Review: Apple Watch Series 6

I’ll get this out of the way. The Apple Watch Series 6 is an iterative upgrade that gives users some marginal gains over the Series 5. And it faces some competition from the also new Apple Watch SE which offers the key functionality at a lower price point. But depending on your use case, there is likely enough value here to entice existing Apple Watch users to upgrade and attract new Apple Watch users to buy in.

Here’s why I feel that way. Starting with the look of the Apple Watch Series 6:

This is the 44mm cellular model in Space Grey aluminum and Apple hasn’t bothered to change the design at all. So for those of you who were looking for a design update, you’re going to be disappointed. But to be fair, seeing as Apple dominates the wearables space, they don’t have to update the design I guess. However, the magic that you care about happens under the hood. Here’s all the changes that the Series 6 brings to the table:

  • An always on display that is according to Apple 2.5x brighter than before in bright sunlight.
  • A new S6 System In Package processor that is 20% faster than the S5 System In Package processor
  • A blood oxygen sensor which is part of a new sensor cluster on the bottom of the watch.
  • Always on altimeter 
  • U1 chip
  • 5GHz WiFi
  • It can be charged to full in 1.5 hours which is faster than any previous Apple Watch.
  • Battery life has been improved for tracking workouts like indoor and outdoor runs
  • The speaker is 50% louder

Now you’ll note that I didn’t mention battery life. It’s still 18 hours which Apple bills as “all day battery life”. So if you were hoping that Apple would move that needle on that front, they didn’t. The flip side is that there’s a lot more functionality in this Apple Watch with no battery life penalty. That to me is a win, but I can see why some might not see it that way. I’ll have more on battery life later.

There’s one other thing. Here’s what comes in the box:

You get a band, the watch, and under the paperwork you get the charging puck. But you do not get a charging brick. Apple is leaving this out of the Apple Watch unless you get the insanely expensive Hermès edition Apple Watch. The reason being that Apple wants to have a positive environmental impact by not including the charging brick which many people already have and may not use. They have a point about that as I went looking around my condo and found 14 5W Apple power bricks and one 12W Apple power brick without trying too hard. Clearly these came from other Apple Watches and various iPhones that my wife and I have bought or acquired over the years. So this change is a total non-issue for me. However, if you’re new to the Apple Watch, dropping an extra $25 CDN to get a charging brick might tick you off. Especially given the fact that Edition and Hermès buyers get the charging brick as part of the deal. I guess if you drop way over $1000 CDN on an Apple Watch with a uber expensive watch band and a couple of exclusive watch faces, the environment doesn’t matter to you. Or to Apple for that matter. One plus to not including the charging brick is that the Apple Watch package is slimmer than last year. Which likely means it’s cheaper to ship for Apple.

So, let’s dissect the new features:

  • An always on display that is according to Apple 2.5x brighter than before in bright sunlight: I tested this on a bike ride on a really sunny day over the weekend and I found the Apple Watch 6 easier to read whether the watch face was awake or in “always on” mode. Is it 2.5 brighter? I couldn’t tell you. But this addresses the number one complaint that I had about my Series 5 which was the display was sometimes hard to read in bright sunlight with and without sunglasses. The Series 6 makes this a non issue.
  • A new S6 System In Package processor that is 20% faster than the S5 System In Package processor: The only place that I noticed this is when the Apple Watch Series 6 booted up. It was significantly faster than the Apple Watch Series 5. Other than that, I couldn’t tell that it was faster because the Apple Watch Series 5 was already pretty fast.
  • Blood oxygen sensor which is part of a new sensor cluster on the bottom of the watch: Here’s a look at the new sensor cluster:

