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Image credit: Valentina Palladino / Engadget

Apple Watch Series 6 hands-on: A few new tricks in a very familiar package

There are only a couple hardware updates, but that's not a bad thing.
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The Apple Watch Series 6 on a person's wrist.
Valentina Palladino / Engadget

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The story of the Apple Watch Series 6 is one we’ve heard before. Apple spent the first three years of the Watch’s existence fine-tuning the basics and creating a smartwatch that does most things right. Since then, it’s been a steady march of incremental updates, like adding an always-on display, ECG measurements, cycle tracking and fall detection. That’s the case again in 2020 with the Apple Watch Series 6, which physically looks and feels much like its predecessor but sports some hidden hardware upgrades and new software tricks in watchOS 7. I’ve been using the $399 Series 6 for the past 24 hours or so, and while it’s hard to be impressed with a device that feels so familiar, I’m certainly not disappointed either.

Let’s get the hardware differences between the Series 6 and last year’s Series 5 out of the way. The Series 6 runs on Apple’s latest S6 system-in-package that it claims is 20 percent faster than the old one. The chip is also more power-efficient than the last, allowing the always-on display to be 2.5 times brighter than on the Series 5 and it helps the Series 6 charge faster.

You won’t notice any glaring physical differences when looking at the Series 6 and the Series 5 side by side. However, flip both smartwatches over and you’ll see that the sensor array has been updated to accommodate its new blood oxygen measurement capabilities. There’s also a new always-on altimeter inside, as well as a new U1 chip that provides 5GHz WiFi and Ultra Wideband connectivity.

Gallery: Apple Watch Series 6 hands-on photos | 11 Photos

The blood oxygen sensor and the accompanying app in watchOS 7 are the big new fitness features on the Series 6 that require hardware not found on any other Apple Watch. When taking a measurement, the sensor shines a combination of LED red and infrared lights onto your skin and then photodiodes capture the light that reflects back onto the underside of the Watch. That enables the sensor to determine the color of your blood, which can indicate the level of oxygen present. The Watch will periodically take readings in the background (most often when you’re asleep), but you can also trigger them manually and they take just 15 seconds.

Like measuring ECG, measuring blood oxygen requires only a few taps on the Watch’s screen, but you need to wear the Watch in a certain way to get a successful reading. It took at roughly seven attempts of fiddling with the placement before I got it to work. Data came most often when the Watch was as far up my arm as my small/medium sports band would allow when secured on the third notch. Apple provides guidelines in the blood oxygen app that explain proper placement, and one of the things it advises is not to position the Watch too low on the wrist.

While it became easier and easier for me to take these measurements, I’m curious to see how the Watch fares taking automatic readings while I’m asleep. It’s pretty easy for wearables to move around on your wrist when you wear them to bed and that could affect the Watch’s ability to capture blood oxygen information accurately, if at all.

The new solo loop band might be Apple’s way of addressing that potential problem. This new band is a single piece of swimproof, liquid silicone that stretches around your wrist. It comes in nine (yes, nine) sizes and you can download a printable tool from Apple’s website that can help determine the right one for you. My solo loop came in a size 3 and, while it takes a bit of finagling to get it on and off, it’s more comfortable than I thought it would be. Most importantly, it keeps the Watch flush against my skin so it can take accurate blood oxygen readings.

Let’s take a step back and talk about general performance. The Series 6 is definitely faster than the Series 5 and the increased snappiness is most noticeable when launching apps and swiping between watch faces. Apple still doesn’t allow developers to build watch faces from scratch, but they can now customize some Apple-made designs with complications that are relevant to their apps. I really enjoyed the new, customizable Memoji face because it let me have a little ghost friend with me all day, floating in and out of frame whenever I turned my wrist up.

The ghost Memoji watch face in watchOS 7. Valentina Palladino / Engadget

But the new clock designs and the handful of new apps in watchOS 7 are the biggest visual differences you’ll see -- ultimately, wearing and interacting with the Series 6 is a very similar experience to that of the Series 5. The newest way to use the device in watchOS 7 is sleep mode (if you can call it an interaction) and I haven’t had the chance to test that out yet.

Even though Apple didn’t extend the battery life on the Series 6 to accommodate sleep mode, the S6 chip will allow the new Watch to charge roughly 40 percent faster than its predecessor. That means you’ll get much more juice out of a one-hour charging session right before bed than you would on an old Watch model. I sat my Series 6 on its charger for a half hour while eating dinner and when I put it on again it had 25 percent more battery power.

Another new feature in watchOS 7 that I inadvertently experienced a lot over the past day is hand-washing alerts. With this enabled, the Watch counts down from 20 when it recognizes that you’re washing your hands ( based on motion and the noise of running water). It’s truly a feature that keeps you honest -- not only does the Watch provide haptic feedback during the countdown, but the on-screen timer actually stops if you stop scrubbing before the time is up. While a bit of a gimmick, it’s a pretty useful one that, COVID-19 aside, some people could use in their daily lives.

Most of the new features that I can’t speak to yet are ones that require a couple of days to test out -- sleep tracking, long-term VO2 max calculations and blood oxygen measurements being the most important among them. But the Apple Watch Series 6 has made a good first impression. Is it worth an upgrade from the Series 5? We’ll wait to answer that in our full review, but regardless, the Series 6 looks to be a promising (if subtle) update to an already excellent smartwatch.

Apple Watch Series 6 vs. Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch Series 3

Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Watch SE

Apple Watch Series 3

Price

$399 and up

$279 and up

$199 and up

Display

LTPO OLED Retina, always-on

LTPO OLED Retina

LTPO OLED Retina

Processor

Apple S6

Apple S5

Apple S3

Storage

32 GB

32 GB

8 GB

Sizes

40mm, 44mm

40mm, 44mm

38mm, 42mm

WiFi

802.11b/g/n, dual-band

802.11b/g/n, 2.4 GHz

802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz

Optional LTE

Yes

Yes

No

Bluetooth

v5.0

v5.0

v4.2

U1 chip

Yes

No

No

NFC

Yes

Yes

Yes

GPS

GPS, GNSS, compass

GPS, GNSS, compass

GPS, GNSS

Health sensors

Heart rate, blood oxygen, ECG

Heart rate

Heart rate

Always-on altimeter

Yes

Yes

No

Fall detection

Yes

Yes

No

Water resistance

5 ATM

5 ATM

5 ATM

Battery

Up to 18 hours

Up to 18 hours

Up to 18 hours

Operating System

watchOS 7

watchOS 7

watchOS 7

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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