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 (130)

  • "...flying to California was not in my list of viable events."

    Would you have really made the trip to cover the presentation in person if you were available? I consider AW a competitor to Fitbit but not really to the higher end watches most of us use.

    • Yeah, I usually combine things together with other companies, so I'd do something like go to Apple, X, Y, and Z - all in the Bay Area. Additionally, for Apple Watch specifically, it'd do well enough on YouTube to be worthwhile (though this year the lack of new features might have made that more difficult than normal).

      While I agree with you that the AW isn't considered a true competitor to a higher end endurance watch, what I've seen/learned over the years is there's still a ton of interest there - especially for folks trying to figure out if they can make the jump.

  • Still an ugly watch reminiscent of the Casio Calculator watch - obviously style doesn't really come into it?

  • The always on is really nice, but after living with the AW4 Cellular for a year I bought the Fenix 6 Pro Solar and don't look back. I used to go everywhere with a charger becuase after 2 hours of training the battery just drained. The Fenix 6 is just a whole different ball game. It's a true professional hardwere that doesn't let you down, has phisical buttons, loads of information and the battery Oh the Battery! Although I miss a the cellular connectivity (when I go for a long wood run I strap both watches on but don't tell anyone ;)

    • @itai, on long walks I have my s3 cellular on my left wrist and my polar on my right!
      As a daily driver the AW is comfy (I have tiny wrists) and useful for the likes of Apple Pay, but like you it dies running strava over a few hours.

  • FR945 & Fx6 have more advanced sleep tracking.
    AW5 has HRV, and now RR, tracking via HRV4Training app.

    I want both features. Ray, what are the options for having HRV tracking on Garmin and/or adv. sleep tracking with 🍎⌚️?

    • There's a few good sleep apps I cover in my Apple Watch 4 review.

      As for HRV/RR on the Garmin, technically speaking CIQ apps have access to that data these days, so they could start recording it in non-workout mode (there are no optical HR sensors that accurately record HRV/RR data in intense workout modes). I don't know why Garmin doesn't write it to Health.

    • Very few apps write HRV to Apple Health as Apple is the loan horse who calculates HRV using SDNN, while the rest of the world uses rMSSD.

  • Do you think Garmin will quickly adjust the pricing of any of their just announced watches, to try to counter?
    Maybe the Venu and Vivoactive 4?

    • Hard to say. I suspect they might watch things a little bit. My guess is the first cuts we'd see would be around the Black Friday timeframe and sales.

      But even that is a bit trickier now - because the Venu/Vivo products are uniquely *NOT* on MAP in the US. That's unheard of for Garmin products, and means retailers can technically price them however they'd like.

    • Crazy.

      Just an oversight by Garmin, or purposeful strategy, knowing that their offerings are becoming so broad, and that other watches compete more with those lines?

  • Hi Ray,
    When you get your unit and do testing, is it possible to see if the eSIM can roam for calls and data? The series 4 can't roam, you have to connect to your phone to get services outside of your home country.
    Thanks

    • Unfortunately here in the Netherlands they don't offer any cellular versions at all, so I'm stuck with the non-cell variants.

    • Paul, I've not seen a direct answer as yet, but what I've read about the eSIM is the it's localized for the market where the watch is sold, except that the Series 5 watch with Cellular can make emergency services calls to the local emergency services network in more than 100 countries, no matter where it was sold. The explanation I've read says something about a limited number of transmission bands available, but I'm not sure that squares with the watch's ability to make ermergency calls essentially anywhere.

  • Sorry if this has already been asked and answered, but can you turn the screen off on the AW5 so it still turns on with a wrist turn (like AW3) to get better battery life? If so, how much more battery life? Just curious...

    • My understanding from reading a few bits from folks that were there is that you can cusp your hand over it and it'll shut off the display. The Verge talks about this specifically in today's post.

  • Any info about the GoSUP app?
    Apple watch series 3 user considering an upgrade to get cellular, always on display, ecg etc.

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