for sports. In cycling where your wrist is on the handlebars, turning your wrist away from the handlebars was hardly ideal (especially on rougher roads or near traffic). Or in the gym, when doing pushups or any sort of activity where your arms are busy – meant that you couldn’t see the sport-data on the screen unless you managed to trigger it.  With more and more gym & fitness apps giving guided workouts including things like animations for cardio or strength movements, keeping the screen on was important.

With the Series 5, Apple’s going to manage the display automatically via ambient light sensor – just as they did in previous versions. In Apple’s presentation today they also discussed a ‘display driver’ and ‘power management integrated circuit’, which are basically just fancy terms for things that every watch on the market already has.

From a battery standpoint though things aren’t quite as strong. Apple’s claiming – specifically, “All day 18-hour battery life”. That’s far below their competitors in the always-on AMOLED space. On the flip-side, Apple does tend to be fairly conservative with their Watch battery life estimates historically, often only citing single-day battery life when in reality the units usually get about 2 days of battery life (without GPS activities).

For competitive context, Fitbit’s new Versa 2 with always-on display gets roughly 2 days in that mode (with 24×7 HR tracking), while Garmin’s new Venu gets just shy of three days. For example, I’ve been testing always-on display on Venu and started a test Saturday evening at 5PM with 100%, and just got to Tuesday at 9AM with 10% remaining (I needed to charge it before some longer activities today). That’s not just always-on display, but also with live watch faces enabled (so every time I raise my wrist it shows me a colorful time-lapse of NYC). And finally, that’s with an hour’s GPS workout tossed in for good measure, and 24×7 HR at 1-second intervals.

Both Fitbit and Garmin are further tracking sleep, which surprisingly Apple skipped on the Series 5.

Speaking of surprises, Apple added a magnetic compass. I didn’t see this one coming on my list of expected features, though it does poke directly at Garmin. Apple has some native watch faces that take advantage of this compass, such as seen below in one of numerous views:

But far more important than that is opening up the compass to 3rd party apps. Out of the gate that’ll include Wikiloc, GoSUP, and Night Sky

Now while I see the actual usage of native compass bearings pretty minimal, what’s more useful is that Apple’s maps on the watch will now show you the map oriented based on your wrist orientation.

This is handy for those of us that are constantly swearing at the beloved blue dot, not knowing which way to go.

Last up on the new Series 5 features is international emergency calling for the LTE/cellular versions. This functionality is leveraged within the suite of emergency related functions that Apple has, such as fall detection. With the new international emergency calling it can automatically connect to the network in whatever country you’re in and place that emergency call.

At first glance this might not seem significant in the grand scheme of things technologically (obviously it is medically). But in reality – this is a big deal. Up until this point when you travelled between regions of the Apple Watch, you weren’t likely to get international services. For example, a US-based Apple Watch LTE/cellular edition was completely useless in Europe. This wasn’t a carrier limitation, but a connectivity one. It simply didn’t have the right hardware to roam in Europe. And vice versa was true.

So whatever capabilities Apple has quietly added into Series 5 may be setting the stage for future connectivity here. However, at present that’s not yet the case for regular data/phone access on the LTE/cellular editions. However, if you compare the band support for both Series 5 and Series 3, you’ll notice Series 5 has significantly more bands supported than Series 3 did (for the US models, and the same is true for other region models).

 

From a pricing and availability standpoint, Apple’s top-end Series 5 remains the same price at a $399 starting point (bucking the recent trend of increasing the prices further). The cellular/LTE edition starts at $499. Availability for them is Sept 20th, and ordering starts today. The Series 4 units will be discontinued (Series 5 replaces them).

Finally, there’s a few other tidbits that Apple noted during the keynote. First is the introduction of a new medical research and studies app.

This allows you to enroll easily into various medical research studies that organizations are performing using the Apple Watch. Apple’s previously done similar large-scale studies before, but this seems to be solidifying the entry process a bit. Within that framework there will be three new studies they’re conducting this fall:

– Apple Hearing Study with the World Health Organization & the University of Michigan
– Women’s Health with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences & Harvard School of Public Health
– Apple Heart & Movement Study with the American Heart Association & Brigham and Women’s Hospital

I find these studies fascinating, not just from a topical standpoint but from just a scale standpoint. Never before in medical research (or really any research) can organizations get the kind of scale and data that’s being provided via this entry point. As usual, the Apple mantra on privacy applies here in that you control your data and can end participation any time.