On the left is a Series 5. On the right is the Series 6. You will see on the Series the new sensor array. Four clusters of red, green, and infrared LEDs along with four photodiodes on the back of the Apple Watch 6 measure light reflected back from blood. A custom algorithm included in the new Blood Oxygen app measures blood oxygen between 70% and 100%. On-demand testing is also available through the app, and the watch also occasionally takes background measurements when a person is inactive, including during sleep. Finally, you can see the data is in the Health app. I found it to be finicky as you have to have the Apple Watch on with just the right amount of tension on the watch band to make it work right. One thing to note is that Apple markets this as a “wellness” device unlike the ECG functionality which requires approval from authorities like the FDA and Health Canada. That means that Apple can roll this out quickly to the entire planet rather than wait for each country to approve this functionality individually. That also means that you should not take the results that it gives as the absolute truth. Having said that, when I compared it to a medical grade SpO2 sensor that I borrowed from my dentist, the Apple Watch was plus or minus 1% of that sensor at worst (meaning that if the watch said 97%, the SpO2 sensor would be between 96% or 98%). More often than not they spat out exactly the same number. Now why should you care about what your blood oxygen level is? Well, if you consistently have a blood oxygen level below 90%, you may have some sort of heart issue, or lung issue, or you may have sleep apnea, or COVID-19 or some other serious illness. In fact, my dentist uses medical grade Sp02 sensors as a screening tool to see if their patients have COVID-19. If it registers below 90%, you’re not allowed into the office unless you have a clear COVID-19 test taken in the last 72 hours as there is emerging science that shows that low blood oxygen could be a sign of a COVID-19 infection. So this is a great time for Apple to roll this out.

  • Always on altimeter: Much like last year’s compass, this may be cool for people who hike for example as you can see your elevation change in real time. But it is pretty much irrelevant for everyone else. It can be added as a complication to the watch face of your choice.
  • U1 chip: Pretty much the only thing that may take advantage of this in the here and now is Apple’s CarKey functionality which allows you to unlock and start your car (currently only supported by BMW). I say that because the iPhone 11 series has this chip and that along with making AirDrop easier to use are the only things that this chip does. But perhaps there’s other functionality coming like helping to find your much rumored Apple AirTags which can best be described as a Tile Bluetooth tracker on steroids. It’s rumored to use the U1 chip to make finding lost objects easier.
  • 5GHz WiFi: This is a marginal gain as it allows the Apple Watch Series 6 to connect to WiFi in more scenarios as previous versions were limited to 2.4GHz. This should make it faster as well, though I didn’t notice that.
  • It can be charged to full in 1.5 hours which is faster than any previous Apple Watch: This is 100% true as I’ve noted that the Apple Watch charges faster than before. I’ve been using the Apple Watch sleep tracking function that popped up in watchOS 7. To really use it, you need to make sure you have at least 30% battery life remaining. So I charge it just before I go to bed and just before I wake up. I can often get to 100% in 45 minutes or less of a charge. And it the Apple Watch will send a message to my iPhone to let me know that it has been charged fully.
  • Battery life has been improved for tracking workouts like indoor and outdoor runs: I did a two hour hike with my wife using the Workout app to record GPS and heart rate. Also of note, I left my iPhone in the car which forces the Apple Watch to do this on device rather than leveraging the iPhone’s GPS. I did note a marginal improvement in how much battery this scenario would normally use versus the Apple Watch Series 5.
  • The speaker is 50% louder: I can’t say if the speaker is 50% louder, but it is louder.

Now over to the battery life. It is definitely the same “all day battery life” Apple Watch users are used to. I am left with about 35%-45% battery life at the end of the day as long as I haven’t done a workout. Related to that, when being used for sleep tracking, it only burns 20% of battery life while tracking my sleep. My wife’s Series 4 by comparison only burns 15% while sleep tracking. I am thinking that the difference between the two is the fact that the Series 6 monitors blood oxygen levels which may consume a bit more power.

