This fall marks the fifth anniversary of the original Apple Watch. Other than the basic design itself — a square display with a digital crown and mostly familiar lineup of wrist straps — a lot has changed. Gone is the $10,000 solid gold edition that Apple tried selling when the watch first debuted. Nowadays, you can buy an older Apple Watch for as little $199; the new Watch SE starts at $279. Meanwhile, the fashion executive hired to position the watch as a luxury status symbol has left the company, and the watch is instead being pitched as a health device.
Indeed, the company’s latest flagship model, the $399 Series 6, has mostly gotten attention for its blood oxygen sensor. On the software side, watchOS 7 can now track your sleep and handwashing habits and give you cycling directions. Then, later this year, Apple is launching its Fitness+ subscription service, available on older Apple Watches as well.
- Speedier performance
- Faster charging
- Slightly improved battery life
- Timely handwashing feature
- Sleep tracking in watchOS 7 isn’t super useful
I’ve been testing the Series 6 since last week, and though I recommend it as much as I did last year’s model, I actually think it’s the less visible under-the-hood upgrades — the faster performance, brighter display, faster charging — that will be more compelling to most shoppers. As for watchOS 7, which can run on Apple Watches as old as the Series 3, it brings enough new features to make it a fun and worthwhile upgrade — even for people who have no intention of trading in their device anytime soon.
Gallery: Apple Watch Series 6 hands-on photos | 11 Photos
Gallery: Apple Watch Series 6 hands-on photos | 11 Photos
There’s nothing really new or surprising about the Series 6’s design, but the optional LTE and range of colors, materials, sizes and band options can potentially make the selection feel overwhelming (and the pricing confusing). So let’s get that out of the way first.
The entry-level watch still starts at $399 for an aluminum model with a 40mm case. The larger 44mm version still goes from $429. You can still find it in familiar colors like silver, gold and Space Gray, but this year you get two additional choices: blue and a Product RED edition, with a portion of the proceeds going toward HIV/AIDS nonprofits in Africa. Of course, there’s also a Nike edition, which starts at the same price as the plain aluminum Series 6.
As before, you can get the Series 6 with LTE for an extra $100. Reasons you might consider cellular: even when you’ve stepped away from your phone, you’ll still enjoy on-device dictation, Siri translations, App Store downloads, texting and calling. Just remember that in addition to the $100 extra up-front you’ll also have to pay for data.
Next up is the stainless steel edition, starting at $699 for the 40mm case and $749 for the 44mm. That comes in more serious colors: silver, a new gold hue, and “Graphite Gray,” which replaces Space Black.
The next tier is the titanium model, which starts at $749 or $849, depending on which of the two sizes you pick. Then, at the top and out of reach for most people, is the highest tier of all: the Hermes edition, which is also made from stainless steel, but starts at $1,249. That’s partly due to the higher quality of the leather bands, I’m sure, and also because, well, a luxury retailer like Hermes can get away with it.
As ever, it would not be an Apple Watch launch without some new bands. The one you’ve probably read the most about is the new Solo Loop, Apple’s first band without a clasp or buckle. Because it’s non-adjustable, Apple had to release it in a wide range of sizes — nine, to be exact. From there, you have a choice of two Solo Loop designs: a plainer silicone version for $49, and a braided recycled-yarn style for $99. Also new this year is the $99 Leather Link strap, which uses magnets to fasten around your wrist.
The Solo Loop received just as much press for its confusing sizing chart and frustrating return policy as its minimal design. At launch, Apple was forcing shoppers who purchased an ill-fitting Solo Loop to return the whole package, watch included. (Worth clarifying here that the Solo Loop is sold individually too, and can be paired with older Apple Watches as well.) Since then, Apple seems to have backtracked. Even so, buying a Solo Loop without access to a physical Apple Store seems risky. John Gruber at Daring Fireball has a helpful explainer but there’s still plenty of room for second-guessing.
What you can see
Physically, the Series 6 is all but identical to the Series 5. The most obvious tell would be if you’re rocking one of the new case colors, which I am (blue with a matching sport band). The always-on display is also two and a half times brighter: 500 nits, up from 200 on last year’s model. Summer is already behind us, but the display was easily readable during afternoon runs and picnics on sunny days.
Besides that, the sensor array on the back side has been rearranged to make room for a blood oxygen sensor measuring oxygen saturation. That abbreviation is SpO2, not to be confused with VO2 Max (maximal oxygen intake, another common metric measured by high-end sport and smartwatches). Whereas VO2 Max is a key metric for athletes in training, SpO2 tracks something much more basic: how well your lungs are delivering oxygenated blood throughout the body.
The blood oxygen sensor works much like another medical gadget you may have encountered: a pulse oximeter, which sends a combination of LED red and infrared light through the skin in your fingertip to detect the color of the blood, which signals saturation levels. You can manually take a reading using a dedicated app on the phone which takes 15 seconds (you’ll get better results if you place your wrist on a desk or some other flat surface). But, the watch also takes periodic measurements in the background, including while you’re asleep. If you open the watch app you’ll see your most recent reading; for historical data you’ll need to open the iOS app, where you’ll also see some easy-to-read graphs.
Apple, at least, says a normal rating falls somewhere between 95 and 99 percent. That’s where all of my ratings ranked, though I’m aware that some otherwise healthy reviewers have reported numbers that were inconsistent and/or alarmingly low. My colleague Valentina Palladino, too, reported that she needed to try it more than half a dozen times before getting the hang of how to hold her wrist, and how far up her arm to place the sensor.
Apple does say that altitude, skin temperature, the watch’s position on the wrist, and skin perfusion (local blood pressure) can all potentially affect someone’s SpO2 reading. Though, in my experience, the sensor worked as advertised without me having to go out of my way to adjust the watch. Most of my numbers fell between 95 and 100 percent, with 94 percent being the lowest I got. Interestingly, those rare times tended to coincide with moments where I had gone a long time without eating.