Review: Apple Watch Series 5 GPS+Cellular

About a year and a half ago I got an Apple Watch Series 4 GPS+Cellular and it was running fine until last week. That’s when it started to go haywire. By that I mean that the side button would randomly act like it was being pressed and held. For example it would try to dial 911 until I disabled that functionality. Or if I turned it off, it would turn itself back on without being touched. And worse, it would try to erase itself without any user interaction. Something was clearly wrong so I called Apple as the watch had AppleCare (Pro Tip: Always buy AppleCare when you buy Apple hardware). But prior to that, I did all the things that they suggest, like rebooting, doing an erase and restore from a back up, and erase and set up the watch as new. None of that worked. After telling the AppleCare rep what I had done, he quickly concluded that it must be a hardware problem and made arrangements to have me go into an Apple reseller to have the watch returned to Apple. That was going to take 4 to 6 weeks, so I needed to get myself a replacement Apple Watch as it has become a key piece of my fitness journey. Long story short, I made a trip to Best Buy, which was an interesting experience due to the times that we currently find ourselves in, I ended up with this:


Meet the Apple Watch Series 5. This one is the space grey aluminum (recycled aluminum for the record) 44mm GPS+Cellular model which is the same size as my Series 4. The band is a Nike Band that a client of mine gave me a few months back. If the looks of the Series 5 seem familiar, it’s because Apple didn’t change the looks at all. And to be frank, they didn’t change all that much else. But I will highlight the main changes that Apple did make. Starting with the S5 system on a chip, which is the same speed as the S4 system on a chip that was on the Series 4. Meaning that if you’re thinking that the Series 4 is going to faster than the Series 4, you’ll be disappointed. But it does bring 32GB of storage to the table which is something that you’ll want if you want to do a run with your Apple Watch and you want to listen to music while leaving your phone at home. But to be fair, it does bring some new features to the table:

  • It brings a compass to the table. Now those of you on Team iPhone have had a compass on your iPhone since the iPhone 4s. But this is the first time a compass on the Apple Watch. I have to admit that it makes it much easier to navigate using Apple Maps on the Apple Watch. The reason why it that it now behaves just like Apple Maps on the iPhone. Meaning that it’s easy to tell what direction that you’re facing thanks to a cone on the dot that represents you that indicates the direction that you are facing. Plus it narrows as it becomes more confident that the direction that you are facing is accurate. Now you also get a compass app as part of the deal, but take it from me. You will use it once, and never use it again.
  • It now has the ability to call for help in about 150 countries. So for example if you have fall detection turned on, and you actually fall hard and can’t get up, the Apple Watch can phone for help without needing to be connected to your iPhone as long as you are in one of those 150 countries. However, the Apple Watch still doesn’t roam internationally.

But the big news is the always on display. Just like the name suggests, the display is always turned on. Which means that it is more like a regular watch rather than the Apple Watch Series 0-4 where you had to either tap the display (or more annoyingly, someone else tapping the display) to tell the time. Or you having to flick your wrist to tell the time. Which if you are in a meeting when you do that, you will look like a jerk.

Here’s how this feature works:

  • The screen in the Series 5 is basically the same screen as the Series 4. Which is a LTPO (Low-Temperature Polycrystalline Oxid) OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen which gives you a bright screen while giving you a 5% to 15% power savings versus other types of OLED screens.
  • This screen is powered by a display driver that is part of the S5 system on a chip that allows the display to go from 60 Hz to 1 Hz which means that you can keep the screen on while sucking very little power as it is redrawing the screen 1 time a second as opposed to 60 times a second.

Since this is hardware that makes this always on display work, there’s never going to be a software update that will bring this functionality to older Apple Watches. So if you want an always on display, you need to get your credit card out.

Now Apple has added one more trick to this functionality. Certain Apple Watch watch faces take advantage of this to have distinct and different looks. Let me give you an example:


When the display is fully powered on this watch face, this is what you see. But when it throttles down the power, you see this:


Basically, you see an outline of the numbers which means that very little power is being consumed. That’s because OLED screens that have a majority of black on the screen consume little power. On other watch faces you might not see the second hand move. Or you might not see complications being constantly updated. The bottom line is that from the first time your Apple Watch won’t look like a black square on your wrist when it is trying to save power. That brings it in line with Android Wear smart watches where always on displays have been a thing for years.

Now this sounds great, but it’s not perfect. Third party apps like Strava don’t quite work with this always on display. When you use that app and the screen goes into low power mode, this is what you see:


However if you use the first party Workout app, you see this:


It cuts back on how often the display gets updated. For example it won’t show tenths and hundredths of a second. But at least you can see the stats while you work out. Which means that Apple needs to help third party app makers to make their apps behave like first party apps. And the sooner the better because this dichotomy between first and third party apps is pretty stark. But on the positive side, you have the option to hide sensitive complications like your health stats, or hide notifications so that there’s nothing embarrassing on your screen when it was in low power mode.

There’s one other side effect of the always on display which is battery life. My Series 4 would regularly deliver battery life that would leave me with about 50% or slightly more by the end of the day. The Series 5 gets me to about 35% by the end of the day if I do a workout with GPS and I was away from my phone. Maybe 45% if I don’t do a workout. And I know it’s the always on display that’s responsible for this because if I turn off this functionality, I get to 50% with ease at the end of the day. So while the always on display still fits with Apple’s promise of 18 hours of battery life, it will infuriate users of older Apple Watches who are used to much better battery life from an Apple Watch.

As for the rest of the feature set of the Apple Watch Series 5, if you read my review of the Apple Watch Series 4, you will cover what else is in the Series 5. So let me get to my criticisms of the Series 5:

  • It still doesn’t work with Android phones. Not that I am shocked by that. This is an Apple product after all.
  • While Apple in its stores and online allows you to customize the bands to get the look that you want, you can’t buy the Apple Watch without a band which would appeal to someone who is upgrading from another Apple Watch.

So, who should buy the Apple Watch Series 5. Well, I covered that in another story that I wrote some months ago. But it can be summed up like this:

  • Series 4 owners should skip upgrading. There’s not enough here for you to bother. Unless you really want the always on display.
  • Series 3/2/1/0 owners should upgrade as this is totally worth the upgrade.

One other thing to consider is that if you don’t want all the bells and whistles of the Series 5, the Series 3 is still available from Apple at a steep discount that puts it in the price range of Fitbits. Which I am sure that scares Fitbit’s new owner, Google.

In Canada the Apple Watch Series 5 starts at $529 CDN. My GPS+Cellular model that is made of aluminum is $699 CDN. If you want stainless steel, titanium, or ceramic, you should make sure that your credit card balance is in order as you can get into four digit country very quickly. If you want what is regarded by many to be the best smart watch on the market, and you’re on Team iPhone, this is the smart watch for you. If you’re already an Apple Watch owner, the decision may be a bit murky as some may see that there isn’t enough reason for an upgrade. But it may be worth a look and you’ll have to make the call if you want to put your credit card down to get one.

Oh, for those who are wondering, the Series 4 that I am sending back to Apple will go up on Craigslist the second it comes back from Apple after they repair or replace it.

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