There’s also the slew of WatchOS6 related features that come to all Apple Watches, including a redesigned Health App with highlights and summary sections, and also the new audio streaming API in WatchOS 6, you’ll start to see more apps take advantage of live audio versus just recorded content. I covered all of this though back in June as part of my post then.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that in some ways we may not know all the actual new stuff until units start shipping. Many things don’t make the cut of the keynote, and other things further don’t make the cut in media briefings. For example, when Apple revamped the optical HR sensor last year in the Series 4, it was noted the optical HR sensor was revamped – but it wasn’t said just how much more accurate it was than years past (spoiler: crazy more accurate). So it’s those sorts of things I’ll be looking for in a full review of the Series 5. Top of my list? Will they have finally fixed the long famed Apple ‘swooshing’ of GPS tracks around corners to make them look prettier? Only time, and some runs, will tell.

Going Forward:

As I noted at the beginning, while the always-on display news of the Series 5 is a big deal for the Apple Watch in general – I think the headliner news here should really be the $199 price point for the Series 3. It’s something I’ve been talking about as a likely scenario for months, and the impacts can’t be overstated here. Undoubtedly companies like Fitbit and Garmin would counter that they have unique value props for their consumers that Apple doesn’t have. And that’s definitely true.

In the case of Fitbit, they’ve got the social/motivational aspects that are largely unbeaten in the segment, despite competitors (including Apple) adding in friend competition type features. Fitbit also has sleep analytics that Apple lacks entirely, something Fitbit is doubling down on this year. And finally, while I question how successful Fitbit’s premium offerings will be, they are an option – whereas Apple simply doesn’t have anything remotely like it from a sport/fitness standpoint.

Meanwhile, in the case of Garmin they’ve got all the sport-focused bits around training and recovery that Apple doesn’t have unless you extend into 3rd party apps (of which there are many, but none at the base watch level). Garmin also has a significant edge with respect to music streaming services and offline capabilities, including Spotify and Amazon. While I suspect we’ll see Spotify offline access come to Apple sometime this year, it’s not yet there today. And like Fitbit, Garmin also has cross-phone compatibility – so the ability to use a Garmin watch with iOS or Android (or no phone at all if you really want). Apple is iOS only.

And this entirely ignores the challenge for Samsung with their just launched Galaxy Active Watch 2 priced at $279 (it was $199 last year, a great price point), or the slew of Fossil watches at a range of price points. It also ignores Polar with their recent Ignite series watch, which targets a slightly more sporty individual – but at a $229 price point (without an always-on display).

Still, while I can articulate all of those nuances back and forth – your average Best Buy counter employee or mainstream media review can’t. They’re going to highlight the Apple Watch with GPS & streaming music at $199 (plus the entire Apple app store ecosystem). And competitors equal and above that price point without a hugely significant and unique value prop aren’t even going to be part of that conversation. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here for sure.

With that – thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a full review later this month!

DC Rainmaker:

View Comments (127)

  • Once again, NZ’s two major cell networks have decided not to bother allowing people to have the choice of provider for esim and deny us cellular availability - we are also only getting aluminium, which is less of an issue... but still irritating.

    I’ll be buying, but my lack of cellular choice is definitely a slightly sour note.

    • You can still use 3rd party sleep apps.

      Interestingly, I've been on the Beddit 3.5 Sleep Beta for a few months now (it was announced a few months ago), they're doing some actual improvement work there. I somewhat expected to see something come out of that today, but apparently not.

    • I sleep track with my AW4 using Autosleep. I throw it on the charger after my morning run while showering, breakfast, etc., and again in the evening when there is usually an hour or so before bed when I'm reading or watching TV. My battery doesn't drop below 60% with this strategy, even after an hour of GPS and Apple Music streaming during my run.

  • The Apple devices are great sports watches for people who don't really do much sport and don't mind charging them a lot. So, perfect for my daughter (a swim and parkrun per week) but rubbish for my wife (swim-bike-run-repeat). Utterly useless for the boys in house who are on Android.

    However I welcome the price drop on Series 3. Getting fed up with the constant Garmin price rises - well over £500 now for the 945 and Fenix 6 and no cheaper multisport option available. I doubt it will change their pricing but could shake things up at the lower end.