Some other notes:

  • I noted that the digital crown has a more “clicky” feel to it when pressed. I am not sure if that’s haptics or it is simply more “clicky”.
  • watchOS 7 has removed Force Touch functionality from the OS, and rumor has it that the Apple Watch Series 6 doesn’t have the Force Touch hardware in it which allowed Apple to add a larger battery. But only a teardown by iFixit will confirm that.
  • The hand washing function that appeared in watchOS 7 seems to work marginally better on the Apple Watch Series 6 versus the Series 5. I believe that the new improved accelerometer is responsible for this.

You can buy the Apple Watch in aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. I chose aluminum as I always do because the tech is more important to me than the case material. But I will admit that one reason to get the stainless steel or titanium models is that they swap the ION-X glass in the display for more durable sapphire glass. Apple has also introduced new blue and (PRODUCT)RED color options for the aluminum models. Stainless steel Apple Watch models come in silver and a dark gray graphite shade, while titanium models come in silver and space black. Apple also sells Apple Watch Nike and Apple Watch Hermès models with both featuring new band options. Nike models are available only in aluminum, while Hermès models come in stainless steel. However, the ceramic version of the Apple Watch is no more. Which means if you want to be a baller with your Apple Watch, you’ll have to live with stainless steel or titanium.

So, should you buy the Apple Watch Series 6. Well, it depends:

  • If you don’t have an Apple Watch, and you want the ECG and blood oxygen monitoring functions, and you like having the option of having a different case material or color, then the Apple Watch Series 6 is for you.
  • If you don’t have an Apple Watch, and you don’t care about the ECG and blood oxygen monitoring functions, and having the option of having a different case material or color is irrelevant to you, and you can do without the always on display, then the Apple Watch Series SE is for you seeing as you can get it at a $160 CDN discount.
  • If you have an Apple Watch Series 3 or lower, the Apple Watch Series 6 is worthy upgrade. Though if you don’t need the ECG and blood oxygen monitoring functions, and having the option of having a different case material or color is irrelevant to you, and you can do without the always on display, the Apple Watch SE is worth a look.
  • If you have a kid who you want to keep tabs on. Or you want to give an Apple Watch to a parent that you want to keep tabs on, skip the Apple Watch 6 and go for the Apple Watch SE instead. Especially since you can now pair and manage multiple Apple Watches using one iPhone using Family Setup. It only works with the cellular models of the Apple Watch SE, but those are cheaper than the iPhone SE and the plans for the Apple Watch tend to be cheaper as well.
  • If you have a Series 4 or 5, it might not be worth your while to upgrade unless the blood oxygen monitoring functions and or having the option of having a different case material or color are worth it to you.

The Apple Watch Series 6 starts at $529 CDN for the GPS (AKA WiFi) and $699 CDN for the GPS+Cellular version in aluminum. The price jumps to $929 CDN and up for stainless steel, $1599 CDN and up for the Hermès models with stainless steel, and $1109 CDN for the Edition models with titanium. Yes it is an iterative upgrade. And it faces competition from the Apple Watch SE which brings most of the Apple Watch experience at a lower price point. But it’s hard to deny that Apple will sell every copy they make. In fact, the (PRODUCT)RED and blue models are hard to come by at the moment. Proof positive that Apple may have their target audience nailed.

UPDATE: I guess Apple finally figured out how hypocritical it was that Edition and Hermès buyers get the charging brick and the rest of us didn’t with the environment being the reason as they have now removed the charging brick for buyers of those models.

3 Responses to “Review: Apple Watch Series 6”

  1. […] last week. The brand new Apple Watch Series 6, and the lower cost Apple Watch SE. And after my review of the Apple Watch 6, I got a number of questions about which one of these two watches that one should choose. And why […]

  2. […] posting my review of the Apple Watch Series 6, I got requests to do a follow up on that review because apparently, I didn’t cover all the […]

  3. […] they are trying to protect the environment by doing this. But I call BS on that because unlike the Apple Watch Series 6 which comes with a USB-A cable which enables you to recycle any Apple power adapter that you have […]

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