    • Agreed. Apple has a reputation in some circles for being overpriced, and that's certainly true with some of their hardware, but compared to many of Garmin's offerings, the Apple Watch is downright cheap. Unfortunately, even as someone who is moderately athletic at best, the Apple Watch just doesn't meet all of my needs.

    • The S3 watch may be cheap, but if you need an iPhone to use it then the overall cost of the device/ecosystem is much higher.
      I see the Apple Watch as an optional extra for the iPhone - you cant really consider it alone alongside Garmin etc (although I take the point that many Garmin owners will also have an iphone anyway.. so this argument is somewhat flawed!).
      With regards to the 945 - its not "well over £500". You can buy one today from CT for £471 with Ray's discount (yes.. thats still not cheap!)

    • Fully agree - the AW is great for a little jogging and even performs well for freshwater swimming, where GPS smoothing actually works wonders.

      But the lack of physical buttons (and until the AW5, an always-on display) means that using for rapid intervals or multisport is highly impractical.

      An I share your pain wrt Garmin prices - I would love to upgrade from my good old 920XT but the 945 or Fenix 6 are indeed a bit expensive. The slightly older multisport 735XT or 935 can be found at bargain prices though.

    • well.. the 735 is still there.. just not being updated :S

      so they go on sale often. Last time i saw it on sale for about $CAD 350 at MEC (equivalent of REI) when it retails for 400+ usually.

  • How would you compare the Series 5 to the Fenix 6 pro? I run and cycle, and use courses from AllTrails for hikes. Are apple watches to the point to where they could be viable for all this?

    • Sorta totally different beasts. Apples to Pineapple's type of differences.

      You could certainly use an Apple Watch for that today, but I think in terms of hike and sport-specific features that are easier to handle in rougher conditions (like driving cold rain when your fingers are nearly frozen and you're using gloves instead), then the Fenix is a better bet.

      Whereas if you want more of the day to day iOS integration such as text messages and LTE/etc...then Apple leads the way there.

    • Thanks for reply. I thought I was settled on the Fenix 6, but every new Apple watch makes me hope I finally get the best of both worlds.

    • If you use any sensors for running or cycling, the Apple Watch doesn't support ANT+.

      My AW5 will be arriving on the 20th. The "always on" screen seems to be a bit of a misnomer from the articles I read today, though. It won't go blank, but it reduces the refresh rate to 1 Hz and dims the screen. An arm raise is still necessary to turn it fully on. Still, progress.

    • @Paul S, I realize your not trashing Apple, since you ordered one ;) but Always On is not a misnomer. It is still on and visible at 1 Hz, and in fact is probably the best way to manage always on and battery life. They also talked about the the refresh as being variable, so it may use a higher refresh if data is changing, like in workouts.

    • Yeah, I was wondering if an app on the Watch could order it into full power mode screen mode (standard refresh rate, appropriate brightness) the way apps on the iPhone can keep the screen on. Lower the battery life, but maximum visibility.

    • I don’t think there is any API for that (yet, but Apple wouldn’t have released it before announcing the always on display) so, like most things Apple, they probably just figure it out based on how often the display is updated. It’s always been a separate system, since workout apps could always continue to run and update the display when the display turned off; non- workout (or, now streaming music) apps were actually shut down.

    • Some people on other sites have commented that if you are using a 3rd party app, then the screen will freeze and have a frosted look with the time overlaid when in "dim mode." Reportedly, after you lift your arm up, the screen will return to the 3rd party app.

      Hoping this is not the case, as my AW2 was quite slow and waiting for the screen to come to life was always a bummer while running/cycling.

      Planning to walk into the Apple store to pick up AW5.

    • That sounds annoying. Of course, the only 3rd party app I routinely use is the Overcast app which pops up whenever I'm playing a podcast on my iPhone, so maybe it won't be so bad. I certainly won't be using my AW5 for actual activities more appropriate for my Fenix 5+. Ah, well, I'll find out what's what in 9 days.

    • @Ivan P That would be discouraging, although that may not be the final behavior for workout apps. I don’t think any API behavior was known about the Always On screen before yesterdays announcement. I can’t believe that the Apple Workout app is the only one that would get the ability to update (and that was shown in their video). Where did you get your info from?

    • @Mike Richie-

      Totally agree, would be a real bummer if the 3rd party apps froze.

      Source: AppleInsider First Look video, YouTube.com/watch?v=RL31hmosfZl

      If the link above doesn't work, just search on YouTube for "Apple Watch Series 5 -- Hands On!" from AppleInsider. Scroll to about 2:45 seconds.

      -Ivan

    • @Ivan P - Thanks for the link. I think he is basing his comment on what was shown at the demo and no indication it was a Workout app, which are treated differently already. It is possible that to use the Always On display you need some additional provisioning in your app or API calls, so maybe we will need to wait for watchOS 6.1 for that behavior to be available. We’ll know soon.

  • Curious if you think Apple will ever adopt ANT+ on their watches. Have there been any Apple folks showing face at any ANT+ events? It would definitely make them more appealing to the serious athlete.

    • Yeah, that ship has sailed (and sunk). There's no chance of ANT+ on any Apple products. Some solid bad blood there from many years prior. There's a better chance of Apple ditching iOS and adopting Android than putting ANT+ in there.

    • I think more likely (or in addition to) is that almost all sensor devices are dual Ant+/BT now. And BT 5 could allow multi unit broadcast. Even though that is being implemented yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if things didn’t move in that direction. Even Garmin is now supporting BT on their watches.

  • Interesting to see how few comments this post received versus your recent posts about garmin, polar, and sigma sport watches. Not a lot of interest in Apple watches here... But we can still hope that the $199 Apple Watch 3 price drop will cause Garmin, Polar, and Sigma to lower their prices as well.

    • I agree, another forum I follow has a thread on the new iPhones. Not a lot of comment on it... I guess there aren’t the significant changes that used to occur, more marginal improvements (despite how Apple will advertise it).

    • Yeah, I think there's three reasons for the lower comments:

      1) It's simply not that big of a shift for AW5. As Robin noted, kinda a shrug at most. The bigger news is the $199 S3 bit.

      2) In general I see lower Day 0 Apple folks here, whereas my sports/fitness reviews tend to do better for it longer term.

      3) In a lot of ways, this post is merely a place-holder for people asking me on Twitter my thoughts. I learned that way back with the original AW. By having a quick post folks can get my thoughts, versus all the e-mails/tweets/FB/Twitter/Geocities messages. :)

    • Only test workouts will tell, but assuming they didn't go backwards from the Series 4, I'd say Apple has the more accurate HR sensor.

  • Compare this to the Huawei Watch GT, which manages a stunning two weeks with always on display and 24 hour heart rate tracking, and approaches a month with the always on display switched off.

    If only they allowed Strava exports of activities.

  • I sort of stumbled upon the apple event yesterday evening and started watching it. I was there mainly because of the iphone, which i wont be getting, but i also enjoyed the watch presentation. I was really looking forward to switching my VA3 to apple watch for that integration with iphone, but the 2 days battery is a no go for me. I am not a hard user of my watch, i mainly use it in the gym, but from time to time i like to go on hikes and it would be great to know it will last me whole day or two in gps mode. I am kinda disappointed in this aspect.

    Now i am waiting for new suunto (7?) watch. Hopefully they bring structured workouts.

    Cheers for the blog

    • As Ray says above, two different beasts for two different purposes. For example, yesterday my daughter had texted me while I was out for a ride. The texts popped up on my 830, so I knew (sort of, couldn't pay much attention at the time) what they were about. When I pulled into my driveway I answered her by dictating my reply (and we went back and forth a few times) on my AW3. You can't do that on a Garmin watch. If you're hiking for a couple of days, aren't you already carrying something to recharge your other electronics (battery, solar panel, etc.)? Little batteries that have AW chargers built in exist and are very light.

      Personally I've never understood the battery problem. I put my AW on it's charger every night, whether it needs it or not. (Don't care about sleep tracking. I tried it with a Withings device for a while. But I've been sleeping for a long time and have gotten good at it, and I can tell how it went without an accelerometer telling me.)

    • At the end of a day, my AW3 is usually about 60% charge. If I put it on the charger while I get ready for bed, it is usually 100% in about 30 minutes. If I want, I can wear it overnight. Rinse and repeat.

      OTOH, my Garmin Fenix 3 was constantly running out of batteries because I didn't have a habit of charging it every day.

      TLDR: Battery life is a non issue for 99% of people.

    • I see. But still, i think structured workouts is something garmin has pretty good figured out, while apple doesnt have that. And since this is what i use the most on my watch (apart from notifications), i dont see myself buying apple at the moment. It is also the reason why i am still on garmin and didnt switch to suunto, even though i prefer suunto's hardware.

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